Review: From Lineage to State by Romila Thapar

From Lineage to State
A visit to one's hometown, just like a visit to a bookstore, leads to unexplored and pleasantly surprising treasures. The rains had put to rest all naysayers and the grounds were lush green with tiny water puddles for my pet dog to waddle through. Eight of the books which I had ordered almost two months ago were waiting to be held in my hands amongst which five of them had Romila Thapar as the author (one of the three authors in one case). She is one of the foremost historians of ancient India and has received several awards and honours including the Padma Bhushan which she did not accept. The sub-heading of the book is "Social formations in the mid-first millennium B.C. in the Ganga Valley". The book has five chapters: Preliminaries; Lineage Society; Transition to State; Ideology and the State; and Ergo.

The intent of the book has been of demystifying the coming of the State in the Indian context. The first two chapters cover the mixing up of religious texts, archaeology, myth and history. The pastoral way of life, the coming of agriculture and the forming of the 'society' in this part of the sub-continent. The focus though is on the Ganga Valley and she gives her reasons for it. The way of life as it would have been is described including practices and beliefs. But the most important contribution of the first two chapters is, first,  the etymological coverage of various words and phrases which are mentioned in various ancient literature. Some of the ones covered are: raja, dana, bhagya, vis, rajanya, grhpati. The second being of presenting the true picture of the varnas and the jatis as they must have been. The argument held by a lot of 'educated' people that the Brahmana were responsible for the subjugation of the other four varnas can not only be shred to pieces but burnt to ashes after a careful reading. The Brahamana and the Ksatriya were more in conjunction in their dominant role (sample this: "the distance between the ksatriya and the vis brought about a certain tension and ultimately took the form of the ksatriya claiming more rights of appropriation and the vis being reduced to subordination").  The evolution of land holding rights resulting in the withering away of pastoralism and the coming of agriculturalism is well explained interspersed with the corresponding interpretation from the writings of the texts.

A book which demolishes a lot of prejudiced myths and rises above the uninformed commentary. But it is to be read only by the serious history reader and not the casual one and should ideally be read after a more generic state-formation book (like The Origins of Political Order by Fukuyama), because most probably the author hasn't written this for the general reader but for the already well informed one.

The importance of this book can't be overstated.



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