Limitations in our heads


Image result for pics of virat kohliImage result for pics of haider ali

(Kohli, Haidar Ali)

Trust the Indian cricket team to collapse ingloriously as they did in Southampton yesterday. Surrendering sheepishly  from a winning position this time, when they were in the 140s for 3 wickets, repeating the pattern of loss in the 2nd Test at Edgbaston with the same scoreline — 2 down for about the same number of runs. What started the slide on both occasions (if I recall the details of the Edgbaston defeat properly) was the Captain — and the only fighter in the desi outfit, Virat Kohli, showing every intent and determination to reach the target, getting past the 50-run threshold and showing signs of settling in to shepherd a win, but failing. It began a slide that saw India stymied and out of the game then, and again at the Ageas Bowl, this time downed by an even bigger margin. No guts, no fortitude, no patience, no sense of fighting spirit whatsoever. Just some plain mindless thrashing about with the bat by the likes of Pandya and Pant. So, instead of being in a position to replicate the Don Bradman-led Aussie team of 1948 of coming up from 2-down to win the 5-match series, the Indian team folded as is their wont without so much as a whimper after Kohli’s inning.  Something similar happened in the T-20 game I watched this summer in Cardiff where after Kohli came the deluge. So whatever the format India loses once the Captain is out.

Kohli, usually the only Man standing — among lily-livered team-mates, is the fissile core around which the Indian cricket team either sizzles or fizzles, mostly the latter on foreign soil where series wins against cricketing powers are rare.  Why is this so? Kohli explained to an English cricket reporter that for the Indian players the problem is that “the limitations” of their ability are “in their heads”. The implication was clear: Get over this, over the feelings of inadequacy, and lo! and behold, life may become simpler, and being victorious becomes the norm, not the exception. Apparently, Virat has overcome his sense of his own limitations and become the master of the field whose very presence radiates outwards to envelope teammates and to sow apprehension in the adversary.

Doesn’t what Kohli say have resonance for the country, an all-time loser nation that the Polish sociologist Stanislaw Andreski tellingly described India as “the land of subjugations” —  used to losing, and always prepared deferentially to make peace on the enemy’s terms?  Ni victory of arms  of native forces officered by the British doesn’t count, and neither does the 1971 War for Bangladesh — a sort of intra-mural win by a bigger more powerful part of the once British Indian Army over a smaller, weaker, part. That leaves the country’s cupboard bare of anything remotely resembling military success.

And the cricket team’s falling apart ere the captain departs the field is the analog of India’s historical pattern. Adversaries from Alexander the Great’s days quickly learned that any native Indian army could be run off the battlefield simply by getting rid of the king — sitting conspicuously on the war elephant at the centre of the Indian ranks — verily the ‘Gajpati’ beloved of the ancient Indian order-of-battle — directing battle from his perch — but as easy to bring down as his pachydermal mount, with a storm of well-aimed arrows and hard-thrown spears. Once the leader is taken out, the native armies inevitably broke and ran, deserting their king and country. The result: Porus in chains and his realm — all of the lands on the Indus and its tributaries in the Punjab become a plaything of the Macedonian monarch. An unending chain of foreign conquerors and looters since have feasted of  India’s wealth, succeeding by following Alexander’s script to fell Indian states.

And yet Indians learn no lessons from history, from regular humiliations of the past. So the “honour”-minded Prithiviraj Chouhan defeats Mahmud Ghori in the first Battle of Tarain in 1192 AD, displays compassion or foolishness, does not pursue a defeated and wounded foe, only to see him return the next year for the 2nd engagement at the same site, but this time gets isolated, whereupon, taking no chances, Ghori promptly ends the former’s life.  See any parallels between the compassion shown Ghouri as a matter of Rajput chivalry and modern India’s priding itself as a “responsible” state invariably having its interests trfampled underfoot by “friends” and foes alike??

And see how instead of ridding their minds of self-doubt and jettisoning feelings of weakness and limitation, as Virat Kohli has done, our leaders are suffused by the infirmities of the state and society and therefore are risk-averse in extremis, always ready to compromise?

It is not for no reason that Waterloo was coupled to the playing fields at Eton. Though  the Duke of Wellington never said anything about it. But he did come away impressed with the Peshwa army at the 1803 Battle of Assaye and his wars with Tipu Sultan in the Deccan. The pity is the Peshwa forces were in a position to force the issue at Assaye, but didn’t. And Haidar Ali, likewise, had run the British forces ragged, according to the then Colonel Arthur Wellesley (the Duke before he was ennobled) and brought them on several occasions to the point of defeat, but rather than waging a war to oust the firangi from the land for once and for all — difficult at the time, it is true, given too many divisions in the land and everybody fighting each other rather than the Brits — he ended the First Anglo-Carnatic War in 1769 with the Treaty of Madras with the submissive British. These are the situations when Wellington first and repeatedly used his famous phrase — “This was a close-run thing!”, subsequently made famous at Waterloo. Small consolation for Indians.

