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Early India

From the Origins to AD 1300

Romila Thapar (Author)

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Paperback, 586 pages
ISBN: 9780520242258
February 2004
$36.95
Early India represents a complete rewriting by Romila Thapar of her classic work, A History of India (the first volume in the Penguin History of India series), thirty-five years after it was first published. Thapar has incorporated the vast changes in scholarly understanding and interpretation of Indian history that have occurred during her lifetime to revise the book for a new generation of readers. This new work brings to life thousands of years of history, tracing India's evolution before contact with modern Europe was established: its prehistoric beginnings; the great cities of the Indus civilization; the emergence of mighty dynasties such as the Mauryas, Guptas, and Cholas; the teachings of the Buddha; the creation of heroic epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; and the creation of regional cultures. Thapar introduces figures from the remarkable visionary ruler Ashoka to other less exemplary figures. In exploring subjects as diverse as marriage, class, art, erotica, and astronomy, Thapar provides an incomparably vivid and nuanced picture of India. Above all, she shows the rich mosaic of diverse kingdoms, landscapes, languages, and beliefs.
Romila Thapar is Professor Emeritus in History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In 1983 she was elected General President of the Indian History Congress and in 1999 a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy. She is the author of Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas; Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations; History and Beyond; Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories; Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History; and Somanatha : the Many Voices of a History (2004).
“Thapar is to be congratulated for producing a revision that should be read carefully by every serious scholar or student of anything Indian.”—Frederick M. Smith, Univ. of Iowa Religious Studies Review
"Romila Thapar is the most eminent Indian historian. This superb book is not only the basic history of how India came to be and an introduction to how the writing of history takes shape, but also, not the least, a deconstruction of the historical myth and inventions on which is based the present intolerant and exclusivist Hindu nationalism. It is essential reading today."—Eric Hobsbawm

"One of the world's most eminent historians of India, Thapar gives us a thoroughly revised edition of her authoritative general history. This one contains the accumulated research of the last thirty years and includes richly textured accounts of life in ancient India. Like its predecessor, this is indispensable reading for anyone interested in India's long and complex history."—Thomas R. Metcalf, Professor of History and Sarah Kailath Professor of Indian Studies, University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of A Concise History of India

"Incorporating newer findings, methods, and interpretations, this thorough and outstandingly written addition to the author's highly acclaimed History of India, Volume One manifests her long and distinguished service to the study of Indian history. Thapar's skillful analysis of how India's past has been interpreted not only brings greater clarity to the understanding of contemporary India, but also contributes usefully to a broader study of history and historiography."—Peter L. Schmitthenner, Associate Professor of History, Virginia Tech

Introduction

A book originally written when one had just been initiated into the profession, now being revised late in life, has elements of an autobiography. Returning to a book of almost forty years ago has brought home to me the substantial changes in the readings of early Indian history, some arising out of new data and many more from new interpretations of the existing data. There has been much discussion on these readings and my participation in these has shaped my own understanding of this period. The attempt here is to incorporate such readings that I think are valid without writing an entirely different book. Inevitably, however, there is much that is different in this book. Many ideas that were merely glanced at in the earlier version have now been further drawn out. One may not have been ware of it at the time, but the earlier version was written at a nodal point of change when early Indian history, which had begun essentially as an interest in Indology, was gradually becoming part of the human sciences ñ a change that I hope to demonstrate in the first chapter on historiography. I have stayed largely within the framework of the earlier book since I thought it was still viable and did not require radical alteration. Chapters have been re-oriented so that some contain more new material, while in others the emphasis is on new interpretations. The reading of early Indian history has seen considerable changes in the last four decades and I have sought to capture these in the narrative that follows.

