Saffronising textbooks: Where myth and dogma replace historyDanish Raza, Hindustan Times New Delhi, December 07, 2014
First Published: 09:40 IST(7/12/2014) | Last Updated: 13:34 IST(7/12/2014)
This utterance brought to mind the instructions Krishna issued to
Arjuna, demanding from the latter to attack his kin and kill them. In
the same speech, after mentioning unworthy human beings who were going
to be murdered (an indirect reference to the Jews), Himmler assured his
listeners: These deeds do not inflict any damage on our inner selves,
our souls, and our characters. In the same manner, Krishna assured
Arjuna that the latter acts would not pollute his higher self by
completing his murderous duty: Whatever I do, it cannot pollute me. […]
The one who merges with me, frees himself from everything, and he is not
bound by his deeds
Thus, Himmler encouraged the members of the SS to conduct their
murderous acts, unemotionally in a cool detached manner just as Krishna
instructed the charioteer Arjuna.
On the whole, the Posener Speech was focused on the spiritual
dimensions of war and the conduct of the warrior, which is the chief
element of the Kshatriya philosophy of Hinduism. The German diplomat
and undercover U.S. agent in Nazi-Germany Hans Bernd Gisevius concluded:
There is no doubt that for Himmler the Bhagavad Gita is the book of the
IB TIMES: During the war, there was a community of
Indian nationalists living in Berlin. The most prominent among them was
Subhash Chandra Bose, who met with many top Nazi officials, including
Himmler, Ribbentrop, Goering and Hitler himself. Is it true that Himmler
was generally interested in helping Bose to achieve independence for
India, whereas most of the other German leaders only used Bose in a ploy
to stoke anti-British sentiments in India?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: The practice of Yoga was
already well known during the Nazi regime — but we do not know whether
Himmler did Yoga exercises or not. We only know about his plan to
introduce meditation practices and spiritual retreats for the elite
members of the SS in a special center located at Wewelsburg, a medieval
Himmler confided to Felix Kersten: I admire the wisdom of the
founders of Indian religion, who required that their kings and
dignitaries retreat every year to monasteries for meditation. We will
later create similar institutions.
IB TIMES: Did Himmler (and other top Nazi leaders)
use the Bhagavad Gita as a kind of an ideological blueprint for the
Holocaust and World War II?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: Several historians believe
that Himmler’s notorious Posener Speech in front of a hundred SS
officers in 1943 was highly influenced by the spirit of the Bhagavad
In this particular speech, Himmler stressed that if the destiny of
the nation called for it, every member of the SS had a duty to conduct
drastic measures brutally and without pity and without regard to blood
relationship and friendship.
Two years later, in 1927, as a twenty-seven year old man, Himmler
already came to occupy the high position of the Stellvertretender
Much of the agenda articulated in Haiser’s book could be found later in the ideology and the structure of the Black Order.
Himmler was also familiar with the writings of the Italian
philosopher Julius Evola, a fascist prophet of the Kshatriya ideology.
IB TIMES: Is it true that Himmler always kept a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in his pocket and read passages from it every night?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: Yes, this is true. In fact,
it has been well documented by Felix Kersten, his Finnish masseur, that
Himmler liked to indulge in philosophical monologues in his presence.
The Reichsführer SS called the Gita a high Aryan Canto. Kersten also
reported that Himmler read the Vedas, especially the Rig-Veda, the
speeches of the Buddha, and the Buddhist Visuddhi-magga. Himmler made
frequent references to karma, especially when he was talking about
He also believed in reincarnation: With one life life is not
finished. What good and bad deeds a man has done has an effect on his
next life as his karma.
IB TIMES: Discuss Himmler’s fascination with Yoga and what he sought to gain from this practice.
Strange as it may sound, the greater part of the book deals not with
Freemasons but with the Indian caste system. Haiser praised this caste
system as the most reasonable and the most sophisticated social model.
He also glorified the Kshatriya (the Warrior) caste as the natural
leaders in society. Haiser also compared the decline of the caste
system in India to the decadence of Western culture. As a way to prevent
this decline, the author proposed the creation of a well-organized,
international and racially pure elite order of warriors that he called
the All Aryan Union (all-arischer Bund). In addition, he advocated for
an all-Aryan world revolution and for the emancipation of the Kshatriya
Haiser derided the so-called lower races as crows, rats, sparrows,
louses and fleas and also endorsed the reintroduction of slavery. He
envisioned a society in which the Kshatriyas would not be permitted to
mingle with other races. In addition, he drew attention to the Hindu
cosmology of global eras: the Yugas, the Holy Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu
and Shiva, and the Indian law code of Manu, which he interpreted as a
guidebook on how to keep the Aryan race pure.
After familiarizing himself with all these ideas Himmler wrote
excitedly in his diary: A wonderful book […] I agree with most of it.
One needs such books. They encourage those who instinctively feel what
is right and what is wrong, but do not dare to think about it because of
their false education. Kshatriya caste [is what] we have to be. This
is the salvation.
On one occasion, Himmler recited to other people the following
passage from the Gita, in which Krishna says to Arjuna: Every time when
man forgets the sense of justice and truth, and when injustice reigns in
the world I become born anew, that is the law.
