The Genres of History and Biography (Part 3)

Two Sides

The important aspects of a biography may be divided into two categories: i. external aspects and ii. inner nature.

By external episodes, I mean details such as – the date of birth of the protagonist of the biography, place of birth, his family, lineage, ancestors, places of education, examinations that he passed, the (professional) positions that he earned, his income, travels, speeches he gave, his writings, awards and citations received, and so forth. These aspects are like the photograph of a person in that it helps one to instantly recognize some of the physical aspects of the individual.

Far more important is his inner life, the construction of his inner world. Who were the people he regarded with immense affection? Who were his intimate friends? What were typically his topics of discussion? What was his favourite pastime – was it music, literature, topics in philosophy, study of mathematics or other sciences, empty chit-chat? Which was his favourite treatise? In matters of traditional practices, how did he adhere to them in his daily life? What was his stance in public issues, what was his political leaning? How much of a difference was there between his publicly held beliefs and opinions versus what he practiced in private and the manner in which he conducted his life? These are the subtle aspects corresponding to the inner world that we must learn upon reading a biography.

I’ve said earlier that the fundamental driving force of the main characteristics of the life of a country and the important celebrations and programmes are those notable men and women, who truly deserve a biography to be written. The people who, by their thoughts and opinions or by their noble character and spotless conduct, influence the common folk to a certain extent, they become the ideal subject of a biography – having said this, it becomes clear that their inner wealth was the reason for the growth and development of the nation. Thus, the engaging account of a leader of men, an able ruler, or a pioneer who establishes a new tradition becomes an integral part of the history of the land. If we comprehend the inner world of these great leaders, the subtle intricacies of several external aspects of the lives of the common folk become evident.

In this manner, when we understand the subtle nuances working behind the external facets of the lives of the common folk, we attain competence to estimate the good and bad qualities as well as the strengths and weakness of the laity under the present circumstances. From this understanding, we can visualize how we want our future to be and decisively form a strategy to get there. Thus, the story of an individual (i.e. biography) is a part of the story of a land (i.e. history). It gives the mental preparation to people, which is a prerequisite for the improvement of people’s lives.

History is an account of previous experiences. History of a land comprises the collective experiences of the people of that land. Biography consists of the experiences of a single person.

Words such as caritram[1], caritam[2], cāritra[3] (or cāritrya), carya[4], ācaraṇa[5], and ācāra[6] are all derived from the same word-root. Their basic meaning is ‘conduct’ or ‘behaviour.’

A certain type of conduct arises due to a set of reasons and it earns a certain set of outcomes. Those reasons, those types of behaviour, and those resultant outcomes are all captured in the word ‘experience.’ A narrative that strings together such experiences is technically called history.

History: Examination of Experiences

A deep study of history is an essential intellectual preparation for undertaking any activity of social importance. In this matter, we must broaden the horizon of our people’s understanding and convince them [of the value of history]. The reason being that a lot of people in our country still harbour the notion that history is some sort of purāṇa[7]; or a cry to the skies[8]; or some tale that has a “...listen, O king” or “...this is what happened, O emperor!”[9] appended at the end; or some Brahmāṇḍa-purāṇa![10] Even today, it is common to see college students holding such inappropriate views [on history.] The study of history implies a blind memorization of a few dates, learning by heart a list of names – this is their understanding. They think that the learning of history doesn’t require any sort of original thinking, for it is some platitude that has transpired in the past.

Such a view—even in the least—is not good. Dates and names are not history. The knob that is fixed to the door is not the door. The door knob is a small convenience that helps us use the door. Such is the case with dates, names. It’s just a landmark that reminds us about a great event. An indicator is not the object itself. The object is far bigger than the indication.

It can be said that the primary reason for the blunders committed in our country’s public affairs is the unfamiliarity with history. The back-story of a problem (or question) is history. How was this problem born, how did our ancestors deal with this problem, what was the thought process behind their actions, what were the reasons for the failure of their actions – the examination of such experiences is history. What was the mistake done in the past – this becomes evident to us when we deeply examine history. What sort of precaution is necessary to avoid repeating that mistake now, what new strategy should we employ such that the dangers seen in the past don’t affect us now? – this is the sort of awareness and learning that we gain from a deep examination of history; this is the benefit we get.

