Hidden Links: How Random Historical Events Shaped Our World by Sangeeth Varghese and his 12-year-old son Zac explores the interconnected nature of history

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History has always been a contested territory; historians embark on divergent paths in their quest to interpret it. And yet, paradoxically, history connects those who have emerged from it, in surprising ways. Strategist Sangeeth Varghese and his 12-year-old son, Zac Sangeeth, a student of history, explore the depth and breadth of historical events in their latest book, Hidden Links: How Random Historical Events Shaped Our World (Penguin Random House India). They trace the common links from the past that gave birth to the social, moral, political and economic fabric that governs the world today.

“Most of us think of history in (terms of) events,” writes Sangeeth Varghese, but it is by the virtue of hindsight that he, along with his son, aims to provide an aerial view of history, bringing together “random but connected” events from the past. With an underlying idea that history is collectively shared, these “links” establish an interdependency between historical events — events that may have previously seemed isolated and independent of one another; it’s almost as if the world is, and has been, one single unit, a symbolic Pangea.

A defining moment

First such link — or rather, ‘defining’ moment of history — is what the father-son duo call the “Fountainhead epoch”, a significant span of 300 years spanning from 600 to 300 BC. They call it a period of great progress — the “one mother link” — and explain its various dimensions: the foundations and growth of human society, as per its modern standards, in the areas of religion, education, philosophy, geography, technology, migration, political and social innovation, science, statecraft, etc. They compare this historic transition to the modern history’s period(s) of Renaissance — both as influences of great change and, by extension, progress.

The next two chapters use climate change as an anchor (and motive) of historical events. With an aim of establishing the cruciality of Silk Road/Route — a network “connecting the known and unknown world” — across the surrounding political units/regions, Chapter 2 first explains the rise (and the subsequent political and economic decline) of Chinese dynasties — Zhou, Qin, Han, and so on. Readers are introduced to stories of and from Pax Romana, Pax Khorasan, and Pax Indica, in relation to China and its economically viable route. Pax Mundi — the amalgamation of the four great empires — emerges, rises, falls and reinvents itself. All this, owing to what the authors call “waves” of climate variations and adversaries, the first of which was the Antonine (smallpox) plague — “the ancient world’s worst pandemic”.

“The Silk Road hibernated, then awoke,” they write. Although it wasn’t the end of pandemics or climate change. This pattern of disintegration and reinvention followed, and still does. The authors, however, focus on the other end of this rise and fall — of religions and philosophy rather than (just) economies, but again with climate change at the bottom of it. This does not mean that Sangeeth Varghese and Zac Sangeeth do not explain the context of social history of Jews, Christians, Romans, Syrians and others, along with their interaction with one another. Theory and application go hand in hand in Hidden Links.

The authors follow the debate of religious forces through the next chapter and build on the philosophies of psychologist Sigmund Freud and anthropologist Anton Blok, who inferred that the similarities between (ethnic) groups made space for more conflict than differences did. They believed that it is easier to set boundaries around dissimilarities; hence, making it more favourable for different groups to coexist. On the other hand, groups “closely related in their ethnicities” — such as Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis, Indian Hindus and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians — have been historically “marred by conflict”.

‘Stranger than anything the mind could invent’

The book calls it the “narcissism of negligible differences.” Perhaps it is this narcissism that drives groups to be obsessed with establishing their uniqueness. The chapter goes on to discuss the origins, social context, founder’s ideals, their life conditions, propagation and practice of three religions that seem different but are not: Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Sangeeth Varghese quotes Arthur Conan Doyle from his introduction to The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: “History is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent… it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and incomplete.” This can be conspicuously discerned in Chapter 4. This thorough investigation of uncovering the layers of social and communal beliefs and of discovering the shared origins of religious values is what makes Hidden Links a thought-provoking read.

The two also review the silent cues from the people, and the times and events of Mahabharata, imitating Romila Thapar’s work and investigation of the epic as “itihasa”. Mahabharata has been an expansive account of human mind and emotion; Hidden Links, however, places it in larger context and brings socio-cultural insight to our understanding of the epic — studying it in relation to the emerging religious philosophies of the time (Buddhism, Jainism) and shifting social priorities, away from the majoritarian Brahminical values. There is also a brief comparison between Mahabharata and China’s political and religious climate at the time, underlining similarities in the roles played by Vyasa and Confucius in consolidating ancient values.

The final section of the book, though, is most riveting. Putting in order a “dateline of women’s oppression” — starting from before ancient civilizations to the worldwide emergence of modern empires — the final chapter opens with the astonishingly progressive social structures of ancient civilizations. Among them, Minoans (from Crete Island, now in Greece) and the Egyptians — known for their “idealistic matriarchy” and empowered women, respectively — are highlighted. Women’s rights and political freedom in Sumerian and Indus Valley Civilizations are also mentioned.

Subsequently, the authors explain the descent of women’s social powers — the beginning of the end — citing examples from an otherwise advanced civilization, Mycenaean (successors of Minoans), possibly caused by the global decline of ancient agrarian civilizations across the world, owing to drastic climate change. Sexism, then, is historically attributed to male-dominated migrations, restricted movement of the females, male-serving developments, and hence, a shift in women’s active role in social capacities. Like political and economic values, sexism too has travelled through trade, philosophy and colonizers, and spread all over the world.

Breaking the myths of the past

In evaluating the “persistence of the past”, the book and its skillful writers connect the dots that have existed through time and space. Hidden Links breaks the myths of the past. The biggest myth it breaks is the assumed contemporary nature of the climate crisis. Although it is certainly a more urgent concern today, climate change has been a recurrent cause of changes in history; an argument one can also find in many essays in The Indians: Histories of a Civilization, edited by G.N. Devy, Tony Joseph and Ravi Korisettar. Sangeeth Varghese compares this phenomenon with Lebanese-American Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “curse of the black swan” — the “disproportionate influence” of negative but unexpected events from the past.

“History is plagued by a scarcity of data,”, writes Sangeeth Varghese, and it is clear, as one reads, that history needs to be approached intuitively as much as it needs to be factually validated. Visually compelling, and replete with maps, tables, statistics and figures, the book simplifies history. It breaks the image of the study of history as limited to academic pursuit or scientific enquiry. It moves away from the scholarly reputation of the subject, and makes it interactive and accessible — reinstating our faith in curiosity as the way of life.

Sangeeth Varghese, a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, is a “leadership thinker” from Harvard and London School of Economics, and has previously authored a book on the future of leaderships (Open-Source Leader, 2010). His upcoming book, Future Intelligence, analyses the promise of future economies, governments, technology and business. His son, one of the “world’s youngest historians,” has already authored two books on world history: World History in 3 Points and its sequel, More World History in 3 Points, both of which were published last year. Hidden Links will hopefully not be the last book on historical insight by the duo.

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