Interview with the historian Romila Thapar.


Romila Thapar is one of the most renowned historians in the world. She is best known for her outstanding contributions to research on ancient Indian history. Her name is well received in academia for at least six decades beginning with the publication of the book Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas in 1961.

Romila Thapar’s research has been part of the transition from treating ancient Indian history as Indology to approaching it as a social science. She has worked on the social and cultural history of early India, posed new questions on textual data and used archaeological sources in attempting to understand the interplay of society, economy and religion. She has also worked on historiography, looking at both modern approaches to the history of early India and on the ways in which history was recorded in the past.

Born in 1931, she graduated from Punjab University and subsequently went to School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, to earn a PhD. Her doctoral research was under the supervision of the eminent historian A.L. Basham. Professor Romila Thapar taught Ancient Indian History at Kurukshetra University, Delhi University and Jawaharlal University. In 1991, she retired from JNU, where she is at present Professor Emerita.

Romila Thapar is not just an academic but is also known as a public intellectual. She has always stood up for and defended the values of secularism and democracy. She is known for fearlessly speaking against majoritarianism and abuse of power. Though the Government of India conferred the Padma Bhushan on her twice (in 1992 and 2005), she declined it saying “I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not state awards.” But Professor Romila Thapar has won many accolades from across the world. This includes the prestigious Kluge Prize (the American Nobel) for Lifetime Achievement in the field of History in 2008. She was elected Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1997 and to American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. She was also conferred honorary doctorates and DLitt from universities, including Oxford University, Edinburgh University, University of Chicago, University of Calcutta, Brown University. She was elected as General President of the Indian History Congress in 1983.

Romila Thapar’s books include The Past before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, The Aryan: Recasting Constructs, Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History, Early India, Cultural Pasts- Essays in Early Indian History, History and Beyond, Śakuntalā: Texts, Readings, Histories, Kali for Women, From Lineage to State, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations, Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, The Public Intellectual in India (Romila Thapar and others), Voices of Dissent: An Essay, The Past as Present, Indian Cultures as Heritage, and The Historian and Her Craft: Collected Essays and Lectures.

In this long conversation, Romila Thapar discusses a wide range of issues − voices of dissent in Indian history, Hinduism and religious dissidence, Hinduism in history, the difference between secularism and religious tolerance, the issue of Aryan migration, and so on.

Let us begin with your recent book “Voices of Dissent: An Essay”. What did you have in mind while writing it? ? Is this book a result of your intellectual response to the present Indian political-intellectual situation?

No, it is not a new theme, although it has obvious links to present times. But then dissent is never absent at any time. One has to focus not on any kind of dissent but that which is more meaningful to the culture and society one is researching. In other words, it has led to some reformulations in religion and social rules. I have been writing on forms of dissent in earlier Indian history for the past four decades. It began with a study of trying to assess Buddhist ideas of renunciation in relation to a social context where Vedic Brahmanism was becoming the established religion. The Vedic religion was essentially an upper-caste religion. Those that rejected it—the Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas, as also the Charvakas—were also largely of the upper caste but were concerned with propagating a religion that would appeal more universally to other sections of society as well. I read the social message of renunciation as a kind of counterculture of those times—the mid first millennium BC. I made a distinction between asceticism and renunciation. In the former there had to be complete isolation from society whereas in the latter some links continued because the purpose was to increase the piety of all through the propagation of social ethics.

More recently I have ventured into modern history in trying to see connections between the major forms of dissent in the national movement for independence and earlier dissenting movements. The example that I discuss in the book is through trying to understand why Gandhi’s call for satyagraha received such an enthusiastic response from the Indian public. Was it just the need of the moment or was there also some recognition that it had continuity with earlier historical forms of dissent? I discuss some of these earlier historical forms that provide a context to my argument that dissent is a significant aspect of all historical and cultural evolution. It is essential to advance of any kind. If one does not question what exists around one, then there can be no further development of ideas and technologies.

The book is a bringing together of some of my papers and lectures on the subject in a more integrated way. It is an attempt to connect the forms of dissent as a continuity or mutation in history. For instance, I have been interested in notions of renunciation as forms of dissent, and I therefore took up the connection between dissent in society and how this is reflected in dissenting views in religion. I have focussed on a few aspects of dissent in religion not because these constitute the most significant articulation of dissent, but because dissent is more visible in many religious movements than in other forms and can therefore be observed more easily. There is, of course, a close interlink between religion and social activity. This is perhaps more marked in India where caste is a marker of social status, and particular rituals point to the social identities of the religious sect.

