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The past as anchor for our present?

What role should the past play in our present? How important is it to reorient our sense of the past in order to shape a more meaningful present? One of the key projects of this regime has been to try and fashion a deeper connection with what it sees as a more ‘Indian’ version of history. The attempt is to rediscover a sense of pride in one’s past; as Home Minister Rajnath Singh put it in a recent speech to young students, the West did not hold all the repositories of knowledge and that ancient India ‘had all the answers’.

Without reading his statement too literally, the effort to correct the implicit bias in the way history has been written is not difficult to understand. A country ruled by a dominant colonial power, can become diffident about itself and the desire to change this by overhauling how we remember the past, has its merits. In the words of Ziauddin Sardar, “The past is often used to keep non-western cultures and civilizations in a vice like grip: and it comes in useful for imposing limits on visions for the future.” Sardar goes on to quote Ashis Nandy, who argues for “the need for non-western cultures to define their own future in terms of their own categories and concepts and to articulate their vision in a language that is true to their own Self…”

The anger against being feeling subjugated ‘in one’s own country’ by the systems of knowledge that have held sway for a long time is a real one. How does a new regime based on a fundamentally new way of seeing the world and imagining one’s own place in it, begin to grow roots? Given that other worldviews have been dominant for a long time, and as is often in such cases, have become an almost invisible yet mainstream presence, with a presumed naturalness of being, how does an attempt to find one’s own truths begin?

Current evidence suggests that the answer seems to be to largely focused on using a combination of selective erasure and a differently imagined and  remembered past. This is why there is such great interest in acts of remembering our sense of history whether by renaming roads, institutions, creating new icons of the past, retelling histories, and creating new rituals. There is even greater interest in dismantling the aura around the icons of the past, for the priority seems to be one of replacement and not mere augmentation.

The belief that all wisdom resided in the past, and that going back to it would reveal all answers has consequences. One is forever engaged in the pursuit of finding all new knowledge as merely a version of the old, and energies are spent in creatively re-interpreting the pronouncements of the past so that they appear to be penetrating insights into the present. In many cases, this is not difficult, for at a structural level, much of past wisdom has a timeless quality. But when the need is to imagine it as the source of identity, and when current fantasies of greatness are sought to be validated by the glories of the past, then the search begins to take on a dishonest hue.

Striving to prove that ‘our forefathers already knew this’, is eventually nothing more than a parlour game, for even if that were to be true, apart from being a stinging indictment of all the intervening generations, beyond a point, it has little practical utility. What it also does is to stymie the quest for knowledge and understanding of what the world is going through today, for to ask those questions becomes tantamount to confessing that perhaps we didn’t always know everything there is to know.

More significantly, a society that locates its engine in the past struggles to rise above the past as content and move to a stage where the past shapes its modes of thinking. The past continuous is an infinitely more productive mode than is the notion of the past perfect. One reason for the progress made by the West, according to Historian Yuval Harari was ‘the discovery of ignorance’ –the ability to say ‘we don’t know’. The belief in science is not merely about the outcomes it generates but about the pursuit of answers in the face of many unanswered questions. Acknowledging ignorance is the beginning of knowledge, and that comes from raw curiosity at the ground floor, rather than being driven by visions of grandeur from the top.

Perhaps an awakening needs a phase where one inflates one’s own sense of oneself, for without some pride, the feeling of inferiority is difficult to shake off. But the trouble with the closing of minds is that there is no path from that there to anywhere new. The feeling of pride being generated today is not based on a quest for more knowledge but on a ‘100 things the West needs to know about the greatness of India’ kind of collection of hyberbole that gets whatsapped to copious numbers.

Any system of knowledge needs scholarship, rigour, original ways of thinking and intellectual honesty, only then can it take root, grow and become relevant to changing times. It can begin in a new place, it can challenge existing precepts and constructs, it can propose radically new ways of seeing the world, it can hope to create an alternative ecosystem of ideas, but in order to do so it must be a product of introspection and must subject itself to scrutiny and criticism, for only then it can create something robust and meaningful.

We are as beat poet Gary Snyder put it, ‘primitives of an unknown culture’. When a few millennia later, they look to the ancients for wisdom, will they find something of value in what our current generations have produced? Or will they see us as pale shadows of an even more ancient time, petulants strutting about with prickly pride, and little more?

 
Santosh Desai
01 Oct 2015
Santosh Desai Before taking up this assignment, he was the President of McCann-Erickson, one of India's premier advertising agencies. A post-graduate from IIM Ahmedabad, Santosh spent 21 years in Advertising and was strategically involved in building key brands for a range of local and multinational clients. He has been a guest lecturer at various national & international universities and has addressed the global management boards of several multinationals including Microsoft, Philips, Hershey's, Unilever, Coke and Reckitt Benckiser. His principal area of interest lies in studying the relationship between culture and brands. An academic at heart, he writes regularly on contemporary Indian society and on subjects related to Marketing. Recently he published his book on India titled "Mother Pious Lady".

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Santosh Desai
01 Oct 2015
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