www.sacw.net - January 23, 2006

Getting to know the past better *

by Romila Thapar

* Keynote address at the inauguration of the Karachi International Book Fair on December 7, 2005

(This paper appeared in print in the
'Books and Authors' section of well known Pakistan daily, Dawn (Karachi) of January 22, 2006. It has been reproduced by SACW in public interest since this section of Dawn has no web based archives for  people to  consult.)

Fifty years ago, at the time of independence and just after, we inherited a long tradition of historical writing. There were two perspectives on history that constituted our heritage: one was the colonial view of Indian history, and the other was the nationalist view. The colonial view was the one in which, first of all, an attempt had been made to periodize Indian history -- to divide it up into different periods. The periodization that took root and was followed by all the earlier historians, was the periodization put forward by James Mill in 1819, when he wrote about three periods: that of Hindu civilization, of Muslim civilization and of the British period. This periodization was based on the religious identity of the dynasties that ruled the subcontinent: Hindu to begin with, succeeded by Muslim dynasties, and ultimately succeeded by the British. It was also based on the assumption that the basic units of Indian society are monolithic, unified religious communities, and that these communities were mutually hostile. This was very much a British colonial view of Indian history and, as we all know, this colonial view was also to influence the politics of the 20th century in the sub-continent.

Another obsession of colonial historical writing was what they called Oriental Despotism: that Asian society, and this includes all the Indian states and societies, were static societies that did not, in fact, undergo any kind of historical change. There was an absence of private property in land, they argued, and since the government was always despotic and oppressive, poverty was endemic. The third aspect was the study of caste, which according to them was based on racial segregation. It was in this study that the Aryan theory of race became central. They argued that caste was rigid and frozen and that there was no social change, no social mobility in Indian society in all the hundreds of years preceding British rule. This history was claimed as enlightenment history but, in fact, it was a history supporting an ideology of colonial dominance.

Indian historians in the late 19th and early 20th century, conforming much more closely to the nationalist view of history, challenged some of these theories. They did not, however, question the periodization. This was to come later. They accepted the periodization of Hindu, Muslim and British, a periodization that we have now rejected. They did question the notion of Oriental Despotism but did not replace it with an alternative theory of governance, administration and rulership. Social history merely repeated the claims made in the normative and prescriptive texts.

This is an important issue in reconsidering history because normative texts such as the Dharmashastras, or the laws of Sharia, or the constitutions of modern nation-states are prescriptive texts. They do not describe reality except obliquely. They set out what they think should be the ultimate goals of society. Therefore, such texts have to be analyzed rather than taken literally. Anyway the nationalist historians did present a counterview, as it were, to much of what was said in colonial historical writing. But the more systematic questioning of existing historical interpretation began among the historians of India in the period after independence, in the 1950s and the 1960s.

There was a drifting away from colonial and nationalist interpretations, and there was a search for other aspects of the past. Many of us at that time as young historians sought for something more authentic, something more exploratory, something that would make us understand the past better.

Almost the first problem, was that of questioning the validity of the periodization of James Mill. Periodization tends to provide a frame and to some degree conditions how one looks at the sources. Mill's periodization did not reflect the flow of Indian history. There cannot be two thousand years of the rule of Hindu dynasties, consistently described either as backward or as a prolonged golden age, followed by eight hundred years of the rule of Muslim dynasties, again described either as an improvement on the previous period or as extremely oppressive.

We know that in history, there are periods of rise and periods of decline. No age is consistently glorious or tyrannical and no age can be characterized only by the religion of its ruler. So the notion of periodization came in for major reconsideration. Periodization has to consider not just the religions of dynasties but other more significant aspects of history: the interconnection and lives of people at different levels of society and the kinds of issues that were important to people throughout these ages.

