What happenned to Confucianism?


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THE new NCERT books in the social sciences, as well as in other subjects, are finally out. Some may be relieved but others are agitated and angry. Perhaps it is necessary to take stock and see what is in the books and whether or why the contents are important. We know that there is no longer a separate history textbook for class 6, the subject being part of a textbook that deals with social science as a whole. But what is the history that this text contains?

There has been an ongoing debate about whether children need to be taught history or not. History (and mathematics) tend to be amongst the most unpopular subjects in school for a number of reasons, including the fact that oftentimes history books tend to be stuffed with facts and dates making for dull, tedious reading. But if we agree that social sciences can help us understand diversity and social change, then history too has a critical role to play. What we need to work on is to make learning history more challenging, to take pains to explain to children how we find out about the past, how sources may be interpreted and read, how historical generalizations may be possible, because that in itself can be an exciting story. History can give us insights into the diversity of cultures and the nature of historical change.

The new class 6 textbook creates an impression that Indian civilization has long been a changeless one. In the search for a temporal depth, Indian civilization is presented as static, its essence formed from the beginning of time. While discussing technology we are informed that stone axes, spears and grinding stones used in the pre-historic period are used even today (p. 52). Nor has the notion of the sacred altered very much since ancient times: ‘The pipal tree was worshipped and revered by the Harappans which continues to be worshipped even today. These people also worshipped Siva in the form of linga which is done today also’ (p. 83-84). The Rigvedic people worshipped many gods representing forces of nature such as fire, sun, wind, sky and trees. They are worshipped even today. In Harappan civilization we find depictions of many things like the pipal tree, Saptamatrikas and Sivlingas which are revered by Hindus even today (p. 90). The practice of burying the dead and making a tomb over it or marking the place by erecting a stone continues even today (p. 105-106, in the context of megaliths). It is as if the ancients defined for all times the cultural principles of Indian civilization.



In referring to the varna system, the textbook says: ‘The Rigvedic society mainly comprised of four varnas, namely Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra’ (p. 90). We are never told that the only evidence for the fourfold division from the Rigveda is drawn from a single verse of a single hymn that many regard as a later inclusion in the text. Thus, the caste system is represented as being in existence since time immemorial (incidentally, the text does not provide a date for Vedic literature), even as most recent research suggests that the varna system developed in the later Vedic times when pastoral groups took to settled agriculture.

In discussing the economy, in fact, the evidence of pastoralism is entirely eliminated. We are told:

The economic life of Vedic people centred around agriculture, arts and crafts and trade and commerce. Bulls and oxen were used for ploughing and drawing carts. Horses were used to draw the chariots. Amongst the animals cow was given the most importance… (p. 89).

While agriculture is certainly important in later Vedic literature, it seems to be relatively unimportant in the Rigveda, where the hymns by and large represent the concerns of a pastoral elite. But for reasons best known to them, the authors believe that the predominance of pastoralism has to be denied and India represented as an agrarian society from the earliest Vedic times. Possibly pastoralism is associated with the absence of civilization, and the Vedic people have to be always presented as the embodiment of civilization. To claim civilizational status for the Aryans, the evidence of pastoral past has to be erased.



When we project present categories back into the past and are insensitive to the temporal dimensions of historical developments, we are guilty of anachronistic thinking. Some anachronisms are easy to detect, others are more difficult to pin down. Nonetheless, they can be problematic. Consider the statement from page 57 in the context of early civilizations:

This not only required participation of people on a large scale but also obeying the law and realizing one’s own responsibilities as part of community, society, culture and nation.

Such a statements can confuse and mislead children. Nationalism and national identities developed in the modern period from the 18th century onwards. To refer to ancient nations is anachronistic.

In discussing politics, present political ideals and principles are anachronistically traced back to the past, emphasizing once again the formative influence of pre-Islamic history in the making of Indian society and projecting the ancient past as essentially modern. In the Vedic period, we are told, ‘There were rules which governed the debate and behaviour of members in Sabha and Samiti like in our Parliament’ (p. 89). In the ganasanhgas: ‘The rulers were chosen by the people of the kingdom (sic) like we choose our government today’ (p. 93). In the Mauryan empire: ‘As before, the King was assisted by a council of ministers. It was called the mantriparishad like today’ (p. 101). During Harsh’s time: ‘The empire was divided into provinces, called desha. These were further divided into districts known as pradesha. Officials in charge of a district were called ayukta and those in charge of provinces were known as kumaramatyas. These words are still used in the administrative machinery of the country with sometimes the same meanings’ (p. 120).

