Historicism is the belief that history has a meaning and significance attached to it. When applied to religion, it is the idea that God intervenes in human affairs by acting through history. It is perhaps the most influential idea of the modern world, one that most people endorse subconsciously, without even realizing it.
Historicism in the West, through Luther, gave birth to the Theologia Crucis, the belief in Jesus as the only source of knowledge of God as opposed to the then prevalent Theologia gloriae, which laid emphasis on reason. It led to a rise of anti-semitism, with the miserable condition of Jews for centuries seen as evidence of their loss of God’s favour, and culminated in the Holocaust. On the bright side, it propelled the scientific revolution, as the progress made in science was interpreted by the society to be the evidence of God’s will. But as the same scientific knowledge began to be converted to new technology, historicism transformed a healthy endorsement of science into scientism – the application of the scientific method to all aspects of existence. It gave us weapons of mass destruction and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Scientism gave us race science, which was an elaborate and sophisticated defence of imperialism and the slave trade. It also gave us secularism, by which I mean the broader philosophical idea that there are facets of life that can entirely do away with religion, as opposed to its limited political expression in the separation of the state and the church. As it is not unknown now and as Joydeep Bagchee beautifully pointed out in a lecture I attended last year, Christianity has universalised itself through secularism by avoiding any overt reference to God. Historicism also fathered communism through a clear crystallisation of the idea from Schlegel (who coined the word historicism) to Hegel to Marx to the 20th-century mass murderers like Stalin and Mao.
To borrow a phrase from the milieu of historicism itself, it was truly an idea whose time had come. Had the Gutenberg press not been invented, Luther would have been yet another heretic burnt at stake and there would simply have been no Reformation in Christianity. In that sense, it was really meant to be and it is in this very interpretation of events as “meant to be” do we see how our brains are hardwired to succumb to the temptation of historicism.
It has become a cliché to state that our view of time is not linear but it has become so because it is one of those profound truths that are easier to a state than understanding. Other than the obvious reference to Yugas, it also has a bearing on why Indians escaped the trap of historicism in their long civilisational journey. We talk to our Gods by escaping time, not by interpreting it. Our liberation is a journey to eternity, not the future. Most importantly, when the Mother sets us free, she does so individually, one jiva at a time. There is no chosen race, no judgement day, no collective orgasm that awaits us in the future.
It is this indifference to the instinct of historicism that sets us apart as a civilisation and while there may be genuine and well-intentioned attempts to have a grand narrative of our own, the exercise is fraught with the danger of being self-defeating. But this is not to look down upon contemptuously at such attempts at all. In fact, that is something that must be done to keep the enemy at bay. However, it is one thing to talk to outsiders in their language and quite another to internalise that discourse. Admittedly, the slope is slippery but must still be negotiated. By all means, fling the material evidence of the Mahabharata on the face of those denying it and speculate on the timeline of the war but always remember that Krishna is just a heartbeat away.
Reminds me of the parable of the snake that Sri Ramakrishna would often narrate. The inspired snake, having developed Sattva, refused to bite people. His guru rebuked him thus: ‘What a shame! You are such a fool! You don’t know how to protect yourself. I asked you not to bite, but I didn’t forbid you to hiss. Why didn’t you scare them by hissing?’ I guess we must learn the subtle art of doing history without historicising.