Romila Thapar in conversation with Rajan Gurukkal

This essay has been extracted from The Historian and her Craft Collected Essays and Lectures of Romila Thapar recently published by the Oxford University Press and republished here with permission.

Image sourced from YouTube

Rajan Gurukkal (RG): Let me start with a general feature of your studies, particularly the methodology part, which has inspired me a lot. I have a feeling that it could be equally inspiring to any researcher, for that matter, if you as the author talk about it autobiographically, focusing on how a topic occurs to you and what factors guide you in your preparatory reading in theory, in the methodological selection, and the subsequent exposition. Your topics are mostly problem-specific and hence invariably explanatory. Is it because you insist that an enquiry should always emanate from a problem and that its outcome should be an explanation?

Romila Thapar (RT): No, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that an enquiry should begin with a question. Questioning is important. I remember a conversation that I had with Sundar Sarukkai, who said that before you can postulate a question you have to have a doubt, which is of course a philosophical way of approaching it. I agree that you may begin with a doubt and that doubt can be tied into a question. The question may be something quite simple, the answer to which will further qualify what you are saying. Or it may be a question that gives you the possibility of looking at the event or the person in history from different points of view. And that one question then leads to other questions that reflect these different points of view. So I would say that the fundamental approach to any piece of research or what one is working on grows out of a question.

RG: In your writings, the initial condition is a priori reasoning. Theoretical understanding of the topic and critical appreciation of extant historiographical arguments seem to lead you to your question. The main question, as you said, leads to several subsidiary questions, which in their turn enable you to develop new knowledge. It is a two-way process—one relating to the understanding of theoretical works and the other relating to your articulation. Theoretical works are not often empirically relevant to your topic but they enable you to answer your questions beyond the extant historiographical understanding. You then seem to carry forward your answers along the hypothetico-deductive track till the point of articulation, by carefully checking them against the source material. You never accept any theory as such or as a whole in any of your studies. Be it the theory of Karl Polanyi or of Vladimir Propp or Marcel Mauss, you seem to take out of them only certain elements that apply to the situation that you analyse. You insist ultimately to come to terms with the historical context of your topic and its source material. In the process, sometimes you even modify the theory as the historical context and source material would require. How do you go about mapping your procedure?

RT: I think that together with the initial question, there is always the related question of what are the sources, because the question that you ask cannot be a question for which there are no sources. Asking a question is partly influenced by the kinds of sources that are available, but only partly so and only initially, and which is why I see it as a kind of two-step start. One is that you know what sources you will consult to begin with, or some of them at least, and you pose your question in terms of the known sources, and this directs you to the kind of question you can ask. You ask the question, you get a few answers and hopefully these lead to more questions. You then proceed to the second step which is that in order to answer these additional questions, you search for other kinds of sources that you may require. Then you come to the important question of looking for another set of sources from the ones that you know exist or that you have consulted. In other words, I would argue that a historian initially knows what some of the sources are, but in the course of investigating those sources may discover other sources that raise other questions. The juxtaposition of question and source takes on much importance.

RG: A point that needs to be highlighted here is the fact that sources seldom make your evidence explicit. What I mean is that the type of evidence that you finally ferret out from the source material is not out there for anybody to recognize.

RT: No, I don’t think that any kind of theory or explanation that you arrive at is obvious to anybody or everybody. I mean every researcher hopefully brings out an explanation that is new to others and, therefore, the research is new and advances knowledge about a particular subject. The kinds of questions that one asks, the kinds of answers one tries to give from examining the sources, in all this one is aware all the time that one is seeking for an explanation that may not be obvious but has been overlooked or has not been looked at, or has not been sought. The explanation then becomes new.

RG: What I have been trying to say is that most of your sources are not empirically given for anybody to be able to verify and go by them. Instead, they are sources conceptually recognized and theoretically constituted. The people who are not knowledgeable in the theory may not be able to understand them, until they learn from your explanation the logical connection between your premises and the conclusion. For example, let us take your essays such as ‘The Rāmāyaṇa: Theme and Variation’ or ‘Dāna and Dakṣiṇa as Forms of Exchange’, or ‘Economic Factors in the Mahābhārata’—they are totally nonconventional and conceptual. Their formulation is based on specialized textual knowledge on the one side and sound theoretical grasp on the other. Any person knowledgeable in the texts, say a conventional Sanskrit scholar, would not understand your conceptualization and the kind of questions that you ask with insights drawn from Karl Polanyi, Marcel Mauss, Vladimir Propp, and others. You have the concept of reciprocity, redistribution, household economy, the gift, or the peculiarity of the text’s structure and composition. You look for indications or clues in the text and ferret out the evidence in a state of theoretical awareness. There it is actually conceptual recognition and theoretical production of evidence. Apparently the evidence is not out there in the source material unlike in the case of a conventional historical narrative that invokes what is explicit in the source as its evidence.