Having read these words, Himmler added: This passage is directly
related to our Führer. He did arise during the time when the Germans
were in the deepest distress and when they did not see any way out. He
belongs to these great figures of light (Lichtgestalt). One of the
greatest figures of light reincarnated himself in our Führer.
Based on this statement, one can assume that perhaps Himmler viewed Hitler as a manifestation of Krishna and himself as Arjuna.
IB TIMES: Did Himmler envision the SS as a modern version of the ancient Kshatriya Hindu warrior caste?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: This was really a sensation
what we discovered in the archives: In 1925, shortly before he became a
member of Hitler’s SS, Himmler read about the Freemasons and
anti-masons in Their Fight for World Domination by an Austrian writer
named Franz Haiser.
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: He must have known it. At
the same time, we should remember that Western racist intellectuals
usually divided Indian society into two castes: light-skinned Aryan
conquerors (priests, warriors and merchants) and dark-skinned indigenous
Dravidians or Chandalens — the latter expression goes back to a
Sanskrit word Chandala – or, ‘The Untouchables.’ Himmler surely viewed
the Roma as a part of this outcast group.
IB TIMES: Bhagavad Gita partially focuses on the
adventures of Arjuna, the world’s greatest warrior. Did Himmler
fantasize that he was a 20th-century Arjuna fighting for the glory of
the Aryans? Did Himmler view Hitler as his god Krishna – like a
reincarnation of god Krishna?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: When speaking about the
Aryan culture proper and the old German or Nordic gods, Himmler clearly
viewed them as parts of the same spiritual ideology.
In this sense, Himmler was indeed fighting for the glory of the
Aryans. Thus, Himmler was convinced that the thunderbolts mentioned in
both Indian and European mythologies were references to the
super-weapons of Aryan Gods, who possessed incredible knowledge of
However, we do not know whether Himmler identified himself with
Arjuna or not. At the same time, considering the fact that he did indeed
compare Hitler to Krishna, it is quite possible that he cast himself as
the character of Arjuna.
IB TIMES: As Reichsführer of the SS, Chief of the
German Police, Minister of the Interior and head of the Gestapo and the
Einsatzgruppen killing squads, Himmler was responsible for the murder of
millions of innocent people. How did he reconcile such brutality with
the tenets of Hinduism, which is generally peaceful?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: The image of Hinduism as a
totally peaceful religion is a widespread fallacy. In fact, one can find
plenty of martial aspects in Hindu culture, which had been emphasized
by various individuals even before the Nazi period, during Hitler’s
reign, and even today by the extreme right wing in Europe and elsewhere.
For example, in his introduction to a popular edition of the Bhagavad
Gita, Leopold Schroeder, a student of ancient India, wrote that this
poem describes the powerful ethics of Kshatriya (Warrior) religion at a
time when the warriors and kings of India provided a spiritual
leadership instead of the priestly caste.
It is very likely that Himmler used this particular edition of the
Bhagavad Gita. It was the Kshatriya, the ancient Hindu warrior caste,
and its ethical ideals that fascinated the Nazis so much among other
elements of Indian history and culture.
IB TIMES: Aside from millions of Jews, Himmler was
also responsible for the mass murder of up to half-million Roma
(gypsies). Was he not aware that the Roma are also of Indian descent?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: Indeed, Germany had been a
true center for Sanskrit studies in the nineteenth century. To be exact,
there were scholars and writers in this field who either put the
emphasis on the peaceful aspects of Indian culture (e.g. Johann
Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling) or pointed out
the nihilistic side of Buddhism or Shankara philosophy (like Arthur
However, with the radicalization of German nationalism, writers began
to put more emphasis on the martial aspects of Hindu culture. One of
the first who tried to blend the warrior ideology of ancient India with
Aryan racism was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, an English-born author who
lived in Germany and who was later held in a high esteem by the Nazis.
IB TIMES: Is it true that Himmler could read and speak Sanskrit fluently? Where and how did he learn such a difficult foreign language?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: We do not have any evidence
that he mastered Sanskrit. However, Himmler did not need to read this
ancient tongue since he always had Wüst by his side.
By constantly interacting with Himmler, Wüst was directly involved in
his philosophical and ideological projects, and he could provide an
answer to any linguistic questions coming from the Reichsführer SS.
In 1937, Himmler chose Professor Walter Wüst to serve as the
president of the SS-Ahnenerbe. Two years later, Wüst became the curator
of this notorious organization. Incidentally, in addition to being one
of the leading Sanskrit scholars of his time, Wüst served as the
president of the Maximilian University in Munich. In the academic
world, Orientalists from this particular university were considered the
top experts in their field.
Wüst was keenly interested in extracting ideas from the Vedas and
Buddhism of the so-called Aryan tradition in order to give National
Socialism a religious dimension. One slogan of his was: Also above India
hovers the sun-sign of the Swastika.
To Wüst, Hitler appeared as the manifestation of a Chakravartin – Indo-Aryan world emperor.
Wüst tried to support this particular speculation by verses from
classical Indian scriptures. Moreover, in one of his emotion-driven
speeches, he compared Hitler with the historical Buddha.
IB TIMES: Germany’s fascination with ancient India
and its culture began in the 19th century, no? That is, long before the
advent of the Nazis. Is it correct?
