The Past Before Us

Historical Traditions of Early North India

Romila Thapar

978-81-78243-97-9

Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2014

Language: English

758 pages

Price INR 1,095
Book Club Price INR 931
SKU
LWB733

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

Romila Thapar (born 30 November 1931) is a distinguished Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India. She is the author of numerous substantial books including the popular classic, A History of India, and is currently Professor Emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU) in New Delhi.

After graduating from Panjab University, Thapar earned her doctorate under A.L. Basham at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London in 1958. She was a reader in Ancient Indian History at Kurukshetra University between 1961 and 1962 and held the same position at Delhi University between 1963 and 1970. Later, she worked as Professor of Ancient Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she is now Professor Emerita.

Thapar's major works are Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations, Recent Perspectives of Early Indian History (ed.), A History of India Volume One, and Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300.