A tour de force

Print edition : March 28, 2003

Early India: From the Origins to A.D. 1300 by Romila Thapar, Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books), London, pages xxx + 556; price 30; special Indian price Rs.718.

I FIRST read Romila Thapar's A History of India (Volume I, Penguin Books, London, 1966) as an undergraduate student in 1969. With R.C. Majumdar, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri and R. Sathianathaier in our Reading List and the `quotations' from Vincent Smith and Stanley Lane-Poole we were required to take by heart, here was a book which told a different story and told it differently. That relieving difference, it was too early for me to have known, represented the giant strides that Indian historiography had already taken. History in India had arrived as a human science, and the book I was reading was a bold announcement of that graduation. Looking back, one realises with pride that one was standing at the cusp of a major transition in the intellectual history of the country, witnessing a crucial factor behind that transition. Indian society was facing manifold challenges, those in the form of divisiveness of many varieties among them. Fighting them had to start from fighting the writings which historicised their ideologies. Thapar was exposing such attempts through this and other writings of hers, even while bringing out the pluralistic character of Indian culture through the ages - the "cultural pasts", to use her own phrase. The scope of the book, thus, transcended that of just another variation in the narrative of Indian history; it helped strengthen the fabric of Indian society with its foundations on the ideals cherished by the Freedom Movement. The quick succession in which reprints appeared bears testimony to the value of the book going beyond the academic.

Thapar has revised this book, nay, written a new book to replace it. "Substantial changes in the readings of early Indian history," she says, have necessitated this. Mark the expression: it is the readings of history that have changed. This views history as a text capable of lending itself to diverse readings, rejects the hegemonic character of any one reading, and refuses to take any single interpretation of history as "generally accepted". It thus gives scope for greater sensitivity to alternative readings and shows a readiness to admit polyphonies in history. No one reading has a claim to be more authoritative. All readings should be acceptable, provided they observe the minimum procedure of historical analysis. This does not mean a eunuch-like eclecticism. While still staying firmly within one's own position, one can respect, and respectfully reject, the positions of others, ideological shades notwithstanding. Many in recent times fail to understand this latitude. The result is that they accept or reject formulations on the basis of the colour of the flag brandished at them. For them Thapar is a `Marxist' - a swearword! - not to speak of descriptions as a terrorist or a mad woman; and it is convenient to brand and reject a serious writer thus as it saves them the trouble of reading and engaging with her/him seriously. This book illustrates once again that such categorisations are more vicious than erroneous.

Thapar's own contribution to these "substantial changes" is not the least. The autobiographical elements in returning to a book she had written about four decades ago are thus greater than she is ready to concede. More significant, however, is the sensitivity that she has shown towards the changes in the understanding of the subject over the years. These changes have resulted from two factors: the quantum addition of new information and the reinterpretation of data already known. The former is not limited to the discovery of an occasional inscription here or a coin there; the phenomenally rich material brought out by archaeological excavations has literally opened up ground not treaded earlier. Once considered an "ancillary discipline" to history, dutifully providing "corroborative evidence" to textual statements, archaeology has come of age, standing on its own legs. That has changed the very approach of the historian. Where information from archaeology is at variance with what literature provides, it presents an alternative picture with no demand for the rejection of one or the other. So also, archaeology has shown how the landscape of India has changed and, with it, the environment - a new concern of the social sciences in general. While keeping abreast with these details of information adding up to the quantum of knowledge, Thapar is also sensitive to the new interpretive exercises, informed by the use of better techniques, developments in related disciplines and the changing concerns of historians. She had recognised the importance of comparative studies of society in its various facets in the first edition itself. This did not mean declaring one culture to be the norm and then judging others by its standards. A pious hope and a fond dream at that time, it has opened out into a reality in Indian historiography, thanks largely to the researches she and some of whom she trained and inspired have done. And, in incorporating these results, Thapar has not only a legitimate sense of fulfilment but shows a magisterial command and breath-taking sweep.

