May 31, 2012
Romila Thapar and the Study of Ancient India
Dilip K Chakrabarti
Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, and Emeritus Professor of South Asian Archaeology, Cambridge University
‘Nationalism’ or a ‘nationalist approach to history’ has long been used by and large in a pejorative sense by modern India’s historians, especially those who became powerful in the wake of the establishment of Indian Council of Historical Research in the early 1970s. To draw attention to the fact that this attitude to the nationalist Indian historians still persists, one can do no better than cite Romila Thapar’s Lawrence Dana Pinkham memorial lecture in Chennai in May 2012. Thapar, who was a prominent member of the coterie of historians associated with the Indian Council of Historical Research, has long been a Prima Donna of ancient Indian studies both in India and the West, and her admirers go into tantrums at any kind of criticism of her, as they apparently did when her selection as a recipient of the Kleuge prize was questioned by some Americans of Indian origin. She has not done much empirical research but considerably embellished her writings with smooth references to different vignettes of social science literature and suggestions on how they should be incorporated in the study of ancient India. This is the kind of history which is liked by a vast section of India’s English-educated ‘progressive’ middle class and their intellectual parents in the different ‘Indian studies’ establishments of the Western academia who marvel at the sight of this Third World woman who speaks their lingo, knows the etiquette and style of their ‘senior common rooms’ and expresses their ideas with supreme ease and confidence.
The second paragraph of this lecture on ‘reporting history : early India’ begins with an imagined dichotomy between ‘British colonial historians’ and ‘nationalist historians’. I do not find the idea of such a dichotomy acceptable in the light of the empirical evidence. For instance, there is no attitudinal difference to Indian history and culture between the ‘British colonialist historian’ E.J.Rapson, the Cambridge Sanskritist who was the editor of the Cambridge History of India , Vol. I, Ancient India,(1922) and the Deccan College archaeological guru H.D.Sankalia (1973). Rapson wrote in 1922 that “the migrations and the conquests which provided human energy” with which the Indian civilizations were created had “invariably come into India from the outside”. In 1973 Sankalia wrote that every new innovation in Indian history had come from the West. Examples of this kind may be multiplied ad finitum and underline the unpleasant fact that the basic structural premises of ancient Indian history as formulated in the colonial context continued without change till the modern period.
Regarding the notion of race, which Thapar mentions in pp.2-3 of this lecture, it may be mentioned that, however unacceptable this may be in the modern context, the idea of a historical correlation between race, language and history was accepted unquestioned by India’s ancient historians including Thapar who, in some of her early publications identifies the Aryans as a distinct group of people speaking a distinct language and bringing horses to India. In an earlier context, R.C.Majumdar not merely accepted the idea in its entirety but also extended it to southeast Asia where the role which was suggested for the Aryans in India went to the Indian immigrants in that region. It is an unfortunate fact and a poor reflection on the way how history is taught in India that the race concept is still a potent force in the perception of the Indian middle class. Otherwise, is there any explanation of the frequently published cases of harassment of the student population from the northeast in Delhi?
The people who have been dubbed ‘nationalist historians’ by later scholars like Thapar explored only at the peripheries of the historical premises of the colonial period. If some of them argued for the prevalence of a democratic system in the early republics or questioned the importance of Alexander’s invasion or the presence of Indo-Greeks in India, they should be given unqualified credit for what they tried to do. In retrospect, they were not powerful enough or even astute enough to question the overarching frame of historical explanations they inherited from their rulers, and to be fair to them, that frame has been left in place by the historians who came to power in independent India with full government patronage in the early 1970s.
If that overarching frame came in for criticism from any quarter, that came from a few great students of Indian affairs:for example, Gandhi who does not seem to use the term ‘Aryan’ anywhere in his writings; Vivekananda who was no historian but nonetheless realized that the whole Aryan idea was foisted on the Indians by Western scholars ; Ambedkar whose legal mind perceived that there was no logic behind this idea; Rabindranath who regretted that the history of India, as taught to us, brought about a separation between the land and its people.
None of the ideas of these true nationalists ever got into the history books written by scholars like Majumdar or Thapar. The so-called nationalist historians or the self-styled enlightened ones had no difficulty in accepting the basic over-arching frame of ancient India as laid down by the old colonial historians. In fact, there should not be any logical distinction between the colonial and nationalist historians. What difference is there between what Rapson thought and what Sankalia thought, although their writings were about fifty years apart?
