Cover Story

Linking the past and the present

Print edition : September 18, 2015

Romila Thapar: "There is always something to look forward to in the excitement of reading the past in order to understand the present." Photo: S. Subramanium

Harappan site (3000 BCE-1500 BCE) at Dholavira in Gujarat. Photo: Courtesy: ASI

A Steatite seal of the Harappan period, excavated at Khirsara, Gujarat. The Harappan culture was a highly literate one. Photo: V. V. Krishnan

This carved statue unearthed by the Archaeological Survey of India at Sannati in Kalaburagi district of Karnataka is believed to be depicting the emperor Asoka. Photo: ARUN KUMAR KULKARNI

One of the four rock edicts of the Mauryan empire found at the Buddhist site at Sannati in Kalaburagi district of Karnataka. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The Great Stupa at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, which Asoka is believed to have started building. Photo: Anjana Chandramouly

A steatite seal from the Harappan period found at Bhirrana, Haryana. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

A steatite button seal, Harappan period, found in Baror, Rajasthan. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Decorated red ware from the early Harappan period found at Kalibangan, Rajasthan. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Sangam Age (first to third century A.D.) black and red ware found at Keezhadi in Sivaganga district, Tamil Nadu. Photo: R. ASHOK

Interview with the historian Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, is one of the most celebrated historians of India, internationally acclaimed particularly for her immense contribution to the interpretative studies of early India. Her untiring efforts have largely enabled the shift of the study from what is known as Indology to early Indian History with a strong orientation to social sciences. Her untiring engagement with the study of the history of this subcontinent are marked by interrogating and interpreting the past, not merely on empirical richness, but by integrating the study of ancient history with several social and human sciences such as sociology, social and cultural anthropology, geography and political science. The result has been the transformation of the study of ancient/early India from dynastic detail and dates to introspective readings of the past. In these ventures she repeatedly reminds us of the changing patterns of historiography and analyses the questions raised by historians, their methodologies of and approaches to the study of the past, which, as she rightly points out, is intimately linked up with the present. She has unravelled how a particular enquiry of the past has a bearing on the current social, cultural and political situation.

Professor Thapar obtained her PhD (1958) from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, under the supervision of Professor A.L. Basham. Her thesis on the Mauryan period came out subsequently as her famous book, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, in which she situated Asoka and the Maurya rule in the context of the socio-economic, political and cultural milieu of the period on the basis of a critical reading of primary sources. This work left lasting impacts on early Indian historiography. Professor Thapar’s major contribution to the study of early Indian social history is writ large in many of her works, notably Ancient Indian Social History and Interpreting Early India. From the 1980s, Professor Thapar’s enduring interest in the study of the early state (From Lineage to State, The Mauryas Revisited) opened up new areas of historical research. In these works, she offered new insights into the history of state formation in early India by highlighting the complex sociopolitical and ideological factors in the making of a state society. Though Professor Thapar’s principal interest lies in the social history of early India, she has also written extensively on the economic history (on forests, professional guild-like bodies, and trade). In recent decades, her growing interests in cultural history (however, not cultural studies, following the current trend in postmodern and postcolonial studies) will be evident from her Sakuntala and Somanatha : Many Voices of a History. Another area of her pioneering work is the study of the Itihasa-Purana tradition vis-a-vis the modern discipline of history. She has ably contested the archetypical Eurocentric notion that early India lacked a sense of history and critically analysed the notions of cyclical time and linear time. Among the most read of her works is Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, a magisterial overview of early Indian history. This book is actually an elaboration of her earlier book, History of India, Vol. I. The modifications, elaborations and additions (which she elegantly described as “autobiographical”) she incorporated in this later book amply demonstrate her keenness to accommodate new data, new interpretative models and fresh perspectives. In that sense, Professor Thapar is ever alert and ready to revise her position. This highlights her firm commitment to her subject and demonstrates that a historian may also change—a point that shows the liveliness of the subject called History. An indefatigable and outspoken critique of the obscurantist, chauvinist and communal interpretations of the past, Professor Thapar has been awarded many academic honours in India and abroad, including the Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the field of History (2005). Professor Thapar was elected the General President of the Indian History Congress (1983). She is the recipient of the Honorary Fellowships of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London) and Lady Margaret Hall (Oxford University). In this interview, Professor Thapar discusses at length how the past—remote and/or recent—is intimately connected with the present. How and to what extent the situations in the present influence and determine the choice of the study of a certain phase of the past also figure prominently. Her statements are likely to create greater awareness of and sensitivity to the study of the past, which, like many other disciplines, stands on professional expertise and rigour and is vastly different from amateurish forays into history. She categorically warns against attempts at homogenisation of the past in the name of cultural nationalism and unequivocally stresses the sustained pluralist traditions in India. The interview has brought out her repeated encouragement of raising new questions to understand the past with a view to developing a comprehensive appreciation of the present.

Ranabir Chakravarti: When one reads your latest book, The Past as Present, one gets an impression that you are a little sad about the state of the study of history, and the general perception of history, in India. You don’t sound very optimistic about it. You are not pessimistic either—that you wrote very clearly. Could you elaborate on the scenario?

We are still using a completely outdated understanding of history and methods of teaching it. The emphasis is on dates and events.

Romila Thapar: Your question is about where history has gone in the last few decades in India. Let me say that there are two levels on which history is being read and studied or being spoken about. One is the level of the scholarship of academic historians where I think that the kind of history being written is impressive, at least among those historians who work at the better universities and colleges. When I consider how history was taught fifty years ago, and the kinds of struggles that we had in those days to give a new direction to historical writing, and the kind of direction that is now being taken, it is in fact an impressive change. I am pleased with the way things have gone, although admittedly the change is not universal in the universities and most have still not caught up with history as it is taught in the best centres. Nevertheless, there are a number of historians who not only treat history as a social science but also recognise its intellectual foundations. And this approach, one hopes, will spread.

However, my feeling about the other way in which history is being projected is actually the opposite. This is with reference to the popular history with which the general public is familiar. This suffers from its being either out-of-date history of the kind taught more than a century ago, or not history at all. Often pointless questions are asked, and all kinds of generalised statements are made about the past, generally reflecting a lack of knowledge about history. This history in the public sphere, propagated by people who are not professional historians, has much to do with the way history is taught in school and even college. We are still using a completely outdated understanding of history and methods of teaching it. The emphasis is on dates and events and treating history as just a body of information that has to be memorised. As somebody said, looking at the notes given to students, they are like a telephone directory with a list of numbers on one side and a list of people on the other.


What is sad is that people still think that history is only information about the past. This attitude is now seen as being too limited when doing research into history. What we emphasise is not just getting information from known sources but also tapping new varieties of sources and checking even more carefully than before the reliability of the evidence before proceeding to use the information for understanding and explaining the past. These two aspects of exploring the past for information and then explaining what happened in the past contribute to what we today call the “historical method”. This is not something that was taught to us when we were students because few thought in these terms. But today it is absolutely essential.

Unfortunately, there is not enough emphasis on how this method is to be taught to students—whether at the high school or undergraduate college level. What it essentially means is that the first step is to collect evidence and data. The second step is to test the reliability of the data and make sure that what one is using is reliably tested information and not something that is casually picked up from here or there or just someone’s fantasy. The third step is to see the causal relationship between events where it exists. Did event “B” result from event “A”? Is there a linkage between the two if the event happened at the same place, but only a little later in time? So the causal relationship becomes an important element in a reasoned, logical analysis. There are those who are professionally trained as historians and yet don’t take the next step, which is that every analysis has to be based on a critical assessment of the data. Fantasy doesn’t come into play and that is often the big difference. In popular history, it is often more fantasy than actual reasoned, logical analysis.

Once you have gone through these steps, then you can make a statement that we call a historical generalisation. So this procedure of treating historical information as a body of facts that needs to be analysed, considered logically and rationally is something much more recent in the historical research of the last few decades. It did exist earlier but was confined to the better historians. Today it is required of all students of history. Since it is rigorous, not all students qualify.

By that you are also perhaps suggesting that what we understand by historical information is itself a very rigorous process of analysis and data collection and that requires proper training and cannot be picked up by amateurish interest. And there is something distinctly different between an amateurish public interest in something of the past and a historian’s understanding on the basis of rigorous collection of information and its methodical explanation on a rational basis.

You are right, absolutely right. The point is with reference to all history. But it is more complicated with reference to ancient Indian history, given the range of sources that have to be consulted. It is not enough to read a dozen books on ancient Indian history, for that doesn’t make you a specialist. You have to know the sources and how to analyse them. You have to know what the sources are and in the languages that were used at that time. For example, you have to know the language of the inscriptions of the Mauryan kings, which was Prakrit, and analyse them. You have to know other texts that were written in Sanskrit, such as the Arthashastra of Kautilya. You have to know something about archaeology, and archaeology is today becoming increasingly technical and dependent on the use of scientific methods and knowledge. There is more and more science being introduced into archaeological research, so much so that sometimes when reading contemporary archaeological reports I can’t fully understand them because they require training in science. Then there is linguistics. It is not enough to know the language of the source one is using. One has also to understand the rules of linguistics when examining change in a language—different formations of vocabulary, grammar, and phonetics—and the way in which, and why, languages can be segregated or can interact.

