Idiocy as Scholarship
It was probably late sixties or early seventies – when this pen pusher was a school student – one came across an article by a gentleman called P N Oak in a Marathi magazine called ‘Amrit’. The article made a particular case about Taj Mahal which it termed as ‘Tejo Maha Aalay’ or hindu god Shiva’s abode. It tried to establish through various ‘explanations’ that a Shiva Temple was destroyed to build Taj Mahal and if we dig deep we can find ‘remnants’ of the earlier structure.
For someone who was taught in an ambience, where few of our teachers never lost any opportunity to fill our gullible minds about the ‘hated other’, it was rather difficult to immediately grasp the lie which was peddled by this soldier turned writer. Nobody could then have the premonition also that such false claims – that their places of worship were buried beneath the Mosques as a lame excuse to demolish them – would become order of the day, in Hindutva politics.
It might have been my first encounter with this name but did not prove to be the last one. Similar articles /books kept appearing here and there where Oak engaged in rectifying what he believed to be “biased and distorted versions of India’s history produced by the invaders and colonizers” and a section of the Marathi Brahminical elite – which always entertained sympathies towards the idea of Hindu Rashtra – provided legitimacy to these ideas by their reception. Oak argued that modern secular and Marxist historians have fabricated “idealized versions” of India’s past and drained it of its “Vedic context and content”. And he went on propagating his ideas writing articles, publishing books and also initiating the work of ‘Collecting Local History’ by forming ‘Bharat Itihas Sankalan Samity’ which also use to bring out a journal in the 80s. A rough estimate tells us that he has written nine books in English, thirteen books in Marathi and eight books in Hindi. One of his books which according to a scholar summarises his life’s work is titled ‘World Vedic Heritage: A History of Histories, Presenting a Unique Unified Field Theory of History that from the Beginning of Time the World Practised Vedic and Spoke Sanskrit.’
For laypersons who have never heard of him it would be opportune to name the list of few of his other books which appeared in English which can give one an idea about his key argument : Christianity is Chrisn-nity, ISBN 978-81-88388-77-6, Islamic Havoc in India (A. Ghosh Publisher, 5740 W. Little York, Houston, Texas, 77091), The Taj Mahal Is a Temple Place (Alternate title, The Taj Mahal is a Hindu Palace), Hindi Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi (online version: hindusarise.com), Who Says Akbar Was Great? (Hindi Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi), Agra Red Fort is a Hindu Building (Hindi Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi), Some Blunders of Indian Historical Research (Hindi Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi), Some Missing Chapters of World History (Hindi Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi), World Vedic Heritage—A History of Histories (Hindi Sahitya Sadan, New Delhi), Taj Mahal — The True Story (ISBN 0-9611614-4-2), Was Kaaba a Hindu Temple?, Learning Vedic Astrology etc
Analysing Oak’s work Srinivas Aravamudan noted that it typically resorts to “deep punning” – associating Sanskrit sound-alikes with non-Sanskrit religious terms such as Vatican=vatika “hermitage”, Christianity=Krishna-netti or Chrisn-nity “ethics of Krishna or the way of Krishna” Islam=ishalayam “temple of God”, Abraham as an aberration of Brahma, and George as an aberration of Garg.Based on this, Oak claimed that both Christianity and Islam allegedly originated as distortions of “Vedic” beliefs. Aravamudan concluded that via “deep punning” Oak is “creative in proliferating these delusional etymologies.” (Srinivas Aravamudan, Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language Princeton University Press (2005), ISBN 0-691-11828-0).
While his weird theories like ‘Christianity and Islam being both derivatives of Hinduism’ or ’Like Taj Mahal, Catholic Vatican, Kaaba, Westminster Abbey were once Hindu temples to Shiva’ or ‘Vatican being originally a Vedic creation called Vatika and that the Papacy was also originally a Vedic Priesthood’ or his complete denial of Islamic architecture in India could not find any takers in the mainstream, in fact were rejected in academia, they gathered a popular following in the Hindu Right which is still in search of a grand theory to further its agenda. Oak even petitioned the Supreme Court to rewrite the history of Taj Mahal as being built by a Hindu King during NDA’s first stint of power at the centre. Perhaps the then conducive political atmosphere might have prompted him to gain further legitimacy but he was sadly mistaken. A two member division bench of the Supreme Court dismissed the ‘misconceived’ petition with these remarks ‘Somebody has a bee in his bonnet, hence this petition’. (2000)
P N Oak died in 2007 but his ideas live on.