Those familiar with the archaeological issues throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s will know that virtually all aspects of Indian archaeological issues were dominated, except some rare exceptions, by what old colonial scholars like D.H.Gordon and Mortimer Wheeler thought. Archaeological research no doubt expanded during this period but the mindset of the Indian scholarship during this period was basically a continuation of the old colonial mindset. Did Thapar herself question any entrenched colonial idea of Indian history in her Penguin version of the history of ancient India ? Her distinction between the colonial and nationalist historians is unacceptable. Whether it is Rapson or Sankalia, or Vincent Smith and Romila Thapar, they are ‘colonialists’ all, if we simply look at the continuity of ideas between the different periods.
In fact, the only approach which could bring about a complete change in our perception of Indian history was what has to be called an essentially archaeological approach to relate this history to the land. Except some limited attempts on the basis of limited resources, this approach has not witnessed even a proper beginning in modern India, and the fact that archaeological studies on the basis of which the Indian land mass may assume a distinct historical reality have not even significantly caught on in modern India is an ample indication of how generally pointless is the general range of historical quibbles emanating from historians like Thapar.
The question of periodisation of ancient Indian history, which Thapar writes about, is hardly a matter of great significance, with all the terms currently in use having some logic and relevance. I think that Thapar’s idea that “ancient India was projected as a virtual utopia” is untrue and has to be ignored unless accompanied by incisive historiographical research. Thapar throws in many unwarranted sentences : “if the Census of 1882 had included a column for those who observed a cross-over kind of religion, a mix of Hinduism, Islam and other formal religions, this column would undoubtedly have had the largest number”. We would like to see the premise worked out in detail. Personally I find her reluctance to consider religion as a historical factor in India rather surprising, especially in view of the fact that the cataclysmic event of Partition took place in the name of religion. Thapar writes that the religion of the Harappans is unknown. This is certainly not the case, although I would not put a modern name to it. I would not call it a version of modern Hinduism but a lot of the elements which later became important parts of Hinduism were there. What is the basic problem in accepting this simple proposition which has been staring archaeologically at us for a long time ? What is the virtue in championing the claim that the induction of what has been called the Indo-Aryan language family is post- Indus civilization on the basis of a completely unstable Rigvedic chronology ? Is there any way by which the Rigveda can be dated to anybody’s satisfaction ? What is the reason of showing undue deference to what the comparative philologists write about the language history of India ? There is no reason why archaeology should give a toss about these writings because linguistic reconstructions and their assumed chronology stand entirely on their own, without any independent support for their historicity.
To come back to the issue of periodisation of Indian history, there cannot be any single answer, nor is such an answer particularly necessary. One need not feel terrified at the prospect of lumping the whole period up to c.1200 AD as ‘ancient’ ; after all, it is the history of only 2000 years, assuming that historical writing began about 800 BC. If one feels happy by coining a separate phrase called ‘early mediaeval’ for the post-Gupta period till the coming of the Muslims, one is entitled to do so. Let us , however, not claim that this is based on detailed studies of socio-economic changes during this period. The concepts of ‘feudalism’, urban decay and an evanescent trade and commerce during this period , although much trumpeted by a particular section of ancient historians, may turn out to be fairly shaky on detailed research. In Europe itself there is no single idea of feudalism, and the less said about the idea of missing cities and trade and commerce in India during this period the better. In any case, the term ‘early mediaeval’ for the post-Gupta period is unlikely to harm anybody as long as one remembers that it is nothing but a term to describe the post-Gupta context. There need not be any objection to the use of the terms Hindu, Muslim and British either, because, for one thing the historical sources get written primarily in the non-Indian languages of Arabic and Farsi in the Muslim period and in English during the rule of the British.
Thapar’s attempt to paint herself and others of her ilk martyrs in the cause of historical studies is downright amusing :
“Ancient India was projected as a virtual utopia, starting with the Vedic age and culminating 1500 years later in the so-called “golden age” of the Guptas. It was supposedly a period of unchanging prosperity. Society functioned according to the norms laid down in the Shastras, so historians did not have to investigate the reality.
