India's turbulent past has been hidden while its prowess undermined by colonialists and neo-colonialists alike.
Sanjeev Sanyal’s book, ‘The Ocean of Churn’, is a wonderful effort to correct the distorted discourses in our history books. The British earlier and Congress supported left historians later focussed mainly on the history of the continental land mass. Again, the reading was, unfortunately, that of invasions only. The Aryan invasion, followed by the Islamic invasion, followed by the civilising invasion of the British. Delhi became the center-point of all Indian history.
Surprisingly, the great Indian warriors fighting the invasions hardly had a mention. 6000 years of an uninterrupted civilization has never been of conquests outside its boundaries. Our culture was rich in both spiritual and material aspects. The acceptance of the higher and the lower truths allowed science to progress without any fear of persecution. The internal wars had certain principles of warfare. These never became a part of history taught to us.
The history of the country to the South of the Vindhyas was almost non-existent and the North-East was invisible. Coastal India, North-East India, and the Southern states have an equally rich history, if not more. As an example, Krishnadeva Raya of the Vijayanagara kingdom was one of the greatest rulers of India; and in those times, his capital was the largest city in the world. This glorious chapter stays obscure in the annals of our history. Getting invaded was almost our central necessity if the history books were true.
The standard story
The pre-recorded history consisted of mythical humans called ‘Aryans’ from Central Asia who invaded India in 1500 BCE riding on horses. In the next 500 years, they drove out all the equally mythical dark people called ‘Dravidians’ to South India. They also enslaved them and converted them into ‘Dasas’, ‘Sudras’, or the ‘untouchables’ in the powerful caste-system devised by the devious priests. During this time, they could write the Vedas and the Upanishads and develop the complete language of Sanskrit. In fact, the waters of Ganga were so pure that in a span of 300-500 years, they became completely civilised and highly philosophical from being barbarians. The problem, unfortunately, has been that there is absolutely no evidence to support this pernicious theory. The Aryan-Dravidian divide is the biggest hoax perpetrated by our historians and the sooner it disappears, the better. However, it has sunk into the deepest recesses of our collective psyche; and perversely, our accomplished academia fights tooth and nail against any attempt of a counter-narrative. Persistent efforts holding on to minuscule and dubious straws of genetic evidence are hailed as proof galore for the Aryans.
The modern narrative starts with the invading Turks and Mughals from Central Asia in the 10th and 11th centuries, just when Islam was becoming popular. The invasions were brutal, but to be fair; the Islamic invasions never did convert the population wholesale. They probably could not, and Islam did get some assimilation into Indian culture. Europeans followed, who believed it was their divine right in the name of trade, or Christ, or white supremacy to invade lands and set up colonies. Dutch, French, English, and Portuguese colonials could set up forts and colonies in India creating havoc and destruction. Unbelievably, even the Danes managed to set up colonies (Tranquebar) in India!
There was nothing benign about their rule as it was systematic loot and plunder. The trading excuse given was a joke because they did not have anything to trade. Indians had mercantile sea power, but the Europeans had armed naval power, and therein lay all the difference. The first colonies of India were set up in Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta; and mostly through deceit. For the control of some areas in their expansion; the Europeans fought each other (for instance the Deccan wars) with the help of Indian soldiers and sepoys on both sides. And as peace formulas, areas were handed over as their own. Imagine India and Bangladesh fighting a war in England with the help of English soldiers on both sides and as a peace formula, Bristol is handed over to India! Something similar happened to us. Pondicherry went to the French as a gift from the British.Get monthly updates
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The rich maritime history of coastal India
We are largely unaware of the glorious maritime Indian history off the Eastern and Western coasts for thousands of years before the invasions, and this unusual history book documents it. The period of Indus-Sarasvati civilization (starting 7000 BCE and stabilised by 2500 BCE) was rich in maritime trade. The author shows clearly how the trade in the Indian ocean moulded world history. There was a constant transport of cultures and traditions by migrations and oceanic trade. The maritime history of Africa, the Arab world, Indian coastline, Sri Lanka, and the Far Eastern islands was extremely rich since Harappan times.
Thousands of years back, we had an active trade with Romans and Greeks by the sea route. Gujarat and the Indus river played a very important role in the trade. We have evidence of Indian origin relics and artefacts at distant places of the Indian Ocean, speaking of a vibrant trade. The present-day Lothal in Gujarat was a thriving port.
A few gods of the Vedic era transformed into some pagan gods. A fascinating anecdote is how the Vedic-Mittani god Mitra was a popular deity in the Middle East and later became the solar God Mithras during the Roman rule. The cult of the Mithras was seriously competing with early Christianity. The pagan Romans celebrated a week-long festival called Saturnalia starting December 17 and ending December 25 with a grand feast for the Mithras of the Sol Invictus(unconquered Sun).