The authors of the textbook seem to operate with the notion that history is a record of some kind of an Olympic event, given their a preoccupation with classifying developments as the first and the best, occasionally at the cost of truth.

* We are told that the Harappan civilization was 20 times larger than the Egyptian, and 12 times larger than the combined civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt (p. 80).

* We also learn that Upanishads are the works of most profound philosophy in any religion (p. 91). Remember that this statement is addressed to students of class 6, who may have neither the ability nor the inclination to grapple with abstruse philosophical notions. As such, they will have no option but to accept this assertion which is repeated in the chapter on world religions (Upanishads are the greatest works on philosophy in the history of humankind, p. 134).

* Page 91 also includes a truly phenomenal account of the mathematical achievements of the Vedic people, most of which are attributed, with a greater degree of accuracy, to Aryabhatta on p. 117.

The message of the text is clear: The Ancients were great, their achievements unsurpassable, and their glory incomparable.



The text is full of contradictory information. In its introductory section on History, the class 6 book for Social Sciences says:

For a long time humans did not know how to read or write. But how do we know about people who lived such a long time ago? We know about them through certain clues. They are in the form of tools, pots and pans, jewelry, buildings, coins and writings (p. 50).

What do these sentences suggest? They seem to indicate that people did not know how to read and write, but then go on to state that we know about them from their writings.

Similarly there are statements in the text that can only bewilder students. Consider a typical paragraph from the chapter on Roman civilization (p. 70):

Some of the important Roman kings were Julius Caesar and Octavian Caesar. Octavian introduced a number of reforms. The Romans worshipped gods like Jupiter, Minerva, Venus, etc.



There is no information about what is the significance of these gods and goddesses, nor is there any awareness that Julius Caesar was assassinated because of his aspirations to power, nor is the more well-known name of Octavian, Augustus, introduced. Yet, this confusing paragraph is to provide answers to the following questions (p. 72): Why is Julius Caesar famous? Augustus was a famous king of Rome (true or false).

Consider yet another statement, this time from page 58:

You may be surprised to know that Indian and Chinese civilizations are the only ones which have survived right from the time they came into existence till date. They have retained many of their basic and distinguishing characteristic features which link them with the past. All other early civilizations have disappeared and the present people/civilizations have no connection with the past ones.

This, once again, is misleading on at least two counts: (i) Greek and Roman civilizations, which the student is expected to study, did not die out completely, nor for that matter did civilizations in Mesopotamia and Iran. (ii) This conveys the impression that Indian and Chinese civilizations have been changeless and/or static. Once again, this is not true.

The book abounds in dozens, if not hundreds of such passages, which can only encourage rote learning and kill the curiosity of children.



Historians no longer think that history is simply a chronicle of facts about the past. But what is one to say when a textbook proliferates with inaccurate statements? Let me give some instances:

* Mesopotamian civilization is supposed to date to 5000 BC (p. 63). If we accept the definition of civilization mentioned on p. 57 (with cities, writing etc), Mesopotamian civilization is not earlier than 3500 BC.

* Greece is described as surrounded by three seas, the Aegean (spelt Agean), the Ionian, and the Mediterranean (p. 66). A look at any atlas will show that this is wrong. The seas are the Aegean, Adriatic and Mediterranean.

* The most frequently represented animal on Harappan seals, we are informed, was a bull (p. 85). Actually, over a thousand seals (more than 60 per cent) carry representations of a one-horned animal, often referred to by archaeologists as the unicorn. This was a mythical animal.

* On page 88 we are informed that the geographical boundaries of the Rigveda and the Harappan civilization coincide. This is entirely inaccurate and deliberately misleading.

* Even more worrying and inaccurate is the statement (page 89) that among various animals, the cow was given the most important and sacred place in the Vedic period; injuring or killing of cow was prohibited, and the cow was called aghnya (not to be killed or injured). The Vedas, we are told, prescribe punishment for injuring or killing a cow by expulsion from the kingdom or by death penalty as the case may be.

