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Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 Paperback – 30 Mar 2004

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Amazon.com: HASH(0x928ce324) out of 5 stars 33 reviews
43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x933dfbac) out of 5 stars Excellent but... 20 Mar. 2007
By Raveesh Varma - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Having recently finished reading Ms. Thapar's work on Indian History up to AD 1300 (Penguin), I must conclude that it is a very impressive volume. A great deal of research and study must have gone into the creation of such a remarkable opus. I thought it was all-in-all, very respectful of its subject, and especially effective in peeling away centuries of pre- and mis-conceptions imposed by colonial/western commentators. I did not consider the book, in any way, anti-India or anti-Hindu. Anyway, a few points I will make are as follows:

1. Ms. Thapar introduces many remarkable and unusual ideas at the very start of her book (in my opinion, the best part), such as race being a colonial construction. But, she fails to discuss these adequately, and very often allows her thoughts to pass on to oblivion, rather than to a definite conclusion. Maybe, a "definite conclusion" does not exist, at this point-of-time, but a more in-depth approach would have been preferred (even if it added pages to the book).

2. Secondly, the quotes used on the back cover seem to imply, that this book should be primarily taken as rebuttal to farfetched claims made about Indian history, within India today. I don't think this is how this book should be advertised. It is so much more than just that.

3. The material presented deals primarily with the social, and even economic, history of India. There is a great deal to be found on art, literature, science and architecture. But, my impression was off cultural, social and religious history, rather than political history. I understand that kings do not constitute the alpha and omega of history, but Ms. Thapar barely even mentions kings of influence, such as Kanishka, or even travelers and chroniclers, such as Fa-Hein, in any detail.

4. Along that same line, I do not see why it is advertised to be the history of India up to AD 1300. The political history of the thirteenth century is dealt with in maybe 2 lines, if that. I will be very, very curious to see how Ms. Thapar will start volume 2, using a base as inadequate as this!

5. My greatest reservation about Ms. Thapar's work has to do with her presentation of Sanskrit/Hindi words using the Latin alphabet. She follows the colonial tradition of ending almost all the words with the ritual "a". This may be to account for every consonant in Hindi (vyanjan) having a vowel (svar) attached to it. But, she could have made better use of pronunciation aids such as a line overhead to indicate the drawn-out "aa" sound. Some examples were just absurd, such as "pida" for "pidha"/pain. English is not a very phonetic language at all. However, it appears that Ms. Thapar wishes to inhabit the aural world of the colonialists from about 150-200 years ago, but she must realize that by doing so, she is only selling short her otherwise magnificent work.

6. I should also point out that this book is not as beautiful a read as say, Prof. Basham's wonderful "The Wonder That Was India", or the collection of his 7 lectures, compiled into "The Origin and Development of Classical Hinduism". I will still recommend these books, unreservedly, to anyone with an interest in Indian history or culture. But, Ms. Thapar's book deserves to be read carefully as well.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x93517dc8) out of 5 stars No One Is Ever Happy With Indian History 16 May 2011
By S. Pactor - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Here is something I've learned about Indian history: It is pretty controversial to write anything about Indian History. There is very little you can actually say or write about Indian history without angering someone who cares very passionately about the subject your are speaking or writing about. Undoubtably, the single biggest factor in aggravating the debate on Indian historical subjects is the "Hindu Nationalism Movement." People in the US who are even aware of this phenomenon typically describe it in political terms, for example, when writing about the actions of the BJP or "Bharatiya Janata Party" but it should surprise no one that Hindu Nationalist ideas extend directly into historical research, writing and debate. Hindu Nationalism inspired ideas take many forms in the discussion of Early Indian History.

First, there is the debate, now largely won, by the way, over whether the initial Vedic migration into India was an "invasion" or not. Obviously, Hindu Nationalists would rather have it be said that there was no invasion, and many would further argue that India is the home of ALL Indo European Languages. Well, the good news: No Aryan invasion, more like small scale migration over many years. The bad news: There is no way that the Indo European language family originated in North West India, so call that one a draw. Even finding a "neutral" source on this subject is difficult, but Romila Thapar does a good job of presenting the current historical facts in a non-inflammatory fashion.

Another major area of dispute colored by Hindu Nationalism are the pre-Mughal Turkish led raids into Western India, which allegedly resulted in temple destruction and the building of a mosque over said temple location. These disputes have resulted in back and forth terrorist activity as well as the occasional mass killing. Here, Thapar notes that the raids seem not to have bothered the locals at the time, or rather they didn't see it as anything "out of ordinary" and that any later mosque building was done with the consent of the native community, not at the behest of an "outside" Muslim ruler.

