A Book That Helps Indian American Kids Explore Their Identity

Dr Bijoy Misra serves as the President of India Discovery Center, USA and leads the efforts of content creation and organizing the IDC activities. A physicist by profession, he has turned his attention to promoting authentic information about Indian history and culture. He helps run the South Asia Poets of New England group. A Sanskrit scholar, he is currently an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of South Asian Studies at Harvard University.

In this interview, Dr Misra talks about the new book published by IDC – Evolution of India’s Culture – Pre-History to 1947 AD. Below is a short excerpt from the Art and Culture Chapter:

The earliest ‘culturally conscious’ Indians belonged to the H. erectus communities of the Middle Paleolithic period, who created the ‘Nevasan’ (and Soan) cultures 500,000 years ago. Sites for this culture are spread all over India and yield siliceous ‘flake stones’ and ‘axe-cleavers’, with rituals guiding life and death. Around 130,000 years ago, these axe wielding hunter-gatherer hominids began occupying the ‘Bhimbetka’ caves of central India (approx. 750 rock shelters over 10 km) which became one of the few continuously maintained ‘cultural’ landmarks well into recorded history. (Figure 2.1.1)

Figure 2.1.1: Depiction of the Indian bison on walls of Bhimbetka vs usage the bull insignia in Indus seals

PDF copy of the book can be downloaded free at https://www.indiadiscovery.org

What inspired you to write this new Indian history textbook, and what unique perspective or approach does it offer compared to existing textbooks?

My mother always advised me that our children should know about India and her story.  I participated in an Indian cultural school that ran on Sundays in the US.  Through my interaction with the students there I realized how little I knew about my origins.  I took interest in Sanskrit and that opened me a whole new India that I had not seen before.  I realized that Indian history has only been written by visitors through anecdotes or journalism. I thought we had a unique opportunity of observing India from a distant land with eyes of Indian descent.  I helped create tracks and teams to research the tracks to help create a story for our children.  Indian American children are a new entity in the modern world, and we thought we should help them explore their identity.  So, the book.

Film makers today are revisiting India’s recent past, post 1947, looking at history from an Indian point of view. Is this something that is important to you?

It is important, but not relevant.  Blaming the past or observing differently will not help clean the stains.  The British did try to derail India to digress from her fundamentals.  It would appear that they succeeded.  The new India has become a political entity than a cultural entity.  India needs massive man-power deployment and exponential production.  The new films look like marketing videos, which would not help children.  India has to help create a student body deeply entrenched in the wholesomeness of life that India discovered.  The education system needs major metamorphosis towards the fundamentals.

Can you provide an overview of the book's structure and organization, including the key time periods and themes covered? Art and Culture has been given a special place, which is not usually done in other history books. How important is it to give this perspective of India where art is an integral part of our daily lives.

The tracks were determined through an initial key word indexing.  I had designed courses and taught Digital Libraries at Harvard before.  The indexing organization came from this course.  You can call it meta-word statistics through matrix analysis.  Twelve people participated to make an objective scheme.  The time periods were driven by the available literature. We broke it into segments such that we could be focused in our statements.  Very early we realized that India is a nation of Art.  Some of the local dancers and musicians were attracted to research and they put their signature to the story.  Some of the early sciences in India are artfully expressed in beautifully crafted sentences.   Nature provides art to India that translates into people’s lives.  I must say that it is eroding, the erosion must be halted.

Given the vastness of Indian history, how do you strike a balance between depth and breadth in your textbook?

We cover what is available in literature.  We distribute ourselves in the country and among people to ascertain our viewpoint.  We give ourselves time and we discuss in weekly meetings.  People of different backgrounds, different ages, different professions and genders join in the discussion.  We develop an immigrant’s view which has no region or religion in it.  The track leader presents the view through a set of two dozen slides in a public seminar attended by about a hundred people.  People join as an open-door policy.  The seminars, one per period, were held every six months.  The seminar presentations are given as references in the book.  We plan to assemble all contributors in a meeting next year when we map to create the second part of the book (From 1947 AD to the current time.)

How do you incorporate primary sources, visuals, and multimedia elements to make the learning experience engaging for students?

In the book, we only give 2 D pictures.  We do give references to websites where further exploration is doable.  Our goal in the book is to breeze through the massive history to show that India is a living culture.   A good man can be vandalized if he/she is not careful.  We hope such message might come through, which could be a good learning experience for the world children.  We are developing a multimedia project called Virtual India, which would be in the mode of self-learning and research.  There we hope to analyze the fundamentals of mathematics, astronomy, language, grammar, art, music, sculpting, metallurgy, building, food, medicine and yoga.  This may take another three to five years to be coded and developed as a product.

The authors of the essays are senior experts in diverse fields. How does their contribution encourage critical thinking and discussions among students about the complexities of India's history and culture?

I don’t think we would call ourselves as “senior experts”.  Our only definition is that we entered the project without any bias.  We have to see India as a child may see.  We have to explain the scene to the child.  Our own children grew up before we could create a dialog, we thought to empower the future parents.  What I personally discovered that India as a culture refined itself by heavy experimentation.  Certain fundamental ideas of these experiments are built into respecting the people and respecting the tradition.  Amidst this lie the utter respect to truth and acceptance of events.    Truth will shine and the oppression will cease, we only have to work with diligence and utter sincerity.  Noble leaders will come from our children, so is our hope.

