Book Review: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Reviewed by Dr Madhu Kelkar

Indian Cultures.

Title: Indian Cultures as Heritage – Contemporary Pasts
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018
Pages: 222 pages 


Culture influences our values, world view, loyalties, behaviour and much more. Very often it is equated with civilisation a term that came to be used to describe societies that boasted of extensive territory, sophisticated language, literature, art and architecture, and above all, a single religion. Under the colonial influence, culture came to be redefined simply as a way of life of elite groups, for instance Aryans in the case of India. Unfortunately, our current understanding of Indian culture is overshadowed by this erroneous interpretation. Heritage, both cultural and natural, consists of ideas, objects and practices; contributes to quality of life, gives us a cultural identity and connects us with our past. India’s cultural heritage has always been subject to debates. While traditional historians favour the ‘unity in diversity’ approach in order to project a homogenised Indian identity and presumably invoke the spirit of patriotism, Thapar, in her latest book, Indian Cultures as Heritage Contemporary Pasts, does exactly the opposite.

A fearless, frequent and outspoken critic of our dogmatic and communal interpretations of the past, Thapar’s  book does not to go into the historical aspect of the making of Indian culture but provides glimpses of what is often omitted, marginalized, trivialized or is even considered irrelevant to its understanding. Drawing on her lectures and essays, published in the recent past, this book challenges the idea that Indian culture is the monolithic phenomenon it is often portrayed as in Indian historical writing or what is being currently imposed on the Indian citizens by cultural nationalists. Identification with a single culture, she argues, despite the existence of many in the country, is risky since it tends to dismiss all that does not conform to the mainstream forms, perpetuates inequality and silences all kinds of reasonable resistance. Culture is deeply linked with historical developments and bound to change. But the two differ as well. While history narrates and explains the past, culture can invent the past without any historical evidence. Therefore, one has to guard against spurious history which can be manufactured by culture. Thapar’s argument that we need to subject the Indian culture to rigorous historical scrutiny and juxtapose historical and cultural forms to understand their interface is highly relevant, especially in the present context when cultural forms are being subjected to identity politics due to ignorance and lack of general or intellectual interest in other cultures, within and outside the subcontinent.

The seven essays in the book engage with a panorama of themes, such as heritage, science, time, gender and caste based discrimination and knowledge – topics that are seldom brought directly into the discussion of Indian culture as they should be.

Cultural forms are inherited. Thapar states that though heritage and its contents undergo change, they are made to seem unbroken and ancestral, in order to legitimize an identity that is selected in favour of others. So what is selected and who does it assumes importance. ‘It is imperative,’ she says, ‘to ask who determines the importance of what is selected.’ Further, it is vital to ask questions as to whether what we regard as heritage was viewed similarly in historic times too. That heritage is transient and contextual is amply demonstrated by the case of the Ashokan pillars and their inscriptions, which apparently evaded comprehension of ancient and medieval rulers, reducing Ashoka himself to an inconsequential position as a ruler. Their inscriptions in Bramhi were deciphered by James Prinsep in 1837 and confirmed only in 1915, from which time they assumed importance as objects of heritage but which face criticism now, once again, due to their message of non violence. Cultural heritage is characterized by remarkable synthesis as well. Both the Ghaznavid and the Ghurid coins for example, manifest legends in Sanskrit as well as Arabic languages, as also carry images of goddess Laxmi. The Qutub Minar with its Sanskrit inscriptions of the names of the masons who built it, one among them being even of the Chandala caste, with dates inscribed in the Samvat rather than Hijri era, not only represents a completely different segment of cultural relations between the Hindus and the Muslims but also highlights the absence of a communal motive in the Muslim conquests in India. In our times, it is the demands of tourism that determine what constitutes heritage and what is to be preserved.

Wars and conquests, crucial factors of cultural change, followed as they are by migrations and trade, have been largely ignored in understanding Indian culture. The capture of its north western frontiers by the Greeks and the Kushans in India led to changes in the art form. Sculptures of Buddha from the Mathura and Gandhar School of art showed the influences of the conquerors.  Later, these Buddhist sculptures found their way into South East and Central Asia, thereby raising a vital question in the contemporary world about the nationality of the icon and therefore the culture to which it could be imputed.