In addition to the controversial subjects, Thapar does a solid job bringing the reader up to date on current "hot topics" in the field of Early Indian History, like "Did the medieval Indian state formation process constitute a variation of European defined feudalism?" She also does a remarkably thorough job of discussing the caste formation process in ancient India- I confess to say that it's complexity, even at this level of generality, somewhat escaped my comprehension, but the writing is so clear and concise that I will likely revisit her discussion in a few months.

All in all this was a solid introduction to the field of Early Indian history- worth a read for someone seeking a foundation in the subject.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x92134234) out of 5 stars 1950s McCarthy-ism in India? 2 Feb. 2013
By S. Ferguson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
1950s McCarthy-ism in India?

I am not Indian and I have no political agenda. I am a student of Sanskrit and the Sanskrit texts. Even though I am well aware of India's sufferings and very sympathetic to her, I do recommend that you read Romila Thapar for a balance in perspective. In many ways India will always remain an enigma, but as a veritable treasury of superb metaphysics, literature, music, and art, India is in my view unparalleled. The creativity of the Indian people, their sheer capacity for endurance and wisdom is awesome.

In my endless search to understand India I came across the lady historian, Romila Thapar. Thapar is highly respected by some and vilified by others. I want to share what I found with those who - like me - might not be aware. Frankly, when I first began reading her `Early India, From the Origins to AD 1300' my feeling was that she was a bit dry, western oriented, and tedious. Where was all the magic and mysticism I had loved in Alain Danielou's `A Brief History of India'? Then thanks to the Internet, I realized that Romila Thapar had made some serious enemies. This led me to further investigate and to learn why such a respected historian would elicit such vehemence.

Romila Thapar [born 1931], Professor Emeritus in History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, does not believe that history should be used as a political weapon and is against what she terms a 'communal interpretation' of Indian history that chooses facts through an extremely selective partisan filter. Again, I am not Indian and have no cultural bias, no political agenda, and no vested interest in Indian politics.

Thapar has a way of describing history that is very broad, encompassing many perspectives, more cleanly an overview abstraction, and perhaps beyond many. She accepts that history will never be fact because what has been written is always from a multiplicity of writers who are saying different things. She compares this to the 1950 Japanese film 'Rashoman' that tells the story of a murder from the four witnesses, including the dead. The film reveals how life is experienced so completely and amazingly from our totally different perceptions. We all live in our own holograms. For Thapar there is no linkage between 'belief' and history; and history will never arrive at any absolute truth, but is an attempt to analyze evidence to find what may have occurred.

McCarthyism in India
After a bit of research I found an illuminating article entitled 'Hating Romila Thapar' from the magazine HIMAL, June 2003. Thapar is described as: "...an historian who is indefatigable in the pursuit of knowledge and prolific in its publication, and who is above all a devoted partisan of the truth..." - Oxford University to Romila Thapar while conferring on her an honorary Doctorate of Letters, 2002.

Excerpted from HIMAL: "Thapar's academic work is controversial with the Hindutva lobby because it is grounded in professional methods of historical investigation, rather than in the pet historical theories of Hindu extremists relying on extrapolation from Sanskrit texts. The disagreement may appear academic in nature but the controversy around her appointment speaks to a larger cultural project being advanced under the guise of anti-communism. While it is true that Thapar makes use of some Marxist categories of historiography, unremarkable in itself given the strong Marxist tradition in professional Indian history writing, her opponents' objections are essentially political rather than academic. Thapar's documentation of early Indian life is at odds with Hindutva preference, grounded in a regressive Hindu orthodoxy, of seeing India as a purely Hindu civilisation, the political implications of which for contemporary India being obvious."

Excerpt: "The campaign [against Romila Thapar] represents the rebirth of McCarthism... [the] reference to McCarthyism is fitting - the Wisconsin conservative denigrated his political and ideological opponents by drawing on a deep-seated religious suspicion of left-wing ideologies, and advanced a powerful, dangerous cocktail of American nationalism grounded in so-called Christian values and unquestioning support for the nation and its political institutions."

Excerpt: "The matrix of political conditions in 1950s America and present-day India (and the outlook of many in the Indian diaspora) is similar. Hindu nationalists, both in India and abroad, are sensitive to India's position in the world and see themselves as fierce defenders of the Indian nation against `dangerous' elements, typically constructed as Muslim and also at times as communist/Marxist. McCarthyism and the anti-Thapar campaign are both built on a populist politics of denunciation, of collecting a supposedly monolithic people against a hostile force.

