Oxford University Press presents – Readings in Early Indian History by Romila Thapar



you ramallah it's a pleasure to talk about your latest book which is readings in the early Indian history which is a collection of 16 essays that have been written over a period of nearly 50 years and I noticed that you divided them into five sections so would you tell us to start with a little bit about why you chose these 16 and why did you try to decide to put them the way you have done in terms of historiography society and economy quality religion philosophy and then coming into what you call towards further change well I think we purposely putting these essays together was largely but it is fully realized how much the study of particularly early Indian history has changed now one is talking about a 50-year span which is a very large length of time but the old concern with political in dynastic history which in itself is quite legitimate and which continues naturally has also been added to very significantly by work on social economic religious history and so on and my intention in collecting these essays was partly to show the change over the last so many years almost 50 I think in this collection yes certainly 50 and partly to show the way in which historical study has broadened out to include much more than it did before which means things like new kinds of evidence new kinds of notions of causality and new kinds of questions I was just thinking one of the issues that you raised and which isn't interesting while it's a strand that runs through the book is that you insist on treating history as a social science in other words you're arguing that it's not something that is spent for and that group of specialists with something that is made for a much wider audience you've also made this point and again about interdisciplinarity so can you tell us a little bit more about that why you think it's important to treat history as social science and what are the implications of interdisciplinarity for something like history yeah I think my obsession with social science it was really partly that I was trained in the broader framework of what was called ontology because it was ancient history it involve languages it involve scripts and that kind of thing and in damaji for me was a slightly static concept it's any aspect of Indian studies to Jews you can be working on ants in India you can be working on birds and animals you could be working on history it's all ontology now with social sciences what happens is that history moves into an area where it is in dialogue with sociology with economics with political science with democracy demography with statistics which brings in a much greater element of reality into the study the children you're making it brings in an element of reality because the questions than you are or that you ask are questions which other social scientists are also asking so in a sense it integrates historical study into the study of the fuller study of society and that integration is not just something that happens with contemporary history or modern history it has to go back to the beginning so that when I remember in the 60s and 70s when economists talked about the importance of economic growth they would frequently turn to us as historians and say what was it like in your period of time and one had to then go and look at economic structures or look at structures dealing with caste in society or religious movements which were different there was a difference between cream ugly society in northern society and so in a sense one was taking history more and more in the direction of the social sciences because that is where the new evidence in the new questions there's also a specific question I wanted to us because I will speak to sing that you referred to a very long span of time from about 2500 BC to 500 BC and who described that as a formative period so what are the trends did you think was significant during that 2,000 years ago the Indian history that required us to classify that as a formative period well it's a really that essay is an attempt to to answer the question of what happened after the decline of the Harappan culture and the rise of kingdoms in urbanization in mother and the eastern part of the Ganges plain the geographical shift there is also seemingly a hiatus and the theory that has always been held is of course that there was a complete break and everything started afresh now my suspicion of this theory Raney rose when one looks at the archaeological valley where there are cultures like the black and red where cultures of different kinds that are contemporary with the Huracan cities and then seem to continue on into later periods now admittedly one is speaking about a huge span of time it's a go two thousand fifteen hundred years nevertheless I think that one can look perhaps a little beyond material culture where there doesn't seem to be in any continuity but also look at some notions ideas trains of thought which often do have a continuity or at least one needs to ask the question was there a continuity in certain things and if there wasn't and there was a discontinuity what were the reasons for either and I think here I was perhaps a little influenced by didi Kosambi idea that although the material culture the Huracan cities declined there might have been some continuity of ideas which then crept in as part of what we call Vedic culture in other words Vedic culture is a mixture of what might have been some strands that might have been inherited and some strands that were already in existence another issue which is partly related to this vast span of time but it's more genuine at one level which is the soil problem about periodization which you do discuss in your historiographical essays pointing out the limitations of scalding certainly lives Hindu Muslim British then we have the substitution of ancient medieval and modern now we have a tendency to talk about the early historic the early medieval and in some cases the early modern and so on qualifying these periods how to think how relevant are these periodization and do you think we resolve these once and for all is there some kind of consensus where does it leave us no I think the periodization issue has not been resolved and I don't think it can be resolved in hurry because periodization is very dependent on the way in which you are researching writing looking at the history of a long span of time and in the same way as early medieval came up when we realized that the post cook that period is not a Dark Age but is a period which is pulsating with life and there was this huge debate on was it system of feudalism or was it a different kind of system or whatever and so you described it as a new period so I think in the same way when that kind of work and that kind of debate takes place on the spirit we the end of the Harappa culture to the to the