By Romila Thapar

Would the Hindutva historians, who claim that the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are true historical records needing no further interpretation, be able to tell us which of their versions are we to read? This response to Rajan Gurukkal’s article, “A Blindness about India” (EPW, 6 December 2014), argues that not only is this an impossible claim to make on our ancient texts, such “historiography” will lead to the destruction of the social sciences in India.

Rajan Gurukkal raises a number of extremely important issues concerning the social sciences and more particularly history. I would like to add my comments to what Gurukkal has written. He has, quite rightly, questioned the generalisations that Indian historians merely collect factoids, and that their historical explanations draw on a Protestant Christian understanding of the past. The first of these activities may partially be applied to colonial writers on the Indian past but went out of fashion and usage half a century ago. As for the second generalisation, given the absence of a monotheistic god and a church it would be impossible to apply a Protestant Christian framework to Indian historiography. Such a framework has also long since been discarded by European historiography. To argue that there are secular versions of this framework would require a different discussion about the validity of this argument before it can even be applied to Indian historiography.

Ignorant Criticism

These two generalisations that he has rightly questioned, frequently take the form of opinions expressed by those who are unaware of the historiographical changes that have taken place in the study of Indian history. These changes have occurred primarily in India but also in universities outside India that teach and research Indian history, such as in Japan, Europe and the United States. Historians of the 19th century may have been searching for “the truth” about the past, but we no longer do so. We cannot arrive at the ultimate truth of what is not fully accessible to us. This is even more so in the study of ancient history. What we try to do is to analyse the evidence that we have and attempt to understand and comprehend what the many pasts of a complex Indian society may have been, and how they may have been interrelated.

Diversity is a given, both in the use of sources and in the reading of events. The degree of certainty and uncertainty in the reading has been an issue for discussion. Even the natural sciences do not search for a singular truth as there are varying degrees of certitude. This is in part why familiarity with the knowledge produced by a discipline is important to the understanding of a subject. Existing knowledge is consistently questioned in the process of discovering new knowledge. The latter cannot be dismissed as being unacceptable without knowing what it is.

Those who study early history have to be well aware of these processes and perhaps even to a greater degree than those who work on modern history. The Greeks wrote their history prior to the rise of Christianity, as did Sima Qian in China. They did not see their past through a Protestant Christian framework, nor for that matter did Livy, Tacitus or Josephus in Roman times. A historical consciousness existed in texts from early times in India and we need to know which are these texts and the form in which this consciousness is expressed in them. This is a different exercise from that which has become more frequent these days, and more so among non-historians, namely, to repeatedly say that we must turn to the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas in order to know our real history, and discard what western scholars, Nehruvian secularists and Marxists have reconstructed as our history; and that the above-mentioned texts contain our true history.

Which Text Is History

When we turn to these texts for their ideas on history, and this has been done and is continuing to be done, various problems have surfaced. Among them, are the problems of the range of versions of the texts, and of their periods of composition. There are many versions either of an entire text or of segments of the texts. Even if we take what are regarded by some as the earliest versions of the epics, each was put together over a period of a few centuries. The period of composition is debated, some taking it from about 400 BC to AD 400, others arguing for one century but the particular century remains uncertain.

Composition over a period of time means diverse authors, so we need to ask who they were and what were their frameworks of reference? The Valmiki Ramayana, in the period between 400 BC and AD 400, had at least two contenders – the Buddhist version, the Dasaratha Jataka, and the Jaina version, Vimalasuri’s Paumachariyam – both contradicting the Valmiki version. In the Buddhist version Rama and Sita are siblings, and in the Jaina version Ravana is not a rakshasa but a respectable member of the Meghavahana lineage and the fantasies of the other Ramayana are given rational explanations.

Narrative segments from the Mahabharata, some linked to the main events, when narrated in the Jatakas are not always in agreement with the epic. Yet the way in which the narrative is told and events explained gives us a glimpse of a sense of history in historical texts. The Buddhist and Jaina versions are alternate texts to the Valmiki and Vyasa versions. Should we just ignore these or do we ask why are they saying something different? What does this mean for historical reconstruction?

Each century produced different versions of the epic stories, some with significant variations. They were composed in a variety of languages by a variety of authors all over the subcontinent. And then the Mahabharata and the Ramayana narratives spread to south-east Asia and, apart from being sculpted as panels on temple walls, were also rendered into epic texts in various local languages by local authors. Are these still to be treated as the authentic histories of India, conveying the Indian sense of history?

Which Purana do we take as representing an authentic view of the Indian past? The structure and contents of the Vishnu Purana are quite different from the Skanda Purana written at very different periods – so which is an authentic history? Those that advocate these texts as their preferred history of India are perhaps unfamiliar with the text and its variants. By what methods do we decide on the historicity of these texts? Or are we supposed to argue that historicity like history is irrelevant? However, we can at least see how these historical texts have represented their own society and the society that preceded them, if we are to treat them as historiography. This has been done and is continuing to be done by historians of early India. But it seems that those wanting to write history from the epics and Puranas are unaware of this research and the publications that have followed.

Reading Historical Texts

Texts are not read as an exact rendering of events. The need to go beyond the text in order to understand its meaning was a recognised procedure in literary criticism and in textual readings. Hence the extensive commentaries on these texts, the glossaries and the analyses of grammar and style that came to be written from the end of the first millennium AD onwards by various Sanskrit scholars. The technicalities of reading texts have become more intensive and sophisticated in recent times. We now have to also correlate the context of the author, the audience, the purpose and the patronage of the text.

From this perspective the epics and the Puranas are only a segment and constitute two distinct categories of texts. Apart from these there are multiple other texts that are being analysed for historiography, as has been mentioned by Gurukkal. There is also the massive corpus of Buddhist and Jaina literature. The epics and Puranas are only a small part of such texts that are being consulted and analysed.

Inscriptions as texts are significant to any discussion on historical perspectives. If we only look at the epics and Puranas we are left with their selection of events whereas often the inscriptions provide a different picture. For example, the Mauryan emperor, Ashoka, is merely one name in a list of Mauryan kings that has been included in a couple of Puranas. Nothing further is said about him. The information that he himself provides in his edicts and the details of his reign as given in Buddhist sources finds no reflection in these texts and he is not even mentioned in the epics. From the post-Gupta period onwards the script of the edicts could no longer be read, and the king went into oblivion, as did his message of tolerance and non-violence that we so often quote today in our claim to both these values. It was not until the 19th century that the script was deciphered. By this point no one knew who this king was. His identity had to wait until the Buddhist texts were read, and it was finally confirmed in one of his inscriptions, discovered and deciphered in the 20th century. So reading history from the epics and the Puranas does have some obvious limitations.

The Danger

The social sciences began to be established in India a century ago and about half a century back history moved from being a part of Indology to interacting with the social sciences. From this point on there have been attempts to denigrate those that treat history as a social science and particularly historians working on early India. Their work, where it questions the Hindutva version of Indian history, is dismissed either as “Marxist” and therefore ideologically tainted, or as is now becoming fashionable, as imitations of western historiography. However, to write the history of India through a literal reading of the epics and the Puranas has so many inherent deficiencies that, if it is to be pursued true to the original, it will undermine historical and social science research in India.

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