"In 1954, in a move strikingly similar to the history book shenanigans in India today, the US Congress inserted two words into the `Pledge of Allegiance' recited every morning by American schoolchildren - '...one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all', so that the pledge would differ from similar statements of loyalty in the Soviet Union that express no divine connection. The insertion in the US pledge is mild in comparison to the broader ideological project of Hindutva, but it rests on a similar assumption, that religion can be used to buttress state-inspired formation of identity. Unlike many of McCarthy's targets, Thapar will not fall victim to the ongoing assault. Tragically, though, the ambitious designs of the Hindutva brigade are already being realised in part throughout India."

The mechanics of propaganda in the west are better understood by many of us these days - and revealed in the book, "Taking the Risk out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty" by Alex Carey (1996). [available on amazon]. There are some very interesting points of evidence on proganda in Romila Thapar's books. It hasn't only been the Jesuits and their Inquisition, and more recently the manipulative monopoly media, which managed to disempower and bewilder people. Considering propaganda as the tool of political agendas, we may see more clearly what Romila Thapar describes as the place of language and literature in India in the 11th century:

"The more extensive use of Sanskrit coincided with educated brahmans seeking employment and migrating to various parts of the subcontinent. Where they were successful they were given employment and a grant of land. ... The Sanskrit section of the grant therefore had a political agenda, publicizing royal authority and legitimizing the titles and status of the king, along with his connections to ancient heroes and earlier rulers. The capturing of history became significant. By appropriating the compositions of the suta or bard - the traditional keepers of history - and editing these in a new format, the authors of the texts could control the use of the past and thereby the status of the rulers. The PURANAS, claiming to record the past, were now authored by brahmans and written in Sanskrit, although there was often a pretense that they were still being recited by the bard who was placed formally in the role of the original composer. The audience for this political agenda was the world of kings and courts."

The meaning is clear that these educated brahmans were given employment and land grants in exchange for skewing the written word to support the right of rule and power, which in our time is called propaganda. Thapar is worth reading - while we are still free to do so. Also do watch the BBC Hardtalk India interview with Romila Thapar available on YouTube.
27 of 35 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9216d3f0) out of 5 stars An excellent work on general history 14 Mar. 2004
By Lakshmi Srinivas - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
It's an excellent work despite the detractors who would view Thapar's works judgmentally, considering she has made no efforts to hide her Marxian credentials.
As someone said, it's not a revision but a totally rewritten work. While I agree with this, it would bear pointing out that there is a basic unity of purpose in the two works viz., her stress on the study of the evolution and growth of polities by means of analysis of larger socio economic trends, supported by study of material and other evidence. To this end, there is a long first chapter on historiography incl sources. Her approach is a contrast to the royal chronicle style of writing Indian history, a legacy of the British colonial times still in evidence in the new nationalist histories.
It's a riveting narration of facts and interpretation. The book is of uniform quality although there are one or two aspects where it could do with improved treatment.
I have the chapter titled "The Peninsula: Emerging Regional Kingdoms" in mind. The current work still carries the treatment of the Tamil bhakti movement over from the original Penguin edition. This is in effect a retrofitting of the character of medieval north Indian bhakti onto Tamilnadu of almost a millennium before. Inadequate knowledge of the Tamil bhakti texts on the part of Thapar as well as her informants such as R Champakalakshmi, refered to in the author's preface, might be to blame here. Some insight into religious traditions and practice might have helped here to place the bhakti movement in appropriate socio economic context and thus evaluate its contribution to the emerging polity.
Barring a few blemishes, it is a magisterial presentation and is unlikely to be bettered for quite a while.
25 of 35 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9291c294) out of 5 stars Comprehensive, but dry 31 July 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I have to concur with the later reviews. The problem with the book isn't (as those RSS propoganda-inspired reviews below like to whine) that Thapar is a Marxist. The problem rather is that her writing style is just dry. And it's not an issue of dumbing down the text to suit a mass audience, it's simply a matter of good writing.
Academic giants like Thapar should be able to do that (she's been writing books alone for 40 odd years or more, right?). When you're trying to find a solid introductory history to India both our of fascination with its culture and a firm belief that, along with China, it's destined in the century ahead to become a major world power, this is can make you wanna pull your hair out! Why is it that finding something scholarly, but readable is so hard? I wish this were the book to do it, sadly it's not.
And to the communalists who wrote reviews below, you should go read Ashutosh Varshney's "Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life," Chetan Bhatt's "Hindu Nationalism," Christophe Jaffrelot's "The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India," or especially for the person from Agra, Paul R. Brass's "The Production of Hindu-Muslim Violence in Contemporary India" for the truth about the Hindutva movement. The RSS is a terrorist organization and terrorism isn't hinduism, any more than it's Islam or Christianity, so find another way to express your anger at the world.
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