The Case for Humanities

Philosophers right from Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Ibn Khaldun and till date Francis Fukyama all defined the way the present states exist. They were all intellectuals of the highest level and, somehow or the other, were the results, or the subjects, of Humanities. One of the very dynamic subjects under this list is History. The so termed ‘boring subject’ offers thousands of unsolved mysteries and baffles the mind with its various interpretations, writes TALHA CHOWDHURY.



With the number of doctors and engineers increasing in lakhs every year, it would not be wrong to call another pass out from these courses as “Another one bites the dust.” Every third educated person you meet is an engineer, running around for a job. Streets are lined with doctors, who are still trying to get foothold even after years of sweating it out. While this chaos reigns, students yet to finish their graduation watch in confusion as to what lies in fate for them. Are the terminologies such as guarantee of job, promotion and development reserved only for the students of science and technology? A thundering “NO” is the answer much to most students’ disappointment. What our country now desperately needs are brilliant minds in the ever glowing field of Humanities.

Philosophers’ right from Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Ibn Khaldun and till date Francis Fukyama all defined the way the present states exist. They were all intellectuals of the highest level and somehow or the other were the results or the subjects of Humanities. A humanity (also called ‘Arts’) is a very vast field, which has subjects such as Sociology, Political Science and Philosophy as a few of the very basic examples. One of the very dynamic subjects under this list is History. The so termed ‘boring subject’ offers thousands of unsolved mysteries and baffles the mind with its various interpretations.

History is all about interpreting the past. All the archaeological findings never speak for themselves. The Historian makes them speak. It all depends on the time it is being composed, the political and social conditions of the period when history is being written. Many of us are well aware of the fact that as soon as any new government comes to power, the first thing it does – changing of history textbooks. Why so? A whole future generation is moulded by the past, it is thought. A mere history textbook has the power to ignite communal riots, to butcher thousands of people and even to bring down a government. How can the torch bearers of this country (the youth) actually ignore such a subject. Who is to answer questions raised by films as the Da Vinci Code? Anyone who holds so much proficiency to fulfill queries with the religious and non-religious outlooks in mind? The following few paragraphs deal with just the precise information on Indian historiography as to give a brief insight into the various interpretations and the role they play.

Colonial History

Starting from the eighteenth century Indian history was subjected to praise and criticism for the first time from a foreign power. After well establishing there political suzerainty in India, the British started looking around. They began to slowly get to the depth of the Indian past, the traditions and social customs. For this would help them govern better. The historians who set out on this path were all Europeans. They subsequently came to be known as the “Orientalists”. They projected the eastern civilization as no lesser than that of the western world. The major credit for doing this job goes to Frederick Max Mueller. He was a German, who though never visited India even once has translated all major Sanskrit texts into European languages. His most famous book “The Sacred Books of the East” is an absolute masterpiece. The British officials working in India tried there hand at writing history. The notable contributions came from James Mill, V.A. Smith, C.F Andrews and V. Chirol. The British worked with the motive of bringing down the morale of Indian masses. All that they wanted to prove was that Indians were not fit to govern themselves and hat they needed the assistance of a foreign power.

James Mill, in his book, “The History of British India,” gave a very crude classification of the Indian past. He divided the Indian history into Hindu period, Muslim period and British India. The era up to the coming of the Arabs was termed as the Hindu period. Starting from here till the advent of British lasted the Muslim period. Last came the British period. This was an extremely crude classification and it overlooked all other social factors. This was formulated with the prime motive of dividing the Indian masses. Thus the seeds of communal prejudice was sown which grew into an out of proportion controversy and took thousands of lives in the name of religion. Indian history was projected as a metaphysical world with a static past. The land of sages and magic had no notions of governance ion them. There scheme was successful and the morale of the masses was considerably reduced as people started believing what they were told. These concepts on Indian history are termed as ‘Colonial History’.

Nationalist Reaction

When the Indian intelligentsia saw this they were shell-shocked. They woke up to the fact that the British were distorting the Indian history and projecting it in a negative sense. So, from now on the Nationalist historians took to glorifying the Indian past and to present it as one of the best in the world. They started praising the ancient Hindu culture unabashedly ignoring all the flaws. They emphasized on political and dynastic history. According to them this era was a landmark in the history of the world and is considered as the “Golden Age.”