“But let me add that this was not a situation typical of India alone. All nationalisms have to have a utopian past, preferably located as far back in time as possible. With limited evidence the imagination is free to conjure up a romantic past. Questioning this ideal picture is treated as an anti-national act, as it happened in India not so long ago. Some of us have been subjected to the slings and arrows of extreme religious nationalist views when we have tried to give a more integrated and reality-based view of the past. Historians began to analyse early Indian society in the 1960s and 1970s to arrive at a more realistic picture. But the opposition to this research was articulated through a range of religious organizations whose main concern was using religion for political mobilisation and for acquiring authority. This has now increased and has become more recognizable.”
Thapar would not possibly know much about the history of Indian art. She would otherwise have known that the Gupta period symbolises everything that is best in Indian art tradition and is the culmination of a long period of development. This period certainly represented a golden age of Indian art and by implication, a golden phase of India’s historic development as well. There is nothing Prima facie objectionable to this idea. If Thapar had taken care to tabulate the specific points which have been developed by her and others of her group for a ‘more integrated and reality-based view of the past’, we would have been in a better position to appreciate her arguments.
She also seems to be upset about attempts to use “religion for political mobilisation and for acquiring authority”. Such attempts, especially if they have led to the loss of human lives, are surely unfortunate and have to be condemned, but are such attempts unknown even in the comparatively recent past of the subcontinent ? Was not the entire Pakistan movement based on the Islamic identity of its protagonists?
When Thapar writes about being “subjected to the slings and arrows of extreme religious nationalist views” one cannot help but feel amused. As usual, the specific details are missing, but the only thing which others could observe was that with the coming of the NDA government at the centre, she and others of her group lost their importance in the power grouping of the government-sponsored Indian Council of Historical Research. Considering that she and others of her historical group were at the helm of the country’s historical affairs since the early 1970s, this loss of power in the government has to be counted as a normal professional hazard which the historians closely tied to the strings of political power of the country like Thapar should take easily in her strides. On the contrary, they should feel very satisfied that for a long uninterrupted stretch since the take-over of the financial and other powers of Indian historical research by their group, they enjoyed the role of a kind of divine pantheon in the firmament of Indian historical studies.
A significant part of Thapar’s essay (pp 7-10) tries to gloss over the harshness of the Islamic conquest of India. Such attempts are pointless. As is well-known, Islam has not always been kind to ‘infidels’, and there is absolutely no reason to suggest otherwise, as Thapar does. The modern relation between Islam and the infidels in modern India must not be judged by what happened during the Islamic conquest of the land. If she considers that some historians have judged the methods and impact of the Islamic conquest of India harshly without any solid historical reason, she is welcome to write about it in detail, but to be honest, any apology for the conquest is unnecessary.
Her pontification of the civilizations being products of the intermingling of cultures is uncessary. What she wilfully ignores is the silliness of attempts to explain the basic style and form of a civilization, old or new, in terms of diffusions from elsewhere. In the case of India this unfortunately has been the unchallenged assumption almost since the beginning of ancient Indian studies, and this is precisely what has been challenged in the 1970s and later. May we remind Thapar that a Ph.D thesis on the Indus trade done under her supervision in the late 1960s or early 1970s argued that the role of the Indus civilization was that of a supplier of raw materials to the contemporary Mesoptamia. In a review of the published form of this dissertation in Puratattva, I pointed out this ‘researched’ similarity between the positions held by the Indus civilization and the colonial India in relation to Mesopotamia and Britain respectively. There is a steady continuity between the historical approaches of scholars like Rapson, Sankalia and other scholars of ancient India in modern India, including Thapar and her kind. Nation hardly blips in the intellectual radar of these historians.
Thapar should realize that languages are always in a state of flux, being subject not merely to cultural intermingling but also to the various nuances of class and cultural background subject in their turn to socio-economic factors of various kinds. But to be used satisfactorily for historical analysis, we have to realize that language studies do not have any chronological parameter of their own and thus whatever one may say about the correlation of language and a particular archaeological stratum devoid of writing is subjective ,and not bound by any independent verification. Language is something which the archaeologists of non-literate contexts may do well without. In fact, trying to combine language with non-literate archaeological groups has been a breeding ground of various ethnic and eventually racist hypotheses in archaeology. Modern First World archaeologists are not unduly bothered by this but that is no reason why Third World archaeologists should not set them aside.
