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Clio Knew Sanskrit


Kesavan Veluthat

THE PAST BEFORE US: HISTORICAL TRADITIONS OF EARLY NORTH INDIA
By Romila Thapar
Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2013, pp. xx 758, Rs. 1395.00

VOLUME XXXVIII NUMBER 1 January 2014

This is a book that the world has been waiting for. Romila Thapar has been working on it for quite some time. She would publish an occasional paper on the theme since the middle of the seventies of the last century. Our appetite has been whetted ever since. The result of nearly half a century of working and reworking as well as mediation on the subject, here is a monument to scho-larship of the finest variety. Here Thapar makes a statement about the way in which Indian civilization looked at its own past, different from the way in which earlier scholars like A.K. Warder or V.S. Pathak have tried to present a counter argument against the allegation that India had no sense of the past or of historical tradition.   It is important at the very outset to dispel a possible misunderstanding about this book: as it is about how pre-modern Indian civilization looked at its past, it may be taken as primarily a denial of the two centuries of sneer that ‘India has produced no Herodotus or Thucydides’, a quotation with which every third rate text-book of Indian history begins. To be sure, Thapar goes, in detail, into the lineages of this statement; but it is not as if she is apologetically holding a brief for Indian civilization for this failure, nor attempting to show, tenuously or otherwise, that India too had a tradition of what are read as ‘historical’. What she does is to read the texts which express a historical consciousness and delineate the patterns of such expressions.   No society is devoid of a sense of the past. When a society remembers events or individuals considered as important to it, that is historical consciousness. There is an awareness here of the distinction between mythology and history, between a fantasized past and one that is believed to have really happened, one that is in the realm of the possible. When this consciousness is expressed in a chronological order and in a form which meets the needs of that society, this can be a historical tradition, where the representation of the past is more consciously constructed, with the purpose of such construction not far to seek. When such representations also make a claim to historicity, then it is close to historical writing. Elements of causality appear at various levels. What Thapar does in this book is thus to ...


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