Let me give you an example that is currently much talked about. When we were students, we were told that the language of the Rig Veda was Indo-Aryan and only that. Whereas today if you made that statement, not all Vedic scholars would agree because with the application of linguistics it has been argued there are some elements of Dravidian in the language of the Rig Veda, although the substantial language remains Indo-Aryan. Does this then change the perception of it as a source by the historian? It changes because one can’t say, “Here is a text in a single language spoken by people who used only that language.” Now the historian has to say, “Well if there are other linguistic features which do not belong to that language category, and Dravidian is different from Indo-Aryan, then it means that there was an interface between the speakers of one language with others speaking another language.” You have to ask whether there might have been bilingualism—or is there not enough evidence for that? Is this the result of the proximity of different language speakers? This puts the Rig Veda into a rather fascinating historical context of not just a single culture but reflecting its domination in the midst of other co-existing cultures. So the historian has to uncover these other cultures.

Studies of this period today have to consider the evidence from other categories of sources not known a few decades ago. For instance, there are studies of the hydrology of the rivers in the area, and more so now with the Sarasvati river having become a subject of debate. Its identity is not definitively known, nor its history. Was it substantially monsoon-fed or glacier-fed? Were its waters captured by the Yamuna and the Sutlej, leading to its decline? Other sources that might throw light on this history are reports from genetics now being brought into the debate. Were there migrants into the area at particular points of time or did the composition of the population remain relatively static?

These are controversial aspects of the evidence, and I am referring to them in order to explain that historical questions do not always have “Yes” or “No” answers as the evidence can be diverse and controversial. (That, by the way, is one reason why “objective-type questions” in history make no sense.) Historians have to depend on the logic of their explanations. These may well have to change when the evidence changes. What was argued in the 19th century may have to be argued differently in the 21st century. Historical explanations are conditioned by the degree of knowledge about a subject known at a particular point in time. Such explanations can also be coloured by the purpose for which they are intended.


May I now move to a broad issue? The public in general, not always trained in historical studies, are being fed a dangerous and wrong understanding of the past by looking at some homogenised versions of certain groups, certain religious tendencies, certain ethnic identities—everything is seen as a homogeneous entity. And we know that the past is not a homogeneous representation of events. You were saying that the Rig Veda cannot be just Indo-Aryan? It is not composed in a single language and it contains multiple languages and therefore suggests multiple cultures as well.

I am not going into the details of the argument being propagated at a public level. Again, one of the differences is that at the level of scholarship, nationally and internationally, scholars working on ancient India have maintained that the Aryan language came possibly via Iran from Central Asia. But the one view that is now being propagated in India by various people is that the Aryan speakers were all indigenous. Some even argue that the authors of the Harappan civilisation were Aryans, thus suggesting that there was no non-Aryan element in the origins of Indian civilisation. This is an argument I, for one, cannot accept for a variety of reasons.


Sanitised Aryanism, where everything is simplified and has a single source. The complexities of the problem are set aside. Clearly, there is a strong difference of opinion and the evidence quoted in support of the two views is unequal. What is being suggested is for some of us linguistically and archaeologically not feasible. We argue that the Rig Veda is post-Harappan in date, so naturally it would not reflect the earlier culture. The Harappan culture had settlements in Oman and contacts with Mesopotamia, none of which is reflected in the Rig Veda. By the end of the third and early second millennia, the Harappan culture was contemporary with various non-Harappan cultures in the vicinity. In the mid-to-late second millennium, B.C., generally taken as the date for the composition of the Rig Veda, the presence of a range of cultures is registered, such as the Painted Grey Ware culture, the Black and Red Ware culture, the Megalithic culture, and so on. These are diverse. They are not a single culture. And in their spread the Aryan-speakers would have met these diverse cultures and settled in their midst.

And let’s not forget that the big difference between the Harappans and the authors of the Rig Veda is that the Harappan cities host essentially sophisticated urban cultures, with a knowledge of writing, whereas the society of the Rig Veda is agro-pastoral and unfamiliar with urbanism and literacy.

Especially what was happening in the Megalithic culture of the southern peninsula is hardly reflected in the text.

The Megalithic culture is not recorded as such in the texts. But different groups are discussed even in these texts, such as the asuras, the dasas, and the dasyus. Let’s look at the texts more realistically. The Rig Veda refers to two varnas— the arya and the dasa. Who were the dasas? They are described in the Rig Veda as people who practise rituals and customs that are different, they worship different gods, and they appear not to have spoken the same language as the authors of the Vedic corpus. They are wealthy and envied for their cattle wealth and they live in separate settlements. Some scholars therefore think they were of a different culture. So we have to ask “Who were they?” and why were they mythologised?

Then there are the dasi-putra brahmanas, unacceptable at first, but when they display their powers they are accepted as brahmanas. The term is an oxymoron in one sense, as dasi-putra (literally the son of a slave-woman or a woman of inferior status or culture) would contradict the status of a brahmana. The Vedic texts mention that devas and asuras were often in conflict. So yes, at one level it is mythology, but mythology is not totally divorced from the assumptions of a society, although it may not describe the reality. The assumptions they have about themselves usually creep into the myths they create. So if there is an insistent emphasis on “Us” and “Them”, then clearly there must be more than just one category of culture. That is why historians are arguing that the Vedic corpus refers to the period from the post-Harappan up to the urban cultures of the historical cities of the fifth century B.C. If seen in terms of interacting cultures, it raises a variety of possibilities in terms of the interaction of societies such as are excluded if the focus is only on a single culture. Would it be possible, for instance, to argue that the texts of the Vedic corpus are attempting to present themselves as an evolution of one pattern of culture out of an amalgam of many? Even today, despite five thousand years of historical activity, we still have diverse cultures.

It is neither single nor monolithic and it consists of definitely multiple sets of cultures. Since you raised this issue of archaeology and Vedic texts, I am reminded of a particularly interesting discovery made about five or six years ago. This is the archaeological site called Sintashta. I was fortunate to interact with the excavator, David Anthony, and he found out that it was a bronze-age culture. About 2500 BC, that is the possible date, the inhabitants were manufacturing bronze items, but they were not yet fully sedentarised. What is fascinating is horse bones being ritually buried, along with human remains that were buried. The striking fact is that the horse skeletons bear marks of mutilation with remarkable anatomical precision. It is something of a ritual back in the third millennium BC in the heart of Central Asia. Far away from India, there is some sort of a horse sacrifice. I am not saying it is Asvamedha, but some kind of ritual killing of the horse and ritual burial of the horse and chariot is visible. Maybe, it has a later reflection in the Vedic corpus. One cannot see everything coming out of this claim for Indocentric Vedic/Indo-European culture, which, once again, is a case of homogenisation. Also it breeds a chauvinistic attitude.

That is the intention.

That we are the greatest of all civilisations.

And that is the popular argument—that the Aryans are indigenous and they went from India to the outside world and took civilisation to Europe. This theory was invented in the 19th century and became popular, as it still is. It was first expounded by the Theosophist, the American Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, and was adopted by the Theosophists. For a while the Theosophists were close to the Arya Samaj, although Dayanand Saraswati, who founded the Arya Samaj, believed the Aryans came from Tibet.

These are the theories that have formed the grist of historical debates referring to the earliest past in India. They began in the 19th century. They seem unable to move out of that groove. And we have to keep in mind that this was the time when European supremacy, drawing from Aryan origins, was being discussed as part of what was called “Race Science”. Some of these theories led to the disastrous direction that Aryanism took in Europe in the 20th century. Historical theories coupled with extreme nationalism and the politics of identity can have severe consequences, which is why it is essential to debate these theories.

Questions that are historically debatable should be treated as such, with scholars holding variant views and each one’s views being weighed in terms of the evidence. Unfortunately, the issue of “the Aryans” in India has been so politicised that those who question the indigenous Indian origins of “the Aryans”, and its corollary of the supremacy of Aryan culture, are viciously abused in the social media and the Internet, apart from being treated with hostility in publications. This reduces the possibility of a historical debate.

And we get quite agitated in the public sphere. When we look at these chauvinistic pronouncements, this urge to present everything in a homogeneous neat past that is being presented as an unbroken continuum, is there also the fear of the different? Do you perceive that in the political culture there is an increasing tendency to stash out anything perceived as different from the homogenised norm?

I think the fear of having to see the past differently, that is, of seeing it as complex interactions of diverse cultures rather than a simplified single dominant culture, is a fear. To that I would add that it also suggests that we don’t have the confidence to admit that our cultures, like all cultures all over the world, are multiple in origin and have been evolving over many centuries and will continue to do so. Every period in history sees the evolution of particular cultures and there is more than one culture of importance in every period. So we have to study the degree of difference or similarity in their evolution and why it was so, as well as the interaction between cultures. Only then can we ascertain common features. We as historians at least recognise that there could be more than one culture existing simultaneously. This means that we have to ask if there was communication between these cultures and what their interface was. These are the questions that we are interested in now. But where there are those who want nationalism to be based on a single dominant culture, and who regard their culture as the political identity of the country for all time, there we run into a problem given that we are a society of multiple cultures.


