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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Ram Sharan Sharma, Indian historian, died at 91.

Ram Sharan Sharma was an eminent historian of Ancient and early Medieval India died at 91..

(26 November 1919 – 20 August 2011)

He taught at Patna University, Delhi University (1973–85) and the University of Toronto and was a senior fellow at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; University Grants Commission National Fellow (1958–81) and President of Indian History Congress in 1975. It was during the tenure of Professor R. S. Sharma as the Dean of Delhi University's History Department in the 1970s that major expansion of the department took place.[5] The creation of most of the positions in the Department owes to Professor Sharma's efforts.[5] He is the founding Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and a historian of international repute.[6]
On his death, a function was organized by the Indian Council of Historical Research which was hosted by the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, the eminent historians Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, D.N.Jha, Satish Chandra, Kesavan Veluthat and ICHR Chairperson Basudev Chatterjee paid rich tributes to R.S. Sharma and emphasized that he had influenced them in more ways than one.[7] Professor Bipan Chandra paid him the most handsome tribute: "After D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma was the greatest historian of India.”[8] Two of the most gifted historians of our times —D.N.Jha and Sumit Sarkar — were brought to Delhi University when Sharma was at the helm.[9]
During his lifetime, he authored 115 books[10] published in fifteen languages. As head of the departments of History at Patna University and Delhi University, as Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, as an important member of the National Commission of the History of Sciences in India and UNESCO Commission on the history of Central Asian Civilizations and of the University Grants Commission, New Delhi, and, above all, as a practising historian he has been influencing the major decisions relating to historical research in India.[11] At the instance of Dr. Sachchidanand Sinha, when Professor Sharma was in Patna College, he worked as special officer on deputation in the Political Department in 1948 where he was deputed to prepare a report on the Bihar-Bengal Boundary Dispute which he prepared in right earnest.[12][13][14] His pioneering effort resolved the border dispute forever which has been recorded by Dr. Sachchinand Sinha in a letter to Rajendra Prasad.[12][13][14]

Early life

Sharma was born in Barauni, Begusarai, Bihar in a poor Bhumihar Brahmin family.[15] With great difficulty his father sponsored his education till matriculation. After that he kept on getting scholarships and even did private tuitions to support his education.[11] In his youth he came in contact with peasant leaders like Karyanand Sharma and Sahajanand Saraswati and scholars like Rahul Sankrityayan and perhaps from them he imbibed the determination to fight for social justice and an abiding concern for the downtrodden which drew him to left ideology.[11] His later association with Dr. Sachchidanand Sinha, a social reformer and journalist, broadened his mental horizon and firmly rooted him in the reality of rural India and thus strengthened his ties with the left movement and brought him into the front rank of anti-imperialist and anti-communal intellectuals of the country.[11]