early centuries ad there will be a distinction and there will be new periods that will be we sorted out a periodization of course has its greatest advantage for the growing up of syllabus where you can neatly chop the history into chronological brackets but otherwise one has to be very careful because by giving it a label you're giving it an emphasis which you may or may not wish to give and maybe that is one reason why I prefer to refer to early history rather than ancient and early medieval and so on I just call it early history because in a sense the emphasis is then of the historian and the reader who sees what emphasis could be we do decision is one issue but also and you suggested that perhaps we need to do and beyond the wheat divisions but would also struck me about this anthology basis is the way in which in the sections on society and economy and in the section on quality there is actually a mix of essays on society economy and poverty so the society economy one has a seize on the lily of state and early state formation and the one in polity has essays on model economy and society so how do you think as a historian do these kind of stratification so classifications work it's on the one hand we have the chronological divide on the other hand we have the thematic divides so what is your opinion about these thematic divides and how to be work with them or work out of them well I think that the thematic devise are almost an aid to organizing essays or an age to trying to see again where the emphases lie I don't think one can make very strong somatic debates in work dealing with social economic political history or for that matter even where ideology comes in and religious studies coming I think it is necessary to realize that's partly what comes through in this kind of mix-up that you're referring to it is necessary to realize that these are all interrelated features of a particular period of time of a particular society or of many societies coexisting at the same time so it's not surprising when you have something of political organization into the social and economic essays and similarly something of social organization coming into the political essays because I think that really a very sharp theme attic distinction is not possible so I would say that although I have made these distinctions they are made really much more as a kind of guide to where the emphases like rather than sharp divisions and why in your section on political formations why is the focus so centrally on the body is because you start with the module your work with the models at the 1960s and then there's the essay in 2009 so obviously it's very long and very continuous engagement with them always why do you think the mod wheels are so special in some ways well I think that really goes back to the question of why did I choose to work on the Mariusz when I DHD and of course once you do a PhD on a subject you are so well grounded in it that you can never leave it you're constantly coming back because that is such familiar ground but it's also partly for two reasons one is that it's very very rich in sources and the variation of sources is really quite impressive and I find to this day that if I'm doing an essay on something else and I need to consult for example the ashokan he did that when I reread them there's always something new that surfaces and I say oh I never thought of this before and that comes up so there is that the other thing of course is that I think it was a very historically a very crucial theory a kind of divide between a certain continuity that came up with urbanization and small kingdoms the conflict between kingdoms and chief ships the gunner Rogers and Rogers and so on and then you get this system which is of course I now say it's not a centralized system but nevertheless a system which is different and subsequent to that you get a different kind of different set of kingdoms emerging so it is in many ways a kind of historical watershed and I'm extremely interested in going back to it again and again and seeing it is that what's interesting is that in your races of the Mahdi as you engage with the question of Buddhism but you also distance yourself from the position of Ashoka being focused because you place him in a wider context but you do turn to both put the cemented – still maybe centrally in your collection of essays on religion philosophy Society where I think what's intriguing is the way in which you look at the relationship between the householder and the renouncer and it's interesting because one thing that once one renounces there's nothing more to do with the house but you constantly go back to the sources and humors that there is a connection so we they'll give it about that yes well this is the question of renunciation is something that has always intrigued me because I think in many ways the centrality of renunciation to various religious ideologies as it were the centrality of renunciation is a very Indian thing you don't find it in other religions to this degree and therefore I was very intrigued by this in a sense it's being taken as being antisocial you're opting out of society and you were having nothing to do with it I see it really much more as taking up an alternative lifestyle now and I and I do argue that except for the ascetic that goes you know traditionally and symbolically goes and sits on top of a mountain the average renounce the way in which renunciation is known and practiced is an alternative lifestyle therefore it has a connection with the existing lifestyle it's not completely cut off and the renowned sir then although it is the opposite of the householder is dependent on the household I mean the possessed giant case is very very clear you get your arms from the householder you go out and receive charity and gifts and food from the householders so there is a very innate connection between the two and what I was interested in was to to explore a little bit the fact that you have the one category which is grounded in society the other category which claims to be not connected but is in fact very intrinsically connected the last set of issues I wanted to raise with you one is you make this in your discussion on the work of Kosambi and elsewhere you make this argument about the importance of critical inquiry as something that is absolutely crucial for the historians at the same time you have an anxiety that those who might be involved with certain kinds of political activities would tend to appropriate the past or tend to draw on the past were certain non-academic reasons yet we know that see somebody like Kosambi had a very strong political position on a whole range of issues so how do we then reconcile our professional and a political do we keep them separate or is there to be which we can work together with these well I think that you know every person living in a society has a political