MR. & MRS. TRIMONDI: Himmler kept a diary where
he not only listed the books he read but also provided extensive
comments on these manuscripts. His entries regarding India and Indians
were always very positive.
Himmler’s Indian reading list started in 1919 [before the Nazi Party
was formed] with a German translation of a novel called Mr. Isaacs: A
Tale of Modern India by Marion Crawfords. Six years later, in 1925,
Himmler also praised Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha as a magnificent book.
Himmler was also drawn to The Pilgrim Kamanita by the Danish author
Karl Gjellerup, which was a contemporary best-seller. In his diary,
Himmler commented: A precious narration. The content is the teaching of
Gjellerup’s book quoted several verses from the Vedas, including: The
one who kills believes that he is killing. The one who has been killed
believes that he dies. Both of them are wrong, for one doesn’t die and
the other doesn’t kill.
Later, Himmler delivered some of these same philosophies in his speeches to his SS officers.
In the 1920s and the early 1930s, Himmler read some popular books
about Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet, his actual interest in classic Hindu
texts came later, when he founded the SS-Ahnenerbe, the brain trust of
the Black Order, a group of highly qualified academics and occultists
that attempted to forge the ideology of a racist warrior religion.
Himmler, directly responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews and
others as the architect of the Holocaust, was a complex and fascinating
man. He was also obsessed with India and Hinduism.
International Business Times spoke with two experts on German culture to explore Himmler and Hinduism.
Victor and Victoria Trimondi are German cultural philosophers and
writers. They have published books on religious and political topics,
including Hitler-Buddha-Krishna-An Unholy Alliance from the Third Reich
to the Present Day (2002), a research about the efforts
by National-Socialists and Fascists to construct a racist Indo-Aryan
warrior ideology with strong roots in Eastern religions and
IB TIMES: Heinrich Himmler was reportedly fascinated
by Hinduism and ancient Indian culture, and he read the Bhagavad Gita,
among other classic texts. How and when was he introduced to Indian
culture? Was it prior to his joining the Nazi party or afterwards?
Farting Fascist and Fierce Sanghi-Bhangis
Heinrich Himmler: The Nazi Hindu
By Palash Ghosh@Gooch700 on April 10 2012 10:46 AM
The swastika is an ancient Indian Hindu syymbol Reuters
More than 65 years after the fall of the Third Reich, Nazi Germany
remains an obsession with millions of people around the world.
Adolf Hitler was one of the most prominent historical
figures from the 20th century, evoking both disgust and fascination.
While other totalitarian regimes from that period — including Fascist
Italy and Imperial Japan — have largely faded from the public’s
consciousness, Nazi Germany still exerts a powerful hold on many for a
variety of reasons.
Among the most interesting and perplexing aspects of the Nazi regime
was its connection to India and Hinduism. Indeed, Hitler embraced one of
the most prominent symbols of ancient India — the swastika — as his
The link between Nazi Germany and ancient India, however, goes deeper than just the swastika.
The Nazis venerated the notion of a pure, noble Aryan race, who are
believed to have invaded India thousands of years ago from Central Asia
and established a martial society based on a rigid social structure with
strict caste distinctions.
While scholars in both India and Europe have rejected and debunked
the notion of an Aryan race, the myths and legends of ancient
Vedic-Hindu India have had a tremendous influence on many nations, none
more so than Germany.
Perhaps the most fervent Nazi adherent to Indian Hinduism was
Heinrich Himmler, one of the most brutal members of the senior command.
A few things to keep in mind and not get carried away by rhetoric on either side. One, the congress using history books to set up a Gandhi-Nehru hagiography is definitely true. We have all seen that aspect of the Congress be it in naming projects / roads or in the distinct lack of enthusiasm Cong govts showed in celebrating birthdays of other great past leaders etc. This trend definitely needs a rewrite. How many people outside TN know the history of the Dravidian movement in TN or the progressiveness of a Ramasamy Naicker who despite his anti-Brahmin feelings was respected by many Brahmins for his deep thinking (including C Rajagopalachari at whose funeral Naicker openly wept)? How many people even know that Gandhi considered Rajagopalachari as his conscience keeper? How many people know of Narayana Guru in Kerala who helped modernize the Ezahva community which was synonymous with poverty and degradation by upper castes before he came along? All our kids know of the Buddha and Mahavira thanks to history books but then why not about Maharashtra's Bhakti movement saints who helped revamp Hinduism in the state (like Jananeswar Maharaj or Eknath Maharaj) and should be held in respect even if people don't want to believe in the miracles attributed to them? Just the social thinking change they wrought is worthy of respect. We are taught about Bairam Khan who was young Akbar's mentor but not about Samarth Ramdas who helped Shivaji resist the Mughals and arguably but for the Sikhs and Marathas at the time of Aurgangazeb we would have become a Muslim country. Even if we take away the obvious religious connotations to that, the fact that Guru Gobind Singh and Samarth Ramdas (through Shivaji) prevented the country from becoming a Muslim country should be a large enough event in history to attract attention of historians? But no, our JNU crowds would not want that because Marx had declared that religion was the opium of the masses. So they instead become strange bedfellows of minority groups who consider Hindus Kafirs but enemy's enemy is a friend so to keep the Hindu right at bay they are happy to sleep with minority crackpots. So what if the minority also believe in God but with a different name? This is not to say that most of the minority are that way and therein lies the rub.
