Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mythology - Fact or Fiction

Ever played "Chinese Whispers" with friends or in a training program? One person whispers something in the next person's ear and that person whispers it to the next and so on till the last person reveals what she or he heard. We've all had a good laugh when we find out how the message has morphed during its transmission between the first and last person. Now imagine this being played over thousands of years, several generations and many miles. No prizes here for guessing how the original information will change, in fact its a miracle that even a small figment of the truth would remain intact. Thus myths are created which in relation to other such stories constitute the myths of that region and eventually the mythology of the religion of that area. These stories have been embellished over the years and generations, so much so that they seem bizarre even ludicrous to our modern sensibilities. However at the root of most myths is some significant event or fact.

Another factor to consider is the mental capacity of the people who generated these myths. We have to remember that these stories emanated thousands of years ago, even before writing was invented and when language itself did not have a comprehensive vocabulary. But man has always been plagued by questions, our innate desire to know, to solve problems and to make our choices is the outcome of these questions. This is what makes us human, the dominant species. Some of the first questions asked by humans are still being grappled with thousands of years later - Who are we? Where did we come from? What happens after death? Some of us find our answers through our respective religions, while others are trying to find their answers in science.

Now lets get back to our ancestors who did not live in a world like ours where we have mastered almost every aspect of this planet, theirs was a different world. A world where they were fighting to survive, where the first time someone lighted a fire it must have seemed like they had harnessed cold fusion. Is it a wonder then that many ancient religions like Hinduism and Zoroastrianism worship fire? When humans discovered fire, they discovered cooking, and this gave us the ability to eat a variety of food otherwise indigestible by us, this variety in our diet enabled the human brain to evolve and grow into our present state. So if a myth states that fire destroys as well as creates and is therefore a force to worship, it is pointing to a significant historic event.

In a world frought with danger mankind instinctively looked for a "Higher Force" to protect it. And they found plenty of things around them which were much more powerful than any human, things like the forces of nature, animals etc. These then became our earliest objects of worship, as we evolved and looked up at the night sky we came to the conclusion that this "Higher Force" must be looking down at us, seeing everything, hearing everything. But we still could not comprehend the concept of Omnipresence of a single God, so we started deifying each attribute of this "Higher Force". In most ancient mythologies including Hinduism, Greek, Sumerian etc. there are a pantheon of 'gods' but there is always on supreme god who rules over all of them.

The mythologies of the different religions is our earliest anthroplogical as well as historic account. What is needed is to study the similarities of these ancient stories from various parts of the world and highlight the common threads, because they hold the keys to our past.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pakistan - Collective Selective Amnesia

"History repeats itself"' this is an adage we have heard over and over again by our parents, teachers, friends, scholars etc. Makes sense too, and if so many people have said it over the years, it must be true, after all its a view subscribed to by some of the most brilliant minds of times past and present. Another lesson that we have learnt over the years is that we cannot build a strong building without a good foundation, and the taller the building has to be the deeper its foundations must be.

If we subscribe to both these views then it comes to pass that we have a lot of lessons to learn from our history and since we have a very long and glorious past, our future should be bright and strong. So how come 61 years on we are still waiting for the first glimpse of luminous future?

The problem lies in our definition of "history". In our eagerness to establish our unique identity we have picked and selected the bits of history that seem to 'fit' our views. There are two types of history - one is our religious history and one is our geographic history. We have preserved the former but decimated the latter.

Whether we like it or not, there is no denying the fact that we are a part of the Indo-Pak sub-continent, or rather Indian sub-continent as it was known before 1947. Our forefathers have been on this land for thousands of years, we have been one of the earliest cradles of civilization and our history is the story of this land geographically bound by the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindukush and the Arabian Sea.

History does not recognize the present states of Pakistan and India, it just flows continuously over thousands of years. But over the years we seem to have forgotten this glorious heritage, simply because we share it with India and it is not Islamic. Hence our selective amnesia of our past. If we are to learn lessons from our history how on earth are we to manage that feat with a book that is missing chapters upon chapters? And not only are we missing large chunks, we have conveniently re-written the chapters which remain.

The earliest record of our history is from 7000 B.C, in Mehargarh, Baluchistan and from there it spreads over 9 millenia! Ashoka, Chandragupta Maurya, Kanishka, Tipu Sultan, Sher Shah Suri, the Marhattas, Chauhans, Moghuls etc. are all part of our history. History is not a soap opera that you can miss for weeks and still be able to follow the plot, rather, its a literary work which needs to be read word-by-word over and over again to be appreciated, understood and loved.

History is based on facts. Facts cannot be changed. The present is formed on the foundations of past events. To change the past is to change a whole series of events till the present time. To study history is to be objective, and it is this objectivity that unfortunately we have lost. If India and Pakistan want to co-exist and build better relations with each other they need to have more common grounds on which they can both stand and our complete and objective history provides the most rooted, the most solid of common grounds.

Another damage we have done to ourselves by our patchwork study of history is to alienate the majority of people living in this land. Sindhis have no clue of what their history was before Mohammad Bin Qasim, Punjabis do not know much about their history except from the time that the Muslims started ruling, the Baloch have a similar issue and Pathans know of the Gandhara civilization but are almost embarrassed at the fact that at some point in time they were not Muslims. NEWS FLASH! Most of our ancestors were not Muslims, we converted and our history goes way beyond the start of monotheism in the world. Be proud of both who you are now and who you were.

Continuing on the topic of alienation, what about the millions of people who migrated from India? They came from all corners of India and their history is that of the Rajputs, the Maharajas of the various princely states, the Peshwas of Marhatta, the kings of South India etc. To study our ancient history is to combine all the people who live in this land and say "this is our common ground". Perhaps when people who came from Bihar realize that they were once part of the same kingdom as that ruled in Peshawer, or people in Sindh realize that their kings fought in with the Kauravs in Kurukshettra, we will able to find more threads that bind us rather than separate us.

But since our story has such gaps no one truly understands it or appreciates it. This confusion over our past prevents us from clarity over the present and future. After all time is a continuum...