K.M. Munshi's Flowing Stream Approach to the Study of Indian History

Kulapati K.M. Munshi delineates his approach to the study of Indian History as a flowing stream through time instead of using dynasties and isolated periods.
K.M. Munshi's Flowing Stream Approach to the Study of Indian History

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K.M. Munshi's Flowing Stream Approach to the Study of Indian History
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When K.M. Munshi’s urged the modern Indian historian to approach India as “a living entity with a central continuous urge,” he was referring precisely to a theme familiar to all culturally-rooted Indians: the unbroken Sanatana civilisational impulse that birthed our national life in all its myriad manifestations. That poses a fundamental problem to the contemporary historian trained in the Western mould: what exactly should be the approach taken to study India’s past given that the historical and cultural memories and experiences have remained un-severed? Munshi’s answer:

Just as a dynastic treatment of history gives…an incorrect historical perspective, so…does any treatment which arbitrarily cuts history into sections of time. The history of [Indians] having a common culture…flows as a running stream through time, urged forward by the momentum of certain values and ideas and must be viewed as such… without such an attempt, the past would have no message and the future no direction.

The “running stream” approach of Munshi is highly poignant and entirely consonant with the Sanatana conception of history. We notice the same strain in the vividly contemplative scene on the steps of the ghat in Varanasi in Dr. S.L. Bhyrappa’s masterpiece, Aavarana. The scene easily ranks as one of the finest excerpts in world literature.

This is a noiseless river. Actually, Ganga is a dynamic culture that accommodates and digests everything and flows on quietly. These banks are the timeless witnesses of never-ending debates in philosophy and logic. Every philosophical school has come here…And yet, being witness to such noise over the centuries, Ganga continues to flow in contented silence. She looked to her left and saw the mighty Gyanvapi mosque appearing to her like a symbol of aggressive hubris while the river on whose banks it stood coursed on as if it didn’t exist. [Emphasis added]

It is also true poetic evocativeness adorned in the finery of historical fiction. It is also history-writing on a profound plane, which cannot be written unless the author or writer’s soul does not throb with the impulse of the Sanatana historical consciousness. A mere intellectual study no matter how deep, vast or honest, cannot produce such a distinguished output. To borrow Prof M. Hiriyanna’s words, this is a living example of how the facts of history are transformed into a concrete value.

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This running stream approach is what enables us to unearth the true message of the past, which in turn, gives direction to the future. Building on this aspect, Munshi further traces how a “collective consciousness had already taken deep roots” in the Indian mind “when Vasishta and Viswamitra—participants in the Dasharajna…lived on the banks of the holy Saraswati; when Parasurama led the Aryas to the banks of the Narmada; when Agastya and Lopamudra crossed the Vindhyas and the seas; when Bharata…held sway and gave his name to the land.” As we see, even today, this historical consciousness is being lived because all these sites sanctified by these historical luminaries have become Tirtha-Kshetras. The unique Sanatana genius preserved its history by spiritualising its geography through extolling the virtues of the heroes and saints who sanctified it. This is the full meaning of K.M. Munshi’s perceptive note that a dynastic history of India is both limiting and offers an incorrect perspective. Countless empires and dynasties rose and died from the time of the Ten Vedic Kings up to the Maratha Empire but it was precisely this historical consciousness that preserved for us the generational memory, which, Ganga-like, quietly worked behind the scenes to realise the reconstruction of Sri Rama’s Empire in Ayodhya.

Which brings us to a related theme that Munshi raises: from the earliest period, the history of India is a continuous process of integration. In turn, this integration is powered by the selfsame Sanatana stream of culture, which gives momentum to the timeless values it possesses. The outward forms that these values take from time to time might vary but the values in and by themselves are Sanatana: eternal. This eternal quality is at the root of the internal correction mechanism inherent in our spiritual civilization. Thus, a fundamental deceit of the colonial, and more pronouncedly, the Marxist distortions of Indian history and culture is its attempt to negate these Sanatana values. When Dharma, a salient value of India was grievously injured by Ashoka who confounded it with a blanket cessation of war thanks to his pacific addiction to Buddhism, the sweeping Mauryan Empire shattered into pieces almost immediately after his death. The pan-Indian integration that Chanakya and Chandragupta Maurya had so painstakingly accomplished came apart. It took the doughty and farsighted Pushyamitra Sunga to undo this Ashokan blunder. Munshi’s penetrating insight describes this as follows:

But welfare states, which eschew armed coercion of recalcitrant elements, are not known to survive. As soon as Ashoka, ‘the greatest of kings…’ died, his Buddhistic leanings and pacific policy evoked open resistance…Further disintegration was halted only when Pushyamitra Sunga…took over what was left of the empire.

Pushyamitra and his successor carried forward the pre-Ashokan tradition of Magadha. Dharma Vijaya was no longer to be achieved by abjuring war but by building up military strength; politics became realDharma was strengthened. The new wave of collective enthusiasm found its expression in…a search for a fuller and richer life; in the cult of Karthikeya, the god of war; in the resurgence of the Bhagavata cult; and in the unchallenged supremacy of Vasudeva Krishna. [Emphasis added]

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Indeed, it would be hugely rewarding to make a comprehensive study of the aforementioned cult of Karthikeya in shaping various facets of the Sanatana civilization given how he formed a prime inspiration for and was a beloved deity of the Gupta Empire, which is perhaps the greatest National Integrator in Indian history.

This continuous process of integration also manifested itself in the social order, the much-reviled and the unfairly abused Varna-Vyavastha. Munshi gives a brilliant picture.