The right would have us believe that all minorities especially of the Islamic variety are terror suspects by default which is bunkum. A simple math equation. If even 1% of India's 140 mn Muslims were terrorists in waiting that would mean 1.4 mn terrorists on the prowl. If even 1% of them in any given year decided to suicide bomb the country, that would make 14,000 suicide bombings a year or 40 a day. We are nowhere near that number. Why? Because the basic assumptions are nonsensical. Yes, many of them may feel we are Kafirs and may look down on idol worship but then so do we look down on "Mlechas" or even sub-sects of Hindus we don't agree with (strict Iyengars wont even touch Prasad from a Siva temple for example and some of them actually believe that Iyers who lead decent lives can become Iyengars in a future birth!). Does that make them terrorists? No. So let us not expect that someone who looks down upon us for religious beliefs (assuming they do) is a terrorist. We however treat Muslims differently from others who may look down upon us because in our minds they are still "invaders" or the "spawn of invaders" who humiliated us. Well, the fact that Muslim invaders humiliated and ruled over us wont change by oppressing current day Muslims. We need not however feel too worried about history being unkind to us because such topics only matter to a backward looking people. Today we are on the cusp of history where if we get it right we can be a true superpower and people will look up to us for what we are and we wont need to reinvent history to feel good about ourselves. so the faster the right wing gets that idea and focuses its considerable energies on making us ready for the rest of the 21st century by focusing on what is relevant now (scientific education, healthcare, hygiene etc.) rather than fighting with has beens like Romila Thapar, the better.
That said, by all means make changes to books where recorded history is warped (like not giving due importance to say a Samarth Ramdas or a Shivaji or a Guru Gobind Singh). By all means also ask for grants to do proper histographical research to unearth say genetic evidence of our antiquity or to see if relics from the past can be found to prove some of our mythology (but please not passing off the bull in some Indus Valley seal as being Nandi as some historian once tried to do with very tenuous proof if at all). By all means also organize cultural programs on the side or Bal Vikas type Sunday classes outside schools to tell our kids about our mythology but please please do not rewrite books without proper scientific evidence and please focus on how to make us great now rather than proving that the Pushpak Vimana was a spacecraft.... We can either make our kids scientific by temper and yet respectful / proud of our past and ready to make us a great nation or we can brainwash them with unproven stories and not give them the critical thinking skills required to make us a true superpower. The choice is ours to make...
When a burbur murderer who did inexplicable crimes in India and raised numerous skull towers of defeated soldiers, is eulogized and even a Delhi road is named after him I.e. Babur, it is not difficult to understand the Indian history has been grossly and criminally distorted. It has to be corrected. Let the pseudo seculars cry.
An excellent essay by Sumit Sarkar, “Hindutva
and History,” examines exactly why control over the writing of history
is so central to Hindu nationalism. See Sumit Sarkar, Beyond Nationalist Frames: Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism, History.↩
Originally published by Oxford University Press
in 1985. The book sees Oedipal overtones in the story of Ganesha’s
fight with his father Lord Shiva, when Shiva beheads his son who refuses
to let him see Ganesha’s bathing mother, Parvati. Courtright also
speculates about the possible phallic symbolism of Ganesha’s trunk. This
application of Freudian psychology to Hindu mythology is strongly
resented by some practicing Hindus who see it as both culturally
inappropriate and blasphemous.↩
In the 1930s scholars such as Sir Mortimer
Wheeler envisaged the invasion of India by chariot-borne “Aryan” tribes
sweeping through the passes of the Hindu Kush. Modern scholars instead
envisage a slow seepage of pastoralists speaking Indo-Aryan languages
and believe that there was no such people as “the Aryans,” just tribes
of ethnically diverse speakers of several related languages who migrated
to India from the Levant, where the earliest inscriptions in these
tongues can be found in northern Syria. ↩
Ideas which the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul developed in his most recent nonfiction book on Islam, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (Random House, 1998). Naipaul’s views on Indian Muslim history have contained many parallels with those of Golwalkar.↩
Nagpur: Bharat Publications, 1939, p. 37.↩
Exacerbating the problem in the long term is the absence of accessible, well-written, and balanced histories of India.19
The most widely available introductions to the subject—the two Penguin
histories, one covering the period up to the arrival of the Muslims by
Romila Thapar, the other by Percival Spear, who takes the story up to
Indian Independence—are both fine scholarly works, but somewhat dull and
This as much as anything else has allowed myths to replace history
among the members of India’s middle class, who are keen consumers of
fiction, but have surprisingly little home-grown nonfiction to interest
them. One of the remarkable features of the recent spectacular burst of
creativity among Indian writers has been that few writers are drawn
either to serious biography or narrative history. Though Indian
historians produce many excellent specialist essays and numerous learned
journals, it is impossible, for example, to buy an up-to-date and
accessible biography of any of India’s pre-colonial rulers.
