A historian as myth buster

Print edition : March 12, 2021

D.N. Jha. “The cow is used for marginalising both Muslims and Dalits.”

Professor D.N. Jha (1940-2021) sought to bring the dis-privileged into the historical canvas and celebrated pluralism and dissent in his writings.

Professor Dwijendra Narayan Jha, one of the most erudite and prolific scholars on ancient and medieval Indian history, passed away on February 4. He had been debilitated by various illnesses over the past several years and was in and out of hospital, his eyesight had become weak and he needed a hearing aid, but his mind was sharp as ever and his will was strong. This is evident from his engaged academic conversations with former colleagues and students in the new year. I am told that he was reading before he took his afternoon nap from which he never woke up.

The entire history fraternity came forward to pay homage to Prof. Jha, which speaks volumes for the imprint he has left behind. Eminent scholars the world over, his former students now teaching in different universities and colleges, younger generations who may never have even met him but who have known him through his work—all expressed their deep sense of sadness over his passing. This should make us pause and reflect on why this is so.

Hannah Arendt in her brilliant work Thinking discusses the linkages between vita activa (active life) and vita contemplativa (contemplative life). That ‘man’ is a thinking animal is a given, but what is significant is that the ability to think is linked to the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, to discern good from evil. This leads her to separate truth from meaning, indeed to recognise that knowing is not thinking and that, while ascertaining meaning, humans establish themselves as question-asking beings. This for her was the basis of civilisation.1

In many ways, Jha exemplified Hannah Arendt’s thinking and question-asking person—one who sought to go beyond simple knowledge production; for whom facts by themselves were meaningless; who understood that techniques of research (knowing) were of paramount importance, but that the need to question, clarify, interpret, and thereby give meaning, were equally significant. His legacy as a historian can broadly be understood under two heads: works that focus on the socio-economic aspects of our past, and those that throw light on our beliefs and culture, as we have understood them to be bequeathed by history and tradition. It is also interesting to note that these corresponded to two broad phases of academic production: the first was primarily between the 1960s and 1980s (although it continued well into the present, as can be seen in the reissue of some of his older writings with revisions); the second was not coincidentally in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, and in the continuous on-going onslaught on Indian history and historians.

Jha’s doctoral thesis, submitted to Patna University in 1964, was on the revenue systems in post-Maurya and Gupta times and formed the basis for his first published monograph (1967). Mentored by another great doyen of ancient Indian history, R.S. Sharma, Jha aimed to throw light on the political economy of the times and its impact on the lives of ordinary people. Issues of land ownership, the king’s right to levy taxes, different forms of revenue extraction from land and commerce, fiscal administrative structure and forced labour were discussed in great depth. Using a wide array of sources, he analysed the apparently prosperous economy in post-Maurya times, particularly of the Gupta period— known as the ‘golden age’ in Indian history—that was built on the edifice of class and caste-based suppression and exploitation. It is poignant that the second-last work that he published in January 2020 was a new edition of this book.

Also read: 'India never had a golden age'

Jha’s concern, like that of the two historians he admired and turned to frequently, D.D. Kosambi and Sharma, was to bust the colonial myths about the unchanging nature of Indian society throughout its long history, the latter’s emphasis on the self-sufficient village economy, their assertion that private landholding was non-existent in pre-colonial times, and, very importantly, given the imperialist interests of the British, that the state/ king was the owner of all land and its resources. Even where foreign contact was acknowledged in such imperialist histories, instead of contradicting the insular image of India, they attempted to reinforce it by ascribing all agency to the external elements, as for instance, the Romans in the early Indo-Roman trade.2

Jha demonstrated equally a critical appreciation of the writings of nationalist historians such as R.K. Mukherjee (Indian Shipping and Maritime Activity, 1912), K.P. Jayaswal (Hindu Polity, 1924) and R.C. Majumdar (Corporate Life in Ancient India, 1918), although these were often primarily aimed at refuting the assertions of British historians. So, while on the one hand these works demonstrated the existence of complex economic institutions and practices at different time periods, they failed to recognise, and in some cases sought to cover up, the social inequalities that marked those times, which was a serious drawback in Jha’s assessment.

Sharma’s volume in honour of Kosambi in 1974 featured an article of Jha where he ventured into the early medieval period for the first time, here in the context of Tamil history.3 Using about 117 Pallava inscriptions and several hundred belonging to the time of the Cholas, Jha showed how the number of land grants and gifts to the brahmanical religious establishment, particularly the temple, increased exponentially. As a result of the land donations, the temples required more and more personnel to manage their affairs in addition to those required for performing rituals and other services. For instance, abundant records from the massive Rajarajesvaram temple built by the Chola monarch Rajaraja I indicate the presence of over 600 temple servants when compared to the single-digit figures from various temples in the earlier Pallava times. The third issue that he raised was the increasing subjection of the peasantry as a result of the growing economic power of the temple, at the cost of the state, as more and more dues were waived and fiscal concessions were given to the temples. For Jha, this was clear evidence of the feudal character of the temple. Several noteworthy works on the same time period by, for instance, Noboru Karashima, Y. Subbarayalu and R. Champakalakshmi, using the same corpus of inscriptions and textual sources, disagreed with this characterisation, pointing out the flaws in the reading and interpretation of sources. Jha retained his broad view but did address and accommodate some of the findings of his critics, which again reveals the mark of a true scholar.