When the Christians came to dominate the Roman empire, they simply took over the pagan festival and fixed December 25 as Christmas to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The Puritans still celebrate January 7 as the Christmas day because they do not agree with this date, and there was even an attempt to ban the heathen celebrations in North America and Britain during the 17th and the 18th centuries. But now Christians and non-Christians celebrate December 25 alike. The author says that ‘hence one of the unintended consequences of early Iron Age migrations is that the world celebrates the birthday of an ancient god from Haryana!’
The eastern coast and the spread of Buddhism
On the other side- the Eastern side- there was a very active to-and-fro movement from Odisha, Bengal, and South India to the Far Eastern countries like Indonesia, Java, Sumatra, Borneo, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia. There was a huge Hindu and Buddhist influence in these countries before their conversion to Islam. The largest Hindu temple complex in the world is at Angkor. The Sinhalese of Sri Lanka were the people from Odisha. Hinduism and Buddhism thrived in harmony at most places of the Indian sub-continent, Far East, Sri Lanka, and China.
The clash of these religions is a big myth. Many Buddhist temples have Hindu deities in their complexes, and Hindus consider Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. This, of course, is disagreed by some Indian scholars who feel it a later interpolation to assimilate Buddhism into Sanatana Dharma. There is also a spurious attempt by some ‘scholars’ to show Buddhism or Bhakti movements as in some sort of antagonism with the caste system. It is plain fantasy of the ideologues writing our history. The book, ‘Western Foundations of the Caste System,’ rips this theory of positing Buddhism or Shramanas as fighting the evil Brahmanism.
However, the fact is that there are very few philosophical differences in Hindu and Buddhist thought. Except for the final state called Moksha and Nirvana by the Hindus and the Buddhists respectively, there is little to differentiate them. The final state is Brahman in Hinduism; but is Sunyata or loosely, Nothingness in Buddhism.
The so-called greatness of Ashoka, which we were and are still feeding upon, is false, says the author. He shows this by a deep study of the various inscriptions still existing for anyone to counter-check. Ashoka was a brutal tyrant who killed in plenty after converting to Buddhism. The story of his converting to Buddhism after the Kalinga war is pure myth initiated by the English historians and strengthened by the post-Independence Indian historians. The aim was to show the weakness of Hinduism. Ashoka’s brutality and tyranny had nothing to do with religion. He converted to Buddhism purely for political reasons.
European invasions by sea
Before the Suez Canal, trade between India and the Far Eastern countries involved a trip around Africa. The Europeans rediscovered this route and their naval power slowly led to brutal domination by them starting in the 15th century. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, and the English successively dominated India. There was no trade but a one-sided loot. It is surprising to see the colonial history of the Europeans with scarce trade resources; and equipped only with guile and military resources, they thought fit to go to any land, occupy it forcefully, and play regional politics. They had good support from the Church and the Universities which justified their excursions. India surrendered to the British finally.
One fact that stands out in this great book is that the true barbarians in the history of humankind have been the Europeans. In the excursions outside their boundaries between the 15th to 19th centuries, they have been disruptive and destructive. The period of this disruption started with their naval might, which is not surprising. European nations around the Celtic Sea, English Channel, and the North Seas simply thought it a divine right to enter foreign lands and cause great havoc with the land, its people, economy, resources, religion, and culture.
In both the World Wars, again it was Europe sucking the world into its skirmishes of greed and ambition. It is another matter that Indian soldiers fought both the wars without any stakes. We have forgotten these great Indian soldiers, and the British did not feel it necessary to acknowledge them. Certainly, history declares that Europeans have no right to civilisational or moral superiority. Their great distinguishing marks have been the pride of their white skin; abuse of every other culture and tradition after terming it ‘pagan’ or primitive; and a passion to prosper at the expense of all scruples.
An interesting anecdote concerns the East India Company, where individuals often made huge profits illegally at the expense of the company; and one was a certain Mr. Yale. He was a corrupt official who made millions, migrated to the USA, and started a University with his ill-gotten wealth! So, we know the roots of Yale University, a highly ranked Ivy League University now.
Indian resistance – Do we know about it?
The South Indians were fantastic naval warriors, and the author gives a few fine examples. They resisted the Europeans fiercely and it was not always a cakewalk for them in the march of colonisation. Many times, the Colonials lost very badly. There was a great ruler of Kerala called Marthanda Verma (1705-1758) who resisted the Dutch and defeated them decisively. The author goes to the extent of saying that if Marthanda Verma had not defeated the Dutch, we would have been using the Dutch language instead of English in the country today.
Similarly, the Marathas were great warriors and they had an equally important role to play. Their naval power was indeed a force to contend with. Kanhoji Angre was a Grand Admiral of the Maratha navy who challenged the Europeans at sea with his fleet of fast and manoeuvrable ships. He was quite successful in fending off the European threat in the early part of the 17th century. However, the European writings dismissed him off as a pirate! The English could not defeat Kanhoji till his end.