Here perhaps lies one of the central causes of the current
impasse. It is not just up to the politicians to improve the fairness
and quality of India’s history. Unless Indian historians learn to make
their work intelligible and attractive to a wider audience, and
especially to their own voraciously literate middle class, unhistorical
myths will continue to flourish.
declarations of war against academic history itself,
against the craft of the historian, against practices that authenticate
historical knowledge…. When history is mobilized for specific political
projects and sectarian conflicts; when political and community
sentiments of the present begin to define how the past has to be
represented; when history is fabricated to constitute a politics of
hatred and violence, then we [historians] need to sit up and protest. If
we do not then the long night of Gujarat will never end.18
In May 2004, to the amazement of everyone, and in
defiance of every opinion poll, the BJP-led coalition was narrowly voted
out of office, and the Congress returned to power for the first time in
One of the first actions of the new
government was to fire J.S. Rajput, the man who had supervised the
preparation of the BJP’s textbooks, and to authorize schools to return
to the old textbooks if they wished, pending a full review of the entire
question. In the meantime, government schools are allowed to use their
own judgment in choosing between the two sets of books which give, in
many cases, mutually contradictory accounts of the same events. This
seems a very Indian compromise.
At the moment, following
Congress’s surprise election victory, the BJP is in disarray. But there
can be little doubt that this only a temporary truce: both sides are
passionate about their cause and believe that the other is guilty of
deliberately distorting the truth. The last election result was more
about the economic complaints of the rural poor than a referendum on
Hindutva, and the BJP has recently shown every sign of hardening its
position on such religious matters.
Reading Jain’s work, you get the impression that there is
one homogeneous group called Muslims who ride around India doing
terrible things, looting, pillaging, and building piles of skulls, and
another group called Hindus who suffer silently under the Muslim yoke.
It’s totally unhistorical. The word “Hindu” was not used as a religious
term until the nineteenth century, and in medieval sources there is no
one term for Muslims. There are over thirty pages of temples being
destroyed, and no sense at any point that Hindus and Muslims were living
side by side, interacting on a daily basis, on every level. The book is
deeply and distastefully anti-Muslim.
It is not just that the textbooks are historically
invalid: in the aftermath of state-sponsored pogroms in Gujarat in April
2002, when over two thousand Muslims were hunted down and murdered,
Indian historians fear that the propagation of such divisive myths can
only lead to yet more violence; and they point out that it was in
Gujarat that the state’s history textbooks were first rewritten.17
Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of Jawaharlal Nehru University has
written that the new textbooks are so inaccurate that they represent
nothing less than
Most controversial of all, however, was the medieval
textbook by Meenakshi Jain. Her work was strongly criticized for
depicting medieval South Asia as a paradise laid waste by barbarous
Muslim invaders. Page after page is filled with atrocities as a
succession of Hindu kingdoms engaged in “yet another glorious chapter of
struggle” to resist the “Turkish yoke” before succumbing in a bloodbath
of corpses and desecrated temples:
Muslim ruler] ravaged temples, pillaged cities and collected untold
wealth…. The defenseless residents fled to the temples for refuge. The
city was taken, its temples destroyed and denuded of their treasures and
great numbers of the fleeing inhabitants slain.16
While some of the massacres and desecrations described
in the book undoubtedly did take place, others seem far-fetched. Just as
the writers of the Old Testament thought it appropriate that their
patriarchs should live for several hundred years, so medieval
chroniclers tended to flatter the rulers for whom they wrote by
exaggerating their potency in battle. Professor Narayani Gupta of Jamia
Milia University in Delhi, who has vigorously campaigned against the new
textbooks, told me:
The following year the syllabus was modified and several million
copies of a new set of history textbooks were distributed nationally.
They were all written by right-wingers who were not known as serious
historians. As Romila Thapar pointed out in the Hindustan Times,
the fact that the BJP failed to recruit any reputable historians from
within Indian universities showed that the confrontation was not
“between Leftist and Rightist historians but between professional
historians and politicians sympathetic to the Hindutva persuasion
[Golwalkar’s term for Hindu nationalism].”13
Academic historians were horrified, and the organization
representing them, the Indian History Congress, passed motions calling
for the withdrawal of the textbooks. They also produced a booklet
listing over one thousand errors, typos, and illiterate statements in
the new books14
: a textbook on modern India, for example, omitted any mention of the
assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, allegedly because of “space
The new BJP government moved quickly to take on
India’s historical establishment, and lost no time removing left-leaning
historians from positions of power. On November 31, 1999, less than
three months after the election victory, Romila Thapar was blocked from
reelection to the Indian Council for Historical Research, which sponsors
the work of scholars. Soon afterward she and several colleagues were
removed from the Prasar Bharati, a group charged with reviewing the
historical content of what is broadcast on the state-run Indian radio
and television. They were replaced by political appointees,
nonhistorians from the ultra-nationalist far right, who also took over
India’s major academic funding bodies. One of the appointees, K.S. Lal,
was quoted as saying, “People who were labeled communalist are now in
power. Now it’s our turn to write the history.”11
the mid-1980s, BJP-ruled states had begun to issue, in regional
languages, new textbooks that followed the party line on India’s history
and generally demonized Muslim rulers. The RSS also issued
“saffronized” textbooks (saffron being the holy color of Hinduism) for
use in its own nationwide network of schools, the Shishu Mandirs.12
When the BJP came to power nationally, they extended this pattern
across the country. In 2000, as an interim measure, numerous deletions
were made from the existing history textbooks. A passage pointing out
that cows were eaten in the Vedic period was, for example, removed from
Thapar’s Ancient India without her permission. Any suggestion
that medieval Indian civilization might have developed its extraordinary
richness specifically because of its multiethnic, multireligious
character was suppressed.