This will be clear from a comparison of just the headings of the chapters in the two avatars of the book. A major change is in the chronological frame. While the first edition drew up to A.D. 1526, the present version stops with the end of the 13th century when India, Thapar believes, underwent an epochal transformation. Apart from totally rejecting the heavily communal periodisation of Indian history, it has significance going beyond that agenda: central to the understanding of history are not just dynastic-political fortunes but changes in the processes and structures. The new scheme will show, at one glance, the distance that the author has covered in the past four decades or so. "The Antecedents" in the first edition is an examination of the way in which Indian history was written in the past. The first chapter in the present version, "Perceptions of the Past", updates and elaborates it with an insightful critique of the state of the art. The chapter on "Antecedents" here is an account of the archaeological record of the subcontinent, which had been left out in the former. "Perceptions of the Past" is not just a survey of literature available on the subject. Read with the "Introduction" (pages xvii-xxx), it refreshes the reader's mind and equips it to appreciate the reading that Thapar proposes to make of Indian history in the chapters that follow. It reviews critically, but without demonising, the colonial perceptions of India's past, both of the `Indophobic' and the `Indomaniac' varieties and then goes on to indicate how they influenced different ideologies, including those of racism, nationalism and communalism. A healthy critique of Marxist histories (note the plural) follows where Thapar, although broadly sympathetic to that framework of analysis, does not fight shy of recording her dissent from most details in those brands of historical writing. She now looks at history as a social and human science. She shows how there was a need for a realistic assessment of Indian society in its various facets in the post-Independence period. It led to independent developments in disciplines such as growth economics, demography, social anthropology and sociology, socio-linguistics, archaeology and history. Questions asked in one discipline began to interest practitioners of another and this encouraged interdisciplinary research. History was central in this scheme and historians started asking questions previously unasked relating to society, economy, culture and religion. Historical research continued to require expertise in handling sources of manifold nature, "but in addition also required some understanding of theoretical procedures of analysis. This differed from the approach of those for whom history was just a narrative about the past with a focus on providing information. Historical imagination shifted from the romance of reconstructing the past to a more creative exploration, asking a wide variety of questions and searching for answers" (page 27; emphasis added).

Thus, for Thapar, "a historical study is not a juxtaposition of islands or fragments of historical facets which are lined up: political, environmental, technological, economic, social, religious and other histories." A historical analysis does require recognising the fragments, but "relating them to a whole determines what causes events and formulating an explanation. For some, power relations may be fundamental; for others it may be the dialectic of who controls resources and labour and who labours, for still others it may be the relationship between socio-economic structures and the ideologies that they spawn, or an inversion of this. For a few historians it can be an interlocking of all these." (page 35) She knows only too well that, as a historian, she too is part of the historical process and that the paradigm will shift in the future. She is conscious that the direction of the shift may draw on the way the present looks at its past - a consciousness which admits the intense concern of history as much with the present as with the past. It is here that she stands out as a historian with a difference.

So also, the geographical structure of the subcontinent and the way in which it decided patterns of historical development were but fleetingly suggested in a couple of lines in the earlier edition. A whole new chapter (2) on "Landscapes and Peoples" is added. This is no regulation chapter on "geographical background" which you read in any history book: it brings out succinctly how the environment and ecology of the region of South Asia have influenced human life there and how they, in turn, have been influenced by the intervention of man. This is only natural, as she is among those who are seriously concerned with the degradation of nature and ecology by human operation. There is an analysis of the concept of time in early Indian civilisation. This is valuable as the notion of time is central to the historian. The overview of the different types of societies living in the land - hunters, gatherers, pastoralists, peasants, townsmen - concludes with a discussion of that important institution of India, caste. She proposes that jati and varna were distinct in origin and had different functions. The enveloping of the former by the latter was a historical process. The survey of archaeological evidence that Thapar makes in the chapter (3) on "Antecedents" is, admittedly, brief. Nevertheless, it serves to bring out authoritatively the presence of multiple vibrant cultures in various parts of the subcontinent that went into the making of the personality of India. It underlines the many lively components of Indian tradition and exposes, implicitly, the hollowness of assertions about a single source as foundational to it. Such a picture may be uncomfortable to those who want to historicise an India with single origins and monolithic identities. One way to counter it is by carping at the limited character of the data. There is much more that can be included in relation to this chapter and all other chapters. Any meaningful survey will have to leave out many details. What is important is the pattern that emerges.

