Stories from Inscriptions: Profound Real-life Tales from Hindu Cultural History

Stories from Inscriptions

One of the interesting stories mentioned in Sandeep Balakrishna’s Stories From Inscriptions: Profound Real-life Tales from Hindu Cultural History comes from a village called Hebbale near Hassan in Karnataka. The story is about the contribution Hebbale made to our sacred tradition of pilgrimages.

This contribution was unique because it was done when Turkish invaders enforced jizya. According to a contemporary of Jehangir, the purpose of imposing jizya on kafirs is their humiliation. The humiliation was amplified by putting a pilgrim tax, and the one enforced on pilgrims going to Kashi and Prayag was the highest. According to a copper inscription from 1279 CE, king Vira Narasimha offered the land revenues of 645 varahas from Hebbale to pilgrims to Varanasi. Among those, 402 varahas were jizya to the Turkish tax collector. The remaining was for the maintenance of Sri Visweshwara temple. 

What makes this story interesting is this: Vira Narasimha was an adherent of the Jaina philosophy. So why would a Jaina Hoysala king pay jizya on behalf of Hindu pilgrims from Karnataka visiting Varanasi? 

Sandeep’s book is a collection of 15 such stories based on inscriptions. These stories were previously unknown except to scholars. This book is meant for the general audience and is written in the style of popular narrative history. The purpose is to introduce incidents from our past as narrated by kings, businessmen, bards, and warriors in their own words. These stories come from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu and span a timeline from the 9th century CE up to the 17th century CE.

The stories are organized by various themes mentioned at the beginning of each story. For example, one story is about a wealthy merchant Hatia, who purchased three marketplaces. The revenue from these marketplaces was provided as a permanent endowment to three deities at a temple complex. This story reveals political, social, and economic conditions during that time. History was boring in school because we were taught random dates, wars, and the number of trees planted by various kings. The book goes beyond that and gives us context into the country’s state at that time.

This book does three things. First, it shows how Bharat was unified as a civilization state. Second, it refutes many narratives about how uncultured and backward we were till the invaders and colonizers civilized us. Finally, it reveals many aspects of our culture we were unaware of.

Civilization State

Why did Vira Narasimha fund pilgrimages to Kashi and Prayag.? The answer is simple: Vira Narasimha understood Bharat as a civilization nation. Pilgrimages united the nation, and visit to a holy place was a religious duty. Even before modern transportation systems arrived, people traveled long distances for this purpose. Vira Narasimha’s grant covered payments to the staff of the Sri Visveshwara Temple, its maintenance, and various sevas. Apart from the Kashi pilgrims hailing from Narasimha’s dominions, his grant money was primarily used by strangers in a city he would never meet. It was his dharma, and he performed it.

It was not just Kashi and Prayag that were pilgrimage destinations. Inscriptions in Gujarat at the Bhillamāladeva temple mention visitors from Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Thanjavur, Tiruchirapalli, Ceylon, Orissa, Vengi, Jodhpur, Alwar, Bharatpur, Gujarat, and Malava. Diffusion of culture occurred due to business relations as well. For example, when there was a dispute between Karnataka-desa and Maratha-desa, it was resolved by a businessman from Kerala. Due to this, a temple was built in the Hoysala style architecture by the descendants of a Malayali businessman.

This book is a gem because it bluntly refutes narratives like “Indians had no sense of history.” Instead, evidence from these inscriptions reveals “an extraordinarily intricate system of administration and governance, a robust military machinery, a Dharma-based jurisprudence, a well-oiled and stable social order and a sprawling economic system bursting with material abundance. Moreover, there was a high degree of administrative sophistication where priority was placed on the human element.”

