Usually, I would not show contempt for anybody’s intellectual views but when an intellectual dismisses the views of others as “bullshit” without reasonable argument and himself spouts rubbish with impunity then it is fair to call him out on his “bullshit”. S. N. Balagangadhara (Balu), whose work I have followed for some years now, may appear as a profound thinker because of the arcane manner in which he presents his subject but once you clear the obfuscation, then all you are left with is airy nothing. “Itihasa, Devas and Happiness” is another exercise in bafflement.
What I have presented here is a criticism of this lecture. I cannot, of course, capture the patronising, sneering, condescending, tone of the enlightened Indian tasked with the edification of a pack of Westerners by imparting to them the ineffable wisdom of the East; or the supreme over-confidence of a man who wants to impress upon his audience that what he says is right simply because he says so, to wow them with a beauty of knowledge they have never imagined before, but yet wants to provide the semblance of being open to question and criticism. For that amusement, please watch the video.
The first part of the session consists of a summary dismissal of the discipline of history as fruitless or invalid knowledge. In Balu’s view, history is nothing but a calendar of past events and ‘what connects them is any “bullshit” you want to suck out of your thumb’. I did not keep count of the number of times Balu has thrown around that expletive but it is in his view the essence of history itself. As he puts it: ‘Bullshit sold as science is history’. Quentin Skinner, famous historian of early modern history and doyen of Cambridge University, is an ‘idiot’. The historians offer psychological, economic or sociological explanations for events but provide no ‘historical’ explanation and it is not clear what would constitute one. Some philosophers of history have written on it but it is basically ‘bullshit’. History is not a science because there is no theory, no regularity, no testing of hypothesis, etc. History is not even a narrative because narratives have a structure, a flow, etc.
Furthermore, Balu declares that such a view is not his own but maintained by the historians themselves. He keeps repeating that point but it doesn’t make any sense. He is merely exploiting their regret that ‘the purpose of history is to enable people to learn from the past but history repeatedly shows us that nobody learns from it’ to foist upon them a confession about the futility of their art. Balu’s point is that history fails in this task because it cannot provide any explanation for the past that would be of value to improve the present or the future. Yet, Balu does not deny that people cannot learn from the past about the mistakes that have been committed and why; but he affirms that history does not provide such knowledge to us.
This is an unnecessarily sweeping and excessive condemnation of history. It is evidently the product of extreme prejudice rather than any genuine concern for the limitations of history. We cannot deny the value of ascertaining the facts of what has occurred even if it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide a coherent explanation about why they occurred. For any group of people, even an understanding of what happened in their own past and in the past of other groups, which the study of history reveals, is of strategic importance even if the “why” of those occurrences will remain forever in the realm of doubt. It is true that historians may try to seek an underlying telos or recurrent patterns in history and such knowledge may not be forthcoming. Such limitations of the discipline are undeniable but it does not render the study of history itself as usless.
Let us consider the objections Balu has raised against the discipline of history:
(1) Historians are unable to offer “historical” explanations for events. But what makes a certain explanation “historical”? This Balu does not explain but even if we admit that the explanations provided by historians are related to other disciplines, this does not diminish their importance. For example, the victory of king A against king B could have occurred because his army: had the advantage of a river (geographical), was well-paid (economic), was united by kinship ties (sociological), was in high spirits (psychological) etc. Do these explanations not matter because they are not “historical”? Should we not study about past events at all because there are no “historical” explanations? I don’t think Balu is suggesting that we should not study the past in this way. He is simply quibbling that such a study does not deliver on the promise made by “history”.
(2) History cannot help us improve our present or our future because historians themselves admit that people do not learn from history. I may add to this the cliche, those who do not study history repeat its errors and those who do, find new ways to err. But these are merely rhetorical statements and hardly constitute a logical argument against history. Didn’t Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata, cry out in despair that in spite of his efforts people did not follow dharma? Should the composition of itihasas have stopped on that account?
For these reasons as well as from the abusive and dismissive language used, it is clear that Balu is not really interested in any serious dispute regarding the problem of historiography. He is simply using it as a foil to assert the importance of itihasa. Both, he implicitly suggests, have the same role to play in the world i.e. of teaching the past in a way that helps people attain happiness in the present. The whole point of the lecture is that itihasa succeeds in this objective and history fails. There is no genuine interest to explore the problems concerning the study of history. It is bullshit. Case closed.
