Tag: Romila Thapar

Indian Civilization Unlikely to have been Characterised by One Religion: Romila Thapar


‘Why can’t we think of civilisation as a process of tracking cultures?’: Historian Romila Thapar

Full text of the speech delivered at the 8th BR Ambedkar Memorial Lecture that pitched for rethinking civilisation as history.

Let me clarify at the outset that I am looking at the concept of civilisation as it has been used in reconstructing world histories. The term has had philosophical and other connotations that introduce dimensions other than the historical. I am, however, confining myself to the historical perspective.

The history of the world from pre-modern times has, in recent centuries, been projected in the form of stages, some culminating in civilisations. However, in the light of recent studies of history, civilisation as it was earlier defined is becoming rather paradoxical. The concept is a construction that emerged at a particular point in European history in the 18th century. It was a way of comprehending the past. Other theories of explaining the past that are now emerging in historical analyses may lead us to rethink the concept. Historians today try and peel events, viewing them as part of larger, and often diverse contexts, as I hope to show.

A civilisation implies a kind of package with specific characteristics. Thus the territory of a civilisation has to be demarcated; civilisation is identified with a period of high intellectual and aesthetic achievement – what some call “high culture”, including an emphasis on humanism and ethics; associated with this is a premium on refined manners exemplified by the elite; civilisation is articulated in a particular parent language; it is symbolised in a single religion; it assumes a stratified society, evidence of a state and governance; its elite is distinctive and dominates its surroundings; there is a marked presence of what are described as aspects of culture – art, monuments, literature, music, all of a sophisticated form; and above all, a civilisation records its knowledge of the world and attempts to advance it.

I have two concerns here. One is that a civilisation draws on the identities of its creators and its participants, but the identities of both change in the course of history. The other is that concepts help us understand social reality; but they, in turn, have to be investigated, and more so when they claim to be foundational to understanding history.

The somewhat spare definition I have just given needs enlargement. The territory is expansive, resulting from the ultimate success of one from among a number of competing others. The dominant culture monopolises the constituents of civilisation to the near exclusion of the lesser cultures that then tend to be sidelined. What are taken as the constituents of a civilisation reflect the dominant culture, whereas there is much more that goes into the making of a civilisation that has historically as yet remained in the wings.

Change is endemic to most societies, either from within, or from contact with other societies. This can disturb the social equilibrium, either increasing or decreasing the integration of its various units. A civilisation, therefore, cannot be static as its constituents inevitably change.

Constructing a concept
Let me begin with how and when the concept of civilisation first came to be constructed. Used in France in the 18th century, the concept assumed a departure from a prior condition. The Enlightenment understanding of history, together with social Darwinism in the subsequent period, placed human society in an advanced evolutionary stage. It underlined humanistic values as embedded in the literature, and the belief that rational beings could control the world around them.

German writers differentiated between civilisation and kultur/culture. Culture referred to what was thought of as intellectual and artistic in terms of value and ideals, and to morality. Cultures, again, were not compact, enclosed and static. Civilisation, however, had a broader spread and included more, as the definition suggests.

Why was it given a specific definition? Perhaps we need to keep in mind the ambience resulting from historical change at the time. Europe was moving from the imprint of an aristocratic feudal society to being gradually remoulded by the start of industrialisation and the emergence of new social categories. Entrepreneurs of various kinds were reformulating society, but at a slow pace, since the mores of the previous society were still viewed as exemplary. The emerging vision required pointing up the glories of the European past in a more insistent way than had been done earlier with the Renaissance.

This change coincided, and not accidentally, with the acquisition of colonies. When control over these colonies by European powers became more direct and fruitful, it had to be conceded that the colonies had their own cultures, but with the caveat that the European achievement in the past had been by far the highest. The colonies may well have even had civilisations, although these had been partially marred by the presence of the primitive in their midst. This took away somewhat from the achievement. Recognising this perspective on their past, the colonised also began to register among the evolving new groups of people their new ambitions, anxious to identify with a praiseworthy past to compensate for their subordination in the present.

In a sense, the seed of the idea of civilisation may have existed in the differentiation that past societies made between the dominant society, and those that used a different language and had a different way of life. One’s own society was always superior. But the growth of the idea into a concept of civilisation was associated with historical change, and the need for emergent social groups to claim new identities and a clearly defined heritage.

Civilisation assumed that the historically preceding societies did not qualify. These were labelled as barbarian. This dichotomy was present in the self-perception of ancient societies as well, but with a different connotation. Those regarded as “the Others” were assumed to be uncivilised. For the Greeks it was the non-Greeks, for the Chinese the non-Han, and for the aryas it was the mlecchas. If the Greeks called those that were their “Others” barbaros/barbarians, Sanskrit speakers referred to some as barbara-karoti, or those speaking in a confused way. The barbarians, irrespective of whether they lived as nomadic hordes threatening the civilised, or in the midst of the civilised, were recognisable by their markers – difference of language and custom. The concept of civilisation assumed the existence of the barbarian as a kind of all-purpose counterpoint to the civilised.

Colonial thinking
In the 19th century, the dichotomy was further elaborated. Human society was said to go through three stages of change. Starting with savagery, it improved somewhat when it reached barbarism, and this was prior to civilisation. Only some societies evolved to the third stage. It was thought of, essentially, as a process of evolution, and used to point to the distinction between the stages.

The other more effective route was seen in the imposition of the civilised on the barbarian through conquest, an obvious attempt to justify contemporary colonialism. A classic example was that of the Aztecs of Mexico. They were thought of as being less civilised, therefore performing human sacrifice, and the civilised Spanish conquest brought this activity to an end.

The concept was now used in two ways. One was its role in colonial thinking. The other was the appropriation of social evolution by theories of explanation in anthropology, archaeology and history.
Colonial thinking was clear about the distinction between the civilised and its alternative – the primitive. The coloniser, as the representative of a superior civilisation, introduced it to the colonised, the uncivilised primitive. In India, two divergent views – the Utilitarian and the Orientalist – emerged from colonial writers. James Mill and the Utilitarian thinkers writing on the Indian past saw the territory of India as hosting two nations, the Hindu and the Muslim, each intensely hostile to the other. Its governance conformed to what was called Oriental Despotism, pointing to the absence of a civilised society. The colonised therefore required correcting to be civilised.

The Orientalist view differed. It began with William Jones in the late 18th century, enquiring of the learned brahmanas as to the texts he should study to understand India. He was directed to the Vedas and to classical Sanskrit literature. Significantly, the Buddhist and Jaina texts were largely ignored. Jones’ comparative studies of language and religion were a search for parallels to the Greco-Roman.

The Orientalists and Sanskritists in Europe disagreed with the Utilitarians. They argued that India did have a civilisation that needed to be recognised. Influential among them was Max Mueller, who focused on the Vedas, especially the Rigveda. Such studies led to the theory that the Vedas were the foundation of Indian civilisation, and that it reached its crowning point in the golden age of the Guptas, extending into a few later centuries. Seeing India as a single unitary civilisation, specifically defined, made it easier for the colonisers to understand the colony, irrespective of how problematic these definitions were. We have inherited these colonial views about religion, language and history, views with which we still grapple.

A different turn
Dividing the world into civilisations provided portals to the study of global history. Association with a single language and, preferably, a single religion, meant that each civilisation could be more easily monitored as compared to non-structured history.

Asia, it was said, could boast of three civilisations: the Islamic, with Arabic as its language; the Sanskritic Hindu; and the Chinese, associated with Confucianism. I have often asked myself why Buddhism was lost sight of in this typology. It was once the inter-connecting thread through most of Asia. It was made to disappear in India; it faded in Central Asia; and was, on occasion, actively persecuted in China; yet it emerged as a crucial Asian link in civilisation markers and ethical values. A deeper investigation of the critique posed by Buddhist thought to many existing Asian cultures may help us redefine some aspects of Asian civilisations.

The concept of civilisation, however, took a different turn when associated with anthropology and archaeology. Patterns in the development of human societies drew from the theory of evolution, moving as a trajectory from simple to complex societies.

