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

  • Romila Thapar (a1)

My choice of subject for this lecture arose from what I think might have been a matter of some interest to Kingsley Martin; as also from my own concern that the interplay between the past and contemporary times requires a continuing dialogue between historians working on these periods. Such a dialogue is perhaps more pertinent to post-colonial societies where the colonial experience changed the framework of the comprehension of the past from what had existed earlier: a disjuncture which is of more than mere historiographical interest. And where political ideologies appropriate this comprehension and seek justification from the pre-colonial past, there, the historian's comment on this process is called for. Among the more visible strands in the political ideology of contemporary India is the growth and acceptance of what are called communal ideologies. ‘Communal’, as many in this audience are aware, in the Indian context has a specific meaning and primarily perceives Indian society as constituted of a number of religious communities. Communalism in the Indian sense therefore is a consciousness which draws on a supposed religious identity and uses this as the basis for an ideology. It then demands political allegiance to a religious community and supports a programme of political action designed to further the interests of that religious community. Such an ideology is of recent origin but uses history to justify the notion that the community (as defined in recent history) and therefore the communal identity have existed since the early past.

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This is the text of the Kingsley Martin Memorial Lecture given in Cambridge on 1 June 1988. I would like to thank K. N. Panikkar, N. Bhattacharya and B. K. Matilal for their helpful criticism of an earlier draft of this lecture.

1 Andersen, B., Imagined Communities (Vaso, 1983).

2 Bloch, J., Les Inscriptions d'Asoka (Paris, 1950), pp. 97, 99, 112.

3 McCrindle, J. W., Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian, (London, 1877).Arrian, , Indica, XI. 1 to XII. 9;Strabo, XV 1.39–41, 46–9.

4 Legge, J., Fa-hien's Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms (Oxford, 1886);Beal, S., Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World (London, 1884).

5 Sachau, E. C. (trans. and ed.), Alberuni's India (Delhi, 1964 reprint), p. 21.

6 Joshi, S. D. (ed.), Patajali Vyākaraṇa Mahābhāsya (Poona, 1968), II.4.9; I.476.

7 Wagle, N., Society at the Time of the Buddha (Bombay, 1966), p. 74.

8 Curiously, the eating of meat and the drinking of intoxicants was part of the rejection of Brahmanism for these were now abhorent to Brahmanism, a rather different situation from that described in the Vedic texts where brāhmaṇs consumed beef and took soma.

9 Sontheimer, G. D., ‘Some Memorial Monuments of Western India’, in German Scholars in India, II (New Delhi, 1976);Tulpule, S. G., ‘The Origin of Viththala: A new Interpretation’, ABORI, 19771978, vols 58–59, pp. 1009–15:Dandekar, A., ‘Pastoralism and the Cult of Vitṭhṭhala,’, M. Phil. Dissertation, JNU;Kulke, H., Jagannātha kult und Gajapati-Königtum (Wiesbaden, 1979), p. 227;Kulke, H. and Rothermund, D., A Histoy of India (London, 1986), pp. 145ff.

10 Bakker, A., Ayodhya (Groningen, 1984).

11 Manu, II. 14–15.

12 Thapar, Romila, ‘Renunciation: The making of a Counter-Culture?’, in Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations (Delhi, 1978), pp. 63104.

13 Thapar, Romila, ‘The Rāmāyaṇa: Theme and Variations’, in Mukherjee, S. N. (ed.), India: History and Thought (Calcutta, 1982), pp. 221–53.

14 Thapar, Romila, ‘Death and the Hero’, in Humphreys, S. C. and King, H., Mortality and Immortality: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Death (London, 1981), pp. 293316.

15 Thapar, Romila, ‘Sati in History’, Seminar, no. 342 (02 1988).

16 Personal Communication from a friend.

17 Sanyal, H., Social Mobility in Bengal (Calcutta, 1981).

18 Beal, S., Si-yu-ki, I. xcix.

19 I. 307.

20 Liu, Xinru, Ancient India and Ancient China (Delhi, 1988).

21 Thapar, Romila, Cultural Transaction and Early India (Delhi, 1987), pp. 17ff.

22 Desai, P. B., Jainism in South India (Sholapur, 1957), pp. 23, 63, 82–3, 124, 397–402;Epigraphia Indica V., pp. 142ff, 255; Ep. Ind. XXIX, pp. 139–44; Annual Report of South Indian Epigraphy, 1923, pp. 4ff.

23 Romila Thapar, ‘Renunciation’.

24 Manu, VIII. 41.

25 Asévalāana Gṛhasūtra, I.7.1.; Asévalāyana Sérauta-sūtra XII. 8; Pāṇiṇi, 6.2.62; Amarakoséa 2.3.19; Buddhist texts speak more specifically of village boundaries (Vinaya Piṭaka 1.109. 10; III.46.200). This was necessary in a system where the limits of areas for collecting alms had to be defined for each monastery.

