‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)