Education and achievements

He passed matriculation in 1937 and joined Patna College, where he studied for six years from intermediate to postgraduate classes.[12] He did his Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London under Professor Arthur Llewellyn Basham.[16] He taught at colleges in Ara (1943) and Bhagalpur (July 1944 to November 1946) before coming to Patna College in 1946.[12] He became the head of the Department of History at Patna University from 1958-1973.[12] He became a university professor in 1958. He served as professor and Dean of the History Department at Delhi University from 1973–1978. He got the Jawaharlal Fellowship in 1969. He was the founding Chairperson of Indian Council of Historical Research from 1972-1977. He has been a visiting fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies (1959–64); University Grants Commission National Fellow (1958–81); visiting Professor of History in University of Toronto (1965–66); President of Indian History Congress in 1975 and recipient of Jawaharlal Nehru Award in 1989.[12] He became the deputy-chairperson of UNESCO's International Association for Study of Central Asia from 1973–1978; he has served as an important member of the National Commission of History of Sciences in India and a member of the University Grants Commission.[12]
Sharma got the Campbell Memorial Gold Medal (for outstanding Indologist) for 1983 by the Asiatic Society of Bombay in November, 1987; received the H. K. Barpujari Biennial National Award by Indian History Congress for Urban Decay in India in 1992 and worked as National Fellow of the Indian Council of Historical Research (1988–91).[12] He is a member of many academic committees and associations. He has also been recipient of the K. P. Jayaswal Fellowship of the K. P. Jayaswal Research Institute, Patna (1992–94); he was invited to receive Hemchandra Raychaudhuri Birth Centenary Gold Medal for outstanding historian from The Asiatic Society in August 2001; and in 2002 the Indian History Congress gave him the Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade Award for his life-long service and contribution to Indian history.[12] He got D.Litt (Honoris Causa) from the University of Burdwan and a similar degree from Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Varanasi.[12] He is also the president of the editorial group of the scholastic magazine Social Science Probings. He is a member of the Board of Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library. His works have been translated into many Indian languages apart from being written in Hindi and English. Fifteen of his works have been translated into Bengali. Apart from Indian languages many of his works have been translated into many foreign languages like Japanese, French, German, Russian, etc.
In the opinion of fellow historian Professor Irfan Habib, "D. D. Kosambi and R. S. Sharma, together with Daniel Thorner, brought peasants into the study of Indian history for the first time."[17] Prof. Dwijendra Narayan Jha published a book in his honour in 1996, titled "Society and Ideology in India: ed. Essays in Honour of Professor R. S. Sharma" (Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1996). In his honour, a selection of essays was published by the K. P. Jaiswal Research Institute, Patna in 2005.
Journalist Sham Lal writes about him, "R. S. Sharma, a perceptive historian of Ancient India, has too great a regard for the truth about the social evolution in India over a period of two thousand years, stretching from 1500 BC to 500 AD, to take refuge in a world of make-believe."[18]
Professor Sumit Sarkar opines: "Indian historiography, starting with D. D. Kosambi in the 1950s, is acknowledged the world over - wherever South Asian history is taught or studied - as quite on a par with or even superior to all that is produced abroad. And that is why Irfan Habib or Romila Thapar or R. S. Sharma are figures respected even in the most diehard anti-Communist American universities. They cannot be ignored if you are studying South Asian history."[19]

As an Institution Builder

Impatient with inefficiency and guided by his radicalism, Professor Sharma had been a great builder of institutions.[11] Under his guidance the department of History, Patna University, drastically changed its syllabi and made a sharp departure from the communal and imperialist historiographical legacy of the colonial period.[11] He has the credit of activising the dapartment which was suffering from an almost incurable inertia and of initiating academic programmes which gave a distinct character to the History department of Patna University and thereby bringing it into the vanguard of secular and scientific historiography.[11]
In Delhi where he spent a smaller part of his teaching career, Professor Sharma's achievements are no less significant. The development of the department of History, Delhi University, owes a great deal to the efforts of Professor Sharma who radicalized it by converting it into a citadel of secular and scientific History and waged an all out war against communalist historiography.[11]
It is largely because of his efforts that the largest body of professional Indian historians, the Indian History Congress, of which he was the general president in 1975 and which honoured him with H.K. Barpujari Award in 1989, has now become the symbol of secular and scientific approach to History.[11]


Professor R.S.Sharma was known for his simplicity.[20] He was tall, fair and was always clad in dhoti-kurta.[20] Historian Suvira Jaisawal, Sharma's first PhD student, remembers her teacher not only giving a lesson in good writing but even mundane stuff like how to put pin in papers so it did not hurt anyone.[9] In the opinion of his student, Historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha, "A man of courage, conviction, utter humility and a strong social commitment, Professor Sharma is as unassuming as indefatigable in his academic pursuits. Full of compassion, he has been a constant source of inspiration to his pupils and other younger scholars. While he has been all warmth to his friends, he is extremely decent and generous to his detractors. His qualities of head and heart make him a truly great man."[11]

