History And Mythology—mixing a Molotov cocktail- Guest Post by Braham Singh


Historical fiction and Mythological fiction have been two terms that have been used as synonyms by many readers and even the witers these days. What is the real trick?         Is History and Mythology all the same?
Braham Singh, author of Bombay Swastika enlightens us about the whole business of genres in his guest post, exclusively on Outset

History And Mythology—mixing a Molotov cocktail

For my novel, Bombay Swastika, I went researched the Vaisnava-Sahajiya cult that arose in Bengal in the sixteenth century. Theirs was an intensely emotional attempt to reconcile the sensual and the ascetic. For one, the Sahajiya speak of a divine garden within each of our heads we can’t ever enter. They call it The Place Of The Hidden Moon.  It’s where Lord Krishna resides to energize the Universe by continuously copulating with his consort, Radha-devi. Between you and me and the rest of us, there’s of course no such thing and the Sahajiya myth exists to make a point.

So do the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as does the Bhagwad Gita—that gem the Mahabharata carries within. These epics weren’t written in one go, or by any one person. They encompass lessons put together over millennia by different teachers who have reached across time to pass them on. Once we get diverted by attempts at proving the God Ram actually existed, or claim that a God called Krishna built Dwarka somewhere between 30,000 years to 6,000 years ago depending on who’s talking, we’ve kind of, lost the plot, and those teachers reaching out to us from the past, they wasted their time.

That mythological garden in our heads declared off-limits by the Sahajiya, it’s where they say Lord Krishna loves Radha who’s married to another and therefore unattainable in her entirety; she too is off-limits, so to speak. But he still loves her.  That way, the Sahajiya myth explains, the Lord teaches us to reach for the impossible. You are unable to completely get to where you aspire to be, but so what? Getting as close as possible is what matters—the journey is everything. The myth serves a purpose only if we understand the allegorical reference. Were we to insist such a garden actually exists, the focus would shift to divinity and worship and miracles at the expense of the lesson waiting to be taught.

Whether a Ram-like king did exist, or warring clans meted it out at Kurukshetra, and whether there was a Krishna-like leader of the Yadav clan, should be left to professional historians. Who knows, Lord Krishna could well be authenticated in some future research undertaken objectively. For now though, the closest I’ve come to being semi-impressed, is by one Dr. N S Rajaram, even though his claims remain rich in conjecture and let’s not hold our breath waiting for a peer review. As far as the Ramayana and Mahabharata are concerned however, this is neither here nor there.

All this would add up to nothing, except that mythology has a track record. We have endured a world war to try debunking that Aryan myth and it still has legs. Nationalist and religious parties are especially apt at applying mythology to win over minds and savage enemies. We see it happening all around us. Neo-Nazis proudly march across America and Europe. In India, fundamentalist Hindutva is permanently changing Hinduism. Various Islamist movements pollute the Middle East with murderous stupidity. Then there's Putin's Russia—looming over all of these vicious little buggers clamoring for attention. Because it's not just violence that’s common across these politico-religious movements. There’s a striking commonality in right wing memes across the globe that simply can't be a coincidence; or maybe it's something to do with the times. A delicious conspiracy theory bubbles in my head, but best leave it for now.

Speaking about Bombay Swastika before an expatriate audience in Mumbai, I was on the obvious nexus between the Vedic Swastik symbol and a Nazi Swastika, when two German gentlemen corrected me. The Swastika was taken from Celtic history they insisted, and had nothing to do with the Vedic Swastika. What about the name then?  Well, in Germany we don’t call it the Swastika. It has its origins in Aryan folklore, you see.  And where did the Aryans come from?  From the Nordics of course, as we all know. But we don’t and no, they didn’t. The Aryan tribes, if they existed at all, are universally acknowledged to originate in the Caucasus. The point being, history is based on facts; or it can be anything you want.

If you want, a Hindu King and not the Moghuls built the Taj Mahal, even in the face of enough evidence to the contrary. Or, Mohammed did receive the word of God from the Angel Gabriel; even though the rational explanation would be that he borrowed from and simplified the monotheist material around him. And if you want, Noah did fit two of every species into his houseboat and Jesus rose from the dead and if we are to believe the current Indian Prime Minister, Lord Ganesh with his cute elephant head was real as real can be.

