kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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An Interview with Romila Thapar

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Maybe, the Academic Council should be reminded that every scholar is required to question existing knowledge because that is the only way in which knowledge grows.

The single expert on the committee who said it would not be appropriate for undergraduate education felt that the teacher would not be able to sufficiently explain the background. So at what point do we draw the line on when it would be appropriate?

Well, that’s precisely my point. If you go on saying that the teacher can’t explain it, why have you appointed that teacher? And why have you trained that teacher to be somebody who cannot explain a simple thing like the variants of a text?

Was it an issue for the Academic Council at all or should it have been left to the History Department alone?

It should have been left to the History department, but I guess the Academic Council got cold feet because it had gone to court.

It’s been pointed out that Ramanujan himself is not a historian, but poet and folklorist. When it was suggested that instead they replace his essay with yours and R.S. Sharma’s, it was pointed out that both of you are historians and that there was a value to having an interdisciplinary view.

This is a really very creative essay. We’ve all written on this subject,…but what was nice about Ramanujan’s essay was that you got a different perspective on this, and that is what is so valuable for the student. In a course like that, where you’re dealing broadly with culture, you need to have a different perspective every now and again.

So as a broader issue, isn’t the interdisciplinary approach a good thing? Getting perspectives from those outside the field of History?

There’s nothing to stop a Physics professor from reading that essay and asking questions or coming to different conclusions. But in the same way as a History professor would not intervene in the Physics syllabus, one doesn’t expect the Physics professor to intervene in the History syllabus…

The interesting thing about this whole argument about interdisciplinarity is that the social sciences are always attacked. But the sciences are never attacked because people are scared of making a fool of themselves by saying that this is not something worthy of teaching. So nobody questions the sciences. But with the social sciences, the world and his wife are there to comment, in some cases, without any kind of background knowledge of the subject. There’s a feeling that you don’t need to be an expert; this is all common sense.

For many Indians, this is not just ancient mythology for an academic discussion, but also their own current religious beliefs. Do you think there needs to be any kind of leeway given because of that?

You’re quite right that it’s not just mythology but also religion, and it was made that. Let me just go back a little bit into history and say that initially, many scholars believe the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were just epic stories about heroes, and that’s the way they continued to be for quite a while. And then they were converted into sacred literature, by making Ram and Krishna avatars of Vishnu. And there’s a superb analysis of this by V.S. Sukthankar in Pune, who talked about the Bhrgu Brahmins converting these epics into Bhagwat literature, that is, converting the heroes into incarnations of Vishnu. And then it becomes sacred literature. Now today, yes, it’s considered sacred literature, but that is really not its roots.

Secondly, even if it is sacred literature, it is based substantially on mythology. I mean, this is very different from Buddhism and Jainism, where the stories … there are mythologies, very many mythologies, but at the same time, there is the hard core of the historical evidence of a historical founder, and what that founder is supposed to have taught. This is a different story altogether.

It’s again different from Islam or Christianity where you have the people of the Book, who believe that the Book is the truth. Most Hindus don’t believe that.

No, and one of the crises in the colonial period was when they set up the law courts and they said, according to European law, you swear an oath on the Bible. So they went running around asking which is the sacred book of the Hindus. And so you got the Bhagvad Gita, you got the Ramayana, you got the Vedas, you got all kinds of answers, because there isn’t a single sacred book, there’s a multiplicity of sacred books. And there again, the question of variation comes in. Who accepts which book as the primary sacred book?

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