In the second half of the session, where Balu turns to explain itihasa, the language changes dramatically. The step-motherly attitude shown to history now changes to one of tenderness and deep reverence. There is a sense of us vs. them which runs through this whole narrative, “our” itihasas vs. “their” histories but, in my view, even if Western scholars treated, and may still do treat itihasa with contempt, it would not be proper to show the same disdain towards history. This is not about fairness or forgiveness but of practicality. Do we want a scientific study of our past or not, to establish as objectively as possible what really happened in the past? If that is the case, then there is no point in us disparaging “their” history even if they disparage “our” itihasas.
The section on itihasa is fuzzy and hilarious, wrapped in a facade of great profundity. As mentioned above, according to Balu:
Itihasa is a study of the past that can help us live better today and tomorrow, talk about the past in terms of things we recognise in ourselves today, what mistakes were committed in the past and how we can avoid today the miseries and pain that resulted from them. Can we become better by thinking about the past?
These are the goals which history vainly seeks but on which itihasa delivers. How? Balu says that while it is commonsensical to attribute an important value to time in statements such as ‘time heals’, ‘time teaches’, and so on, history reduces time to a calendar. Even a banana ripens over time. Of course, Balu does not deny the role of biological processes but without time it would not ripen. Indians took the role of time seriously as kala, in terms such as kalaguna, kaladharma, etc. and studied it “scientifically”.
In my view, one need not doubt that Indians took time seriously and studied it “scientifically” but what sense does it make to connect this fact with the rhetorical expressions of time healing and teaching? This is simply a recognition that our lives are shaped by powers beyond our control and volition. By attributing such agency to time, we are only admitting our own ignorance about them. In the same way, fire burning under a pot will take certain time to boil the water inside it. If you extinguish the fire before that, the water will not boil. But what sense does it make to ask about the role of time over and above that of the fire in getting the water to boil and what would it mean to study it?
Balu does not ask such logical questions that follow from his statements but I think this is what he means also by his reference to a “historical” explanation. When he says that historians do not give us “historical” explanations, what he means is that they do not explain the role that time plays in the shaping of events. But what exactly would such a study involve? Only Balu who has probably understood what the Indians did in this matter can tell us.
‘Para’ and ‘iha’
When Balu has finished speaking about the role of time, someone asks him about the sense in which the Ramayana is an itihasa, and that becomes a prompt to go down another garden path. Balu says that jnana-marga is the root of enlightenment or of finding ananda i.e. happiness. This is the most abstruse, the most sophisticated, the highest knowledge and itihasa was the way to transmit it so that it could become part of the daily life of the most illiterate peasant.
For the Indians, Balu tells us, the world and all that exists within it, in the past, present and future, is ‘iha’ but there is ‘para’ which is different from it but not its opposite. As he reiterates this point for a while, someone asks the inevitable question: what is ‘para’? Balu fumbles and has this to say in lieu of an answer:
Keep it aside at the moment, I will bring it but keep it a little bit vague, a very deep philosophical conception … ‘para’ is that what is parabrahma, paramatma, paramananda … its all to do with ‘para’ … Philosophically we can define para … develop a theory about it, which Indians have.
Of course, none of this information is actually forthcoming. Suffice it to say that there is this ‘para’ and it is necessary to experience it for happiness but this experience can only be had in ‘iha’ for nothing exists outside it. However, ‘para’ is not an object in ‘iha’ and so the purpose of itihasa, then, is to give people access to ‘para’ within ‘iha’. How is this possible?
The grotesqueness of the devas
Balu explains that the ‘para’, though not existing in ‘iha’, becomes accessible in ‘iha’ through the “images” of gods. Another thread opens up at this point by means of a reference to the Western criticism of the grotesqueness of Indians devas and the stupidity of ‘educated’ Indians who claim that it reflects their aesthetic standards. Yet no Indian, Balu argues, would want their children to look like Ganesh or Kali. These figures are recognisable and close to human. They are accessible but they cannot exist in the world. Balu refers in particular to the idea of the omnipresent brahman i.e. ‘para’, appearing as the biologically impossible creature Nara-simha, half-man and half-lion.