Not very many people are aware that Hindutva brigade has seriously taken up the work of preparing the ‘history of all districts keeping as the ideal the history written by Oak’.
In a lecture titled ‘Outsider as Enemy’ noted historian K N Panikkar (http://web.archive.org/web/20060109123200/http://www.stanford.edu/group/sia/Events/Panikkar_speech.pdf) while discussing the attempts by the BJP to further communal consciousness of history by revising the textbooks ‘ to introduce a communal view of the past, highlighting the achievements and contribution of the Hindus and undermining or misrepresenting the role of others.’ and lending support to this effort ‘by saffronising research institutions’ refers to this work
Simultaneously several initiatives have been taken to transform the popular historical consciousness in favour of the communal. Among them the setting up of Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Samiti, with four hundred branches all over the country, is particularly significant. Its brief is to prepare the history of all districts keeping as the ideal the history written by P.N. Oak, whose main contribution is the identification of every medieval monument as a Hindu structure.
Question arises what is the import of discussing the ‘P N Oak saga’ when the appointment of Prof Y Sudershan Rao, at Kakatiya University, as Chairman of the prestigious Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) has become a cause of concern in the academic world ?
Let me come to that in a while.
Romilla Thapar, a doyen of India’s ancient history, in an article in a popular weekly (India Today) has raised valid questions about Professor Rao’s approach as well as ability towards the discipline. Underlining the fact that the writing of history in India ‘has produced some of the finest historians, recognised both nationally and internationally,’ she has expressed her surprise over his appointment as chairperson whose work is ‘unfamiliar to most historians, with little visibility of research that he might have carried out.’ Mentioning the fact that he has ‘published popular articles on the historicity of the Indian epics but not in any peer-reviewed journal,’ which is ‘now a primary requisite for articles to be taken seriously at the academic level’ she has also questioned his attempts at fixing dates of important events broadly considered mythology. (http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/romila-thapar-smriti-irani-old-history-baiters-of-bjp/1/370799.html)
Another eminent historian DN Jha told ‘Outlook’ that Rao’s determination to assign historical dates and establish the events of the Ramayana and Mahabharatha as fact not legend is problematic as a project. . “It is impossible to combine [faith and reason] and Rao, from all appearances, is a believer in the historicity of the Mahabharata… One has to be critical of the sources…and criticism does not mean insulting faith. As a historian, I have no faith. I go by rationality. But I don’t expect the Modi government to be rational.”
Professor Rao’s own views on caste system where he appears to be a votary of the caste system have also come under scanner. In a blog written in 2007, Rao had said that the “positive aspects of Indian culture are so deep that the merits of ancient systems would be rejuvenated.” In the blog-article titled, ‘Indian Caste System: A Reappraisal’, he wrote: “The (caste) system was working well in ancient times and we do not find any complaint from any quarters against it. It is often misinterpreted as an exploitative social system for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of the ruling class”…”Indian Caste system, which has evolved to answer the requirements of civilization at a later phase of development of culture, was integrated with the Varna system as enunciated in the ancient scriptures and dharmasastras.”
Rao’s elevation as Chairperson of ICHR is being seen as a part of the larger project of ‘saffronisation’ of history and there is a sense of deja vu among academic circles. It need be reminded that in its earlier avatar (1998-2004) at the helm of affairs of the country the NDA I led by BJP had similarly appointed people sympathetic to the Hindutva cause in almost all major academic institutions. The manner in which it had then stalled the publication of the ‘Towards Freedom Project‘ edited by K N Panikkar as it exposed the actual role of RSS and other Hindutva organisations in the struggle for independence, had received national – international condemnation Not very many people would remember today that BJP’s own man, Prof M L Sondhi, who was a former member of the BJP’s national executive committee, and who headed Indian Council of Social Science Research, had then strongly criticised his own governments approach towards education. He had said that country’s premier research bodies were being coerced into “radically changing their courses” or “force them into intellectual obscurantism”.
All these valid criticisms have missed a small point in Prof Rao’s career graph that while he has strongly denied that he is associated with RSS but has acknowledged that he is part of BISS – ( Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Samiti).
The battle about Rao’s appointment will rage on for a while. Each and every one of his move will be closely watched and commented upon by the best in the community of historians.
In the meantime, do not feel surprised that the new dispensation promotes P N Oak chair at academic institutions to write ‘Bharatheeya history from a national perspective.’ or possibly an award is instituted in his name to promote ‘original research keeping the ideal of Oak in mind’.