The great academic book often gestates for a very long period before it appears in print and, like wines of a high quality, acquires body, maturity, and distinction as it ripens in the author’s mind. In the high-calibre territory of history-writing informally referred to as Ancient India, Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (700pp; published by the University of California Press, copublished by Permanent Black) is the most recent work of this monumental variety. For the obvious reasons, such books appear only once in a very long while. The scholar’s intellectual stamina needs to be exceptional. The book needs to be driven by big ideas. The end result needs to show massive scholarship, elegance in thought and style, and a range far beyond the capacities of normal human beings.
The next one in this genre of great books, originating at Permanent Black and copublished by Harvard University Press, is Romila Thapar’s The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India (776pp).
At some point in the early 1990s a series called ‘Themes in Indian History’ was initiated, and among the book possibilities discussed for that series were three historiographical volumes, one each for the ancient, medieval, and modern phases of Indian history. They were envisaged, at the time, as edited volumes: Romila Thapar, Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and Chris Bayly being thought of as the people to edit them. As is common in publishing, the editor proposes but the author disposes. About forty edited volumes appeared in the series, but they did not include surveys of historiography.
Meanwhile, the interest in answering a key question—does South Asia provide evidence of historical writing amounting to a historical tradition?—took several directions, all implicitly disputing James Mill's imperial disdain. Among the many works tackling the idea, several appeared from Permanent Black, including Textures of Time by V.A. Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam; Creative Pasts by Prachi Deshpande; Assam and India by Yasmin Saikia; and History in the Vernacular, edited by Raziuddin Aquil and Partha Chatterjee.
Some years back the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn, inheritor of the chair which Bertrand Russell once occupied, was asked to edit a volume called The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Instead of the considerable bother involved in inviting contributions from distinguished scholars, Blackburn simply wrote the whole damn Companion all by himself. This is roughly what Romila Thapar seems to have done—not bothering with a ‘Themes in Indian History’ editorial job, she preferred to make the whole blessed thing with her own sweat and blood.
This took a mere twenty-five years of making notes, cannibalizing from her earlier papers, rethinking historical issues written up in different formats, and writing large chunks out for the first time. Not a long time, given that Ancient India stretches over twenty-five hundred or so years. Perhaps not even a long time for Romila Thapar, in her early eighties now, hale and hearty and feisty as ever.
The years spent in thinking and writing the book show to good effect: very little is missed out, virtually everything you can think of in relation to the subject finds a place in here. Greek and European History. Chinese History. Islamic Historical Traditions. Herodotus to Hinduism, Iliad to Indica. The range is fascinating and unusual because South Asian historical forms and traditions are seen in relation to forms and traditions thrown up by other contexts. The result is a mindstopper that's also a doorstopper. The original script weighed in at 240,000 words; it cost Romila Thapar blood, sweat, and a lot of tears to trim it down to 200,000 words. The exercise of shortening involved her and Permanent Black in several months of mutually wonderful consultation and editorial work (all supervised by her lovely white labrador Amba) splicing, excising, mauling, chopping, discarding, rewriting, tweaking, restitching. Whole sections within chapters were pushed down (what Partha Chatterjee might call) The Black Hole of Ancient India. Hands were thrown up in the air at several points. Do the seams show? We think not.
Romila Thapar raises this theme—Did My Earliest Forefathers Do What I’ve Been Doing?—to an entirely new level. Her book is a colossal survey of every kind of writing in early India that might be said to be an attempt to record the past. The first four pages, reproduced below, indicate a work that will be ‘necessary reading’ for anyone with a serious interest in Indian history. The questions asked are so fundamental, and the interpretive magnificence with which they are discussed is so compelling, that this isn’t a book which any of Ancient India’s pigeonholes and caves can accommodate. Medievalists and modernists are warned that they too will need to clear 52 millimetres (two full inches) in their bookshelves to allow for its girth. They will think it worth the while: it isn’t every day that you get to buy the first edition of what will soon be recognized as a classic.