The Chapter 4 covering the period c. 1200-600 B.C. ("Towards Chiefdoms and Kingdoms"), begins by recounting the Indian traditions about the beginning - the epic and Puranic traditions about India's past. It gives the lie to the light-hearted sneer that India had no sense of the past and helps in clarifying many notions as constructs of later periods. One recognises some of the Loch Ness monsters of Indian historiography as not worth chasing. Thus, the "Aryan" loses much of its romance as it ceases to be an ethnic category and becomes just a linguistic-cultural marker. All the acrimony about fixing the "original home" of this non-existent race becomes out of place, even while the linguistic relations of the Iranian and the Vedic are placed in perspective and archaeological data of the Indo-Iranian borderland understood accordingly. The Vedic corpus is seen as oral literature of a group of a pastoralists living in a society dominated by kinship, reciprocity and related practices typical of relatively 'primitive' societies. The discussion shows that the multidisciplinary approach mentioned in the chapter on "Perspectives of the Past" is not an empty claim. It maps the gradual process of stratification in such a simple society with considerable authority, the fruit of nearly three decades of sustained hard work in a relatively difficult area of Indian history. Insights from other disciplines, particularly social anthropology, have helped in this clarity. We see serious social science research here - not flippant iconoclasm. If this chapter also serves the important purpose of demystification, even that is welcome in the present context of political mythmaking that abuses the Vedas beyond tolerable limits.

The "state" was an entity taken for granted in Indian historiography in the past. The abiding spell of "Oriental Despotism" had made it impossible to imagine a situation when there was no state in the East. The chapter that follows (5), "States and Cities of the Indo-Gangetic Plain: c. 600-300 B.C.," shows how state was a function of various social and economic changes and analyses the complex relations resulting from them. Following the settlement of the Gangetic valley and the "democratisation of agriculture" by iron, there were far-reaching social and economic changes, which touched the political spheres as well. With the emergence of social stratification, trade, use of coined money, urbanisation, and all that came in their wake, the "political" came to be recognised. Forces like extra-family labour, prestations, jati hierarchy and sacrifices played a crucial role in this process. We start getting incipient states in the mahajanapadas of the sixth century B.C., where much greater complexity had arisen in the matter of the exercise of power and authority and a greater use of ideology for purposes of legitimating those in power and authority. It is now that power itself gets defined and the raja, who would become "the king" in Indian history in the centuries to come, emerges successful among the various contenders for power, as it were. The distance that the author has travelled here is remarkable, certifying to her activity between the two incarnations of the book.

This period witnessed the contestation between established orthodoxy and the aspirations of the newly rising groups, intensifying changes in the religious belief and practice and philosophical speculation. They resulted in a profound richness and vigour in thought, rarely surpassed in later periods. This situates not only the emergence of a large number of "heterodox" sects in context but also explains the variations in the "orthodoxy" itself, as for example the Upanishads. This replaces the conventional explanation for the rise of the new awakening and argues convincingly how ethics and religion are used as also forms of social protest and how asceticism itself is an expression of a counter-culture. The chapter refutes effectively the recent attempts to claim Jainism and Buddhism as part of Hinduism and shows how the former two were distinct insofar as they had specific historical teachers, an organised order of monks and nuns with an ecclesiastical structure, no concern for a deity, no performance of rituals or sacrifice and so on. Both emphasised the centrality of social ethics rather than caste distinctions and had a strong sense of history of the religion with reference to both teachings and sects. This is very necessary, as the purpose of the distracters goes beyond the academic.

Anybody would listen with rapt attention when Thapar speaks about the Mauryas. Here, in the chapter (6) on "The Emergence of Empire: Mauryan India; c. 321-185 B.C.," she returns to the field which she has made her own by nearly half a century of research. But she is not chewing the same cud again. While her earlier interpretation of Asoka and his social policy remains largely the same, her understanding of the nature of the Mauryan state has changed considerably. The model of a highly centralised empire with complete control over uniform structure in a vast territory gives way to systems of uneven development, coordinated by the centre aimed at the control of the resources at the different parts, of course of varied nature. This is an extremely important revision, not only for the understanding of Mauryan India but also in explaining what came later. For instance, one does not have to look for similarities among the Sungas, the Sakas, the Satavahanas and the Kalingas, whom an earlier historiography had taken as so many "successors" of the Mauryas. The relatively uncomplicated picture of Mauryan India in an earlier fashion of historical writing, with only one shade on the map, gives way to a complex situation with a metropolis, core areas and peripheries. When the core areas graduate, the metropolis loses its relevance. That explains the diffuse nature of the politics in the post-Mauryan period as something more than a relapse into anarchy and darkness. This politics is explained within the context of the extensive trade that India had with the western and eastern worlds (Chapter 7, "Of Politics and Trade: c. 200 B.C.-A.D. 300"). The political processes in the Northwest, the Gangetic heartland, Western Deccan, the Mahanadi valley and the Deep South are taken up for a meaningful treatment within this framework. The extensive research that has come about in recent decades in the history of the Deep South significantly finds its place in this book. The new insights regarding megaliths and the Roman trade are just two cases in point. This treatment "of politics and trade" gets its completion and conclusion in the discussion of the rise of the mercantile community in the same period in the next chapter (8). Neither chapter is a monotonous narrative of trade and trading groups. The complex developments in society, economy and polity, as also cultural practices and expressions are taken up for a meaningful treatment. There is an analysis of the arrival or rise of religious sects and practices or transformations within the existing ones, which answered to the changing needs of society. What she calls "Puranic Hinduism" to distinguish it from "Vedic Brahmanism" is shown to have had its origins in this period. This distinction is crucial, especially in a context where an ahistorical "Hinduism" is sought to be identified in an unaltered manner from the prehistoric archaeological record and the oral texts, in defiance to all historical method.

