Updated: Jun 17
Rishi Valley School’s history curriculum is framed within the intellectual, moral and aesthetic values embedded in the philosophy of the school’s founder, the philosopher J. Krishnamurti. These values include the unity of humankind, a concern for species that share the earth with human beings, a global worldview and a search for truth. These values are brought together to create a rational relationship to the past, against the backdrop of contemporary realities.
A rational view of the past is based on the understanding that the past is reconstructed on the basis of evidence. Thus fresh evidence can overturn our understanding of the past. These truisms counter the contemporary trend in the teaching of history, which is to glorify the past at the expense of truth. The following report from the Hindustan Times is a case in point:
Alexander the Great invaded India. But King Porus defeated Alexander and chased him away. Which narrative should we teach our children? This was Karnataka education minister’s poser [. . . .]The minister said, ‘The first one is what we have been taught for years. This perspective breeds an inferiority complex. The second narrative helps children swell with pride.
It is a disservice to students to present history in distorted ways, especially in the face of available evidence that points to a contrary conclusion. When students lack the ability to test beliefs against available evidence, they are able neither to discuss contending ideas nor to think independently. Furthermore, beliefs bonded in pride come in the way of understanding cultures other than one’s own. In a democratic country of diverse cultures, citizens need to be independent thinkers with empathy for other groups. An untamed sense of pride has the tendency to spill over into pride in caste, gender and religion, and leads ultimately to intolerance. The result is social disharmony.
Debate and dialogue have ancient roots in India and have long been a way, in the public sphere, of settling disputes between schools of thought—the Jains engaged the Buddhists who in turn debated the Nyaya philosophers—all in open forums, in the presence of kings. Teachers should invoke this spirit inside and outside the classroom.
Middle School–Part I
The social studies curriculum in the middle school, i.e. in classes 7 and 8, begins with an account of Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos Islands. At the end of his voyage, Darwin concludes that all life forms have a common origin. Current research suggests that human beings have African ancestors and so are related to one another and to other living beings. Darwin’s theory destroys old prejudices about race and caste while affirming the universality of human nature. A humanist strain in scientific thought is thus brought into our classrooms.
Rishi Valley School is located in Andhra Pradesh, in an isolated valley inhabited by stonecutters, shepherds and cattle farmers. These are livelihoods that can be traced to prehistoric times. The diverse social formations in the valley resonate with the observations of great historian D. D. Kosambi, who said that the telescoping of time, or the contemporaneous existence of many stages of human development, is a general and perhaps unique feature of India’s history. According to Kosambi, India is a country of ‘long survivals’. And in a country like ours, a study of anthropology is important for the study of history. It provides a base for structuring a curriculum capable of addressing both Rishi Valley’s immediate social reality and the larger perspectives of history. Kosambi’s observation helps frame the sequential development of human cultures from Stone Age societies onwards. It also clarifies an important conceptual distinction between simple societies, such as those found in the Andamans, and complex societies that emerged during Neolithic times and led, during the third millennium BCE, to the cities on the Indus. Some basic concepts introduced at this point to students include the idea of surplus, division of labour and the hierarchical organization of society; these are explained as characteristics of complex societies.
Poems, painting and stories are used to illustrate the prehistoric period of cultural development. Wall paintings from Bhimbetka and Alta Mira, the Psalm from the Old Testament, a poem by Jalaluddin Rumi and a hymn from the Atharva Veda to the Mother Goddess round out students’ understanding of food gathering, pastoral and farming communities.
Three case studies of ancient formations surviving into modern times provide occasions for highlighting a variety of issues that are relevant to the present. Life among the food-gathering tribal populations in the Andaman Islands focuses on the place of ritual in settling conflicts between clans, and encourages pupils to examine the level of violence endemic in modern societies compared with the comparatively more peaceful life of the island’s tribal population.
The place of myth in deciphering the past is featured in the case study of pastoralism in the Deccan. The studies demonstrate how elements in the landscape, the nature of the soil, and the availability of water defined the design of early livelihoods. These stories, in addition, explain the success of nomadic shepherding communities and their symbiotic relationship with settled farmers that emerged in the semi-arid regions of the Deccan, the region in which Rishi Valley School is located.
