Social Scientist. v 15, no. 165 (Feb 1987) p. 3.


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ROMILA THAPAR*

Cultural Transaction and Early India : Tradition and Patronage**

I. Tradition

A VARIETY of beliefs about our past have simmered over the last couple of hundred years. Some among them have come to be accepted as part of our cultural tradition and have been accorded the status of tradition. It may be argued that this happens when societies are searching for identity and the pronouncements of historians, particularly of cultural historians, come to be accepted as axioms. It becomes necessary therefore for historians to pause from time to time, to take stock as it were, by asking whether what has come to be accepted as tradition deserves to be so accepted.

The change of focus becomes imperative either when there is new information on the past or when the process of interpreting the past undergoes change. It is primarily the latter which in this case suggests a reassessment.

A consideration of cultural history would have to begin with an attempt at defining culture and this has been the subject of much discussion in recent decades. I can at best attempt a very brief summary.

The term culture itself has its own history. The primary meaning of culture is the cultivating of natural growth and by extension in recent times it has come to mean the cultivating of the human mind. Among historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries culture and civilisation became synonymous. The association of culture was however with superior social groups. The inadequacy of this limitation contributed towards the redefinition of the term in which it was extended to include all patterns of behaviour and ways of life. Culture therefore refers to behaviour patterns socially acquired and socially transmitted by means of symbols. It includes language, tradition, customs and institutions. It is in this wider sense that I am using the term.

Furthermore, culture in relation to tradition links the past to the

'"Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. ^Originally delivered as Qureishi Hemorial Lecture at New 0elt|i,



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