During the period from the 1950's to 1970's in present day India, there were many social science disciplines that emerged as strong intellectual disciplines: economics, sociology, anthropology, demography, human geography, archaeology. These were not only established, but their concern was really with analyzing problems relating to Indian conditions. And this really is the important difference between just having social science disciplines and having disciplines that are pertinent to a particular society. History then became a very important part of this search for understanding what had happened in the Indian subcontinent and in Indian society prior to the modern period.

The history of early India began to shift gradually from what used to be called Indology, which was largely the study only of texts and events, to the social sciences which were more analytical and began to ask questions related to how historical change took place? What brought about the change? When did it occur and, most importantly, why did it occur?

These were the kinds of questions we were concerned with. And I say this with a certain amount of autobiographical inference, because this was precisely the period when many of us were exploring these new ideas in history and were stimulated both by the readings that we were doing, and by the discoveries that we were making and by the very open discussions and debates on historical interpretations. All this meant that there was a focus within the historical discipline on what we today call the historical method. In other words, the historian was no longer just anybody who read a dozen books and summarized them and called it history, to a person who had to discuss issues such as the reliability of the evidence and the logic of the analysis. These had to be done meticulously and rigorously. This was also tied into a much greater emphasis on investigating the causes of events and historical change, and ascertaining a priority in these causes.

There was a gradual broadening of the issues that became important to history. We moved away from saying that an event had a single cause. When one starts asking the question that if an event has more than one cause, one has to justify and explain the multiple causes, and command a range of possible reasons as to why an event took place and why history changed?

So there was a broadening of the historical context and there was a demand for much fuller explanations for events. This was assisted by new types of evidence such as the discoveries of archaeology that filled in gaps and gave new direction to interpretation. The other area in which there was much work was in the study of inscriptions, and more particularly in revealing information on society and economy as contained in the inscriptions. Inscriptions generally carry a date, and inscriptions are precise about recording an event. There may be a fictional element here and there, but one can see through that. Therefore, inscriptions are useful data. Both archaeological and inscriptional sources extend the range of evidence and thereby of historical interpretations.

Apart from new sources, let me give you an example of the kinds of changes in interpretation that I am talking about. Prior to this period it was frequently said that major changes in northern India were the result of invasions. The Indo-Greeks were coming in as were the Shakas, the Kushans, the Huns, the Turks, and so on.

Invasion, it was held, lead to conquest and the imposition of the conqueror's culture. It also meant that some people became rulers and some were subordinated by these rulers. But now we ask another set of questions, a wider set of questions, in addition to what was asked earlier, namely, who accepted the invasion and who resisted it and why was there this difference? What form did the resistance take and what form did the collaboration take? Were there negotiations required? If there were, who negotiated with whom? Invasion is not just a sudden one-time, overnight event. It is a gradual process and adjustments between those who are invading and those who are invaded are complicated adjustments. Does the invasion have the same impact on all levels of society? We all know about how ruling classes change very rapidly during the course of an invasion. But what happens further down in society? What happens for instance, to groups of traders? How do they accept an invasion? What happens to artisans and labourers? What happens to peasants? Were their lands devastated as a result? All these become important factors linked to the event. What I am trying to suggest in a nutshell is that in asking such questions history began to be subjected to what we today call "critical inquiry".

This has been a crucial development. It is what differentiates pre-1947 history from post-1947 history. Not that the older kind of history has ceased to exist or become unimportant, but the new kind of history has opened up more stimulating ways of examining the past. Consequently, the '60s and the '70s were a period when there was intense discussion and debate, and the vigour and liveliness of the discipline of history became evident.

There were a number of new areas that came to be investigated. Among these has been the evolution and structure of the state in early times. The focus shifted from just looking at the state as a static entity, to examining the process by which a state is formed. There are periods in society when there are no states, when the organization is based on clans, and kinship is significant in determining access to power and resources. Gradually, there is a shift towards what we call state formation -- when kingdoms emerge, when power and authority is concentrated in one family and the appurtenances and paraphernalia of the state begin to get referred to: the king, his ministers, his capital city, his treasury, the army, laws of punishment and of control, alliances and diplomatic connections, and so on.

