In a previous issue of the Journal, I came across an interesting article by Kabir Jaithirtha, titled ‘What do I Teach when I Teach a Subject?’ This essay is an attempt to carry forward that conversation by asking a similar kind of question regarding the discipline of history.
Jane Goodall, in one of her engaging books on chimpanzees, made the pertinent observation that there are various windows through which we can grasp the world. Science and religion are two such windows that immediately come to mind. In this essay, I suggest that there are other windows for us to peer through, and that a study of history may be one such window which opens up a wonderful vista on the human condition.
So why exactly do we profit from a study of the past? The answer lies in the simple fact that the past hasn’t quite vanished, but lies much closer to us than most of us imagine. Just as the theists remind us that god is closer to us than our jugular veins, the same could be said of history. None can escape its power to shape various aspects of our being. For history is, as one thinker pointed out, the driving force which lies hidden outside and inside us. To many of us, however, history seems too remote to be worth bothering about, except as a means of securing higher marks in examinations. But does a study of history have any value as an end in itself, beyond such a utilitarian purpose? Can a peep into the past provide us a key to unlocking the mysteries of the present? Can an understanding of past ages lead to that inner wisdom which is essential for a life of sanity? Can we imbibe some of the values Krishnamurti talks about through a study of history? Or, is there a necessary contradiction between focusing on the past and the wisdom of living in the moment?
In this essay I attempt to show that knowledge of the past, if it richly informs our ways of perceiving the world, is one of the best guarantees to a life of contentment. We would attain an inner state of harmony through a deeper and more holistic insight into our present condition. And in the process, we would grow in that intelligence, as Krishnamurti points out, which helps us order our lives in a sane manner. We would gain a truer insight into what is known as the ‘art of living’.
My assumption in making the above claims for history is that the distinction between the inner and the outer, if seen as contrasting and separate spheres of existence, is an illusion created by thought. The inner and the outer are two sides of the same coin, and therefore, privileging one over the other could lead us down a blind alley. The inner state of wisdom could be attained just as well through an outer journey such as that provided by a study of history. It is, therefore, possible that some of the values of Krishnamurti’s teachings may be imbibed through such an outward journey. These values would stand us in good stead not only during our student years, but throughout our lives.
“Know thyself!” This has been one of the guiding principles of sages across the ages for experiencing true freedom. But how do we attain self-knowledge and not flounder in the quagmire of self-deception? The traditional path to self-knowledge is a rather difficult inward journey, comprising practices such as mindfulness and meditation. While these inner paths clearly lead to self-knowledge for sages, they could be very hazardous for lesser mortals, for the ‘bungled and the botched’. The very subjective nature of such journeys makes the uninitiated all the more prone to the pitfalls of self-delusion. Since most of us tend to be novices in this area, we are faced with a grave danger of ending up in an enhanced state of spiritual bondage the more we attempt moving into ourselves. We could easily find ourselves being pulled deeper into the treacherous sands of self-deception with every attempt to be free of it! And there is nothing more pathetic for the human spirit than the deluded belief that it is safely en route to salvation when, in reality, it is moving in exactly the opposite direction! In such a hazardous situation, we may be wise to search for alternative paths to self-understanding which are more concrete in nature.
And here history could be of great benefit. Since we are all—to a lesser or greater extent—the products of the societies in which we happen to find ourselves, a study of the histories of these societies would be a reliable guide to self-knowledge. Such historical knowledge, being more concrete by its very nature, would greatly mitigate the perils of self- delusion for the unwary. It would give a person a genuine insight into the forces which have shaped him and are continuing to do so. It would throw a powerful beacon of light to illuminate the biases and assumptions which permeate his view of the world, and therefore his very sense of self. A study of history, by thus expanding our outer field of vision, would deepen inner awareness too.
What is more, undertaking such an historical journey would enable us to avoid confusing cultural practices with laws of nature. A study of history makes us aware that what we generally take to be ‘obvious’ or ‘natural’, is often nothing of the sort. On becoming acquainted with diverse cultures across space and time, we realize that other people have frequently held beliefs and values quite contrary to ours, without being any the worse for it. The concept of a ‘natural’ or ‘right’ way of living then becomes suspect. In the process, history aids in destroying the myth of sacrosanct ‘cultural traditions’, which have existed for all eternity, by showing up the invented nature of many such ‘traditions’. A study of history thus provides the best antidote to the virus of narrow cultural fanaticism that is fast sweeping the world today. By acquainting us with diverse e points of view, and by pointing to the recent origins of many of our ‘age-old’ traditions, history could serve as a corrective force. The growing plague of cultural fanaticism is also the result of an unwarranted certainty about the truth of one’s own customs and traditions. History functions as a powerful antidote here too. It shows us that some of the most cherished beliefs of the past have later become absurd to later generations. If this is the fate of some sacrosanct beliefs of the past, we may be persuaded to take a second look at our own cherished beliefs, and to learn to hold them lightly.
The British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, in one of his talks delivered during the 1960s, very aptly described modern culture as, “a gigantic exercise in narcissism”. He pointed out that we moderns seem to be more thoroughly enslaved by our own egos than were preceding generations. And he was speaking at a time when Facebook and other such social media were yet to put in an appearance! The situation, therefore, has only got far worse today. The way of deliverance, according to him, lay in moving out of the prison of our egos. There is nothing very novel about this—it has been propounded, almost universally, by mystics across the ages. And yet there is much value in being reminded of this pernicious prison we are busy walling ourselves in, in an age of increasing selfabsorption. The deliverance suggested by Muggeridge, is the same as that pointed to by Krishnamurti when he asks us to “function without a centre”.
