Inside the gallery was a display of plastic placards decorated with calendar art and tele-serial imaginings of the Mahabharata, coupled with crude info graphics informing us that by correlating references to the planets and stars in the Sanskrit epics with astronomy software, the historicity of Lord Ram, and the narratives of the Ramayana and Mahabharata had now been firmly established. To wit: the “fall of Duryodhan in mace bettle” occurred at 06:50 on November 14, 3139 BC. Ram himself was born on January 10, 5014 BC. “Around 12 to 1 noontime.” And so on…
For such a low tech installation (the “robotics”, I was informed, was a “figurative term”) the exhibition had startling ambitions. An accompanying publication from the organisers, I-SERVE or Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas, claimed to “provide a solid foundation to the new idea of rewriting the history of the world on purely scientific basis”.
Sadly, such risible displays of kitsch pseudoscience are hardly remarkable anymore. From the exhibition’s endorsement by the Ministry of Culture to the appointment of a dull obscurantist as the head of the Indian Council for Historical Research, to the prime minister’s famous pronouncements on Ganesha and Karna as evidence of ancient Indian plastic surgery and genetic science, to the defence minister’s recent remarks encouraging the Defence Research and Development Organisation to “take lessons from the sages”, it seems that when it comes to the history of India, Amar Chitra Katha is the new normal. Not a day goes by now without further reports of the march of Vedic science.
Marching into the past: Yesterday it was a Delhi University seminar determined to establish the 7,000-year old vintage of the Vedas (i.e. some 2,500 years older than the epic of Gilgamesh), today the news that the ravings of Dina Nath Batra, who peddles tales of Vedic motorcars and other ancient Indian inventions such as the television, will be required reading for schoolchildren in Haryana.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Prime Minister Modi is flying through the air with the greatest of ease in that pushpak vimana, otherwise known as Air India One – a 19-year-old Boeing 747-437 – to talk about India’s digital future with Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and other rishis of our age.
It would be reassuring to see these opposing trajectories as a sign of balance, between modernity and tradition, the past and future, or cultural fantasy and technological ambition. Or, more plausibly, between rhetoric and action. In other words, that Modi is all about the economy, infrastructure and governance and that the other stuff is just diversionary political window dressing. That perhaps it doesn’t really matter if cultural institutions like the Lalit Kala and the ICHR descend into mythomania. After all, they were probably broken anyway.
Does it really matter?: So what if a few moribund cul-de-sacs of Bharat sarkar are handed over to inconsequential and superannuated Hindutva loyalists? Hasn’t every administration rewarded sycophants with sinecures? You might even see some redistributive justice in the government’s determination to épater the haut-bourgeois academic establishment of Lutyens' Delhi by sharing the spoils of its election victory with its own obscure intellectuals. Reading an interview with the new ICHR chief, Y Sudershan Rao, in the RSS mouthpiece Organiser, it’s hard not to be struck by the pathos of his self-deprecation:
But Professor Rao, to his credit, does seem to be a committed digital Indian. He maintains an active blog on which he shares such interviews, his CV (former professor in the department of History and Tourism Management, Kakatiya University), and several papers replete with references to the ancients and seers.
“Bharat Varsha is endowed with voluminous record of history…not only of its people and their culture but the history of entire creation and its secrets,” he tells us in one such, dealing with “Problems of Chronology – Date of Mahabharata War”. Since becoming ICHR chairman, he has also helpfully maintained an online diary littered with fulsome thanks and praises to Narendra Bhai Modi ji, glimpses of his busy schedule attending seminars (such as a “national workshop of the Mythic Society in connection with their project on ‘Re-Writing History of our Nation’”), occasional gestures of handwringing at the “onerous” responsibilities facing him, and earnest exhortations to do our duty to “the great lovers of our nation” (sadly, not Vatsyayana but Deen Dayal Upadhayay).
From its passing references to our certain knowledge of extra-terrestrial life (because “our ancient Indian historical tradition says”) to the Pavlovian grovelling of a well-trained bureaucrat (“the Chairperson thanked the government for taking up such a pious project”), Rao’s diary recalls the weirdness and banality of an apparatchik’s Newspeak in Stalinist Russia. Or Emergency-era India. To paraphrase a famous seer, tragic history is being rewritten as farce.
Some caution: But just how funny is that? Watching a televised interview with three of Prime Minister Modi’s more polished advisors heralding his journey to California, I was intrigued to see the plummy Jagdish Bhagwati strike a note of caution. “On social issues, people associated with the BJP like [Mohan] Bhagwat are going back to a version of Hindutva which is really a virulent disease,” he said. “That needs to be stopped.” But having just spent an hour with the prime minister, the Columbia professor was confident that Modi would not be hampered by “this strain from which he actually came – and we did discuss his origins – he told me this is where he grew up. The RSS.”
By the end of that interview Bhagwati was all giggling reassurance – certain that the prime minister was, above all, committed to a transformative vision of economic reform. It’s not hard to understand that eminent economists feel less threatened by the “cultural” penumbra of Hindutva than their colleagues in history departments.
Personally, I think it’s unlikely that the nation’s economic institutions, from the Reserve Bank of India to the Institute of Economic Growth will suffer the indignities of the ICHR. It’s also hard to imagine that science and medicine will face a Vedic Lysenko - despite the new Aayush ministry and a few laboratories torturing dogs with cow urine, there are just too many politicians in dire need of bariatric surgery. Even the eminent historians will probably endure; they will just come from private schools and foreign universities – as they always have.
The upshot: So is the BJP’s assault on culture a victimless crime – or a trivial one – after all? Back at the Rig Veda to Robotics exhibition as I watched busloads of fresh-faced school children from the Saraswati Shishu Mandir being squired around the shoddy placards I had my doubts. Not that I imagine many of them would be persuaded to pursue actual careers in history or archaeology. The exhibition itself had been conceived by a moonlighting enthusiast from the Revenue Service. And yet, watching a new generation subjected to this relentless discourse of “pride” and “glory” rooted in imagined shame I could only feel despair. Perhaps those kids would go home and visit the I-SERVE website as all little digital Indians should. They’ll see genuine pictures of the children’s president, the late APJ Abdul Kalam, inaugurating a seminar of the Institute for Scientific Research on Vedas. And also a prominent link to Stephen Hawking’s endorsement of “books authored by Dr Sivaramababu (organising secretary I-SERVE)” acknowledging that “Vedas might have theory superior to Einstein’s law E=MC2.” It’s a hoax of course, sourced from a pranked Facebook page.
But who cares? They’re only children. It’s only about history. And Hinduism. The sad thing is that it’s really not a joke. On all the available evidence, from the mouths of our ministers to the proliferating swarm of “Internet Hindu” trolls the fantastical charlatanry of Hindutva “history” is central to the new National Project. Rather than a contradiction or a balance, Digital India and the new Vedic Science is to take their authors at their word, a “cultural continuum”. It’s frightening.
Because I’m as frightened as the next guy, allow me an exculpatory aside: Believe it or not, I think the Vedas are a wonder. I’ve loved the Ramayana and the Mahabharata since I was a child having my first experience of theatre, of notions of love and war and passion, of good and evil, of life and death, in the Ramlilas and Krishnalilas of Delhi. And I’m happy to acknowledge I am of "Hindu ancestry", (about 30%, I had a DNA test). So why am I frightened? Maybe it’s because I spend too much time in digital India. Of course I know there’s really nothing Vedic about the Internet. Except for the strain that Jagdish Bhagwati called a “virulent disease”. In other words, a virus. It’s something the sages of Silicon Valley might want to think twice about uploading.