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Page  2  of  7

Getting to know the past better


By Romila Thapar

(cntd)


Historian Romila Thapar

 

Almost the first problem, was that of questioning the validity of the periodization of James Mill. Periodization tends to provide a frame and to some degree conditions how one looks at the sources. Mill's periodization did not reflect the flow of Indian history. There cannot be two thousand years of the rule of Hindu dynasties, consistently described either as backward or as a prolonged golden age, followed by eight hundred years of the rule of Muslim dynasties, again described either as an improvement on the previous period or as extremely oppressive.

We know that in history, there are periods of rise and periods of decline. No age is consistently glorious or tyrannical and no age can be characterized only by the religion of its ruler. So the notion of periodization came in for major reconsideration. Periodization has to consider not just the religions of dynasties but other more significant aspects of history: the interconnection and lives of people at different levels of society and the kinds of issues that were important to people throughout these ages.

During the period from the 1950's to 1970's in present day India, there were many social science disciplines that emerged as strong intellectual disciplines: economics, sociology, anthropology, demography, human geography, archaeology. These were not only established, but their concern was really with analyzing problems relating to Indian conditions. And this really is the important difference between just having social science disciplines and having disciplines that are pertinent to a particular society. History then became a very important part of this search for understanding what had happened in the Indian subcontinent and in Indian society prior to the modern period.

The history of early India began to shift gradually from what used to be called Indology, which was largely the study only of texts and events, to the social sciences which were more analytical and began to ask questions related to how historical change took place? What brought about the change? When did it occur and, most importantly, why did it occur?

These were the kinds of questions we were concerned with. And I say this with a certain amount of autobiographical inference, because this was precisely the period when many of us were exploring these new ideas in history and were stimulated both by the readings that we were doing, and by the discoveries that we were making and by the very open discussions and debates on historical interpretations. All this meant that there was a focus within the historical discipline on what we today call the historical method. In other words, the historian was no longer just anybody who read a dozen books and summarized them and called it history, to a person who had to discuss issues such as the reliability of the evidence and the logic of the analysis. These had to be done meticulously and rigorously. This was also tied into a much greater emphasis on investigating the causes of events and historical change, and ascertaining a priority in these causes.

There was a gradual broadening of the issues that became important to history. We moved away from saying that an event had a single cause. When one starts asking the question that if an event has more than one cause, one has to justify and explain the multiple causes, and command a range of possible reasons as to why an event took place and why history changed?

So there was a broadening of the historical context and there was a demand for much fuller explanations for events. This was assisted by new types of evidence such as the discoveries of archaeology that filled in gaps and gave new direction to interpretation. The other area in which there was much work was in the study of inscriptions, and more particularly in revealing information on society and economy as contained in the inscriptions. Inscriptions generally carry a date, and inscriptions are precise about recording an event. There may be a fictional element here and there, but one can see through that. Therefore, inscriptions are useful data. Both archaeological and inscriptional sources extend the range of evidence and thereby of historical interpretations.

 

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