Our hope is that by providing students with a framework through which to view the immediate subsistence practices of the rural population at Rishi Valley, we will also provide them with a perspective on wider realities, including the current ecological crisis that threatens our future.
Another culture we study is that of Bali, whose terraced rice fields and water-sharing rituals provide a striking example of a culture that distributes water rights in accordance with the needs of rice cultivation rather than property rights. Once upon a time in Bali, water temples guaranteeing the flow of water into paddy fields controlled irrigation. Water flooded the nurseries where paddy saplings were cultivated and was withheld from fields where they were harvested. The design was extremely efficient and resulted in an abundant crop.
That a complex civilization developed in Bali, without the benefit of any significant urbanisation, is intended to offset the Eurocentric view that civilization is identical with city life. The case study, in addition, hints at way of addressing the important issue of community rights.
The course that begins with Darwin’s theory of human origins and which is aimed at destroying preconceived ideas about race, religion and caste ends with a chapter on the nature of prejudice and how it afflicts modern life. Students are expected to write about their prejudices and how they overcame them. This is a lesson in ethical thinking presented, at this stage, in a simple manner. However the issues involved include complex aspects of self-identity and group identities that are carried forward for investigation and discussion in higher classes.
Middle School – Part 2
Ancient Indian history is a fanatically contested field today. European racial theories of the nineteenth century cast a shadow over this period. To counter these theories, students are taught that speakers who share a language do not necessarily belong to the same race; in fact, the very notion of an Indian race characterized by a unique set of genes has never been established.
The chapter reinforces the lesson that evidence drawn from very different fields, such as archaeology and linguistics, supports our understanding of the past and helps draw the scientific spirit to the study of history. For instance, the archaeologists’ discovery in 1932 of the cities on the Indus extended our knowledge of the ancient world by nearly two millennia. Sir Mortimer Wheeler—the well-known archaeologist, held that a heroic figure from Mesopotamia established these cities on the basis of a pre-existing model; in other words: that Harappa did not emerge from roots in the Indian subcontinent. Later excavations from Mehrgargh show successive layers of the material culture advancing from Stone Age societies to the complex trading civilization of a more technologically mature period. These archaeological findings are shared in order to demonstrate the falsity of Wheeler’s hypothesis about the cities on the Indus.
Finnish linguist Asko Parpola’s attempts to decipher the Harappan script in terms of Tamilian models are also shared to demonstrate how linguistic evidence is germane to reconstructing the past. An account of the similarities between the Romani language of the European Gypsies and languages spoken in India, and how this similarity helped trace their homeland to north India, affords another example of languages providing clues to the past.
A section on Vedic texts traces the transition from early worship of nature gods, to the growing importance of rituals and matrams and their power to win the gods’ favour. This eventually leads to the idea that doubt and persistent questioning pave the path to truth. The sense of progression and change in unlikely areas, such as religion, is in this way communicated to students.
The Mahabharata is an important focus of study at this stage. The stories of Eklavya and Karna are occasions for students to reflect on ideas of justice within a social hierarchy. Stories such as this introduce students to questions of equality.
High School: European and Colonial History
European history, especially the Bill of Rights and the French Revolution, serves as a prelude to the study of the Indian Constitution. The constitutional protection of religious freedom is highlighted as students become acquainted with two major religious faiths, namely, Islam and Christianity (the Vedas, Upanishads, Jainism and Buddhism are covered in earlier years). The unit provides an occasion for demonstrating that around each of these world religions flourished art, architecture, literature, mathematics and science.
Community rights form a distinct aspect of traditional Indian thought; we find them articulated in one of Ashoka’s Edicts as well as in the Dharmashastras. Students learn to contrast the idea of community rights with the idea that individuals are the repositories of those rights. The latter, although influenced by European thought, is enshrined in our constitution. The Indian constitution, also recognises community rights. The tension between community rights and the rights of the individual are foregrounded today in the context of secular laws, such as protocol governing patents (‘Should the patent rights for certain traditional medicinal herbs and certain kinds of grain, such as Basmati rice, repose in the community or to companies or to individuals who register parents?’) and the larger conflict over the commons.
