Romila Thapar: The Modern Among Historians

Those who wish to scrutinise the CV of Romila Thapar are not unaware of her intellectual contributions but resent them because they conflict with every myth they want to perpetuate in their crusade against history.

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Romila Thapar is among the Indian cultural figures who are recognised and highly esteemed globally, yet there are those in India who wish to subject her curriculum vitae to scrutiny. They do so not because they are unaware of her intellectual contributions but because they conflict with every myth they want to perpetuate in their crusade against history.

What is a body of work, or a corpus? A collection of writings – in Thapar’s case it comprises thousands of pages – is not yet a corpus if it does not express something alive that is reaching out towards the possible developments of thought and also towards the impossible which it seeks to realise. The summary of all the possibilities and impossibilities of a thing is called its essence, and essence defines a corpus.

The essential and history

The essential – the exchange between the possible and the impossible – is seen in the histories which occupy Romila. When a circle is carved into a block of wood, it is a heavy wheel, and its impossibilities are speed and manoeuvrability. About 4,000 years ago in the Ural region, the round block of wood became the spoked wheel (Which of Us are Aryans?, ed. Thapar 2018, p. 6). The wheel then carried on it the hordes, the words, the rituals and the poem of its own construction – ratha cara – to Asia Minor and what would be Pakistan. In another domain, when Musa al-Khwarizmi used letters and numerals to define the general forms of equations, there was born something which was impossible for Greek geometers – Algebra.

The historian is someone who gathers the past from the point of view of the essential, such that we may continue to realise the impossible. That is, history is the event when the possible crosses over to the impossible. Thapar expresses it in her book Early India as “a more integrated understanding of a complex society, its various mutations, its creativity and its efforts at enhancing its contributions to civilisation”. Recently, in the context of the destruction of educational institutions in India, she presented the same thesis: “The essence of university education is to teach students to ask questions, to enable them to question existing knowledge, and through this process of questioning, to advance knowledge”.

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We can see that this essential concern, which is to enhance and to advance, is continuous between Thapar’s historical works and political works. Now we can think of the historian in the following way – Romila Thapar, the ancient historian, works without relent in order to keep history itself alive. Rather, Thapar is not concerned merely with chronicling the past but with expressing historic sense as a power which articulates politics. The unfolding travesty of morons seeking to assess the contributions of Thapar in order to raise another calumny is the continuation of an ancient conflict between historic sense and the recursive ceremonial social order.

Ceremonial social order

We find the concern with the opposition between the essential and the ceremonial order in her early works where she posed a problem: can a society which is made up of inherited communities – caste order and clan-based rule – realise something like the state which is indifferent to the birth of men?

In the work From Lineage to State, she found that the opposition between the state and lineage-based systems, or inherited communities, is an opposition at the level of functions. For example, if everyone inherits the functions played by their ancestors, this prevents the appearance of new functions which would enhance the contributions to civilisation. She found that in the subcontinent, something in-between began to take form which she would mark as a “transition” that stubbornly persists as an incomplete one –  like a train in an endless tunnel.

We continue to find in her political writings that such a transition from the lineage-based societal order to the freedom of something like a state is yet to happen – rather, political history has been in stasis in an essential sense in the subcontinent for centuries while its rulers came and went.

Ceremonial societies do not change in any essential sense, instead they repeat themselves year after year, faithfully. Their repetition is made possible through a peculiar logic – they identify means with ends, and vice versa. For example, the caste order which conserves itself through miscegenation rules and untouchability practices is both the means and end. The caste order observes itself as the means in order to repeat itself as the end.

Thapar writes about the necessary conditions of the ceremonial order of the subcontinent founded on caste, saying that it is one in which social and economic “inequalities should be legitimised through a theoretically irreversible hierarchy and the imposition of the hierarchy claim to be based on a supernatural authority”. In other words, Thapar has been at work for decades to reverse the irreversible.

The moron who stubbornly persists in the ceremonial order is also immured, or confined, to a world of his own making. The word “moron” is related to the Sanskrit “mura”. These two terms have a relation through the speculative etymological roots (PIE) to “immurement”, that is, to be enclosed within a wall.

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The moron, lacking in historic sense, finds that everything interesting had already happened in the mythic past which he faithfully repeats. Hence he keeps on finding the ‘symbolic presence’ of the new in the mythic past such that tensor algebra, the internet, plastic surgery and quantum computation are found archived in the tired idols of his divinities. The moron gazes into the eye of cow, where he finds the inverted image of history and the archives of the present setting in, and thus he misses the essential.

We must then recapitulate in order to catch up with Romila Thapar. We find that when the possible crosses over to the impossible, history is written, such as when Einstein presented his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. When the possibilities unfold, we chronicle – such as the accounts of the day to day functioning of a government. And when ceremonial social order repeats, little is written, which perhaps explains the delayed onset of writing in the subcontinent.

To be modern

The attention to the essential in the past, or to historic sense, too has a history, which we usually refer to as the appearance of modernity. Thw writing and reading of history became necessary in order to be modern. The appearance of the modern attitude in the 19th century gave us two great philosopher-historians – Hegel and Marx. But what does it mean to be modern? Can one be modern today?

To begin with, to be modern is to not be a moron, someone who is blind to the essential or to that passage from the possible to the impossible which is gathered as history. The moron enters politics with the assumption that only the past can be the origin; rather, everything has been exhausted in the past. Modernity is the confidence in humanity that the present can be the origin of new and impossible orders and, that the essential is available every moment. In this sense the attitude of modernity is characterised by the breaking down of walls and breakthroughs.

Romila Thapar | Why We Need a New Understanding of Civilisation

Romila, then, is not only an ancient historian, nor just the historian of the ancient world, but she is the modern among historians. She has remarked on the practice of politics as a fight for freedom in the very sense of the term modern, which is an impatience with all forms of ceremonial orders, saying in an interview to The Wire, “You cannot have a democracy where you have pre-determined majorities of whatever kind. In a democracy, an issue comes up, and the majority comes from every part of society and takes a decision and the next issue that comes up has a totally different constituent of majority.”

Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi are philosophers based in the subcontinent. They are the authors of Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-Politics, published by Bloomsbury Academic, UK (2019).

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