- Ramanjit Singh
I often wonder what defines a nation. What are the characteristics that defines it? Is it a confluence of a common thought, is it a semblance of a common identity, is it a society that respects its own and enriches everyone else's lives. Is it the arch of history that provides it a common face, propelling it further into the future while it glances back in time and remembers the lives of those who are no longer with us.
A nation is a feeling, it is an emotion, it is also a memory of those that once lived amongst us. It's a memory of their laughter, their pain, their successes and failures, their desires, their propensity to continue life as they thought best. They too had families, they had children, they too loved and believed that every inch of the land they lived on was theirs. It was indeed a nation whose people lived in a common dwelling, bonded by a common culture, a common language, and a common desire to live, to survive and to prosper.
My India's boundaries are nebulous, ambiguous, clouded by my somewhat confused understanding of what it means to be an Indian. My India's boundaries go beyond what we normally speak of, way further than one can feel appropriate. This is not because of some contrived notion of misplaced nationalism, but it is simply the fact of how I think of India in my heart. What if an idea of a nation is boundless, not based on what is on a map, but what is in our hearts. Boundaries restrict our minds, it bends the arch of history into a narrow mindset that makes us believe that those who lived beyond that line are no longer part of us, that we should forget that they ever existed, that we need to remove them from our collective consciousness. That simply cannot be, because if we do that then we are not who we think we are. If we remove that part of history from our consciousness then we cannot have a society that respects the past nor would it be able to navigate through the trials and tribulations that the future would throw at it.
A nation is simply a timeline of life, not where or when, not a particular place, it is just a timeline that has no past or present, it is simply a continuation of life, life that gave birth to generations that are connected by a common thread. That is what defines us, as mere individuals of a nation that has existed for thousands of years. Our past is as alive as our present. Yes, our past has not died, it lives in us. And it wants us to remember it.
When I look at the old temples of the north-west, in the land of the Indus, in the plateaus and valleys of that part of old India that is no longer part of us. I'm driven by an immense feeling of loss and an urge to find out what happened to those who lived there for thousands of years. The Hindus of the Potohar, their magnificent temples, their beautiful artwork that can still be seen on the walls of the ruined monuments that were once part of our glorious past. As I look at the photographs of the Katas Raj, I get emotional not because it is one of the most important cultural treasures of India that we have lost, but it lays in desolation, all alone, as if it is waiting for us to bring it back to life.
Such is the tragedy of South Asia that people were often displaced from the very land that they once cherished and inhabited for centuries. It is indeed with Shiva's Tearful Eyes that Katas Raj is urging us to not forget those who used to come here in the thousands to pray and congregate on its hallowed ground. The ruined temples of the Indus are the relics of a past that represented Hinduism's other great arch. The arch that began from the Ganges and then went across Indus into the lands of the north-west. The Hinduism of the Indus was as grand and as significant as the Hinduism of the current Indo-Gangetic plains. India's current boundaries has reduced our thinking into believing that what we have now is all that defines us. And that what we have lost has no meaning in our lives. These ruins are speaking to us, they are still connected to us, to our timeline, to India's timeline.
As one travels from the Indus and goes up to the Potohar plateau and then enters Afghanistan (or Up-gana-sthan, land of allied tribes), we need to remind ourselves that this land too was part of our collective history. Nothing escapes us, nothing is beyond us, we are indeed the inheritors of something great that once existed far and beyond our current understanding of India. To me India is a timeline, a confluence of thought, prayers of generations past, all encapsulated in a single word 'India', nothing more, nothing less. As we see ourselves venturing further into this century and beyond, we are still connected to these lands, to these ruins.
We are indeed sad that we cannot touch them and bring them back into our fold, but they will always exist in our hearts. We are still thinking about them, we are aware that they exist. They maybe in ruins, untouched, ignored, forgotten by the new inhabitants, but still their glorious past is alive within us. Sometimes the idea of "what used to be" is as significant as the idea of "what it is today". The merge of the past with the present reaches singularity in our minds. The difference is not important anymore because those who define this difference are the same people whose lineage goes back thousands of years. We are simply the next link in this long chain of events whose beginning is unknown, something beyond our comprehension.
I often wondered what happened to the people who used to pray in these temples. Where did they go, were they all vanquished by the arrival of a completely new belief system from the west. There is evidence that supports this thesis. Either they were converted or killed on the altars of a new idea that had no room for an alternative way of life. I think about the conditions that they were forced into where they were not able to defend themselves against an idea that saw life in pure black and white. There was no song and dance, nothing that inspired contrarian thought or to explore the interpretation of ones belief or to question the meaning of life.
Hinduism's greatest achievement is that it allows you to question everything. It is benevolent and accepting of opposing views. It brings color and joy into ones life. It has festivals that celebrate love, its stories are interwoven with life's lessons on compassion and justice. It celebrates light, it worships the Sun, gives respect to all things living. It talks about love and non violence as the key tenets of one's character. However, the arrival of this new religion from the west was completely different, new, alien to the people who were not able to understand something so different then what they have believed since time immemorial.
I put myself in their shoes, and I shudder in fear. In absolute fear. Where will I go, what will I do when so many of my own are being killed or are being forced to believe in something that is completely alien to them. There was no middle ground. The tragedy is that those who converted started hating their own past. Their own temples, the idols were smashed. The statues were destroyed, anything that reminded them of the past was somehow deemed shameful and sinful. This new idea brought shame to the very past that they were once part of. The idea of India is that we have never forgotten those who gave their lives for something that they deeply cared about. Those who carried on when the odds were strongly against them.
We have not forgotten.