Indian versus Chinese Attitudes Towards History

Added by Professor Charles Ess, Drury College

[From Hajime Nakamura's The Notion of Time in India]

The Indians themselves have attached little significance to their books of history; most Indians have been much more interested in religion and poetry than in historical documentation. For the Indians, a minor error in the recitation of the Vedas has been a serious matter. But they have been thoroughly indifferent to the erroneous recording of dates or facts in their books of history (l6). This lack of historical consciousness is distinctly observable in the Buddhist attitude to the rules of their order. In the period after the death of the Buddha, Buddhists had to establish new precepts in order to meet changing social conditions. As some of the new rules were not compatible with the older ones, they hesitated to include them in the traditional books of ordination (patimokkhas), and instead attached them to the patimokkhas as supplements. Although they would not alter the traditional books, however, they were not afraid to claim the authority of the Buddha's own teaching even for these supplementary precepts of their own creation, completely ignoring the historical facts. Their concern for the proper observance of the precepts was far stronger than their regard for historical accuracy.

This lack of interest in history is very different from what we find in China. The Chinese derive their rules of social conduct from the examples of their ancestors as set down in their books of history. The Indians, on the other hand, gain their principles of behavior from their religious books, and at the same time fables and parables such as the Paricatantra and Hitopades'a contribute toward the diffusion of practical morals into daily life. These books, embodiments of the enduring spirit of folk-tale, present for contemplation eternal paradigms of human experience--paradigms which are by their nature timeless and in that sense, outside history.

[Postcolonial] [Indian Subcontinent] India OV

Last modified 15 December 2000