In the course of looking at the broader question in our contemporary times I did think about and talk to a few persons about the anti-CAA [Citizenship (Amendment) Act] movement that had had such currency at the end of 2019 and the start of 2020. This in my reckoning was a movement of dissent in our times post-Gandhi, but drawing on similar objectives as satyagraha. It was a protest, but entirely non-violent, it had a specific purpose in as much as it was opposed to a particular legislation of the government, it requested a dialogue on the matter and there was an undoubted positive public response to it. Gandhi’s satyagraha in the Salt March was breaking a law. The anti-CAA movement was not doing that. It was demanding a discussion of the law. Since I was trying to trace the evolving of the public response to satyagraha and why there was such a positive response to it, I saw a parallel in the anti-CAA movement but in a lower key. In some ways it has been followed by a similar bigger movement in the farmers’ protest of 2021, which interestingly was sought to be broken by a lateral attempt at making it violent.

The outcome of all this is: if we argue that the articulation of non-violent dissent is compatible with democracy or is perhaps even an essential component of it, then we must learn to recognise it, understand it and assess it.

Dissent & social change

You say dissenting voices are always there in each society. But we also know that these voices are not tolerated by the status quo and those in power. Could you talk about this in the Indian context and history?

Dissenting voices have to be visible, or else there will be no historical change in society. And we know that Indian society underwent many changes. Historical change draws on questioning existing systems and practices and searches for new methods towards the betterment of society—whichever way one defines this.

This may or may not be tied to the ambitions of particular groups seeking to control society in various ways. Knowledge can only advance when existing knowledge is questioned, for whatever reason, and if necessary alternatives are sought. Philosophy draws on dissent. Hence the significance to various schools of philosophy, the world over, of what may broadly or perhaps loosely, be called dialectical thinking. Many schools of Indian philosophy maintain that to begin an argument, one must state as correctly as possible the views of the opponent. These are then to be countered. Subsequent to which a way forward is found, or else the matter is set aside.

Implicit in dissent is the method of dissent. This I have described in the answer to the first question. One cannot take any of the methods of the past and apply them literally to the present. The purpose is not always the same. Satyagraha as applied in the Salt March may not be feasible to a problem of our times, but we can at least draw out the questions that are implicit in adopting a method similar to it. It might help to make us think.

Would you say that in Indian history expressing dissent was an intellectual exercise, as in the case of the Upanishads, rather than a practical response of common people?

Dissent has to be seen as being articulated in varied forms. Dissent in philosophical discussion was largely at an intellectual level in countering some philosophical theories and explanations. But all of these were not invariably limited to matters of the intellect. Some of the ideas and concepts that surfaced in these discussions were applied to social questions. For example, when the Buddhists disagreed with Vedic Brahmanism in denying deity and the ritual of sacrifice, they were called nastikas or non-believers. This was at the level of ideas. But the application of their ideas through their teaching encouraged a following of the common people who supported their institutions and their questioning of some aspects of social practices. Thus the monasteries received donations both from royal families and from the families of artisans.

In later times, there evolved within Buddhism itself some dissenting groups among the sects. They disagreed not just in matters of belief but also in practices. For example, there was a difference of opinion on whether monks can accept monetary donations and the Buddhist Sangha split on this. In medieval times, the teachings of Ravi Das were opposed to the inequalities of caste and the beliefs dependent on it and were most effective in asking for the ending of social inequalities. One cannot presume always that dissent at the intellectual level did not affect aspects of the life of common people. The exercise of dissent can be subtle, which is why it needs to be studied in its various forms.

Foundations of Hinduism & historical changes

At a time when advocates of Hindutva try to project their version as the real essence of Hinduism, it is important to know the history of religious dissidence in India, especially within Hinduism.

That is precisely what I have tried to show in my book on voices of dissent. Religions in particular are subject to the presence of dissenting groups. The more monolithic the religion in perception and teaching, the sharper the separation between such groups. This becomes clear when we study the history of a religion and ask why it has so many variations and who supported each variation. The history of Hinduism shows distinct formulations, some liable to fairly substantial change. Since we don’t know for certain what the Harappan religion may have been, the foundations of Hinduism are generally dated to the late second millennium B.C. with Vedic Brahmanism. This incorporated the centrality of gods such as Mitra and Varuna to begin with, and then Indra and Agni, worshipped in the abstract through the large-scale sacrificial rituals. The period from the Mauryas and Guptas saw the gradual switch to other deities and a competition for patronge with the Shramana religions: Buddhism and Jainism in particular.