The Brahmana was the head of the hierarchy, but a Sudra could become a Brahmana and a Brahmana devoid of his culture could sink…In those as in later days, neither Brahmanas nor Kshatriyas stuck, one and all, to their prescribed functions. A Brahmana sometimes did the job of a soil-digger, a hunter or a menial, a wagon-driver, and also a snake-charmer; a Kshatriya was a potter; a Vaishya a tailor…Under the Smritis, caste was not merely an inter-connubium group; its function had a purpose, an ethical and religious motive of uplifting the individual and making him fit for his ultimate destiny. Individuality drew its significance from the service it rendered to the group as a whole, and therefore, group duties were emphasized. [Emphasis added]

When we observe the Hindu society today, this is what we clearly see: nearly two centuries of the filth of colonial narratives have resulted in a criminal inversion. What we have today is the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, the collective Hindu mind has largely fallen prey to the destructive individualism of the American variety that has torn the American society apart. On the other, group duties have morphed into group rights. At no point in Indian history did we have the spectacle of caste riots with the ferocity and frequency as after India attained “independence.” Caste riots are nothing if not an expression of the Hindu society eating itself from within. Thus, the continuous process of integration that Munshi mentions crashed to a violent halt after India was politically liberated but sadly, still remains culturally enslaved to a fourfold imperialism: Islam, Christianity, British, and the most destructive of of the three, Nehruism.

Dasharajna Yuddha
Dasharajna Yuddha

This among other reasons is why it is critically important to study Indian history as it is understood and lived by Indians.

India’s historical consciousness is also underscored and informed by another crucial strand. In Munshi’s words, among all world civilisations, only India has a sense of mission transcending time and space.

The evolution of India…began with the dawn of history [several centuries] before Christ…Indians had already developed a common way of life and their sense of unity preserved by tradition and activated by race-memory, recaptured in each generation, was expressed through common action…During this process, the best elements in society had, from the earliest times, developed a ruling purpose—the fulfilment of Rta or Dharma—which gave them the capacity to will themselves into a well-defined and vigorous social organism.

Perhaps the best way to understand what this translated into in real life is to contrast it with the enfeebled Hindu psyche of today. It might sound incredible but for centuries on end, Hindus took enormous pride in being cultured, refined, vigorous, and most importantly, spirited. As Munshi says, Hindus of those days held the Vratyas (those had strayed from the righteous path) and Mlecchas (foreigners) in utter contempt. It did not matter that these Vratyas and Mlecchas were kings: they were inferior. For a straightforward reason, which the Bhagavata Purana among others, mention in unambiguous terms:

Such rulers lacked the power of the Spirit (Atma-Bala or Atma-Shakti), disregarded Dharma and Truth, and were contemptible irascible.

So, what was the character and attitude of the rulers who upheld Dharma and Truth? Like other illustrious scholars and thinkers, Munshi gives the answer by citing both the theory and practice of the Chakravartin or Samrat. The following lines could be written in gold.

The [Indian] memory looked back with pride on those times when Chakravartin-Samrats, or universal emperors like Maandhata and Bharata held sway over the whole world. The Chakravarti was the political and military counterpart of Dharma; like the Mahavaraha—the Great Boar—he was the savior of Dharma, and the supporter of the fundamental law of the Dharma-sastra; like Parasurama, he was the repressor of the lawlessness of kings. [Emphasis added]

K.M. Munshi's Flowing Stream Approach to the Study of Indian History
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A nobler conception of statecraft, war, and realpolitik is yet to be found in the annals of world history. The key note here is the repression of lawless kings, which stands in direct contrast with the religious totalitarianisms of Islam and Christianity. The so-called divine right of monarchs espoused by Christianity is in reality, the Church’s rule-by-proxy in which there are no limits prescribed to the king. The only way a Sultan or Christian King could be overthrown was either through a Church-engineered plot or a palace coup or much later, by a popular uprising or revolution. This ideal of Parashurama is central to understanding why India never witnessed revolutions.

Apart from Munshi, Ananda Coomaraswamy dedicates an entire brilliant book expounding the Indian political ideal in his aptly-titled Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power. Then we have the formidable Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri reflecting the same ideal:

Because there is the Law of the Jungle [Matsya Nyaya] in this world, the [institution] of King was created in order to uphold and maintain peace. The King who enforces the power of punishment using Dharma as his guide is compared to Mahavishnu who preserves order in the world. However, it is completely in violation of the spirit of the Dharmashastra to regard the King as having the Divine Right to rule.

Perhaps the most brilliant exposition on the ideal of the Chakravartin and the genius of Sanatana polity in my limited reading flows from the pen of Devudu Narasimha Sastri’s immortal, Mahabrahmana. In a heightened conversation between Vasistha and the King Kaushika (who later becomes Vishwamitra) that has an epic quality to it. Vasishta tells Kaushika in no uncertain terms that “while you may be the emperor of the entire Earth, you are still a slave of Dharma.” Therein lies the aforementioned Sanatana genius. Kaushika, the power-drunk emperor wages war against the Rishi Vasishta and ultimately ends up becoming another Rishi evoking Emerson’s evocative note:

The good man has absolute good, which like fire turns everything to its own nature, so that you cannot do him any harm.

One searches in vain for the so-called mainstream history books on India which even mentions this precept and practice of Sanatana polity let alone expounds on it. Because none of these books are backed by the Munishian vision, which he could develop because he saw and felt the form, continuity and meaning of India’s past.

From this vision, we can infer a fundamental and unifying element of India’s history: India’s history with all its antiquity, vagaries, and complexities is really a study of the value system of an entire civilization.

To be continued

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