The new readings that emerged from various ongoing assessments. Some were of colonial interpretations of the Indian past, which also had to contend with the attitudes to Indian culture that were prevalent in the period just after Indian independence. In the popular imagination of Europe, India had been the fabulous land of untold wealth, of mystical happenings and of an association with ideas that reached beyond mundane experience. From gold-digging ants to philosophers who lived naked in the forests and meditated on the after-life of the soul, these were all part of the picture of India formed by the ancient Greeks, for example, and these images persisted in Europe into more recent centuries. As in every other ancient culture, wealth in India was limited to the few. Publicized myths, such as that of the rope trick, was also the preoccupation of just a handful of people. It is true, however, that acceptance ñ sometimes bemused ñ of such notions was more extensive in India. Whereas in some cultures the myth of the rope trick would have been ascribed to the prompting of the devil, and all reference to it suppressed, in India it was received with a mixture of belief and disbelief. A fundamental sanity in Indian civilization has been due to an absence of Satan.

Other reactions contending with earlier colonial and nationalist views of Indian culture were different. One was the rather simplistic reaction of annulling or reversing negative statements about Indian civilization and exaggerating the positive statements ñ a reaction that now seems to be capturing some part of the popular Indian imagination. The more serious concern with history was its recognition as a discipline with a method, including the search for readings that incorporated viable alternative ways of explaining the past. It is the latter that is being set out in this book.

To begin with the beginning then, is to start by asking how histories of India 1 came to be written, who the historians were, why they were writing and what were the intellectual and ideological influences that shaped their histories, in short, that which is now called historiography. HIstory is not information that is handed down unchanged from generation to generation. HIstorical situations need to be explained and explanations draw on analyses of the evidence, providing generalizations that derive from the logic of the argument. With new evidence or fresh interpretations of existing evidence, a new understanding of the past can be achieved. But interpretations have to conform to the basic requirements of using reliable evidence, analytical methods and arguments drawing on logic. Following from these, a sensitivity is needed to the ways in which people from earlier times led their lives and thought about their past. Historiography therefore becomes a prelude to understanding history as a form of knowledge.

Interpretations frequently derive from prevalent intellectual modes. These constitute shifts in the way history is read. Looking at how histories are written is in part the intellectual history of the period under discussion and can therefore be vibrant with ideas and explanations. The starting point in the history of a society, therefore, has to be a familiarity with its historiography ñ the history of historical interpretation. This provides recognition of the intellectual context of history, instead of setting this aside with a preference for just a narration of events. Familiarity with the context encourages a more sensitive understanding of the past. This awareness of historiography has contributed substantially to the change in understanding Indian history over the last half-century.

Historiographical change incorporates new evidence and new ways of looking at existing evidence. The inclusion of perspectives form other human sciences such as studies of societies, economies and religions has led to some important reformulations in explaining the past, resulting primarily from asking different questions from the sources than had been asked before. If earlier historical writing was concerned largely with politics, today it includes virtually all human activities and their interconnections. These are crucial to the argument that the image of reality, as reflected in the human sciences, is socially and culturally controlled and that actions have multiple causes. Advances in knowledge would inevitably change some of these perspectives. Historical explanation therefore creates an awareness of how the past impinges on the present, as well as the reverse.

Among the new sources of evidence, quite apart from the occasional coin, inscription or sculpture, have been data provided by archaeology, evidence on the links between environment and history, and the insights provided by historical and socio-linguistics. Aspects of the oral tradition, when used in a comparative manner, have often illustrated the methods that are used to preserve information, either by societies that are not literate or by those that chose to use the oral form in preference to the literate. The possibility of applying these methods to an earlier oral tradition has been revealing.

In recent years the early history of India has increasingly drawn on evidence from archaeology, which has provided tangible, three-dimensional data in the artefacts and material remains discovered through survey and excavation. These were once used to corroborate the evidence from literary and textual sources (and in some theories about ancient India they continue to be thus used). But archaeological data may or may not corroborate literary evidence, and, where they do not, they provide and alternative view. In the absence of written evidence, or where the written evidence remains undeciphered, artefacts can fill lucanae. The corroboration is not one-to-one since archaeological data are substantially in the form of artefacts, whereas textual information is abstract, and both are subject to the intervention of the historian's interpretation. The relationship of archaeological data with literary evidence is complicated and requests expertise in each category. Reacting against the earlier tyranny of the text, some archaeologists today would deny the use of texts, even in comparative way.