During the 1980s, the Hindu right rose slowly to
power, partly as a result of a dispute that focused attention on the
destruction of a temple. The argument turned on whether Mir Baqi, a
general of the Mughal emperor Babur (1483–1530), had built his mosque at
Ayodhya over a temple commemorating the birthplace of the Hindu god
Lord Ram. Although there was no evidence to confirm either the existence
of the temple or even the identification of the modern town of Ayodhya
with its legendary predecessor, Hindu organizations began holding
rallies at the site, campaigning for the rebuilding of the temple.
Finally, during the 1992 rally, a crowd of 200,000 militants, whipped
into a frenzy by BJP leaders and shouting “Death to the Muslims!”
attacked the mosque with sledgehammers. One after another, as if they
were symbols of India’s traditions of tolerance, democracy, and
secularism, the three domes were smashed to rubble.
Over the next
month violent unrest swept India: mobs went on the rampage and Muslims
were burned alive in their homes, scalded by acid bombs, or knifed in
the streets. By the time the army was brought in, at least 1,400 people,
almost all of them Muslims, had been slaughtered in Bombay alone. It
was a measure of how polarized things had become in India that this
violence apparently augmented the BJP’s appeal to the electorate. In
1992, the BJP won 113 seats in parliament, up from 89 in the previous
election. In 1996 that proportion virtually doubled, and the BJP became
the largest party. After the 1999 general election, with 179 seats, they
were finally able to take power.
Macaulay made fun of Indian classical learning as "medical doctrines which would
disgrace an English farrier, astronomy which would move laughter in girls
at an English boarding school, history abounding with kings thirty feet
high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas
of treacle and seas of butter."
Maybe he was not talking about the old scholarship and learning, but rather the ridiculous 'gups' and theories of uneducated enthusiasts of 'Hindu learning' who were too lazy to study the actual, intellectually very challenging classics of Indian literature and learning, and instead relied on made-up folk tales.
There are many of these people in the Sangh Parivar. They will kill off true Hindu scripture and philosophy with their over-simplified and politically motivated revised versions, many of them pure fabrication by fanatics with nothing better to do. Deep learning is unknown to them, and an absolute commitment to truth in the pursuit of knowledge equally so. I don't just fear for our curriculum. I fear for traditional Sanskritic learning still being kept alive by traditional Sastris and traditional scholars. At least Western language education did not directly intrude into their world. But these people and their made up knowledge will.
Such examples of tolerant collaboration were impressive. Yet they
were only one aspect of a more complex picture. Large-scale desecration
of Hindu monuments had undoubtedly taken place when Turkish warlords
first swept into India in the twelfth century. Indeed several of the
first Muslim sultans were energetic iconoclasts and made a point of
building their mosques from the rubble of destroyed temples, in some of
which you can still see the defaced sculptures of their Hindu
predecessors. This iconoclasm continued intermittently as regional
sultanates sprang up across India during the thirteenth and fourteenth
In slightly overstating the case for Hindu–Muslim amity the
Nehruvian textbooks gave the Hindu nationalists an opening as they began
to gather strength during the 1970s. The first stirring against the
existing orthodoxy was felt in the aftermath of India’s Emergency of
1975, during which elections were postponed and civil liberties were
suspended. When the Congress Party was defeated in the elec-tion that
followed, losing power for the first time since Independence, Nehru’s
daughter, Indira Gandhi, was replaced by Moraji Desai, who famously used
to begin his day by drinking a glass filled with his own urine. The RSS
found Desai’s government more receptive to their ideas than Congress
had ever been, and Desai indicated that he was prepared to withdraw from
circulation several history textbooks that the RSS objected to—though
his government fell before it could do so.10
The coming together of the great civilizations of the Middle East and
South Asia under Muslim rule produced new hybrids in all spheres of
life, and this was something that the textbooks concentrated on. In both
Urdu and Hindi languages of great beauty mixed the Persian and Arabic
words of the Muslim new incomers with the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars
of northern India. In music the long-necked Persian lute was combined
with the Indian vina to form the sitar. In architecture the monumental
buildings of the Mughals—such as the Taj Mahal—reconciled the indigenous
styles of the Hindus with the arch and dome of Islam, to produce a
fusion more beautiful than either.
The Nehru-era school textbooks were the work of the greatest
historians of their day, among them Professor Romila Thapar and R.S.
Sharma, who tended to come from the left-leaning elite. Their work
emphasized that Islam was spread in India not by the sword—there is no
evidence of forced mass conversions—but by the example of the mystical
Muslim Sufis, the holy men of Islam, some of whose teachings fused with
those of the Hindu devotional Bhakti movement. They also emphasized the
religious tolerance of many of the Mughal emperors, especially Akbar
(1542–1605), who patronized Hindu temples and visited Hindu holy men.
