Romila Thapar’s ‘Ashoka-Yudhisthira’ Reference Sparks Controversy

Romila Thapar’s aptitude in history is called into question as an old clip starts trending online.

3 min read
File image of historian Romila Thapar.

Historian Romila Thapar’s name is the subject of a controversy yet again. This time around, a clip of the academic allegedly claiming that Yudhisthira, of the epic Mahabharata, was inspired by ‘Ashoka’ is trending on social media.

A one minute extract from a hour-long video has been doing the rounds on Twitter since Saturday, 21 September, with many questioning the historian’s credentials.

Pointing out the disparity in the timeline of the two events, several social media users took this opportunity to mock and criticise JNU’s professor emeritus.

However, there were some who came to her support and pointed out that the ‘Yudhisthira’ she mentioned was not the mythological figure, but rather the written character in the epic.

Online Criticism

Citing the clip, a member of the ‘Art of Living’ organisation questioned Thapar’s knowledge.


Many right-wing Twitter personalities, with ‘Hyper Nationalist’ or ‘Right-winger’ in their bios, were voraciously tweeting and criticising the professor’s ‘mistake’.

There were also some who chose to react with humour and sarcasm.

What Did She Say in the Video

Soon after the clipping went viral, the full video of Thapar’s talk surfaced online. The video, posted on Youtube in 2010, is titled ‘Romila Thapar - India's Past and Present: How History Informs Contemporary Narrative.’

In the video, she’s seen conversing with IDRC President David M Malone. Here is the full video:

In the full version of the speech, Thapar is seen speaking about the changing perception of Ashoka and Buddhist ideas.

Thapar raises the point that in Buddhist texts, Ashoka is celebrated as an emblem of peace, non-violence and tolerance. The figure was then later picked up by Nehru and turned into an emblem of ‘New India’. However, in Brahmanical texts, he is listed merely as a Mauryan ruler.

She then point out how, contrary to popular belief, some historians in the recent past have been arguing for the presence of Buddhist ideas in epics. Thapar then highlights Yudhisthira’s struggle in Shanti Parva, the twelfth of eighteen books of the Indian Epic Mahabharata.

Sharing a struggle common with Ashoka’s, ‘Yudhisthira’ has to pick between kingship and renunciation. This, Thapar points out, can be traced to the Buddhist idea of power vs renunciation.

In Her Support

While many on Twitter slammed Thapar, several users came out in support of her views.

Popular historian and mythology expert Devdutt Pattanaik tweeted to clarify the time periods of the two texts that Thapar highlights. A supporter of parallel narratives, Pattanaik’s work on Mahabharata, Jaya, is widely read and celebrated.

Pattanaik clarified that Thapar refers to Yudhisthira, the character in an epic composed 2000 years ago and Ashoka who ‘wrote edicts’ 2300 years ago.


Past Controversies

In the beginning of September, JNU administration had received flak from academic circles and media as the University had asked Thapar to submit her CV for ‘assessment’.

Thapar holds the position of Professor emeritus in the history department of the University. Several professors were taken aback by this action as the emiratus post is usually designated for life. Thapar, who taught at JNU between 1970 and 1991, was appointed to the post in 1993.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association had called the move “politically motivated.”

Others called out the University’s demand a step to “dishonour the acclaimed historian”, who has been critical of changes in the JNU and for not ascribing to the right-wing narration of ancient history.

In the past, her works have been criticised by the Right for perpetuating a plural history of the nation.

In reply to the demand, Thapar had submitted a letter to the administration explaining the status of her position, and had refused to submit her CV.

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