(In Wellesley’s subsequent wars against Haidar’s son, Tipu Sultan, he learned the lesson to not take the Indian king head on. In the last of the Anglo-Carnatic wars, he instead did what Clive had done at Plassey  — bribe a court insider — another Mir — Mir Sadiq — Tipu’s vazir, to in the dead of night open the gates to the impregnable fort of Seringapatana on the Cauvery River. That was 1799. Has much changed since then with COMCASA on the anvil and LEMOA already signed and India with leaders with their heads still full of their own and the country’s supposed limitations?)

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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8 Responses to Limitations in our heads

  1. AD says:


    Perhaps the mental limitations arises from the type of Indic culture which got firmly established in India between the 4th-7th century AD. Prior to that, Indian kings (and people) were quite enthusiastic about trade and interaction with the rest of the world. We know that many south Indian kings sent and received trade delegations from the Roman Empire. Going back further, people in the Indus valley civilization had a flourishing trade with contemporary Middle-Eastern and Egyptian empires. Also worth mentioning that the Mauryan and the early half of the Gupta dynasty did pretty well, in both offensive and defensive wars, against foreign armies. So clearly, the capacity to be effective and victorious did exist.

    But something peculiar happens in India between 4th and 7th century AD (after Buddhism vanishes from India and Hinduism 2.0 or 3.0 prevails). A society that once went out and engaged with rest of world no longer wants to travel overseas. Effective weapons such as longbows are gradually abandoned because they were predominantly wielded by non-warriors castes. Improvements such as crossbows never succeed in India, even though local craftsmen have skills and material to produce them on a large scale. Indians shun the world outside their “natural dharmic border” and spend too much time obsessing over the hierarchy of castes and inflicting more humiliation on Dalits.

    They retreat into a pseudo-historical mythology and ignore real history. Since that time, most Indians almost never engaged in significant and prolonged interactions with even peaceful foreigners for fear of losing their caste status. They therefore lost the ability to see the world with a point of view other than their own. Fear of ritual contamination was a major reason that Indian kings (and people) never spent a decent amount of time studying their foreign Muslim and European adversaries. The number of literate people and those who transcribed knowledge kept on shrinking, and almost nobody cared about secular knowledge.

    The tree of defeatism can, thus, be traced back to its roots in a highly solipsistic belief system and world view which took over the subcontinent somewhere between the 4th-7th century AD, first in the north and then in the south.

    • I wrestled with this mystery in my book — ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’ and resolved it! Looking at the history this is what happened (as I argue in that book): a millennia of incessant warfare between small and large kingdoms motivated by the Vedic injunction to kings — puny as well as powerful to try and become the ‘chakravartin’ — the master of all the land to the sea, led to the peoples of the subcontinent suffering from war fatigue, drawn in the millions to the attractiveness of Buddhism (and later Jainism) which preached nonviolence. So much so, even Ashoka the Great (after capturing most of South Asia and having doused the last resistance in Kalinga with ferocious bloodiness, putting every last man, woman, child and beast to the sword) felt compelled to fall in with the peoples he ruled and safely accepted Buddhism. With the royal patronage Buddhism spread far and wide in India. Shankaracharya, coming up from the south, saw Hinduism losing ground and famously co-opted most of the Buddhist tenets, including nonviolence and ahimsa) to wean back the masses to the fold. Having had a measure of success and with Ashoka dead, he began, ironically, the violent campaign (including the burning down of the famed library and the rest of the ancient university in Nalanda making, in the process, a bonfire of priceless Buddhist books and scrolls. Driven out of India, Buddhism and Buddhist scholars and monks found refuge in and spread in Southeast Asia, China and the Far East. Thus the vigor, hardness, and aggressive expansiveness of Vedic Hinduism was lost and the people’s energies tamed into impotence. A millennia later, we have the India that we have.

      • AD says:


        Good points. Though the Hindu version of ‘ahimsa’ is closer to its Jain counterpart (ritualistic) than its Buddhist one (pragmatic).