This cultural nationalism, doesn’t it imply a nationalised culture? In other words, the claim that there is only one type of culture; everything is homogenised.

The construction of cultural nationalism can be rooted in colonial interpretations of a culture, rather than in interpretations that might have existed in pre-colonial times. What did the Mauryans take to be their culture, and how did the concept of culture differ in the time of the Guptas, the Cholas, and the Mughals? This is something we don’t think about, because its reconstruction is not easy. But this is something all ex-colonies have to consider, namely, how much of their acceptance of traditional culture is, in effect, drawn from colonial constructions. This is as true of India as it is of Indonesia, and is even more heightened in places such as Peru and Mexico where many of the old records were destroyed by the Spanish.

Traditions, as we know from history, are invented through the generations or on particular occasions, so it is difficult to insist that a contemporary tradition of today is pristine and goes back millennia. Even those traditions that seemingly go back have been tampered with in the interval. I remember attending the performance of the lengthy agnichayana Vedic ritual in Kerala, specially performed by Namboodiri brahmanas in 1975. They were reciting from the established Vedic texts and one would have thought everything would be acceptable to all. But there was a fierce debate among the Vedic scholars present, who had gathered from various centres of Vedic studies in India and abroad, debates that went on for the full two weeks of the ritual and after, as to how authentic the rituals were and how correct the pronunciations of the Vedic texts were.

This also applies to the history of terms. If one traces the references to “arya” in the Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Pali texts and observes how the meaning and identity of the “arya” changes in history, the information does not entirely support the 19th century interpretation of the concept. One has to ask who is addressing whom as “arya” and why. How is the term being used? In the Pali texts, some social categories are addressed as “arya” because of their exalted status, such as Buddhist monks, irrespective of their ethnic origin, caste, or earlier occupation. Yet the same people are dismissed as nastikas or non-believers and castigated as deceivers in the Vishnu Purana. Today the popular perceptions continue to be rooted in colonial ideas, and these are often thought of as ancient usage.

Historians have to depend on the logic of their explanations. These may well have to change when the evidence changes.

The concern with indigenous Aryanism is, in part, a by-product of religious nationalism—the search for the foundations of Hindu culture. The obsession with a single culture does not go back to early times. Inscriptions of the post-Gupta period claim an ancestry and history in their prashasti sections—in praise of the dynasty. The histories of their ancestors and their community are diverse and they have varying sources of legitimacy. Religious nationalism moves away from the multiplicity of cultures. It picks one religious culture and makes that the central “national” culture. This is a typical feature of nationalism all over the world, irrespective of whether it is anti-colonial, religious, linguistic or ethnic nationalism. National movements tend to assume the superiority of one culture that then becomes the “national” culture.

Religious nationalism underlines the exclusiveness of one religion, culture, language, and such like. This is often deliberately constructed to help mobilise political support, a case in point being Hindutva. As has been often stated by various scholars, Hinduism and Hindutva are not identical. Hinduism is a religion and Hindutva is a political ideology. Hindutva is a modern ideology derived from some aspects of Hinduism but is substantially different. The concept came into existence in the 20th century and its purpose is the political mobilisation of Hindus towards a Hindu Rashtra. In creating an ideology based on religion, the fundamentals of the religion can be reconstructed should there be a need to do so. Such a construction often draws from the elite and conservative expressions of those following the religion. Hindutva speaks of a defined territory, a single culture and ethnic origin, a single religion and language. Hindus must have the same pitribhumi and punyabhumi, ancestors and religion. All others are foreigners. The religious aspect has been reformulated along the lines of the Semitic religions in its focus on historicity and a monolithic religion, a single sacred book, and attempts at ecclesiastical organisations, all of which make it easier for social and political mobilisation. I have therefore called it Syndicated Hinduism.


Drawing on the past, national cultures also bring in the epics familiar to large numbers of people. Where there are multiple versions of the epics, there a problem arises because one version has to be chosen as the “correct” version. This is the problem we face with the Ramayana in India. This comes in multiple and sometimes somewhat contradictory versions created over the centuries. Religious nationalism has to project one as the correct version—an attempt that historians find unacceptable. And let’s not forget that in the many versions of the Ramayana in South-East Asia, where these have also been integral to a cultural identity, the versions can differ significantly from the version of Valmiki. A text that becomes sacred is composed initially in one region for one community, but if it becomes acceptable for various reasons to others, they restructure the text or sections of it to suit their requirements. Some people can certainly place their faith in the sanctity of a particular version, but this should not debar the study of the other versions.


Sometimes a particular period of history is chosen and described as Classical, or as exaggeratedly positive and with a single dominant culture. This becomes a core idea in the national movement. Then when the nation state comes into existence, problems arise as the single culture is frequently the culture of a dominant majority community. It is no longer required to the same degree as before. The nation is a secular democracy, or trying to become one, as we are, and many other cultures demand equal status. The group that is supporting the dominant culture would like to continue as the dominant culture, but there are other cultures that wish to be adequately represented. And if one is talking about national culture, it must include all cultures. So in the Indian situation various cultures have to be included and given status—Adivasis, Dalits, middle castes, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Parsis and others who had not been given adequate status before in the initial stages of nationalism. And in creating a national culture, the multiplicity and plurality has to be conceded and there has to be a shared history.


In many cases, we find this tendency to seek a single strand of culture, a particular brand that is being voiced by the powerful or those who are aspirants for some kind of power. This power means political power and not any cultural message or expression. It is pure political power with political aspirations. This is only the viewpoint or position of a particular segment of society, which may have the ability to put itself on a very powerful and dominant position. It is a self-proclaimed claim. That is harming the study of history.

Yes, it does harm the study of history by limiting it, except that in our times, and at the level of quality scholarship, the multiplicity is being explored. This is not to say that in every period of history all the communities that exist today have to be sought out and given equal status. What it means is that the historian should not focus on one community to the neglect of the rest unless the intention is to write the history of that single community. There have, of course, always been inter-linking factors in this multiplicity. In the 19th century, we can see this in the social reform movements. Their authors came from similar social backgrounds and the changes they introduced into the nature of the Hindu religion were not too different from region to region, but the selection and formulations were tied to the regional cultures. This has to be brought into the historical picture.

The social reform movements of the 19th century changed, to some degree, the format of Indian religions. In the 20th century, when scholars started identifying the changes, and the social groups supporting them that had also changed as a result, their attention was naturally directed mainly to the upper castes, because these social reform movements had largely affected the upper castes. They do refer to the other castes, but the real thrust is at the upper-caste level. This was the category in society that had, in a sense, captured the leadership of the initial stages of the movement. It was aware of nationalism and was groomed later on to take over when the colonial masters had gone. Some historians also began to investigate the nationalist orientations of groups further down the social scale. It started with subaltern studies and this received much public attention as well, but it was soon recognised that many more at even lower social levels, such as Dalits and Adivasis, were also participants in the national movement in various ways.

The issue of 'the Aryans' in India has been so politicised that those who question the indigenous origins of the Aryans are viciously abused.

Other questions were asked, such as which groups had turned nationalism into religious nationalism with its sequence of the identity politics of today? And which were the ones that opposed this, arguing that nationalism has to be secular? So what followed was a kind of diversity in what was claimed as nationalism, and the study of the different facets that went into the making of what we call by the umbrella term of “nationalism”. This is being discussed at the level of scholarship.

But it is not reflected at the popular level partly because analytical and critical studies of nationalism tend to be treated by politicians and the public as a lack of patriotism. If a distinction is made between “religious nationalism” and “secular nationalism”, then a clearer definition of secularism is required than what we generally assume it to mean.

Historical research at this point gets complicated by another feature. If history is an essential ingredient of nationalism and fundamentalism (and Eric Hobsbawm makes a comparison with the poppy and the heroin addict!), then these diverse nationalisms of religion or language or ethnicity begin to claim diverse histories. And soon identity politics makes the same demands.


In that sense, the understanding of secularity in post-colonial India becomes an element in the recognition of multiple cultures and plurality, because the recognition reduces the chauvinistic claims of other groups. One of the problems, however, is the way in which we use the term secularism. The Indian view of secularism generally speaks only of the coexistence of religions. That I find inadequate. What are often quoted are the Asokan edicts where Asoka speaks about the need for all the sects to honour each other and, specifically, to honour the other person’s sect. And in recent times therefore, it is often said that Indian civilisation is a civilisation where all religions were and are honoured. However, it is not enough to say that the coexistence of all religions means a secular society unless there is also an insistence on the religions having equal status. If we associate religions with a majority community and minority communities, as we invariably do, then these distinctions assume a lack of equal status.

The other problem is to ascertain what actually is meant by the concept of secularism. In Europe, it involved questioning the authority of the Catholic Church over civic activities and institutions, and the extension of the political control of the Catholic Church. It was said that institutions should not be governed by the Church and should preferably be run by the state or by civil society. This aspect we do not bring into our definition of secularism because we have not had a church controlling our institutions with reference to any of our religions. But there has been a religious control over social institutions both via ritual and via caste, and particularly in the case of the upper castes.