However, an immediate dilemma faces us. How are we to dismantle the walls of this prison, or how do we ‘function without a centre’, when the currents of our age so powerfully pull us in the opposite direction? What if the ‘centre’ is as treacherous as quicksand, pulling us deeper into it, the more we struggle to be free of it? Telling someone to be free of this centre, to swim against the tide, without showing him a way of going about it, may not serve much of a purpose. It could easily lead to disillusionment and to the softer option of peddling selflessness without actually practicing it. The preaching then turns out to be a convenient mask for indulging the exact opposite. We then end up even more spiritually depraved than before, with the added sin of hypocrisy! We will find ourselves in the unfortunate situation of the Pharisees about whom a wise sage once remarked, “Ye outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” Or else, the very act of preaching gives us such a good feeling, that we end up deluding ourselves into believing that we are the embodiment of these sublime teachings. We become infected with the virus of self-deception to a far greater extent than those who are less burdened by such lofty ideals.
This is where history comes to our rescue again. The essence of history lies in an awareness of the endless march of humanity across space and time. By revealing to the individual this unending procession of humans through the ages, history makes him aware of his very transient and insignificant place in it. Just as science, by opening up the vastness of the universe to our view, provides us with a truer perspective of our place in it, so too does history broaden our outlook by directing our gaze to the larger picture. It shifts our focus away from an endless obsession with ourselves, towards the broader horizons that lie well beyond the individual. By pointing to the rather insignificant space occupied in this larger scheme by the individual self, history could puncture the individual ego, with all the benefits that come out of this. The individual then learns to take himself a little less seriously, perhaps with even a touch of humour! To the extent that the individual’s sense of self-importance gets deflated, the prison walls of his ego weaken and will come tumbling down. The individual gains a tremendous sense of liberation, and the world becomes a better place for everyone else.
The spiritual crisis sweeping the twenty-first century seems to be one of identity. Professor Huntington tells us that the issue of cultural identity is coming to take centre stage in the twentyfirst century. In modern parlance, an ‘identity crisis’ seems to be threatening the human race today. The path to salvation is believed to lie in the sculpting of a strong personal or group identity. In order to achieve this, one stream of popular thought inculcates in people a strong belief in the unique ‘essence’ of their cultural traditions. These ‘essences’ are believed to make people of diverse cultural traditions almost as different from one another as are distinct species. People are being persuaded to search for their cultural ‘roots’, so that their turbulent souls may find a place of rest. Many, therefore, are busy searching for their ethnic roots by putting their ancestors through a rigorous examination. In the recent American presidential campaign, for example, the question of whether a candidate is an ‘American-American’, ‘Indian-American, or ‘Mexican-American’, was considered a matter of cosmic significance. The rumblings of such identity politics—from the college campuses to the national stage—is threatening to turn into an avalanche of epic proportions, burying us all under its madness.
However, all this obsession with identities clearly violates the wisdom of the sages. As the Bible warns us, “Wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction.” The sages have consistently pointed to the dangers lurking in the seductive appeal of identities, and none more so than Krishnamurti. He has repeatedly alerted us to the fact that individual and group identities create more problems than they attempt to solve. The terrible violence of the twentieth century, arising largely out of the moulding of various kinds of group identities, seems to bear him out. What is overlooked in this obsession with cultural ‘essences’, is the common humanity that we all share. The oneness of humanity, pointed out by Krishnamurti and other seers, is lost sight of in this frantic search for ethnic roots. We can perceive the disastrous effects of such oversight in the waves of barbaric violence surging across the world in recent times.
The problem lies in the inherently seductive nature of identities. They provide us a false sense of security in an increasingly uncertain world. It is, therefore, very difficult to even become aware of the hazards that lie hidden in them. History teaches us that identities, whether ethnic, racial or religious, are no more than human constructs. There is nothing sacrosanct about them. A study of history makes us aware that the search for our roots inevitably carries us all the way back to our common origins as homo sapiens in Africa. Any other root is bogus and implies an arbitrary halt at some point in our search. A glimpse into history, therefore, prevents us from treading that path to hell which is paved with the debris of dubious identities.
Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, once remarked that the greatest threat facing modern man is the madness generated by the intoxication of power. As he best put it, “All men would like to be God if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility”! Unfortunately, the ‘few’ referred to by Russell don’t seem to be under any threat of extinction. Muggeridge was also pointing to this impulse to power, when he remarked, “How foolish and inept is man when he sees himself in the likeness of God”. From Hitler to Mao, from Idi Amin to Stalin, one can see the disastrous consequences of such megalomania. Once again, a study of history is of help in deflating such a tendency to pride. History is replete with examples of men who have attempted to play God by shaping their fellow humans into distinctive moulds. They built magnificent palaces and cities to display their power. But, as a recent writer aptly points out, “Intended to be monuments to their owners’ everlasting potency, they serve mainly as their tombstones!” A peep into these ruined cities and palaces that once housed such men, a glance at the pathetic remains of all the Caesars who once strutted the world’s stage, compels in us an awareness of the transient and fleeting nature of all worldly pomp and power. The truth of the words of Jesus Christ who lived two thousand years ago then strikes us with the force of a revelation, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. Along with the poet, we then pause to ponder:
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast
A flash of the lightning, a break of
He passes from life to his rest in
the grave. …
Extracted from the poem ‘Mortality’ by William Knox
If a study of history can induce such humility in us, it would have served its purpose in full measure.