March 17 2016
It started as a radio series and is one half the way through analysing 50 of the most important figures from Indian history. Now, Professor Sunil Kulnani has published an accompanying book and we were there at a launch…
By Chitra Mogul
THE STERILE treatment of Indian history is what prompted King’s College India Institute director Sunil Khilnani to write “Incarnations: India in 50 lives”. He hoped it would lead “to a deeper, more engaged conversation about the past”.
Speaking at Asia House in Central London, the academic who is the author of “The Idea of India” (1997) said the country had historically a diverse energy – and that was especially relevant now that “it’s multiplicity of ideas has been reduced into a single religious chorus singing to one tune”, he argued.
He felt it was time to set aside some of the myths about the past and take a deeper look at the individuals that people Indian history and their effect on the present. The talk was followed by a Q&A with the audience.
“Incarnations” is based on the BBC Radio 4 programme of the same name. The first 25 biographies were broadcast last summer and the final 25 started on March 1.
He explains that the book covers poets, artists, kings and mathematicians, some little known and some misunderstood. “I see the radio programmes as a gateway drug that leads to a deeper more immersive experience which I hope the book will have.”
He said that compelling and complicated figures like Mahatma Gandhi had been converted into “cartoon figures unrecognisable as human beings. One of my aims is to demythologise history in order to humanise it,” he added at the Asia House talk last Thursday (March 10)
He said what had driven India forward historically had been the spirit of dissent.
“The rabble rousers and critics that I mention in my book take on customs in spectacular and imaginative fashion. They have contributed more to India’s current incarnation than is acknowledged.”
Swami Vivekananda, a critic of the Hindu religion and the monk who who introduced yoga and Hinduism to the west, Khilnani said, had been “turned into a mascot for the Hindu right.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has claimed to be an admirer of Vivekananda and the monk is also claimed by the right-wing RSS party that nurtured Modi’s rise.
In other words, Khilnani argues Vivekananda’s real historical and spiritual legacy was being reduced to a form of partisan politics the philosopher would have not endorsed, in all likelihood.
Another often misunderstood figure that features in his book is Gautama Buddha (5th century BCE) said Khilnani.
Buddha was a political radical who “envisaged a different polity”. After a long suppression in India, Khilnani remarked “Buddha burst back on the scene in the 20th century through the Dalit leader BR Ambedkar.”
Ambedkar converted to Buddhism due to his disillusionment with Hinduism and the caste system. “It has made the Buddha today an icon in the struggle against the caste system,” he added.
Khilnani refers to a manuscript from Mysore that dates back to before the common era and contradicts the stereotype of India as a land of purely mystical traditions.
He said the manuscript displayed thinking that made Machiavelli look like a “gentle lamb”. He was referring to Charaka or Kautilya who counselled kings in the art of disinformation. And manipulation.
Khilnani pointed out that the “dialogue, cunning and deceit” espoused by Charaka has come to be used as a guide to corporate success today.
“The Pakistan army prescribes Kautilya to trainee officers to gain insight into the devious Indian mind,” he said to appreciative laughter from the audience.
Another myth had to do with the condition of Indian women being uniformly miserable. “There is, in fact, a huge difference between the North and the South where there are high rates of literacy,” he said. He said that Periyar, the Tamil rationalist and atheist waged an intellectual war against upper caste Northerners and pressed for greater equality for women and their rights.
According to Khilnani Periyar believed women could never be emancipated by men. “Periyar said women would have to free themselves through their own personal and political action.”
Some of the most damaging stereotypes in his book refer to women. “Given the deep roots of Indian patriarchy, there are few records of women leaders,” he added. He deplored the fact that there only six women featured in the book saying he was hamstrung by lack of sources as he only featured figures whose stories are backed by archaeological evidence.
Khilnani says he was inspired by how rigid and suppressive societies could be transformed by the power of dissent.
In this context he speaks of Gandhi but asks the audience to see him with more nuance. He speaks of how Gandhi’s eccentricities were balanced by his little known brilliance as a strategist. “A guy who could have taught Steve Jobs a thing to two about branding,” he commented.
The ones who didn’t make the cut due to lack of evidence are the Cholas and its famous King Rajendra Chola as there isn’t much information on him as an individual. The 13th century queen Raziya Sultana was left out for want of documentary evidence and so was Noor Jehan from the Muslim Indian period. Mathematicians like Lilavati are people who need to be commemorated he added.
He felt India had failed to live up to her full potential. “One way in which an open society is able to understand its potential is by understanding its history.
“To enrich and deepen our conversation about the past here are 50 biographies to get the conversation started.
“Let’s make them come alive for a younger generation. There is a strong strain of rationalist though and character as seen in the life of Charaka. I would like to see more discussion about them,” added Khilnani.
In reply to an audience member he said his personal favourites from the book are Periyar, Amrita Sher-Gil and Raj Kapoor.
Asia House is a business and cultural institute which promotes business and learning between Asian countries and the UK.
Pictures on page: Courtesy Asia House
‘50 Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani (Allen Lane) Kindle £12.99/Hardcover £20.40