By the Editor
Hinduism Today, December 1994
This issue of Hinduism Today is like none other. We set aside some usual
features to publish our seven-page Hindu Timeline, a rich collection of the
major events and people that have shaped India. We hope you will keep it, use it
as a resource, refer to it when someone asks a question or when writing an
article for your local paper.
As complete as it is, our Timeline does not tell the whole story.
What it fails to mention is that history, as it happens, never happened. History
is a hoax. "What?" you say, "Who licensed you to belittle so
proud a profession, so indispensable a discipline as human history? What do we
have of the past except the cherished chronicle of what, not to mention who,
went before us?" Okay, okay. History is important, but historians know of
what I speak. Listen to the preeminent Will Durant who spent a lifetime studying
the record of civilizations: "History is mostly
guessing; the rest is prejudice."
It is certainly formidable to ponder the whole of human history (said to be
somewhere between 500,000 and two million years) and to assess just how much we
really know of the past, how well a few bone fragments and distilled lines in a
book reflect the truly awesome complexity of billions of human beings
interacting with each other, with other tribes, with their environment and
geography. To humanize it, consider your own life. Take all you did, all you
endured and attempted, all you said, learned and forgot. What is the bottom
line? "Anjali Patel, 1938-2022. Beloved wife and mother. Rest in
peace." Less than a dozen words. It's easy to see that history is but a
frail record of reality. Multiply this individual example by the ten billion
souls that have lived in India during the past 10,000 years (an interesting
number a local mathematician helped us find), divide that by the 14,339 words in
our (fairly thorough) history, and you get one word for every 697,398.7 people
who made that history
happen. Hmmm! It's getting easier to see why historian Richard Cobb concluded
that "The frontiers between history and imagination are very little more
than Chinese screens, removable at will."
History may be a mental monument to human achievement and progress, but it is
equally a repository of our prejudices, a museum of our mistakes. It keeps feuds
alive beyond their time, it impedes progress more than it impels, and it
restrains many of us from living in the here and now, so consumed are we with
what happened there and then. History is millstone as much as milestone.
The bad news, then, is that history is always inaccurate and often injurious.
The good news is that India and Hinduism live beyond history. Other nations know
exactly who they are, when they began, who their first president was. Their
history is compact, unambiguous. Not India. She has too much history to be
pithy, too complex a career to avoid ambiguity. Nowhere else do people live in
so many centuries at the same time. Where else do past and present exist side by
side-Sun worship with atomic research, astrology with space exploration? Where
else does the old add itself to the new rather than relinquishing its hold and
This issue's timeline chronicles exciting discoveries about the Indus Valley/Saraswati
River civilization and the present effort of historians to wrest India's
self-understanding away from Europeans who long ago left behind a false
biography of Bharat. Whereas the past provides others with the all-important
basis of identity and self-importance, India enjoys a leisurely, even careless,
relationship with history. British historian Christopher Dawson explains:
"Happy is the people that is
without a history, and thrice happy is a people without a sociology, for as long
as we possess a living culture we are unconscious of it, and it is only when we
are in danger of losing it or when it is already dead that we begin to realize
and study it scientifically."
Hinduism also lies beyond history. Other faiths, excluding some tribal and pagan
paths, are rooted in events. They began on such and such a day, born with the
birth of a prophet or the pronouncements of a founder. Thus they are defined,
circumscribed, by history. Not Hinduism. She has no founder, no birthday to
Like Truth, she is eternal and unhistorical. Even if we compel Hinduism to admit
of some immanence in history, she merely smiles and brushes aside the few
thousand years that most of humanity takes as the crucial narrative. To the
Hindu those few years are a pittance, and they too perish. While all known human
history lies within a few hundred millennia, Hinduism speaks of unspeakably vast
epochs, of earthly yugas that last millions of years, of days and nights of
Brahma that span
billions, of a universe that lives and dies and lives again. Such is India's
expansive reading of history.
Ultimately, history is contemporaneous with the present, in the form of karmas
by which all actions of the past live in the now. That is a living history, much
more precious than any dead one.