position whether it's articulated whether it's consciously known or not or whatever but there is that position and for social scientists in particular it's very evident that they will have a position visibly those who are in authority those who are governing the kind of governing and so on and so forth therefore I'm not one who buys this theory that the idea of historian is the historian who doesn't have a political position we all have it some of us aware of it and some of us are not nevertheless I think that what is important is that one must distinguish between in a case like the legal zombie one must distinguish between his political position and his use of the methodology which had certain political overtones but was a methodology in itself which was a perfectly legitimate methodology in social science I'm referring to his use of the Marxist methodology where he does not accept the traditional divisions that Marx makes for European society information society on the whole he he rejects those but nevertheless he uses a methodology which is a Marxist methodology now I think that in cases where one may have very strong political positions obviously these political positions should not overwhelm the research that one is doing but they will come in up to a point that's that's taken for granted and so what one or let me put it the other way that I think that the the sensitive historian knows when the work is being done at a level which is strictly academic although it may be directed from an initial position which is a political position like for example if one is looking at today if one is looking at the position of lower castes in ancient India one may have a political position on it that is one kind of research that is being done and very often even in the case of extensive political positions when they are being countered that the date that ensues is very often conducive to the progress with discipline but people historians like that usually also have a commitment to explaining their position to the public at large to what is known I believe as the generally interested reader and I think that that is an important commitment then if you are arguing a certain position from a particular point of view you have to take your readership into confidence and say that that is the academic outcome and let me explain it to you in more realistic terms in terms of a dialogue that having with my readership I think these two things should go together and usually with good historians having somebody like Eric Hobsbawm it's very very clear that he has a political commitment his academic work has been described as absolutely superb and magnificent by all kinds of non-marxist but he has a public commitment to and he does write essays how would you in that context piece your work which again is mean something you've worked on for a very long time your work on the notion of historical consciousness in ancient India because again on the one hand one can see that to put it very simply there's been a denial of any kind of historical consciousness on the part of colonial historians who says that broadly speaking there was the sole spiritual aspect in no interest at all in the past or the present of the future just a static Society on the other hand you did have nationalist historians who argue that there was historical consciousness how could you place your own work and let us may say on historical consciousness in the anthology how would you look at it well I think it's partly that my interest in the subject really began partly with this idea that everybody was commenting on the fact that Indian civilization never had a sense of history and I thought to myself that sounds very strange because every society has a sense of history and I've lived through a period of time in the last 50 years when history has been the central item of immense ideological struggles you know left right center whatever it is history has been absolutely at the center and I said myself this is not just both nationalists there's something that's there that's been there for a long time there must have been an interest in history so I started investigating moving slowly away from the idea that did India have a sense of history or not to what I think is a much more meaningful idea which is that all societies have a sense of their past and many of them write it up as history but the form that history takes may be different we don't all have to produce histories of India written in the Enlightenment project for now I'm not saying that this is an incorrect project not at all I think that today if one is writing a history one has to use the historical method that is commonly used which involves critical inquiry and all the processes of critical inquiry absolutely important but for earlier societies that didn't have this sense of critical inquiry all had a different sense of critical inquiry one has to look at the texts that relate to the past from a somewhat different way and what I found interestingly as I started looking at these texts that talk about it he has it he has a piranha and so on I began to see that they were not all looked at in the same way either there were differences deine changed the form change the genre change the way in which the past is recorded for example in the Vishnu Purana in the Challenger data section it's very different from the way in which it is recorded in the Raj at the Remini and to me this is significant in terms of having a historical consciousness I was very happy to see that it's been captioned towards further change so it gives us something to look forward to and what's interesting of course is that you have your discussion on Shakuntala and how this narrative has been appropriated and used in different ways at different points of time that's one of the AC said that section and the other one is about how an event the destruction of the template so not was either represented or not represented or represented in a variety of ways over a very long span of time so in concluding first of all I'd like to know whether we can expect something more from you along those lines and also about the methodologies that you evolved for these kinds of studies because these are very different in some ways from say the exercise you did with the more years which was much more in the nature of history as we would have understood it maybe a couple of decades ago so a little bit about this shift and also the kinds of issues involved in doing it yes I think that it is important to recognize the fact that every discipline changes to usual story how does knowledge advanced knowledge advances through discussion through debate through opposition to existing knowledge and then through that process something new comes up so there are shifts in disciplines and I think there are shifts there had been shifts in history from political dynastic to social economic now much