THE FIRST FOUR PAGES
Generalizations about the nature of a society or civilization, when they take root, spread adventitiously. A couple of hundred years ago it was stated that Indian civilization was unique in that it lacked historical writing and, implicitly therefore, a sense of history. With rare exceptions, there has been little attempt since to examine this generalization. So entrenched is the idea now that one almost hesitates to argue for a denial of this denial of history. I would like to suggest that while there may not in the early past have been historical writing in the forms currently regarded as belonging properly to the established genres of history, many texts of that period reflect a consciousness of history. Subsequently, there come into existence recognizable forms of historical writing. Both varieties of texts—those which reflect a consciousness of history and those which reveal forms of historical writing—were used in early times to reconstruct the past, and were drawn upon as a cultural, political, religious, or other such resource at various times, in various situations, and for a variety of reasons. To determine what makes for this historical consciousness is not just an attempt to provide Indian civilization with a sense of history, nor is it an exercise in abstract research. My intention is to argue that, irrespective of the question of the presence or absence of historical writing as such, an understanding of the way in which the past is perceived, recorded, and used affords insights into early Indian society, as it does for that matter into other early societies.
Historical consciousness begins when a society shows consciousness of both past and future, and does so by starting to record the past. “There is no more significant pointer to the character of a society than the kind of history it writes or fails to write.” To argue over whether a particular society had a sense of history or not on the basis of our recognition of the presence or absence of a particular kind of historical tradition—one which has been predetermined as being properly historical in perpetuity—seems somewhat beside the point. It is more purposeful to try and ascertain what each culture regards as its historical tradition and why it does so; and to analyse its constituents and functions as well as assess how it contends with competing or parallel traditions.
Historical traditions emanate from a sense of the past and include three aspects: first, a consciousness of past events relevant to or thought of as significant by a particular society, the reasons for the choice of such events being implicit; second, the placing of these events in an approximately chronological framework, which would tend to reflect elements of the idea of causality; and third, the recording of these events in a form which meets the requirements of that society.
Such a definition does not necessarily assume that political events are more relevant than other sorts of events, although as issues of power they tend to be treated as such. If the above definition is acceptable, then it can in fact be said that every society has a concept of the past and that no society is a-historical. What needs to be understood about a historical tradition is why certain events are presumed to have happened and receive emphasis, and why a particular type of record is maintained by the tradition.
A distinction may therefore be made between the existence of a historical tradition and a philosophy of history. The latter may follow the former. An awareness or confirmation of a philosophy of history may make a historical narrative more purposeful. But such a narrative does not thereby necessarily express greater historical veracity: narratives based on the theory that history is determined by divine intervention are fired by purpose rather than by the sifting of evidence. On the other hand, a historical tradition may not concern itself with either divine purpose in history or any other philosophical notion of history and yet be an authentic record—if not of actual events, certainly of believed assumptions about the past.
A historical tradition is created from the intellectual and social assumptions of a society. Consciously selected events are enveloped in a deliberately created tradition which may only be partially factual. An attempt to understand the tradition has to begin by relating it to its social function, to ask the question: “What purpose was served by creating and preserving this tradition?” And, flowing from this, to see how a changing society made use of the tradition.
Historical traditions emerge from and reflect their social context, and the context may produce and extend to a broad range of social forms. Within these forms, history is generally the record of recognizable socio-political groups. Historical writing in such cases tends to incorporate a teleological view, even if it seems to be only a narrative of events. So, cultural symbols and stereotypes have a role in delineating the past.
Studying a tradition involves looking at a number of indices: first, the point in history at which the need to create and keep a tradition becomes imperative; second, the social status of the keepers of a tradition; third, whether the tradition was embedded in sacred literature to ensure its continuity; fourth, the genres that emerged in order to record the tradition independent of other literary forms; fifth, the social context in which the historical tradition was composed and the changes that it underwent when society itself changed; sixth, the audience for which any specific text of that tradition was intended; seventh, the social groups which used or manipulated the tradition, and their reasons for doing so; for, above all, such a tradition legitimizes the present and gives it sanction.
Together, these constitute the broad framework of analysis for the texts and traditions that I examine in the book. Flowing from the framework, certain key questions recur or are implicit during the examination of a text or tradition: does it provide an instance of a past authorship looking further back into a more distant past in order to record or interpret that past? Can it be seen as outlining a sense of time and/or a fresh chronology of past and sometimes a future time? Can we detect in the material the deployment of historical events or the construction of narratives that are at bottom historical for hegemonic purposes or for cultural and political legitimation?