Examples: About two and a half thousand years ago, Greece was the model for the European people in wisdom and scholarship. It is widely accepted that Greece is the origin for all European literature, art, and culture. It was a country with city-states. The city-state of Athens was an example of a democracy. The city-state of Sparta was famous for its discipline and rigorous adherence to principles. How did these city-states rise to such glory; in the course of time, how did they decline; when the mutual competition between the city-states of Greece reached an extreme level and there arose a fear of an attack from the Persian Empire and other kingdoms, how did these city-states unite and create a federation; how did that federation crumble – these questions don’t belong solely to the ancient past. They are not resolved even now. They are questions that have taken different forms and avatars even in our time.

After Greece, the Roman Empire grew and became famous. The arrogance of Rome spread across many parts of the European continent. It is said that the jurisprudence and trade laws of much of the European peoples originated and spread from the Roman Empire. How did such a powerful and well-nourished empire weaken? Who was the cause? Citizens or emperors? If a weakness crept in the people, what was the reason for that?

Such questions may be raised even in the context of Germany. Two hundred years back, it was a small, ordinary kingdom. From there, it gained strength and became a huge kingdom during the reign of the fourth Kaiser[11] [Emperor]. How did that happen? After achieving great popularity and having carried out its affairs for a while, it subsequently weakened. More recently [c. 1945], having become emaciated and divided into two countries, once again it is embarking on several adventures in a bid to raise its head and yet is unable to move forward. For a time, Germany was famous for being the best in science. They are brilliant people, known for their extreme perseverance. Even so, how did misfortune go chasing after them?

Let’s take the example of England. Four hundred years ago, it was a small, insignificant island. In course of time, it built an empire that spread across the world. It earned the name ‘the empire on which the sun never sets.’ After decades of such development and expansion, once again it has become an ordinary country. What’s the secret behind this?

What is the benefit we get from a deep study of history? It is wisdom that results from a knowledge of the various reasons for the growth, development, and decline of the myriad qualities of body, mind, and intellect of peoples – gentleness, purity, magnanimity, narrow-minded pettiness, desire for indulgence, arrogance, haughtiness, vanity, jealousy as well as insight into how people suffered, developed, strengthened, weakened, arose, and fell. Through an examination of experiences, we develop a refined wisdom that helps us discern the appropriate from the imprudent, thus becoming a bright hand-lamp for our journey forward.

To be continued…

This is the third part of a five-part English translation of the introductory essay of D V Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashaale – Vol. 1 – Sahiti Sajjana Sarvajanikaru. DVG wrote this series in the early 1950s. Thanks to Arjun Bharadwaj for his thorough review and astute suggestions.

 

Footnotes

[1] ಚರಿತ್ರಮ್ = behaviour, habit, conduct, practice, deeds, performance, history, life, biography, account, nature.

[2] ಚರಿತಮ್ = doings, history, activities.

[3] ಚಾರಿತ್ರ (ಚಾರಿತ್ರ್ಯ) = good conduct, good behaviour, noble character, reputation, uprightness, chastity, disposition, temperament.

[4] ಚರ್ಯ = to be practised, moving, behaviour, conduct, performance of rites, observance.

[5] ಆಚರಣ = doing, performing, following, observing, conduct.

[6] ಆಚಾರ = good conduct, good behaviour, manner of performing, manner of conducting oneself, established custom, traditional usage, age-old practice, customary law, precept.

[7] Purāṇa (literally ‘old episode’) is a genre of ancient literature in India that is typically fantastical in nature and deals with stories of deities, seers, and emperors.

[8] The original has ‘ākāśa ragaḻe,’ which basically means a meaningless utterance spoken to the wind.

[9] Many verses in traditional works of Kannada (e.g. Karnāṭa-bhārata- kathāmañjarī of Kumāravyāsa) end with such phrases (‘rāya keḻenda,’ ‘bhūpa keḻenda,’ etc.)

[10] Brahmāṇḍa-purāṇa is one of the eighteen Mahāpurāṇas; however, in this context it’s possibly used as a general word to mean ‘an immense, ancient work of mythical tales.’

[11] A reference to Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941).

Author(s)

About:

Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.

Translator(s)

About:

Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, Carnatic music, education pedagogy design, and literature. He has worked on books like The New Bhagavad-Gita, Your Dharma and Mine, Srishti, and Foggy Fool's Farrago.

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