Scholars have advocated putting “secularism in its place”, meaning there are limits to excluding religion and secularising our society. I would say that secularism in the same sense means putting religion in its place, and maintaining that religion is not to be the single dominant factor in politics and in society and its institutions. The identity of society has to be an open identity.

You mean multiple identities?

I am using the term “open identities” because in a proper democracy there cannot be the dominance of a permanent majority community or identity. Who constitutes the majority changes with each issue that is being discussed. On one issue, say land reform, a group of people will come together and form the majority opinion. On another issue, say education in schools, the majority can be constituted by a coming together of different groups. Some may overlap, but there will be other people also joining in. So the concept of majority is not a concept that is pre-determined. It is fluid and has to be so in a democracy. When one talks about democracy and secularism, one is talking about a system in which various identities coexist but are fluid and are multiple, and they come together as the occasion demands over the issue being discussed. And in a secular society, these identities are not the dominant religious identities.

Unfortunately, nowadays the moment you talk about identities, it is only religious identity. The Census records provided a combination of religious identity and community identity and they got merged in the 19th century. The trend seems to continue.

You can’t talk about secularism if you are still talking about majority communities and minority communities. This is a contradiction that is not recognised.

When we claim we are a secular democracy, the practice should be strongly inclusive. But there are alarming tendencies towards being chauvinist and exclusionist.

But the concept of a religious community, that is, a community identified by its religion, is automatically a community that excludes those of other religions.


And at the same time we take for granted that we have been very civilised from hoary antiquity and we Indians are tolerant. At the same time, by the branding and ostracising of the achhuts or untouchables, a vast number of Indians have been excluded from their rights, dignity, and denied the basic human levels of existence.

This is my problem also with the definition of religions. When one gives a definition of a Hindu, it is generally in terms of members of upper castes since the basis of the definition is from the texts of these groups. Whether it is a Hindu or Muslim or Sikh or Christian, one is seldom conscious that the larger number in each religion have little familiarity with their texts, even though they have been formally identified with these religions. For them, religion is a different matter. In actual practice, they tend to create their own religion, worship their deities in a manner of their own choice. They may return themselves in the Census as Hindu or Muslim or whatever, but they are essentially identifying with their own religion. I suspect this has always been so in history. It would be worthwhile for historians of religion to assess the degree of dependence on texts or on practices to determine their religion and belief.

The hard-core, formulated religious ideas are usually associated with the upper echelons of society. Only in very recent times have we become more alert to the aspiration and social condition of Dalit groups. We also tend to boast that we are the most tolerant society, but we are not. We are not a non-violent society.

Both the concepts of ahimsa and tolerance achieved popularity as slogans with the coming of nationalism, when there was an emphasis on traditional values. These became preeminent and were quoted as the values that distinguished us from those who came to rule over us. It was argued that Indian spirituality expressed itself in tolerance and non-violence whereas the materialism of the West could be seen in the lack of these in their culture. Yet, when one goes through Indian history, from period to period, searching for what was going on within the subcontinent, there was intolerance and violent contestation, as there was in many other parts of the world in the past. And this is well before the coming of the Arabs, Turks, and Mongols. The figures that are quoted for the size of the armies in pre-Islamic times in India, even if they are exaggerated, indicate that large armies were required to face violent confrontations from the neighbouring kingdom. There is also a large body of literature that glorifies war.

When we talk about religious groups of the past, we always think these were very neat, homogeneous groups. They were not. There were many sects. If I recall correctly, even Ramakrishna Paramhansadev, when he mentioned Hindu, he spoke of the sampradayas. There were contestations and mingling and interactions among these sectarian groups. This image of multiplicity of sects is ironed out in popular perceptions. How to present this image of multiple sects to people in general? History can help disseminate this information.

You can only teach the reality of how religion functioned in society if you teach the history of religion within the history curriculum. As a discipline, the history of a religion is different from the theology of a religion. History does not focus on texts alone, as theology often does, but includes the actual practice, performance, and patronage of a religion. And it examines the sociology of its supporters and the structure of its institutions and explains why it received support. This we do not teach as a subject.

But we should, because the nature of the inter-dependence of religion and society is fundamental to understanding both. Once that kind of course on the history of religion is taught, people will understand the social, political, and economic dimensions of religion as well. They will realise that religion and understanding religion is not limited to texts, and to abstract values, but also involves seeing how the teaching has been used by political factions in royal courts, in the authority given to certain social institutions, in places of pilgrimage, by renouncers, and in economic activities such as land ownership and commerce.

Religion is not something distinct and different from the lives of people. It is a vibrant, pulsating part of the emotional lives of many and less assertive in the lives of others. In its social and political manifestation, however, it frequently determines the behaviour of one religious group towards another. This is part of history, and the social and political motivations should receive as much attention as the religious since behaviour is more often determined by causes other than religion. Ultimately, religions have to learn to live together as equal partners with other religions and refrain from claiming special status. Admittedly, this is not easy where a religion has been dominant for centuries or where it is now claiming that it has been victimised in the past. But surely the fact that modern societies now assert that they have a greater understanding of how societies function should make us think of how best we sort out these relationships.


Questioning normative texts

You have particularly shown that for understanding early India you do not merely pick up normative texts. Several other historians too have demonstrated this. You have very clearly brought out the difference between the normative and the descriptive categories of sources. This is the professional approach of a historian to the nuances of the sources. There is also a need for the non-specialist to appreciate and be aware of these nuances of professional historical studies.

And the fact is that historians today are questioning the normative texts and asking why these norms were created. Manu, for example, mentions eight entirely distinct and diverse forms of marriage, from kanyadana or gifting a daughter, to rakshasa or abduction of the woman and therefore demonic. It is unlikely that all eight would be practised in any one society. We all know how careful every culture and caste is about kinship relations and these are implicit in forms of marriage. So if eight forms of marriage are listed, what is the function of such a listing, or is it only a fantasy on possible ways of marrying? Who are these forms of marriage being related to? There must be multiple cultures at play and therefore the attempt is to legalise them all. In the Pandava family alone, there are three distinct forms of marriage in three generations—bride-price, fraternal polyandry, and cross-cousin marriage. The historian has to explain the meaning of this unusual situation if the argument is that it reflects not the normative but the reality. Or were the Pandavas merely inventing puzzles for future historians?

Often Sanskrit normative texts accommodate the local level variations into the main text by adding a cha (and) or adi (etc.) to apparently strict and inflexible norms.

Yes, that is one way of indicating the plurality. But there are other indications, too, some of which become evident from the inscriptions of the late first and early second millennium A.D. I have been reading the Chamba inscriptions—a hill state in the lower Himalayas—and comparing them with the Chamba Vamshavali, the chronicle from the area. In some of the earlier inscriptions, the brahmanas are referred to with titles like Sharma, making it quite clear that their caste is brahmana. Then a few centuries later, inscriptions in poorer Sanskrit include a few words of the Chambyali language, and the brahmanas are referred to as Badu—that is the locally used word for a brahmana—as in the name Badu Lena. It seems that when these kingdoms were set up, some brahmanas were brought there, particularly to perform the rituals of legitimising status. They claim to have come from Gauda and Kanauj, and such like. But it would seem that local priests were also inducted or else the migrant brahmanas gradually settled into the local community and took on the local terminology...

…who perhaps helped the normative texts develop and put them into an order.

The local priests were functionaries of the local religion of the region. The brahmanas controlled the religion of the ruler, the court, the elite, the samantas or intermediaries of the area, and taught the Vedas and the Puranas as texts to the upper castes. But this did not exclude worship at the local shrines to folk deities, most likely conducted by local priests. The latter could not be set aside, so they were probably associated with the brahmanas in some of the temple worship. This would have enlarged the category of brahmana.

In many Bengal inscriptions, the land-grantee brahmanas have typical non-brahmana names like Ghosha, Nandin, and not typical brahmana name-endings like Sharma or Bhatta. These were local priests who were being absorbed within the brahmana fold. The system is really fluid. Even with normative texts, a historian has to ask why these norms are being put together and for whom.

And for whom, yes, and who is the author and the audience. Normative texts are at one level codes to be consulted, although they rarely refer to precedents. But they could also have been used to teach the new brahmanas, who might have had a problem initially with texts and rituals. They would have had to discuss Manu among themselves to understand what was being advocated and whether it applied locally.

And even for the normative texts, the commentators who come later, say, 500 years after Manu—like Kulluka Bhatta—may not speak of exactly the same norms.

What is interesting is that the commentaries were written precisely when social codes were facing new situations and the rules were having to be reconsidered.

It may have been a crisis for the upper groups in society.

It is a crisis for them, judging by the literature that belongs to the period. There are, in fact, two points of crisis for conservative Brahmanism. One was when Buddhism and Jainism became popular and Brahmanism had to deal with their critique, so there were uncomplimentary stories about the Buddhists and Jains in the Puranas where they are referred to as the nastikas and the pashandas. The other crisis was in the post-Gupta period where seemingly there was what has been called a brahmana revival. But what needs investigation is the question of what is being revived under the name of a brahmana revival.