These were all the constituents as it were, of establishing a state; and it is clear how there is a transition from the absence of references to these compared to when references are made in the texts, and when states came to be established. This then also leads to asking the question of whether ideologies were in conflict, and the one that is often discussed relates to social ethics and war.

They accepted the periodization of Hindu, Muslim and British, a periodization that we have now rejected. They did question the notion of Oriental Despotism but did not replace it with an alternative theory of governance, administration and rulership

In certain schools of Brahmanical thinking, warfare was justified. It was argued that the king had to protect his subjects as also the aristocracy so they had to go to war. But there were other schools of Buddhist and Jain thinking that maintained that war was not always necessary and that persuasion was a better alternative. This was interestingly reflected in the inscriptions of the king whose name many are familiar with -- the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who made a point of saying that war should be forsaken and people should be persuaded to adopt a peaceful life. It raises the issue of how conflicts were resolved when there were conflicting interests.

One of the most interesting cases, I think, is that of peasants objecting to taxation and oppression. There is a contrast in this matter between India and China. Whereas in China there is frequency of peasant revolts, in India they are rare. What is more frequent are peasant migrations or the threat of these. At that time the population was small, land was plentiful and available, and when peasant groups felt they were being oppressed by heavy taxes they could migrate and settle elsewhere. Books on state craft, warn the king not to overtax the peasants lest they migrate. The loss of revenue in the one case could mean additional revenue for the kingdom to which they might have migrated. But I think the contrast in itself is of interest as alternate ways of dealing with opposition to oppressive taxation.

There is also the question of the variation in the kinds of states, the typology of states. We tend to refer to the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Moghuls as if these states were organized and administered in the same way, and we generalize about centrally controlled uniform administration and of highly bureaucratic systems. This was not so: the Mauryan Empire is different from the Gupta kingdom, which is again different from the Moghul Empire. How did the administrations differ? Not merely in terms of designations of officers, but in terms of the structure of administration. One of the most important issues is the relation between the central authority and local authority, and taking it further, the linkage between local authority and both caste, and the predominant economy.

In other words these linkages differed in time and space. They varied in different parts of the subcontinent and during different periods. Therefore, one is inevitably looking at typologies of states. Historians distinguish between one and the other on the basis of detailed evidence. What this underlines is that the nation-states of today cannot be assumed to have existed in the past, because the nation-state is a different kind of state from that of the Mauryas, the Guptas, the Moghuls, and such like. The nation-state emerges at the time of modernization, and through the process of modernization, and therefore cannot be taken back to pre-modern times.

Economic change has also been discussed quite extensively and again covers two broad areas: the agrarian economy and the commercial economy. Discussions on the agrarian economy have moved away from the colonial reading that all land was owned by the state and there was no private property in land. It is now established that in different periods there were various categories of ownership -- clan, family, state, and private ownership, often co-existing, or else one predominated over the others. There could be a predominance of state ownership and/or private ownership, but there were varieties of other forms that also existed, and these were more important in earlier times than they are now. But in terms of the economy, perhaps the most interesting change has been to bring trade into centre stage from the early first millennium AD.

It moved into centre stage as an activity of commerce and exchange but it was also important to tracing cultural cross-currents. Wherever trade goes cultural forms travel along with the traders. Often monks are the fellow-travellers of the traders. Central Asia, for example, came under the auspices, as it were, of Buddhist institutions, because as the traders went from oasis to oasis, the Buddhist monks followed and set up their monasteries and their organization. There has been the discovery of an immense amount of Buddhist art and of documents relating to trade and to Buddhism. So there are cultural cross-currents and there are, of course, migrations because together with the traders groups of people also migrated. The old idea that migration occurred largely when there were invasions has been given up. Trade is equally important in encouraging migration and new settlements. The really exciting aspect of commerce and trade has been the realization of the importance of maritime trade.

