Knowledge of the past before us – History & Methodology


(For Isha)

This morning, Romila Thapar, Professor Emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University delivered a talk on Knowledge of the past before us, at IISc. Having bought her recently published book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History I was interested in her views on the methodological aspects of knowledge production. Also, that she has faced a good deal of criticism ( Whipping Girl of the Right ) from the ruling governments – present and earlier, both. Her works are elegant in their presentation and highly structured. This has been a part of the attraction to read essays and books by her. Although, her views are not necessarily agreeable. In an earlier post on ancient Indian system of education I suggested that one must look at historical evidence before believing any particular idea about the event in consideration. Though such a rational analysis and logical generalizations can take away the ‘romance of history’ as she has often suggested.

This morning it was about the instrumentality of  “time” in history. And this was a very interesting piece of analysis – that concept of time in history has been varied. There are two ways time was seen – a) cyclical (ex: Incas, Babylonians, Ancient Greeks, Mayans, Hinduism, Buddhism & its idea of wheel of time;  b) linear (ex: Judeo-Christian, Islamic idea of time beginning with the act of creation by God).

Indian idea of time is cyclical, which is cosmological in nature and represents a certain universal orientation. Then there was this shift from lunar calendar to solar calendar in the past (Vedic times) which facilitated the calculation of what is known as the “samvat”. This was a mix of mathematics, religion and history, as a method to construct time. Whereas, linear represented a certain human-centered idea of time. Perhaps, one can see the linear as an arc of the cyclical time as Thapar suggests too.

The larger argument was that “history does not come as a self-contained package”. It is constructed in various forms. It is the forms of usage of “past” which of course has a lot to do with the sense of “time”, which forms the manner in which one develops an understanding of history. She argues that historiographies can use past differently (this is also discussed in her recent book The Past as Present).  This bit of information is particularly interesting because it illuminates another possible reason and meaning for why art forms like poems, dramas and epics exist and get passed on over generations.

All societies over the centuries have constructed their past, often in accordance with contemporary theories about the meaning of past. The past therefore is represented in various ways: in the oral traditions of mythology, folktales, ballads – some of which were incorporated into literary forms as epics, narratives, drama and chronicles. This becomes the data of what we call ‘traditions’.

The three historiographies which use past differently are – a) Brahmanical tradition (Oral); b) Puranical tradition (Textual); c) Shramanic tradition (Buddism & Jainism). As for the reasons for adoption of different medium, Thapar speculates that the Brahmins realized that controlling the past can get them greater authority. And hence, the oral histories were extensively formed by brahmins.

Text as a medium, she argues, gives ‘data’ status and continuity. And therefore the project of puranas in Hinduism. The Shramanic idea on the other hand was that information of the sort that the Brahmanical and Puranic text dealt with, was not given by Gods. Instead, it believes that such information is a result of the contract between people. This idea is reflected in Buddhism and Jainism. Shramanic and Brahmanical traditions are embedded and are intrinsic forms of historical consciousness. For example, Mahabharata is referred to as ‘itihas’ (history) and Ramayana is referred to as ‘kavya’ (prose). These epics, Thapar cautions, may be seen as repositories of historic consciousness and not necessarily records of historic events.

Of what relevance one may ask is this discussion on ‘past’ to contemporary times? This is what I tend to instinctively ask when I hear these seemingly abstract conversations. The answer to this, I find lies in these few lines in The Past as Present:

In contemporary times we not only reconstruct the past but we also use it to give legitimacy to the way in which we order our own society. Given that with the advance of knowledge, we have more ways of discovering new evidence and of asking fresh questions of the evidence, we can therefore construct a past that is more credible and precise.

It is this precision of historical analysis that is required in the contemporary times in India when right wing political parties are hell bent on making history serve their interests than be an honest reconstruction of the past. Politics of the day is unfolding in the history textbooks in schools and universities – ‘saffronization of the textbooks‘  (Read: Mis-oriented Textbooks & Errors in textbooks)- and one of the ways to debunk is to deliberate on the methodology in practice of history and reconstruction of the past.


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