Thursday, Mar 22, 2018 | Last Update : 11:33 AM IST

Rewriting history: Make Hanuman a human first!

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Mar 10, 2018, 1:52 am IST
Updated : Mar 10, 2018, 1:53 am IST

The Ramayan wants us to believe they were humanoids with speech, but with the physical features of apes and other animals.

Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma  (Photo: PTI/File)
 Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma (Photo: PTI/File)

Explaining the rationale for the 14-member committee to rewrite Indian history, the Narendra Modi government’s minister of state for culture Mahesh Sharma said: “I worship Ramayan and I think it is a historical document. People who think it is fiction are absolutely wrong.” I am trying to see a silver lining behind this dark cloud descending upon us. There is finally some hope that the Ramayan will be suitably rewritten for scientific veracity, political correctness and historical accuracy.

Whether Mahesh Sharma and his multi-disciplinary band of history rewriters realise it or not, the Ramayan, wittingly or unwittingly, also deals with evolution. The evolution from apes so vividly described by great naturalist Charles Darwin and which indefatigable paleontologists like Louis and Mary Leakey have validated the link from apes to early man in the Olduvai Gorge of the Rift Valley in present-day Tanzania. Deposits exposed in the sides of the gorge cover a timespan from about 2.1 million to 15,000 years ago. The deposits have yielded the fossil remains of over 60 hominins (members of the human lineage), providing the most continuous known record of human evolution in the past two million years, as well as the longest known archaeological record of the development of stone-tool industries.

Speech, however, is of more recent origin — about 100,000 years. According to linguist Noam Chomsky, it began with a freak genetic mutation when a branch of the by-now bipedal apes developed a sound box or larynx, which in turn led to the coordination of sound and sign, in turn leading to the expansion of the brain. But clearly there would have been a time in this grey period when bipedal but soundless apes existed along with those much more evolved with larynxes and were capable of sign and sound coordination. Now where and how do we locate Ramayan characters like Hanuman, Sugriva, Vali and the Ram Setu engineers in all this? The Ramayan wants us to believe they were humanoids with speech, but with the physical features of apes and other animals. But scientific reason doesn’t support this.

The migration of humans from Africa began about 60,000 years ago, and that means into India too. Humans migrated into India, Europe and elsewhere as humans with evolved brains and voice boxes. By the time migratory waves arrived in India they brought with them reasonably evolved vocabularies with many different sounds for the same actions and objects. But because languages did not evolve in isolation and neighbouring groups influenced each other, we have loan words. This trail out of Africa to the far corners of the world is now well established.

Recently I was at the tri-junction region of Telangana, Marathwada and Madhya Pradesh. The languages you hear in the bazars are with an amazing mix of loan words interspersed. They are living laboratories of how languages keep evolving. In the Northeast, which the BJP will now no doubt try to Sanskritise, there is an amazing pidgin language called Nagami, commonly spoken in Nagaland and Manipur, that enables a Tanghkul talk to a Sema and a Kuki to a Zeliangrong and English-despising Hindiwallahs talk to all locals.

Much of Indian history is a record kept by travellers and merchant chroniclers like Megasthenes Xuanzang, Fa Hsien, Ibn Batuta, Tavernier, Nuniz, Nikitin and Bernier, the record of our history is a directionally moving one. For instance, Xuanzang entered from the northwest and swung through western and northern India in an arc, but not before stopping by at Vadnagar, probably at the suggestion of some ancient Chinese Nostradamus, who foresaw a great new force from here who will one day rewrite the history, if not the destiny, of India.

The Ramayan too is a travelling chroniclers’ north to southward moving history. No sooner the two dispossessed Aryan princes leave their Aryavarta that they enter the dark lands of Dandakaranya, the jungle of punishment, teeming with fierce animals and sub-human chandalas, as the adivasi who live there are still a good part of Aryavarta. Nihar Ranjan Ray rightly described them as “the original autochthonous people of India”. The term adivasi is a carefully chosen one. Adi means first, vasi means inhabitant — the composite meaning original inhabitant with first rights.

The RSS is clearly uncomfortable with this and hence prefers to describe them as vanvasi, or forest dweller, a code word for the untermenschen designation the traditional Brahminical hierarchy had and perhaps still has in mind. But that’s where well-documented historical prejudices accentuated by oral retelling conflicts with science and reason. You can embellish a monkey with a golden crown and human skin with vastly inflated muscles, suggesting much brawn and less brain leading to slavish devotion, but the long tail and extended jaw gives the game away. No doubt the chroniclers of the Ramayan thought of these primitive but helpful people as mere monkeys. Presumably as the two brothers went downwards in search of the abducted heroine of our historical document they came across more and some very different too. In the netherlands of India they encountered even darker-skinned and more hirsute humanoids that they promptly termed as bears led by Jambavan.

Then onwards good Hindu soldiers to do battle with the Rakshasas led by Ravan. Here the Vanaras do battle with their Rakshasa neighbours while the noble Aryan lords direct them to battle, taking care to ensure the heavy-duty fire and forget weapons are with them, while the cannon fodder goes into dubious battle with sticks and stones. This is how it still is in modern armies. The poor foot soldiers die, while the higher-class officers have their hands on the joysticks and their fingers on the buttons waging what is now euphemistically called the standoff battle.

The Hanuman, Jambavan, Sugriva and other humanoids in the “historical document” called the Ramayan are fairly evolved individuals. They are not apes. So I hope this 14-member committee appointed by Mahesh Sharma will cleanse the “historical document” of its racial, ethnic, unscientific and unhistorical biases. It may be time for much of our history to be rewritten, but let’s start at the very beginning, Sharmaji. We must make Hanuman a human first.

Tags: modi government, mahesh sharma, ramayan