This has led to historians looking at the subcontinent not from the perspective only of the mountains of the north but from the perspective of the Indian Ocean. The world from the latter perspective, shows that the subcontinent lay at the heart of a huge trading circuit; and the circuit extended from Tunis and Morocco in the West, all the way across the Indian Ocean to South China in the east. What does this actually mean in terms of trade and culture? We have, for example, the early evidence of traders from the Roman Empire, from Alexandria and Egypt coming down the Red Sea, across the Arabian Sea, and trading with Indians along the west coast but particularly in Kerala, in South India.

Kerala was the land where the pepper grew and this was a major item sent to the West. The traders from the west brought high value currency in silver and gold, coins from the imperial treasury. They exchanged them for pepper and textiles. The pepper trade all across the Mediterranean and Europe was based on this linkage of the trade across the Arabian Sea. Incidentally, they also brought quantities of excellent Mediterranean wine, much appreciated it would seem from the enthusiasm of the early Tamil poems. This trade dates to the early centuries of the Christian era from about 50BC to 200AD. Later in the 8th century, the Arab traders came across the Arabian Sea, and unlike their predecessors they settled in India. They settled along the west coast, married into existing communities and this gave rise to a number of local communities such as the Khojas, the Bohras, the Navayats, the Mapillas, with an intersection of Islamic and local custom resulting in some of the most interesting cultural articulations.

Indian intervention both in trade and the formation of new cultures was marked in South-east Asia and extended to south China. The Indian Ocean was a bustling, booming, trading area. The initial period of the coming of the Portuguese is better viewed as their following the existing circuit. Later when these circuits were brought into the European trade the relationship between the European traders and Indian traders begin to change.

From the historical perspective this trade also advanced other kinds of exchange which was not restricted to maritime connections but possibly heightened by these. There was an exchange of knowledge, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy -- from about the 7th century AD to the 14th century AD. The Chinese were very impressed with Indian alchemy but also complained that the Indian alchemists were so successful that they could even convert pebbles into precious stones, with disastrous economic consequences!

This is wild exaggeration but is nevertheless an interesting comment. The Indians took their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to the Arab world, especially to Baghdad, and the Arabs added it to their own knowledge and took it to Europe. There was a continuous going back and forth; and knowledge shifted from one area to the other, enriching each as it traveled. This makes for a tremendous need to understand not just the history of isolated segments -- China, India, the Arab world, Europe -- but to see these interconnections as absolutely essential.

There were a number of new areas that came to be investigated. Among these has been the evolution and structure of the state in early times. The focus shifted from just looking at the state as a static entity, to examining the process by which a state is formed. There are periods in society when there are no states, when the organization is based on clans, and kinship is significant in determining access to power and resources

The second aspect is that intensive trade often brings about bilingualism. Traders have to use a language as they have to communicate. This can encourage bilingualism. Indian traders were using Sanskrit and Prakrit in dialogue with Greek-speaking Mediterranean traders and later with Arab traders. Those who were going beyond trade to forms of knowledge had to be familiar with both Sanskrit and Arabic texts. There was also bilingualism with Javanese in South-east Asia and with Chinese. Some essential Buddhist texts that we have access to today are texts that were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese, and which happened to have been preserved in China although they are now lost in India.

Trade, in a visible sense, broke the boundaries of the supposed self-contained civilizations. Contrary to what we have been led to believe about the rigid demarcation of each civilization, what this reveals is that no civilization is an island unto itself. Civilizations as single units have been virtually non-existent because they have been constantly impinged upon by other civilizations. Culture is porous. There are always features being introduced which contribute to the making of the subsequent culture.