It was held that human society began with the stage of savagery in the bands of hunter-gatherers. Subsequently, there were societies of agro-pastoralists. Many took shape as highly efficient herders of animals – especially cattle and horses – and in systems of cultivating crops. The institution of the family, and notions of property that radically changed societies, emerged slowly. This took them to the stage of barbarism that was extensive and diverse. They were identified by the typology of the material goods they produced, such as pottery and metal-ware.

Some remained at that stage; others moved to the third and highest stage, that of urbanism. As in the case of animal life, evolution did not move in a vertical line for all societies. For some, a horizontal movement became permanent. Those not recognised as civilisations were described as cultures. A culture was defined as a pattern of living. There could be many cultures encompassed in a civilisation, but its definition was based on the features selected and said to be its markers. The primary features of the civilisation stage were urban centres, literacy, and the existence of a state; high culture alone, therefore, did not suffice.

Controversy abounds
This archaeological-anthropological trajectory, formulated in the early 20th century, has lately been extensively debated. The critique has suggested alternative ideas, but not annulled the theory. It has, however, been problematic in a few instances where earlier definitions of civilisation were already in use, as, for example, in India. According to the archaeological definition of the 20th century, the Harappan cities are the foundation of India’s civilisation. These predate the generally accepted date of Vedic culture by quite a few centuries. For some of the Orientalists of the 19th century, it was Vedic culture that was foundational to Indian civilisation, since the Harappan cities were not known at that point. But this culture lacked some of the fundamental components of the civilisation stage, urbanisation and literacy for instance.

Harappan cities were not only elaborate urban systems, but were carefully planned by people who understood the working of urban centres. The location of public functioning was concentrated in one area, in some cases on an artificially constructed mound, and was distinct from an expansive residential area. Other features are familiar to us from our school textbooks – a sensible layout with planned roads, a remarkable drainage system, warehouses and granaries, and complicated defences at the city gates. Among the other aspects of an advanced culture was the central role of a system of writing.

We now have a somewhat contrary situation: archaeology informs us that the foundations of Indian civilisation lie in the pre-Vedic cities of the Indus Civilisation; but the Orientalists, half a century earlier, had projected the Vedas as the foundation, and this continues to be preferred in some circles today. There is a significant difference between the two. Whereas texts are absent in the Harappa Culture even though a writing system is in use, the Vedic corpus boasts of oral compositions of a high order, composed over a millennium; but it has left no evidence of a writing system. It is difficult to identify the urbanism of the Harappan cities in the descriptions of settlements in the Rigveda, the earliest of the Vedas. Inevitably, there are controversies today about the origins of Indian civilisation.

Drawing boundaries
The concept of civilisation popular among 19th century historians was, of course, not the archaeological one, since that was worked out in the early 20th century. Yet, it is the 19th century definition that is, more often, in many people’s minds when they refer to Indian civilisation. Hence, I would like to discuss the definition of Indian civilisation that has prevailed in many works on the subject since the 19th century.

The territory chosen was that of British India. The confidence of colonialism made it seem that it would be permanent and stable. Earlier names for parts of the subcontinent, such as Jambudvipa, Aryavarta, Bharatavarsha, or even al-Hind, had shifting boundaries. But even British India broke up into three nations in the 20th century. This was not unusual, as every century has seen changing alignments in the borders of the many states and kingdoms comprising the subcontinent. There were no permanent boundaries in history.

In pre-cartographic times, defining boundaries with any precision was problematic in the absence of maps. The more common usage was that of frontier zones marked by geomorphological features, such as mountains, rivers and forests. For instance, Manu describes Aryavarta as the land between the Himalaya and the Vindhya, and the eastern and western seas. A study of frontier zones suggests that sometimes the more interesting historical interactions took place in such zones. Frontier zones have the advantage of looking both inward and outward, and they even had the choice of deciding which was which.

For a variety of reasons, the geographical focus of high cultures shifted. The Harappans occupied the Indus plain and its extension, but their artefacts are found as far west as the Gulf and Mesopotamia. The authors of the Vedic texts settled in the Punjab and the north-western borderlands, and moved eastwards to the Ganga plain. The second urbanisation had its epicentre in the middle Ganga plain. In general histories of India, the peninsula and the south are sometimes off the radar in this period, probably because the archaeology of their impressive Megalithic cultures differed from the cultures of northern India, as did the Dravidian language associated with that area.

Speaking of frontiers from the sub-continental perspective, the Kushanas were half in and half out. Their fulcrum was the Oxus valley. We may well treat them as integrated into north Indian history, but it would be worth asking whether they, in effect, may have looked upon north-western India as a frontier zone of their own Central Asian kingdom? And if so, how did they see it? Did Kushana polity focus more on Central Asia and China? Indian texts have less to say about the Kushanas but they are a presence in the Chinese annals of the time, the Hou Han Shu. The Indian writing of early times lacks curiosity about frontiers and beyond, compared, for instance, with Chinese inquisitiveness on the subject.

Significant frontiers
In controlling territory within India, the Guptas and the Cholas were virtually mirror images, one having a northern perspective and the other a southern one, separated by a few centuries. The Turks, Afghans and Mughals, irrespective of their origins, were firmly ensconced in northern India. Interestingly, the Mauryan and Mughal states incorporated the north-west borderlands, but not the entire peninsula. Territorially, neither made it to being a fully sub-continental empire. Identifying people with territory has now become complicated, with the frequent inputs of those working on DNA analyses to determine migrations and the mixing of populations.

So in terms of the territorial base of the civilisation, we are not speaking of a compact sub-continental area, but of parts of it that hosted a variety of cultures. The variations are pertinent to the notion of constructing a civilisation. But these are frequently ignored when selections are made of what goes into civilisation as a package. This applies not only to India, but to other civilisations as well. In Asia it would be as true of West Asia and China. What this suggests is that we should be sensitive to changes in the frontier areas, both overland and maritime. We should be open to how they may have contributed to the creation of what we call civilisation, since this would be pertinent to evolving cultures in various parts of the sub-continent. The view from the other side cannot be overlooked.

It is interesting that there was such a substantial interest in Buddhism among Chinese scholars but comparatively much less in Brahmanism, if, as we like to believe, the latter was central to Indian civilisation. At the same time, cultures also evolve over time within themselves. This makes it necessary to see civilisation, not as a permanent entity, but as a continuous process that also registers historical change.

Language and culture
Language is often a good barometer of historical change. We know that all languages mutate. Given the array of Indian languages, the change was impressive, both through mutation and through contact with other languages. This poses a couple of questions for the historian.

One is that we don’t yet know what language the Harappans spoke. Attempts to read the Harappan symbols as Indo-Aryan or Dravidian have not succeeded so far. The Vedic corpus refers to the mlecchas and the dasas as different from the aryas. They either spoke the Aryan language incorrectly, or not at all. They worshipped other gods and observed unfamiliar customs. There is also the puzzling group referred to as the dasi-putrabrahmanas, something of an oxymoron. Can the sons of dasis be brahmanas? But there they are, and respected by the brahmanas. It seems that more than one language was being spoken, and more than one cultural group involved.

But let’s leave aside the yet inexplicable, and turn to certainties. For almost a millennium, the most widely used language was not Sanskrit, but Prakrit, though they co-existed. The Jaina texts were initially composed in Prakrit, the Buddhist in Pali. Prakrit is, of course, related to Sanskrit, but its use was sharply differentiated. Discussions on causality in thought, dharma and ahimsa, rationality, the existence of deity and such ideas, were discussed, not by all, but by a number of people, in Prakrit. The evidence of inscriptions points to Prakrit as the initial common language used even by royalty, and Tamil in the south. The earliest inscription in correct Sanskrit dates to AD 150 with a lengthy statement by a ruler of Central Asian origin. Prakrit travelled to Central Asia, Southeast Asia and, together with Tamil, to the trading centres of the Red Sea. It was the language associated with those who came from India.

Learned brahmanas continued to use Sanskrit. But its use on a larger scale, or the emergence of what has recently been called “the Sanskrit cosmopolis”, dates to a later period, from the Guptas onward. This was when it came to have a monopoly as the language of learning, creative literature and administration; it was also the language of those aspiring to status. It expanded further with courtly culture in newly established kingdoms. This required its use by local court poets, but also in official documents, in which, occasionally, the scribe could even make mistakes. However, in Sanskrit drama, women and lower castes continued to speak Prakrit, presumably as befitting their inferior social status. Newly established kingdoms from the late first millennium AD onward, would use the emerging regional languages when hard pressed, especially when new castes of local origin became upwardly mobile. But Sanskrit was pre-eminent for a millennium in virtually every branch of learning, and more so in courtly literature and in religious scholarship, composed more frequently by upper caste authors.