On feudalism

Although a historical materialist, Jha was aware of the limitations of a mechanistic application of Marxist categories and typologies in the Indian case. So, he agreed with Kosambi’s rejection of the theory of a slave mode of production in ancient India. But on the basis of a careful study of sources he pointed out that with the growth of the imperial state under the Mauryas, we find a number of references to slaves (dasas) along with hired labour (karmakara), indicating their role in economic life. Clearly, he did not allow himself to be restricted by his ideology or historiography. It is in the discussion on feudalism that Jha demonstrated his academic independence from his mentors. Rejecting both Kosambi and Sharma’s positing of the decline of external trade as one of the features of the classical Marxist feudal mode of production, Jha argued that instead autochthonous factors of change had to be recognised as leading to the growth of a feudal order. This need to think out of the box perhaps led to the inclusion of Noboru Karashima’s and Subbarayalu’s path-breaking inscriptional analysis regarding major socio-economic transformations during the Chola period in the first major volume on feudalism edited by Jha, even when they did not commit to the feudalism argument.4 In fact, the logical implication of the arguments of these scholars may even be seen as rebutting Jha’s own views.

Also read: 'State should rely on historians'

Something noticeable and commendable in the works of scholars of the ilk of Jha was their acknowledgement of the research breakthroughs of their peers and juniors, which is absent among their immediate successors. Footnotes in his major works cite various writings, some in quite obscure publications. He also edited several volumes in honour of Sharma and Kosambi, his two iconic inspirations. The Many Careers of D.D. Kosambi (2011) sought to dispel some rather uncharitable assessment of Kosambi’s work. In his introductory remarks, Jha pointed to the immense contribution of Kosambi to scientific numismatics, Sanskrit texts, field archaeology, ethnography and mathematics. For him, Kosambi was a Renaissance man in the true sense of the term.

His tribute to Sharma is in three volumes, one published during the latter’s lifetime and the other two after his death. In Society and Ideology in India: Essays in Honour of Professor R.S. Sharma (1996), 25 articles spanning the ancient to the modern periods were presented to his mentor. In The Complex Heritage of Early India: Essays in Memory of R.S. Sharma (2014), 31 essays were strung together, covering such disparate themes related to early Indian history as archaeological cultures, issues and sites, historical geography, exchange networks and urbanisation, linguistic and other concerns in textual analysis, gender history, dietary practices, political economy and, of course, tributes to Sharma. The third volume, equally humongous, on The Evolution of a Nation Pre-Colonial to Post-Colonial: Essays in Memory of R.S. Sharma (2014), included contributions on medieval and modern Indian history. Clearly, the chronological divide, which is so important in history, did not preclude the recognition of abiding themes, issues and ideas across time, although context was always held to be supreme.

Revenue system

Vishwa Mohan Jha’s (VM) foreword to Jha’s reissued Revenue System discusses how the field of economic history had by the time Jha was writing his doctoral thesis begun throwing up a rich body of academic work. Jha was cognisant of these but was also clearly aware of where his own work marked a departure. At a time when scholars do not hesitate to refer to their own works, sometimes to the exclusion of all others, VM points out that in the masterly survey of economic history done by Sharma and Jha mentioned earlier, there is just a passing reference to Revenue System. Significant issues raised in VM’s afterword relate to the glaring lack of scholars such as Jha with the ability to read primary sources in the original in Indian academia today, and secondly, the politics of referencing where Indian scholars such as Jha, proficient in Sanskrit and historical methods, do not get any space in indological studies emerging from Western academia. What is of note in VM’s assessment is that the doctoral thesis submitted by Jha more than five decades ago is still so current in terms of the quality of analysis and because economic history has ceased to find takers among young researchers.