Sophisticated methods of excavation and the reading of excavated data are far more complex than in the days when an archaeologist had merely to dig and to discover. Various techniques from scientific disciplines are being used in the analyses of archaeological data, and the scope of the information provided by these has expanded enormously to include data on climate, ecology, settlement patterns, palaeo-pathology, flora and fauna. Palaeo-botany ñ the study of plant and seed remains from an excavation ñ relates to the flora and environmental conditions, and therefore adds another dimension to the understanding of human settlements. Some of this data can lend itself to a modicum of statistical analysis.

India still sustains an extensive range of societies, some even suggesting a stone age condition. This 'living pre-history', as it has been called, underlines the continuity of cultural survivals. Attempts are now being made in the cross-discipline of ethno-archaeology to correlate ethnographic studies with the excavations of human settlements. The correlating may raise some doubts, but the usefulness of such studies lies in the asking of questions, for instance, on forms of social organization or on the functions of artefacts. In areas where there are some cultural survivals, these procedures can endorse the assistance occasionally provided by fieldwork as an adjunct to textual studies, and, as has been rightly argues, this is particularly pertinent to the study of religion in INdia. Fieldwork provides insights that can enhance the meaning of the text. The changes that occur, for instance, in rituals incorporate elements of history, particularly in societies where for many people ritual activity or orthopraxy is more important that theology or orthodoxy. The entirely text-based studies of religions are now being supplemented by comparative studies of the practice of various religions.

Impressive evidence, both in quality and quantity, has come from sites dating to the second and first millennia BC excavated during the past half-century. It is now possible to map the settlements of the period subsequent to the decline of the first urban civilization in north-western India and this provides some clues to the successor cultures. There is also evidence on some of the precursor settlements in the Ganges Plain and its fringes in central India, providing clues to the nature of the second urbanization of the mid-first millennium in the Ganges Plain. However, these questions can only be answered after there have been horizontal excavations of the major sites, and activity that awaits attention. Megalithic burials of various kinds, dating from the late second millennium BC, are especially characteristic of the peninsula. Their origins and relationships to settlements remains somewhat enigmatic, but at least they provide evidence of cultural levels and networks prior to the information from inscriptions, coins and texts.

Recent studies of archaeological data have led to an interest in the environment as a factor in the making of history. This began with the long debate on whether the decline of the Indus cities was substantially due to environmental degradation. To this has been added the evidence of the drying up of the Ghaggar-Hakra River in northern INdia, with related hydraulic changes and their historical implications. Archaeological evidence has also been used to suggest a decline in urban centres during the Gupta period, thus questioning its claim to being an age of considerable urban prosperity. Artefacts can be examined as pointers to technology, leading to the examination of the role of technological change in history. There has been an extended discussion, for example, on the role of iron technology ñ particularly in the clearing of forests and the use of the iron ploughshare as processes related to urbanization in the Ganges Plain.

Archaeological evidence has also underlined the significance of geography to history, particularly in understanding the location of settlements, the movements of peoples and the creation of states. Large unitary kingdoms were more easily hosted in the northern Indo-Gangetic Plains. The southern half of the subcontinent, the peninsula, was divided into smaller regions by mountains, plateaus and river valleys ñ a topography that made the functioning of expansive kingdoms of the north attracted the attention of the historians. Periods when such kingdoms flourished were described as 'Golden Ages' and those that saws the growth of smaller and more localized states were viewed as the 'Dark Ages'. The history of the peninsula received far less attention, except when it too could boast of large kingdoms. It suffered further from the fact that political strategy in the peninsula and its economic potential differed from that of the north. This is particularly noticeable in the deployment of maritime commerce as part of the economy in some states.

Among the more interesting departures from earlier views has been the realization that particular geographical regions do not remain pivotal to historical activity permanently. They can and do change, as do the regions that are their peripheries. Sometimes multiple centres share the same history and at other times the centres have diverse histories. Why such regions change and how this affects historical evolution is in itself a worthwhile exploration. The recognition of the region and its links with geomorphology and ecology is drawing the attention of historians. However, a region in the Indian subcontinent cannot become an isolated historical entity, and regional histories inevitably have to be related to larger wholes. Detailed studies of regions have inducted an interest in landscape and how it has changed. The agencies of change are dependent on geology, geomorphology and human activity, but what needs to be more looked at more closely is the effect of a change in landscape on history. The most obvious examples of this are changes in river courses or deforestation. We still tend to resume that the landscape of today was also the landscape of yesterday.