This is inaccurate, although (and perhaps because) the cow was revered and treated as sacred, it was also offered as food to guests. More important, the Vedic texts (which by the definition of the textbook include the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads) are not prescriptive. As such, they do not mention punishments for violations of norms. This happens much later in the Shastric literature. Also, there is plentiful archaeological evidence from a number of sites, including Hastinapura, to suggest that cattle were slaughtered for meat in ancient India.

* We read on p. 101: ‘In no other period of Indian history do we find so many officers as in the Mauryan period.’ One wonders who counted the administrative officers, and how and when was the count made.

* On page 91 we are informed that the Vedic people knew that the earth moved on its own axis and around the sun. The moon moved around the earth. They could also apparently predict eclipses.



Scientific discoveries of later period are here projected back to the Vedic times. Poor Aryabhatta, who figures on page 117, is effectively eclipsed for his achievements. Ironically, one of the claims made in the National Curriculum Framework is that our children know nothing about Aryabhatta while they know about Newton. Keen on celebrating the Vedic age, the new textbook, in a contradictory move, attributes the discovery of eclipse both to Aryabhatta (p. 117) as well as to the Vedic people (p. 91) who are, in any case, timeless and all knowing.

* On page 98 we learn that Chanakya was ‘a teacher of Arthashastra in Takshashila University.’ One wonders whether he was a Professor, Reader, or Vice-chancellor in this imaginary institution.

* Ashoka is supposed to have said that ‘disputes must be settled by talks among the elders of the communities’ (p. 102). This, once again, is a statement for which no evidence is forthcoming from Ashokan inscriptions.

* ‘The last Mauryan king, Brihadratha had lost the loyalty of the army. The Army Chief, Pushyamitra Sunga killed him in 187 B.C. and himself became the king. This is the only incident in the history of India till 12th century A.D. when a king was killed and replaced’ (p. 102).



One wonders why these two dates are chosen. Is it because Brihadratha may have been a Buddhist? Again, the assertion that no kings were killed between the 2nd century BC and the 12th century AD belies the history of warfare in the country. To cite just one instance, Samudragupta, the famous Gupta ruler is described in the Allahabad pillar inscription as sarvarajocchhetta (i.e., the uprooter of all kings). And such instances can be multiplied.

* Chola kings Rajaraja and Rajendra are inaccurately mentioned in the Sangam age.

* One final example: this is from the description of Rigvedic society (page 90). We learn that: ‘The teachers were called brahmanas; rulers and administrators kshatriyas, farmers, merchants and bankers vaisyas, and artisans and labourers as sudras.’ This is the most detailed account of varna in the entire text. As mentioned earlier, reference to the four varnas occurs only in one verse of the Rigveda, and this is embellished with later shastric prescriptions to create an illusory account of the caste system.

The choice of evidence always tells us about what authors seek to tell and what they wish to repress. A single specific example would show how the politics of repression works in the new NCERT textbook. On page 90, we are told that in the Vedic period yajnas were the most common rituals. However, nowhere are we told that yajnas, including the famous asvamedha yajna, involved animal sacrifice. There are other significant omissions. The word tribe figures nowhere in the text. In other words, entire sections of the population are denied a history.



How important was religion in ancient India? If you turn to the introduction (page 50) you will find a list of books that are mentioned as sources: ‘In India we have examples of the Vedas, Brahmanas, Upanishads, Smritis, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Sangam literature and Tripitakas.’ Note that seven of the eight texts listed are religious texts, and six of them are associated with brahmanical Hinduism. While it is true that many of the best preserved texts that have survived from ancient times are religious texts, historians have used other kinds of literature as well. These include works on grammar, medicine, plays, statecraft, to name a few.

This preoccupation with religion leads to problems with the way in which information is presented. This is evident in the chapter on Harappan civilization, where certain pots are identified as kamandalu, although we do not know how they were used, and a rare seal representing the svastika is highlighted (p. 83). Even more bewildering is the focus (p. 85) on a terracotta female figurine with a vermilion mark, and to see the figure of a so-called yogi, who is rather well-dressed, with a well-trimmed beard and a tiara on his head.

The chapter on ‘The Vedic Civilization’ is even more problematic. There is absolutely no reference to dates. So are students to be told that the Vedic texts are timeless? These problems surface most sharply in the chapter on major religions that brings the section to a close. The data from this chapter is tabulated below.