Composition as dialogue
The history of this prior patronage explains, in part, its high status at the Mughal court where brahmana and Jaina authors interacted with scholars of Persian, also patronised by the Mughals. There was more than one translation of the Mahabharata and the Bhagvad Gita from Sanskrit to Persian, done jointly by brahmana pandits and Persian scholars. Such activity was not limited to an interest in religion, but was, more effectively, a form of translating cultures. Medieval patronage to Sanskrit as one of the languages of learning and formal religion is borne out by the numbers of literary texts, commentaries and digests that were composed in the last thousand years under multiple patrons.

This continued into modern times with patronage from the colonial state, conscious of the upper caste connections of Sanskrit. The literature in other languages received less attention as carriers of civilisation. It might be worth doing a survey of what was composed in these languages throughout history, to gauge the lineages of thought and articulation. This in itself would be insightful in evaluating the role of the single language as a civilisation idiom.

Any text of any kind, and in whatever language, assumes an audience. All composition is, in essence, a dialogue. If a text is written by the elite and uses the language of the elite, it reflects the elite culture and can, at best, reflect the participation of other cultures only indirectly. To that extent, it curtails our understanding of the civilisation.

Dual divisions
Much the same can be said about choosing a particular religion as the single one to represent a civilisation. The colonial readings of religions in India described them as monolithic. But were they? Many colonial scholars tended to see Indian religions through their knowledge of the medieval European past, with its single monolithic religion of Catholicism and later Protestantism. It is debatable whether religions in India were monolithic and unitary. Virtually every religion was articulated and propagated through a range of sects, each with the choice of being autonomous, or associated with another.

These religious sects have a long history. Their survival is also partly conditioned by their closeness to particular castes or caste clusters, and not unconnected to the patronage of the royal or wealthy. This highlights the interface between religion and society, an aspect seldom given enough space in the concept of civilisation. By bringing together virtually every religious articulation other than the Muslim and Christian under the label of Hinduism, the extensive divergence characteristic of religion in India, with its unique qualities, was denied.

That Indian civilisation was characterised by a singular and monolithic religion is unlikely. Dharma, which we today take to mean religion, was viewed as consisting of two streams. One was Vedic Brahmanism. This required a belief in Vedic and other deities. It insisted on the sanctity of the Vedas authored by the gods, and held that each mortal had an immortal soul. Strongly opposed to these beliefs were various groups jointly referred to as Shramanas, who doubted or rejected deity and the immortal soul, and treated the Vedas as authored by humans. Across the centuries, dharma was defined as the two streams of the Brahmana and the Shramana, or the astika/ believers, and the nastika /non-believers, which we today regard as the orthodox and the heterodox. The nastika consisted of Buddhists, Jainas, Ajivikas and those of such persuasion, including the Charvaka, with their philosophy of materialism. Interestingly, the initial social context of the Shramanic rejection of Vedic Brahmanism was urban.

This dual division was referred to in the edicts of Ashoka Maurya (bahmanam-samanam), in the account of Megasthenes (Brachmanes and Sarmanes), as well as in that of Xuanzang, and continued up to the time of Al-Biruni – a period of 1,500 years. Patanjali, at the turn of the millennium AD, mentions it in his famous grammar, and adds that the relationship between the two is comparable to that of the snake and the mongoose. The Shramanas in some Puranas are called the great deceivers – mahamoha – who deliberately mislead people with the wrong doctrines. They are therefore pashandas – frauds. The Buddhists sometimes refer to the brahmanas with the same epithet.

We are told that on some occasions, the relationship between the two became violent. A deeper investigation of our history of religion may show us as being less tolerant and more violent than we claim to be. We can certainly take pride in the absence, so far at least, of something like the Catholic Inquisition that forced people to make statements or to recant. Nevertheless, the degrees of intolerance and non-violence that prevailed in the past need to be re-assessed.

Striking changes
Intermeshed with religion and society was social oppression and the exclusion of those declared to be without caste, or of the lowest status and polluting. Caste discrimination linked to pollution was the Indian equivalent of the observance of other forms of discrimination in other civilisations. In practice, this was observed by every religion in India and by most communities. Surprisingly, it is rarely mentioned in discussions on ethical values and humanism in Indian civilisation, neither in the texts of the high culture nor in later descriptions of Indian civilisation. We owe our current highlighting of this aspect to the writings of Ambedkar and some of his predecessors.

The practice of treating demarcated members of the society as polluting negates the idea of a tolerant society, signifying as it does extreme intolerance and a lack of social ethics.
Yet, at a different level, there was a dialogue and much discussion between brahmanas and shramanas on philosophical questions, on, for instance, the definition and use of logic. By the mid-first millennium AD, the Shramanas were also using Sanskrit in philosophical discourse. But soon Buddhism was to be swept away in most parts of India.

The last thousand years have been quite striking in terms of the changes introduced at various levels in what we would regard as aspects of civilisation. The landscape changed. Temples and mosques replaced Buddhist monasteries and stupas. Some of the most magnificent Hindu temples dedicated to divergent sectarian deities, and also Jaina temples, were constructed in this period. These were endowed with land, and their committees of control were engaged in substantial commerce, as had been the case with some of the Buddhist monasteries in earlier times. Economic enterprise was open to all religious institutions and places of worship, and they did not hold back, since many had substantial wealth to invest.

The religion that we today refer to as Hinduism also had roots in the teachings of the medieval Bhakti sects. These encouraged new forms of worship, some reflecting ideas from the presence of other religions, and they taught in the regional languages. In the transition from the Vedic to the Puranic religions, a distancing of the later from the earlier took place, and this was acknowledged only among some. For the majority of people, Vedic belief and ritual as such, although patronised by royalty, became peripheral. Much of the teaching, attracting substantial numbers, was oral, since the larger numbers were not literate. The result was a multiplicity of sects of every kind, either drawing from, or opposing, the more formal religions. This receives less space in the classic descriptions of religion in Indian civilisation.

Compact aspect
What I am suggesting is that the conventional description of what constitutes Indian civilisation is partial. It does not sufficiently include the reality of the substantial contribution beyond that of the elites and the upper castes.

The concept of civilisation needs to draw from a far wider spectrum if it is to represent more than just the dominant cultures. This critique applies equally to descriptions of other civilisations. One could argue that the concept itself is therefore limited. Let me try and explain this.

The compactness of civilisation is partly due to its land-based and demarcated territory and the social origins of the cultures it encapsulates. But many of the achievements resulted from the co-mingling of groups, elites and non-elites, both within this territory and those on its frontiers and, sometimes, beyond. The commissioning of a monument or a cultural object may lie in the hands of a wealthy patron, but its creator is often a lower caste professional. Styles can therefore be a reflection of localities and popular trends, either of the elite or of others.

Icons of the Buddha illustrate this. The Gandhara image from the north-west is Indo-Greco-Bactrian in features and style, whereas the one from Mathura has no element of the Gan-dhara style. It is strikingly different, as is the one from Amaravati in the south. It changes again in Borobudur and Angkor in Indonesia and Cambodia, as also in Dunhuang and Lung Men in Central Asia and China. The images do not conform to a single aesthetic, but do suggest the richness of the dialogues that must have taken place among those sculpting them. These are, unfortunately, unrecorded. But surely some shilpins and sthapatis, as artisans and craftsmen, also travelled with the traders, brahmanas and Buddhist monks to Southeast Asia in the early periods, to assist with constructional problems, or the precision, if not also the aesthetics, of iconography?

How are forms transmitted to distant cultures? Surely the idiom in a new context should be read in its own context as well? The diversity points to the inspiration’s not being limited to a single elite source, yet the creators of the icons find little place in discussions of civilisation. How were the complexities of the Sanskrit manuals converted into visual forms by artisans not educated in Sanskrit? This is the interface that civilisation is all about, not the separation of the two.