Whereas, you know heart of hearts, as do I, these are myths—to be either dismissed as with the Taj Mahal claim, or studied for their lessons from the past. Why detract from the beauty of the Bhagwad Gita or the wisdom inherent in so much of the Koran just because of fundamentalist urges, is beyond me. Stories spun around mythical figures are parables, not history, nor are they historical fiction.  Although going by Amazon India, you wouldn’t know. Searching under Historical Fiction, the first title to pop up was Immortals of Meluha, a book on Lord Shiva. A novel about Ram’s heroic Sita was actually #1 a few months ago, until Shiva came displaced her—one mythological character taking down the other, neither having anything to do with history, but who’s complaining.

To nudge Lord Shiva, or Sita or Ram or Krishna over into history from their current mythological status requires some doing before objective eyes.  However, there are vast legions out there that need to believe in this and so, casual extrapolation appears enough. There does seem to be a laissez faire approach to Hindu research in India, making it a lot easier to establish nonsense while refuting facts.

Is it then, that Indian research is typically shoddy? Because it is not. R C Mazumdar and Romilla Thapar are why I am hooked on history in the first place. Their expertise did it for me, not Western historians. Also, being killed by bandits didn’t harm Mazumdar’s case amongst young wannabes. He isn’t there anymore, but one also doesn’t see Thapar work on resurrecting Krishna any time soon. I don’t know what her religious proclivities are but she appears professional enough to remain secular at work. Professional historians don’t typically champion mythology. They know any such thesis would likely crumble under peer review. The faux-ones who do, wouldn’t know how to apply due diligence in the first place, and don’t care. They have to arrive at a preconceived conclusion for their host of believers. Conjecture is enough.

For the rest of us though, it isn’t. There can be no let up on due diligence demanded of anyone venturing to prove say, Krishna’s existence a historical fact. Just telling us he existed based on astrological evidence or conjecture, doesn’t buy it. Yet, there’s no let up.

It was on February 18, 3102 BC, we are asked to believe, that Krishna breathed his last on the banks of river Hiran in Prabhas Patan, after living 125 years seven months and six days. He died at 14:27:30 hours, according to a paper presented by Swami Gyananand Saraswati, chairperson of the Varanasi-based Adi Jagatguru Shankaracharya Sodh Sansthan at a gathering of scholars, according to the Times of India dated September 8, 2004, under the headline, Lord Krishna Lived 125 Years.

The Swami goes on to elaborate how they arrived at the date with such precision. "Certain dates related to his life taken from the scriptures were then fed into a software along with Krishna's characteristic traits for an astrological calculation to prepare his kundli." Few things Ive read are more cringe-worthy.

The above claim could be laughed off, except that the Times of India chose to publish it as serious news. Swami Gyananand’s research by the way, took a quick three months and I’m told the conclusions have begun to creep into school textbooks. In comparison, it took Audrey Truschke, an Assistant Professor of South Asian Studies at Rutgers, ten years to arrive at some basic conclusions on Persian-Sanskrit syncretism in the Moghul court. That then, is the difference between objective, academic due diligence, and the variety used extensively these days to arrive at premeditated conclusions.

So, there we have it.  Three months to arrive at unbelievably precise dates about a mythological figure. Versus, ten years of hard work to conclusively establish what was anyways known since my school days: that Hindu culture and Sanskrit literature permeated every aspect of life in the Moghul court. In spite of that, the news about Krishna was received with awe, and Truschke’s conclusions with outrage.

More than one patriotic Indian over the years has informed me that Audrey Truschke, and Wendy Doniger before her and James Laine before her and Louis Malle before him, have an axe to grind. The West is out to get us. That someone can openly assert a Western scholar would spend ten years to write a book on Sanskrit-Persian syncretism just to ’get us’ would be priceless, if it wasn’t so depressing. And if that is the case, then the West is out to get its own God too, because it demands a similar proof from those claiming Jesus is a real, historical figure.