The same was also true of his great-grandson, Dara Shukoh, who had the Gita translated into Persian and who wrote The Mingling of Two Oceans,
a comparative study of Hinduism and Islam which emphasized the
compatibility of the two faiths and the common source of their divine
revelations. Many other great Mughal writers showed similarly syncretic
tendencies: Mirza Ghalib, a Muslim and the greatest of all Urdu poets,
wrote praising the Hindu holy city Benares as the Mecca of India, saying
that he sometimes wished that he could “renounce the faith, take the
Hindu rosary in hand, and tie a sacred thread over my shoulder.”8
Partly as a result of Nehru’s firm action, the Hindu nationalists were
an insignificant political force during the first decades of Indian
independence. With the RSS in disgrace, the triumphant Congress Party
was able to disseminate its view of history without any interference.
From the early 1960s, government-issued history textbooks accepted that
the Hindus’ ancestors had come to India from West Asia and that they
arrived as migrants. The textbooks also emphasized the creation in
medieval India of a “composite culture.”7
Golwalkar looked for inspiration to the Nazi thinkers of the 1930s.
He believed an independent India should emulate Hitler’s treatment of
religious minorities, which he thoroughly approved of: “To keep up the
purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her
purging of its Semitic Race, the Jews,” he wrote admiringly soon after Kristallnacht:
Race pride at its highest has been manifested there.
Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for Races and
cultures having differences going to the root to be assimilated into one
united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan to learn and profit
by…. The foreign races in Hindusthan [i.e., the Muslims] must adopt the
Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence
the Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification
of the Hindu race and culture […and] may [only] stay in the country
wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing—not even
During Partition in 1947, the RSS was responsible for
many horrifying atrocities against India’s Muslims, and it was a former
RSS member, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi for (in RSS
eyes) “pandering” to the Muslims. In the aftermath of this murder, Nehru
decided to deal with the threat he believed the Hindu Nationalists
posed to the nation and denounced the RSS as a “private army…which is
definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines.”6
Madhav Golwalkar, the early RSS leader still known
simply as “the Guru,” was the man who first formulated what later became
the official RSS/BJP position on Indian history. He broke with
conventional Indian views and the consensus of scholars in two ways. One
was in his understanding of Indian prehistory. Most archaeologists,
then as now, took the view that India had been settled during the second
millennium BC by a group of peoples who spoke Indo-European—or
Aryan—languages, and who arrived in India in an eastward migration from
Golwalkar disagreed. He believed that the Aryan ancestors of the
Hindus were indigenous to India—in contrast to India’s Muslims, who
invaded India and still looked to Mecca as the center of their faith.4 As he wrote in We, or Our Nationhood Defined: “The Hindus came into this land from nowhere, but are indigenous children of the soil always, from times immemorial.”5
also diverged from the usual Indian consensus about India’s successive
medieval Muslim conquerors. The invasion of Hindu and Buddhist India by
Central Asian Muslim Turks and Mughals between the twelfth and sixteenth
centuries tended to be seen by historians associated with the British
Raj essentially as a long sequence of pillage, in clear contrast, so the
British liked to imagine, to the law and order that the British
colonizing mission allegedly brought to India in the nineteenth century.
In reaction to this British view, the Congress Party tended to
emphasize that Hindus and Muslims were one people, ethnically
indistinguishable from each other, whose culture had come to fuse over
centuries of coexistence; any differences between the two were said to
be the result of colonial policies of divide and rule. Golwalkar took a
different line. The real enemy according to him was Islam: “Ever since
that evil day, when Moslems first landed in Hindusthan, right up to the
present moment, the Hindu Nation has been gallantly fighting to shake
off the despoilers.”
The roots of the current conflict can be traced back to
two rival conceptions of Indian history that began to diverge in the
1930s, during the struggle for freedom from the British Raj. While the
Indian Congress Party, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru,
tended to emphasize national unity and sought to minimize historical
differences between Hindus and Muslims in order to form a united front
against the British, a rather different line was taken by India’s more
extreme Hindu nationalists. Some of these formed a neofascist
paramilitary organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or the
Association of National Volunteers.
Like the Phalange in Lebanon, the RSS was founded in direct
imitation of European fascist movements. Like its 1930s models, it still
sponsors daily parades in khaki uniforms and requires militaristic
salutes; in fact, the RSS salute differs from that of the Nazis only in
the angle of the forearm, which is held horizontally over the chest. The
RSS aims to create a corps of dedicated paramilitary zealots who will
bring about a revival of what it sees as the lost Hindu golden age of
national strength and purity. The BJP, the Hindu nationalist party which
ruled India from 1999 until last May, was founded as the political wing
of the RSS, and most senior BJP figures hold posts in both
organizations. The BJP is certainly much more moderate than the RSS—like
the Likud in Israel, the BJP is a party which embraces a wide spectrum
of right-wing opinion, ranging from mildly conservative free marketeers
to raving ultra-nationalists. But both organizations believe, as the
centerpiece of their ideology, that India is in essence a Hindu nation
and that the minorities may live in India only if they acknowledge this.
In November 2003, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in
London, I was acting as moderator of a lecture on the great Hindu epic
the Ramayana given by the celebrated Sanskrit scholar Professor
Wendy Doniger, who was once Courtright’s teacher. Midway through the
lecture, a man stood up, walked threateningly toward the podium, and
threw an egg at Doniger, which narrowly missed her. During the questions
that followed the lecture, Doniger faced a barrage of insults from a
group who had come with the egg-thrower, and who maintained that as a
non-Hindu she was unqualified to comment on their religion. Other
lectures on India have since been broken up in similar circumstances.