Writing style

Professor Sharma’s mastery of epigraphic, literary and archaeological texts enabled him to demolish many myths created by imperialist-colonialist historiography as well as by the cultural chauvinists of more recent times, and made scientific study of the ever-changing Indian society in all its dimensions possible.[20] His humility had no limits — he was always ready to learn even from a novice working in the discipline of history and go to the extent of acknowledging him/ her in his works.[20] Such a combination of scholarship and humility is not seen easily today, when even toddlers in history writing prefer to blow their own trumpets in the din of the market.[20]
In his writings Professor Sharma has focussed on early Indian social structure, material and economic life, state formation and political ideas and the social context of religious ideologies and has sought to underline the historical processes which shaped Indian culture and civilization.[11] In his study of each of these aspects of Ancient Indian History he has laid stress on the elements of change and continuity.[11] This has significantly conditioned his methodology which basically rests on a critical evaluation of sources and a correlation between literary texts with archaeology and ethnography.[11] His methodology is being increasingly extended to the study of various aspects of Indian history just as the problems studied by him an the questions raised by him have generated a bulk of historical literature in recent years.[11]

Major works

  • Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India (Motilal Banarsidass, Fifth Revised Edition, Delhi, 2005)
  • Sudras in Ancient India: A Social History of the Lower Order Down to Circa AD 600 (Motilal Banarsidass, Third Revised Edition, Delhi, 1990; Reprint, Delhi, 2002)
  • India's Ancient Past (Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • Looking for the Aryans (Orient Longman Publishers, 1995, Delhi)
  • Indian Feudalism (Macmillan Publishers India Ltd., 3rd Revised Edition, Delhi, 2005)[21]
  • Early Medieval Indian Society: A Study in Feudalisation (Orient Longman Publishers Pvt. Ltd., Delhi, 2003)
  • Perspectives in Social and Economic History of Ancient India (Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 2003)
  • Urban Decay in India c. 300- c. 1000 (Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1987)
In contrast to his predecessors who had focussed their attention on the study of higher orders, he published his Sudras in Ancient India as early as 1958 and examined the relationship of the lower social orders with the means of production from the Vedic age up to the Gupta period.[11] In the following year (1959) his Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India, apart from national chauvinist and revivalist approach of earlier Historians, emphasized the material basis of the power structure in Ancient India, a point he also stressed in his later work The Origin of State in India (1990).[11] In 1965, his Indian Feudalism posed a major problem as to whether India passed through the phase of Feudalism (see Indian feudalism).[11] His Social Changes in Early Medieval India, being the first Dev Raj Chanana Memorial Lecture, brought into focus the changes in social structure that accompanied the origin and growth of feudalism in early India and in 1987 his Urban Decay in India (c.300-1000) drew attention to the overwhelming mass of archaeological evidence to demonstrate the decline of urban centres in early medieval period which reinforces his arguments reharding the genesis and growth of feudalism in India.[11] In another work, Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India (1985), on which he worked as Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow, Professor Sharma has sought to unravel the process of class formation, and social implications of the material changes in the Vedic period and in the age of the Buddha on the basis of literary and archaeological sources.[11]
Professor Sharma's researches cover the whole range of early Indian history and are largely summarized in his popular textbook Ancient India (1977) written for the National Council of Educational Research and Training.[11] When this book was withdrawn under pressure of obscurantist elements he launched an attack on them in his In Defence of "Ancient India" (1979) and the book was subsequently restored.[11]

