Ram Sharan Sharma
Ram Sharan Sharma☭ (राम शरण शर्मा) (26 November 1919 – 20 August 2011), commonly referred to as R. S. Sharma, was one of the infamous eminent historians and a Marxist historian 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.
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 tuitions 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.
R.S. 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. He 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 1958–1973. 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, University of London (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 1973–1978; 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, Professor 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, 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 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.
R.S. 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.
R.S.Sharma was known for his simplicity. He was tall, fair and was always clad in dhoti-kurta. 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 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."
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. 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. 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.
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 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.
- 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)
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. 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, emphasised 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). In 1965, his Indian Feudalism posed a major problem as to whether India passed through the phase of Feudalism (see Indian feudalism). 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 regarding the genesis and growth of feudalism in India. 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.
Professor Sharma's researches cover the whole range of early Indian history and are largely summarised in his popular textbook Ancient India (1977) written for the National Council of Educational Research and Training. 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.
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.
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 expose the fringe theory of indigenous aryans which states that the Aryans were the original inhabitants of India and the Harappan civilisation was their creation. More recently, 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 diffusing the crisis. Incidentally, work on the report occasioned his last visit to Delhi.
1. 'The Hindu' which itself is a left wing newspaper had this heading when R.S.Sharma passed away
https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/marxist-historian-passes-away/article2379796.ece Marxist historian passes away
2. Communist party of India (marxist) own website gave glowing tributes to R.S.Sharma calling him a "People's historian", a term which they refer only to those with marxist ideological bent. https://www.cpim.org/content/ram-sharan-sharma-people%E2%80%99s-historian
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. 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.
In India, Marxist historiography was very influential. Its main representatives are Irfan Habib, and K. N. Panikkar. B. N. Datta and D. D. Kosambi are considered the founding fathers of Marxist historiography. Today, the senior-most scholars of Marxist historiography are R. S. Sharma, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, D. N. Jha and K. N. Panikkar, most of whom are now over 75 years old.
Romila Thapar and R.S. Sharma are quoted at some length as representatives of Indian Marxist thought in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Irfan Habib has titled a recent collection of his papers Essays in Indian History. Towards a Marxist Perspective.(Elst 2001, Decolonizing the Hindu Mind, p. 40)
- Thapar and Sharma are quoted as representatives of Indian Marxism in Tom Bottomore’s History of Marxist Thought, Oxford 1988, entry “Hinduism”; Habib has subtitled his recent book Essays in Indian History (Tulika, Delhi 1995) as Towards a Marxist Perception. elst 2002,ch1
- As for NU professor Harbans Mukhia, in a guest column in Indian Express, he surveys the influence of Marxism in Indian historiography, highlighting the pioneering work of D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib in the 1950s and 60s. He argues that this Marxist wave began without state patronage; this in an apparent attempt to refute Shourie’s account of the role of state patronage and of the resulting corruption in the power position Marxist historians have come to enjoy. This is of course a straw man: Shourie never denied that Kosambi meant what he wrote rather than being an opportunist eager to please Marxist patrons.
- Harbans Mukhia: “Historical wrongs. The rise of the part-time historian”, Indian Express, 27-11-1998. Elst 2002,ch4
- Since some ignorant dupes of these Marxists denounce as “McCarthyist” anyone who points out their ideological inspiration, it deserves to be emphasized that acclaimed secularist historians like Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib are certified as Marxists in standard Marxist sources like Tom Bottomore’s Dictionary of Marxist Thought. The BMAC team’s argumentation of 1991 and several other anti-temple pamphlets were published by the People’s Publishing House, a Communist Party outfit. One of the textbook innovations most furiously denounced as “saffronization” was the truism that Lenin’s armed seizing of power in October/November 1917 was a “coup d’état”. And while they were unchaining all their devils against glasnost, in early 2003, the Marxists ruling West Bengal deleted from a textbook a passage in which Mahatma Gandhi’s biographer Louis Fischer called Stalin “at least as ruthless as Hitler”. elst 2003,ch2
- Since some ignorant dupes of these Marxists denounce as “McCarthyist” anyone who points out their ideological inspiration, it deserves to be emphasized that “eminent historians” like Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma and Irfan Habib are certified as Marxists in standard Marxist sources like Tom Bottomore's Dictionary of Marxist Thought . During the official historians' Ayodhya temple/mosque dispute in 1991, the pro-mosque team's argumentation and several other anti-temple pamphlets were published by the People's Publishing House, a Communist Party outfit. One of the recent textbook innovations most furiously denounced as “saffronization” was the truism that Lenin's armed seizing of power in October/November 1917 was a “coup d'état”. And in early 2003, while they were unchaining all their devils against glasnost , the Marxists ruling West Bengal deleted from a textbook a passage in which Mahatma Gandhi's biographer Louis Fischer called Stalin “at least as ruthless as Hitler”. Such are the true concerns of the “secularists” warning the world against the attempts at glasnost in India's national history curriculum.
