About The Book
If the history of the subcontinent is to be written as a sensitive and thoughtful understanding of the past, the analyses have to draw on critical enquiry. Should this be abandoned, then that which is labeled as ‘history’ becomes a free-for-all, accompanied by public abuse and physical force (as we witnessed in recent year), in order to silence those that still respect the procedures inherent in advancing knowledge. Such silence is not just a censoring of history but a censoring of knowledge. These assault will continue to be possible until critical enquiry is given the centrality that it should have in our academic and intellectual discourse.
Romila Thapar is professor Emeritus of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has researched and written extensively on early Indian history including its historiography—both as written in those times and as in the present. In 2008 she was awarded the John W. Kulge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in this Study of Humanity.
The essays selected for this Reader were written by me over the last half century and at different points of time. They reflect some of the changes in the writing of early Indian history during this period. Such changes were due both to the discovery of new evidence-largely through archaeological excavation-and from asking new questions of existing data. The answers to the questions provided fresh explanations for historical events. The perspective of history as a social science introduced the potential of a larger range of historical explanations.
Some reflections on these changes are mentioned in the opening essay in the section 'Historiography'. This section in itself points up the interest in historiography that has developed substantially in the last few decades. The first essay attempts an overview of the change among modern historians writing on the early past, moving from the views of colonial historians to those of a nationalist bent, to those underlining the importance of social and economic history. These last were influenced by the debate on historical materialism as a method and as a theory of historical explanation, which began to be widely discussed from the 1960s. The essay on D.D. Kosambi implicitly touches on this debate.
This section incorporates an initial foray into the question of the forms that the expression of a sense of history might have taken in the early period. I have argued for there having been various historical traditions with diverse representations of the past. I have differentiated between what I call 'embedded history', where narratives are folded into texts that acquired a religious orientation, such as the epics and Puranas, and to some extent the histories of Buddhist Sanghas, and a more familiar kind of history, which I have called 'externalized history', written as independent historical genres such as biographies, inscriptions, and chronicles.
The section 'Economy and Society' begins with a suggested reconstruction of the post-Harappan phase of Indian society. It is a deflection from the usual focus limited to considerations of what constituted 'Aryan' culture. It looks at the history of northern India in the late second and early first millennium BC in terms of the emergence of a dominant culture in a multi-cultural situation. The fundamental question is that of the prevalence and status of a language, namely Indo-Aryan, Although the archaeological evidence for this period has been much enlarged through recent excavations, I have not referred to these in this essay because I believe that the thrust of the original questions is still relevant, and these questions can continue to be posed even with new evidence. The society under discussion conforms broadly to what I have called a lineage society. This, I have tried to discuss in the next essay, which is part of a larger work on defining lineage societies and kingdoms.
The formation of the state and the emergence of kingdoms is now a recognized process in the evolution of some historical societies. I have described this process for the Ganges plain in the mid-first millennium BC. My argument is that in this region the process was initially dependent on the cultivation of rice which enhanced production, and on the adoption of new technologies. By way of contrast, the emergence of kingdoms in southern coastal regions drew more heavily on trade as a resource for change. Initially this was the maritime trade with the eastern Mediterranean as has been discussed in the next essay.
The section 'Changing Political Formations' attempts to define an empire as a further stage in the formation of states, indicating the difference between the two through analysing the emergence and functioning of the Mauryan Empire. It also has a chapter from my first publication on the Mauryas where I was trying to sketch the historical background of the society that gave rise to an imperial form. This is contrasted with a more recent study of one segment of this background, that of caste, as described in one major source. In later years different questions were asked of the same source. I have tried to show how the original statement from Megasthenes, when referred to in subsequent Greek writing, carries somewhat diverse interpretations. These contribute to showing the complexities of a theme that was once thought to be an unambiguous statement. The essay on Asoka tries to bring together the many facets of this ruler as have been variously discussed at different times.
The essays in the section 'Religion, Philosophy, and Society' relate to three topics. One is the need to examine the historical context of ideas and ideologies where they have a social role. The new philosophical concepts and discussions recorded in the Upanisads are shown as emerging in part from historical changes of the mid-first millennium Be. The contrast between the life of the householder and of the renouncer, which is a common thread in many texts of the late first millennium, is concerned not only with religious perceptions but also reflects the social conditions of the time. Religious sects that build monuments such as Buddhist stupas and Hindu temples as places of worship require the material support of the community for which such places are constructed, and even better the more substantial support of royalty. Patronage therefore, both from royalty and from lay-followers, becomes an essential feature of the requirements of religious sects that have a community following.
The last section has two essays that are different from the previous ones (except those on historiography). They discuss two themes that are rooted in descriptions first written about in earlier times but with continuity to contemporary times. The story of Sakuntala was fiction, yet the story was repeated with some change of character and event in later times, and these changes reflect a different historical context. Observing these changes provides a glimpse of how historical change affected the story.
The essay on Sornanatha argues that we have relied largely on the chronicles of the Sultanate courts for accounts of Mahrnud of Ghazni's raid on the Somanatha temple. The accounts are not uniform in what they state and yet we have accepted them as such. This has limited our comprehension of the history of Sornanatha. Many other groups of people were involved with events at Somanatha in various ways, and have left evidence that differs from the narratives of the chroniclers. If we read the Sanskrit inscriptions, the Jaina chronicles of the dynasties of Gujarat, and popular ballads from the neighbourhood, we get quite another picture of the history of the temple and the people involved in that history. We also have to question colonial scholarship which relied on only one group of texts in their rather erroneous reconstructioin of the event.
In sum, the essays touch on facets of the historiography of the last few decades, suggesting a directional change, and situate the change in its contemporary context.
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