An important area of interest has been the history of religion in India, and what I mean by this is not just the reading of texts and the familiarity with the teaching of the major teachers, but the historical treatment of religion which is quite different and significant to the study of history. Sects and texts and teachings have a focus and have an interface with society. They do not exist in a vacuum because they have an audience, and they relate to that audience. The historian then has to discover why is it that religious texts change or are modified or whatever because of their interface with an audience. Why is it that the Bhakti movements, for example, focusing on the devotion of a worshipper to his deity, were movements that also had dialogue with a number of Sufi traditions later on? Why did these movements become visible and articulate in different parts of the subcontinent at different times. There were historical reasons for this and the historian has to place religious movements, in their broader historical context, a placement that may not always please the religious orthodoxy.

Who were the people that supported these sects and these religions? We must know which strata of society they came from. One of the interesting aspects of the Bhakti tradition is that very often such movements began with ordinary people at the lower levels of society. But when they acquired popularity and an impressive following, then rulers also became their patrons, and this patronage brought them a wide support. Royal patronage could be motivated by a religious urge, but because it came from royalty it also had a political edge. The social function of religion and religious texts becomes a major issue in the study of both social and political history, as well as the history of religion.

The other aspect of patronage is that most established and formal religions manifest their patronage in the form of monuments. They have monuments by which they are identified: the Buddhists have stupas, and viharas; the Hindus have temples; the Muslims have mosques; the Christians have churches. And what we are concerned with is how did these monuments come into existence? Who financed them? Who were the patrons? Why was it necessary to patronize these enormous religious edifices? Was it just to glorify a particular religion or were they making other statements? Such monuments have in the past been studied primarily as an expression of religious sentiment. Now they are also being studied as symbols of the state where the patron is the ruler; and they are symbols of wealth, because they could not have been built without a very substantial outlay of wealth. Therefore, they are making statements which are more than just religious statements.

Social history has focused on caste now seen as more flexible and mobile than it had been before as well as the adoption of characteristic features of what can be seen as caste in the other religions known to the sub-continent. An interesting aspect of caste mobility has been the study of dynasties in the periods from about the 9th to 10th century onwards, where frequently those that claimed aristocratic status came from rather obscure backgrounds. One is then interested to see the methods they employ by which they change their status; they claim to be of higher status and frequently they actually establish that higher status, although people around the area knew that they came from rather obscure origins. This process of social change -- upward social mobility or people moving up in social status -- has its own interest because the process goes back to early society and can be traced, with greater or lesser intensity, in every century.

But the equally important aspect of new work in social history is gender history: the demonstration that women are central to the organization of society -- that women cannot be dismissed or made marginal, and that the structure of society cannot be discussed without considering the role and function of women. Despite what the prescriptive texts may say there is much evidence to indicate that women of all groups were subordinated, although the degree may have varied. The question to be asked is why this was so. The answer lies in many facets of life, one being that the subordination of women permitted a social control over marriage alliances and these were and are, crucial to the way in which a society is organized and what powers vest with whom. This also relates to the question of inheritance where laws were drawn up to consolidate property. Such laws were often detrimental to the status of women for when they were applied the laws did not always uphold the status of women.

In this connection historians are now beginning to listen to the voices of women. What I mean by this is that there are texts and documents that capture, as it were, the views and feelings of women. Let me give you two examples: in the Buddhist tradition, women were permitted to become nuns. Some among them composed hymns and poems as did the monks. The Theri Gatha, put together at the turn of the Christian era, is a large collection of hymns composed by them. It is somewhat amazing because they write in a forthright manner about the world that they have come from and its joys and sorrows, they tell us why they have become nuns, and what it means to them -- not as a formality but in a personal way. Such statements are now being analyzed as sources for the history of women. Similarly among the Bhakti teachers, the hymns of some of the women who preached and sang, such as Andaal in the Tamil area and Mirabai in Rajasthan, are also being seen as the legitimate perspectives of women on the world of their times.

