Venkatachalapathy reviews Romila Thapar’s The Past Before Us

ARV A. R. Venkatachalapathy, courtesy of South Asian History and Culture  2015, Vol.6/4, pp. 510-12…. reviewing  The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early India, By Romila Thapar. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass. 2013. pp. xvii+758. Maps, tables, bibliography, index.

Marx, following Orientalists of his times, famously declared that India had no history. No history, in the orientalist discourse, meant that not only was there no history writing but there was no history to be written about. Since the time of the nationalist movement Indian historians have been grappling with this question and making various claims. The present Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) appointed by the Hindu nationalist BJP government has now declared that the Ramayana and Mahabharata are historical texts!

4703433393_968c5058f2Romila Thapar, arguably India’s greatest living historian, has pursued both historical and historiographical concerns in her long and productive career spanning more than half a century. Over the years she has tackled the question of the existence or otherwise of historical consciousness in early Indian society. Her popular radio broadcast on this subject, delivered as the Vallabhbhai Patel lectures in 1972, continue to be in print (Past and Prejudice). In these lectures Thapar not only interrogated Orientalist notions of Indian society but also made an epistemological distinction between ‘the past’ and ‘history’. Many long essays on the subject have appeared since, and the present volume, with the alluring and suggestive title of The Past Before Us sums up a lifetime’s work on the nature of historical knowledge in what can be termed pre-Islamic (a term she of course eschews) India. This book is unlikely to be surpassed in the near future, and will hopefully trigger further work.

Divided into eight parts the argument of the book unfolds over eighteen detailed chapters. In the first framing sections Thapar gives an overview of non-Indian historical traditions, and considers in particular Hellenistic, Christian, and Islamic traditions of historiography. Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment notions of history which fed into Orientalist stereotypes are considered in some detail. Particular attention is given, in the colonial context, to Utilitarian, Marxist and Weberian understandings of the Indian past and nationalist reactions to it.

Against this backdrop Thapar traces the various historical traditions in early India. In doing so she maintains a distinction between how the past is understood and represented, and a perception of the past as specifically historical. She delineates three distinct historiographical traditions: the first that emerges from Puranic traditions and the second, an alternative from Sramanic ideologies, viz., Jaina and Buddhist. The third is a bardic tradition that underpins epic compositions.

Essentially Thapar’s exploration is to answer the following fundamental questions: Did perceptions in early India encourage notions of historiography? How can we understand explain historiographical variants apparent from difference perceptions? Acutely sensitive to how the past looked at its past, Thapar is particularly concerned if there was a sense of change over time and how it is recorded.

In part two of the book Thapar considers what she calls embedded forms of history. The embedded-ness refers to the ‘gradual emergence of historical consciousness from ritual texts’ (p. 59), and she considers in detail the historical elements in the Vedic corpus, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The very process of compilation and editing the texts, it is argued, reveals the existence of a perspective of the past. The origins of the itihasa-purana tradition go back to Vedic texts from such categories as dana-stuti hymns. These elements fed into the genealogical sections of the puranas which later get expanded into vamsas or succession lists.

These embedded forms get more externalized and become embodied in the subsequent time period. Here Thapar argues that recognizable historical writing, as distinct from embedded forms in ritual texts, take shape in the interlude of post-Gupta times in the form of biographical narratives of rulers and others. Under this rubric she considers early inscriptions as historical statements, as well as the plays of Visakhadatta. She particularly considers genres such as caritas, prasastis and vamsavalis. She also reads inscriptions as dynastic annals. While conceptions of cyclical and linear time are considered throughout the study it is in the genealogical sections of the inscriptions that a linear conception of time really begins to take root.

Thapar then turns to Sramanic, specifically Buddhist narratives which are posed as an alternative tradition to Brahmanic models. The concern for an acceptable chronology and a clear purpose for an historical account distinguish the Buddhist narratives from the puranic traditions. The institutions of monasteries, sectarian schisms and the conflict over what was authentic tradition led to the flourishing of Buddhist narratives with value placed on veracity and validity. The canonization of texts also was informed by a historical consciousness. With the centrality of the Buddha to the tradition, the writing of his biography came to be a form of historical writing. What often marked Buddhist narratives were a relatively strong chronology and more importantly the notion of causality of events. Given the centrality of the Sangha to Buddhism, Thapar devotes a chapter to the monastic chronicles of Sri Lanka, though its place in a study avowedly on early North India is not entirely convincing. The chapter on the treatment of Buddhist biographies though relatively short is superb.

Thapar then argues that there were perceptible changes in both historiographical perceptions and their generic manifestations in the mid-first millennium AD, and the last part of the book is devoted to externalized historical traditions. She devotes a separate chapter to two historical biographies, Harsacarita and Ramacarita. The fact that the subject of the biography is placed in context and that the actions of the protagonists are chosen and explained within a linear span of time makes for an externalized conception of history. The past as a reference point is acutely present in the narratives giving it a clear historicity. By this time regal inscriptions take on the character of annals with clearly marked conceptions of chronology and time. The argument is made out with a detailed analysis of Candella inscriptions. This is followed by analyses of two vamsavalis, the Rajatarangini and the Chamba Vamsalvali. The penultimate chapter is given to a chronicle from the alternative Jaina tradition.

The book ends with a characteristically cautious conclusion. The last lines sum up both the argument and more importantly the tone (I hesitate to write ‘texture’) of the book.

I have tried to argue that there is what might be called a historiographical trajectory, although not altogether smooth, in the texts to which I have referred. This points to a concern with a historical past, even if this past is constructed in ways different from what we conventionally regard as historical. I have argued that a sense of history and historical consciousness existed, that there were historical traditions emerging from diverse historiographies, and that these occasionally took the form of historical writing. (p. 701)

Thapar brings a lifetime’s comparative scholarship – a scholarship that sits lightly on her shoulders – to bear on her subject. She analyses a plethora of texts across centuries and genres to carry forward a nuanced and guarded argument. Her analysis of the texts is acutely conscious of the process of production, authorship, performance, transmission and audience. Thapar teases out notions of time, and is particularly concerned with questions of power. In considering texts she always considers variants as far as possible (though she disavows consideration of variations in regional languages.)

So much scholarship is both embedded and embodied in the text that one fears to make any criticism. But in the spirit of critical enquiry I offer a few comments. Conceptions of history change over time and space. But what is the history that Thapar is concerned with? Modern historians have been accused of writing history as the biography of the nation. The Past Before Us comes rather close to turning early Indian history into the biography of state formation. Thapar invariably reads various texts as a reflection of various transitions and dichotomies: from clan to caste; from clan society to kingdoms; the disjuncture between grama and aranya; changes in polity; the tension between king and the Sangha. Surely these do not exhaust historical processes. Further, history writing is seen almost exclusively as an instrument of legitimation, and social and political control with no acknowledgement of the autonomy of what are often generic and discursive forms. Thapar makes one passing reference to Sanjay Subrahmanyam et al.’s notion of ‘texture in history’; it might have been productive to engage with this notion as indeed it would have been to consider the expansive work of Pollock on Sanskrit.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai

ALSO NOTE Aparna Balachnandran’s review of The Province of the Book; Scholars, Scribes and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu, by AR Venkatachalapathy, in the same journal, pp.528-30.

A.R. Venkatachalapathy, PhD
Professor , Madras Institute of Development Studies
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Gandhi Nagar, Adayar
Chennai 600 020
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