Associated with fieldwork is the study of oral traditions, which has been used by anthropologists in deriving material for analyzing myths and for kinship patterns. Although myths need not go back to earlier times, they can in some cases carry forward earlier ideas. But because of their fluid chronology, and the fact that they are generally not records of actual happenings, myths can only be used in a limited way. Mythology and history are often counterposed and myth cannot be treated as a factual account. Yet the prizing out of the social assumptions implicit in a myth can be helpful to reconstructing some kind of history. The interpretation of myths, if handled with caution, can invoke some of the fantasies and subconscious beliefs of their authors, while the structure of the myth can hint at the connections and confrontations in a society of those sustaining the myths. Since the history now reflects many voices, some from sources other than those from the from the courts of rulers, the oral tradition or the more popular traditions are no longer dismissed as unimportant. Obviously the survival of the oral tradition is from a recent period, but a familiarity with the techniques of assessing an oral tradition has been helpful in re-examining texts that were once part of an early oral tradition. Oral sources were sometimes preserved through being so carefully memorized that the text almost came to be frozen, as in some of the Verdic ritual compositions. Alternatively, the memorization was less frozen and more open, with a composition such as the epic poetry of the Mahabharata, and many interpolations became possible. The ways in which oral traditions work provide a variety of approaches to such texts.      Linguistics is another field that is proving helpful to historians of early India. Analyzing a word helps to explain its meaning and, if it can be seen in a historical context, much is added to the meaning. Words such as rajañinitially meaning chief and subsequently king ñ constitute a history of their own and have a bearing on historical readings. Socio-linguistics provides evidence of how words can point to social relationships through the way in which they are used. Given the connection between language and the fact that languages change, both through use and through communication between speakers of different languages, such change becomes a significant adjunct to other historical evidence. The study of a language from the perspective of linguistics is not limited to similarities of sound or meaning, but involves a familiarity with the essential structure of the language ñ grammar, morphology, phonetics ñ and this is more demanding that just being able to read and write a language.

Linguistic diversity may well have been registered in the Indian subcontinent from earliest times, which might explain part of the problem in attempting to decipher the Indus script. Among the many languages used in India, Tibeto-Burman, for example, has been associated with the northeastern and Himalayan fringes. The Austro-Asiatic group of languages, particularly Munda, clusters in parts of central and eastern India. It could have been more widespread if one believes the mythology of its speakers or, for that matter, the evidence of some of the linguistic elements which occur as a substratum in the earliest Indo-Aryan compositions. Dravidian is likely to have been more extensively used that it is now, with groups of speakers in central India and with four major languages derived from it in the peninsula, not to mention the pocket of Brahui in the north-west of the subcontinent. The reason why, or the way in which, a language either spreads or becomes restricted, has historical explanations.

Indo-Aryan spread gradually over northern India, incorporating some elements of Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian. It bears repeating the Indo-Aryan is in fact a language label, indicating a speech-group of the Indo-European family, and is not a racial term. To refer to 'the Aryans' as a race is therefore inaccurate. The racial identities of speakers of Indo-Aryan languages are not known. When textual sources refer to arya the reference is generally to an identity that involves language, social status and associated rituals and custom. It is in this sense that the term is used in this book.

Other than archaeological data, there have been no major sources of new evidence that would radically change our understanding of the period. The recent discovery of important inscriptions and coins has clarified some ambiguities. The exploration of textual data has led to evidence being gathered from texts of historical importance, but in languages other than Sanskrit. Perhaps the most significant change with regard to textual sources is a greater recognition than important authoritative, didactic texts, or even the epics, as we have them today, were not necessarily written at a precise point in time. They have been edited over long time periods and interpolations have been incorporated. A single authorship for a text is not insisted upon. The tradition of writing and using texts in the early past was different from the way in which we view authorship and texts today. It was recognized that succession of authors, generally of the same persuasion, could edit the same text. The authorship, audience and purpose of a text are also now receiving attention when data is gathered.