RT: Here I would say that the distinction I make is the distinction of the change within the discipline of history. This occurs with Indian history from the 1960s onwards. Prior to that—and this is something that I keep on saying repeatedly—prior to that ancient or early Indian history was regarded as Indology and was to a large extent a narrative of what happened in the past. The narrative was constructed by gathering information from the sources and linking up what was found. Therefore, history was largely a narrative of what the sources were stating. I think the change that came in the 1960s was that early Indian history came to be treated as a social science. This shift to being a social science is what you are referring to, which is that you begin with a question or even a range of questions. It is not that questions were not asked earlier but the type of questions asked and the nature of the connections being examined were different. You have to be trained to ask questions by having some understanding of how early societies functioned. This becomes very important both in terms of looking at the sources, which describe how early societies function, and looking at theoretical works that also refer to how early societies have functioned, not necessarily only the societies you are researching but even others. This is where I think, for example, that in my case it was probably my interest in comparative history and in disciplines such as archaeology and social anthropology that played a part. I remember reading Gordon Childe and being very struck by the fact that he discusses the process of evolution of society, and then later reading a critique of this idea. All this does raise a range of questions in one’s mind. Some reading of earlier nineteenth-century social theorists, such as Marx and Engels to mention the obvious ones, was also helpful in suggesting questions and approaches that could be tried. Later, one read critiques of these approaches. Social scientists discussed theories of explanation in order to describe how societies functioned in the past. This was a relatively new area of interest although this was not the first time that a few of these questions were asked.

You mentioned dāna and dakṣiṇā and this is an example I often quote, because the book that got me thinking about this was the one published on the idea much earlier; it was Marcel Mauss writing on gift exchange. When I was writing my thesis on Aśoka, for example, gift exchange was meaningless to me. I didn’t know what it meant. It was only later when I started reading some of this [Mauss’s] work that I began to see that there are different ways of looking at this activity, and gift exchange is an interesting example. The Ṛg Veda has the well-known verses and hymns known as the dāna-stutis. The chief goes out on a successful raid and returns with substantial booty. The poet composes an eulogy, a praśasti to the chief, and the chief rewards the poet. A poet may claim that he received 10,000 head of horses and 50,000 head of cattle, and gold, and dāsī s as a gift from the chief. This is exaggeration because that economy couldn’t have sustained such a gift. Nevertheless, he must have received something as a gift, as a kind of fee. The interesting point made by Mauss and by others is that this is an exchange. If the chief is giving tangible gifts to the poet, what is the poet giving to the chief? He is giving the chief an intangible gift—which is that of status. Some of the poets composing the dāna-stutis state in their poems that they are bestowing immortality on the chief by praising him in a hymn. This is so because we today know about these chiefs only because of these hymns/poems. This is a simple act in which a fee is being paid to somebody who is writing a poem in praise of his patron, which praise confirms the status of the patron, and such acts in various ways are present all through society, in every age.

Even to this day one sees various forms of this exchange. Then one has to ask what is the nature of the status that is being bestowed and it becomes important to know this. What is the poet doing with the material wealth that he has received? Is he in fact using it productively or is he just living on it? What is it that gives respectability and publicity to the chief who has made this gift? One begins to ask a series of questions as Marcel Mauss himself does when he discusses the Śānti Parva and the Anuśāsana Parva of the Mahābhārata. He discusses gift exchange in that context. So what struck me then was that here was a simple act that has not been commented on because the meaning of the act has not been questioned at length. But it is providing a clue to the society, and the clue is that the patron is the chief, whose status is endorsed by two kinds of people. One is the priest who actually celebrates his status and anoints him as chief, and the other is the poet who sings his praises and continues to emphasize his status. One is already beginning to get a little understanding of that society, which is very different from simply saying that these were hymns that were written by poets in praise of the chief and stopping there. This is what I mean when I say that it was from the 1960s onwards when one started reading this literature on how earlier kinds of societies functioned, that one began asking different questions. If you ask similar questions of your sources, do you get new answers? Let me add that the idea is not merely to read about other societies. The reading has to help formulate new questions so there is always the sense of comparative thinking at the back of one’s mind. A fine example of such interdisciplinary work is that of Bruce Lincoln on cattle keepers in various contexts. He read Evans-Pritchard on the Nuer cattle keepers in East Africa. He had new questions to ask of the data from the Avesta in Iran and the Ṛg Ved, both of which were from cattle-keeping societies, apart from other similarities. They were agro-pastoralist cattle keepers. He notes the questions asked in the first case and sees whether such questions can be put to the data in the other two cases and also whether such questions can be asked at all. There is also the issue of the legitimacy of the question you are asking. Can you ask that question, are the sources going to give you an answer?

Read more extracts from the series here:

Origin Myths and the Early Indian Historical Tradition by Romila Thapar

The Historian and the Epic by Romila Thapar

Some Thoughts on the Inscriptions of Aśoka by Romila Thapar

Challenging Communalism, Challenging History – The Work of Romila Thapar by Neeladri Bhattacharya

Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity by Romila Thapar

The Ṛgveda: Encapsulating Social Change* by Romila Thapar

Also read:

“Borders only become borders when cartographies come into existence” – Notes from the open-house organised by “History for Peace” by Somok Roy