The Vedic Age was picturized as that of ultimate prosperity. Though they succeeded in piping up the people, their generalizations have appeared to be self contradictory. For example, the myth of the ‘Golden Age’ is busted when one looks at the plight of the women and people of the lower caste. Manusmriti, considered to be one of the mot famous law books of Ancient India, shows extreme form of discrimination against the untouchables (known as Shudras). According to him the Vedas are so pure that they cannot be heard by a Shudra. If one is caught hearing them, molten lead needs to be put into his ears as a punishment. The inhuman practice of Sati wherein a widow burns herself on her husband’s pyre came into force during the period referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ by many scholars. Also the projection of ancient India as a super power contradicting to the Mughal period gave rise to communal tensions. The chief advocates of this theory are V.D. Savarkar, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Vivekananda to mention a few. Though with its flaws these theories at least gave a new interpretation and also helped in boosting the people’s confidence.

Marxist View Point

As the nationalist history reached its peak another set of theories had begun a journey of its own. This is called Marxist historiography. Marxist history is generally teleological, in that it posits a direction of history, towards an end state of history as classless human society. Marxist historiography, that is, the writing of Marxist history in line with the given historiographical principles, is generally seen as a tool. Its aim is to bring those oppressed by history to self-consciousness, and to arm them with tactics and strategies from history: it is both a historical and a liberatory project.

Historians who use Marxist methodology, but disagree with the mainstream of Marxism, often describe themselves as marxist historians (with a lowercase M). Methods from Marxist historiography, such as class-analysis, can be divorced from the liberatory intent of Marxist historiography; such practitioners often refer to their work as marxian or Marxian. In this, there was application of Karl Marx’s teachings of socialism. It was stated by S.A. Dange and B.N. Dutta. Both were amateur historians and had no academic qualifications to back them. Their application of Marxism on Indian history was very crude. They presented the past keeping in mind the needs of the society. In the post-Independence era these theories became the leading ones. The major propagators of this view are Romila Thapar, D. N. Jha, D. D. Kosambi and Irfan Habib. These historians did not fully accept Marx’s teaching. They refuted many of his theories. It was argued that means of production is the key to understanding of social and economic issues. This theory threw considerable light on the variables in the Indian society that distinguish it from other societies.

Even these theories are subjected to criticism. There is no mention of the role of the people who had no major role in the formulation of economies. Such people were from the lower strata of the society and the women. Both have been discriminated from a long time and their history remains very vague.

In Support of Women

One main concern raised regarding every interpretation of Indian history is the ignoring of women’s role in it. All the literary sources were passed down by the upper class, male chauvinistic section. Therefore, it is but obvious that all information derived from these sources had only glimpses of the life and dignity of women. From the start the birth of a female child was considered as a curse. The parents were glad to get rid of her by the institution of marriage. The concept of ‘Kanyadaan’ (gift of women) took rigidity and it also implied complete control over women’s sexuality and pro-creative activities. There was open exploitation of slave women by the men of higher castes. Thus all these harrowing factors compelled historians to look at the past in “Gender Perspective”. It is rightly said that the history visualized in gender view point is the “Index of Civilization”.

Deterministic Thought

All these theories in there place, but has anyone thought about the role nature has played in the shaping of all great civilizations. Would the pyramids have existed if Egypt would not have been a desert? How did the Harappan civilization prosper in the extremely arid climatic conditions of northwestern India? How did man hit upon the idea of producing food for himself? All these questions can get a satisfactory answer only if the intrinsic relation between History and Geography are studied in depth. These historians spoke about the very imposing role of nature and are called the Determinists. This is one of the lenses used to look at the past from a completely different view point. Due to huge amount of accumulation of data from various fields such as paleontology, archaeology and disciplines of science, Indian history has been flooded with a myriad of theories. This is also a remainder that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Countless ideas, theories, views are all waiting to burst out only with a little effort from our side.

Light at the ‘End of the Tunnel’

This brief introduction is just to open the gateway which leads into a vast quarry of knowledge. It is high time we all started taking such subjects as important factors for the country’s development. The main advantages of the Humanities subjects are that they are free from boundaries. They are lacking with boundaries restricting thought. A person is free to let in the wildest ideas to come to his mind. As long as his ideas do not hurt sentiments of other people a person can freely fly into the intellectual world. Before stepping into such adventurous fields we need to keep in mind that here the spiritual development is of prime importance.

All thoughts good or bad stem from one’s soul. If we want to work for the betterment of the society, it is important that we start by cleaning ourselves first. Light a flame in yourselves and try to pass it on to others. Then watch the light envelope the darkness all around.


[The author is an under-graduate student at the Hindu College, New Delhi. He can be reached at]