;The problems of tech chronology of these texts remains as complicated as before, and this prevents their being closely related to a particular period. A large number of texts of other genres, for instance creative literature, are of single authorship, even if their chronology is sometimes uncertain. These have been used in making comparative linguistic analyses. Some attempts have also been made in sifting linguistic style and usage to ascertain the history of the compilation of a text. Such sifting has been facilitated on a few occasions through the use of computers, although this technique is not entirely without hassles.

One of the current debates relating to the beginnings of Indian history involves both archaeology and linguistics, and attempts to differentiate between indigenous and alien peoples. But history has shown that communities and their identities are neither permanent nor static. Their composition changes either with the arrival of new people in an area, and the possible new technologies that are introduced, or by historical changes of a more local but far-reaching kind. Some areas are more prone to change, such as borderlands, mountain passes and fertile plains, whereas densely forested areas or deserts may retain their isolation for a longer period until such time as there is a demand on them for resources. 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. It is precisely the intermixture of peoples and ideas that the genesis of cultures is to be found. Such arguments arise from the concerns of present-day privilege and power, rather than from the reading of history.

It was not just the landscape that changed, but society also changed and often quite noticeably. But this was a proposition unacceptable to colonial perceptions that insisted on unchanging character of Indian history and society. The concentration on dynastic histories in the early studies was due to the assumption that in 'Oriental' societies the power of the ruler was supreme even in the day-to-day functioning of the government. Yet authority for routine functions was rarely entirely concentrated at the centre in the Indian political systems. Much that was seen as essentially centralized in theories such as 'Oriental Despotism' was in actual fact localized through the functions of caste and of other organizations. The understanding of political power in India involves analyses of caste relationships and institutions, such as the guilds and rural and urban councils, and not merely a survey of dynasties. That the study of institutions did not receive much emphasis was in part due to the belief that they did not undergo much change: an idea derived from the conviction that Indian culture had been static, largely owing the lethargy of the Indian and his gloomy, fatalistic attitude to life. Yet even a superficial analysis of the changes in social relationships within the caste structure, or the links between politics and economic systems, or the vigorous mercantile activities of Indians throughout the centuries, points to anything but static behaviour or an unchanging socio-economic pattern. At certain levels there are aspects of cultural traditions in India that can be traced to roots as far back as a few thousand years, but such continuity should not be confused with stagnation. The chanting of the gayatri2 hymn has a history of three millennia, but its current context can hardly be said to have remained unchanged from earlier times, and for the historian the context is as important as the content of the hymn.

In common with all branches of knowledge, the premium on specialization in the later twentieth century has made it impossible to hold a seriously considered view about a subject without some technical expertise in the discipline. Such expertise enhances both the pleasure and the understanding of what is under study. To be able to read a text or a coin legend or an inscription is the bare minimum of knowledge required: some familiarity within the mathematics of numismatics, the semiotics of symbols and the contextual dimensions of a text make history a far richer discipline than it was thought to be. The interpretation of a text draws on its authorship, intention, audience, historical context and its interface with other texts of its kind. As a result there is a distance between the professional historian and the amateur writing history. The function then of a history such as this is to provide some flavour of the richer taste emerging in historical research.

My attempt in this book is to treat political history as a skeletal framework in order to provide a chronological bearing, even if chronology is not always certain. This also introduces a few names of rulers as a more familiar aspect of early Indian history. However, the major focus of each chapter is the attempt to broadly interrelate the political, economic, social and religious aspects of a period with the intention of showing where and why changes have occurred and how these in turn have had an effect on each aspect. Where there are continuities these will become apparent. The subdivisions in each chapter, therefore, are not meant to suggest separate entities, but are pointers to what is significant in that period. The contents of the chapters do not exactly match the periods listed in the first chapter in my reconsideration of periodization, but the book does follow the pattern suggested.

