Indian History
Indian History. Writing.

What is history?

Dear Students, as you embark on the subject of history, let me give you an insight into what history is and why learning history is important.

The Sanskrit word for history, is itihasa — Thus is happened. History, in the Indian context was about what happened to us as a people in the past. But, for us Indians, it was much more than that. Unlike in the west where history was written by the Greeks as a matter of factual record (although, as you will see, even there, they were given to flights of fancy especially when it came to describing places like India that they didn’t really know much about), history in India was not just limited to regurgitating facts. It also acted as the foundation for talking about dharma and the lessons that historical events provided in that context.

Now, ancient Indian texts are divided into two main classes — itihasas and puranas. There are only two itihasas. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Do you know what the difference is between them? Itihasas are those that have been written by people who were alive when the events that they were writing about, happened. Maharishi Valmiki, who wrote the Ramayana lived during the times of Rama, while Veda Vyasa lived during the times of the Mahabharata War. That is why these are called itihasas. All other events come under the term, puranas, because, they were written by people long after the events.

You might also wonder, when did history begin? Typically, we can say that history itself began when the Universe began but let us narrow our definition of history to the timeframe when humans have been on this earth. That narrows it down somewhat, since homo sapiens, the human species, have been around for nearly 200,000 years.

We thus study history mainly from the perspective of humans as a species from our days as hunter-gatherers, through to our settling down to raising crops and then onward from there.

That is well and good, I hear you asking, dear students, but, what is the use of studying history?

Why study history?

That is a fair question. So, let me attempt to answer it. At a larger level, studying history is important, because it tells us something about ourselves. About our struggle as we evolved from an ape-like species to what we are today.

At a narrower, national, level, we study history because it allows us to understand what made our nation. Who are we as a nation? Where have we come from? What have our ancestors faced? What hardships have they overcome? What did they believe in? What heights of arts and crafts and music and dance did they achieve? Who made all these wonderful temples and monuments? How did we manage to spread our culture across vast swathes of South-east Asia without military conquests?

How did our ancestors achieve go into philosophy in such depth? When the rest of the world had primitive ideas of the creation of this world, how did our ancestors have a near-modern understanding of not just how old the universe was, but in terms of their lack of certainty about how the Universe has come into being. That questioning nature is what makes our culture unique in the world. Here is a glimpse of that questioning nature from the Nasadiya Sukta in the Rig Veda:

But, after all, who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
the gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?

Whence all creation had its origin,
the creator, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
the creator, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows — or maybe even he does not know.

Rig Veda- 10:129

Hence, as you can see, history is not just a mind-numbing regurgitation of facts and dates. It enables us to take pride in our own culture and traditions but also to learn from the failings of our ancestors.

It also shows us some ugly truths about us as a people. I am sure that in your travels with your parents, you would have seen numerous monuments and temples that are in ruins. I am confident that you would have been intrigued by these. Why were they in ruins? How did they break? Was it simply the passage of time? Who destroyed them?

Learning these truths is important so that we do not commit the same errors that led to the destruction that we see all around us.

But let’s leave the doom and gloom for now. What I would like you to remember as you go through our history, both as a species and as Bharatiyas, is that we are the only surviving Bronze Age culture. What is bronze age, you ask? Well, you will learn about it. But what do I mean by saying that we are the only surviving Bronze Age culture? Were there other cultures? What happened to them?

Yes, there were. The Greeks and the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and the Chinese, the Mayans and the Incas and the Aztecs. But, hold on. Aren’t there still Greeks and Egyptians and Chinese around, you ask.

Yes, there are. But the culture that they follow is VERY different from what their ancestors did. We, on the other hand, follow the same culture that our ancestors did more than 7000 or 8000 years ago. The same Gayatri Mantra that we chant today, the same rituals, were also chanted and observed by our ancestors. Therein lies the difference.

And so kids, always remember this with pride as you learn about the glorious history of this land. This land is not just a piece of land. It is our mother. Other cultures believe that they own their land. We don’t. The land is our mother. We belong to it. We don’t own it. Our ancients defined the boundaries of this land in the Vishnu Purana as

The country that lies north of the ocean and south of the snowy mountains is called Bhāratam there dwells the descendants of Bharata.

Vishnu Purana – 2.3.1

So, enjoy learning about our past over the next few years.

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