Look At Context First, Judge Historical Or Mythological Characters Later

Posted by Zulfikar Manto in Society
December 6, 2016

Today, we are going through a phase where we are constantly tempted to give history and mythology a second look. Both the political left and right have given their judgments on various characters, real and otherwise and have acted accordingly. We have (almost) unanimously decided that Aurangzeb was a tyrant king and has been compared to Hitler in Germany, and thus, we have done away with the name ‘Aurangzeb Marg’.

Also, a certain section of the population believes that Guru Dronacharya was a casteist bigot who’s not worthy of being immortalised in Gurgaon’s new name. After years of being ignored, Sardar Patel is back in the ‘Hall of the Elite’ as his colossal statue is being constructed. Different people have different views, and these views change with time, even as the facts connected with those individuals remain unchanged. The Sangh supported BJP would have decried all of Gandhi’s ideologies a couple of years ago, but have now dedicated the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ to the same, ‘Father of the Nation’.

I know I am talking about historical and mythological references together, but in this context, there’s hardly a difference between the two. Both refer to stories of people and events set in a different era, often at a different place, whose narratives differ from source to source. Both, however, give us deep insights into the way human societies function, be it the history that we were taught in school, or the mythological stories narrated to us, in our homes.

These stories are narratives of the past that tell us the results of actions taken and helps us understand the world better. By critically analysing a sequence of events either from history or mythology, we can know what caused what, and ideally, plan our actions better. It is in this context that understanding history and mythology is important, as narratives differ from one another, reading between the lines becomes essential. description of a king by a poet in his court is expected to be significantly different from those written by others. As we discover more sources and understand the context better, we get an opportunity to re-evaluate our perceptions of different people and events.

The temptation that we, however, must avoid when we re-evaluate history is that we don’t evaluate these against or compare them with modern benchmarks. It is important to keep the context in mind when we’re re-evaluate a certain narrative.

Calling Aurangzeb a tyrant because he wasn’t secular, as we understand ‘secularism’ today, would be unfair as the whole idea of secularism is fairly new. A lot of the Sultanate and many Mughal kings saw themselves as reformers and tried to impose their idea of morality on their subjects. For a lot of Hindu kings, this meant a ban on gambling, and in the case of Aurangzeb, it meant a ban on idol worship.

Morality has different meanings across time and space and thus, it would be unfair to call Aurangzeb’s religious intolerance as immoral.

As far as execution of the Sikh Guru is concerned, it must be seen from the perspective of power rather than religion. Kings and other powerful people have always been insecure about their position of power and have tried to eliminate those who could question it (Indra from Hindu mythology was no different). The differences between the Sufi saint Nizamuddin and Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq are well-known despite both of them being Muslims. Also, if Aurangzeb was a tyrant, who wasn’t, by that definition?

Shah Jahan who is celebrated as a romantic and tolerant king was also someone who spent loads of public money on palaces and gardens that common people had no access to. Aurangzeb, although a harsher dictator, was a much better administrator. By quoting such examples, my objective is not to justify Aurangzeb’s tyranny, but only to suggest that one must not compare the aristocracy of the 18th century with today’s democratic setup.

The same goes for almost all historical figures. Gandhi got married at a very young age because child marriage was a norm back then. Dronacharya’s classist actions were in line with what was expected from a teacher in the royal family. The revolt of 1857 might have been the ‘First War of Independence’, according to new history textbooks but a lot of parties back then had participated in the rebellion for their own political and financial reasons.

The idea of India as a landmass containing 29 states is a post-1947 construct and thus it would be wrong, to term as traitors, the kings and kingdoms who sided with the British at the time of the revolt.

As we rewrite narratives, it is important to pay heed to the temporal and spatial context and re-evaluate events based on those factors and not judge them on the scales of what constitutes our morality now.


Image source: Asian Curator at The San Diego Musuem Of Art/Flickr