In a couple of essays, Narasimha Sastry discussed history and historical fiction at length. He put forth enormous amount of information in support of his theory that our way of studying our history if faulty. In the process he also defines the correlation between history and historical novel.
In the essay, swatantra bharatamulo charitra rachana (Writing History in independent India), he shows how our mode of thinking had been molded by the methods established by famous western historians such as Gibbon, Carlyle, the lord Prudhoe and Wells. Their works on history are valued as literature; they have shown us that historians are poets in essence.
However, we also need to remember that the British rulers introduced Macaulay Report in schools only to serve their purpose, which is to turn our people into tools for prolonging their rule in our country.
That led to us relying on English books to study our history to a point that we would not read our Telugu and Sanskrit texts unless they are given in English. This craze for English is extended to all the other fields as well—religion, society, politics, literature, science and even into geography.
Currently, the history of India is broken into three periods—the Hindu period, the Mohammedan period and the British period.
Narasihma Sastry goes to elaborate on the problems with this division as follows:
Originally, the Aryans came from outside, assailed the Dravidians and the Dasyulu and promulgated their religion in our country vigorously. Their cultural power however waned due to the hot climate in our country. Internal struggles eroded and some of them turned traitors. After the Aryans, the Mohammedan rulers came in multitudes and took over. They attacked the feeble Hindus. Later, they succumbed to mundane pleasures and lost their power. When the British came, the country was in shambles. They could easily drive away the Mohammedans and the other white rulers and take over the country. This is the gist of the division of the historical periods.
There is a perception that heat weakens individuals. This is not a proven fact though. Possibly others who are accustomed to cold climate may suffer from the heat in our country and vice versa. However this should not be an argument to let ourselves be slaves to the foreigners. Heat is a geographical issue and irrelevant to one’s strength or weakness. This is a pious land and the place for such sacred activities as bathing three times a day and offering prayers to the Sun god (sandyavandanam).
Narasimha Sastry continues to observe that since creation of the universe, 195 crore 85 lakhs and 550 years have passed. In this long span of the history of mankind, the British ruled our country for 190 years, the Moghuls for 181 years, the Lodis for 75 years, Sayyads for 37 years, Tughlaks for 94 years, and Khiljis 30 years.
Among the Indians, the Gupta period runs for 500 years and that is considered golden age. We read that the Satavahanas ruled for 464 years and no other reign had sway for a period that long. And the Kushans seemed to have ruled for 230 years, the Mauryans for 160 years, and the Nandas for 74 years. Also the Bimbisara and others ruled for over 200 years.
Thus, it is evident that the current history as we study in our books gives more importance to the time we had been under foreign rule. We should rewrite our history books expanding the times we had been free and proud, and delimit the period we had been subjected to slavery.
No doubt the British have ruled our country for about 200 years. There were some local rulers called Zamindaris but they existed only with the blessings from the British. Mohammedans stayed mostly in the north. Attempts of Tuglak and Aurangazeb to take over the southern part of India failed. At the time, the Kakateeya kings in the south were powerful. After that Vijayanagara kings prevailed in the south for one hundred years more. Thus, the label for these periods should be Kakatiya period, Vijayanagara period and so on. In the 18th century, the Maharashtra rulers were strong all the way from the southern end, the Sethu, to Himachal. Indian culture has flourished in the north for sometime and later the south enjoyed superiority. There were times when the Chola, Chalukya and Pallava kingdoms and Kancheepuram were at the peak. There is no reason to accept the labels given foreign rulers who ruled only the northern part of the country.
Other facts to note are: During 550-330 B.C., Persian kings ruled Punjab and Gandharam (current Nepal?). Later Greeks ruled over the same land for 150 years (200-20 B.C.). Kushans prevailed for sometime. There is also a misconception that all Mohammedans are the same. In reality, some of them were Shiites and others Sunnis. In the north, Persian culture was prominent while the Absenian culture prevailed in the south. The difference between these two is no less than the difference between the Greeks, Patheons, Sakuns, and Kushans. That being the case, it is unfair to lump them all together as one race.
Against this background, Narasimha Sastry suggests labels such as the Turkish threat, the Moghal menace, the Sunny hazzard, Shiaite turmoil, and the British tempest for periods our history. Also there are only two races—Aryans and non-Aryans, and one is productive and the other destructive, like any other living organism in the world.
It is important to note that the Aryans regard the land as their motherland and fatherland. For them, the land gives them birth, entertains them, and comforts them. It is karmabhumi [place of action], tapobhumi [place of contemplation], and punyabhumi [pious land]. For them, the entire India is one country and the Vedas and the Vedangas are the paradigms to live by. Sanskrit is the language of the polite society. The non-Aryans on the other hand are engrossed in self-promotion, their physical image, and abandonment.