These fundamental values that united the country are seen in all these inscriptions. We see a world in which truth, dharma, compassion, sacrifice, loyalty, and heroism are admired. We see “donating cows is extolled, temple-building is revered, learning and scholarship are prized and patronized, reverence and respect for women are held paramount, people who die while protecting the honor of women are commemorated with tombstones, valor and death in battle are celebrated, delivering justice based on Dharmic precedents are hailed, composing, singing, and discoursing on our sacred literature are venerated, works of public welfare are supported and praised, and even the most minor act of piety is explicitly recognized and eulogized.”

This richness was not limited to culture. I learned a lot about the maturity of village administration. Our villages provided civilizational sustenance and cultural preservation while the country was being invaded and looted. Village administrations were autonomous entities responsible for managing all aspects of the village. They could administer justice; they had well-defined courts of justice in which the central ruling authority rarely interfered. In return, they deposited annual revenues to the king and prevented anarchy. Annual elections prevented monopolies and concentration of power. Every transaction was written down to the last detail and publicly ratified through voice and in writing.

INdia that is Bharat
India that is Bharat

In his book, India, that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, J Sai Deepak defines the word ‘Coloniality’. This is the process by which the colonizer advances the goal through complete domination of the culture and worldview of the colonized society. This is what the British did to us. Even after they left, Communist party members masquerading as historians used the same ideas, rules, and tools to “civilize” us. This is how we get narratives like Buddhism and Jainism were rebellions against ‘Brahminical hegemony’ or India was not a nation until the British showed up. To understand our past, we must replace the colonial lens with an indigenous lens. This book is a perfect example of that.

These inscriptions enhance our understanding of the vibrancy of our culture and traditions. Despite enormous challenges posed by invaders and colonizers, we survived the invasion of our lands, relentless pressure to abandon our religion, enslavement, and brutal violence. The historical writings gathered in this collection provide abundant evidence of the philosophical roots that built and sustained our civilization and the values that this philosophy birthed and were upheld by our people.

Bharat – A Civilization State

Bharat during Mahabharata times https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7651e.ct000605/

Recently the Member of Parliament from Wayanad, Kerala, stated that India is just a union of states. The mischievous subtext is that India is not a single nation but a collection of various nations like Europe. It also implies that the country is an artificial construct with nothing unifying the various states and territories.

This is not a new allegation. The MP from Wayanad had some illustrious predecessors. John Stratchley (some British dude) said, “The first and most essential thing to learn about India — that there is not and never was an India .” Winston Churchill (the British dude responsible for the Bengal genocide) said, “India is a geographical term. It is no more a nation than the equator.”

India, that is Bharat

India was a nation in ways these people could never fathom. The concept of Bharat has been alive for many millennia and has culturally united this land. Ancient Hindus understood this. They made pilgrimages to various holy places around Bharat. Students understood this. They traveled around to get the best education. Saints understood this. Adi Shankara established various mutts are four corners of Bharat. Besides them, our grammarians understood this and united the country with Samskritam.

In this article, we will look at evidence of these. I will be relying on the narratives of some historians you would have never heard of, like Har Bilas Sarda, Radha Kumud Mookerji, and R. C. Majumdar. I picked the summary of their arguments from J Sai Deepak’s excellent book India, that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution. I will also rely on what my Samskritam teachers taught me about Paninian grammar.

Bharat as a civilization state

Going to Triveni Sangam

A few years back, I went from Kerala to participate in the Kumbh Mela. I was among the millions of Indians walking along the banks of Ganga and Yamuna for the holy bath. Our boat to the Triveni Sangam had people from Rajasthan and Bengal. Though we were from three corners of the country, we all had the same reverence for Ganga and Yamuna and faith that the Saraswati met the other rivers at the Sangam.

There are two aspects here. The first is that people across the land venerated the geography of Bharat. Rivers, mountains, hills — all have a sacred story and are remembered in hymns and prayers. The nation itself is revered as a mother. This is quite different from how the West views nature.

