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"Reinterpreting Indian history".

History and Beyond. By Romila Thapar. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. 490. $29.95.)

This work consists of four books bound in a single volume: Interpreting Early India (188 pages), Time as a Metaphor of History (thirty-three pages), Cultural Transactions and Early India (forty-four pages), and From Lineage to State (189 pages). The books stem from a series of articles that Romila Thapar wrote in academic journals and the prestigious named lectures she delivered in the 1970s and 1980s. Thapar challenges generally accepted contours of culture and historiography of ancient India. She deconstructs layer after layer of what she regards as convoluted and distorted interpretations of Indian culture given by colonial and postcolonial historians and their Indian followers from the early nineteenth to the late twentieth century. As if to provide a lead to construct a viable history of ancient India, she demonstrates her expertise as a solid social historian of India in her meticulously executed monograph, From Lineage to State, avoiding the pitfalls she identifies in the works of her illustrious predecessors.

In Interpreting Early India, Thapar critiques the writings of Weber and Durkheim on Indian caste and race, indicating the limitation of their theoretical constructs, based as they were on inadequate scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What disturbs her most is the apparent fixation of these scholars on the preconceived notion of a static and unchanging nature of Indian society. She demolishes Whittfogel's thesis of oriental despotism, which viewed India as perennially under despotic autocratic control that stifled individual initiatives and democratic impulses. She also examines critically D. D. Kosambi's contribution to Indian history. She praises, on the one hand, Kosambi's successful attempt to change the paradigm of writing Indian history by adding Marxist economic and social dimensions to it. On the other hand, she exposes the limitations of his anthropological and historical assumptions and, more importantly, the inadequacy of his Marxist theory. Thapar also chides the Indian Nationalist historians by focusing on the polarities of the spiritual content of Indian culture and on the materialistic basis of Western culture.

Thapar examines how Hindu ideologues of modern India have developed an apparently artificial image of a united, centrist Hinduism. They have constructed this image, she suggests, by subsuming in neo-Hinduism the rituals and philosophical presuppositions of a vast array of Hindu sects. According to Thapar, these sects are not united in their purpose. From ancient to medieval India, they constituted diversified units that were often engaged in challenging each other's dogma and maintaining their distinct identity. The notion of a Hindu community with a common identity emerged in a nascent form in the late nineteenth century as a result of a new perception of the social and political uses of religion. However, Thapar sidesteps the realities of British imperial policies in India, which viewed India as a conglomeration of Hindu and Muslim communities with separate cultural identities. The British gave the two communities de facto political identities that ultimately resulted in the partition of India.

Thapar challenges the notion of Western scholars that the Indians lacked a real sense of history. Thapar convincingly argues her case, with impressive evidence drawn from ancient Indian literature, for a well-articulated historical consciousness expressed in the itihas purana historical tradition, if only one could fathom the structure of that tradition. Thapar offers valuable clues drawn from Mahabharata, the Puranas, Charitras (historical biography), and a large body of Indian inscriptions, especially the Puranas, with their substantial chronological and historical core. The Puranas provided legitimacy for the ruling dynasties of ancient India. Although the origins of the dynasties are shrouded in myths, the myths are the markers of social and political change, articulating the prevailing ideology of power.

Thapar's highly original analysis of the concepts of linear and cyclical time in ancient India is found in Time as a Metaphor of History. She argues that the cosmological time prevalent in Indian philosophy and religion, which is cyclical, reinforced by the belief in reincarnation of the soul, coexists with the Indian concept of linear time, which is validated in Indian dynastic inscriptional records and formulated in the itihas purana historical tradition. Thapar questions the ongoing tendencies among scholars of Indian religion and society to overemphasize Indian cyclical time, alleging that Indian society therefore exhibits a proclivity for inertia and belief in the unreality of this world. Thapar contends that scholars here ignored India's well-formulated, but more complex, concept of linear time, which emphasizes change in society.

In Cultural Transactions and Early India, Thapar observes that there is a trend in modern India to select from the normative values of the past, which may have relevance, but may not be in consonance with historical actuality. She cautions that "historical legitimacy should not be given arbitrarily without first ascertaining its historical viability." In a controversy in the 1980s surrounding the demolition of the sixteenth-century Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, which was ultimately destroyed by a Hindu mob claiming the site to be the birthplace of Ram, Thapar notes that "to find [the] birthplace of Ram and historical validity for the avatar of [the] God Vishnu, and even drag archaeology in an attempt to prove this" is against the grain of past tradition. She accurately reports that such research had no place in the concerns of the majority of believers of Ram in the past. Thapar tries to differentiate between normative values and social reality, which keep changing throughout the historical past of India. In a well-argued case, she says that Hindus today experience their tradition of religious tolerance and nonviolence. The intolerance and violence perpetrated on untouchability in India, past and present, is dismissed as being in the realm of caste practice. Through a series of examples drawn from the past, Thapar demonstrates several cases of religious persecution and intolerance practiced by Hindu sects, including acts of demolition of each other's temples.

From Lineage to State is a diachronic study of ancient Indian political and social systems. Thapar traces the evolution of the state from the lineage society of the Vedic period (ca. 1500-600 BC) to the emergence of the Magadhan empire (ca. 400-200 BC), linking it with socioeconomic and political changes.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, both European and Indian scholars have been deeply involved in the study of caste, class, and race in India, but have relied on ancient normative literature, such as the dharmashastras and older religious texts, to substantiate their theories of the origins and growth of caste. However, none of these scholars has conducted a chronologically oriented diachronic study of lineage organization and state formation in ancient India. Thapar is the first scholar to conduct such a detailed study, examining social, economic, and political changes by meticulously researching the connotations of kinship terms, such as kola, jati, and jnati, and the terms indicating political relationship, such as raja rajnya and Kshatriya, that have undergone changes over a period of a thousand years. Another term, gahapati, for example, which is applied to the head of household in the Vedic texts, is used to designate a powerful and wealthy head of the household in the Buddhist period; it is the term setthi gahapati in the Buddhist texts that refers to a banker or merchant prince. Thapar explains how the term raja, meaning a clan chief or leader in the Vedic texts, was used to designate a monarch of a territorial state in the Buddhist texts. Concurrently, Thapar examines the material basis of change in economy and society from 1500 to 200 BC, using a vast array of archaeological data unearthed since 1905. Monetarization of the economy, seen through the use of punching mark coins; the growth of urban settlement; and, especially, the emergence of planned cities and the marked development of commerce and trade heralded the formation of state and Indian caste society. The penchant for recording genealogies, the impersonal, non-kinship-based administrative apparatus of the state, and the growth of the itihas purana historical tradition required to legitimate kingship are among other subjects that Thapar considers. The author rightly contends that the ancient lineage system remains an integral part of the modern Indian caste system.

From Lineage to State is a pioneering study of ancient Indian social and political formations. In her painstaking sociolingustic textual research, which is integrated with archaeological data and the insight received from relevant anthropological and sociological theories, Thapar reveals the unique contours of Indian social history. This study should remain a model of historical writing on ancient India for a long time to come.

This book is essential reading for understanding the nuances and intricacies of ancient Indian history, historiography, society, and culture. Thapar's critical insights provide the necessary analytical tools for evaluating India's past. She explains how best to study India's history, how to understand the dynamics of Indian society, and how to differentiate normative values from historical realities of the past. She has succeeded admirably.

University of Toronto

N. K. Wagle
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Title Annotation:History and Beyond
Author:Wagle, N.K.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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