The detailed discussions of dates for a given king are not important. The Puranas have recorded the history of the kings who reinstated the Aryan dharma following political and social turmoil. They should be the paradigms for us but not the texts written by foreigners such as the Greek travelers in Alexander’s time, Megasthanese during Chandragupta’s rule, the Chinese traveler Huen Tsang, and so on. We should read our history based on the data available in our texts produced by our poets. The texts by foreigners may be used as secondary texts. Historians should sift the falsehood propagated by foreign historians.
Let’s not forget that regardless of their affinity to the kings of their times, Valmiki and Vyasa maintained their stance as poets in their own status quo.
By the time Vyasa wrote Maha Bharata, 193 crores, 83 lakhs of years passed. He was fair in depicting the histories of the two dynasties, including the violations of Dharma by the Pandavas. The pundits who question Maha Bharata’s integrity need to separate the later interpolations and study the original carefully.
The historians should help us to revive the spirit of unity, nationalism. Valmiki and Veda Vyasa should be viewed as the archetypes, the protectors of dharma; they are historians and poets in true spirit.
The term “historical” implies narration of truth without fluff. On the other hand, novel requires invention specifically.
A novel may not contain even one page of authentic history in a 304 page book. Yet it may provide details about the political atmosphere, social customs, manners, travel amenities, and other facilities of its time without contradicting historical facts.
A novelist takes bits of history, “dry as dust” in Carlyle’s words, brings them together, adds other parts and grows into a big tree, sprays heavenly nectar on it and brings it to fruition.
Westerners store dead bodies in graveyards. They save important and unimportant incidents alike. The historians cull through these bits of data and elaborate on the past history. Because of this custom to save all the items, the historians are able to tell the stories of their people—poets, sculptors, lyricists, kings, ministers, their kept women, businessmen, priests, actors and actresses, soldiers, and beautiful women. The books, diaries, magazines, letters, inscriptions, and memorials carved on the graves—all these are available to their writers. However, despite the availability of all this information, the established theories are getting thrown out by new revelations. While interpretation of history keeps changing, great novels are being produced in the west.
We do not have the amenities to write historical fiction or biographical fiction the same way the westerners do. Nevertheless, we have produced great novels such as Bhagavan Parasuramudu by K. M. Munshi and Simha Senapathi by Rahul Sankrutyayan. The first one attempted to recreate the Vedic and the Pauranic works from the perspective of national spirit. The second one took the Vedic literature with Buddhist tradition as supreme ideal, and attempted to promote the current communist ideology. Both the works as great examples of our historical fiction.
In a country’s or even world’s history, what has happened is important. The dates and the names of individuals are like the body. The incidents are the life force behind these works. Beyond these two elements, there is also the Atman which is the dominant force in our lives. A historian must not forget the soul. From this perspective, we need to examine whether our historians have understood the supreme truth about our nation as much as the authors of our puranas.
Numerous plots and subplots embedded in the Ramayana and Maha Bharata appear to have happened actually. They might not have happened in that particular time and in that particular place but they seemed to carry certain authenticity about them. And they contain lessons for us. To collect such stories and record them is the primary responsibility of our historians.
The authors of our puranas had a great sense of the timelessness of history and what must be recorded. We fail to appreciate their philosophy only because of our self-indulgence and our ignorance.
Greek historian Herodotus had written several fantasy stories in the name of history and we regard him as the king among historians. The Chinese travelers wrote history, depicting their own importance and we have accepted them as standard the same way as the histories written by Christians. The stories in their books are fabricated much the same way as the stories in our puranas. It is the same with personal letters, diaries and other writings.
The genre of novel may have been born in Italy or France but there is no clear-cut definition yet. It has been taking various forms in different times and different places, which is its distinctive nature.
A novel could be rendered in the form a play, story, biography, letters, diaries or a combination of several forms. It can be short like a little pond or like a great sea, a combination of several features.
We may create suitable platform and call works like Dasakumara charitra, Simhasana dwatrimsati, Bhoja charitra, pancatantra, Hitopadesa, neeti chadrika novels. Our critics called kalaa purnodayam a novel, although it is written in the form of poetry.
That being the case, it is a mistake to consider only the form set by westerners as the only standard form for a novel. We may even stay as far away as possible from the western mode of thinking and create much better novels.
Narasimha Sastry also points out that writing novel is a profession for westerners. And marketing it requires novelty constantly. In his opinion, they are short-lived for that reason. On the other hand, we consider novel as a literary genre, and thus maintain its quality.
Novelist has a wide range of opportunities. A novel is not a short story and in that, there is no holding back. It is not a miniature painting; it does not have to flow in a monotonous manner as in a big story. Unlike a play, the novel does not rely on theaters, the vagaries of actors and actresses, and insensitive audience.