Not only on the coastline, but there would be the brave Ahoms of Assam who fought and never allowed the Mughals to enter their terrain for 400 years. They were great shipbuilders and the Battle of Saraighat is an example of their naval skills on the Brahmaputra which permanently deterred the Mughals. Lachit Borphukan’s story is the stuff of legends. There would be very few in the country who would have heard of these great naval heroes.
An alternative look at the independence movement
Our standard story is, of course, Nehru, Gandhi, and the Congress got us Independence in a unique non-violent manner. It is a great story, but plays a small role in the entire movement comprised of many characters and heroes, including giants like Sri Aurobindo. Most of them are unfortunately invisible in the public conscience. So strong has been the historical narrative that today, we even refuse to believe that there were other factors too.
The naval mutiny of 1946; the role of revolutionaries like Resh Bihari Bose; the Ghadar uprising; the horrors of Andaman jails where the revolutionaries went; the duplicity of Gandhi and the Congress in handling these people get careful documentation. The revolutionaries had a significant role in gaining independence for India, but this rarely gets a mention in the textbooks. They fought bravely against the colonials who showed their brutal behaviour and imprisoned them in the most pathetic of conditions at the Andaman jails. It is important that these revolutionaries should get their due place in history.
Subhas Chandra Bose was a great fighter and he allied with the Germans and the Japanese to gain independence for India during World War 2. He had a divergent philosophy to that of the Congress, and hence completely blanked out in our books. The revolutionaries wanted to pressurize the British to give independence to India by not cooperating during the world wars when they would be at the weakest. However, the Congress and Gandhi went around recruiting Indian soldiers to fight for the British in the name of cooperation, and sacrificing non-violence for the larger good! Yes, the apostle of non-violence was recruiting soldiers for the British army!
The prime reason for the British giving up India was that they were facing immense pressures from the Indian soldiers who were on the verge of mutiny. Their backbone was the Indian soldiers and a huge number of these soldiers fought for the British in far-off lands, sometimes against Indians on the opposite side! This was causing immense resentment in them. The Quit India movement collapsed in 1942, and it had perhaps nothing to do with the achievement of independence five years later.
However, after independence, the entire credit for independence went to the Congress. Post-colonial secular, liberal historians scripted a history which showed the ruling political leaders in favourable light. Pandit Nehru wrote a book called ‘The Discovery of India’ as a series of letters from memory and without a bibliography or referencing of any kind. This became a standard reference for a few generations of Indian students. The left-dominated institutional history, ably supported by the socialist regime of Nehru, fit the vast theatre of Indian history into simplistic paradigms of the exploiter and the exploited. Hence, Aryan conflict, caste conflicts, regional conflicts took center-stage in the discourse and interpretation of Indian history. It was a parroting of the biased narrative of the English colonial history of Indians.
Indian ocean sees it all
The Boer Wars of Africa; the apartheid rule; the rise of Nelson Mandela; the great Ethiopian struggles to maintain their independence; the brutal exploitation of Africa for its slaves, diamonds, and minerals by our favourite and ubiquitous Europeans; the wars of religion in the Persian Gulf after the rise of Islam; the Omani wars; the Dutch plunder of Indonesia; the spice and nutmeg wars involving again the European powers in the Java and Sumatra islands; have all been told in one great and breath-taking sweep. The waters of the Indian Ocean have certainly seen a lot.
Closer home, the Goa Inquisition, the grey shades of Tipu Sultan, the rise of Mumbai and its entrepreneurs, development of the port cities like Chennai and Calcutta (Kolkata) have a fantastic depiction. The fascinating and illuminating stories concerning the spice wars of Indonesian islands, opium wars of China, World Wars involving places like Singapore, the creation of Singapore, the role of Subhas Chandra Bose, and the Indian National Army are bound to captivate the readers. It is difficult to single out any one great story, even as a new one erupts on almost every single page.
The book is not jingoistic. One becomes proud of the country’s past and simultaneously becomes sad at our continuous exploitation over so many centuries. One gets a clear idea of an ancient and prosperous country which could not handle the machinations of foreign invaders. But despite all this, there is no creation of anger and hatred. And that is a good thing. One can look at the past of India and be justifiably proud of it to create a new future by correcting some wrongs; and most importantly, without hating any country, culture, or religion in the present. And, that is the book’s greatest achievement.
The slightest amount of criticism is that sometimes the chronology of events become a little hazy as the pages turn. Maybe, like the churn of the events, time also gets churned to-and-fro. Also, there should be a little more of the maps and illustrations which might make geographies easier to understand. The later editions might incorporate more of the concerned maps. But these are small and probably irrelevant issues in enjoying the book. It is a must-read for all- Indian or not.