Texts requiring scholarship travelled with brahmanas, Buddhist monks and traders. Many ventured beyond the frontiers, creating innovative mixed cultures that would have challenged the existing civilisational models. This would be more marked in the formation of new states, especially in distant lands. Some Indian texts were rendered into local languages and adjusted to local perspectives, in an effort to imprint their own culture and influence patronage. The variations speak volumes. In the controversial additions to the Hikayat Seri Rama of Malaysia, the patriarch Adam carries messages from Ravana to Allah. Other variations are similar to those known in India, but what these say remains outside the delineation of civilisation.

Carriers of culture
Adaptations provide another perspective. It is argued that the original Javanese version of the Ramayana story did not draw on the Valmiki text, but drew on the narration of the story in the much later grammatical work, the Bhattikavya. The question is why. The choice of one from a diversity of sources needs explanation, especially now, when some insist on cultural singularity. Even if it is a transaction between high cultures, the cultural presence of the Other is crucial to explanation.

Central Asia provides parallels. The carriers of the cultures were the same as those that went to Southeast Asia, but the Buddhists drew greater attention. Buddhist monasteries marked the staging points of the trade routes that went from China through Central Asia and northern India to the Mediterranean. This was the Old Silk Route. A healthy patronage encouraged each monastery to host murals of the highest quality, illustrating narratives from the Buddhist texts, in the context of local history. Their versions become, in a sense, a commentary on the Indian texts, an attempt to see a part of India from the other side of the border. Do their perceptions confirm our current view of Indian civilisation?

The involvement of Indians in this trade continued until the last century, although latterly in segments because of historical changes. For over a millennium, it had cut across what were identified as the separate civilisations of Asia, civilisations whose distinctiveness we have thought of as being crucial to their identity. But in each case, the achievements, be they in philosophy, religion or the arts, drew on the interaction of these cultures rather than originating in isolation. The initiative was taken by the traders, and the rest followed.

In the past, Indians and Chinese came to Southeast Asia through maritime exploration. This linked up ports and hinterlands, and required traversing the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Seas – an Indian Ocean route, linking the segments of the chain from North Africa to South China. This is not a compact land mass but the contacts it nurtured impacted civilisations. Like the Silk Route, it virtually created its own cultures. Can we call it a maritime civilisation? It boasted of multiple cultures – high and low, literature in various languages, architecture and art that competed in quality with those in what we call established civilisations. Above all, it demonstrated that ultimately, knowledge advances when there is an exchange between those in the know, irrespective of where they come from.

Evolving process
This is superbly demonstrated in the study of astronomy and mathematics across Asia, dependent on this exchange for many centuries. This was not just a casual mixing of ideas. It involved the careful sifting of what goes into any knowledge system so as to understand it better. This, surely, is the more essential requirement of civilisations. The ascription of origin to a single author was not the point. Authorship was the contribution of more than one. Nor was a there a desperate competition to claim that one’s own civilisation got there first.

When we begin to think of the concept of civilisation as something that is not either territorially compact or pertaining to a limited period of history, we will, perhaps, recognise the limitations of singularity and isolation in the current concept. We can either dispense with it; or we can redefine it. Redefining it will require that some existing ideas be unpacked and rejected, some repacked, and some replaced.
Civilisations as we know them now tend to segregate rather than integrate. Colonial conquests the world over, with their new and precise boundaries, ended existing inter-connections between cultures. A case in point is that of contacts between India and Southeast Asia. Various regions of India had connections with various parts of Southeast Asia. Colonialism split Southeast Asia into colonies held by the British, French, Dutch and Spanish.

This carving up terminated the earlier links.

Colonialism reformulated cultural identities with new hierarchies of status both within a society and across its frontiers. This, in part, accounts for what are erroneously described as civilisational clashes. What is striking about the swathes of cultures that we study from the past is their porosity. Territories, languages and religions, however stable we would like them to be, are in fact constantly taking fresh shapes. The change comes from many sources: internal pressures that alter social hierarchies; alien cultures that accrete to them and take on new identities; diversities that transform even the cultures of the frontiers; and the ensuing perceptions that those beyond the frontiers have of us.

Civilisation is a process that evolves over a long period, mutating as it goes along. We have to recognise the mutations and discover their source. In focusing on the culture of the elite, the construction of civilisation overlooked its dependence on the cultures of others as participants in the same society. The essential concerns with the “why” and the “how” of history did not find space in the concept.

Overlooked in earlier histories, these perspectives can provide revelatory insights by forcing us to peel the layers, and refrain from insisting that civilisation is a uniform entity. Cultural articulations have to incorporate the dialogue among varying social groups in the societies that constitute the players. How did the participants in a civilisation perceive themselves and their own activities, and in relation to the social hierarchy? Did they all see themselves as part of one civilisation? This is a tough question, but we may find answers if we are willing to enquire.

If we choose to redefine the concept, can we think of civilisation, not as a self-contained homogenous entity valid for all time, but as a process of tracking cultures, even those perpetually in transition? The perceptions that this may provide can, perhaps, translate the past in ways that will enable a new understanding of both the past and the present.

(The Full Text of this Lecture first appeared on Indian Cultural Forum)
(Romila Thapar is Professor Emeritus in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and the eminent author of numerous books. This speech was delivered at Ambedkar University in Delhi on April 21.)

Book Review : “The Past As Present” By Romila Thapar


By Anil Gokhale

The Book to be considered as milestone in Historical writings on Ancient India and its reverberations on the political narrative of Modern India. Importantly, it has become the central core of current political narrative in strange and peculiar Form. The Book is scholarly polemical for revivalists and at the same time conversationalist for keen readers of History. The Book covers and knits together nineteen Articles under four segments and written over a period of last twenty years – since 1989 and offers a proof of consistency in meticulous and innovative research. It addresses ‘the past’ as is interpreted in present to legitimize the political ends. Author finds it as high time to launch a well argued criticism of defenders of those treating the ‘past as the extension (backward) of the Present’ in short the regressive ‘political and hate filled’ methodology of protagonists of ‘Mytho- Historians’.

The Author senses the changing political narratives over last three decades since Babri- Ayodhya event and stand in defense of historical research by publishing the Book in April 2014. The timing of publishing the Book proved to be crucial and crucial since short while from then Mr. Y. Sudershan Rao was appointed as Chairperson of Indian Council of Historical Research.

The book Published by ALEPH BOOK COMPANY IN April 2014 has covered Four Sections, – History & the Public, Concerning Religion & History, Debates and ‘Our Women- Then & Now’. The book running into 326 pages has Nineteen Chapters and an Epilogue critically evaluating the impact of unseemly ways in which past has been used and seeks to present alternative and creative ways in interpretation of History of ancient India and see beyond the present into future. The Notes to the chapter and Bibliography also is in congruence with the narratives. Even the Bibliography of her publications is heavily based on documents published by archeological survey of India

Central; core of the subject of enquiry is “Past as Present’. Meaning past being the driving force of political discourse and the current cultural- political narratives. In the ongoing political processes, the present is mediated through- ancient & Medieval past. Nevertheless no Society can return to the past. The regression to the past in the ‘present’ acquires forms adequate to the epoch and obeys the ‘will of the ruling classes’ and the mode of production and accumulation of Capital. Modern forms of political rule the ruling classes can ‘opt for’ are dangerous and frightful. Author has sensed thes advance into dangerous realms of future.

Of Histories & Identities and In Defense of History

Archeology received a shot in the arm after discoveries of Harrapa & Mohejadaro in 1919-20. Romila Thapar, who began her research in 1960-61, Indus civilization, provided her the passionate ground work and which never left her in span of fifty five years. She has worked on all and each subject which touches it and entered into debates and controversies in defense o Historical truth she discovered. The Civilization which was built in the 26th century BCE, known as the largest cities of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization or Harappan Civilization became the focal point of these nerve biting controversies. However what twisted the debates into bitter ideological and political battlefield and turmoil was the Indus Script and the several vengeful attempts towards decipherment of Harappa Language! This is since it has ramifications on Identity or identities of ‘India’ and its Culture! These essays or collection of essays is an illustrious narrative of Ancient India and its fallout on to the present writtings, by a great spokesperson and a statesman. But why, When & How it all happened is the story of this book.

