Prof D.N. Jha (1940-2021), a rare historian who wore his knowledge with ease

Published : February 05, 2021 11:43 IST

D.N. Jha, former Professor of History, University of Delhi. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

He was the most modest of men. He carried himself with the old world warmth and simplicity. A treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom, he was always willing to share it. He even took questions from mediapersons from his hospital bed. There were occasions when one sought his opinion on any new claim of the Hindutva brigade and Prof Dwijendra Narayan Jha would be on his way to see his doctor but would not hesitate to rubbish the assertion. Once he got back to his residence in East Delhi, the historian would painstakingly jot down all the points to disprove the allegation and mail them to the correspondent. Until his death on February 4, at the age of 81, he was a staunch warrior against rampant majoritarianism.

A profound scholar, D.N. Jha was hated with relish by votaries of Hindutva for his book The Myth of the Holy Cow wherein he proved that far from being sacred, cow formed part of the diet in ancient India. Quoting from the Vedas and the Upanishads, he proved that cattle were offered in sacrifice to various deities and that hardly any prayer was complete without animal sacrifice. He revealed, too, that in the jungle during Ram's exile, Sita asked her husband for meat. And Ram obliged by getting her deer meat. Such claims were unheard of even a decade or two ago. Jha's book was set on fire at some places, and was even unavailable for some time. Trolls regularly vented their ire online. Jha remained unflustered. He stuck to his guns, and no opponent or even a colleague could counter his claims with substance.

In an interview with this correspondent in 2018, he pointed out that for all the sacred status claimed for the cow, there is not a single temple across India which is dedicated to the cow. On the same lines, he rubbished the viewpoint that India had a golden age before the arrival of Mahmud Ghazni and others. Mincing no words, he asserted, 'India never had a golden age'.

"During the freedom struggle, Indian historians indulged in an uncritical glorification of pre-Islamic India: the Indian state was described as a constitutional monarchy; tribal oligarchies were equated with Athenian democracy; the village assemblies (sabhas) in south India were portrayed as little democracies; the period of the Gupta rulers was treated as the golden age.... This picture of ancient India supplied an ideological support to freedom fighters; but after India's Independence it served no such purpose though the Hindutva ideologues have clung on to these ideas, and, inspired by them, even our Prime Minister has made laughable statements about the Indian past on several occasions. But a scientific analysis of our sources amply proves that at no stage in history the common people of India witnessed a truly golden age. The history of India, like that of any other country, has been a story of social inequities, exploitation of the common people, religious conflict, and so on. The idea of a golden age has always been abused, in India as well as in other countries," he elaborated. Predictably his views did not go down well with the followers of Hindutva politics.

An academic with Delhi University until his retirement a little under two decades ago, and a member of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), he was a prolific author who contested the claims of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its ideological affiliates. For instance, he questioned the claims that Nalanda University was destroyed by Muslim invaders. Likewise, he did not shy away from stating that the claims of Brhamanical tolerance in ancient India were mere claims.

Quoting Alberuni, he said, "When Alberuni (973-1048) wrote about the intolerance, haughtiness and conceit of Hindus, conflict between Brahmanism and Shramanic religions (Buddhism and Jainism, especially the former) was at its peak; Buddhism was on the verge of being driven out of the country as appears from the sustained Brahmanical assault on Buddhist establishments."

Similarly, in 1991, at the height of the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi controversy, he claimed that there was no Hindu temple underneath the masjid. He faced a lot of flak at that time, but did not flinch in the face of hostility. In 2019, the Supreme Court virtually upheld his claims of the mosque not having been built after the demolition of a temple. His steadfast adherence to the truth meant that he was not as decorated by successive governments as his scholarship deserved. No Padma Shri or other awards came his way. What did come his way was a loyal readership and generations of students who trusted his word, and held him in the highest esteem. Hundreds quoted from his works to counter fanciful claims of the ruling dispensation. It was thanks to his expertise that the larger society could scoff at claims of the Internet being available at the time of the Mahabharata or ancient India reporting the first case of cosmetic surgery.

Prof D.N. Jha was a rare scholar who wore his knowledge with ease. No airs, no conceit. He would answer his phone himself, even when his hearing ability was on the decline. He would serve tea to his visitors himself, and always talk to his guests as human beings, not as a representative of a caste or religion. Such was his humanity, such was his spirit.

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