But this is not Vedic revival.

No, this is not a Vedic revival. The Puranas pay obeisance to the Vedas, but what they prescribe has less to do with Vedic practice. When one looks at the substance of the Puranas, or of the Bhakti teaching, they are propagating changes in worship and even belief from those of Vedic Brahmanism. The ritual focusses on bhakti and puja rather than on large-scale yajnas. The former encourages worship of icons in temples and both these are departures from Vedic forms. Much of the mythology of sects such as those of the Pashupatas, Bhagavatas, or Shaktas is newly invented. The explanation given for change is often that we are now in the Kaliyuga when things turn upside down!

They themselves are making a distinction between the norms of the Kritayuga and those of the Kaliyuga.

Yes, and the Kritayuga rules are not applicable.

So we as historians should be sensitive to these distinctions. What you are saying brings the studies by historians very close to the studies of sociologists and anthropologists. You have been stressing on this for the last forty to fifty years. It’s a journey from Indology to history through the interweaving of the social sciences. Can you tell us something about that? When you started your academic life, you heard mostly about Indology.

Even when I went to SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London], in the mid-1950s, it was still largely Indology. There is much that can be included under the heading of Indology, and much that we go back to in Indological studies. But history is no longer seen as Indology as it is now part of the social sciences. Our concerns are distinct and go beyond those of Indology.

But this term is essentially derived from German Indologie.

Yes, it is associated with Oriental studies, and virtually anything to do with India was included as Indology.

Minus the element of Islam.

Yes. They did not exclude Islamic studies in India, but when they defined Indian civilisation, it was as Hindu. So for them the study of Sanskrit and Hinduism was what mattered most. Ancient history was taught as Indology, where the focus was on gathering information about the past, with some but not much discussion of interpreting and explaining society. Philology was important, as linguistics is now. Specialisation in ancient Indian history meant specialisation in what was called “Hindu history”. In the 1960s, I began to see various changes in the study of history that made me realise that ancient Indian history was not limited to Indology.

One was that the early sociological and anthropological studies that were central to European thought, such as the works of Marx and Engels, Max Weber, Mauss, Durkheim, the Annales School, and others, were being translated into English and widely discussed. They were seen as providing an intellectual background to the new directions in the study of history. Reading them took us beyond just being familiar with British colonial historians, whom we had read as students. Scholars such as Mauss or Held, who wrote on gift-exchange, had used data from the Mahabharata and given it a new perspective. Durkheim debated the label of religion for Buddhism, arguing that it is atheist and leaves deity out of the scheme of life. He studied religion very differently from preceding scholars. So if one was interested in religion, one read Durkheim. Max Weber also wrote on the Hindu religion and his views were much debated. Marx had his own version of the Indian past in his Asiatic Mode of Production, a theory that was discarded by most Indian Marxist historians. But Marx was read for his method of analysing European history. This was done with the intention not necessarily of applying it to the Indian past, but rather of garnering from it the kinds of questions that could be asked of the Indian past.

So by the 1960s we realised that British colonial readings of the Indian past were not the only ones to be studied and commented upon, that others had written on this past as well but interpreted it differently, and that as historians we should be aware of these interpretations. The European scholars who had commented on India were not Indologists but were sociologists, social and economic anthropologists, historians and sociologists of religion, representing new ways of thinking, who had nevertheless taken the trouble to study Indian sources. Basically, they had studied other pre-modern societies as well, and they came to Indian studies with an extensive background. They were in a sense juxtaposing their first-hand knowledge of pre-modern societies with texts that came from similar societies, early historical societies, although they no longer existed. So reading these authors made us even more aware that pre-modern societies functioned differently. In order to understand early societies, we had to re-read the Sanskrit sources and find out how they were describing their societies instead of trying to impose our modern models on them. I found this intellectually very stimulating—to be comparing the evidence from Sanskrit texts with descriptions of pre-modern societies from other sources.

I was then teaching in the History Department of Delhi University and the historians there at the time, unlike now, were not intellectually the most stimulating. My colleagues were nice, old-fashioned historians with whom one could talk up to a point, but after which they were uninterested in new ideas. I remember that when I would introduce the subject of social and economic history, they would dismiss it as just new-fangled ideas. And behind this was the hint that this was all Marxist “stuff” that was beginning to be talked about at the time.


At the same time, socio-economic history was dubbed as Marxist history. Please tell us about this.

Yes, you are right. Social and economic history was automatically taken to mean Marxist history. This is because then and indeed even now, very few people—even among academics—bother to find out what is meant by a Marxist understanding of history. They know little about the theories of analysing history and society and therefore equate economic determinism with Marxist history. So anyone who writes on economic history or gives importance to social and economic history gets labelled as Marxist. There is little realisation of the difference between using a Marxist theory of analysis and considering some aspects of analyses that draw on the questions that Marxists may ask. This requires a careful reading of a person’s work that few tend to do. And there is, in addition, the question of it being fashionable to use certain kinds of theories, so Marxism was fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s and is not so now, just as post-modernism was also fashionable then, but no longer. Of course there is also the peculiar use of the label “Marxist” by the Hindutva brigades (as they are popularly called), for whom anyone who is not with them is a “Marxist” or, even more amusingly, a “Commie”. This kind of use is too ridiculous even to be commented on.

But to return to Delhi University and my interest in the social sciences. The people I enjoyed talking to were at the Delhi School of Economics, such as the sociologists M.N. Srinivas and Andre Beteille, and the economists Sukhomoy Chakravarti, Amartya Sen, and Jagdish Bhagwati. One didn’t have lengthy conversations with them but over a cup of tea, if they were sitting around, one pulled up a chair and joined in. Some of their comments on modern India would trigger off thoughts of following up similar trails for earlier periods. These could be questions about trade, or land relations, or caste, or forms of religious worship, or what the texts said.

This was also the time when there began to be some some serious Marxist historical writing on early India. I found D.D. Kosambi the most persuasive and intellectually challenging. He was extremely well read both in the sources and in theories of explanation. This is evident from his footnotes and also his correspondence with the French Classical historian, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, and others with whom he was in contact. I also enjoyed reading R.S. Sharma, whose writing was a change from works on ancient Indian history ranging from Vincent Smith to R.C. Majumdar.

Religious nationalism always moves away from the multiplicity of cultures. It picks one religious culture and makes that the central 'national' culture.

All this underlined the realisation that history was not just a matter of collecting information. I had begun to see this even in my student years in London, when we were expected to read widely on ancient India but also ensure our own intellectual development by reading even more widely on the discipline of history. The Delhi University scene and the gradual shift from Indology to social sciences also strengthened the relevance of history. One has to explain the past in order to understand it and to explain the world around one. And more so when you recognise that so much has happened before. So this link between the past and the present becomes much clearer when you say that we are studying the past in order to explain what happened before our time, but also to better understand our own time.

Another aspect that went into my understanding of history was my interest in comparative history. As a student in London, I did read a little on Chinese history. This was a completely new area for people of my generation, because in school the only non-Indian history we studied was European. But I took a course in Chinese Art and Archaeology and by good luck I had a chance to spend a brief time in China in 1957, as a research assistant doing field work at two sites—Maichisan in North China and Dun Huang in the Gobi Desert—working on Buddhist cave paintings. But my later forays into Chinese history were not very successful, possibly because I threw myself into the deep end and started by reading Joseph Needham on Chinese science and civilisation. This was tough going for someone with no background in Chinese history.

I had greater success with comparative readings in Greco-Roman history. This was in part because it impinged on early north Indian history through Hellenism in the immediate vicinity, and in part because my choice of readings ran parallel to my interests in ancient Indian history. Comparative history became very pertinent. I found the studies of Moses Finley on the epics of Homer provided useful parallels to the study of Indian epics. These became the basis later of discussions with Prof. R.N. Dandekar at the BORI [the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute] in Pune. The project on the Mahabharata was still quite lively at that time, so there was much to talk about. I was interested in how Moses Finley’s questions drew from his readings of Max Weber, a more successful enterprise than what I got from reading Max Weber on the religion of India. Arnaldo Momigliano’s studies of Greco-Roman historiography sparked a new interest in my mind and turned my attention to historiography, ancient and modern. This remained with me throughout.

The culmination of much of this reading and thinking went into what I think was intellectually the most exciting decade of my life—the 1970s. It was reflected in the courses we worked out and taught at the Centre for Historical Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Each course was argued over and discussed at some length among a group of formidable historians. This in itself was an unforgettable experience.

After all, what we see at this moment is not merely the current situation, it’s an accumulation—many layers of what had happened in the past.

This is where, for example, the discussion of Braudel’s theory of the different ways of seeing how time is involved with an event becomes relevant. There is the immediate time when an event happens. The bigger time bracket is that of socio-economic change, that is historical change. Then there is a far longer span of time giving rise to the structure of society and the landscape. So then you begin to realise that the past also has its own history. It is also looking at its past. We are looking at the past, our ancestors have been looking at their own past, and this is going on and on and on. And what we are getting out of this is a deeper only of the past, but of who and and what we are.