Very old, ‘eternal spiritual tradition of India’ can be traced to Harappan times, which may be identical with the Vedic

Arose out of Upanishads and six philosophies of Hinduism Biography of. Mahavira, dates to 6th century BC

Biography of the Buddha, but no dates

Reference to migration from Egypt in the13th century

Founded by Zarathustra(no date)

6 BC, with birth of Jesus


Union with paramatma

Attaining kaivalya

Attaining nirvana

Communicating with god

Destroying evil



Three supreme gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshar, other gods and godesses, forces of nature, plants, rivers, mountains



Ahura Mazda

God, son and holy spirit

Social norms

Varnashram dharma(only ashram is explained)


Anybody could join the sangha




Greatest in the world



List of saints including Ramanuja, Tulsi, Meera, Kabir



Non-violence, mercy, compassion, friendliness, charity, benevolence

Truthfulness, no property, non-injury, against theft, chastity

Four noble truths


Love, brotherhood, compassion

Attitude towards other religions

Sarva dharma sambhava


Sectarian splits


Digambara and Svetambara


Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant

Geographical location


Karnataka, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Malwa, Gujarat, Rajasthan

Spread through Central Asia, East Asia, and Sri Lanka

Palestine, migration to Egypt and back

Iran, then western India














If one compares the columns, one immediately notices how uneven the information is. Hinduism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism do not have any dates assigned to them. What is more, Hinduism is defined as eternal. One wonders what is the place of a timeless phenomenon in the mundane framework of a school history book. Second, Christianity is not supposed to have space for any ‘higher’ aspirations, unlike the other religions.



One can quibble about the inclusion of deities in the list of Hindu gods. What is most obvious is that the decline in importance of Vedic gods such as Agni, Indra and Soma is glossed over, as that would involve talking about change in what is projected as an eternal religion. The discussion on social norms is woefully inadequate. Varna is left undefined. Ashrams we are told, were meant to be ‘followed by all individuals irrespective of their caste, creed and belief.’ If we look for evidence for this wide-ranging claim, our efforts are unlikely to yield results.

Apart from Hinduism, none of the other religious traditions are credited with any philosophical ideas, neither are they supposed to have traditions of devotion. As in many other instances, this is entirely inaccurate. Not surprisingly, Hinduism is the only religion that is credited with tolerance. What is also intriguing is that sectarian splits are highlighted only in the case of Jainism and Christianity. Once again, the fact that there has been sectarian strife amongst Hindu groups is glossed over, presumably because this would sully the picture of harmony.

The discussion on the geographical spread is also interesting. Hinduism is understood to be an all-time, all-India phenomenon, whereas there is no mention of the spread of Christianity anywhere, including to India by the early centuries of the Christian era. Presumably the Syrian Christians belong to West Asia. Churches are also unheard of. While there are references to Buddhist and Hindu architecture and sculpture in the other lessons, this is the only point where Christianity is spoken about. But then, as is obvious, this is meant to be only a token gesture to tolerance, respect, acceptance and understanding.

What is obvious then is that some religions are treated as being beyond history, although included within the book, others are subjected to a selective treatment, and in no way is the understanding of any religious tradition significantly enhanced.

Histories of religions can and have been written. These focus on changes in doctrine, rituals, practice. They also document the ways in which religions have spread and/or been transformed. Besides, they deal with dissension within and oppositions to specific religions. There have also been studies on the social categories who have supported specific religious traditions. To be meaningful, such exercises have to acknowledge the possibilities of historical change. If this is not done, we are reduced to the kind of writing that is evidenced in the book.

Is the textbook sensitive to issues of gender? One of the criticisms of existing books (and this is entirely justified) is that they tend to be gender blind. This is apparent in the language used in the illustrations, as well as in the content of the text. Very often they are written in such as way that a reader gets the impression that either women do not exist, or that they are irrelevant or unimportant from the point of view of the subject in question. This is a situation that can be remedied if there is a will. But unfortunately, the will seems to have been lacking in the case of the text we have examined.

Consider the first substantive chapter on history, The Early Humans. As the title suggests, there is an attempt to talk about humans instead of men, but the term itself is cumbersome. People would probably have been a better substitute. More important, when we come to the questions and exercises, the author(s) slip back into the old usage, so we have references to stone age man (Question 1, iv), early man (page 56, things to do) etc.

School textbooks do require periodic revisions to incorporate new ideas and ways of looking, and to make them more pedagogically sensitive. But we need to ponder hard when this rewriting takes on the form that it does in the new NCERT social science textbook for class 6.