Economic history has been integrated into every narrative of India's past. India’s economic attractiveness and uniqueness in the Indian Ocean region was of much interest to the world. How is this brought out in the book?

We do show maritime trade with the Arabs during the Indus Period.  Maritime trade had exponential growth a Mauryan times with boats plying up to China.  India was a big exporter of grains and raw material in those early centuries.  We ascribe India’s opulence in the Golden period to the maritime trade.  All exchanges were in gold and silver.  We show sea routes and do narrate some of the expeditions.  Far east was colonized and Indian culture did spread to educate and to spread the faith system.  We show how the sea routes eventually became the pathways for the western ships to come and camp in India.  We develop a thesis that the occupation of India was because of the regional autonomy in trade leading to local negotiations and tricks.  This is our viewpoint.

India is a country with significant regional diversity. How does your textbook address regional variations and their impact on the nation's history and culture?

We address it, we don’t consider it a handicap.  It makes the culture rich.  In our Language and Literature track, we show the massive display of talents all around the country.  Harmony and coexistence lead to stability and creativity.  Spectacular temples of different styles have come up in different parts each respecting the other.  Divisiveness was caused by controlling the food distribution by instituting some federal rule.  Many of the British rules need complete revisions in modern India.  Whether a good government would come with a bright leader is a good question.  It can be a function of time when ownership is created.  I would think it may take fifty to a hundred years.  Our book may help.

How have recent developments or research findings influenced the content and approach of your textbook?

We are so designed that we can revise the book as new discoveries are made.   Fundamental questions like how Sanskrit developed as a language or who the Vedic composers were need serious multi-disciplinary research.  We note in various places in the book where new research is needed.  Our hope is that some in the new generation will take up India as a challenge to explore the fundamental ideas of the culture.  We have to find the veracity in the statement of Charaka that the faulty mind causes disease. Is it a statement or a discovery?  Man is not born to die, but dies out of own misconduct.  Charaka’s book needs huge knowledge analysis to establish an eastern view of life than that of conflict, struggle and decay as developed in the west.  It is one of many examples. Some of us are engaging to find the neurological implications of human speech following the Vedas.

Professor Subhash Kak in his recent book The Idea of Bharat states that whatever the origin of the use of the name, Bharata (meaning absorbed in light or wisdom), is the right fit of “how Indian has been seen by natives and outsiders, as a storehouse of spiritual and scientific knowledge.” Your book reflects this truth. What are your thoughts on this, in the light of the country now readapting this name.

I have not seen the book yet.  Prof Kak just mentioned to me about the book.  I don’t think a name change is important or necessary. India as a name is celebrated and respected in the world.  Meaning of any word is arbitrary, India as a word also provides deep philosophical and intellectual messages world over.  This must not be lost.  Panini called the names as samjnA संज्ञा, how people would know.  We should keep operating on conventional लौकिक names not to create confusion at the present time.  We have other pressing issues.  Living abroad I see the depth of the word India.  It has a charm and a glory that must not be subdued.  भारतवर्ष may have the right diction, but that is a different discussion.

Indian Philosophy has largely been dialogic and not prescriptive, says Pavan K Varma in his book The Great Indian Civilisation. While our greatest texts are seen as Shruti or revealed texts, there has always been space for debate and evolution. How does your book deal with this tradition? How does your book explore the role of religion in shaping India's history and culture?

Again, I have not read the book.  We also made a point not to read any interpretation books but to stick only onto the sourcebooks.  On philosophy we found the discovery of personal freedom through Sankhya सांख्य as the most dominant thesis.  Individual freedom helps foster creativity and that has helped the culture to evolve, thus is our view. श्रुति created a paradigm of conformity, to respect what was observed in the past.  The parts of observations are analytic, the speculative portions are debated.   Modern religions are local cults to create belief systems.  They are not analytic.  Rituals are done since they did yield results.  It needs huge discipline and a lot of blessings for the success of a ritual.  Through Islam and the British, India had to abandon the long processes of ritualistic discipline in favor of quick worship and dependence on luck.  Some people still live on truth and they win the life’s struggles.

As the publisher, what do you hope students and readers will take away from your textbook in terms of a deeper understanding of India's history and culture?

We did host a local teachers’ workshop two weeks back on Sept 30.  Three Middle school teachers and one High School teacher participated.  I did say in my introduction that we hope that the teachers may find a different message for children in the book.  The western system of education and classroom processes are designed to foster individualism than social acceptance and community development.  What India discovered is that each person is good in his/her own way and the education is a tool to tap that innate potential.  So, education is cooperative and a method of helping to develop respect for each other.  Everybody does not have to score a goal, but some can cook good food for the team.  All can be respected.  No life is less than the other. Teachers were very intent in listening to me.  But to create a modern classroom based educational activity would be a challenge.  I realize that the western method of competition for individual security is spreading fast. With the current opulence in the US, nobody would be left behind if we create a society with respect for all.  Respecting the individual in his/her own being is what India taught to the world in history.  Hopefully it will shine back again, our book may help.   India herself has to be the leader in this transformation.

Feature Image: Dr Misra introducing the book to the local teachers, Sept 30. Workshop at Bemis Hall.