Asoka—different readings

Historians also have a past and they change. I often tell students that if you read Professor Thapar on the Mauryas in 1961 and what she wrote in 1996, these are two different Professor Thapars. This is the strength of history. It is not the weakness of the subject. Could you tell us how your ideas about the Mauryan times changed?

When I first wrote the thesis that became a book [Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas] in 1961, it was still in part under the influence of Indology. I was looking at structures and I divided the book in the conventional way of history-writing at the time. My slightly different take from the others was that I said I was trying to put the statesman Asoka in his historical context. If he is a ruler, he has a certain authority that makes him the kind of man he is. Which of his activities were responses to the world he lived in and which grew out of his own thoughts? Fortunately, we have his edicts, which allow us to try and assess what he was trying to do. And it is important because it is contemporary. Other sources are later. Then the second question is how do later sources, such as the Divyavadana from north-western India and the Mahavamsa from Sri Lanka, project him both as a king and as a Buddhist.

The obvious question arises: why would the later texts remember Asoka like that?

One starts looking at that side of it, too. What made me see it in a new way reflected much more in what I wrote on Asoka after I had published the book, resulting from my preliminary readings in some of the social sciences and especially in the political functioning of pre-modern societies and in the sociology of religion. Studies of Buddhist polities by S.J. Tambiah and by Leslie Gunawardana were most helpful, but more in triggering questions than in providing models. What interested me were the questions these scholars were asking of their sources and how they were making connections. Because that is one way in which one learns to ask new questions.

It is not a straightforward acceptance.

No, not at all. It is in order to learn new ways of investigating data and to ask more incisive questions.

Would you say that when you delve deep into your sources and readings for grasping the past, there can be the element of not only questioning the sources but also some irreverence towards your sources? Should one cultivate this?

Oh, absolutely. Early on in my work as a historian, I remember a distinguished scholar of Buddhist texts commenting on a paper I had presented at a seminar, and saying to me that I should learn to be far more suspicious of my sources, especially in my initial readings until I could test their reliability.

In India, if you critique some charismatic person of the past or something of past traditions, you are branded a villain.

But that is exactly how one should not be seen. If I am trying to understand you and I meet you for the first time, what do I do? I ask you questions about your life and your background that might tell me what sort of a person you are. I try and size you up. The initial uncertainty gives way to trust, or else to dismissal.

Textual sources are like one’s friends. They are telling one about the person or the event that one is investigating. The veracity of what they are saying has to be established and cannot be assumed to start with.

One of the things that happened with me is that when I did all of this reading, I started asking many new questions. Basically I was interested in two perspectives. I looked at texts, as for instance the Arthashastra, and asked, “Was the Mauryan Empire really like that? Was everything centralised and fully controlled? To what extent was this what was intended by the Arthashastra but may not have been realised?” And the second thing was to try and see the Mauryan Empire functioning as a system. If one is considering the collection of revenue—and all states are dependent on this—how precisely was this done? Who went out to collect taxes? What was the nature of the terrain taxed? Was it collected in cash or in kind, and if it was the latter, how was it stored and transported to wherever it had to go? And so on.


Were you actually saying in the 1950s that India needed a strong government? And you could show that there was a tradition of strong governance behind us. Actually, the past is needed by the present.

History is always needed for legitimising the present. I mean when I was talking about understanding and explaining the past, that is intellectual curiosity. But how the past is used politically is an extremely important concern and cannot be ignored. Then when you start questioning it, you say, “Let’s look at Kautilya again. If he says the king’s order is to be carried out, then the sealed orders will have to be taken from Pataliputra to Takshashila. How long would that have taken?” Maybe two months, by which time the governor in Takshashila would have taken his decision.

For example, can we compare how the information reached Kandahar from Delhi or Agra during Mughal times, when we have better-known records? That gives us a comparative assessment.

But then you must take into account the change in communication technology over a period of almost two millennia. Was there a faster system of runners or a greater change of horses? Were the roads through forested country better constructed and guarded? Were there more rest houses along the route? And so on. So you start sometimes looking at the nitty-gritty of history, the things that people used to say were not very important. How long does it take for an order to be communicated? This is important because it leads you to look at all aspects of the system and you realise how complex it is. Is it feasible then to describe it as a highly centralised administration?

You could not just pass an order. It was not executed verbatim over the length and breadth of the vast Mauryan realm.

So then you reconsider, and I did the same and said, “No, there would be a difference in the time taken and possibly even the same order may not have been sent to the officer in Takshashila, or in Kalinga.” So can one think alternatively of an administration that is classified according to the local conditions in relation to official requirements? There was a centralised system and Kautilya was advocating it. But perhaps it was applied in a more limited area than the entire diversified empire, and I called this the metropolitan state. Then there were core areas where there was close contact but less centralised control. The provincial administration would probably have taken many more decisions at the local level. But there would be some categories of decisions that would still need a reaction from the ruler. Finally, there were scattered peripheral areas where there was no continuous contact but local officers collected the local product for the state. These would be the forested areas where the forest people lived. In a sense, the picture of differentiated administration seemed to me, even when I looked at it for later periods, more suitable than the uniform centralised control that even I had supported 50 years ago.

But let me clarify that I am speaking of a difference in administrative patterns and not a differentiation in the perception of the power of the ruler. I am not arguing that in the core or peripheral areas, the power of the ruler was merely symbolic and his status projected through ritual. The thrust of my argument is that it is possible to envisage some differences in the systems used by the same ruler to administer areas that had variant economies and communities. This would of course tend to become more uniform over the centuries as marginalised areas were settled and as communications improved. The Gupta kingdom, therefore, would have had a somewhat different administrative pattern from that of the Mauryan empire.

And negotiations are no less important than centralisation. We find different attitudes of Asoka to different regions with different thrusts. Once again comes in the idea with which you began: that there was no homogeneity, rather it was a plurality and multiplicity of regions. You brought this out so well in the instance of Asoka who is seen always as a Rajarshi. The tone he uses for the forest dwellers is very different from his utterances to others. In fact, his voice is quite threatening to the forest dwellers. And we find that forest dwellers are still being treated the same way, as a marginalised group.

You would think that from the way people treat them today, they are still the officers of Asoka!

If everything is justified in terms of growth, then the marginalisation of the forest dwellers will continue. In the light of the sharp asymmetry in ancient society, you critiqued the existence of the “Golden Age” in ancient India. I am sure you are seen as a kind of a villain for holding this view.

I am indeed by a certain group of people. But I am in good company, since there are some fine historians who are also so branded. This is the point, you see. Historians who question the idea of a golden age do so not because they are trying to destroy the validity of the glory, as it were, but because they are trying to probe the nature of this description and explore the idea further. In order to do this, you have to ask questions. Even if you are exploring a landscape and you walk into a forest, you have to ask yourself: “Where am I going and in which direction? What am I learning from the vegetation and the trees?” The historian is doing the same thing. She is moving from the known landscape to the unknown. She is saying we have to ask other questions in order to better define the landscape, and of course find our way out of the forest. This is something that is not understood.


Do you find there has been growing intolerance towards differences of views and perceptions in the last quarter of a century among Indians? I am not speaking of professional historians among whom healthy debates continue. But what about the tradition of argumentative Indians? Are you missing the argumentative Indian nowadays in terms of historical understanding?

No, I think what has made me feel sad is the loss of liberal values, which I thought by now, after 60-plus years of Independence, would be very widespread. That has not happened. People who cherish liberal values are now smaller in number. Actually, they have become an almost tiny minority. The disturbing thing is the trend that most people hesitate to think critically about the issues that face us. They accept what is handed out to them. Education is not encouraging the young to think independently and to question the world around them. They believe all that they are told, without stopping to question it or think about it from a rational perspective. That is what is very sad.

One form of faith is to take recourse to an Internet search and think that whatever is there is reliable stuff.

Yes, because there are all kinds of people contributing to the Internet and the range is from well-informed thoughtful articles to virtual ignorance.

And, of course, there is no quality control.

It’s open, but then you must appreciate that if the information is open information, with nobody commenting on whether it is reliable or not, then you are at risk. Awareness of the risk is absent. That awareness would come if there was intelligent teaching in schools.

At the same time, with the Internet, you can put in anything and upload it. If you are in an influential position, you can formulate or shape the making of opinions without necessarily having the expertise. This is regularly happening from abroad in the case of studying Indian history.

The social media are now being quoted all the time, yet earlier they received much less attention. Today they are right up front, whether it is a political debate or anything else. The social media and the Internet and the print and visual media, these have become opinion makers. They are especially influential with the young, whose reading of good books has declined alarmingly. Therefore it is crucial that these agencies should also be used to explain what is meant by the reading of history, to say that history is not just anybody’s and everybody’s narrative, that history is now a discipline that has a method and a method of analysis and a method of critical enquiry. One wants to say, “Please hesitate to pronounce on history and historical writing without familiarising yourself with its method of enquiry and the theoretical understanding of the discipline; please hesitate as you would hesitate to pronounce on the findings of a physicist where you don’t know the discipline.” But these days anyone can claim the right to judge a historian’s view irrespective of whether they understand the subject or not—and from there proceed to abuse the historian if they disagree. I am not saying that this right should be denied, but a little modesty in self-assessment would be helpful.