Major changes in the first millennium A.D. mark the importance of other deities, namely Shiva and Vishnu, and the growing narrative of deities that were gradually associated with them. There was also the increasing importance of the Shakta-Shakti worship. All of these were virtually back-stage in Vedic Brahmanism. The method of worship changed to the making of icons and placing them in structures that became the nucleus of temples – all for the first time. Some call this Puranic Hinduism because the Puranas become major texts of belief and worship, each being generally dedicated to a particular deity. The focus on Shiva and Vishnu encouraged their direct worship through devotion/ bhakti. This began in the south and gradually was manifest in the north. Hinduism of the second millennium A.D. was dominated by Bhakti in all parts of the sub-continent. Patronage to Buddhism began to decline and that to the Puranic deities increased. There were multiple sects linked to the latter, and many reflected inputs from local religions originating in the various peasant and tribal cultures of every region, and from those that came in with trade and invasions such as Christianity and Islam.

The second millennium A.D. was not a period of the victimisation of Hindus, as is maintained by those currently ruling us. It was precisely the time when there was a considerable inter-mixing of people, religious beliefs and forms of worship. These greatly enriched the multiple Bhakti sects and Puranic Hinduism that evolved in that period. This was the time when in every region of India new regional deities emerged, such as Jagannatha in Odisha, Vitthobha in Maharashtra, Hinglajmata in Sind, Bonbibi in the Sundarbans, and so on. Temples were built to these deities housing their icons. Neither these deities nor their forms of worship were the same as those of the Vedic religion. The location was often an already existing sacred spot associated with prior religious beliefs.

This also encouraged large-scale pilgrimages to the temples with devotees who came from various religious streams. Studies of those that go on pilgrimage and worship at these places is very revealing as it is often a cross section of society and includes more than just those who call themselves Hindus.

At the same time, interestingly, the 15th and 16th centuries saw a rising interest in this form of Hinduism and in bhakti across a large section of society from the elite down to the lowest levels. Royal courts financed translations of early Sanskrit texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata into the current language of the court, Persian. These texts were also retold in the current regional languages, both of northern and southern India. Members of the elite such as Ras Khan, Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, Mirabai, were ardent devotees of the god Krishna and composed adulatory verses on Radha and Krishna in Hindi. These were recited and sung together with those that we are more familiar with, such as the verses of Surdas.

Colonial scholars, by attempting to understand and reformulate what they called Hinduism, inadvertently introduced changes in the concept and form of the religion. These we are familiar with today. To better their understanding of the religion there was an attempt to give it a monolithic form. This tended to reduce the rich diversity and pluralism in religious belief and practice, so important to Hinduism. It has to be recognised that it is different from the religions of the Abrahamic kind that start with a historical founder and evolve in a more linear fashion. Hindutva, continuing to use the mould of colonial thinking, is an attempt to further reformulate Hinduism, replacing its diversity and pluralism with a monolithic form and trying to make it uniform for all those that call themselves Hindus.

Hindutva & Hinduism

Hindutva is not the same as Hinduism. Its intention is to make it easier to use religion for political purposes such as in the creating of a Hindu Rashtra. This is why I have labelled it as Syndicated Hinduism, emerging in the 20th century. It is regulated by those close to political power. Their claim to being a cultural organisation does not stop them from intervening in politics. Hindutva links up multiple groups aiming at a political programme and are known jointly as the Sangh Parivar, although they may carry separate labels. The Hindu is given a new definition: he and his ancestors have to have been born within the boundaries of India, pitribhumi, and his religion also has to have originated from within the boundaries of India, punyabhumi. This definition is not given in any of the ancient texts.

Unlike the Semitic religions, Hinduism is still not monolithic and homogeneous. You coined the term Syndicated Hinduism to describe the new Hinduism of the modern period. From which period did the practice of using the word Hindu as a religion begin? What was denoted by the term Hindu up to this period in Indian history?

The term ‘Hinduism’ is of recent usage. Some historians call it a colonial invention. The religious beliefs and practices that it entails were not given this label in the pre-colonial past. This is in part because what we call Hinduism is not rooted in the teaching of a historical figure who can be dated to a particular point in time as with the Abrahamic and Shramana religions.