The second: people traveled across the land for pilgrimages. Visit to a holy place was a religious duty. Even before modern transportation systems arrived, people traveled long distances for this purpose. The lack of physical comforts did not stop anyone. During these long trips, pilgrims took breaks, creating a network of numerous sacred spots. These pilgrims did not think of the country as different nations but as a unified cultural entity extending from the Himalayas to the oceans. This combination of nature and faith generated patriotism and cultural unity, of which the Kumbh Mela is a perfect example.

These pilgrimage spots were centers of higher learning as well. Think of Benares, Nalanda, Mathura, Takshashila, Ujjain, Prayag, Kanchi, Madhura, and Nawadwaip. Students from all over Bharat went to study at these places. With pilgrimage spots and learning centers unifying this land, it is no wonder that Chaitanya and Adi Shankara traveled from one end of Bharat to another. If there was no cultural unity, establishing four mutts at the four corners of Bharat would not make sense.

These indicate that the people of Bharat had an expanded geographical consciousness irrespective of the political boundary of the kingdom they lived in. There was a civilizational oneness despite the diversity, and this unity existed before the invaders and colonizers showed up. This unity exists even now. Thus Adi Shankara was not limited in his Malayali identity but had geographical consciousness to treat Bharat as one cultural unit.

Unification through Samskritam grammar

Panini’s Ashtadyayi

There is the story of a child who went to the gurukul and found the going quite hard. He wanted to quit. So the father told him, “Even if you don’t study a lot, please study vyākaraṇam. Else, instead of saying swajana (my people), you might say shva-jana (dog) or instead of saying sakalam (everything), you might say shakalam (part)”. Pronunciation and intonation are important; else, the meaning will be unintended and sometimes the exact opposite.

Among the six Vedangas, vyākaraṇa or grammar, is considered the most important by Patanjali, the author of Mahabhashyam. Among the grammarians, Panini is the most famous for many reasons:

1. He organized Samskritam using brilliant techniques with four thousand sutras. Just look at the concept of pratyahara, an elegant and impressive in-memory language compression technique.

2. He incorporated the works of other Shakalya, Sphotaka, Senaka, and other grammarians into his work.

3. He did not just mention how words are formed but also their meaning and relation.

Due to Panini, vyakarana-darshana became an important field of study.

But beyond these, there are two crucial points where Panini shined.

 Panini’s grammar has sutras for both Vedic Samskritam and non-Vedic Samskritam. For example, the plural form of देवः is देवाः in Samskritam, while it’s देवासः in Vedic Samskritam. Panini’s grammar has a sutra to address this. In Samskritam, there is a word called jahāra, whereas, in the Vedic texts, it’s used as jabhāra. If no grammar specified the rules, someone reading this could assume it as a typo and rewrite the word. Due to this guardrail, the Vedas remain like a tape recording from millennia back. This is why we say vyākaraṇam protects the Vedas.

Why does this matter? If not for this protection, a naughty Samskritam professor at Harvard could declare that the rishis made a typo in the Vedas. He could declare that the Harvard version of Vedas will fix this, and anyone who does not follow that is anti-minority and a Hindu nationalist. I am not kidding about this. Here is a case where the Vedas were misinterpreted to support the Aryan Invasion Theory. The preservation of personal names in Rig Veda has helped us understand how the various tribes migrated, giving a radically different view of the ancient world. Now, Panini could have left the Vedic Samskritam alone. That was language from a distant past. Instead, he saw a cultural continuity from the past use of language to his present. 

Panini was aware of Samskritam used in different parts of India and their variations. So, he integrated all the variations into this grammar. If he just cared about his political boundary, he could have ignored the regional usage at a distant place. But he did not. He had the geographical consciousness to see that all these lands were part of one unified cultural unit. The political boundaries have changed in various ways since the time of Panini. However, the land of Bharata still has the same name and culture since those times.

