Honorary Degree Recipient Romila Thapar on the Historical Traditions of Early North India

6/9/10: Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons, who presented historian Romila Thapar with an honorary degree at the University’s 2010 Commencement ceremonies, began her remarks this way: “Scholar and transformative force, you have made it your lifelong mission to uncover India’s rich early past. In doing so, you have articulated the case for tolerance and humanity by exposing the uses and abuses of history.”

Thapar, professor emerita of ancient Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, has argued against the colonial framework for understanding Indian history and shaped the thinking of subsequent generations of scholars.She has, as part of this work, challenged the colonial view that early India was a country without history. She presented her research into the topic of early north Indian historical traditions – a project she described as a work-in-progress – at a Commencement forum titled “The Past as Recorded in Early North India.” At the forum, Thapar recalled Sanskrit scholar Arthur A. MacDonell’s “searing” remark that early India wrote no history because it never made any. Further arguments were that in India caste overwhelmed the state, without which there could be no history, and that India was a static place up until the period of British rule. The claim that the British would introduce change in India underpinned colonial governance.

Thapar called the notion that early Indian civilization did not have a sense of history absurd, but said that the argument could not stop there. It is necessary to look at this sense of history systematically in texts of the past, and to ask what it can tell us about the societies of early north India, she said. She described three differing traditions in early north India, which displayed historical consciousness: the Sanskrit Puranas; texts drawing on ideologies that challenged the Brahmanic tradition, including Buddhist and Jain texts; and oral traditions, which were formalized by the literati into texts that became part of either the first or second tradition. These three were “embedded traditions” – a sense of the importance of the past was embedded in them, but may not have been immediately apparent. The Gupta period in the first millennium AD was a watershed in the movement from embedded histories to independent reflections on the past, which brought historical consciousness to the fore, Thapar said. Historical traditions emerged in such forms as biographies, royal inscriptions, and regional chronicles. Looking to the future, Thapar called for continued critical analysis of the sense of history in the texts of the past, and a questioning of our understandings of what history and historiography are.

Thapar’s association with Brown did not begin with the 2010 Commencement. She said she was pleased to be here not only because of the University’s eminent status, but also because she remembered fondly having worked briefly with the late David E. Pingree, an internationally renowned historian of the exact sciences in antiquity, a member of the Brown faculty from 1971 to 2005, and chair of Brown’s Department of History of Mathematics.

By Year of India Coordinator Anastasia Aguiar ’09

Watch a video of the University’s 2010 Commencement ceremony here.