The pattern of change moves from small societies and states with a relatively uncomplicated organization to the emergence of more complex societies, often accompanied by large states and the requirements of such states. In summary form, the latter included a variety of facets, such: the need to administer extensive territory, literally , in terms of the reality on the ground; agrarian and commercial economies of varying kinds; diverse social forms, some of which were viewed as part of a uniform caste organization, while others were described as deviant forms; the structures of knowledge and the way in which their ideological formulations were linked to other aspects of society and culture; manifold religious sects expressing social concerns, as well as incorporating ideas that ranged form mythology to philosophical notions; creative literature of various kinds; the location of sacred sites that gave a tangible presence to religious sects and their varied forms of worship. Implicit in the listing of these items are the ways in which they are linked, and their forms are either influential or fade away. The discussion of these links and the changes they bring about, in other words the explanation of historical change, will hopefully unfold the narrative.

The structure of administration that helped the define the nature of the state began as a rudimentary form of ensuring the functioning of a particular form of government, for instance chiefship or kingship. It tended to become increasingly complex as it had to adjusted to the environment ñ forests, pastures, deserts, fields, mountains, seas ñ and the environment could be diverse in the large states, which sometimes prevented a neat, uniform administration. The notion of governance, therefore was modified up to a point by local requirements. The balance between the concentration and the distribution of power was another determining factor of administration, as was the control over resources. Theories of governance would both have influences, and been influenced by, the form of administration. Territory included within a state could be defined by campaigns where a successful campaign brought in more territory, or else the existing territory could be eroded if the campaign failed. Such demarcations derive from politics, but also, although to a lesser extent, from terrain.

Economies were matched to the patterns of states and to the power that they wielded. Agrarian economies varied in relation to ecology, crop patterns, methods of irrigation and the hierarchy of control over agricultural land. The latter was initially diverse, but slowly evolved into forms that extended over large areas. The forms grew out of matters relating to sources of power, resources for the economies and the diverse methods of obtaining and controlling human labour. The growth of cities is also a pointer to commerce, with trade being the most effective economy in some areas. Histories of India in the past have been essentially land-locked, with maritime trade playing a marginal role. This is now being corrected by the attention given to maritime trade, both in terms of the commercial economy and the creation of new social identities involving traders who settled in India.

There has been a tendency to treat caste as a uniform social organization in the subcontinent. But there are variations in terms of whether landowning groups or trading groups were dominant, a dominance that could vary regionally. The hierarchical ordering of society became uniform, but there were ways of handling the hierarchy that introduced regional variations. Both agriculture and commerce allow a different set of freedoms to, and restrictions on, castes. This raises the question of whether in some situations wealth, rather than caste-ranking, was not the more effective gauge of patronage and power. The formation of castes is now being explored as a way of understanding how Indian society functioned. Various possibilities include the emergence of castes from clans of forest-dwellers, professional groups of religious sects. Caste is therefore seen as a less rigid and frozen system than it was previously thought to be, but at the same time this raises a new set of interesting questions for social historians.

The manifold expressions of structured knowledge are generally seen as tied to philosophical notions, as indeed they were. But not all categories of knowledge were invariably divorced from technological practices and texts. The techniques of preserving knowledge or the methods of advancing knowledge are diverse, ranging form the oral to the literate, and incorporate, at various levels, the technological as well as the theoretical. Equally important are the intellectual contestations between the heterodoxy and the orthodoxy, between the nature of belief and the nature of doubt.

Creative literature is characteristic of every period, but the predominant forms that it takes would appear to vary. The great oral compositions, such as the epics, took shape in the early times, while the more courtly literature of the educated elite became more frequent from the early centuries of the Christian era. Nevertheless, even if courts fostered poetry and drama of a sophisticated kind, the popularity of epics continued. This popularity is demonstrated from time to time in the choice of themes for courtly literature selected from popular literature, but of course treated in a different manner.

Similarly, religious literature ranges from ritual texts to the compositions of religious poets and teachers intended for a popular audience, and the intricacies of the philosophical discourse intended for other audiences. Since the sources are largely those of the elite, we have less information of the religions of ordinary people, and what we do know comes indirectly from the sources. Possibly the excavation of settlements in the future will provide more data on popular religion. But from what can be gathered there appears to have been a considerable continuity at the popular level, for example in the worship of local goddesses ñ as would be expected.