        How do you explain why Hindu and Buddhist deities, religion, philosophy, scripts spread outside India, but the wretched jati system did not. A syncretic form of Buddhism and Hinduism was (and in some cases still is) the dominant religion in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia for many centuries. And somehow they never went past a localized version of the basic varna system. Belief in Indic religions is insufficient to explain rise of the disastrous jati system. So where did it come from?

        Also the society contemporaneous with Arthashastra (3rd-2nd century BC) was far more liberal than what we see in accounts of foreign travelers from 4th and 6th century CE. Curiously, Roman accounts of India (around 1st century AD) support the idea that it was fairly similar to that depicted in the Arthashastra. Clearly something major happened between the 1st-2nd century and 4th-6th century AD in Northern India. Also, it seems that the jati system (at least in its most well known form) spread from North to South.

        Personally, I blame the jati system for causing an incalculable amount of damage to Indian society. It is (in my opinion) the reason why things became so dysfunctional in India after 7th century AD- and most importantly why there was very little social cohesion and sense of common purpose when facing invaders from central Asia and, later, Europe. Maybe the endless number of socially isolated jatis locked in a chronic struggle of oneupmanship was the biggest reason why invaders could find traitors wherever they went in India.

        Compare India to Italy, the later being in a constant state of low-level warfare between local kingdoms after fall of Roman empire (but especially between 14th and 17th century) till reunification in 19th century. Note that the Ottomans were not successful in invading Italy in spite of local conflicts within it and possessing a much larger army and decent navy because every attempt was met with a united resistance from all Italian kingdoms (even those who were at each other throats the day before) because they saw themselves as Christians and Italians first.

      • Vishnugupt says:

        @ Prof. Karnad

        “Shankaracharya, coming up from the south, saw Hinduism losing ground and famously co-opted most of the Buddhist tenets, including nonviolence and ahimsa) to wean back the masses to the fold”

        With all due respect to you sir, but you are absolutely wrong in saying this.
        Being familiar with the philosophy of Adi-Shankara(ADVAITHA), i can tell you that HE DID NOT INVENT ANYTHING NEW. It is just that he was the most well known proponent of it.
        Advaitha Vedanta is NOT Shankaracharya’s invention.PERIOD.

        What he did was reasoned with the “complacent and non-violent” Buddhist scholars and defeated them. The “foolish citizenry” might have still continued to live on with the teaching of Buddhism, but this was never his intent.

        To give a perfect analogy, what Adi Shankaracharya did to Hinduism is similar to what Rukmini Devi Arundale did to Bharatanatyam. They REVIVED it.

        I remember an article of yours where in you quote Brajesh Mishra saying in the context of your esteemed organization’s(CPR’s PB Mehta and gang) draft of NAM 2.0.

        “At the release function on Feb 28th evening Vajypayee’s NSA, Brajesh Mishra had had about enough with all the moral posturing in the report and by some of the writers at the podium – all the hoo-ha about Indian values as the soft power lever to get India great power status. His somewhat meandering speech ended by his destroying the central pillar of this report. Mishra’s dismissal was devastating: “What values?” he said. “We have no values.”

        Now,Mr Mishra might have been a non-observant Hindu or even a down right self-loathing one(like majority of Indians) but the man had enough common sense to see that “lack of grey matter” is the real reason behind the “whole moral posturing” by Indian PMs.

        Because realism/coldblooded logic transcends any sort of “misguided morality” that we have become so accustomed of.

        May be its high time Indian leaders put down “The Geeta”(because they can’t comprehend its pragmatic yet implicit messaging) and pick up “The Arthasastra”( which even a 12 year old can comprehend and apply).

        Or atleast read Machiavelli if they find Kautilya “tacky”

  2. Shankara says:

    @bharat karnad

    There is this story of treachery
    Where a Sufi siant visit prithviraj Chauhan territory and spies on his troops.minfle with people.poisons camels and show magic tricks to people.

    Finally when the day of battle comes Sufi saint poisoned river

    Prithviraj Chauhan and his army drunk river filled with poison caused dehydration..

    Lost battle to ghauri due to khwaja moin udin chslishti

    Along with Bollywood and all celebrities

    Today modi and his companions visit the darga to pray

    We have backstabbers .. dellusioned leaders within

    No where else

    • Shankara@ — one man can’t “poison” a flowing river.

      • Vishnugupt says:

        @ Bharat Karnad

        Since he was nothing more than a cheap street magician with a taste for music, so it is very much likely that he would have spied and poisoned the water source for Ghori.( it is said to be ponds, or community wells not necessarily river)

      • Shankara says:

        There is a possibility that group under him poisoned river …

        Do you know why Osho was evacuated from USA
        .because his drunken followers hippies poisoned river that was used for drinking water

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