A Search for Our Present in History

A Search for Our Present in History

The intriguing title of this book represents a novel approach to the study of present society looked upon as a result of history.

This approach ‘stands on its head’ the conventional approach to the study of history which begins with the dim past and comes to the present as a conclusion. Our approach starts with social institutions and practices of the contemporary age and traces their origin and development to the historic past. With this approach the reader does not feel lost on the opening page of a history book. He is not confronted with a society in which lived his ancestors two or three thousand years ago. He begins with the society surrounding him, which is of his immediate concern. This method of interpreting the present and past should establish an intimate rapport between a citizen of today and the heritage bequeated to him by earlier generations. In our lifestyle, customs, traditions, beliefs; our history is reflected but it is normally beyond our perception. It would be a fascinating and enlightening experience to trace the origins of things we see and do today in the bygone ages.

As a citizen of India can one answer questions like:

1) Why have Indians always attached more importance to Non-violence (Ahimsa) than any other people ?

2) How did vegetarianism become nearly an all pervading attitude in India from ancient times ?

3) How is it that the cow (Gomata) and bull (Nandi) have come to acquire an exalted place in our religious pantheon ?

A panoramic and dramatic view of the temple complex at Madurai.


4) How was the practice of charity (Dana) elevated to the status of a religious offering ?

5) Why do we propitiate the elementals, especially fire ( in Yagna ) to usher in prosperity ?

6) How did our insistence on performing events such as marriage, thread ceremony, opening ceremony, etc., at a certain auspicious time (Muhurta) come into being ?

7) How did the practice of observing fast (Upavasa) originate and what could be the motive behind fasting and other practices like walking over hot coals, puncturing parts of one’s body or tonsuring one’s head ?

8) What purpose did the ideas like Moksha and Nirvana (release from the cycle of re-birth) serve in Indian society and how did they come into being ?

9) What is the forgotten meaning behind our religious symbols like Swastika and Omkar ?

10) What does the vermilion mark that we traditionally apply on our forehead (Tilaka) and our method of greeting each other with folded hands (Namaskara) signify ?

11) How did we come to look upon the saffron colour as sacred ?

The Ellora temple complex in Maharashtra. These temples were carved top-down, from rocky hills. Their creation began with the roof and the master-craftsmen worked their way down to the foundations!


12) What do we know about the social origins of festivals like Navaratri, Diwali or Holi, that we celebrate with faith and fervour ?

13) Why had secularism, commonly understood as religious tolerance (Sarva dharma samabhava) normally been part of Indian polity in ancient times as in post-independence India ?

14) Why do we attach overwhelming importance to ideas like fate (Daiva) and re-birth (Punarjanma) ?

15) Why do we explain away disqualifications arising out of birth in a particular caste and other misfortunes with the doctrine of deeds in past life (Karma) ?

16) Why do we frown upon a person who marries outside his caste ?

17) How did this endogamy (Sajatiya Vivaha) originate ?

The Kesari Dhwaj (saffron flag) has been India’s symbolic national and cultural standard through the ages.


18) Why has occupational stratification crystallized with birth in a particular caste only in Indian Society ?

19) How did one section of Indian society acquire the hereditary status of noble born (Dvija) and another as low born (Shudra) ?

20) Why do some of us still consider the mere touch of members of some castes as polluting ?

21) How did our attitudes of untouchability and unapproachability originate ?

22) Why did we follow, till recently, practices like dowry (Daheja), Widow burning (Sati) and child marriage (Bal-Vivaha) ?

23) What reason lies behind our concept of Satyuga (age of righteousness) which we believe existed in some time past and will return at the end of the existing dark age (Kaliyuga) ?

The Bell or Ghanta is an essential part of a Hindu Temple. The bell is sounded by every devotee before entering the sanctum sanctorum of a temple. This ringing is a symbolic creation of the sound of OM which according to Hindu Cosmogony is the totality of all sounds.

The list could be endless. The author has attempted to present facts and hypotheses about these various issues by beginning from the present period and tracing into the past, the evolution of these social attitudes which today continue to be a part of an average Indian’s temperament.

Awareness of the origins of our social attitudes also acquires added importance as compared to issues of the contemporary age like inflation, unemployment, corruption, the global arms race, etc. This is so because, contemporary issues are always in focus. The majority of us are quite familiar with them as these issues are products of our age and the media keeps us well informed about-developments taking place. Added to this, these issues are not bound up with religion, tradition or culture and hence are always open to public debate.

On the contrary much is unknown to us about our attitudes that arise from socio-religious traditions inherited from the past. Their having originated in the hazy past alongwith the sanctity that is attached to most of them, results in our being ignorant of the real meaning behind attitudes that contribute significantly to the shaping of our temperament.

Pierced stonework. It is incredible to know that such pieces were sculpted from stone in the middle ages in India.



An anecdote would illustrate the birth of a belief from a practice that began in a simple utilitarian manner.

