It has so often been said that Indian civilization lacks historical writing and therefore a sense of history that this notion passes for a truism. There has been little attempt to show up the falsity of the generalization. In the present book a magisterial historiographical survey of every major form within which ancient North Indian history is embedded or evident Romila Thapar shows an intellectually dynamic ancient world profuse with ideas about the past, and area replete with societies constructing, reconstructing, and contesting various vision of world before their own.
Romila Thapar argues that to possess history a civilization does not have to reveal writing in forms regarded as belonging to the established genres of history, In fact , a variety of ancient Indian texts reflect a consciousness of history; and, subsequently, there come into existence recognizable historical traditions and forms of historical writing. Both varieties of texts those which reflect a consciousness of history and those which reveal forms of historical writing were deployed to "reveal" the past, and drawn upon as a cultural, political, religious, or other resources to legitimize an existing social order.
The Vedic corpus, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the itihasa-purana tradition, the Buddhist and Jaina canons, the hagiographical and biographical literature, the inscriptional evidence, a variety of chronicles, and dramatic forms such as the Mudrarakshasa are all scrutinized afresh in this book: not as source for historical data, but instead as a civilization's many ways of thinking about and writing its history.
This monumental work will ignite many debates and prove to be a source of new ideas on the ancient past.
Romila Thapar, described as "virtually the only living historian of ancient and pre-modern Indian who has risen to the rank of world-class historians", is Emeritus Professor of History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is a Fellow of the British Academy and holds and Honorary D. Litt. each from Calcutta University, Oxford University and the University of Chicago. She is an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and SOAS, London. In 2008 Professor Thapar was awarded the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, which honours lifetime achievement in studies such as history which are not covered by the Nobel Prize.
This book has been many years in the making for it simmered whilst other ideas took shape and form in various publications. Inevitably therefore I have many people to thank and much to acknowledge.
My interest in historiography began in the 1960s but remained without focus. This was largely because historians in India at that time, with a couple of exceptions, were dismissive of the subject, although my earlier conversations with no. Kosambi and reading his writings had made me realize the centrality of historiography.
The Mary Talbot Fellowship at Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), Oxford, in 1967 initiated the process more purposefully. My interest became better defined that year through discussions with Professor Arnaldo Momigliano who ran a seminar on the theme at University College, London. He introduced me to History and Theory and other studies of the historiographies of early societies and encouraged my interest in historiography. Further explorations resulted from conversations with Eric Hobsbawm whom I first met as an undergraduate when I attended his lectures at Birkbeck College, London. I returned frequently to LMH and especially enjoyed my conversations, as I still do, with Susan Reynolds, and I am sorry that Anne Whiteman and Rosalie Collie are no longer around to discuss the contents of this book.
I gradually began reading texts of the ancient period from the perspective of historiographical analysis. The reading has continued over the last four decades with the discovery on each reading that there were many further genres of writing that could be examined. There were of course ventures into other themes during this time. Nevertheless this reading remained constant, with the publication of some occasional papers on historiography.
A period at Cornell.in 1974 where I gave some seminars on the theme added other dimensions, particularly from the comments of Leighton Hazlehurst and Oliver Wolters. A Nehru Fellowship during 1976 and 1977 provided the opportunity for some tangential research which was published in 1984 as From Lineage to State. The thesis of this earlier book is seminal for the first part of the present one. A semester at Peradeniya University in Sri Lanka in 1978 led to discussions on Buddhist historiography with Sirima Kiribamune, and the late Leslie Gunawardana. These discussions evoked earlier conversations with Lakshman Pereira. I have also had the benefit over the years of conversations on the subject with the late Frits Staal, and with Thomas Trautmann, Herman Kulke, Daud Ali, and Robert and Sally Goldman.
An earlier version of this theme was given as the Radhakrishnan Lectures at Oxford in 1987 and as a series of lectures at the College de France in Paris in the same year. I also enjoyed trying out my ideas on various colleagues in the Centre for Historical Studies of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, which I hope they did not regard as a terrible imposition. More recently, Kumkum Roy and Kunal Chakrabarti have gallantly read and commented on lengthy chapters, as has Naina Dayal, comments that have helped me in organizing data and arguments. I would also like to thank Nivita Kakria who helped to prepare the Bibliography and the Index. And special thanks to Rukun Advani, for his meticulous editing, for the questions he asked which helped me clarify what I was saying, as also his patience and accommodation with my ineptitude in handling the many problems I had with the computer.
Work on other categories of texts as part of this project was carried out later on an ICSSR Fellowship in 1988-9 and a Bhabha Senior Research Fellowship in 1992-3. My ideas on this subject then hibernated for a while whilst I published on other themes. But the period of hibernation led to reformulations and new ways of looking at the subject. The most recent period of intensive reading and writing on early Indian historiography, which helped me formulate many thoughts included here, was as a Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, and at the Library of Congress during 2003-4, and also when I held an Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) National Fellowship, 2007-9.
I would like to apologize for the length of this book, but to some extent this was required, given the widespread denial that early India can provide evidence of a sense of history. This statement, in fact is what I came to see as largely irrelevant with the realization that every society sees its past in a particular way, which it may refer to as history or not, but which is relevant to understanding that society. The enjoyment in discovering nuances m the texts that were new to me, and trying to follow up some of the questions I was beginning to formulate, made me return again and again to the theme.
I have not compared the various recensions of the texts, although such comparisons have considerable historiographical value, as it would have made the reading for and the writing of this book impossibly long. It can in any case be better done by examining the historiographical context of each text in greater detail.
Given the length of the book it would doubtless help if I explained how the argument proceeds, although I can only do so briefly at this stage. In the first chapter I have discussed the reasons for it being said that there was no historical writing in early India. The second chapter indicates what made It possible to question this view and what I believe were the main historical traditions. I thought it appropriate at this point to provide the direction of my argument so as to facilitate the reading of my perspective on the chosen texts. The remaining fifteen chapters discuss various categories of texts, moving from embedded history to historical texts, and which hopefully illustrate my argument. The concluding chapter is an attempt to set out briefly what I understand of the early Indian historical tradition.
The subject considered here has immense variations because of the variety of genres in which the texts are written. This complicates the argument since each genre has it own characteristic way of recording the past. I have tried to draw out a series of propositions which I hope will hold. Whether or not these propositions will be largely acceptable is perhaps not as important as the real purpose of the book, namely, to create an interest in looking at these questions and relating them to the texts of early India since they provide new facets in its study.
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