In what can be seen as an opening salvo in Britain’s war of cultural conquest of India, Thomas Babington Macaulay, member of the Council of India (and author of the Lays of Ancient Rome, and a multivolume history of England, among other books) proclaimed in 1835 that “all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.” In thus articulating the thoughts of an emergent imperial ruling class, Macaulay was echoing what was rapidly becoming by then a common presupposition—that India, especially ancient India, had no history or even a concept of history. This idea was perpetuated so powerfully through more than a century of British rule over India that it was only in the past few decades that historians in India began to contest this received notion and question not only its imperialist origins, but also its implications about the nature of history itself.
The most recent contestation of this received wisdom about the absence of a historical consciousness in India was offered on Tuesday, May 12, 2009, by Romila Thapar, eminent historian of India, and recipient of the 2008 Kluge Prize for lifetime contributions to the study of humanity. Delivering a lecture entitled “Perceptions of the Past in Early India” to a large audience in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., Thapar demolished the argument that India lacked a history with an eloquent and erudite understanding derived from a new reading of Indian texts, which reflected, she said, a historical consciousness.
She pointed out that while this was a colonial argument, it was one that had also found proponents among many other European intellectuals—like Georg Friedrich Hegel and Max Weber, for example—who suggested that Indian society lacked a useful conception of history because it was a static society or because it lacked a rational outlook, or that Hindu notions of cyclical time precluded the idea of a linear temporal trajectory, which was seen as a prerequisite for history.
In measured tones and with lucid examples, Thapar asserted not only that India had a linear sense of time even within the concept of cyclical cosmologies, but also that Indian society was never truly static despite appearances to the contrary. Whether it was mutations of clan societies into castes, or the development of social mobility within hierarchies and social differentiation, there was dynamism to Indian society, she declared, and one that reflected the multiple ways in which Indians in ancient times perceived the past. Indeed, the very social structures engendered plural perspectives, Thapar stated, arguing that while the sacred texts of the dominant castes contained historical narratives—such as the hymns extolling the generosity of heroic figures in the Rgveda—there were also counternarratives with oppositional ideologies that questioned the Brahmanical traditions, and from which also historical knowledge could be extracted.
These texts—hegemonic as well as oppositional—carried, Thapar said, modes of “embedded history,” which were not often self-evidently historical, except in the case of a few explicitly historical narratives (such as the Harshacharita of Bana Bhatta, a historical biography of the seventh-century monarch, Harshavardhana). She contrasted such histories with what she called “embodied history,” which appeared in narratives inscribed on commemorative pillars such as the Asoka pillar in Allahabad, which shows inscriptions not only of Asoka, the Mauryan emperor who reigned in the third century (BCE), but also of the fourth-century Gupta emperor Samudra Gupta, and of Jahangir, the Mughal emperor who reigned in the 17th century, and in temple inscriptions.
The existence of historical traditions in early India needed to be analyzed, Romila Thapar had stated at the outset, even though it was a complex and controversial subject. Her lecture succeeded, even within its time constraints, in unraveling many of the complexities, and in pointing to new perspectives on India’s pasts.
A videorecording of the lecture will be made available later from the Library of Congress web page for webcasts.