An essential and necessary book at a time when sectarianism, bogus ‘nationalism’ and the muddying of historical facts are increasingly becoming a feature of our public, private and intellectual lives.
Romila Thapar does not require a special introduction to readers. She is a historian of repute who is also known as a provocative writer, but then the argument is that there is no such thing as unquestionable truth where history is concerned and the writer of history must take cognisance of it. Truth, as she sees it, has many faces and as time passes even what one thought was right could yet prove to be partially so.
Writing history – and even writing of history – can be a challenging task but in this volume Thapar has accepted it. That’s its USP. The book is divided into four parts dealing with such subjects as interpretations of early Indian history, historical perspectives of nation-building, religion and the secularisation of Indian Society, Dating the Epics, he Ramayana Syndrome, Syndicated Hinduism, Women in the Indian Past and Rape within Cycle of Violence.
Thapar professes that the essays “are Iargely, but not altogether, in response to debates that have surfaced in the public arena on questions concerning historical interpretation”.
As she put it: “As a historian I have felt it necessary that there be responses from those of us who are concerned about the future of our discipline and about a rational understanding of our past, even if allowing a hint of romanticism.”
As can be expected she has raised controversial issues, such as the accuracy of Valmiki’s Ramayana and the smashing, by Ghazni Mohammad’s men of the lingam in Somnath. She refers to other writers of the Ramayana, mostly Jain, raising controversies that one sometimes feel were best left unattended.
In a Jain version the treatment of Ravana is more sympathetic. Dasharatha and Rama end up as Jain munis and Sita gets into a nunnery. In a Tamil version Ravana is a tragic hero rather than an abominable villain. In yet another version it is Sita who kills Ravana and not Rama.
One might dismiss all this as pure rubbish which it could be, but what is the duty of a his¬torian? Thapar says that much of the ongoing debate, for example on the birth place of Rama stems from the question of national identity and most people presume that history provides the answer.
“What is not realized,” says Thapar, “is that if the history is mangled then the identity or identities con be hopelessly off course.” In such a situation, what is the historian’s task?
Her answer is plain, if debiting, says she: “If the past is to be called upon to legitimise the present, as it so frequently is, then the veracity of such a past has to be continuously vetted.” And that is when argument becomes virulent. And in vetting, understandably, one gives offence to another, whether on the issue of Ayodhya or Lanka or like issues of, say, the origin of the Arya – which some believe have a geographic connection.
Were Aryans outsiders who migrated to north India or were they strictly locals? Thapar says there is no evidence of a migration from Syria to India or vice a versa. Then who wore the Aryans?
Thapar gets out of the argument smartly by saying they constituted part of a mixed population”, the other excuse given is that “the connotation of the term arya is ambiguous because it changes through history”.
Indeed, argues, Thapar, both Buddhist and Jain monks were also addressed as arya or ayya by their lay-followers despite the fact that they came from various castes including those ranked low by the Brahmins.
Among some of the controversial points raised by Thapar is one claiming that religious violence is not alien to Hinduism “despite the modern myth that the Hindus are by instinct and religion a non-violent people”.
That they were not and Thapar reminds us that, in the first mid-millennium AD Hindus did indulge in destruction of Buddhist monasteries and the killing of monks and early in the second millennium AD Karnataka witnessed the destruction of Jain temples by Shaivas.
As Thapar sees it, such antagonism was not that of the Hindu against another religion but that of a particular sect expressing hostility towards others. Toler¬ance and non-violence therefore had to be assessed also in terms of sectarian aggression. And Thapar makes another interesting point.
According to her “within the broad spectrum of Puranic religion and the Bhakti sects there was dialogue between some of these and Islamic sects” and, curiously, although some Islamic popular belief was internalised, particularly among sects identified with the socially less-privileged, there was little theological interest of a mutual t kind”.
Showing her distrust of the so-called upper castes, Thapar points out that some Hindus may have been upset at seeing Turkish and Mongol soldiers in their heavy boots trampling the floor, of temples, but, she discreetly says the same Hindus would not let Indian (mleechas) soldiers entering temples.
In the matter of suttee to which Thapar gives a chapter, the author believes that there is no simple explanation for the origin of the custom of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands.
It comes somewhat of a shock to learn that the earliest hint of a ritual that might have been similar to sati comes from the Rig Veda of the late second millennium BC.
But it was to take a different term with Vedic texts endorsing the system of niyoga or levirate where a widow is permitted to marry her husband’s brother if she had not borne a son to her husband. What comes as a shock to know is that there was an extraordinarily large number of satis in south India at the time of the Vijayangar kingdom – almost some three thousand!
In the end one can only say that this book by Thapar is not just provocative but highly instructive, if not challenging. Nations need identities, but India gives them in plenty, only, it became ‘modern’ not through a period of transition but abruptly with the disjuncture of colonialism.
Thapar’s coverage of that change is extensive which one suspects, is why it is so readable, only, she has a contempt for religiosity which is what she finds unacceptable and worrisome. But that is another story.