But these grotesque devas are not images of gods, he elucidates, and people are idiots to think that Indians do image-worship or idolatory. As it turns out, this was the most efficient way in which ‘para’ was retained in ‘iha’ without losing the sophistication of the concept. Balu concludes on a pensive note:
Those are our gods, people. That is what itihasa has done – teach physics, the most sophisticated physics, without diluting it, without popularising it, to the most illiterate.
Questions & Issues
Thus concludes the discourse on itihasa which leaves one utterly baffled by its unexplained concepts and disconnected parts. In one sense, all of this is only a sophisticated way of articulating the commonplace wisdom that all modern Hindus know – that their devas are symbols through which they access the divine. Whether this is the case or whether the Hindus traditionally connected specifically with the devas who, in their personal capacities were believed to intervene in their lives, is another topic of discussion.
There are other issues no less pressing. Do their devas really appear grotesque to the Indians? The argument that Indians do not wish their children to conform to the appearances of certain devas is spurious. Aesthetics is a complex matter and depends on the genre. The aesthetics of Kali are associated with her ferocity and destructive power. Even with an elephant head, pot-belly and four arms, Ganesha is cute and lovable. Yes, Indians would not wish their children to look like them but that does not mean they find these images grotesque.
Furthermore, not all the devas are grotesque even in the simplistic sense. The dasavatara series goes from animals, to part-human to fully human. Of these only Narasimha is grotesque in this sense. No one, for example, would think of Rama as grotesque and most Hindus would want their sons to be like Rama. The dark-blue colour attributed to most gods is not supposed to be grotesque but associated with the srngara rasa.
Moving on to the most ‘sophisticated physics’, the meaning of ‘para’ and its relation to ‘iha’ remains unexplained. If ‘iha’ is all that exists, then what possibly can be ‘para’? Perhaps a state beyond existence and non-existence but if so how can it be regarded as scientific in the ordinary sense of the word?
Furthermore, even if we concede that these devas are a way of retaining ‘para’ within ‘iha’ for the happiness of the people, what has any of this got to do with the idea of itihasa? In what sense is the retention of ‘para’ within ‘iha’ a matter of the past which is the subject of itihasa? Very conveniently, itihasa is spared of the questions asked about history. Just as one wonders what is “historical” about the explanation of events found in history, one could well ask what is “aitihasika” about the retention of ‘para’ within ‘iha’? If history cannot be considered as science because it is lacking in testable hypotheses, then what are the testable hypotheses with regards to itihasa? If it is the role of time, then how does time do its work over and above the processes that operate within its frame?
Finally, itihasa is not just about devas but forms a vast repository of information that discuss a range of issues, much of which has to do with worldly conduct. Perhaps it is best to regard them as encyclopedias of past knowledges on a great variety of subjects.
While Balu has been accusing the Western historians of bullshitting, it is quite evident that it is his own lecture that is full of bullshit. Many Indians may not take kindly to this assessment because they may see in Balu’s work an attempt to make ancient Indian thought meaningful in the contemporary world, especially in the Western academy. They genuinely believe that the knowledges which the West has accummulated are impotent in shaping the world for the good and that ancient Indian knowledges have a fruitful role to play in this regard, only if they are understood correctly. They may read Balu’s work as a step in this direction but that is false optimism.
There is nothing we are told here that, in essence, we have not already heard before, namely, that ancient Indians had achieved the highest knowledge and it was not bullshit, as some Westerners and now even some Indians believe, but the most scientific, the most sophisticated physics, while it is Western knowledge which parades itself as fruitful but is in reality bullshit. Yet, when the modern Indian guru is asked to explain in plain words the content of this highest knowledge, all we get is hand-waving.
This lecture does not explain ‘para’ and what it means to access it in ‘iha’ and what it has to do with happiness in the world and why it has to take the form of grotesque gods and why such knowledge should be considered itihasa? This is not a complaint as an attempt to do so would have imposed upon us even more arcane rubbish but the problem would not be its obtuseness but that it would be bring us no closer to understanding Indian thought than what has been done in this bullshit of a lecture.