Saturday, April 11, 2009

From the flood of Manu to Jewel in the crown – 4000 years of Mystery and History

Noah’s Ark, Legend of Gilgamesh, Manu and his fish - did these events/myths all happen independently thousands of miles apart??? Or are they one and the same and just got adopted into different myths at different times? Hard to say.

But we can possibly say that Indian history or at least Indian myths started with the flood and Manu.

Prior to the Aryan migration into what is today Afghanistan (Gandhara of old), Punjab, and the north of India, there was a flourishing civilisation scattered over large parts of Pakistan and what is now Rajasthan/ Gujarat in India. The Indus Valley civilisation, as it is referred to today, though not as ancient as the Egyptian or the Mesopotamian civilisation, can nevertheless rank among the really ancient well developed urban civilisations, with its own distinct language, script, arts and culture. Unfortunately, very little is known of the origins, the history, and the reason for the mysterious disappearance of this civilisation. Estimates suggest that it lasted from around 2600 BC to 1900 BC.

With the Aryan migration (I am loath to say invasion, since the jury is still out on whether there was actually any invasion or was it a peaceful migration) also came the legends and the myths. Ancient wisdom in the form of Vedas, Upanishads and Epics.

One can say Mahabharata was really where legend started meeting history. The great epic, culminating in the battle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas where every known kingdom aligned with one side or the other – a battle that dwarfed the Trojan War by several magnitudes. It is the Mahabharata, possibly placed around 1400 BC, (around the same time as the Santorini explosion which removed Knossos and the great Minoan civilisation from the face of the earth) that gives us a good picture of the several kingdoms which mushroomed in the great north Indian planes between Indus and Ganges rivers. It is also Mahabharata, rich in values and traditions, strong in morals and yet very practical in its outlook on how to survive in the real world, which lays down the Values that is to dominate India for the next 3500 years. Like its contemporary event, the Trojan War, or for that matter, like most of the Old Testament, Mahabharata was committed to writing only centuries later. This could explain why Ramayana, which logically relates to events that could have happened much later in actual history, could be depicted in Mahabharata as having preceded Mahabharata. For Mahabharata refers to that period in Indian history, when the Aryans were settling the north Indian region (Uttara pada). Ramayana- to the forays far down south (Dakshin pada) all the way to the colonisation of Sri Lanka.

From that era, to the time when the British tentatively stepped in as traders and slowly by means of political will, guile, cunning and courage, made India the most prestigious addition to the sprawling British Empire in 1857, India was the land of mystery, untold wealth, magic, elephants, learned gurus and incredible wealth. It is believed that 22% of the world’s GDP was in India.

From 500BC to 1100AD, it was a story of fragmented kingdoms, neighbouring kingdoms swallowing each other, new dynasties mushrooming, conquest by central Asians, forays by Greek (Yavana) kings, in turn conquest of Malaysian, Sri Lankan, Cambodian and Vietnamese lands by Indian dynasties.

Great dynasties – Mauryas and Guptas came into being, spread across the subcontinent, left their indelible mark in the rich cultural and value systems of the subcontinent and disintegrated back to smaller kingdoms. Centres of power (Magadha, Kalinga) and centres of great learning (Taxila, Nalanda) sparkled briefly and went off.

More importantly, Jainism and Buddhism, two religions which both have peace and love as their central theme originated in India. Buddhism was exported out with a huge thrust of the mighty Ashoka behind it. Sri Lanka, China, and later Burma, Indonesia, Thailand- all fell to the influence of this message of peace.

From 1100 AD onwards, the Muslim conquests of India started. There was constant pushing of territories, conquests and reconquests, succession struggles, dynastic overthrows, intrigue – mostly in North and later in central India. The south was relatively stable and peaceful. Pallavas, Chalukyas, Cholas, Pandyas, Rashtrakutas all were long stable dynasties and more importantly, even if there were boundaries constantly getting rewritten between them, the cultural continuity remained.

The strong difference in values and culture one can observe between people from north and south India can be explained by this very vastly different treatment meted out by this current millennium. The north Indian is far more aggressive about his turf, more practical, more pushy and individualistic. People from south tend to be more laid back, more accommodating and generally contented with letting matters be.

The last 200 years pre independence, before the whole of India was united by the British and given a national conscience and then rent asunder into 3 distinct units in the greatest human tragedies of modern world, Indians also acquired a new trait – a huge inferiority complex vis-à-vis the white westerners. And an embrasure of Gandhian principles as a defensive mechanism to prove that we are the have-nots by choice.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting.I have always wondered about the similarities in the births of Moses & Lord Krishna... both were born to destroy evil. They both were abandoned by their biologic parents & raised by foster parents who found them floating in baskets in the river. Also, both are associated with a "parting of waters " episode at some time in their life....

Kalyani said...

Excellent piece of writing. Without your permission, I am going to use this in my wriyting workshops! Some day I hope to invite you over to teach a class :D

Rupsayar Das said...

Just to remind you that the so-called Aryan Invasion Theory has been proven to be absolute farce, manipulative theorizing by certain European Indologists in order to promote Christianity and cultural imperial during colonialization of India. Do us a favor ... don't preach this nonsense !!