A Lesson in History

Let me start by drawing the boundaries once again. I’m not a Historian. I don’t even claim to have an extensive knowledge of History. However, I can safely call myself a History enthusiast. Reading about the past gives me a lot of pleasure and an understanding of who we are and how we got into the circumstances that we find ourselves in today.  While I like History in general, what I particularly enjoy reading are ancient and medieval Indian history, the Indian epics such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, ancient Hellenistic history, and various views on religion and spirituality. I also love discussing the above mentioned topics with friends and family.

Buddhist Monks

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to discuss Indian history with a historian. Among other things, we talked about Buddhism and its influence on Asia in general and India in particular. I have always been curious about the decline and almost complete disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth. I find it difficult to fathom that this inclusive and inherently democratic faith fell out of favor with the Indian populance. So, I asked my historian friend, if Buddhism was ‘stamped out’ of India.

The response that I received was laconic, yet quite insightful. My friend pointed out that there were two assumptions in my question:

1. That Buddhism was ‘stamped out’ of India and did not die a natural death, and,

2. That someone / some group ‘stamped out’ Buddhism with the intent of ‘stamping it out’

The problem with the first assumption is that it cannot be said with certainty that Buddhism did not decline and disappear from India on its own. There could be various reasons for the decline, including, lack of royal patronage, a dearth of good teachers, lack of connect between the monks and the masses etc.

The problem with the second assumption, that some group worked against Buddhism with the intent of rooting it out, is graver. In History, one of the biggest challenges is to establish intent. It is very difficult to establish intent with people who we see in the present, let alone with the people who lived a few hundred or a thousand years ago. All we have, are recorded facts; and remember, facts are often recorded by the victors. So speculating on the intent of the people who were involved in those facts, is a perilous exercise. For example, it is generally believed that Aurangzeb was the least tolerant of the Mughal emperors and that he introduced policies that were exploitative and that those policies put his Hindu subjects under duress. While it is a fact that Aurangzeb did introduce some policies which were exploitative, it is still difficult to establish his intent to exploit his Hindu subjects. How will we know if his actions were motivated by his so-called intolerant attitude or by the necessities of statecraft; possibly to appease some interest groups such as hardline clerics? It is indeed difficult to establish his intent.

This conversation with my historian friend was a lesson in History for me. I learnt that History at the end of the day is a collection of facts. However, drawing inferences out of those facts, especially the ones that deal with establishing intent, is a perilous exercise. I was made to feel like the amateur that I am in the subject of History. Nonetheless, it has not dampened my enthusiasm for the subject and I continue to call myself a History Enthusiast.


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