This makes Hinduism unusual in its structure and construction and different from other major religions. It also accounts for the fact that it is articulated through a multiplicity of sects that register differences, major or minor, and have an interface with other sects rather than the projected monolithic religion.

In my answer to an earlier question, I have given a history of the emergence of these sects and how they reformulated the religion, the beliefs and the ways of worship. I have also mentioned some of the labels that were used to identify them, none of which use the word Hindu.

This word is linked to the terminology that arose at the end of the first millennium AD. Reference was made to northern India as al-Hind, that is the trans-Indus region as viewed from West Asia. The Indus river was called Sindhu in Sanskrit sources and Hendu in Old Iranian, so al-Hind was linked to the Indus. The people who lived in al-Hind were called the Hindu /Hindi. It was as late as the 14th or 15th centuries in various parts of India that the term Hindu was sometimes also used for the local religion, in Persian and Arabic sources and in the Indian regional language sources. It was applied to the religions of India, other than Islam and the Abrahamic religions. As late as the sixteenth century a differentiation is made in Sanskrit texts between the Brahmana religion and that of the nastikas/non-believers, that is. Buddhism and Jainism. The geographical-territorial name changed from al-Hind to Hindusthan, literally, the land of the Hindus, this latter term being used for the inhabitants, and by extension for their religion. This name was then used as a religious label by the various European colonisers. They distinguished between the territory and the majority religion. The territory was called India, after the Greek use of Indos, and the religion was called Gentoo and then Hindu. Following from the latter came the reference to Hinduism.

Islam in Indian history

How do you read Islam in Indian history?

We have a habit of calling everything that has a touch of Islam, as Muslim, irrespective of whether the Islamic element is significant or marginal. We treat Islam as a religion that came into India uniformly through invading ‘Muslims’. So much of what happened is explained as the result of the “Muslim invaders”. But in fact Islam came through a variety of ways some quite different from the others. Those who brought it came from different areas and communities and their versions of the religion differed. Therefore, there were varieties of Islam practised in India. Some remained close to the Islam taught to them, but many others borrowed from the local religions, such as some of the sects of Hindu belief and practice.

What is strikingly different from our use of the term today is that in the pre-colonial period, Indian sources in Sanskrit and the regional languages seldom use terms linked to Islam when referring to “the Muslims”. The people being referred to are called by terms that refer to the historical continuity of ethnicity and not their religion. This says a lot about how these in-coming groups were perceived. Some of the ways in which Islam came to India are:

i. Invasions were by Arabs in Sind in the eighth century and by Turks and Afghans in north-western India in the eleventh century spreading across northern India, and by the Mughals in the sixteenth century, also conquering northern India.

ii. In other parts of the subcontinent, the contacts came in a different way. Communities of Arabs from Arabia and East Africa traded with western India from the eighth century (or perhaps even earlier), and settled all along the coast of western India from the ninth century AD, giving rise to various religious groups arising from the interface between the local communities and the Arab settlers, such as the Bohras, Khojas, Navayaths and Mapillas.

Similarly, Afghan and Turkish traders came from Central Asia and traded with northern India and settled in those areas.

iii. Mercenaries from these areas were recruited for the armies of Indian kings, some commanded by rajas and some by sultans. Reference is made to Abyssinians and Ethiopians in the second millennium AD.

Similarly, soldiers from al-Hind were recruited as mercenaries in the armies of the Afghans and Turks. Mahmud of Ghazni had a trusted general, Tilak, who fought for him with a large contingent of soldiers from al-Hind. Frontiers were more open in those days and recruitment to various professions could be made from across the borders.

iv. The major religious missions of Islam came through the Sufis, a few from Persia but many from Central Asia. Their forms of Islam were not identical with the Islam of the Arabs. Some Sufis were fairly orthodox but others in India did mix their religion with local religions and were disapproved of by the orthodox Muslim mullahs.

This variation in Islam is also evident from Sanskrit sources that refer to them. They are very rarely called by the name of their religion. More often the word used for them is the same as that used in the past for those that came from West and Central Asia. Therefore, the Arabs coming from the west are called yavanas, the same word as was used for the Greeks and in modern times for the British as well. The Turks and Afghans are called Shakas and Turushkas. The Shakas of ancient India came from Central Asia, and in Sanskrit inscriptions the Tughlaqs are referred to as Shakas. Turushka is the Sanskrit for Turkish and was used earlier for people from Central Asia, as for instance the Kushans. It would seem that the difference of religion was not the overwhelming identity. Geography and ethnicity were more important.