I am glad that Thapar has eventually admitted that “so far we have no archaeological evidence to prove an invasion by an Aryan race”. I write ‘eventually’ because it is easy to demonstrate with reference to many early writings of Thapar that she was very much a believer in the coming of the Aryans as a group of people bringing in horses. However,in the same breath she writes that the “picture is complicated, because we also do not have the evidence that the language – Old Indo-Aryan/Vedic Sanskrit – was spoken in India prior to 1500 BC. Since this is later than the Harappan cities, the Harappans were not Aryan-speaking. Nor do we know the language spoken by the Harappans. However languages related to Indo-Aryan were used in two areas. One was Old Iranian – the language of the Zorastrians and their text called Avesta – used in northeast Iran and the other was the language of the Hittites in northern Syria”.
Apart from the opinion that the language of the Harappans is still unknown, everything mentioned in the above-mentioned propositions is liable to questionings. If one takes up the question of ‘the language of the Zorastrians and their text called Avesta ‘ first, one learns that Zorastrianism as a religion was identified in Western scholarship early in the nineteenth century after the details of the religion of the Parsis of Mumbai came to be known. The existence of the religious text Avesta was known earlier. The Avesta has several functional but chronologically disparate categories : Yasna which denotes sacred liturgy and Gathas or hymns of Zarathushtra; Khorda-Avesta or ‘book of common prayer’; Visparad or extensions to the liturgy; Vendidad or myths, code of purifications and religious observances; and Fragments which cannot be put in the rest of the categories. The central portion of the Yasna is the Gatha, supposedly composed by Zarathushtra himself. Alongside the Gathas is the Yasna Haptanghati or ‘seven-chapter Yasna, which is as old as the Gatha itself and a collection of prayers and hymns in honour of Ahura Mazda or the supreme deity, the angels, fire, water and earth. The younger Yasna is written in prose. Visparad is a supplementary text to the Yasna without any unity of its own. Vendidad , which varies widely in its character and chronology, enumerates various manifestations of evil spirits and ways to propitiate them. The Yasht hymns , 21 in number, are addressed to particular divinities or particular divine concepts. Thirty divinities are supposed to preside over thirty days of the month and the Siroza is supposed to be their enumeration and invocation. The final category of Khorda Avesta is a collection of verses from the other collections.
This body of literature evolved over a long length of time, some of it attributable to the historical periods of the Achaemenids (6th century BC) and the Parthians (3rd century BC to 3rd century AD). The core of the Avesta has been put towards the end of the second millennium BC, but Zarathushtra has also been dated as late as the 7th century BC. There is no doubt a strong element of similarity between the Rigvedic and the Avestan languages, as various historians of the Sanskrit language argue, but whether this implies a similar chronological point cannot be said. The geography of the Avestan literature supposedly extends from Seistan to Merv but is also said to be focused in the central Afghanistan highlands. In a sense, this geographical orbit was not unfamiliar to the Indus civilization, and the persistence of an Indian language tradition was not impossible in this orbit, whatever might have been the basic language of this civilization. The point is that the similarity in the language between the Avesta and the Rigveda cannot be translated in terms of a date for the Rigveda.
The second issue of ‘the language of the Hittites in north Syria’ is equally problematic and has been expressed clearly by P.Thiemme in his article “the ‘Aryan’ gods of the Mitanni treaties” in 1960 in Journal of the American Oriental Society 80(4): 301-317:
“The discovery of ‘Aryan’ looking names of (Mitanni) princes on cuneiform documents in Akkadian from the second half of the second millennium BC (chiefly tablets from Bogazkoy and El-Amarna), several doubtlessly Aryan words in Kikkuli’s treatise in Hittite on horse training (numerals : aika- ‘one’, tera- ‘three’, panza- ‘five’, satta – ‘seven’, na(ya) –‘nine’; appellatives : varttana – ‘circuit’, course (in which horses move when being trained),’ aliya –‘horse’ ), and , finally, a series of names of Aryan divinities on a Mitanni-Hatti and a Hatti-Mitanni treaty (14th century BC), poses a number of problems that have been reportedly discussed since the beginning of the century.”
