Romila Thapar

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on 23 June 2016

Romila Thapar (born 30 November 1931) is an Indian historian. Her principal area of study is ancient India, a field in which she is pre-eminent. Thapar is a Professor of Ancient History, Emerita, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.


  • The fundamental sanity in Indian civilization has been due to an absence of Satan.
    • A History of India, Volume 1, 1990, Penguin Books.
  • The invention of an Aryan race in nineteenth century Europe was to have, as we all know, far-reaching consequences on world history. Its application to European societies culminated in the ideology of Nazi Germany. Another sequel was that it became foundational to the interpretation of early Indian history and there have been attempts at a literal application of the theory to Indian society. Some European scholars now describe it as a nineteenth century myth. But some contemporary Indian political ideologies seem determined to renew its life. In this they are assisted by those who still carry the imprint of this nineteenth century theory and treat it as central to the question of Indian identity. With the widespread discussion on 'Aryan origins' in the print media and the controversy over its treatment in school textbooks, it has become the subject of a larger debate in terms of its ideological underpinnings rather than merely the differing readings among archaeologists and historians.
  • Dayananda Sarasvati, seeking to return to the social and religious life of the Vedas, used the Vedic corpus as the blueprint of his vision of Indian society. But he argued that the Vedas are the source of all knowledge including modern science, a view with which Max Mueller disagreed. He underlined the linguistic and racial purity of the Aryans and the organisation which he founded, the Arya Samaj, was described by its followers as 'the society of the Aryan race'. The Aryas were the upper castes and the untouchables were excluded.
  • The Hindutva version of the theory became a mechanism for excluding some sections of Indian society, specifically Indian Muslims and Christians, by insisting that they are alien.
  • If it can be argued that the Harappan culture is in fact Vedic or that the Rigveda is earlier even than the Harappan, then the Vedas continue to be foundational to the subcontinental civilisation of South Asia and also attract the encomium of representing an advanced civilization, superior even to the pastoral-agrarian culture actually described in Vedic texts.
  • The discovery of Harappan sites on the Indian side of the border between India and Pakistan is viewed as compensating for the loss of the cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa which are located in Pakistan.
  • Another curious agenda is that of what is described as 'a critical mass' of Indians and a few others in America and Canada who refer to themselves as the Indo-American school (as against what they call the Indo-European school of scholars who work within the earlier Indian and European scholarship). The Indo-American school, according to one of its prominent spokesmen, consists of predominantly American-trained professional scientists researching on ancient India (presumably as a hobby), and using the resources of modern science and technology. Obviously well-endowed, they run their own journal from their main office in Canada. They too are committed to proving that the Vedic and the Harappan cultures are the same and that their antiquity goes back to the fifth millennium bc and therefore the Aryans are indigenous to India and took the Aryan mission westwards from India. Much of their writing contributes to the invention of yet more methodologies about a complex subject. What is striking about their publications is their evident unfamiliarity with the methods of analysing archaeological, linguistic and historical data. Consequently their writings read rather like nineteenth century tracts but peppered with references to using the computer so as to suggest scientific objectivity since they claim that it is value-free. Those that question their theories are dismissed as Marxists! That Indian scientists in America should take upon themselves the task of proving the Harappan to be Vedic, to having influenced other civilisations such as the Egyptian, and to proving that the Aryans proceeded on a civilising mission issuing out of India and going westwards, can only suggest that the 'Indo-American school' is in the midst of an identity crisis in its new environment. It is anxious to demarcate itself from other immigrants and to proclaim that the Indian identity is superior to the others who have also fallen into the 'great melting-pot'.
  • Characteristic of the Semitic religions are features such as a historically attested teacher or prophet, a sacred book, a geographically identifiable location for its beginnings, an ecclesiastical infrastructure and the conversion of large numbers of people to the religion-all characteristics which are largely irrelevant to the various manifestations of Hinduism until recent times. Thus instead of emphasizing the fact that the religious experience of Indian civilization and of religious sects which are bunched together under the label of ‘Hindu’ are distinctively different from that of the Semitic, attempts are being made to find parallels with the Semitic religions as if these parallels are necessary to the future of Hinduism. ... The teacher or prophet is replaced by the avatâra of Vishnu, Rama; the sacred book is the Râmâyana; the geographical identity or the beginnings of the cult and the historicity of Rama are being sought in the insistence that the precise birthplace of Rama in Ayodhya was marked by a temple, which was destroyed by Babur and replaced by the Babri Masjid; an ecclesiastical infrastructure is implied by inducting into the movement the support of Mahants and the Shankaracharyas or what the Vishwa Hindu Parishad calls a Dharma Sansad; the support of large numbers of people, far surpassing the figures of earlier followers of Rama-bhakti, was organized through the worship of bricks destined for the building of a temple on the location of the mosque. There has been an only too apparent exploitation of belief. The current Babri Masjid dispute is therefore symbolic of an articulation of a new form of Hinduism, militant, aggressive and crusading, which I have elsewhere referred to as Syndicated Hinduism.
    • 'Syndicated Moksha', Seminar, New Delhi, September 1985, 313, pp. 14-22. See also, 'Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity', Modern Asian Studies, Cambridge, 1989, 2, 23, pp. 209-39.
  • We know from the Qur'an that Lat, Uzza and Manat were the three pre-Islamic goddesses widely worshipped, and the destruction of their shrines and images, it was said, had been ordered by the Prophet Mohammad. Two were destroyed, but Manat was believed to have been secreted away to Gujarat and installed in a place of worship. According to some descriptions, Manat was an aniconic block of black stone, so the form could be similar to a lingam. This story hovers over many of the Turko-Persian accounts, some taking it seriously, others being less emphatic and insisting instead that the icon was of a Hindu deity. The identification of the Somanatha idol with that of Manat has little historical credibility. There is no evidence to suggest that the temple housed an image of Manat. Nevertheless, the story is significant to the reconstruction of the aftermath of the event since it is closely tied to the kind of legitimation which was being projected for Mahmud. The link with Manat added to the acclaim for Mahmud. Not only was he the prize iconoclast in breaking Hindu idols, but in destroying Manat he had carried out what were said to be the very orders of the Prophet. He was therefore doubly a champion of Islam.

Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300[edit]

The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 , Penguin Books (2003).
  • To categorize some people as indigenous and others as alien, to argue about the identity of the first inhabitants of the subcontinent, and to try and sort out these categories for the remote past, is to attempt the impossible.
    • Introduction, xxiv.
  • That every civilization emerges out of interactions with others, but nevertheless creates its own miracle, was not yet recognized by either European or Indian historians.
    • p. 18.
  • Nationalism seeks legitimacy from the past and history therefore becomes a sensitive subject.
    • p. 19.
  • Some have argued that as language is the medium of knowledge, that which comes in the form of language constitutes a text; since language is interpreted by the individual, the reading by the individual gives meaning to the text; therefore each time a text is read by a different individual it acquires a fresh meaning. Taken to its logical conclusion, this denies any generally accepted meaning of a text and is implicitly a denial of attempts at historical representation or claims to relative objectivity, since the meaning would change with each reading. However, the prevalent views are more subtle.
    • p. 33.
  • Strangely, Indians travelling outside the subcontinent do not seem to have left itineraries of where they went or descriptions of what they saw. Distant places enter the narratives of storytelling only very occasionally.
    • p. 41.
  • The late arrival of the horse in India is not surprising since the horse is not an animal indigenous to India. Even on the west Asian scene, its presence is not registered until the second millennium BC. The horse was unimportant, ritually and functionally, to the Indus civilization.
    • p. 85.
  • Epic literature is not history but is again a way of looking at the past.
    • p. 100.
  • Some forms of Indian asceticism, although not all, have a socio-political dimension and these cannot be marginalized as merely the wish to negate life.
    • p. 132.
  • The destruction of temples even by Hindu rulers was not unknown, but Mahmud’s was a regulated activity and inaugurated an increase in temple destruction compared to earlier times
    • p. 427.

The Past as Present : Forging Contemporary Identities Through History[edit]

The Past as Present, Aleph Book Company (2014).
  • Nations are not easily forged since many identities have to be coalesced.
  • In the questioning of existing explanations the validity of periodizing Indian history as Hindu, Muslim and British was increasingly doubted. It had projected two thousand years of a golden age for the first, eight hundred years of despotic tyranny for the second, and a supposed modernization under the British.
  • Pre-modern Hinduism had its warts—big and small—as do all religions, but its subtleties were richer than what is now being thrust on its believers. Hindutva is in many ways the antithesis of Hinduism, and aims to create a society that is narrow, bigoted and inward looking, in which the co-existence with those that differ, such as the minority communities of various kinds, is becoming increasingly impossible, as demonstrated by the frequency of communal riots.
  • Political ideologies focusing in particular on what they call ‘cultural nationalism’—and this is common to many societies apart from the Indian—blatantly exploit history.
  • Hindutva claims to represent indigenous Indian thought opposed to western interpretations of Indian religion, traditions and culture. The claim is that colonial scholarship used its understanding of Indian culture for political purposes to justify colonialism. Yet Hindutva is doing precisely the same by reformulating Hinduism along the lines suggested by colonial interpretations in order to facilitate its use in political mobilization. It uses colonial constructions of the Indian past such as the theories of James Mill and Max Mueller to further its programme of political control. The exploitation of history becomes a significant dimension of its attempt to appropriate the understanding of the past.
  • The history of India was constructed in accordance with nineteenth century European views on what history should be and what was thought to be Indian history.
  • A society has many pasts from which it chooses those that go into the creation of its history. The choice is made by those in authority—the authority being of various kinds—although occasionally the voice of others may be heard.
  • I have over the years of my research been struck by the frequency with which the present makes use of the past either in a detrimental manner where it becomes a part of various political ploys, or alternatively in a positive manner to claim an enviable legitimacy and inheritance.
  • The political ideologues of the Hindu Right endorse a history rooted in colonial interpretations and are anxious to make that period of history a Hindu utopia.

Quotes about Romila Thapar[edit]

  • Romila Thapar's book on Indian history is a Marxist attitude to history, which in substance says: there is a higher truth behind the invasions, feudalism and all that. The correct truth is the way the invaders looked at their actions. They were conquering, they were subjugating.
  • It is true that in the decades in which India was ruled imperiously by the Congress, the task of writing history textbooks was allotted to Leftist historians who chose to view India’s past through a distorted lens. The most celebrated of these historians, Romila Thapar, has gone so far as to deny that Muslim invaders destroyed the temples of us idolatrous infidels. Undoubtedly, if she were writing about more recent history, she would deny that the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan — and would say that they fell to pieces of their own accord.

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