Historiography inspired by nationalism in the West inaugurated the fashion of looking for lost golden ages in the past with nostalgia: it had to be Utopian and set at a comfortable distance. In the case of Indian history, the age of the Guptas qualified for this and it came to be called variously as a golden age, a renaissance, an efflorescence, and so on. A classical quality was imputed to every aspect of life. This also produced some communal feelings because the Gupta represented "the Hindu" and the loss of the golden age was invariably attributed to its other, "the Muslim". Independence in India changed the priorities and it was recognised that the real golden age of India lay in the future rather than in the past. Although broadly in agreement with this latter fashion of historiography, Thapar does not deny the classical quality of the cultural productions in the ages of the Guptas, the Cholas and the Mughals. But she is inclined to give greater stress on the transitional character of north Indian society in the mid-first millennium of our era and chooses to call it the "threshold times" (Chapter 9). This is significant. There is considerable new literature in relation to this period - the debates on Indian feudalism, urban decay, and the transition, the construct of the "early medieval" and so on. Thapar does use the debates insofar as they clarify issues. When what one had taken as "classical pattern" is re-examined as a phase representing an epochal transformation, it is not exactly uncertainty on the author's part; it is a bold reworking. Here, as elsewhere, one sees Thapar's readiness to revise her own old positions.

The next two chapters (10 and 11) are on the peninsula. The processes of the opening up of river valleys and the rise of the first major states under the Chalukyas, the Pallavas and the Rashtrakutas form the subject matter of the first and the further expansion of the agrarian order, rise of market towns and other related developments and the authoritative establishment of the Chola state are taken up in the second. The long-standing complaint that general histories of India neglect peninsular India is not valid any more. So also, the results of the up-to-date research in the field are incorporated and a useful summary of existing debates, with a statement of one's own position, is available.

The last two chapters (12 and 13) recapture the situation in Northern India from A.D. 700 to 1300. A somewhat less researched period, largely on account of the obsessions with golden ages and dark ages in an earlier fashion of historiography, the politics and economics are treated with refreshing clarity about an important transitional phase in the history of the country. Of consequence is the discussion of Central Asian intervention. This shows how narratives of the past, particularly created by the present motivated by its own interests, gets accepted as the reality of the past itself.

One important aspect of the book is that it retains the old framework of political history and discusses aspects of economy, society, religion and culture in relation to it. But they do not hang loosely as uncomfortable appendices. Nor is it just a filling out of the gaps in the old book. One instance is the greater attention paid to gender issues, not even glanced at in the earlier version. So also, environment and ecology get a better treatment.

The totality of the historical experience is recaptured, and the complexity in historical causality is recognised. The promise that history has come of age as a social science is fully redeemed. The illustrations and maps are extremely useful, much more than in the previous version. There are, to be sure, a few editorial errors in the text and bibliography, which a later imprint can take care of. In any case, they do not make this book any less than the best that is available, a masterly survey of early Indian history, a presentation of the credentials of a historian who has insisted on remaining intellectually alive. History in her hands is neither an insipid catalogue of monotonous events nor a celebratory exercise to eulogise a nation's past. It is serious intervention in our lives through understanding and explaining the past, with all its implications for the present and for the future. Reading the book, one realises that all the fuss made about history is, after all, worth it.

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