To Thiemme the problem is whether the terms can be interpreted as “traces of specifically Indo-Aryan speech and religion, or whether they should rather be identified as Proto-Aryan”. He is inclined towards accepting them as ‘proto-Aryan’.
In addition, in his The Sanskrit Language T. Burrow finds a few traces of the Sanskrit language among the documents of the Kassite dynasty of Babylon:
“In a list of names of gods with Babylonian equivalents we find a sun-god Suriyas (rendered Samas) which must clearly be identified with Skt Surya. In addition, Maruttas the war-god (rendered En-Urta) has been compared with Skt Marut … Among the kings of this dynasty one has a name which can be interpreted as Aryan : Abhirattas : abhi-ratha – ‘facing chariots in battle’.”
What emerges on the whole is the presence of a few Sanskritic deities and words in the old Hittite territory or modern Anatolia in about 1400 BC, with margins on either side. The similarity lies only in a few Sanskrit-sounding words in both the Kikkuli horse-training text of c.1400 BC and the treaty between Suppiluliuma, the Hittite king of c.1380-c.1345 BC) and Mattiwaza, the Mitanni ( southeast Anatolia and northern Syria) king of the period. The mention of the Rigvedic gods Mitra, Varuna, Indra and the two Nasatyas occurs as a part of a rather long list of non-Rigvedic gods and goddesses :
“the Storm-god, Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Moon-god and the Sun-god, the Moon-god of Harran, heaven and earth, the Storm-god, Lord of the kurinnu of Kahat, the Deity of Herds of Kurta, the Storm-god, Lord of Uhušuman, Ea-šarri, Lord of Wisdom, Anu, Antu, Enlil, Ninlil, the Mitra-gods, the Varuna-gods, Indra, the Nasatya-gods, Lord of Waššukanni, the Storm-god, Lord of the Temple Platform (?) of Irrite, Partahi of Šuta, Nabarbi, Šuruhi, Ištar, Evening Star, Šala, Belet-ekalli, Damkina, Išhara, the mountains and rivers, the deities of heaven and the deities of earth.”
In the case of the Kikkuli text too, it is only certain words which have been used in the context of this Mitanni text. In the Kassite documents cited by Burrow, assuming that the Sanskritic analogies of certain words in those documents are correct, the comparison does not extend to the level of linguistic similarity of the type which is suggested between the Rigveda and the Avesta.
Whether such similarities in words mark the route of the Indo-European language-speakers to the sub-continent or mark their route out of it is a point which cannot be decided either way. Philological research does not have any historical marker, nor an earlier piece of this kind of philological research gets superseded by newer versions. However, the fact of the presence of Indian words in west Asia may not be as mysterious as it sounds. The Indus seals are known to occur in the Kassite context in Mesopotamia and the Gulf, showing that this civilization remained in contact with west Asia as late as the 14th century BC. The beginning of this contact is dated as early as the Royal Graves of Ur of c.2600 BC. Whatever might be the language or languages of the Indus civilization, it was clearly a contact of more than a thousand years between India and west Asia. If one remembers this simple point, one does not have to be surprised by the presence of admittedly few Indian words in some west Asiatic documents. In the case of the Avesta, it may be noted that the core area of its geography from southeastern Iran to the southern central Asia lies very much within the general orbit of contacts of the Indus civilization. Further, the location of the site of Shortughai in the Kokcha valley north of the Hindukush leaves no doubt about the preeminence of the role of the Indus civilization in this region. Thus, to try to support the overarching frame of Aryan origins and migration from Europe to India with the help of the presence of a few Indian-sounding words in some 14th century west Asiatic documents does not seem to be a valid or logical exercise. It is time Thapar and her kind appreciated the rationale behind this argument.
One may be somewhat amused by Thapar’s observation that the Rigvedic people “were cattle-herders looking for good pastures” and that “they settled wherever ecology was suitable”. People all through history settled wherever they thought that the ecology was suitable ; so, that is not the point. The point is whether they were ‘cattle-herders’. That they were far more than being ‘cattle-herders’ is clear from RV.III.57 : “May the ploughshares break up our land happily ; may the ploughman go happily with the oxen; may Parjanya (water the earth) with sweet showers happily”.