You are saying there should be also an attempt to bring professional history to the general public and make it more accessible to the public space.

That is true. You see what we lack is what I call the “intellectual middleman”. This is known to Europe and the United States. They have researchers there doing cutting-edge research and there are other people who understand the subject and can project it at a popular level so that there is a...

…but not diluting the content, the rigour of the subject, and its discipline.

…not diluting it but acting as a bridge between the researchers and the general public. We don’t have those kinds of bridge persons. Some among the uninformed general public take upon themselves the role of asserting that their views reflect the research, even if their assertions bear little resemblance to the findings of the research. This may, in part, be due to poor education or an indiscriminate dependence on the media and the Internet. The media can be ignorant about a subject but anxious to provide its viewers with a byte in order to liven up a programme. Equally, often it is motivated by an ideological opinion that requires opposition to a particular point of view.


With this come the claims that certain historical findings could or would hurt the sentiments of a community, so such works are to be branded and banned. This is a very dangerous trend.

This is very dangerous indeed, because everybody and anybody’s sentiments can be hurt in different ways. And it doesn’t take more than a handful of people to proclaim loudly that they are speaking on behalf of the whole community. The rest of the community may not even know what is going on, or else may just sit quietly and not be concerned, or may actually be fearful of being terrorised by the groups claiming to be speaking on their behalf.

Banning books is becoming a bane of the Indian mind. If someone even rightly found that there was something objectionable in a professional history book, there is an immediate hue and cry to ban or burn the book. Pulping a book has become a reality in India.

The point is that if we were truly tolerant, we would take all this in our stride, as we did in the past. I mean if you look at some Brahmanical texts, they are quite contemptuous in their statements about those opposed to Brahmanical views. Such persons are not only called nastikas and pashandas, but are repeatedly described as mahamoha, deceitful and deceptive, taking people in the wrong direction. (Interestingly this is exactly what the Hindutva supporters are saying about some of us historians, only they keep calling us Marxists, irrespective of whether we are or are not.) But even though the sentiments of such persons (often Buddhists and Jains) would have been hurt by such remarks, they did not demand that texts such as the Vishnu Purana that used these terms about them should be burnt.

The typical Indian tradition of debates and arguments by citing the purva paksha and then rejecting it by the uttara paksha are being thrown out in the name of honouring Indian tradition. This is not Indian tradition. It is something painful and objectionable.

This is partly, of course, because with some exceptions those who speak the loudest about the Indian tradition and Indian values are often those who are unfamiliar with the texts. They frequently have not read the books they treat as encapsulating their tradition, neither in the original nor in translation. They are even unaware that there have been debates about these ideas and texts within the tradition. They merely pick up something out of context and bandy it about. It is now becoming a real problem to make analytical and unconventional comments in a thoughtful way about the ancient texts for a public readership. It meets with a barrage of abuse for no rhyme or reason.

Therefore those who are creative in their research tend to publish their thoughts for a limited readership. Those genuinely interested in new ideas on a particular subject, without being specialists in the subject, find it difficult to get access to such ideas, having to cut through the garbage.

This kind of self-censorship is disastrous as people will cease to think freely. They will only think within limits seen as safe. They will not venture into areas that are controversial, or unchartered, and hence “unsafe”.

Without that, no critical enquiry is possible. In fact, I have begun to refer to education in India as LCD education, by which I mean that we have diluted education to such an extent that what is taught can now only be called the Lowest Common Denominator. The attempt is to dumb it down and make it less and less challenging, so that people become pliant and are too frightened to ask questions or discuss the contents of books or exchange ideas. Eventually the views of the media will get rooted in people’s minds as most people get their information from the media. The habit of independent reading seems not to be as healthy as it once was.

In ancient times, there were critiques and healthy debates. Litterateurs used to make fun of many social practices through dramas like the Sanksrit bhanas. Many of the bhanas parodied the upper echelons of society. If that is Indian custom, then what we are practising today is not Indian custom. We are killing it.

Critiques and healthy debates or even sarcastic digs are no longer an Indian custom. They have given way in the public sphere to Indians abusing other Indians on the Internet and in the social media—and sometimes doing so in the most outrageous fashion. This is particularly so when the topic under discussion pertains to culture, history and religion. Normally, no matter what the provocation, members of a civilised society refrain at least from public abuse. But wherever Indians have settled in any part of the world, there is public abuse of other Indians. Some of the non-resident Indians in the U.S. are a prime example.

Serious, thoughtful criticism and the questioning of oneself and of one’s society, and not rank abuse, has always been the hallmark of a civilised society. Perhaps the tradition of being civilised is slipping away from us.

We are becoming insistent on homogenising our culture, even if it means seeing it through the colonial lens. We silence those contending for space in the culture or others demanding the recognition of diversity. I am not suggesting there is a limitless field of diversities such that it becomes difficult to define Indian cultures. I am arguing that where aspects of our cultures are being defined, we cannot ignore those that give a further meaning to the definition, by their presence.

The disturbing tendency is to construct and project the image of a single homogenised Hindu community, a single homogenised Muslim community, and single homogenised Sikh and Christian communities.

The interesting thing is that if one were to do a course on the history of religion in India and consider how religions have affected societies, the most challenging aspect of such a course would be the diverse sects each formal religion produces, and the study of their complex relations with other sects, which often include a range of beliefs and practices. How, for instance, did the Vaishnava and Sufi sects interact, or why was there a hostility between the Shaivas and the Shramana sects of Buddhists and Jains? That is the interesting aspect of the history of religion. It is necessary to see both the contestations and the borrowings and these are clearer from studying the reality on the ground rather than the theory. The popular religious sects, not so closely linked to the formal religions and forming the majority in all the religions, worshipped local deities and talked among themselves about their beliefs and forms of worship. That is where the major religious articulation lay. Popular discussion was encouraged where caste groups and sects had an overlapping identity. Some sects had a tendency to draw a following from particular castes, but others, and many more, it would seem, negated the caste affiliation.


In your magisterial survey, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, you wrote a very elegant sentence regarding the Mahabharata war. You wrote that had the charioteer been the Buddha instead of Krishna, perhaps the gospel to Arjuna would have been different. Could you elaborate on this?

What I was arguing, and most historians would agree, was that the Bhagavad Gita was a post-Mauryan text. By that time the Buddhist and Jain Shramanic traditions were well established, coexisting with the earlier Brahmanic tradition as well as the emerging Bhagavata teaching and that of the Shaiva sects. Notions of religion were defined by the two streams—the Brahmanic and the Shramanic—and this duality continues through the first millennium A.D. Patanjali the grammarian compares their relationship to that of the snake and the mongoose, suggesting a contestation between the two, presumably for patronage and a following. Some scholars have suggested that perhaps the teaching of the Bhagvad Gita was in part a response to Asokan policy and the teachings of the Buddha. Were some Brahmanical texts a partial comment on the public debate between various religious groups—the brahmanas, nastikas, and pashandas, Buddhists (who in turn called the brahmanas pashandas) and Jains and others?

So, had the Buddha been in dialogue with Arjuna, what would he have said? He would have asked, “Is this war really necessary? What are you fighting for? You are fighting for a kingdom. In doing so you will be killing your kinsmen.” Maybe he would have asked whether a kingdom was the best form of governance. After all, there were many ganasanghas/chiefships or clan-based societies, and the Buddha admired their way of functioning and used it as a model for monastic organisation.

Even during the fifth century B.C., the Buddha was all for the ganasanghas which fought the Magadhan ruler Ajatasatru.

Possibly he may also have asked that if violence is contingent on a particular group of people or an event, shouldn’t non-violence be universally observed? Krishna’s message is that it is the dharma of the kshatriya caste to fight evil. The war is only between two groups of kshatriyas—one evil and one good, with the latter defending their svadharma. They were doing their duty as the varnashrama dharma dictates. The Buddha would probably have advocated further negotiation to avoid violence. This would have made the war redundant perhaps. And if that had happened, there would perhaps have been no Mahabharata! Then, there is another point: Krishna asks those who are suffering but have faith in him to come to him and he shall set everything right. This can also be linked to the Bhakti tradition and the Bhagavata tradition. The message is to have faith in one particular god and take all your troubles to that particular god—your personal deity. The Buddha may have been ambivalent about the existence of gods. Suffering and its cause have to be understood and through this understanding one may find a solution.

The Buddha’s approach is almost that of a medical practitioner.

Perhaps there is a greater emphasis on self-reliance and the observance of the ethical code as enunciated by the Buddha. That is in some ways a more challenging solution than the one that says, “If you come to me I will solve your problems.” But this is the difference between a reasoned understanding and one based on absolute faith. What does “come to me” involve and how does a deity solve one’s problems? For people of faith this certainly is a solution, but others may want a different solution.

The questions or the inner conflicts of Arjuna led to Krishna’s formulations and theories in the Bhagavad Gita. This kind of disquiet also crept up in the mind of Yudhishthira who ran to Bhishma and pleaded with him to stop the war.