Jha’s oeuvre was not restricted to economic history or even ancient Indian history. His concerns as a citizen whose nationalism was rooted in the secular and inclusive vision of the Indian national movement, and not the chest-thumping sloganeering that is the hallmark of Hindu majoritarianism, led him to reflect on how present-day traditions, identities and practices were being projected onto the past, and, of course, the political dangers of such articulations for our democratic ethos. He spoke at academic forums and on public platforms with courage and conviction against the strident voice of Hindu communalists. It seems that his close association with the largest professional body of historians, the Indian History Congress, as a member and as an office-bearer (he was general secretary (1985-88), president of the Ancient Section (1979), and general president (2005) as well as executive committee on several occasions) placed him firmly within a scholarly lineage that was committed to a scientific, secular and non-partisan history. He authored Ramjanmabhumi Baburi Masjid—A Historians’ Report to the Nation (1991) along with Sharma, M. Athar Ali and Suraj Bhan. The lack of firm textual basis for the claims regarding a Ram temple at the disputed site, absence of archaeological and inscriptional evidence, and the early modern colonial context in which such claims were first made were placed in public purview. Much water has flowed under that bridge, and despite Jha and others repeatedly writing about the need for historical assessment and understanding, the increasingly vitiated politics of our times resulted in a prolonged legal battle and final resolution that did not find merit in the academic arguments; instead, faith and sentiment have prevailed.

On beef eating practices

Jha raised uncomfortable questions, which riled the votaries of strident sectarianism. His study of dietary practices in early India with specific reference to beef eating was attacked precisely because it hit where it hurts. Copious evidence was marshaled to show that cows (and other animals) were slaughtered for their flesh even as they were extolled in Vedic hymns, known for their milk and milk products, valued as draught animals, and considered as wealth. Jha mentions H.D. Sankalia and others who had drawn attention to the prehistoric evidence for cattle being eaten; the Harappan sites similarly revealed beef eating, and the same was seen in historical contexts as well. The Buddhist rejection of animal sacrifice was contrasted with the Buddha and his followers not abstaining from meat, including pork and beef. He shows that the early Jainas also initially did not have any taboos against meat eating as such, and it is only in later times that they came out strongly against it. A very pertinent observation is that it is in the dharmasastric literature, expressing concern over the onset of the immoral Kali age, that such an approbation became prominent. In his typical socially sensitive manner, he reflects on the many communities that relish beef as part of their diet, and includes B.R. Ambedkar’s important essay, “Untouchability, the Dead Cow and the Brahmin”, as an appendix to this work.

Also read: ‘The cow was neither unslayable nor sacred in the Vedic period’

Eleven essays were put together in the volume Contesting Symbols and Stereotypes: Essays on Indian History and Culture (2013), which included the writings of other scholars. Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History (2018) is a collection of 10 of his essays and five appendices (including two reviews of his books) which run against the grain, in terms of the themes and interpretations that are proffered.

His Rethinking Hindu Identity (2009) comprised three of his essays with a no-holds-barred introduction. There are considerable overlaps in themes and arguments in these volumes but what is striking is the grit and determination with which he forced the reader to confront the politicisation of history, and the communal and unscientific interpretations that were being peddled by untrained, self-professed historians, be it in the colonial or the present context. These were writings of the public intellectual, not of the scholar closeted in an ivory tower.

Alcohol drinking in ancient India

Drink of Immortality: Essays on Distillation and Alcohol Use in Ancient India, arranged in two parts, was Jha’s last work. The first part highlighted the techniques of distillation in the subcontinent presented by Sanskritists and archaeologists, while the second brought together studies on social and cultural representations of alcohol drinking in ancient India. Although all the articles except one were published earlier, put together, Jha sought to place the indisputable evidence for the knowledge of alcohol and the process of its production, as well as of the ways in which alcohol use was understood in society from at least 3,000 years ago, if not earlier. Again, contemporary prejudices with regard to seeking pleasure and imbibing of alcohol are confronted and shown to be irrelevant when talking of ancient India.

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

There are many more essays and books of Jha that have contributed immensely to scholarship on ancient India. This author was most gratified by his commendation of her edited volume Art and History (2019), possibly the last review on his part.5 While no amount of enumeration of his works can convey the generosity, humility and integrity of Jha, certainly the life of the mind of a man who was daring enough to challenge those in power can, and needs to, be mapped. He vociferously defended his ideas even when he saw himself among an increasingly shrinking group of forthright scholars who never bowed to political dispensations nor compromised their academic understanding in the face of popular demands. He sought to bring the dis-privileged into the historical canvas, and celebrated pluralism and dissent in his writings. Jha will be missed by the fraternity of historians as well as by those who believe in the idea of a secular and inclusive India.

R. Mahalakshmi is professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; secretary, Indian History Congress; and editor Studies in History.


1. Arendt, Hannah, ‘The Life of the Mind’, Vol. 1: ‘Thinking’, Harvest Books, San Diego, 1978 (1971), p. 62.

2. D.N. Jha, ‘The Economic History of India Up to A.D. 1200: Trends and Prospects’, JESHO, 17:1, p. 2.

3. D.N. Jha, ‘Temples as Landed Magnates in Early Medieval South India’, in R.S. Sharma (ed.), Indian Society: Historical Probings, ICHR, Delhi, 1974.

4. Jha, Feudal Formations in Early India, Chanakya pubs., Delhi, 1987.

5. See, Studies in People’s History, 7: 2, 2020, pp. 228-230.

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