Author makes a moderate introduction to the story.”End of colonial period was marked by ‘Intoxication of freedom’ and searching for its identity as ‘nation state’. However soon the ground realities compelled the Indian inhabitants to search for their identities. In schools and educational Institutions our understanding of History was shaped by colonial scholarship which also shaped ‘our identities’ as ‘collective of people’. The inherited colonial scholarship’ in history made these collectives to retreat into ‘identities in conflict’. Also the Economic inequalities inherited and deepened by advancing capitalism to search for their own ‘sub identities’. Already ‘majoritism’ was handed over to us by British Rule and it began threatening the ‘Indian identity’. Construction of links to ‘pre modern history, led the Indians to regress to the Identities of race, caste, tribes, language etc.

Under such retarding situation, discussions, particularly amongst Europeans engaged in research of the ‘alien colonial culture’ made One of the most important and significant discovery was the Harrapan culture having huge expanse of Northwestern India, Gujarat down to northern Maharashtra, to the settlements in parts of the copper ore areas Gulf- Oman. Some path breaking work aimed at deciphering Indus scripts, philological – analysis of linguistic components’, ‘revealing of tangible history’ through excavations, all made the impact on our understanding of History!

The theory of migration of Aryan, after the demise and extinction of Harappan Civilization began rattling the section of ‘right wing’ . Spread of Aryan from North Western to Ganga and then spreading south brought with it the alterations of languages, importantly, the language groups, – Vedic Sanskrit Vs Prakrit. Those who could not speak Sanskrit were termed as Mlenchas or barbarians! Author points of various nuances between Sanskrit and Prakrit.

Author intelligently introduces the readers to slow impact of Aryan Migration by exploring the linguistic identities or similarities of AVESTA & RIGVEDA and influences on pronunciations. Illustrations of the – ASURAs & AHURAS (S & H), ‘airiya’ & Arya, or three place names – Harahwati, Harayu, Haptahindu as Sharahwati, Sarayu, Saptahindu and similarly several pronunciations. Similarly, pronunciation of ‘L’ instead of ‘R’ innumerably is very interesting proof. In fact Author points out these similar words may be from Rigveda but they belong to post Harappan Era and point out their Origins in Oxus Plains (Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan into Lake Aral) or in Syria & Avesta of Iran. She touches upon- Historical languages- ideal meanings of seemingly similar words but apposite meanings like Pur stocker & pura- town

What Author is intends to demonstrate is the impact migrations and cross migrations in ancient India right from Syria, Iran down into Indus valley led to ‘immixing’ or ascendance of ‘cross cultures’. Hence Author demonstrates how, “Identities do change with historical changes ‘in contrast to ‘Colonial Scholarship’ which treated the identities as ‘static’ and project ‘Hindus and Muslims as monolithic religions. Romila Thapar refers to James Mill several times to highlight the origins of this theory in Colonial Scholarship.

Another point which Author makes is regarding change in understanding of History. History was read as information on dynasties and recital of glorious deeds. The New research changed the narrative to broad based study of social & economic forms in the past. Here multiple cultures were explored in terms of their contribution to making of the Indian civilization and discovery of ‘plural’ and ‘overlapping’ identities!

Author narrates, how the present turmoil on ‘History’ goes back to, the discoveries which threatened the ‘regressive ‘A-Historical ideology‘, which vengefully began fresh assaults to convince that the myths and phantasies of earlier times were in fact realities of History. In Year around 2000, the assault on spirit of questioning became sharper, intellectuals were denigrated and so also, their understanding of our society and past. Already revenge on History was carried through the mass movements in last three decades by vicious attacks on religious places of worships of ‘Others’, even – regressively going back to invoking raids of GAZNI on Somnath and other temples as justifications.

The back lash of research on Harappan civilization resulted into “dubbing all Muslims and Christians as foreigners. Author argues that how the theory of ‘ARYAN Foundation of Indian Civilization’ is fostered by ‘Non Indians’, American & Europeans. Author counterpoises theory of Aryan migration spreading into North west as against Theosophist theory propagated in India by Madame Helena Blavatsky that not only Aryans are indigenous but also were the fountainheads of world civilization and all human achievements have travelled from India! Author also questions the absurd claims ed that Vedik Sanskrit being the mother language of all languages. ‘ Hindutwa’ has made this as the founding corner stone of their ideology and philosophy! Number of obvious obstacles such as, Dravidian Language has been encountered and stiff resistance from number of Reformers like Mahatma Jyotiba Phule and Dalits of his times argued that Aryans have been Aliens. Authors of Hindutwa, likes of Golwalkar & Savarkar have countered this by putting up phantasy that authors of Rigveda are the builders of Harappan Civilization! Thus in these chapters Author thus traces the origins and roots of the present controversies.


The Book begins with Chapter Interpretation of History. However core conflicts are reflected in living ideologies which have been born in 1930’s as insignificant trends outside the sphere of Nationalist movement and which have slowly over first few decades grew up rapidly as “Cultural nationalism’ as main stay of nationalist- Patriotic ideology acquiring now the centre stage, and threatening to become ruling Ideology.

This emergence has progressed regressively with an attempt to hijack the archeological discoveries in Indus valley under the guise of Faith & manipulations in Historical research. The ‘Past as Present’ intends to present summery of escalation of the core conflicts on larger, national and massive scales. The myths and phantasies are elevated and resurrected as Modern Ruling ideology. Cultural liberalism at snail’s pace in initial stage and much faster rate at latter stage came under aggressive attack from ‘cultural nationalism’ under Hindutwa banner.

1) Author has pointed out those proponents of Hindutwa, likes of Golwalkar & Savarkar initially put up their claims that ARYANS are indigenous, natives, the Original founders of of Indian Culture. Contrary to this Muslims and Christians are ‘outsiders’ and invaders who ruled Hindus and hence reestablishment of Hindu Hegemony remains the sole goal, life purpose of the rightwing Ideology. Harappan Civilization discovery and its Historical dating blew up the foundations of ‘ARYAN INDIGENOUS’ theory and philosophy. Since then all attempts have been directed to establish that “authors of Rigveda are the builders of Harappan Civilization”! The built up of this philosophy began surging forward in 1960’s. The major hurdle again was the discoveries of the Seals’ and INDUS script which were not decipherable… The next aggression on INDUS script began by hijacking it, to establish that SANSKRIT evolved from this script over centuries to reestablish and revalidate ARYAN theory. Author’s arguments to question this came under fierce and venomous attacks from the expected Quarters. Thus the central core of this Book is devoted to explain all aspects of this controversy and the philosophical and dangerous social-political ramifications this distortion will lead to.

2) In doing so, Author has questioned the fundamental corner stone of Hindutwa Ideology. Author hence has become the target of criticism since she has stirred up the ‘Hornets Net’. The core of the right wing ideology and the ‘Identity’ is born in the womb of ‘Historical Myth’ that the Aryans are indigenous. As a corollary rigorous attempts are in force to prove that Indus Valley people used the phonetic script and in the late Harappan period the script evolved itself towards and alphabetic pattern. Logically this forms the origin of the Sanskrit Language. This forms the central core and essence of energies of the right wing fundamentalism! At latter stage Author coins the concept of ‘Syndicated Hinduism’ is fascinating and most appropriate concept. The concept of ‘Syndicated Hinduism’ highlights how it forms the major step to bring all earlier sects under single umbrella, from within India and from all across globe and instill monolithic culture and resurrects this New IDENTITY! All traditions of questioning the ‘Orthodoxies’ are being weeded out. In recent Interviews (October 2015) Author has expressed her deep anguish and concerns about the traditions of independent Intellectuals in India. “They were intellectuals who were willing to question the orthodoxy of every religion and all ideas. They were, therefore, ancestral to the public intellectuals of today and I was trying to emphasize that we should be aware of this tradition of thought in India. Vedic Brahmanism had to confront what it called nastikas — the Shramans, Buddhists, Jains, and other monks — and they, in turn, had to confront the charvakas or materialists”.