Nationalism and The Freedom Struggle
Students are introduced to the great diversity of cultures found in India with a view to contrasting the relative homogeneity of countries in Europe, where the idea of the nation originated. Two passages detail the difference between cultural formations and military styles in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century India and Europe.
The first reading consists of an extract from Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain. The passage, set in eighteenth-century India, describes the diversity of Indian cultures, with tribal societies existing contemporaneously with feudal ones, and contrasts the slower and more leisurely styles of military engagements in India with the agility and superior tactics of European adventurers. The piece offers a foretaste of European successes.
Basic concepts of economic history are embedded in a historical context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century India. England’s Industrial Revolution and its impact on trade and markets during the colonial era provide fertile soil for exploring notions of capitalism and its associated concepts of free trade.
The second passage is from A Voyage to Surat in which a chaplain in the employ of the East India Company urges the government in Britain to subsidise the Company’s commercial ventures. The passage presupposes that the ‘general good’ is congruent with what benefits Britain’s commercial interests.
These two passages set the stage for the study of nationalism, the idea of which is constructed in terms of its two salient features: territorial sovereignty, and the cultural homogeneity of the people within a territory. Cultural homogeneity is captured in the romantic notion that a nation has ‘a soul’. This belief, juxtaposed with the fault lines within this ‘soul’—of class, caste, language and religion—breeds what Isaiah Berlin refers to as ‘active dislike or contempt of other groups’.
Once the associated notions of paramount power, a national democratic state and a homogeneous national ideology became part of Indian political discourse, group conflicts became inevitable. This is an inescapable feature of nationalistic ideologies, whether based on ethnicity, religion, and language or shared history. These are the assumptions, therefore, that inform our teaching of Partition.
Rabindranath Tagore was the first to point to the dangers of adopting nationalism as a unifying principle for a country of diverse cultures such as India. In his novel Ghare Baire—a story tracing the consequences of the swadeshi movement following the Partition of Bengal—he warned against the price nationalism would extract, namely: a division between the Muslim and Hindu communities. Nikhil, the tragic hero of the novel, speaks for Tagore when he says, ‘I am willing to serve my country; but my worship I reserve for Right which is far greater than my country. To worship my country as a god is to bring a curse upon it.’
Two world wars, the Partition, India’s wars with Pakistan and the formation of Pakistan sprang from nationalistic ideologies. At a time when the planet is in peril and nation states spend several trillion dollars arming themselves, it is important to point out to students that division is inherent in nationalist ideologies and that it is in the interest of humanity to look at groups other than one’s own with sympathetic eyes.
A balanced view of nation states, however, requires that the history curriculum highlight positive aspects of the Indian nation state and its commitment to transcending internal divisions. The Indian constitution, with its list of fundamental rights and guarantees of equality before the law, is a commitment to justice. Students should be taught that India is founded on a secular constitution that guarantees equal rights for each of its citizens. In addition, it protects the community rights of minorities and is committed to redressing past injustices to Dalit communities. The constitution is a commitment made by men and women, among them the Dalit leader Babasaheb Ambedkar, who struggled to win freedom with justice for all of India’s future citizens.
To orient students to a broader historical context informed by present realities, to free them from a false view of the past, to point out that pride takes second place to truth, is not to strip students of love for the country’s culture. A love for the mountains, forests and rivers is part of human consciousness; it does not have to be reinforced with military parades.
‘Our mind,’ Tagore wrote, referring to the people of this land, ‘has faculties which are universal, but habits which are insular.’ The main thrust of Krishnamurti’s philosophy was to break down this insularity of the individual, which he believed was a shared feature of human consciousness. Krishnamurti used the word ‘conditioning’ to describe this insular aspect of human nature; he held that tribalism and individualism have their source in self-centered thinking. The values his educational experiment emphasises are aimed at actively liberating students from false views and the false consciousness that supports these views. Freedom and truth, according to Krishnamurti, go hand in hand. Therein lies an important lesson for teaching history at school.
Radhika Herzberger is an Indian writer, educationist and scholar in Sanskrit and Indology. She lives in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, and is the director of Rishi Valley Education Centre, an educational institution founded by Jiddu Krishnamurti in 1982.
Krishna Menon is a teacher at the Rishi Valley School. He has been teaching the ICSE and ISC syllabi for the last 13 years.