How the past saw its past

Investigating historiography is a rigorous discipline that requires, as a first step, discovering how societies record and authenticate their past.

May 09, 2015 11:17 pm | Updated 11:24 pm IST

Essays in this volume written by Thapar over fifty years of committed research explode the myth that India has had no sense of history or historical consciousness.

Essays in this volume written by Thapar over fifty years of committed research explode the myth that India has had no sense of history or historical consciousness.

This Thapar’s book is a rare contribution to the history of history writing establishing historiography as a major discipline of the social sciences. Its importance for the historian and especially those who use (or abuse) history for non-academic reasons, she points out, is not anybody’s prerogative and not to be manipulated. Essays in this volume written by Thapar over fifty years of committed research explode the myth that India has had no sense of history or historical consciousness, a myth carefully built up by colonial historians influenced by 18 century European concepts of history, which emerged from the social context and philosophical thinking of north-west Europe.

The religion based periodisation of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British, giving a wrong direction to Indian society, is replaced by the more scientific ancient, medieval and modern. How the past saw its own past (in the context of how we think the bards, poets and literati perceived and represented their past) is important to understand the intent and the ways in which the early Indian “intellectuals and administrators” narrated events of the past to suit colonial policy, narratives of the past taking different forms in early societies. Historical consciousness and writing developed in India as a purely intellectual investigation, emphasising the importance of the historicity ofan event (its actuality) on the basis of a rigorous historical method. The colonial theories presenting society as static without change are endorsed by two main schools, the Orientalists and the Utilitarians.

However, the researches of the later 20th century show a changing society with new socio-economic systems. An important shift beyond political history to society and economy and new ways of investigating the Indian past by the French Annales School, Karl Marx and Max Weber led to comparative studies of early societies such as the Graeco-Roman, and Chinese. History was no more part of Indology but came to be understood as a constituent of the social sciences.

In the Indian articulation of history, the link with the cyclic concept as seen in the Brahmanical Itihasa-Purana tradition (the four Mahayugas) and the linear concept of time as expressed in the Buddhist and Jain traditions is significant. The catastrophic Kali age revived by Kalkin as a fresh Mahayuga, show differences from the Judeo-Christian, which has a linear teleology narrating the beginning and end of human kind. Linear time, however, became central to the genealogies (Vamsa) and dynastic lists of the epics and Puranas which gained priority in the first millennium AD leading to calculations in samvats — eras, with a Vamsanucarita preserving the lists of dynasties, succession of lineages, in the genealogical mode of thinking (in lengthy inscriptions) and historical biographies of individual kings, and occasionally chronicles.

Thapar’s findings show three distinct historiographies following diverse ways. 1. The oral traditions of poets and bards of various early clan societies, based on memory, following the morphology of a folk tale like the African oral tradition and later developing into the epics even in regional languages; 2. Oral tradition incorporated in the Puranas, by Brahmanas, royal courts and the literati, aimed at controlling narratives about the past enhancing their authority and the Sramanic tradition of the Buddhist and Jaina monks and court poets assigned historicity to the founders and their successors, without consciously creating a historical tradition. Embedded in the Puranic tradition are events of social significance, and in an externalised form is shown by the genealogical mode of thinking from the mid-first millennium AD.

The dana-stutis of the Rg Veda embedded in ritual undergo a gradual change in form and information e.g. the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana show the influence of the Buddhist Jataka stories akin to folk tales. Clans such as the Kuru-Panchalas and the Vrishnis and Chedis gain legitimacy, while the battle at Kurukshetra became the time marker crucial to history, i.e., the end of clan society. The institution of kingship acquires access to resources and power. Change in society, resources and polity is reflected in historicity of events.

The externalised forms in Buddhist texts are extremely significant. History is determined by events in relation to the Sangha (chronicles) — reminiscent of the medieval European church chronicles (11-12 centuries AD) and the royal inscriptions, with distinct ideological perspectives, claiming legitimacy through history, with a more precise chronology.

The Buddhist and Jain traditions, constructed around two historical figures (starting from 527 BC and 486/83 BC). The Puranic tradition with its Brahmanical ideology was directly associated with political authority, royal courts and court poets and gave historical support to new kingdoms for legitimacy, given the political arena of intense competition. Banabhatta’s Harsacharita, as a biography, was meant to support the legitimacy of a younger son to ascend the throne. The Ramacharita, the 12 century biography of Sandhyakaranandin, legitimised the succession of Ramapala, who quelled the rebellion of the Samantas, representing yet another form of legitimation. The past becomes important if it can be made to legitimise the changes being made in the present.

The 12th century chronicle Rajatarangini of Kalhana, not only legitimised the dynasties but also the kingdom of Kashmir itself. Under the Chamba Vamsavali, narratives before the coming of the state seem to have included rare families of rulers like the Mushakas, a dynastic name among the Guhilas of Rajasthan. Similar is the distant southern narrative like the Mushakavamsa Kavya relating to the Ay dynasty ruling in the Eli region (an unidentified territory) of Malabar which was composed by Atula, of the Chera Court, in the 11 century AD.

Caste being important for the social order Kshatriya status is often established either through an ancestor being Brahma-Kshatra or a fabrication of a link to the Chandravamsa Kshatriyas. Changes in the political economy and cultural articulations of the regional kingdoms of the post-Gupta period emulate mainstream tradition. Patrons change from chiefs to kings and since this was an ongoing historical process it forms a continuous thread in the perception of the past.

Investigating historiography is a rigorous discipline i.e., how history is written, which requires, as a first step, discovering how societies record and authenticate their past. The main argument of Thapar is crucial as it establishes for the first time that, with the texts we use as sources, there is a need for us to be aware of the perceptions that those earlier authors had, and their representations of how they saw the past. In other words, we have to search for how the past saw its past.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.