Religious tolerance

Religious tolerance has been generally highlighted as the hallmark of Indian civilisation. People like Dr S. Radhakrishnan were the main champions of this idea. This religious tolerance has been interpreted as or equated with the Indian variant of secularism. What is your take on these themes and what is their relevance?

Secularism and religious tolerance are distinct. Secularism assumes the co-existence of all religions, the equality of all religions in a society and, above all, the maintenance of a distance between religion of any kind, and the laws and functions of civil society and its politics. Secularism therefore cannot be the same as religious tolerance. Nor has religious tolerance been a hallmark of Indian civilisation. There is enough historical evidence of intolerance since ancient times. The same happens in the history of every religion. Buddhism, for instance, which has a far stronger imprint of ahimsa in its teaching than any other religion, has not been free of violence in the societies where it is the dominant religion. What is taught in a religion and what is actually practised need not be the same.

So if there is more than one religion, some mutual dissent is likely. This dissent is sometimes confined to theology. But at other times it takes the form of protest that can be violent. This is recorded in texts of the early period of Indian history, referring to heterodoxies and religious differences expressed in a violent manner, as for instance in the differences between Shaivas and Shramanas on occasion. Differences may arise because there is a competition for patronage, more particularly if the competition is over lavish donations given by royalty. Competition can also come from efforts to garner a larger number of followers. This applies not only to India but to every complex society.

A new study has found the presence of animal products, including cattle and buffalo meat, in ceramic vessels dating back about 4,600 years at seven Indus valley civilisation sites. This finding comes at a time when the Karnataka government passes a Bill more or less banning beef in total. As a historian how do you respond to this academic study and also this legislation?

I have not come across this academic study, so cannot comment on it. One has to be very careful about the reliability of what comes in the news. This news may come from excavations, but in any case, such a source needs to be first examined by professional archaeologists and their readings heard before one can discuss it and comment on it.

Indian society has not been, nor is it now, a stagnant society that never changes. Over a period of 4,600 years there have been massive changes both in belief and social practice. What we are today and what we practise evolves from these changes. So we do not have to seek legitimacy from the remote past of five millennia ago or even the recent past if we wish to conform to rules that we believe ensure our well-being. The question is whether we need to look at five millennia ago to get the sanction for what we are doing now. This is certainly not called for. Change is fundamental to advance, and every society changes its rules as and when necessary. If there is social change, then social rules have to change accordingly.

This is particularly so in the changes registered in the social ordering of society. Therefore, there is the legitimate demand today that women, Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs [Other Backward Classes] have to be given an equal status in society. They are free citizens with full rights, and there cannot be a continuation of subordination and suppression as was ordered for them by the Manu Dharmashastra.

Similarly, rules about dietary habits have to be debated with the people who are being asked to obey them. They cannot be imposed, merely by claiming that they may have existed in the past. There is evidence for the eating of cattle-meat from sources of the past. If it is to be banned in present times, the argument has to be something other than maintaining that it was not eaten in the past. The economics and the politics of such bans have to be debated in full in the various assemblies of those elected to govern and by public opinion.

Resort to a tradition believed to be coming from the remote past, whether proven or assumed, does not give anyone a right automatically to impose a rule in the present. Historians have argued that tradition is continually invented but is presented as if coming from the past. The invention is derived from, and is used to legitimise, requirements of present times. Here the basic question is, does the rule being imposed currently arise from the needs of a contemporary political policy, or is it a reflection of the sentiments of some of the population who observe it as a believed tradition? Government is meant to represent current opinion in the context of ensuring the welfare of all the citizens. Equally then, those on whom the rule is being imposed have the right to discuss it, debate it, and if they decide to reject it then it has to be rejected. That is essential to the functioning of a democracy.

The Aryan origin is an important question of debate in Indian history. Historians like you point out that Aryans migrated into India from the Central Asian region. This rejects the theory of the indigenous origin of Aryans. The recent DNA studies also corroborate your findings of migration. In this context, according to your opinion, who were the early Indians?

Judging by the evidence that we have, linguistic, archaeological and genetic, of the last 5000 years, it is clear that the early Indians were a mixed population with more that just a couple of genetic groups making up the population. This is common to many early cultures. The advance of cultures requires the interface of many factors – peoples, technologies associated with different peoples, occupations, languages, patterns of living, belief systems and such like. To maintain that sophisticated cultures and civilisations originate in a single unique culture associated with a single unique body of people, can only be described as a pipe dream!

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