Book excerpt: Indian Cultures as Heritage — Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar

Indian Cultures.


Many Indian scientists, competent in their fields of specialization, know less about science as a form of knowledge, or the kind of reasoning involved in the scientific method that can also be applied to other forms of knowledge. This might explain their surprising and tacit acceptance of some of the more ridiculous statements made by non-scientists on the fantasy-based claims pertaining to science as supposedly practised by our ancient ancestors. This reduces their ability to recognize the difference between the remarkably impressive knowledge of premodern Indian thinkers in some of the sciences, and the infantile fancies that are often projected in their name by those ignorant of science in both premodern and in current times. The reasons for doing the latter are more often political rather than due to any scientific assessment.

The onus is not only on the scientist but also on the historian. Not enough attention has been given by historians to integrating the ideas related to the sciences from earlier times to other aspects of culture. The historian’s intervention from this perspective would require the re-crafting even of some historical formulations. This is being done for some other aspects in recent historical reinterpretations. One of these is the notion of ‘civilization’ as a somewhat fixed and continuing historical unit.

Used more casually in the earlier centuries to refer to the softening of manners and to artistic and literary achievements, it became a widely accepted unit of history from the nineteenth century, coinciding with colonial perceptions of history. The world was divided into discrete, geographically bounded areas each with a dominant culture, recognizably different in intellectual, aesthetic, technological and religious attainments, all of which were associated with urban centres, the use of scripts, the existence of a state and of an organized social order. In A Study of History, the British historian Arnold Toynbee counted twenty-six such civilizations, each rising in response to challenges and declining when the response was inadequate. More recently the count has been reduced to eight in Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. As a spokesman of the American political right wing, his theory that the future of the world will revolve around the clash of civilizations inspired by religious identities seems to envisage conflicting civilizations as a replacement for the cold war.

Huntington’s identification of these eight is, as is often the case, a confusion of various characteristics of religion, geography, dynasty, nation, race and ranking, and is generally unacceptable to serious historians. But more increasingly, the reaction it drew from critics indicates new parameters in the concept of civilization. Civilizations are not seen now as static or geographically bounded. Cultures, patterns of life and belief are not immutable and do not in themselves give rise to violent conflict, nor are civilizations necessarily defined by rationality as argued earlier by the German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber. Other schools of thought such as Marxist historiography as well as the rather different perspective of the Annales group in France have encouraged the reformulation of the notion of civilization focusing on explanations of historical change.

The more important components are cultures defined as patterns of living, deriving from economic factors, social divisions and belief systems. Variations in cultural forms within a geographical area tend to erode the monolithic character of earlier views of civilizations. Consequently, civilizations are characterized both by changes from an internal dynamic and by a constant borrowing, assimilating and interacting with others, which call for a continuous process of reordering and redefining. It is less the isolated uniqueness of each civilization and more the forms which societies take and the reasons for these, which have become the basis of comparative studies.

This in turn means that knowledge emerges from the combination of an indigenous genesis together with transmission from other coexisting cultures, a transmission that can involve some contestation and some negotiation. This process takes the form of cultural transactions, within a culture and between cultures. Knowledge, viewed either as a body of information or as theories of explanation, is part of this transaction. Questions of agency and of the exploitation of knowledge become central. This is as relevant to scientific knowledge as to philosophy and literature and requires that the former be integrated as part of culture. Where the history of science is written as technological innovation based on rational modes of thought, there the historiography of scientific knowledge frequently misses out on its being embedded in a particular kind of society.

Other aspects emerge from what I have mentioned so far. One is that scientific achievements can no longer be seen as the product of just one culture. A major breakthrough in science, or in proto-science as some prefer to call it, is more frequent when there is an intersection of ideas from various cultures. Understanding these points of departure is assisted when it is known which cultures were involved and how these cultures used the knowledge. The old nineteenth-century obsession with who got there first, and thus claiming superiority in scientific advance is no longer the concern of historians of science.

Even more pointless is the current fashion in India of proclaiming that the ancient Hindus were already familiar, many centuries ago, with what are now regarded as the achievements of modern science. Attempts to back such statements takes recourse to untenable statements such as that knowledge of plastic surgery is proved by the elephant head implanted on the child Ganesh. Minor grafting was known to many cultures but this was not plastic surgery. Equally ridiculous are the claims to the Pushpaka Vimana being an aeroplane despite the lack of studies of aerodynamics. The birth of the Kauravas from a hundred jars is said to be associated with the use of stem cell research but there is obviously no reference to this research in any text.

The answer to the statement that possibly such knowledge existed and that we do not know about it is that we do know and it didn’t exist. Scientific inventions have a long gestation period and historians can trace the steps by which the theory and practice came together in an invention. These experimental ways of thinking are recorded in texts that inform us of the stage at which scientific thinking has arrived. If such documents are neither available nor referred to, then obviously even the theory about the invention is in doubt. Another test of the existence of such knowledge requires that the information given in a text should be demonstrable through observation and experiment. If the description of a Pushpaka Vimana, as given in the texts, can be used to construct a machine that can fly, only then can we call it an aeroplane. Attempts to do this have not met with any success.


About the book:

Every society has its cultures: the patterns of how people live and express themselves, and how they value objects and thoughts. What constitutes Indian heritage and cultures has been much discussed. Romila Thapar begins by explaining how the definitions of the concept of culture have changed since the last three centuries, and hence require added attention. Cultures when defined by drawing on selected items and thoughts from the past, remain relatively unknown, except to a few. Yet each has a context and meaning relating them to the past and to their significance as a contemporary presence. Contexts, often regarded as unconnected to culture, can to the contrary, be quite illuminating. Thapar touches on a few of these, ranging from objects that identify cultures, to ideas that shape cultures, such as social discrimination, the role of women, and attitudes to science and knowledge. Thought-provoking books such as this spark debate, and the debate may lay to rest some current shibboleths about India’s culture.

About the author:

ROMILA THAPAR is Emeritus Professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She was elected General President of the Indian History Congress, and is a Fellow of the British Academy. In 2008, she was awarded the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, which honours lifetime achievements in studies such as History that are not covered by the Nobel Prize.

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