This is the story of a pious God-fearing king from ancient India. To earn the praise of the lords of Heaven this king annually organised mass feeding of Sadhus, Sanyasis (hermits) and Brahmins (priests). Countless number of learned Brahmins, Sadhus and Sanyasis used to converge on his palace to partake in the gastronomical delights and bestow their blessings on the generous king.

On one such occasion it so happened that when the holy assemblage was being served Kheer (the Indian porridge) one of the royal pet cats ran into the unfortunate steward who tripped and measured his length on the floor, spilling the bubbling stew on their holiness’.

The helpless steward was at the receiving end of their curses, but the enlightened king pacified them and after performing ablutions on them to wash off the offending stains, he decreed that henceforth before the commencement of the great feast all cats in the palace ground should be herded together and tied to a Stake, to prevent any such untoward incident in future.

The mass feeding continued undisturbed year after year and so did the practice of tying up to a stake, the feline members of the royal habitat who came to be looked upon as portending misfortune. With the passing of years the old king was no more, but his son was no less pious than him and so also was the grandson. Generation after generation scrupulously adhered to this practice of tying up the feline population followed by the grand feast. No feast could begin unless tying up ‘ceremony’ had been duly completed. The two practices came to be looked upon as essential for earning the praise of the lords of Heaven.

A Shishu or Shishya. According to the Hindu Varnashrama Dharma, life was divided into the four stages of Brahmacharya (childhood and celibate youth), Grihasta (householder), Vanaprastha (householder who has begun his quest for spiritual pursuits) and Sanyasin (a person who has given up wordly attachments in search of spiritual quest). In the first stage of Brahmacharya, Hindu children were sent to ashramas and gurukulas (monasteries for imparting education) to get well versed in the Shastras (Treatises on various sciences). The education was imparted not in the conventional manner but by Shruti (hearing), Smirti (memorizing) and sloka-pathan (recitation).


Then one year came a severe famine. Rivers went dry, fields were barren and the kingdom’s people started migrating to better places. Came the day for the annual event but there were hardly any Brahmins left to do justice to the meagre rations that remained in the royal larder. After consulting his Chaplain the reigning king decided to temporarily suspend the second practice of hosting the grand luncheon. But as advised by the learned chaplain, the king decided to solemnly honour the first practice of tying up a few feline ‘beasts of doom’ and earn whatever praise the lords of heaven could bestow. But there were no cats to be found in the famine-struck kingdom. So the King ordered that a few cats be obtained from the neighbouring kingdom for the tieing-up ceremony to be duly performed on the auspicious day!

It was a bad time for the country and the famine continued for many consecutive years during which period, the Reigning king passed away and was succeded by his youthful son. The youthful King also scrupulously adhered to the practice of annually tying up all cats to earn the lord’s praise, as he had seen his father perform it. The country finally recovered from the dry spell and happier days were back. With prosperity having returned, the old generation advisers recalled the practice of giving the annual feast and the king wanted to re-institute that practice after seeking the royal chaplain’s blessings. But the royal chaplain had seen how his power over the king had increased in absence of other Brahmins who would otherwise hover around the king.

Keeping this in mind, the wily chaplain advised the king against re-instituting the mass feeding because, he said, the terrible famine was a result of divine wrath on the practice of feeding idle members of society which had been observed since countless generations.

Shakti – the Mother Goddess was an important part of Hindu Cosmogony. She represented the female principle along with Prana or Purusha – the male principle; both of whom together represented the continuous cosmic process of creation and renewal of life.


The chaplain convinced the king by telling him that the country obtained deliverance from the divine wrath only because the Gods saw that this practice had been done away with for the last few years. The chaplain argued that it was enough to continue the annual event of tying up the inauspicious feline harbingers of catastrophes and earning the praise of the lords of heaven.

Thus convinced, the king ordained that henceforth in his kingdom all feline creatures were to be herded together and tied up on the day the grand feast used to be observed. This was to be the sacred duty of every citizen, as the future of the kingdom depended on the lord’s blessings which could not be obtained if the ‘holy’ practice of tying up all cats was not followed. Non-observance of the practice was made a punishable offence. From that year onwards, the grand feast was forgotten but the ceremony of tying cats took root.

And ages later neither the king remained nor his kingdom, but this ‘holy’ ritual that defied rationale built up the belief of cats being the vehicles of ill omen. A belief which has withstood the test of time.

A reading of the Panchantantra, Hitopadesha, Katha-Sarit-Sagara and the Jatakas, our national collections of similar anecdotes would bring out many instances of how most of our rituals and beliefs originated from simple worldly actions of our forebears.

Indian history is replete with such beliefs end rituals which had a sound reason for coming into being but later they were continued to be observed despite the fact that the reason did not hold true any more. Our daily life also abounds with innumerable rituals the meaning of which is lost in history. We follow them out of reverence. But can reverence help us in understanding the roots of our culture, or for that do we need an attitude of inquiry ?

An inquisitive and fertile mind can pose incisive questions and strive for convincing answers. In this series of essays; HINDU HISTORY – A Search for Our Present in History, a modest attempt has been made to accomplish this.

Look out for the next post in these columns.

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