National Myths

In the early 2000s, Indians came to the halting realization that we could actually compete (at least in some fields) on a global stage. This new found confidence resulted in a flowering of self-congratulatory nationalist (and jingoist) literature often written by people who had little to actually do with the improved competitiveness.

In 2006, a very well received book came out with 1-2 page summaries of major cultural achievements in Indian history. Right at the top of this list was the claim that India had not invaded any other country for a thousand years.

This of course ignored the later Cholas who continued to rule Sri Lanka as well as the fact that the troops holding the bayonets for British imperial expansion were often Indians. At least for the latter, we may claim to be acting as mere instruments in the hand of someone else and that Indians were as much victims of the British Empire as anyone else. Unsurprisingly, people at the other end of the bayonets (consider the burning of the Summer Palace in China) didn’t always appreciate that distinction.


Chola Empire around 1100CE

But the bigger reason for our lack of murdering abroad was that pre-modern Indians lacked any sense of national identity and usually kept our conflicts internal to the sub-continent. No one had emerged for a thousand year who was stable enough to consider a major external conquest.

Yet the idea of India being a peace loving and contemplative society persists in many places to this day.

My cousin was born in the UK and moved to the US in her teens. In Britain she had studied World War 2 as a British struggle against Nazism in which the Americans came in mid way to help. In the United States she learnt that Americans were fighting for ‘freedom’. A more detailed study may have revealed that both Britain and the United States refused to take any firm action against Germany so long as it declared itself anti-
Communist. It was the German Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 dividing Eastern Europe into German and Soviet “spheres of influence” which shook them to action.


Nazi foreign minister, Ribbentrop meets Stalin at the Kremlin in Moscow

Their subsequent joint annexation of Poland forced Britain to act. Here is a cartoon from the time showing Hitler and Stalin meeting over the corpse of Poland.


The United States in particular maintained a strong isolationist sentiment right up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, so much so that Franklin Roosevelt took the most circuitous routes to support Britain for fear that he would be impeached for involving the US in a foreign war.

The Americans idolize the pioneering settlers from the Mayflower who they believe had fled Europe to escape religious persecution. This again is partly true, but leads to an unrealistic impression of an oppressed minority seeking religious freedom and tolerance.

The English Calvinists were separatists who refused to mix their congregation with the English State Church. They initially fled to Holland. This provided a haven of calm and tolerance. If anything too much tolerance. Dutch liberality proved too much for the staunch Calvinists who feared their children would be drawn away into extravagance. Instead they migrated to the Americas to “or the propagating and advancing the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world”. They did not seek tolerance so much as want to deny it to others in their vicinity.

All these myths are meant for domestic consumption and serve to elevate the population in its own estimate. But there is one remarkable case which falls outside this dismal trend. The ancient Romans had a creation legend of their own. In their version, the city was founded by twins named Romulus and Remus who had been suckled by a she-wolf as children (although some classicists point out that the Latin for she-wolf is the same as for prostitute) before being adopted by a shepherd.


Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf

When the city of Rome was being founded, the brothers quarreled about which hill they should construct on. In the aftermath, Romulus killed his twin Remus and went on to create the institutions, government and military of Rome.

Most modern scholars agree that the myth was a late creation meant to justify institutions and moral attitudes prevalent at the time of its invention. The name Romulus being a backward formation from the name of Rome. But why such a violent and fratricidal tale and what was it meant to signify? Opinion remains divided.


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