But at the end of the war Yudhishthira is the one who says to the brahmanas that he does not want to be king. He wished to renounce kingship and go to the forest. Kingship involved campaigns and killing. The brahmanas insisted that kingship was necessary. I find it very interesting that at the beginning and at the end of the war, there are these two episodes that question the validity of war. And I think that’s something that requires thinking about. Is the Gita primarily a message of peace and non-violence, or does it condone violence but only under special circumstances?


Actually this is something that often intrigues me: why Mahatma Gandhi, the champion of peace, held the Gita so central to his thoughts, a text that actually upholds war and fratricidal violence.

I really don’t know enough about Gandhi’s thought and I haven’t read enough of his writing to judge this. My suspicion would be that violence/non-violence is only one side of the story. I wonder if the ultimate message that comes through, as it seems to in the case of Asoka, is not that of non-violence at any cost. It is non-violence provided you can defend it on moral grounds and there are no other issues involved. Asoka says that he hopes his sons and grandsons will be non-violent but if they have to be violent may they be merciful in their punishments. So it’s a controlled non-violence. Is it the same with the Gita? If it is a matter of power and ethics, then non-violence has to be more carefully negotiated. Would that fit Gandhi’s reading? Indian nationalism was contesting the evil of British colonialism. He doesn’t approve of violence, but was there a hint of condoning violence should the context demand it ? I have often wondered why Gandhi had so little interest in Asoka and more especially in his edicts. This is in contrast to Nehru, who greatly admired the message of the edicts.

The religious identity or lack of it in a historian may well leave a minimal imprint on the interpretation, but as a historian he should be aware of this.

Another aspect of the Gita for Gandhi was its endorsement of the varnashrama dharma. Did it provide a firm point of knowing the structure of society and where one fits in, and providing a fixed point from where one could view problematic situations, especially when the world around one seems so uncertain? Where people are breaking the rules, is it necessary to provide a guide, such as the varnashrama dharma?

It is only in the very last phase of his life that he completely gave up the idea of varnashrama.

I also think that his choice, for example, of the word Harijan seems symptomatic of trying to retain the status quo and find a solution within it. He is clearly opposed to the oppression of the past centuries, but how is this oppression to be countered today? Is there an exhortation to people that they deliberately break the caste taboos?

He repeatedly urged and campaigned for throwing open the temple doors to the untouchables. Maybe that is kind of a symbolic gesture. Did he feel that perhaps the religious emancipation would follow up with the snapping of other kinds of bondages? The term Harijan to me sounds patronising.

It is patronising in today’s context, although that would not have been the intention then. Was it reversing the relationship, was it radically challenging, or is this reading off course?


Please tell us about the reasons of the immense popularity of the Ramayana in relation to the Mahabharata which is far more complex in its theme than the Ramayana.

Evidence of the widespread popularity of the Ramayana is of course more recent. When I say recent I am measuring it in terms of the chronology of ancient history. I am referring to when the Ramanandi sect begins to propagate the Ramayana and Rama bhakti and possibly when the existing versions of the story and later ones are also enveloped into this movement. I am thinking of the Kamba Ramayana in Tamil, the Krittibas in Bengali and the Tulsi Ramayana in Hindi. These are all versions of medieval times, more so the second millennium A.D.

So initially the Ramayana is not necessarily preferable to the Mahabharata. But let’s not forget that as a narrative the Ramayana is less complex.

By way of an aside, let me add that it is interesting that the discussions and commentaries on a range of Sanskrit texts are most widely discussed in medieval times. This is the period that some politicians and others readily refer to as the period when Hindus were supposed to be slaves and oppressed by Muslim rule. Would there have been such impressive literary and philosophical debates and the use of Sanskrit across the subcontinent if their Hindu authors had been slaves? But that is just an aside.

The Ramayana also celebrates and upholds the patriarchal family order.

Yes indeed. The Ramayana also represents a new turn in society where family, property, kingship, administration are becoming central. It is a time of incipient kingship therefore Rama has to be victorious, even before he is converted into an avatara of Vishnu.

Even the Ramayana hails him as Narachandrama. That is very clear.

In historical terms, one can read it as the system of kingship overtaking that of the earlier clan society. This latter is represented in the depiction of the rakshasas. Rama is the righteous king and it is easy enough to make him an avatara of Vishnu. The Krishna avatara is perhaps more complicated.

Even Dharmaraj Yudhishthira appears vacillating on many occasions.

By the time you get to the Ramayana, the answers are straightforward. This also makes it much easier to propagate such a book as a religious book. Religion draws on faith and faith is more important than the story. If a book encapsulates faith, whether it’s the Bible or the Quran, and if everybody says Ramabhakti is based on the Ramayana, it is incumbent to believe what is written in the Ramayana. And so it is better if the story is simple and the morality unambiguous. And Rama is a relatively uncomplicated person. He has fewer doubts and vacillations about kingship, for instance, as compared with Yudhisthira and Arjuna. They are complex people.

Historical records of the past show that sometimes rulers aspired to excel Ramachandra. This is not the divine Rama as an avatara of Vishnu, but the terrestrial ruler. The powerful Chola rulers of South India claimed greater glory than Rama in their inscriptions since they conquered Sri Lanka by fleet of boats while Rama did so with the help of the monkey troops.

Well, on the other hand such statements are also telling you about the way in which symbolism has to be examined. I mean when one talks about the role of reason in historical interpretation, one is not expunging the role of symbolism as communication, but one is saying that it too has to be examined critically. One cannot read symbolism as a literal description. One has to understand the subterranean meanings that it conveys. The meanings may be quite mystical for some but can be read differently by a historian.

You pointed out the sharp and irreconciliable difference between reasoning and faith. A historian may have his or her own religious position but in the study of history it has no place.

What I meant by that was not that the historian has to expunge his religious beliefs, but that these should not colour his interpretation of the sources. The religious identity or the lack of it in a historian may well leave a minimal imprint on the interpretation, but as a historian he should be aware of this. Every historian has some degree of bias. The better ones are aware of it and try and be as impartial as they can. But one mustn’t forget that there isn’t only one way of reasoning. One has to keep in mind a larger totality. Let’s not dismiss the fact that the person who is making the statement in the text may not have been making it from a critical perspective but the historian who is assessing the text is seeing it from that perspective.

And what may be unexplained by today’s historians, can later become explicable.


So there is always enough possibility of newer explanations.

Oh absolutely. I think that the most exciting thing about a discipline like history is that as a historian one is constantly learning. Each time one picks up a new book with a new analysis of whatever it maybe—it could be of Eskimos or the lives of the Bush people—the connectivity of knowledge is something which keeps one going all the time and makes one ask questions all the time.

Someone of your stature and experience offers inspiration for younger generations never to keep the mind shut, especially in view of the growing hegemonic thoughts.

Obscurantists are constantly seeking hegemony, and when one takes them on as I often have to do, this is precisely the thought that is foremost in my mind, that if I am claiming to be clarifying historical problems it is not just for the debates in contemporary times. I am also doing it for it to be useful perhaps for the next generation. It is absolutely essential that the questioning and the debates carry on generation after generation.

The contemporary world will surely welcome that these questions bring many other ideas and repeatedly question hegemonic positions.

Absolutely. Knowledge is dependent on asking questions. Otherwise you just close the mind.

Sometimes you might upset people just by asking questions. This fear of the different has to be somehow tackled and conquered. As I said in the beginning, I felt having read your Past as Present that you’re perhaps a little sad. Perhaps that is not the take-home message.

That’s not the take-home message. No, no. There is always something to look forward to in the excitement of reading the past in order to understand the present.

( Ranabir Chakravarti wishes to thank his wife, Dr Tutul Chakravarti, for her helpful suggestions. Thanks are also offered to Mr Deepak Yadav and Mr Digvijay Kumar Singh, both doctoral students, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, for their technical assistance during the interview.)

Ranabir Chakravarti, Professor of Ancient History, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, specialises in the economic and social history of early India with a particular interest in the maritime trade in the Indian Ocean. In addition to contributing regularly to peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes, Chakravarti has authored/edited ten books including Warfare for Wealth: Early Indian Perspectives (Calcutta: Firma KLM, 1986), A Sourcebook of Indian Civilisation (Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2000), Trade in Early India (OUP, New Delhi, 2005), Trade and Traders in Early Indian Society (New Delhi, Manohar, 2007), Indo-Judaic Studies in the Twenty First Century, a View from the Margin (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2007) and Exploring Early India (New Delhi: MacMillan, 2013). He has recently added annotations to a 14th century Latin Crusade text, How to Defeat the Saracens (Washington D.C.: Dumberton Oaks, 2012).

Chakravarti has also written/edited three books on early Indian history in Bengali. He regularly reviews books in dailies, both in Bengali and English. He has also contributed to the distance learning programmes of the Indira Gandhi National Open University. Chakravarti was elected president of the Ancient Indian section by the Indian History Congress in 2011. He presided over the Ancient India section of the Punjab History Congress (Patiala, 2011).