Thapar also thinks that “we should get away from meaningless questions like, whether the Aryan-speakers were indigenous to India”. When Indians have been subjected, for more than a hundred years, to the opinion that the Aryan- speakers came to India from outside and laid the basis of the Indian religion of Hinduism and when Thapar’s fellow-travellers like R.S.Sharma write books like “Advent of the Aryans in India” , the question cannot be as meaningless or innocuous as Thapar makes it sound. In her dictionary “the question of indigenous and foreign” may be “a non-question” but this has framed the Indians’ perception of themselves for a very long time, and there is no reason why the macabre arguments that the Indians have lived with so long should not be thoroughly exposed for what they are worth.
I find Thapar’s emphasis on ‘freedom of expression’ very intriguing. The historical group of which Thapar is an eminent member came into being in the early 1970s “to give a national direction to an objective and scientific writing of history and to have rational presentation and interpretation of history”, as the web-site of the Indian Council of Historical Research declared. To argue that there was no ‘objective and scientific writing of history” till this group moved into government-sponsored power to control the funding and job-opportunities of historical research in India was distinctly reminiscent of a dictatorial streak in itself. By then historical research in the country had flourished for about a century and to argue that the previous historians were unaware of ‘objective and scientific writing of history’ was a vicious piece of self-aggrandisement on the part of this group. In fact, since the coming of this group to power, the world of Indian historical studies has been largely criminalised. When Thapar preaches in favour of historical tolerance, one does feel amused.
I find it very curious that with all her pontifications in the field of ancient India Thapar forgets to mention that the study of ancient Indian history and archaeology is only a marginal subject in the frame of Indian historical studies. It is difficult to be certain of this, but certainly not more than twenty university departments offer full courses in the subject. Archaeology is professionally taught in places whose total number does not reach even the double-digit. The large Historical Centre which J.N.University has been running for long and of which Thapar is a precious member does not have any professional archaeology component. Thapar does not even bother to enquire why the study of ancient India remains still marginalised in the Indian university frame and why the historical departments of the Indian universities and colleges are dominantly concerned with ‘modern’ or British India.
Another of Thapar’s inexplicable silences is about focusing on the socio-politics of the Indian past. Thapar and her group never forget to turn to whatever Western theories are available in a particular area, but as far as the socio-politics of the Indian historical studies is concerned, they seem to be completely indifferent except for shouting against the probable or improbable signs of Hindu fundamentalism. In fact, as I have written in my Fifty Years of Indian Archaeology (1960-2010):
Journey of a Foot Soldier, by making too much of fundamentalism, Thapar and her fellow travellers have made fundamentalism almost respectable. The fact that they are silent about the fundamentalism of other non-Hindu religious groups throws clear light on what is their attitude to the Indian religious scene. This attitude is also evident in the following formulation of hers : “If the Census of 1882 had included a column for those who observed a cross-over kind of religion, a mix of Hinduism, Islam and other formal religions, this column would undoubtedly have had the largest number”. Was there ever a “cross-over kind of religion, a mix of Hinduism, Islam and other formal religions“? Would believers in Hindu, Islam and Christianity ever admit this ? Is Thapar’s tacit assumption is that Hinduism would not have been shown as the religion of the Indian majority, if only the columns of the 1882 census were framed differently?
Thapar refers to the formation of different identities in modern India but does not mention that it is important to understand the historical assumptions behind the formations of such identities. For instance, if there is a Dalit version of the history of ancient India we must understand what it is and what is the presence or absence of historical logic behind it. The formation of historical identities cannot be avoided, and it is only by discussing its basis threadbare that one can focus on its true worth. In the case of India Thapar, in an interview to the French paper Le Monde , foresaw ( cf. M.Danino in Dialogue, April-June 2006/vol. 7, no,4) that by the end of the 21st century India would break down into a series of small states federated within a more viable single economic space on the scale of the subcontinent. For those of us who refuse to play the role of a clairvoyant as far as our national fate is concerned, we must try to understand the historical basis of ‘identities’. The study of the socio-politics of the ancient Indian past should play an increasing role in the understanding of the ways in which ancient Indian history has been interpreted.