राम शरण शर्मा | Ram Sharan Sharma

Ram Sharan Sharma (26 November 1919 – 20 August 2011) was an Indian Marxist historian and Indologist who specialised in the history of Ancient and early Medieval India. He taught at Patna University and Delhi University (1973–85) and was visiting faculty at University of Toronto (1965–1966). He also was a senior fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He was a University Grants Commission National Fellow (1958–81) and the president of Indian History Congress in 1975. It was during his tenure as the dean of Delhi University’s History Department that major expansion of the department took place in the 1970s. The creation of most of the positions in the department were the results of his efforts. He was the founding Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and a historian of international repute.

Ram Sharan Sharma Indian Historian
Born 26 November 1919
Barauni, Bihar and Orissa Province, British India
Died 20 August 2011 (aged 91)
Patna, Bihar, India
Known for Marxist Indian Historiography
Awards Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade Award, H. K. Barpujari Award
Academic background
Alma mater University of Patna, School of Oriental and African Studies
Thesis Sudras in Ancient India (1956)
Doctoral advisor A. L. Basham
Academic work
Discipline Ancient India, Early Medieval India

During his lifetime, he authored 115 books published in fifteen languages. He influenced major decisions relating to historical research in India in his roles as head of the departments of History at Patna 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 and, above all, as a practising historian. At the instance of Sachchidananda Sinha, when Professor Sharma was in Patna College, he worked as a special officer on deputation to the Political Department in 1948, where prepared a report on the Bihar-Bengal Boundary Dispute. His pioneering effort resolved the border dispute forever as recorded by Sachchinand Sinha in a letter to Rajendra Prasad.

Early life
Sharma was born in Barauni, Begusarai, Bihar. With great difficulty his father sponsored his education till matriculation. After that he kept on getting scholarships and even did private tuition to support his education. 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. His later association with Dr. Sachchidananda 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.

Sharma was foremost among the Indian intellectuals who wanted historians to realise that the discipline of history was not just about what happened in the past but what its lessons were for imaginatively and intelligently responding to the challenges of the present.

Education and achievements
He passed matriculation in 1937 and joined Patna College, where he studied for six years from intermediate to postgraduate classes. He did his PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London under Professor A. L. Basham. His PhD thesis on the history of Sudras in Ancient India was published as a book by Motilal Banarsidass in 1958, with a revised edition in 1990.

Sharma taught at colleges in Arrah (1943) and Bhagalpur (July 1944 to November 1946) before coming to Patna College, Patna University in 1946. He became the head of the Department of History at Patna University from 1958 to 1973. He became a university professor in 1958. He served as professor and dean of the History Department at Delhi University from 1973 to 1978. He got the Jawaharlal Fellowship in 1969. He was the founding chairperson of Indian Council of Historical Research from 1972 to 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. He became the deputy-chairperson of UNESCO’s International Association for Study of Central Asia from 1973 to 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.

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). 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 Hem Chandra Raychaudhuri Birth Centenary Gold Medal for outstanding historian from Asiatic Society in August 2001; and in 2002 the Indian History Congress gave him the Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade Award for his lifelong service and contribution to Indian history. He got D.Litt. (Honoris Causa) from The University of Burdwan and a similar degree from Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath, Varanasi. 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 Public 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.” 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.”

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.”

As an institution builder
Impatient with inefficiency and guided by his radicalism, Sharma had been a great builder of institutions. 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. He has the credit of activising the department 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.

In Delhi, where he spent a smaller part of his teaching career, 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 radicalised it by converting it into a citadel of secular and scientific History and waged an all out war against communalist historiography.

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.

Sharma combined lifelong commitment to high-quality historical research on ancient India with equal commitment to high-quality teaching and imparting historical knowledge to several generations of students, a large number of whom grew under his care and guidance into serious scholars and researchers in their own right and enriched the profession. Further, he was also engaged for a large part of his life in nurturing and building institutions engaged in the teaching of history and historical research.

Sharma was known for his simplicity. He was tall, fair and was always clad in dhoti-kurta. Historian Suvira Jaiswal, Sharma’s first PhD student, remembers her teacher not only giving a lesson in good writing but even mundane stuff like how to put a pin in papers so it did not hurt anyone. 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.

Writing style
In his writings Professor Sharma has focused 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 civilisation. In his study of each of these aspects of Ancient Indian History he has laid stress on the elements of change and continuity. 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. His methodology is being increasingly extended to the study of various aspects of Indian history just as the problems studied by him and the questions raised by him have generated a bulk of historical literature in recent years.

Major works

This section lacks ISBNs for the books listed. Please help add the ISBNs or run the citation bot. (August 2018)
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)
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)
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. 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. 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. The work has been called his magnum opus. 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. It won him the H.K. Barpujari award instituted by the Indian History Congress. 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.

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. His investigations into the “feudal mind” and “economic and social basis of tantrism” are thought-provoking, opening up new lines of inquiry. 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). The monograph, full of seminal ideas, has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages and has had 11 editions.

Other writings
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 Hindu communalist historiography that the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India and Harappa culture was their creation.” After that, Sharma was part of a Government of India appointed committee to examine the historical veracity of claims made regarding Ram Sethu by certain devout Hindus- specifically, that Ram Sethu was made by the Hindu God Ram and not a result of natural formation (the result of continuous wave action). Sharma, who was the historian on the committee, submitted his report in December 2007 and thus helped in defusing the crisis. Incidentally, work on the report occasioned his last visit to Delhi.

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.” Sharma also notes that Tulsidas, who wrote the Ramcharitmanas in 1574 at Ayodhya, does not mention it as a place of pilgrimage. 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.

Political controversies
In 1977, Janata Dal banned his book Ancient India. The ban was withdrawn by Congress in 1980. In October 2001, the BJP government found seven out of ten passages of the book to be objectionable. Later, Sharma wrote the revised version of Ancient India and he tried to “incorporate new facts based on recent archeological findings”.

He 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. 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.

André Wink has criticised Sharma for drawing too close parallels between European and Indian feudalism and blames his works for “misguid[ing] virtually all historians of the period”; Sanjay Subrahmanyam deemed Wink’s attacks to be polemical.

On his death, at a function organised by the Indian Council of Historical Research and hosted by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, historians Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, D. N. Jha, Satish Chandra, Kesavan Veluthat and ICHR Chairperson Basudev Chatterji paid rich tributes to Sharma and emphasised his influence. Professor Bipan Chandra considered him to be “greatest historian of India”, after D.D. Kosambi. Irfan Habib said, “D. D. Kosambi and R.S. Sharma, together with Daniel Thorner, brought peasants into the study of Indian history for the first time.”