more to looking at these sort of ideological intellectual super structures and that kind of things so my interest in this began really with with two questions one is of course the the actual discussion for this essay for the book that finally took shape began with the question of gender history how is a woman represented in different periods of time in India and so I took up the case of Shakuntala because she's completely fiction she's not historical but she's represented in one way in the epic and in a very different way in Kali dozen slay and then in a very different way in the comments that come from British writers and from Indian writers like the board and so on and what interested me then was not only how the image of the woman changes and attitudes towards her change as piety changes from a clan society to a caste society to a supposedly modern society and so on but I was also very interested in the underlying question which is how do historians use fiction you can say that this you can't quote a historical fact in the traditional sense by quoting fiction so how do you get behind that fiction and say what this is really demonstrating is perhaps a way in which society was being looked at at that time so it's the broader social issue but becomes important and you look at Shakuntala then not simply as this is the story in the Mahabharat but you ask yourself the question what is the kind of society that the Mahabharata is depicting in the course in narrating this story similarly what is the kind of society that kadhi dasa is depicting in the course of narrating the story and it becomes therefore a very interesting interrelation between literature and history in the so North case it was some a very different process there I took an actual historic event that is a statement that in 1026 Mahmud of Ghazni came and raided the temple of Sola and up to that point people had talked about these raids of this raid and the aftermath the creation of this great Hindu Muslim trauma entirely on the basis of the Persian and Turkish records and I thought to myself I wonder if there aren't other records at that time and then investigating discovered that there was a whole stream of inscriptions in Sanskrit which had been worked on by different historians for different purposes but not related to the Solon addition and there are gen chronicles of the child who cares in the kings of Gujarat that cover this period but don't refer to the rain so I put together all these there's the oral tradition as well and I thought to myself now as we go through the history of Solon and from the 10th century right up to the 20th century what are all these different voices saying about it or why are they silent and so that really led me to this point of why does at what point does a historical event become central to whom and for what purposes so it becomes central to the Persian chroniclers because they're trying to glorify Mamu and in this verification they exaggerate beyond degree like many chroniclers are accustomed to doing then you get the little struggle that's going on between the jain ministers at the Jolokia court and the shia chief priests of the temple the temple goes on I mean all this talk about it being converted into a mosque is not correct until much later dis converted the temple goes on so this struggle goes on and the temple bits of it are repaired rebuilt and the reasons given are not the reign of Mahmud the reasons given are weathering by salt spray sea spray or bad ministers wicked ministers who didn't maintain the temple a situation that we are very familiar with the maintenance of public buildings and that kind of thing and I just thought this was very interesting so then I asked myself the question when is the first reference to the Hindu Muslim drama in which of these texts it's absolutely absurd the first reference is in a debate in the British House of Commons in the early 19th century where somebody gets up and so talks about this drama and the British then take it up and go on talking about the Hindu Muslim drama which is then picked up by Kay and monkey and by certain members of the internationalist historians and so on and you have a situation where you can see the making of what has come to be called a collective memory then you examine this whole notion of a collective memory is a collective memory something spontaneous or is it created at a particular point in time for particular reasons and then carried forward and I found that it was created in the 19th century and was carried forward now all I tried to do is to say that historical events therefore should not be looked at from just one kind of source you have to concur consult all the possible sources of that time and then arrive at what you think happened did not happen why it happened who it happened to and all the broader aspects of a historical moment and do you think this this is something that can be truthfully pursued and would you be doing so in YouTube well I won't be doing so because I think my days of doing research now slowly coming to an end but I think it's certainly a way of proceeding with many historical events that can be fruitfully pursued yes I think that we should stop looking at historical events as a single event which concerned only a single person happening in a particular moment of time I think we have to see it as a kind of articulation of something that affected many people affected many later generations war was converted into ideological issues and was used as a kind of historical backdrop to a lot that happened in later years you

10 comments

  1. Scholars tend to be very boring speakers and writers. To attract a large audience, they should learn how to speak and write in a scholarly AND interesting manner like God The Writer Who is The Supreme Example. – G

  2. All conceited students and all faculty members of JNU with an inflated ego are worthless good-for-nothing pseudo-intellectuals – but outstanding historian and thinker Professor Romila Thapar is AN EXCEPTION. She is not a laloo panjoo scholar but a world-class scholar. – G

  3. JNU, Aligarh, Delhi historians follow the British-Pakistani version of Indian history. That gives enough justification to close down JNU, a worthless university. Why should the taxpayers all over India have to pay for these traitors?

  4. This historian does not know that first Muslim invasion in India took place prior to 1300 years from now by Muhammed Bin Quasim who attacked Sindh and faught and killed Raja Dahir? What is she talking about collective consciousness?

  5. During Nehru's and Indira's rule many foreign returned intellectuals rose high in their carreer because Nehru and Indira had inferiority complexity with regard to white people. It should not be called complex because if a inferior person feels inferior then it is not a complex.

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