26 See inscriptions from Sanchi as given in Marshall, J. and Foucher, A., Monuments of Sanchi (Calcutta, 1940); also Lüders, H., Ep. Ind X. nos. 162–907; See also the Bhattiprolu inscription, Luders no. 1332.

27 Fleet, J. F. (ed.), Inscriptions of the Early Gupta Kings and their Successors, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, III (Varanasi, 1970 reprint), pp. 79ff.

28 Ibid., pp. 162ff.

29 Bṛhaspati I. 28–30; Kātyayaṇa 2.82; 17.18; I. 126; Archaeological Survey of India, Annual Report, 1903–1904; 1911–1912.

30 Nārada-smṛti, X. 1–2; Ep. Ind. XXX, p. 169.

31 The Persepolis and Naqsh-i-Rustam inscriptions of Darius, in Sircar, D. C., Select Inscriptions, vol. I (Calcutta, 1965), p. 7.

32 Similarly Muslim women were often referred to as turuṣki, as, for example, in Hemādri, , Caturvarga-cintāmaṣi, Prāyasécitta-kāṇḍa.

33 e.g. Chatesévara temple inscriptions, where in the thirteenth century a reference is made to a campaign against the yavanas. Ep. Ind. 1952, XXIX, pp. 121–2.

34 Thapar, Romila, ‘The Image of the Barbarian in Early India–92. A fourteenth-century inscription from Delhi refers to Shahab-ud-din, as a mleccha, who was the first Turuṣka to rule Dhillika/Delhi.Bhandarkar, D. R. (ed.), Appendix to Epi. Ind. XIX–XXIII, no. 683.

35 Udaipur inscription of the time of Rajamalla in Bhavnagar Inscriptions, pp. 117ff. And see Bhandarkar, (ed.), Appendix to Ep. Ind. XIX–XXIII, no. 862. It is ironic that it was earlier thought that these Rajput ruling families may in some cases have had their origin in the Sakas!

36 Jaina, Sadadi inscription of the time of Kumbhakarnṇa of Medapata in Bhavnagar Inscriptions, pp. 114ff and D. R. Bhandarkar, op. cit., no. 784;Sharma, D., Lectures on Rajput History and Culture (Delhi, 1970), p. 55.

37 Kīrtistambha-praśasti, ASIR, XXIII, pp. IIIff.

38 Roy, Ashim, The Islamic Syncretistic Tradition in Bengal (Princeton, 1983).

39 Heltebeitel, A., The Cult of Draupadi (Chicago, 1988).

40 Thapar, Romila, ‘Ideology and the Interpretation of Early Indian History’, in Krishnaswamy, K. S. et al. (eds), Society and Change (Bombay, 1977), pp. 119.

41 Risley, H., The People of India (London, 1908).

42 As, for example, in the writings of Sen, Keshab Chunder, ‘Philosophy and Madness in Religion’, in Keshab Chunder Sen's Lectures in India (London, 1901).

43 Thapar, Romila, ‘The Study of Society in India’, in Ancient Indian Social History, pp. 211–39; also, ‘The Archaeological Background to the Agnicayana Ritual’, in Staal, F., Agni, vol. II (Berkeley, 1983), pp. 340.

44 Jarrige, J., ‘Excavations at Mehrgarh: their Significance for Understanding the Background of the Harappan Civilisation’, in Possehl, G. (ed.), Harappan Civilisation (New Delhi, 1982), pp. 79ff.

45 Burrow, T., The Sanskrit Language (London, 1965), p. 379:Deshpande, M. M. and Hook, P. E. (eds), Aryan and non-Aryan in India (Michigan, 1979).

46 Thapar, Romila, From Lineage to State (New Delhi, 1984), pp. 21ff.

47 Pargiter, F. E., Ancient Indian Historical Tradition (London, 1922).

48 Bṛhaddevatā 4.11–15; 21–5; describes the birth of Dīrghatamas and his son Kakśivant as the son of a dāsi. The Aitereya Brāhmaṇa 2.19 and the Kausīlaki Brāhmṇa 12.3 describe the Ṛg Vedic seer Kavasa Ailusa as a dāsi-putraḥ.

49 Thapar, Romila, From Lineage to State, p. 43.

50 Ṛg Veda. VII. 18.13.

51 Śatapatha Brāhmanṇa VI. 8.1.14.

52 Knopf, D., ‘Hermeneutics versus History’, Journal of Asian Studies 39.3 (1980), pp. 495505.

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Modern Asian Studies
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