A Thirst for Human Knowledge
©By Vijaya Sundaram
March 23rd, 2013
When I was very young, it was very hard to imagine a past without me in it.
As I grew a little older, I got it, and loved reading history books. The past was an amazing panorama of stories blending into each other, misted with mythology and moistened with tears for some of the great ones. All around me, growing up, were the ghosts of India’s past, swirling up through the books and prowling around my consciousness.
I wept over Asoka (Ashoka) the Great, Harsha Vardhana, Shivaji the Great, Akbar, Shah Jahan, Gautama, who became the Buddha, Mahavira. I struggled over the names of the Chera, Chola and Pandya kings. I wondered where the women of those times were, and how they endured all this. I was pleased with the story of Rani of Jhansi, although I hated, absolutely hated the practice of Sati, which reduced the power of women to ashes. I was put off by the great battles, the greed and small-mindedness of some of the Emperors and Kings, enshrined in their own mythologies.
And then, there was “world history.” How I loved it all! I pored over my history books, soaking up stories and facts about Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, China, and all of the ancient kingdoms. The middle ages did nothing for me, and I found stories about the people’s dirt, dumb superstitions and squalor to be VERY upsetting, but not more so than the rank avarice and shameless exploitation of the masters who ruled the people. Similar kinds of movements (feudalism, etc.) were cropping up everywhere in the world. (One has to wonder about how all historical movements around the world paralleled each other — the rise of hunter-gatherers, agriculturists, kingdoms, tyrannies, feudalism, the rise of organized religion, the movements in art, literature, science, as well as the constant wars, dictatorships, democracy, all cycling each other.)
The Medieval period might have been stinking, superstitious and stuffy, but there were some bright spots. As a forerunner of the Renaissance, Dante’s vision of the Inferno and Il Paradiso bloomed in people’s minds, forcing new metaphors into their conceptions of heaven and hell . While I disliked Dante’s sadistic visions, he made hell sound much more interesting than dull old Heaven. And I am forced to consider that, while Dante over-indulged in his descriptions of the horrors of the nine circles of Hell, and all of the different types of damnation, there was some sense of the metaphorical aspects of all this, and that people’s minds were evolving.
Hieronymus Bosch, medieval-surrealist supreme, the artistic forefather of Salvador Dali (in my mind), exemplified similar ideas in his paintings. Carl Gustav Jung (one of my favorite psychologists, whose book, “Memories, Dreams and Recollections I would re-read with an unquenchable thirst during my teen years) called Bosch, “The Master of the Monstrous, the Discoverer of the Unconscious.” So, the Medieval Period wasn’t a total loss. There were artists dealing with the monsters thrown up by humanity’s unconscious mind. There were writers and theologians, and scientists who tried to separate the strands, but they were all creatures of their time, as are we all.
Along came the Renaissance, and that thrilled me. Dante gave way to Petrarch, and Boccaccio commented on everything. Humanism seemed to be on the rise. Over and over again, I read about the Italians, their art, architecture, science, and religion. Leonardo Da Vinci fascinated me, as did Michelangelo. The Renaissance must have seemed like a kaleidoscopic time after the stinking stuffiness of the previous age.
Then, the Age of Reason, of Enlightenment bloomed, but it was incomplete. The earlier ideas of Ptolemy had given way to Copernicus, then to Galileo, then Newton (I’m sure I shall be corrected, but this is all just memory surfacing), then all of the great scientists of the modern age.
Now, we’re in the age of Doubt and Skepticism. If there weren’t so much ignorance, superstition, blood and gore, we’d be in a good place. Alas, there are those in power who seem not to have learned the lessons that history offers, or if they did, they learned the wrong things from those lessons. And so, we have the terrible wars of the 20th and 21st Century. Our rulers play by different rules than the ones they want other rulers to follow. Such rank and absurdly frightening hypocrisy. How can people NOT see this? How do we tolerate this? In order to seize enough power to influence the masses to one’s (correct!) way of thinking, one has to want power. And the danger, as we know, is that, as Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
All this, I guess, is a separate set of ruminations about the ruination of us all. I don’t feel like meditating on that yet.
Alas, the details of all that I’ve learned are fading away. I shall have to start re-reading history, because, as we all know, “Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it,” and I do not want to replay all those scenes of ignorance, superstition, blood and gore, even metaphorically, in my mind or my life.
The decades have rolled by, and I’m in my middle years, and comfortably ensconced in my life. Soon, perhaps, Enlightenment and the Age of Reason will come. Then, the end will come. I sort of get it.
What I will miss is reading about it.
I see this thirst for history in my daughter as well. When she was younger, she’d ask us about life before she began. She still does, but with less urgency, just intense curiosity. Now, she loves history, and wants to know more about it. I hope that I shall do justice to her thirst for this knowledge. I hope we can discuss those difficult matters without losing our way, or being heartbroken, or nauseated to such an extent that we stop studying.
Somehow, I think that we will continue to study, and can do so without losing our way.
Thanks for reading!
~ Vijaya Sundaram
(I will insert pictures soon, but don’t have time right now!)