3) Ram Mandir, Ramajanmabhumi and variety of other issues related to ‘Faith’ are the cannon fodder for accusing the opponents and rationalist as Renegades of Patriotism and turncoats. Hence these Epics and their monolithic presentation have become the one of the core component and structure of Current political narrative. It can firm up the regimentation in cultural upbringing of Indian child, reinforced by Puranas and Vedas. They reinforce the child’s growth into an adult. Author’s analysis of ‘Why Valmiki Ramayana has become the mainstream of Hindu culture?’ is also correct when she points out that “It comes partly out of the tradition of giving greater precedence to Sanskrit literature “and was also “Reinforced by colonial scholarship mentioning these as definitive texts”. Dropping of A.K. Ramanujam’s works, essays which makes interesting researched claims of Three Hundred Versions of Ramayana from DU Syllabus is logical outcome and highlights the well planned onslaught to butcher and get rid of Variants and bring in Monolithic ‘Authenticated’ Version by ‘Hindu fanatics’ as “Ruling Version of Ramayana”. The attempt completely disregards Special and temporal context which is core of Historical science.

This camouflages all differences, variants under an umbrella and hides its essence, ‘We the Aryans’. It gives the strength to unify attack and aggression against ‘Others’. Hence the Hindutwa Historians are fighting tooth and nail battle with the Author and the Historians who do not bow down to dictats of the ‘Majoritism Historians! More importantly through child education for a century this has become ‘our collective unconscious from which all aggressive energies are drawn.’

For rightwing Historians, Ramayana & Mahabharata, become the mediating link between defense of ‘Aryan Indigenous Theory’ and Politics of Hatred. Hence it must be defended tooth and nail, by hook or crook. Author has coined the term ‘Syndicated Hinduism’ which assimilates al ‘Variants’ or becomes an umbrella which ‘hides’ the ‘Aryan Essence ’reified in the ‘Collective Unconscious’. The Aryan Essence expresses itself in distorted form as ‘Anti Islam or Anti Christianity’ as being the Non Indian Origin. The history is viewed on the assumption that in 1200 AD, Muslims conquered Hindus and in 1700 AD Christians ruled Hindus, hence liberation from yoke of Islam & Christianity!

Author has brought together the Core Conflicts and has put up formidable challenge on behalf of Historians to those who are working as ‘contractors’ for fabricating History and raising Faith above Science of History and those who have challenged the ‘INDIAN IDENTITY’. This review is focused on Romila Thapar’s spirited defense of History!

The core issues of the book cannot be understood unless Cultural Space of Epics- Ramayana & Mahabharata is highlighted. In defense of the variant is a significant Essay and contribution to understand the continuous attempts made to resurrect monolithic faith. Removal of Essay by A.K. Ramanujam, the critic, Historian & Poet from the History syllabus and vandalizing the then HOD of History Department, are few illustration of how the variants were threatened and butchered.

Aryan Question & Integration of Four Disciplines

For illustration- Romila Thapar observed that in the Indus valley, plough agriculture was practiced and that the non-Aryan knew the plough. The discovery of a ploughed field at Kalibanghan in northern Rajasthan, which dates back to the pre-Harappan, has confirmed that the food sufficiency of the Harappan period was owing to the plough agriculture. Author is more concerned with mode of production and creation of surplus as foundations of dawn of Civilization in Indus valley. Hence in her Lecture “Aryan Question revisited in 1999’, Author puts it squarely regarding ‘Aryan Question’ around which the controversies are centered and proliferated since it remains the most complex question about Indian history and full blown attempts, to prove it at any cost, by hook or by crook, by mockery or forgery’. The vicious efforts to slander the ‘Other’ as outsider as against native and indigenous have acquired very high political pitch!

Author rightly argues that any theory or conjecture must stand test of ‘Four integrated disciplines’ in order to understand History and historicity”-namely, Archeology, linguistics, Economics- historical context, social forms of relations and Anthropology. Knowing Sanskrit and reading Rigveda does not amount to be an Authority to understand and know historicity and historical analysis or interpret Vedic text. Romila Thapar says that vast knowledge has come up in last thirty to forty years of research and ‘body of information’ emerged in the area named linguistics and ‘structure of language’, grammar, morphology, phonetics, phonology etc. The knowledge has clearly focused on discontinuity and disjunction between two widely separated epochs or periods split apart by two different technologies and modes of production!

Author focuses on her most important insight, “Saying the obvious, that the Aryan question is the probably most complex, complicated question in the Indian history” However it consists of knowing and handling “something about at least four different fields” and identifying cultures, and “the way in which the total society functions and how these elements are integrated”.

Archeology is one by which things come to us and revealed. The second area of expertise is linguistics and which does not mean ‘Knowing Sanskrit’ and interpretation of Vedic Texts. There has developed a huge body of information which comes from a discipline called linguistics, which do “comparative studies of different language structures. The historical context, this relates to a whole series of questions, how society is defined in the past – agro pastoral, agrarian, urban… What is the meaning of these terms? What is the interaction between ecological, social, economic, cultural, religious forms?” “Is there a difference between cattle rearing society and a society which carries out overseas trade? And these are fundamental questions in historical analyses. You cannot avoid them” and point out reference to cattle in the Rigveda and cattle are depicted on the Indus seals”.

The fourth discipline of course can be social anthropology, may be about cattle – keeping tribes in Sudan, Iranian Texts which can provide some clues! Also, so many historians like D.D. Kosambi who have done thorough research studies on survivals of cultural and social forms, Author takes clues from ‘ethno-archaeology’ sites, which articulate two new features in the second millennium, (not earlier), the presence of the horse & the presence of iron and of iron technology, which is different from the Harappan which was copper-bronze, and the sites are all located in the valleys and passes along the northwest and the borderlands. “So there is a multiplicity of groups of people settled along the frontiers. There isn’t a single entry point into India, it is dispersed. And then when we come further into the Indo-Gangetic watershed, there is again, with the Painted Grey ware sites the presence of the horse and of iron technology. The horse therefore becomes a very important piece of evidence in connection with the arrival of Indo-Aryan speaking people”.

The more direct evidence comes from Northern Syria where there is a treaty between the Hittites and the Mitannis, their Gods which are versions of Aryan Gods. Also Author dwells on evidence of fleeting Indo-Aryan presence in Mesopotamia and Syria, training of horses and words and pssages used and spoken by those trading horses convertible into Indo-Aryan.of the second millennium BC, Also thicker connection as far as Rgveda is concerned, is computation of Wealth, in horses and cows, gifting of huge number of horses & cattle’s if one reads ‘danastuti’ hymns.

Centrality of the horse and the chariot in Vedic literature and total absence of Horses in the seals of the Harappa culture, “there are many other animals but the horse doesn’t occur. The horse is central to the Vedic texts. The horse is central both as a functional animal – the horse draws the chariot, the chariot means speed, so if you’re carrying out a raid, the more chariots you have the quicker you get there, you raid the particular place and you bring back the loot much faster than if you were going by bullock cart and bringing it back by bullock cart,”. Secondly, the horse is ritually very important. And I don’t have to remind you here that whereas for example in the Rig Veda the sacrifice of the horse is a fairly simple, straightforward ritual of sacrificing a horse, what it becomes in the later Vedic texts as the Ashwamedha”. Of course “And you don’t get any reflection of this in the Harappan culture”.

Author is right in appreciating Vidhan Singh Soni’s support when he questions The Hinduitwa ideologues, “They could remember it later also? Aryans had superior war technology. horses, iron etc which the downtrodden late-Harappans could not suddenly acquire. Don’t misuse Rig Veda without verifying this fact that the stone tool using LATE Harappans could create Vedas?”

Soni’s comment. “She is correct that Aryans were non-indigenous. We have recently got a solid proof that Harappans were not Aryans. Late Harappans (who were doomed because of heavy prolonged droughts) started using stone tools (see BIPPA 2012 pp6-18; current Sc.2009, No.8; Antiquity Vol. 085. Issue 328, 2011, and some others by us). They were almost finished, no meta no trade. Late-Harappan Sites like Bara, Dhermajra (Ropar) have shown hundreds of Stone tools hitherto unknown.

Controversies on Indus Script and Two Historical Epochs

The efforts are being made to install the teachings of the Hindutva ideologues of the 1930s in new vicious forms, and reincarnate the ideology of ‘pitribhumi’ and the ‘punyabhumi, as the native home of the ‘Hindu’ ancestors, ‘ARYANS and the Pan- India religion of the ‘Hindus’.