Within India, mobs mobilized by the Hindu right have occasionally
attacked art exhibitions, libraries, publishers, and movie houses for
their alleged unpatriotic and anti-Hindu bias; but for the first time
the campaign now seemed to be spreading onto campuses worldwide.
Nor is it just foreign scholars who have been targeted. The historian D.N. Jha, who wrote The Myth of the Holy Cow,
which pointed out the considerable historical and archaeological
evidence that beef was routinely eaten during the Vedic period in the
first millennium BC, received many death threats; his book was withdrawn
in India. “This is terrorism,” he told the press after he heard about
the plan to arrest Laine. “The entire community of scholars and liberals
have to fight it together. People have been frightened into silence—and
politicians seem to encourage it.” Romila Thapar, the most celebrated
historian of early India, who has also received death threats for her
historical work, was equally incensed: “The scope for a dispassionate
look at history and scholarship is growing less in the country,” she
said. “It is frightening.”
In his book, Laine wrote that Shivaji’s parents “lived apart for most
if not all of Shivaji’s life,” adding that “Maharashtrians tell jokes
naughtily suggesting that his guardian Dadaji Konddev was his biological
father.” This was interpreted as a suggestion by Laine that Shivaji was
illegitimate; after a horrified review was published in a Marathi
weekly magazine, a series of protests began. In October an elderly
Sanskrit scholar whom Laine had thanked in his acknowledgments was
beaten up and had his face smeared with tar. To forestall further
violence, in November the book was withdrawn from the Indian market by
Oxford University Press, and an apology for causing offense was issued
by the author.
The Indian newsmagazine Outlook ran its story of the
attack on the institute across two pages under the banner headline “A
Taste of Bamiyan,” and most of the leading Indian papers carried
editorials attacking what one referred to as the “Talibanization” of
India. “We cannot have the mob write our history for us,” said Indian Express.
Unluckily for Professor Laine, the attack took place in the
months leading up to India’s general election and the book soon became
an election issue. The militants who carried out the attack held public
meetings announcing that they wanted every Indian named in the book’s
acknowledgments to be arrested, questioned, and tried. Opening his
campaign in Maharashtra, the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee,
issued a “warning to all foreign authors that they must not play with
our national pride. We are prepared to take action against the foreign
author [Laine] in case the state government fails to do so.”
The cause of this violence was a brief mention of the institute in the acknowledgments of a short scholarly book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India
by James W. Laine, a professor at Macalester College in Minnesota. The
book, which had been praised by scholars when it appeared in the spring
of 2003, was a study of Shivaji Bhonsle (1627–1680), the Hindu guerrilla
leader from western India who successfully challenged the Mughal Empire
and eventually had himself crowned as Chatrapati (“Lord of the
Umbrella”) of an independent Maratha state. Shivaji is now regarded as a
near-divine figure by many Hindu nationalists. He is also the
particular folk hero of Maharashtra, the region around Pune and Bombay,
whose airport, station, and museum have all been renamed in his honor.
In India, and among the Indian diaspora, a passionately
contested battle is taking place over the interpretation of Indian
history. Debates about rival versions of Indian prehistory or the
struggles among the religions of medieval South Asia—the sort of
arguments that anywhere else would be heard at scholarly
conferences—have in India become the subject of political rallies and
mob riots. Parallel with this there has been a concerted attempt by
politicians of the Hindu far right to rewrite the history textbooks used
in Indian schools and to bring historians and the writing of history
under their direct control.1
On January 5, 2004, an incident at one of India’s leading centers
of historical research, the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in the town
of Pune, southeast of Bombay, demonstrated how serious things had
become. Just after 10 AM, as the staff were opening up the library, a
cavalcade of more than twenty jeeps drew up. Armed with crowbars, around
two hundred Hindu militants poured into the institute, cutting the
telephone lines. Then they began to tear the place apart.
The militants overturned the library shelves, and for the next
few hours they kicked around the books and danced on them, damaging an
estimated 18,000 volumes before the police arrived. More seriously
still, they severely damaged a first-century manuscript of the great
Hindu epic the Mahabharata, as well as a set of palm leaf
inscriptions, some important relics from the prehistoric site of
Mohenjodaro, and a very early copy of the Rig Veda—the world’s oldest
sacred text—once used by the great German scholar Max Mueller.
India: The War Over History
April 7, 2005 Issue
Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India
by James W. Laine
Oxford University Press,144 pp., $39.95
Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings
by Paul Courtright
Oxford University Press,296 pp., $26.95 (paper)
Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300
by Romila Thapar
University of California Press,586 pp., $48.00; $18.95 (paper)
Beyond Nationalist Frames: Postmodernism, Hindu Fundamentalism, History
by Sumit Sarkar
Indiana University Press, 280 pp., $37.95
A History of India, Volume 2
by Percival Spear
Penguin, 304 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia
edited by David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence
University Press of Florida,384 pp., $59.95; $24.95 (paper)
The Myth of the Holy Cow
by Dwijendra Narayan Jha
Verso, 120 pp., $14.00 (paper)
History in the New NCERT Textbooks: A Report and Index of Errors
by Irfan Habib, Suvira Jaiswal, and Aditya Mukherjee
Kolkata: Indian History Congress, 129 pp., 50 rupees