Revisiting K.M. Munshi's Majestic Vision for Writing India's History

The first part of a series exploring Kulapati K.M. Munshi's vision for writing the comprehensive history of India
Revisiting K.M. Munshi's Majestic Vision for Writing India's History
I have seen and felt the form, continuity and meaning of India’s past. History, as I see it, is being consciously lived by Indians. Attempts to complete what has happened in the past form no small part of our modern struggle; there is a conscious as well as an unconscious attempt to carry life to perfection, to join the fragments of existence, and to discover the meaning of the visions which they reveal.

In its heroic majesty, this vies with the vision that Swami Vivekananda experienced at Kanyakumari. In its execution, it is comparable to the great Swami’s pilgrimage of Bharatavarsha, and in its fulfilment, Kulapati K.M. Munshi, like Vivekananda, sculpted an everlasting heritage of the history of Bharatavarsha. A sculpture finely chiseled by an army of first-rate scholars who translated Munshi’s vision into an eleven-volume marvel.

His conception of the “form, continuity and meaning of India’s past” throbbed with the same impulse that birthed the Sanatana civilization. Accordingly, this history would not only be that “India’s past might be described by her sons, but also that the world might catch a glimpse of her soul as Indians see it.

It attained its full bloom after thirty-five years but he had departed long before he could witness it.

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In hindsight, K.M. Munshi was propelled by two major factors to conceive a project of such staggering proportions. His abiding reverence for this country, its culture, heritage, and everything it had given him, which he requited with passionate feeling through numerous books and articles celebrating it all and by actively engaging in the freedom struggle. The second factor was alarm. Alarm at the kind of histories of India that had become fashionable, popular and were accepted as authoritative. Barring truly exceptional works by the likes of Jadunath Sarkar, R.C. Majumdar, and others, Munshi detected that these histories were reeking of the stench of Western colonial bias. He correctly calls that entire textual mass as “so-called Indian histories.”

Thus, in 1938, K.M. Munshi outlined a scheme for an “elaborate history of India.” But it would take a full six years before the scheme would take fledgling wings. That story will be narrated in a later episode of this series.

Munshi defines the scope of this planned comprehensive history of India in an almost cosmic fashion.

To be a history in the true sense of the word, the work must be the story of the people inhabiting a country. It must be a record of their life from age to age presented through the life and achievements of men whose exploits become the beacon lights of tradition…through those values which the people have accepted or reacted to and which created or shaped their collective will; through the efforts of the people to will themselves into an organic unity. The central purpose of a history must, therefore, be to investigate and unfold the values which age after age have inspired the inhabitants of a country to develop their collective will and to express it through the manifold activities of their life. Such a history of India is still to be written. [Emphasis added]

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As we observe in our own time, the situation hasn’t altered much.

In 1938, the unscrupulous and ideological cabal led by the likes of Romila Thapar were nowhere on the scene but Munshi (and other scholars like him) faced extremely daunting difficulties of finding primary and other authentic sources that would back up this elaborate history. Even the extant primary sources were inadequate and “in so far as they are foreign, are almost invariably tainted with a bias towards India’s conquerors.” In a heartfelt lament, he notes how Indians had themselves studied such histories “during the last two hundred years” with the predictable outcome that their “whole outlook on life” was moulded upon them.

Readers were regaled with Alexander’s short-lived and unfructuous invasion of India; they were left in ignorance of the magnificent empire and still more enduring culture which the Gangetic Valley had built up by the time. Lurid details of intrigues in the palaces of the Sultans of Delhi…are given, but little light is thrown on the exploits of the…heroes and heroines who for centuries resisted the Central Asiatic barbarians...the Great National Revolt of 1857 gave the readers a glimpse of how the brave foreigner crushed India. It is only outside so-called historical studies that the reader found how…patriotic men and women of all communities…rallied…to drive out the hated foreigner. The multiplicity of our languages and communities is widely advertised but little emphasis is laid on certain facts which make India what she is.

Perhaps we’re now widely familiar with this chicanery masquerading as history thanks to Nehru’s court historians who, after Independence, elevated this to a sick art form and corrupted and destroyed three generations of our children. Munshi’s antidote was truly farsighted:

The role of alien invasions in the history of India, hitherto exaggerated, deserves to be reduced to its appropriate proportions…But during all this period, the vitality of the race and culture…expressed itself with unabated vigour. The history of India is not the story of how she underwent foreign invasions, but how she resisted them and eventually triumphed over them.

And writing such a history unambiguously involves writing it based on the truths of our inherited historical experience and cultural consciousness, which are supplements to historical material. Munshi delineates this approach using three major themes that has kept the Sanatana civilization alive till date and enabled it to resist, ward off, and finally win an epochal battle in 1947:

1. The Sanatana social structure, for all its exaggerated defects, prescribed a deeply spiritual code and goal for the individual. In Munshi’s words, this was “living up to an ideal of conduct in accordance with a code of live which may be traced back as far as the Upanishads.”

2. The Dharmasastras, perhaps the most exhaustive code of personal and societal laws, which moulded, shaped, guided, and sustained an entire civilization and all its constituent units for more than three thousand years. It is impossible to write a truthful, let alone complete history of India without this invaluable and the most authentic primary source. The other great Rishi, P.V. Kane deserves our everlasting reverence for his irreplaceable and unrepeatable feat in this area.

3. Sanskrit. There is no India sans Sanskrit. Enough said.

P.V. Kane
P.V. Kane

The centrality and the truth of Munshi’s three-themed approach to write the history of India has been proven in its flagrant violation. Take any item in the list and see how and what the Marxist pamphleteers have done. A D.D. Kosambi distorts the Bhagavad Gita despite knowing Sanskrit. A Romila Thapar writes an entire history textbook on Ancient India without knowing Sanskrit. Other gifted eminences like Satish Chandra write on the Hindu social structure to “prove” why Islam was a liberating force. The list is endless.

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More fundamentally, Munshi offers a brilliant insight when he says that treating India’s history in a post-mortem fashion is both devoid of historical perspective and unscientific. That approach is suitable for writing the histories of truly dead civilisations like Greece or Rome or Egypt. You cannot bring them back even if you’re armed with the sincerest intent or with all the resources of the world at your command.

However, “every period in India’s history is no more than an expression in a limited period of all the life forces and dominant ideas created and preserved by the national culture.” That national culture is what has made the rebuilding of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya a reality.

And then Munshi energises the historian with magnificent inspiration:

The modern historian of India must approach her as a living entity with a central continuous urge, of which the apparent life is a mere expression. Without such an outlook, it is impossible to understand India, which…stands today strong…determined not to be untrue to its ancient self.

Munshi wrote this when India newly attained independence, a time of great optimism, hopeful renewal and dream of a future full of promise. A major reason such histories of India are no longer written is perhaps because we got our freedom too cheaply. Further comment is unnecessary.

To be continued

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