The ‘ARYAN QUESTION’ is the greatest stumbling Block and hence the whole efforts are directed to hijack the HARAPPAN civilization and its headways in ancient history by demonstrating that ARYANS as religious group evolved from the HARAPPAN Civilization, its writing script as precursor or forerunner of Language- ‘SANSKRIT.

Romila Thapar as researcher had already been researching into these area which had enraged likes of Dr. S.R. Rao whose research work ‘Decipherment of the Indus Script’ is solely aimed at showing that the “Indus Valley people used the phonetic script and in the late Harappan period the script evolved itself towards and alphabetic pattern”. He claimed that the numerals were shown by corresponding numbers of independent vertical lines. However, the Indus script is marked with innumerable puzzles and for the historians the riches of INDUS civilization have remained unfathomable till today. What Romila Thapar argues is that do not close the ‘Research areas’. Hence her argument stated above holds valid when she says, ”Now what is interesting about all these sites is that they do indicate the coming in of two new features in the second millennium, not earlier, but in the second millennium, there is the presence of the horse, there is the presence of iron, of iron technology, which is different from the Harappan which was copper-bronze, and the sites are all located in the valleys and passes along the northwest and the border lands”.

As a reply to FRONTLINE cover story (Sep. 30 – Oct. 13, 2000) HORSEPLAY IN HARAPPA, The Indus Valley Decipherment Hoax by MICHAEL WITZEL, Michel Danino’s claimed, “Prof. Romila Thapar’s remark that “if the horse had been as central to the Indus civilization as it was to the Vedic corpus, there would have been many seals depicting horses” is simplistic. The Harappans did not include all the animals around them on their seals—they had cows and camels, for instance, yet did not depict them; on the other hand they depicted the unicorn and a three-headed creature, which did not exist physi¬cally. The seals were not meant to be a zoological catalogue, and until we can read the Harappans’ mind and culture, we can only try to guess reasons for the presence or absence of a particular animal” do not sound healthy and appropriate if Romila Thapar’s distinction of two Technologically divided ages and associated modes of production are considered vital.

This is exactly what Romila Thapar has to say. She questions the motives, intentions and methods used under the guise of research to usher up the past to make it or assist in deciding or modifying the current political discourse and narratives. Hence Romila Thapa highlights the implication of this is also that you cannot equate a language with an archaeological culture in the absence of a script. If you are excavating and there is no script available you cannot say this culture that I am excavating is Aryan or Dravidian or whatever it may be. This becomes impossibility because Aryan is a language label and you can only call archaeological culture Aryan because strictly speaking if you find some evidence of the use of that language.

Romila Thapar has consistently argued that under Harappan civilization, use of metal was fairly limited and unless the Harappan script on the Seals is deciphered, the claims of THE dominant Language (SASNSKRIT) is farfetched and wrong! The script can be connected to “with the people just to the west of the Indus valley – the proto-Elamite in Iran. It could be connected to the Mesopotamians, it might also have been used in the Oxus valley where the mining of lapis lazuli was done and Harappan sites were found. In other words what I’m trying to suggest is that the Harappan trader was probably multi-lingual.

The script controversy is central to this ‘ARYAN question, since Stunning and desperate claims that Vedic people and Harappan were identical. Author points out the extent to which these ideologues have traversed to attempt to forge and manipulate on Computer to show ‘damaged seal showing Harappan unicorn to look like hind quarters of a horse of Vedic ritual of ASHVAMEDHA! This fraud by RAJARAM, was exposed in Front Line- Volume 17 – Issue 20, Sep. 30 – Oct. 13, 2000). The controversy has snowballed into major controversy in 2015 (See FRONTLINE issues). After destabilization of controversies & debates involving ‘Hindutwa’ Historians (Less of Historians and more of Mythologists). Romila Thapar has cogently put up her defense of Indian history and society being constituted by ‘multiple cultures, in dialogue with each other’ and stressed upon the importance of ‘forging cultural identities’ which are sub continental and at the same time enable articulations of regions.

Another illustration – Computer-altered image, “ NASA Photos Depicting mythological land bridge between India and Sri Lanka, through Rameswaram and Jaffna” – ‘Ravana’s Lanka’. It is claimed to have been built about 17,50,000 YBP’ . Manipulations seem to be the sole time tested technique and scandalous method of transforming the Myths and Phantasies into ‘Historical Proofs’ for ‘mass consumption’. It works exactly in a way their techniques of Character assassination by which lies are converted into truths! These methods may appear as ‘laughing stock, but shockingly they have the capacity to inflame, instigate and enrage the human instincts and project ‘Collective Identities’.

This leads the Author to suggest how the body of information thus gathered and accumulated through scholarship and meticulous research to reach into the educational systems of childhood and adult education. The role of NCERT & ICHR here become important in providing the syllabus, modern means of education, maintaining quality of education to be accessible to teachers and to ensure that Indian Mind is never closed.

Myth & History- Demarcations

Part III- Debates- has interesting chapters devoted to define polemically the question of Historicity of RAMA & RAMAYANA. It has been argued that the present-day location of Ayodhya may not have been the same as in early times. Buddhist sources locate it on the Ganga and some argue for a different Ayodhya on the Sarayu. When excavations at Ayodhya were started as part of the project on “Ramayana Archaeology” this question was raised and there was some discussion among archaeologists. Was it confusion on the part of the authors? Could it have been another place with the same name?

The extensive archeological evidence available from excavations carried out on several occasions conflicts the claims of Ayodhya as opulent city or developed, “extensive Urban Centre’. It’s a Poetic Flight and exaggeration of Valmiki’s Ramayana. However we need to make allowance for a text “that is acclaimed, and rightly so, as the ‘adi-kavya’, the first of the great poems”.

Essay- ‘Historical Memory without History’ Author claims that at the time of Ramjanmabhumi movement it was pointed out by historians that Site names are often relocated in history sometimes, to retain a memory, to legitimize a new settlement, due to ecological reasons or migrations. The same was dismissed very strangely as the distortion of Marxist historians! As an integral fall out of it, led to next controversy- locating Lanka. Lanka is disputed by scholars over a century with locations covering Vindhyas – in Amarkantak, Chhota Nagpur, or at lower Mahanadi valley in Orissa. “The identification with present-day. Sri Lanka is problematic – as has often been pointed out – since Lanka was not the early name for Ceylon”.

Interestingly, if present day Ceylon is identified as Lanka, then Valmiki Ramayana’s date will have to be modified. This debate impacted the debates on RAMASETHU as well. Thus the aggressive mobilization for RAMSETHU project has brought into focus the conflict between knowledge and faith and between Myth and Science. This stands in contrast to establishment of historicity of Budha, Christ , Guru Nanak and the historicity of RAMA remains evasive and cannot be established.

Patriarchy & Despotic Rule

Part Four of this Book Part Four of the Book, Our Women, then and now include three Articles which dwell on the conditions of Indian women today and the women in Mythology- Ramayana & Mahabharata. This part brings forward the Patriarchy of Mahabharata period which slowly became dominant and ossified- tighter during Ramayana the Mythical period. This part also brings out very sharp difference between two epochs, the INDUS Epoch and EPIC Epoch. Also, the Mahabharata, written in earlier times while Ramayana at latter stage Mahabharata is clan based story. It is not surprising that women in the Ramayana are seen as playing a far more subservient role than Mahabharata.

Women were inferior to men even with simplest differentiation. Men spoke Sanskrit while Women spoke Prakrit. In fact established religions do not ‘demand ‘gender equality. Author’s statement, on inheritance of same patriarchy today ‘in cases of adulteries women were stoned to death, while Khap panchayats do the rest’ speaks the volumes of unchanged social status of women over and after thousands of years. Bhagwat Geeta establishes status of women as sinfully born! Colonial scholarship as well as ‘nationalist Historians’ drew on the ‘golden age’ of past India and created utopia about Indian past and as foundation of Indian Civilization.

In fact the impact of ‘Ancient past’ is more discernible in the ‘primal relations’ in the Family today. Women are the victims and sufferers of the core values of ARYAN Civilization in the sense of imbibed slavery and subordination to Patriarchal values. More so with colonization the relationship of domination of upper castes over the lower castes continued since the middle class formed was more or less drawn in “the initial periods from the upper castes”. Gender bias of BHAGWAT GITA brings Mullahs and Saffron Saints on same platform. Author discusses quite in detail the separation of historical Ages between Mahabharata & Ramayana.