However, as in a drama, the writer may take the uniqueness of dialogues and incidents—the intrinsic qualities of a play, and incorporate poetic merit and musical quality in his novel. He may include his entire knowledge in it. A novel has the ability to reflect numerous varieties of literary genre in numerous ways. Novel is the supreme genre among the entire literary genre so far we have gotten. The proverb, naatakantam sahityam may be rewritten as navaalanatham sahityam.
The novel that contains history with the traits noted above may be called historical novel. When we study novel from that perspective, we find no contradiction between the noun “novel” and the adjective “historical”. On the other hand, the elite may even find a close affinity between the two terms.
It is common knowledge among intellectuals that it is hard to evaluate contemporary works, regardless how capable we are and how unbiased we are.
Unless we examine them from a distance, we cannot recognize their authentic value; the incidents do not rise to the level appropriate for plots of kavyas. This is the reason many poets in all countries at all times choose the stories related to their heroes and events from the past. That does not mean writers should not write about contemporary occurrences.
Critics sometimes comment that authors of historical fiction, being unable to face the modern day society and issues, choose incidents or people from the past and write about them. Their ignorance regarding the characteristics of kavya is evident in this kind of comments.
A novel may achieve the status of kavya even when it does not depict contemporary life? And that is so even when it does not aim to solve the current society’s problems. For instance, Tolstoy wrote War and Peace based on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Even as our rishis would, Tolstoy did not rely only on the history written by historians but conducted intense search for historical facts and thus was able to produce a unique work. Same thing can be said of Faust by Goethe, Paradise Lost by Milton, and so on.
Thus it is evident that poet, even when writing about the current events, can produce a high quality work only when he has the ability to look back in to the past. In support of this argument, He quotes an example from his own experience after China attacked India:
He says, “I was furious. I wanted to take over the entire nation of China in retaliation. I was irate that our government pledged to fight for the land up to McMohan line only. What about our Manasa sarovaram, Kailasam that is the abode of Lord Siva, and the land that conjoined the sites where the two rivers Brahmaputra and Sindhu originated? I was so irate yet not a single poem came out of my mouth. So many people have written kavyas and sang songs. None of them appealed to me, when I try to read them as kavyas.
Secondly, dragon China’s national symbol. I searched hard for an quivalent term for dragon in Sanskrit. “Sarabham” or “Sarabhasaluvu” could be but did not sound right. In Rg veda, “ahi” had been mentioned. Some scholars used dragon for Ahi in their translation of Vedas into English. I remembered the verse in the vedas which described Indra at the time he killed Vritrasura. To my knowledge, nobody else thought of it yet even I could not view it in the form of a kavya. My heart has been sullied with my hatred for the Chinese. It will not reach the kavya level unless and until the hatred in my heart has been washed up.
If we think on these lines, the scholars who study the philosophy of kavyas may note that among all the genres of kavyas, the novel and among all varieties of novels the historical fiction is the highest.
Basically the Maha Bharata has been identified as history (ithihasa) and Ramayana as a purana (mythology). From the standpoint of tradition, both the works had been written by the writers who had lived in those times. Yet they became great works for the following reasons. Valmiki was a tapasvi (introspect). He was capable of distancing himself from contemporary life and observing it with uncontaminated eyes. Similarly, Vyasa was a rishi who could stay detached despite his kinship with all the characters in the story. He could stay in his hermitage quietly, contemplate and reflect on the story in his heart.
Some scholars accept that these two authors simply collected several stories told by several individuals and had them recorded by a few or several other individuals. There is no doubt that the incidents in these stories had been based on actual occurrences.
As is evident, the social, political, and dharma-related systems, the war strategies, philosophic reflections are narrated in these works focusing identifying the ultimate truth. No other work has that much influence on Indian culture. Despite the fact that these two works are based on Vedas, they have exerted more influence on our culture than the Vedas themselves. Without these two classic works, it is hard to imagine how far our culture could have deteriorated. This is deductible from the history of other countries where there is no such impact.
However, the Ramayana text and most of the Maha Bharata text are rendered in the form of poetry. It is not filled with difficult Sanskrit phraseology but written in a form that is close to modern prose. We can call them historical kavyas or historical novels written in the form of poetry. The difference is only in terminology but not in essence.
One of them is a great river flowing with zest like the River Ganges. The second one is the milky ocean encompassing several great rivers. Today’s historical novelist is a follower of those great authors, Valmiki and Vyasa.
They are not performers of death rituals who collect pieces of history. They are the visionaries who have attempted to identify the historical truths.
Modern day historians should search their souls and find to what extent they have understood these tenets and adapted them.
(Translations of excerpts from two articles by Nori Narasimha Sastry. I am grateful to the writer and publishers of the volume Nori Narasimha Sastry. V. 5 Sahitya vyasaalu.
Originally published on thulika.net, June, 2011.)