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Students Forum for Indian Heritage

Last week I attended a lecture by Michel Danino at a gathering of the Students Forum for Indian Heritage at Amrita Vishwavidyapeetham University. In case you are not familiar with Mr. Danino he is a relatively well known self-established Indologist as well as the founding member of the International Forum for India’s Heritage. The most famous book by him is probably The Invasion That Never Was published independently in 2000. It is most likely not available outside India. Danino was born in France but has lived in India since 1977. Over the years I’ve had a chance to hear his talks several times and have found them quite interesting and this time was no exception.

The lecture was primarily about scientific research methods but the original subject was slightly subverted when the talk steered towards problems facing historical research and especially publishing it in present day India. Usually just mentioning the name of a historian of some persuasion is enough to start a debate as there is not just one prevailing take on history in India but many. The most common and one that is still today taught in most schools comes from European Indologists dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries with views that are to say the least outdated, if not even semi mythological in places.

Now if you are not from India you might ask yourself: why don’t Indian scholars rewrite the history books?  The answer is that many have tried but not one of the versions has gained credence enough to replace the antiquated Victorian one, not yet at least. Possibly because they have often been attached with political and religious agendas or even if objective they have been opposed for the same. Not that India is lacking in historians and efforts to rewrite history.

Lets take an example. Marxist historian Romila Thapar has been hailed as one of the greatest of modern historians but far from being accepted by all, she is a very controversial figure in India. Thapar was among the first to make it clear that “aryan” should be taken as a linguistic not racial definition and proposed that they did not invade north India but  migrated there over a period of time leaving a linguistic and cultural imprint on the region. Unfortunately she also suggested that they occasionally ate beef which created quite an uproar in a country where eating habits more often than not define a person’s identity and religion. She also rejected the idea of a so called golden age of India as relic of worldwide 19th century obsessions with glorious golden ages. But for many this golden age is a matter of faith and forms their understanding of ancient India and so as a result all that she has said since has met with vehement opposition. This is just one example but something that will keep repeating itself as long as politics and religion get entangled with science.

During his talk Danino mentioned that when he initially gave instructions to his students about research methodology he stressed the importance of sticking to scientific facts and keeping politics and religion out of it, he had been afraid this would hamper their enthusiasm but instead he found that it actually had the opposite effect and made them approach their research with tenfold enthusiasm. Hopefully this is a sign that present generations might finally be ready to look objectively at their countries past.

The Students Forum is a commendable effort by the students of the university to uphold and create interest among themselves towards Indian history and its studies. Together with Michel Danino they are engaged in researching and publishing a series of DVD’s about ancient India divided into ten different volumes by various topics. Ultimately the goal is to have a whole array of interactive teaching materials available for use in schools all over India and by the general public. Later the whole project will also be available online and when it is I suggest that anyone with an interest in Indian history and ancient civilizations look it up. The project is vast and will take several years to complete but once finished will hopefully fulfill a need among educational institutions for new and more exciting ways to teach the youth of India about their unique heritage regardless of their cultural background or religion.

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