Theory of Feudalism

The publication of his monograph Indian Feudalism in 1965 caused almost a furore in the academia, generating intense debate and sharp responses both in favour of and against the applicability of the model of “feudalism” to the Indian situation at any point of time.[14] The concept of “feudalism” was initially used by D. D. Kosambi to analyse the developments in the socio-economic sphere in the late ancient and medieval periods of Indian history.[22] Sharma, while differing from Kosambi on certain significant points, added a great deal of depth to the approach with his painstaking research and forceful arguments.[14] The work has been called his magnum opus.[14] Criticism goaded Sharma into reinforcing his thesis by producing another work of fundamental importance, Urban Decay in India (c.300-1000), in which he marshalled an impressive mass of archaeological data to demonstrate the decline of urban centres, a crucial element of his thesis on feudalism.[14] It won him the H.K. Barpujari award instituted by the Indian History Congress.[14] However, the redoubtable professor was unstoppable, and in his Early Medieval Indian Society: A Study in Feudalisation (Orient Longman, 2001), he further rebutted the objections of his critics point by point.[14]
Sharma applied the tool of historical materialism not only to explain social differentiation and stages of economic development, but also to the realm of ideology.[14] His investigations into the “feudal mind” and “economic and social basis of tantrism” are thought-provoking, opening up new lines of inquiry.[14] In an earlier article, he examined “the material milieu of the birth of Buddhism”, which now forms a part of his Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India (Macmillan, 1983).[14] The monograph, full of seminal ideas, has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages and has had 11 editions.[14]

The issue of Aryans

Sharma wrote two books, Looking for the Aryans (Orient Longman, 1995) and Advent of the Aryans in India (Manohar, 1999), to demolish the myth assiduously cultivated by the historiography that the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India and Harappa culture was their creation.[14] More recently, when some people sought to get a new lease of life by creating a crisis over Adam's Bridge, or Ram Sethu, by asserting that it was a man-made construction built by Ram and not a natural formation (the result of continuous wave action), the Government of India appointed a committee of three with two bureaucrats and a historian to examine the veracity of such claims.[14] Sharma, who was the historian on the committee, submitted his report in December 2007 and thus helped in diffusing the crisis.[14] Incidentally, work on the report occasioned his last visit to Delhi.[14]

Views on communalism

Sharma has denounced communalism of all types. In his booklet, Communal History and Rama's Ayodhya, he writes, "Ayodhya seems to have emerged as a place of religious pilgrimage in medieval times. Although chapter 85 of the Vishnu Smriti lists as many as 52 places of pilgrimage, including towns, lakes, rivers, mountains, etc., it does not include Ayodhya in this list." But as the team leader of the Babri Masjid Action Committee, he failed to furnish proof when asked by the Chandrasekhar government in 1990, that Babri Masjid was not built destroying a Rama temple in the disputed Ram Janmobhoomi site.[23] Sharma also notes that Tulsidas, who wrote the Ramcharitmanas in 1574 at Ayodhya, does not mention it as a place of pilgrimage.[23] After the demolition of Babri masjid, he along with Historians Suraj Bhan, M.Athar Ali and Dwijendra Narayan Jha came up with the Historian's report to the nation on how the communalists were mistaken in their assumption that there was a temple at the disputed site and how it was sheer vandalism in bringing down the mosque and the book has been translated into all the Indian languages.[24] He had denounced the vandalism of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in 2004.[25]

Political controversies

His 1977 Ancient India was banned by the Janata Party government in 1978, among other things for its criticism of the historicity of Krishna and the events of the Mahabharata epic, reporting the historical position that
"Although Krishna plays an important role in the Mahabharata, inscriptions and sculptural pieces found in Mathura dating back to 200 BC and 300 AD do not attest to his presence. Because of this, ideas of an epic age based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata have to be discarded..."[26]
He has supported the addition of the Ayodhya dispute and the 2002 Gujarat riots to school syllabus calling them 'socially relevant topics' to broaden the horizons of youngsters.[27] This was his remark when the NCERT decided to include the Gujarat riots and the Ayodhya dispute besides the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in the Class XII political science books, arguing that these events influenced the political process in the country since Independence.[27]


Andre Wink, Professor of History at University of Wisconsin–Madison criticizes Sharma in Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World (Vol. I) for drawing too close parallels between European and Indian feudalism.

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