Another method of assessing the status of women involves a fresh approach to creative literature. Literature may be fictional, but can be analyzed as an artifact of history, indicating this status in an indirect way. I have tried to do this with the well-known narratives about Shakuntala: a young woman who lives in the forest and is met by the king one day when he is out hunting. They fall in love and he proposes a marriage by mutual consent. He returns to the capital and when she arrives some time later bearing his child he rejects her. But ultimately the matter is resolved and the story ends happily.

In the first version of the story which occurs in the Mahabharata, the young woman makes the marriage conditional to his recognizing their son as his heir to which the king agrees. When she takes the child born thereafter to the king's court he rejects her. But she stands her ground and there is an exchange of choice abuse. She is a spirited and independent woman. She finally decides to leave her son at the court and to go back. At this point a heavenly voice proclaims that what she has said is correct. The king, true to type, says that he wanted the legitimacy of his son to be established and now that that had been done, he accepts her.

The story recurs in a much better known version in the famous play by Kalidasa written a few centuries later and called Abhijnana-Shakuntalam. The core of the story remains the same, but it is no longer for recitation among a society of epic heroes. It is now a drama to be performed at the royal court. Consequently, Shakuntala becomes a reserved and shy woman, conforming to the romantic ideal. When she is rejected by the king she is desperate, and her prayers for help lead to her being whisked away by her mother. This story plays on the idea of a lost ring and a loss of memory. Finally, there is a resolution to the problem and they come together, but the treatment of the woman is different and one sees it as partially, the difference between the ethos of the court and of the heroic society of the epic, each constituting a different audience.

And then, in the 18th century, a version of the story is told in braj bhasha, which as a language gradually improved its status from being a popular language to being used in some of the courts of northern India. Shakuntala in this version is more akin to the Shakuntala of the epic and expresses herself through a dialogue which is quite racy. She treats the king as she would an ordinary man. The social context is again different as is the attitude of the author to the woman. The history of the story becomes even more interesting because the Kalidasa play is translated into English and then into German. It becomes a symbol of German romanticism in which Shakuntala is projected as the child of nature. Then in the 19th century, when the British colonial authors and scholars take it up, they are disturbed by the marriage being a marriage by mutual consent and not a formal marriage. So there are objections to the moral and erotic aspects of the play, which are disapproved of. The point that I am trying to make is that in each case, the woman is treated differently by the different set of authors or commentators. What we are becoming conscious of now is that although this is fiction and has no historicity, nevertheless, the versions of the narrative reflect a series of historical moments and locations, and each of these indicates a change in the way in which particular social groups perceive the role of women.

Let me conclude with a few remarks on another aspect of history which has become important in contemporary India: regional history. The visibility of regional history was brought into focus by two developments in particular. One was that the view of Indian history, the subcontinental history, moved away from the Gangetic valley and began to be looked at from a regional perspective. The other was that the search for new data -- texts and artifacts -- required a study of regional history in greater depth than before. The artifacts suggested the need to look in detail at more localized cultures. The texts were not always in Sanskrit or Prakrit and more often were in early forms of the regional languages. These provided a fresh perspective of the history of the region, as well as some reorientation of sub-continental history.

But regional history has also gradually become the history of the present-day states of the Indian Union, with their contemporary boundaries. The state tends to be imposed on the region. There have been attempts at tracing state boundaries back to earlier times. Historically, this is an anachronistic exercise because present day boundaries are, in fact, the result of a long historical process which culminates in the present, and consequently, one cannot talk about present-day states having existed in the past; they exist only in the present.

History makes it clear that boundaries of states are not static. Boundaries change sometimes from decade to decade, sometimes from century to century, and they change together with the changes brought about by historical events. Attempts to trace current boundaries to earlier times seem futile. The more significant question concerns the defining of a region. It hinges in part also on the nature of the states that have preceded the present. In the 1950s, the nation-state of India re-organized the boundaries of the constituent states on the basis of language or what has been called linguistic states. The boundaries are relatively recent and historically there has been some overlap and some fading into neighbouring areas.

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