Producer and historian Michael Wood in the final scene of ‘Beginnings’, the first in a series of six documentaries on the ‘Story of India.’
I watched a television documentary on the ancient history of India today. Presented by Michael Wood and made for British and American audiences, it was entitled Beginnings and forms part of a season celebrating the 60th anniversary of India’s independence.
Although the presenter was quite congenial and effusive in his praise of India’s traditions, and rightly gave recognition to her people’s antiquity, the actual conclusion of his presentation was an unwitting slap in the face for every one of India’s 800 million Hindus. Some of my congregation members watched it and were troubled by it. They asked me what my own views on the show were, which I hadn’t actually seen at the time they asked, so I’m writing this blog by way of a reply.
Blogs are meant to be short, so I will try to be brief, although there’s enough to say on every one of my points that I could speak for quite some time on each of them.
Firstly, I suppose I should begin by saying that television presenters are exactly that: they present. They present us with information for our awareness and entertainment in an appealing and artistic way. They are the face you see on the screen and the voice you hear. These days, when money is short in the industry and the atmosphere relentlessly competitive, and if they are particularly competent, they will also write the show and produce it themselves. I have got to know a number of television presenters over the years and have been featured in their documentaries. I know what goes into the making of a film and how much effort and creativity goes into making even the shortest one.
So I don’t want to shoot any messengers here. Michael Wood was just doing his job. He has a team of researchers, who naturally approach the university academics, who are quite naturally teaching what they consider to be the latest knowledge. And that, they may all reason, is the best that anyone can do. But for anyone who actually has religious faith, who believes in the tenets of the scriptures of Hinduism, and, through the practise of their faith, hopes to be connected with God, this documentary was the equivalent of the proverbial mad elephant in a flower garden.
Why? Because it explained that Indians came from Africa, the Vedas came from central Asia, the traditional Vedic fire sacrifices were conducted by intoxicated shamans, and that because Hinduism itself is in a constant state of flux, it is a belief system shaped only by the forces of climate, geography and history, rather than eternal verities. Oh yes, and while we’re on the subject, that the speaker of the Bhagavad-gita – the Bible for all Hindus – was a Persian prince. Or perhaps from Kazakhstan. Or maybe Russia.
That doesn’t really leave India with much to be proud about does it? Nothing at all came from the land we now know as India. Basically everything that every Hindu believes to be true is false. The great theology, language and traditions of a magnificent culture are all borrowed from somewhere else. Whoever thinks that chauvinism about India died when the last servant of the British Empire got on a boat and left the country should think again; it is very much alive and well.
Right from the very beginning of exploration into India’s ancient past the Europeans did not like the idea of anywhere other than the Garden of Eden being the cradle of civilisation. At the turn of the last century there were those who conceded that the location of Eden may have been somewhere between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers – but no further east, please. And this prejudice continues today, no matter how well it is concealed. Now the ‘cradle of civilisation’ has merely shifted further south, down into Africa, but never as far as India.
Although Beginnings purported to represent the latest knowledge on the origins of India and the Hindu religion, it actually left out some of the most recent research which has taken place. In this it was quite behind the times. Generally, popular presentations are quite a few steps behind the latest research, as it may take academics quite some years for their findings to be peer-reviewed, cross-checked by further findings, and finally accredited. The rest of us – particularly schoolchildren – find it in their text books up to 30 years later. So who gets to say where mankind – and the great civilisations – actually come from? Who should we believe? And, more importantly, who gets to have the final opinion? Well, first up we have the:
Everyone has heard the name of Leakey. While I was living in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1979, the Leakeys were practically our next door neighbours. The Leakey Institute was just a few yards down the road. I met Richard, the son, and found him to be a very pleasant man. I was also able to drive for some miles away from the city and have my first sight of the Great Rift Valley. I defy anyone not to have grand visions of the history of Man in such a beautiful landscape.
But just last week, August 2007, the Leakeys announced that their most recent findings, without a doubt, provide vital evidence that – we now know less about the origins of man than we thought we did. Or that the presumed straight line from Australopithecus to Homo Habilis to Homo Sapiens is not straight at all; and that two or more species were flourishing at the same time.
Beginnings starts with the basic assumption that mankind – Homo Sapiens – actually started in Africa and that the habitation of all other regions of the world represent a migration outwards from that continent. Hence everyone in India originally came from Africa. But why would anyone conclude this? How much palaeontology has been done in India? The answer is not a great deal.
