It has so often been said that Indian civilization lacks historical writing—and therefore a sense of history—that this notion passes for a truism. There has been little attempt to show up the falsity of the generalization. In the present book—a magisterial historiographical survey of every major form within which ancient North Indian history is embedded or evident—Romila Thapar shows an intellectually dynamic ancient world profuse with ideas about the past, an arena replete with societies constructing, reconstructing, and contesting various visions of worlds before their own.
“To determine what makes for this historical consciousness”, says Professor Thapar, “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.”
She argues that to possess history a civilization does not have to reveal writing in forms regarded as belonging to the established genres of history. In fact, a variety of ancient Indian texts reflect a consciousness of history; and, subsequently, there come into existence recognizable historical traditions and forms of historical writing. Both varieties of texts—those which reflect a consciousness of history and those which reveal forms of historical writing—were deployed to “reveal” the past, and drawn upon as a cultural, political, religious, or other resource to legitimize an existing social order.
The Vedic corpus, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the itihasa-purana tradition, the Buddhist and Jaina canons, the hagiographical and biographical literature, the inscriptional evidence, a variety of chronicles, and dramatic forms such as the Mudrarakshasa are all scrutinized afresh in this book: not as sources for historical data, but instead as a civilization’s many ways of thinking about and writing its history.
Romila Thapar, described as “virtually the only living historian of ancient and pre-modern India who has risen to the rank of world-class historians”, is Emeritus Professor of History at Jawaharlal University, New Delhi. She holds an Honorary D.Litt. each from Oxford University and the University of Chicago, and is an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and SOAS, London University. Her refusal to accept state awards has only enhanced her renown: in both 1992 and 2005 she declined the Padma Bhushan, awarded by the Indian Government, because, as she put it, “I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not state awards.” In 2008 Professor Thapar was awarded the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, which honours lifetime achievement in studies such as history which are not covered by the Nobel Prize.