Apart from the study of texts, on which the initial understanding of Indian religions was based, the history of religions in India has been studied by investigating cults with information on ritual and belief, and working on the history of sects that extends to the social groups supporting particular beliefs and forms of worship. Arguing the Vedic Brahmanism ñ drawing its identity from the Vedic corpus ñ was a religious for associated with socially dominant groups, supporting practices and beliefs that could be seen as an orthodoxy, there have been studies of movements that have distanced themselves in various ways from Vedic Brahmanism. The Shramana group ñ Buddhism, Jainism and various 'heterodox' sects ñ is one such well-established group. More recently, sects within the Hindu tradition deriving their identity from the texts known as the Agamas and the Puranas, variously linked with or distanced from the orthodoxy, are being seen as constituting what some historians of religion prefer to call Puranic Hinduism or the Puranic religions. The distinguishing features relate to differences in belief and ritual from Vedic Brahmanism. The history of these sects points to processes that either retain their distinctiveness or else encourage an accommodation with Veid Brahmanism, although the two are not equated.

Close identities between religious sects and castes are frequent in Indian religion and the multiplicity of reasonably independent sects has led some scholars to speak of the Hindu religions (in the plural). The term 'Hindu' to describe a religious identity came into currency as late as the second millennium AD. Prior to that, sectarian identities were more frequently referred to, since the over-arching term Dharma included not only sacred duties but also a range of social obligations. Sects are not invariably formed by breaking away from historical religious mainstream, but are at times born from a mosaic of belief, worship and mythology coming together. Relating religious sects to castes as segments of society provides pointers to where religious and social concerns overlap. What is of greater interest is the manner in which some of these popular manifestations of religion find their way into the religious activity of the elite.

This last aspect also introduces a dimension relating to the history of art that perhaps requires a fuller integration into history. The history of art is no longer confined to discussing an image isolated in a museum or a structure seen as an entity by itself. Each is part of a larger history. Architecture, for instance, has also to be viewed as representing an institution, and both institutional and aesthetic needs would determine form. In many ways narrative provides a bridge, whether it be stories relating to the life of the Buddha or the mythology surrounding deities. At one level these are representations of reality, but are not merely that, and their other meanings also have to be read. Similarly, there remains the perennial question of whether the icon of a deity is to be viewed primarily as an aesthetic object of a religious representation, or both, or much more. There is also the question raised by art historians as to when an image become a stereotype. This is related to the question of the identities or artists or architects. These remain largely anonymous in the earlier periods, barring an occasional name, and it is only in the later period that names are mentioned more frequently so that we learn something about them. But even this information is limited, although we know relatively more about their patrons. Our contemporary aesthetic concerns become the primary, although these are different from the aesthetics of earlier times. As has been rightly said, we have to assess how much was routine and how much was inspired by the ideas of their time, which means that historians have to recover 'the period eye'. Implicit in these lists of items, and in their narration and discussion aspects of the past, are theories of explanation. My attempt to address these aspects leads to a presentation of how history moved and societies changed in the Indian subcontinent. There is now far greater sensitivity among historians of early India about the way in which early history is written and the intellectual dimensions of this historiography. Four decades ago, this was a preliminary inquiry but it has since become a theme of considerable historical interest. This has also made historians more aware of their own location on the historiographical map. To that extent, historical argument has become more demanding and more taut. Given the centrality of theories of explanation in the historical research that has followed, the narrative of history has been encouraged to present connections between the personalities of the past, their activities and the degree to which they made or were made by their historical context where information is available. However, barring a few exceptions, it is the historical context that has primacy, which is evident also in the shift of focus to the group. Inevitably, the range of players has increased with some attention to groups earlier thought to be insignificant and to activities earlier thought to be marginal. The change aims at a more integrated understanding of a complex society, its various mutations, its creativity and its efforts at enhancing its contributions to civilization.






End Notes

1. This book covers the early part of the history of pre-modern south Asia. Terms such as 'India' and 'Indian' apply to the subcontinent, except where specified as referring to the modern nation state of India.

2. A hymn from the Rig-Veda, evoking the solar deity, and regarded as particularly holy.

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