- (Elst: Religious Cleansing of Hindus, 2004, Agni conference in The Hague)
- Witzel also publicly supports historians such as D. N. Jha, R. S. Sharma, Romila Thapar etc., who are quoted as Marxist historians in a Harvard University publication  . To raise the bogey of ‘ fundamentalist and right wing forces ’ 76 against anyone (such as the Greek scholar Nicholas Kazanas) who calls a Marxist as a Marxist is dishonest and negationist on the part of Witzel. If scholars like Kazanas become right wing Hindus just because their views on the question of AIT tally with those of some Hindutva organizations, then can we label Witzel as a Marxist or a Communist (or even a ‘Maoist-Stalinist’) because he publishes in Marxist publications and defends Marxist and Communist historians?
- This claim that that the historiography of Marxist historians like Jha and Thapar is universal and objective truth is curious indeed because it is an open secret in India that these historians only write sectarian interpretations of history to suit the leftist political agenda in India. In fact, Witzel even excoriates those Indians who dare to called these Marxist historians as Marxists, and says that we should call them ‘Delhi historians’, and their work as ‘recent Indian historiography’ (contrasted with the opposing ‘revisionist’ and ‘nationalistic’ writings) as if a new nomenclature can change the underlying reality! One wonders why Witzel would deny the Marxist affiliations of Marxist historians when they themselves refer to each other as Marxists? In an interview to the New Delhi edition of the Times of India (dt. 16 February 2002), Bipan Chandra, an ‘Eminent Historian’ himself, refers to Jha and R. S. Sharma as Marxist historians. ( quoted in Vigil, 'Thus Spake Professor Michael Witzel A Harvard University Case Study in Prejudice?' (2006))
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..."
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. 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.
Andre Wink, Professor of History at University of Wisconsin–Madison criticises Sharma in Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World (Vol. I) for drawing too close parallels between European and Indian feudalism. Wink writes that R.S. Sharma's "Indian Feudalism has misguided virtually all historians of the period."
Despite grandiose declarations about free debate and scientific rigour, the Marxist view of history can survive only when presented as revealed truth, like the Koran and Hadith in madrasas. A look at the critique of "eminent historian" R.S. Sharma's work, Indian Feudalism, by Andre Wink, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison, would substantiate this argument.
In Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World (Vol. I), Wink castigates Sharma for misguiding historians to look for Indian parallels to European feudalism. Sharma contends that the "absence of finds of gold coins" in the seventh to tenth centuries proves that the Indian economy was exclusively rural with trade and urbanism having suffered a distinct decline. Rubbishing this claim, Wink points out that the "texts refer to the abundant use of coined money and land charters speak of taxes in gold and there remains evidence of commercial activity on the coasts." He also ridicules Sharma's assertion that land grants to Brahmins amount to political feudalism.
Wink concludes that Sharma's thesis "involves an obstinate attempt to find 'elements' which fit a preconceived picture of what should have happened in India because it happened in Europe (or is alleged to have happened in Europe by Sharma and his school of historians whose knowledge of European history is rudimentary and completely outdated). The methodological underpinnings of Sharma's work are in fact so thin that one wonders why, for so long, Sharma's colleagues have called his work 'pioneering.'"
If Andre Wink, who is no saffron scholar, holds this opinion about the man handpicked by then Education Minister Nurul Hasan to head to Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and fund the now-challenged genre of historiography, one is within one's right to question the accuracy and integrity of other works as well. In the context of the textbook controversy, the assertion that twenty-three Jain Tirthankaras are fictional is worthy of contempt. Wink also scorns the work of D. Desai and G.C. Choudhary, as also K.A. Nizami, who has glorified the Turkish conquest of northern India for ending the alleged isolation that encompassed India from the eighth century.
The discerning reader would be savvy enough to realize that the objective of Leftist scholarship is to prove, despite all available evidence, that the Islamic invasion was really India's age of enlightenment. Hence the denigration of the Vedic Age and the stubborn insistence that the Aryans were not indigenous people. This is why Bipin Chandra protests if medieval Muslim rulers are described as "foreign" (Hindustan Times, 2 December 2001). Objecting to the "artificial glorification of all and sundry who fought against Sultanate and Mughal rulers," he derides glorification of ancient India as "undue national pride has its own negative aspects."
- The Ayodhya Debate: Focus on the No Temple Evidence by Koenraad Elst
- The Ayodhya Evidence Debate. Part I and Part II by Koenraad Elst
- R.S. Sharma's Indian Feudalism has misguided virtually all historians of the period... Sharma's thesis essentially involves an obstinate attempt to find 'elements' which fit a preconceived picture of what should have happened in India because it happened in Europe (or is alleged to have happened in Europe by Sharma and his school of historians whose knowledge of European history is rudimentary and completely outdated)... The methodological underpinnings of Sharma's work are in fact so thin that one wonders why, for so long, Sharma's colleagues have called his work 'pioneering'.... "Under the impact of the feudalism thesis the historiography of the period is still in utter disarray."
- André Wink, Al-Hind : The Making of the Indo-Islamic World (Oxford University Press 1990), p.219-223.
- Bipan Chandra
- Satish Chandra
- William Dalrymple
- Wendy Doniger
- Richard Eaton
- Lars Martin Fosse
- Ramachandra Guha
- Irfan Habib
- Christophe Jaffrelot
- D. N. Jha
- Girish Raghunath Karnad
- Meera Nanda
- Martha Nussbaum
- Sheldon Pollock
- Arundhati Roy
- Amartya Sen
- Ram Sharan Sharma
- Sanjay Subrahmanyam
- Romila Thapar
- Audrey Truschke
- Michael Witzel
- Robert Zydenbos
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