Finally

The British treated Bharat as a collection of countries in a Eurocentric way. But that view does not work for India because we did not operate on European concepts of nation and state. India bounded by the majestic mountains and vast oceans was designated by one name – Bharat. The geography was marked out by nature itself. If you think of the concept of nation as a monochromatic picture, India is a civilization drawn with a dazzling array of colors. In this civilization state, there was cultural unity within a federation of creeds. Each of them had the freedom to preserve their special features and enrich the central culture.

By parroting old British propaganda, the Member of Parliament from Wayanad is just following the path of his great-grand father who wrote The Discovery of India which discovered India, but not Bharat.

Book Review: Calling Sehmat

Book: Calling Sehmat by Harinder S. Sikka

Calling Sehmet
Calling Sehmat

In 1971, as the tensions between India and Pakistan were rising, the college girl Sehmat Khan agrees to marry a Pakistani Army officer to spy for India. It was a career chosen out of necessity, but she ends up being so good at it that she saved INS Vikrant from destruction. This is not fiction, but the story of a real life patriotic Indian, whose life was so extraordinary, that you would think it’s all made up. As she goes through her journey from a simple college girl to a spy who lived with the sole purpose of safeguarding India, you will find yourself in awe. She was the most beautiful Indian spy who single-handedly ravaged Pakistan’s security system.

The best part of the book is that it gives a well rounded portrayal of Sehmat as she goes through various phases of her life. A quarter of the book is about her college life which shows initial glimpses of her determination and passion. She got selected for a dance competition in which she was to portray Meerabai. She had seen her mother pray to Meerabai and for being the character, she spent hours in the college library, reading all about her. She danced with such intensity and absorption that she did not notice that her legs were bleeding.

Her transformation from college girl to a spy was to honor the wishes of her dying father who had instilled patriotism in her. Her philosophy was “there is no greater reward than to live and die for your country”, a lesson she got from her father. He had told her that there is nothing more disgraceful than being disloyal to the motherland. As a businessman who traveled across the border, he was instrumental in setting up a spy network in Pakistan.

Then you see another Sehmat, who sacrifices her college lover and moves to Pakistan. Her down to earth demeanor and good intentions earn her the trust of her immediate family, her father-in-law and her husband. It was due to her cleverness that they got promoted in their jobs and had career advances. It was during one scan of her father-in-laws office that she found the files which suggested that Pakistani submarines were targeting INS Vikrant.

Living behind enemy lines is not easy. The intelligence gathering techniques of 1971 could not be done remotely; it required acts of courage. The intricacies of these techniques and dangers it entails are covered well. There were many times she could have been exposed and she triumphs over those circumstances with her quick thinking. She even miraculously escaped including a bomb attack. She was a person who planned two steps ahead all the time and that saved her.

Eventually when she settled back in India, the pictures on her house demonstrated her beliefs. Her house had pictures of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru, Ram Prasad Bismil and Khudiram Bose. In her private space she worshipped Allah, Ganesha, Krishna, Jesus and Wahe Guru. She was fascinated by Meerabai’s hymns.

I finished the book only because it’s inspiring to read about such unknown heroes. The book explores her fortitude and unwavering loyalty to India during a time of war. The initial part of the book about Sehmat’s simple life, her marriage and her activities in Pakistan are paced very well. The writing itself is really plain and starts meandering towards the end. It could have used multiple rewrites with a good editor.. I am not even sure why one chapter of a failed Indian navy attack was described. That would have been better in an appendix or could be the matter for another book.

Despite all the courageous self-assurance displayed by Sehmat during her mission, her life ends in tragedy. Well almost. Memories of the ruthless things she had to do haunt her. Since her life in Pakistan was messy, chaotic and non-formulaic, she ends up suffering from depression. The book describes her encounter with a fakir who gave her spiritual lessons from various scriptures including the Upanishads to get her out of her gloom. In turn she was attacked by Muslim fundamentalists in her area and it required an intervention from RAW.

Her life was about love; to her country, to her parents and to her college mate. There is also a movie based on the book, but it leaves out multiple dimensions of Sehmat. As always, the book is better.