This persistent demand for proper proof stems from a paucity of contemporaneous Jesus references from that period. In fact, outside of the Bible, there is pretty much no reference to a person named Jesus.  Other than in the works of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who covered the period 37 BC - 100AD in his writings.  There, we do find a reference to Jesus in a paragraph renowned as, Testimonium Flavianum. The only problem being, the Testimonium Flavianum has been declared a forgery on multiple occasions and by multiple sources. Are observant Christians unhappy with this whole thing? You bet.  Are they baying for blood? Not to my knowledge. But even if they were, challenging a religion doesn’t typically fire up murderous mobs in the West. In India it would, and the threat of religious violence permanently bubbles beneath the national fabric.

Should Krishna then be given a pass? The answer for our own sake, is no. Were European Indologists once dismissive of Hinduism? Yes, and who knows, probably some still are. That still doesn’t make Krishna real. To establish him as flesh and blood requires the same rigorous proof we ask for the existence of Jesus outside of the Bible, or proof that Mohammed indeed had a conversation with the Archangel Gabriel.

However, here’s some proof from the smorgasbord on offer: ’When (Krishna) came 5000 years ago, millons of eyewitnesses saw him.  He did things only gods can do. Historian Vyasadeva, a reporter with impeccable credentials, recorded it all.’  Conclusion? Not only Krishna existed, he was also God.

Many myths are dear to the heart. They take us back to where our people originated, and that’s not a bad thing. These myths are allegories—teachings from the past that elders felt a need to pass on. It’s when they are bandied as facts and we are told the stories are true, that we begin down the slippery slope.

Under a politically resurgent Hinduism, blaming Muslim and British imperialism for subverting Hindu culture is back in fashion. During the socialist Sixties and Seventies, it was fashionable blaming the West for economic exploitation. Today the finger is pointed at Muslims and Christian oppressors for their cultural vandalism. If you want, there’s always someone to blame. And it appears that’s what many of us want. Declare the white male a victim, and some buffoon like Trump becomes President of the United States. Paint Hindus as being trod upon, and you have Hindutva riding roughshod all over India.

Whether Trump’s Neo-Nazis, some Islamist propagator, or a Hindutva mob, their positions are necessarily implacable. They have no choice, because this is what fundamentalism requires from adherents. You can’t cede a quarter else the edifice crumbles. There can therefore be no alternative explanation. Here are examples of how myths become real in fundamentalist minds.
-   Didn’t the Earth come about 4.5 billion years ago? No, it can’t be more than six thousand years old. Because otherwise the Bible would be wrong and that’s not possible.
-   Why is Islamic society under Sharia superior to all others? Because the Koran says Islam is the best, most perfect, and final word of God. All other religions before it were simply iterations while God wrestled to get it right. Then what about the Christian West’s persistent economic superiority and how come Jewish Israel holds sway over its Muslim neighbors? The fundamentalist response to that is typically aggressive, because the only logical answer is unacceptable.
-   Similarly, If Muslims are just bestial invaders and Hindu culture superior, then whence the Taj Mahal? Ergo, a Hindu King built it.

Whatever we do, we mustn’t kid ourselves this sort of extremism is temporary. Things may have correct themselves in the past but these are different times.  There are several billion more of us around, for starters. Increasing numbers doesn’t necessarily translate into greater smarts. In any herd, after a certain point the lowest common denominator starts to prevail. Break down communication barriers like how the Internet has done, and the stupid benefit from an exponential increase to their reach.  Barely a decade ago, you would be slapped down for propagating nonsense about not getting kids vaccinated against measles. Today, you can form your own comfort group made up of millions, and do as you please.

Another thing about large, dumbed-down herds.  As any shepherd would tell you, they are easier to manage. Therefore, if 1% of today’s human population can get away usurping 80% of its wealth, there’s a reason. The same reason why Trump effortlessly holds sway over a significant swathe of America’s voting population; at their expense. I am loathe to admit that’s also why demagogues have so many Indians convinced the Taj Mahal was built by a Hindu King; but it appears to be the case.

What can we—the rest of us—do? Educate our children to begin with. Let’s go create more people of the kind who do their homework for ten years just so they get it right, instead of ones ripening to be swayed by a Trump, some silver tongued Wahhabi, or the head guy in khaki from your local RSS chapter.

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