Is science a part of our culture? Thapar argues persuasively that scientific achievements are the result of more than one culture’s effort. Hence, the current Indian claims that ancient Hindus were familiar with what are now regarded as the achievements of modern science lead to unsound assertions such as the knowledge of plastic surgery being known to them, proven by the implant of the elephant head on the child Ganesh. Likewise, obsession with the Aryan foundation of Indian culture, leading to the term Hindu science, the political use of religious identities and the insistence that anything Islamic is alien to Indian culture requires intensive examination. In fact the very division of science into Hindu, Islamic or European goes against its universal nature.

Culture has also to be probed to explore threads of inequality and voices of dissent. In the chapters on women and caste discrimination, Thapar raises new questions about gender and caste norms. Both women and the avarnas (asprishyas), were conspicuously ignored; the former by the Dharmashastras and the latter by the social order. Despite views to the contrary, the status of neither group could be considered static or ossified. Women were treated differently within the same religion and by different religions. The Arthshastra, for example, mentions the existence of the taxpaying prostitutes (ganikas), as well as the courtesans with the latter class being more sought after. Interestingly, however, while Manu refers to these ganikas contemptuously, Buddhist texts talk of them as accomplished women who were free to donate their property. Countercultures that existed among women in the form of Buddhist nuns (bhikkunis) and female Bhakti saints, who discarded Manu’s code of dutiful obedience and subservience to men, clearly challenge the idea that all Indian women were submissive. A study of such countercultures would be significant since not much attention has been given to the fact that women did contest patriarchy in their own way to a certain degree. Highlighting their autonomy in the past would aid assertion of their independence today.

As for the caste based inequality, it was the result of the process of inclusion and exclusion of social groups, which could be voluntary or involuntary. Even as Advasis and the asprishyas were kept away from mainstream society, our epics mention the self imposed exile of people, who wished to establish Mathas. Migrants were also treated as excluded groups until such times as they came to be assimilated. So what were the ethics, ideologies and values that governed exclusion?  Differences in social practices, language or belief were some of the reasons for social segregation. However, these too were subject to change as is visible in the transformation of words such as Dasa and Mleccha from being simply linguistic markers in the Rigvedic times, to bearers of filth later.

More importantly, ancient societies did not seem to have observed the Varna model as strictly as was claimed by the textual codes. Despite the theoretical superiority of the Brahmins they were not the dominant caste in many parts of the subcontinent. The Upanishadic example of Jabala, a dasiputra, who so impressed a Rishi with his truthfulness about his birth, that he was not only pronounced a Brahmin but also accepted as a student, proves that caste was a fluid concept. Nor were caste occupations adhered to stringently. Although it was the prerogative of the Kshatriyas, the warrior caste, to rule, the Nandas and the Mauryas were shudras, the Kanvas and the Shungas were Brahmans and the latter were followed by a series of non-Kshatriya rulers, including the Guptas. Varna therefore was a negotiable element. Some of these ideas are not new; however, the chapter on discrimination ends with a powerful message on social ethics – even as Thapar accepts the fact that inequalities and disadvantages associated with the caste system cannot be wiped out in a hurry, the contemporary economic scenario not being conducive for the same, there is a need to question exclusion and explain how and why these identities came into being. Such an exercise might also lead to an invalidation of that part of our heritage which is ethically not acceptable.

But by far the most compelling argument comes in the chapter on education, which is pivotal to an understanding of a culture. Cultural awareness depends upon how a society chooses to educate itself. However, victimized by political forces, the present-day educational scenario prevents us from doing just this. The contents and language of education, which determine the social ethics of a society, are being compromised by political forces, thereby jeopardizing our ability to question critically and make relevant inquiries about our multiple cultures as well as our knack to communicate this knowledge to others. Alarmingly visible in the contemporary trend of dismantling of the humanities and social sciences, this demise of content, she bemoans, will completely wreck the system of knowledge and render our society passive, meek and pliant. It is in this context that she has examined the vital role played by an institution like JNU, unfortunately under attack for its allegedly anti establishment stand, in the advancement of meaningful knowledge.

All in all, Thapar’s book is a tour de force covering many relatively untouched themes in Indian culture. Despite the repetitiveness of its central theme, it is eminently readable, well researched and convincingly argued and highly recommended for all students of history, sociology, cultural studies and of course, bibliophiles. It induces us to rethink our past at a time when obscurantist forces seek to impose collective identities and hegemonic cultures in the name of nationalism. Such an exercise will determine who we ally with and what we choose to resist.


Dr. Madhu Kelkar has done Ph.D in History, from the University of Pune, in the area of “History of Water Management in the City of Bombay 1845-1957”.  She is a permanent faculty at H.R. College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai, India.  Her areas of interest include History, Environmental Studies, and Travel and Tourism.


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