‘Becoming a Sati (The faithful wife’ who is tested on Husband’s pyre) – A problematic Widow’ is the essay marked by investigation of this existence of this practiceand ‘tradition’ not only with Rajputs but also in many parts of subcontinents including Greece. As against Pastoral Society of HARAPPAN, ‘Past as Presents’ in its last segment- ‘Our Women- Then & Now’ has focused on highly pertinent question- Patriarchy in Hindu Epics. If we may in substance be defined as “a system of society or government in which fathers or father-figures control every aspect of Human life and hold authority over women and children’. If Romila Thapar has laid stress on ‘Women’, there is another area, left out, the father- Son conflict. The same is visible in Patriarchal Family System and Political Authority in RAMAYANA as well. Nightmares, Anxiety Dreams of Dasharatha’s third son- Bharata are ‘imaginatively reported’ by Poet VALMIKI in his – Sanskrit Verses- (1-69-8 to 10 &13-14).


It’s a great merit of the Book Romila Thapar’s that as Public Intellectual-Almost clinically, she destroys the very edifice on which Hindutva History is built. Mytho-Historians are attempting to fuel and pander the ‘ARYAN’ Myth- ‘we the ARYANS, the natives’ as against the ‘other’. To develop an ‘Ancient ‘ARYAN Indian Identity’ for Intelligentsia and ‘Hindutwa’ Identity for masses. The fusion of Political Rule and the Myth, Author Fears, is likely to spell a disaster! The contemporary Identity of Syndicated Hindutva and its revenge against ‘Other’ has its subterranean fuel- ‘We the Aryans’ against the Outsiders. Author fears that this may lead to unprecedented fall out in everyday life, on roads, media and every and all walks of life.

“What frightens me the most is the thought of what will happen to the generation growing up? A government can effectively dismantle an institution in a rush to assert power, but putting such an institution back in place to perform its legitimate function, is a long haul. It takes a generation at least. The habit of independent thinking and questioning disappears. For example, the moment I make even a brief critical comment about the ancient past, immediately abusive emails start pouring in from the expected quarters. The right to discuss and dissent is objected to. Writers are being threatened with violence. We are now a society that openly displays its prejudices. Until recently, the extent of these prejudices was kept relatively hidden but now they are visible. These are prejudices that we will have to counter if we want a reasonably safe society that accommodates the freedom to speak.”

Historian’s attempted hijacking of Harappan culture, script and civilization under ‘Hindu Fold’ was countered by Author through highly polemical Article “History repeats itself’ on July 11, 2015 which sounds alarm bells. The Article published in ‘India Today’ carries a symbolic Image of ‘Book of Indian History’ in Flames suggesting emerging Semblance with New narratives, to ‘Lanka Dahan’ and evoking memories of 10th May 1933 Germany. The Article itself was followed by bitter controversy questioning the integrity of Author- Romila Thapar. As emergence of by figure leaving the scene with its burning tail effectively makes the point- current narrative.

The image is highly evocative and can lead to multiple interpretations. It’s an image of ‘Burning of Lanka’ but is also is an image of ‘Book Burning’ episodes of 1935-37 of Germany when historical and psychoanalytic books of Freud were burnt. It also evokes the slow but gradually growing episodes of banning the books, curbing the voices of descent and distortions and revamping of books. We get to know the saying- Image is stronger than words”. The multiple interpretation of this compound image makes it so intriguing!

The movement to “Correct the Ancient Indian History” is one more diabolic plan at the behest of Vedic Studies’, Brahman Federation & a group of Indian American Authors, Activists from Tornado & from Mauritius to compel and force the Government to ‘rectify’ the mistakes and revamp educational system, revamp ICHR and to counter the Marxist Interpretation of History and project and establish that Aryans are Natives and the race has created the’ Indian Culture’. On the Agenda of the ‘Conference’ of Ten Thousand scholars is to launch an onslaught in order to rectify the mistakes in History, compelling Penguins to Recall the Books by Marxist Historians and ‘Indianise’ History. This demonstrates how far the research work and polemics of Historians like Romila Thapar has unsettled the Scholars’ who have fallen to the victims of the mythology and the political ‘intolerance’ has reached to the core of ‘theory of History’. It warns the Scholars of History to be guarded and alert! As Author fears that the Historians competing to establish & reincarnate and resurrect through an aggressive thunderstorm campaign the ‘Historical Myth’ that the Aryans are indigenous, forms the essence of ‘Historical theory’ (Historicity). To paraphrase G.W. F Hegel we can grasp ‘syndicated Hinduism’, sectarian Hiduism are the forms of its appearance- “Essence must appear and shine forth”! Here the object of Historians who intend to provide ‘right turn to History’ is essentially to instigate and unite with the rightwing mass movement involved in intolerance and targeting ‘Other’ around the ‘ARYAN MYTH” and to aid modes of their violent manifestations through use of Force. Even Bal Gangadhar Tilak, argued that Aryans migrated from North Pole (THE ARCTIC HOME IN THE VEDAS- Bal Gangadhar Tilak). It is surprising that he has not been labeled as Marxist. One needs to understand that it all depends upon the stage of development of Historical Research.

The vengeful attacks on Romila Thapar reminds me of an illustration from Mahabharata- the Epic Myth to invoke the episode of killing the unarmed Abhimanyu caught in the Labyrinth and surrounded by kauravas who have smelt the victory through majority and circumstances in their favor. However ‘pre-history does not repeat itself’ being a Myth! Abhimanyu has learnt the Art of penetration of this Labyrinth since he is equipped with research and scientific weapons can defeat the insane raging critics!

Author faces ridiculous criticism that she is illiterate on Sanskrit and cannot appreciate the ‘knowledge pool’ in Sanskritised Ramayana and the epics. It is incorrect. She is acquainted with Sanskrit though she does not claim to hold scholarship in Sanskrit literature. Romila Thapar has been well acquainted with Dr. P.V. Kane’s works ( History of Dharmashastra- Ancient and Mediaeval Religions and Civil Law in India) and top great Sanskritist and had great appreciation of this reformist “Bharat Ratna Awarde”. Knowledge in Sanskrit provides some insights into Form of Rule, social rituals and relations however to accuse her of hatred of Sanskrit and ignorance of the language. It only amounts to spreading hatred about her on Internets speaks of ‘Standard’ of these critics. Romila Thapar has only claimed that knowledge of Sanskrit does not provide key to understanding History.


Romila Thapar is unwavering, cogent, bold, critical and brave in facing the onslaught from every quarters and all ranks of Hindutvaites and their attempts to disregard, subvert the scientific methodology in Historical research. Misrepresentations of Archeological facts and converting the Myths into Historical truth in the name of ‘Faith’. This has been answered in each chapter through rigorous and systematic analysis. Through spirited defense of history not only for years but for almost six long decades through painstaking research Author has set an example for Rationalists to emulate! And through lectures and debates is not just appreciable and but can be considered as most valuable example in Modern History when its butchery is on threshold of volcanic explosion. As public person she has created unparallel intellectual legacy of her own and stands as tallest courageous figure in Historical scholarship. Orthodoxies are finding it difficult to counter her arguments as faithful, curious and innovative researcher for more than six decades.

Author’s Essay on ‘Which of us are ARYANs is very crucial chapter which discuses at concluding part, the impact of theories of racial origins make on the societies experiences enormous uncertainties of social change. This impact becomes manifold under the conditions of rapid expansion of middle classes. She illustrates this with German experience in early twentieth century when racial theories gripped the frowning mass of society decomposing into classes. The ARYAN myth gripped the mass of expanding middle classes frowning with prospects of doom and began targeting the ‘Other”. Hence Author says that ‘origins’ and ‘identities’ must be handled carefully. They can explode in devastating manner. Hence Historians must guard against use of history for ideological and political ends”.

Anil Gokhale is an Engineer by profession and have been a reader and student of Marxist and Freudian literature for last four decades.He has been a professional translator of medical and other literature from English to Marathi. As a non regular writer on political literature he has always been attempting to intigrate Psychology and Marxism.He has t recently published book ‘Condensation And Condescension In Dreams And History: Essay – From Sigmund Freud To E P Thompson’ by Author House London.

Source: Countercurrents, December 2015