Once you accept the basic premise that India was empty and had to be filled with people from somewhere else, it becomes part of the way you view all information, acting as a ‘knowledge-filter.’ Besides, if you’re an archaeologist paid by an established university you’re not going to risk your job by proposing an alternative notion – especially when you may know nothing about fossilised remains.
Much of Beginnings was about the old archaeological stand-by of the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. Discovered only in 1921 and 1922 they have nevertheless helped to confirm what was actually an existing Christian theory in need of evidence; that the Aryans, the presumed early ancestors of modern India, came from the West.
But nothing in the documentary was mentioned of the recently discovered Dwaraka, or of the even larger city (two miles long by one mile wide) discovered by submarine three years ago off the coast of modern Gujarat. Mention was made, however, of the 1948 excavation of Hastinapura, a city mentioned in the Mahabharata. It was suggested that this discovery fitted in nicely with the newly-independent India’s need to have an ancient discovery of their own. No-one as good as the culturally biased to sniff out cultural bias, eh?
The discovery of remnants of Soma, the plant stimulant mentioned in the Rig-Veda, mixed with other ingredients, does not prove that such ingredients and the fire ceremonies which employed them originated outside India. Rather, it may even show that such performances were exported outside what is now India. Of course, what is known as India today is a shrunken version of ‘Hindustan’ which incorporated even present day Afghanistan a few centuries ago. And Hindustan itself, according to the histories of India, is only a fraction of the kingdom of Bharata.
As a discipline, this ‘Ology’ is a baby compared with others. It does, however, have a lot to say for itself about ancient languages. Although in the documentary Michael Wood spoke in something approaching wonder of Sanskrit being ‘the living sound of the Bronze Age,’ and although he nicely displayed the sound-links between Sanskrit and Latin, his presentation was scuppered by the fallacious notion of a language that predates both: the so-called ‘Proto-Indo-European.’ That nothing has been found of this language, but that we need such a language to substantiate the claims made by other academic disciplines, does not seem to prevent anyone from claiming its existence. I have a theory of my own, and this theory is just as good as that proposed by anyone else. I believe that because the ancient Welsh language, the tongue of the Druids, contains at least 200 Sanskrit words, that the Aryans actually came from Wales and that Hinduism is actually the finest expression of the Welshmen. Wales, therefore, is the very cradle of the ancient Vedic civilisation. I just happened to be born a few miles from Cardiff but that bears absolutely no influence upon my academic objectivity.
Of course, I do not believe that. And neither does anyone else. It is a generally accepted idea that the Druids – and the Celts – gradually migrated westwards across Europe. That the Celtic forefathers can travel the thousands of miles from their notional origin to the very western tips of Ireland, where their language is still spoken, but that the culture of the ancient Hindus cannot travel a few hundred miles west to Persia and Central Asia defies logic.
I might also mention here that ‘fire-worship’ (which, of course, is nothing of the sort, except to the naked eye) and the stories of Vishnu and Krishna, are also found in Russia in the oldest language of that country.
The discipline of Anthropology – the study of humanity and the unique non-biological characteristics we call culture – has, as its working foundation, the current conclusions of all the above. Religion examined through the eyes of the anthropologist will be regarded as the study of how primitive peoples project their superstitions upon nature. Fear of disaster through failure of rains and harvests; longings for fertility and the mystery of life and death; all these will be explained through cosmic myths and played out in tribal rituals.
Because religious beliefs are merely hopeful mental projections based on lack of knowledge, when science can show us the actual realities of life religion as such will cease to be useful to us. Or so say the anthropologists. If religion is nothing more than subjective evaluation of nature, then, by extension, there is no objective reality involved in it at all. And absence of objective reality means self deception. The study of the religions of mankind – according to anthropologists – is therefore the examination of the many ways in which humanity has deluded itself since it had the power to think. And so-called ‘helpful myths,’ however helpful, do not become true simply because they are colourfully displayed in dance, drama and music. Hinduism, being perhaps the oldest religion, with ‘so many gods’ can therefore be labelled as the most deceived of all the branches of the human family.
So when Michael Wood, in the final scene of his documentary, is speaking to camera in his conveniently white shirt and trousers in the middle of a happy throng of Hindus throwing multi-coloured powders, he speaks words of praise for the antiquity of India and her culture. But he has, albeit not with malice, just smilingly damned the very religious beliefs of millions.
The documentary is shown on BBC / PBS and is produced by Maya Vision. Indeed.