Professor D N Jha (1940-2021), one of probably the most eminent historians of historical India, handed away peacefully in his sleep on Thursday. Though affected by persistent illnesses, he by no means noticed himself as incapacitated, and remained energetic academically till the very finish. His final e book, an edited quantity on the making of alcohol and its consumption in historical India, got here out in January 2020, and his final lecture was delivered on-line (his written essay was learn out) simply three weeks in the past. With his passing, an period of self-confident educational scholarship in post-Independence India appears perilously near its finish.
Jha graduated from Presidency Faculty, Kolkata, in 1959, and then moved to Patna College from the place he accomplished his MA, and later PhD below the tutelage of the legendary R S Sharma. He turned a college member on the Patna College, and then moved to the College of Delhi, the place he spent the following three a long time educating, researching and writing a number of essential books on historical Indian financial and social historical past. Appreciation of the wealthy sources of historical Indian historical past, rigorous evaluation and interdisciplinary strategies, and scientific and secular historical past writing have been his abiding legacy.
Aside from specialised works on income methods or points of economic system and society in historical India, his common survey of historical Indian historical past, a slim however dense work that has been translated into many Indian languages, stays a favorite with college students of historical past.
The place Jha towered over different historians, was in his fearless evocation of pluralism, dissent and rationality. The historian was beholden to none however the fact, and if that fact was uncomfortable for some sections of society, so be it. The Fantasy of the Holy Cow was the gauntlet he threw earlier than those that claimed that beef-eating was the “baneful bequeathal” of the followers of Islam to India. First revealed in 2001, withdrawn on account of protests by Hindu communalists, and later revealed in a global (Verso, 2004) and an Indian (Navayana, 2009) version, the work flagged a number of points: That there was no taboo on beef-eating in the Vedic faith as such; that in caste-ridden Indian society of pre-modern and trendy instances, beef was probably the most accessible and nourishing meals for the big part of the so-called untouchable lessons; that the adherents to the doctrine of ahimsa didn’t eschew non-vegetarianism; and that the communalising of dietary practices was rooted in up to date politics alone. Copious references to animals supplied in Vedic sacrifice, and descriptions of the distribution, cooking and consuming of differing kinds of meat, together with beef, from varied texts have been unambiguous proof offered by him.
Being a meticulous scholar, he additionally drew consideration to the disapprobation of animal sacrifice proper from the Rig Veda all the way down to the Upanisads. Those that demanded that the e book be withdrawn had clearly not learn it. Wendy Doniger, a scholar of historical Indian Sanskrit texts, wryly commented in her evaluate of this work that Jha ought to take the assaults on his e book as a praise, since they appeared to show that the pen is mightier than the sword! Jha himself was not so sanguine, and usually recounted situations of disruption lectures, bodily assaults, and demise threats. However such was his religion in educational freedom that he refused to recant a single phrase.
A associated and recurring concern for Jha was the projection of trendy, politically-motivated stereotypes onto the previous. Previously 20 years he turned his lens in the direction of the claims of an eternally tolerant and accommodative Hindu identification, of Hindus as stoically withstanding the onslaughts of marauding foreigners. He unequivocally debunked chauvinism in historical past writing and termed it the primary cousin of communalism. Whereas non secular and social conflicts in premodern instances have been mentioned in his works, he additionally identified the various situations of syncretism, co-existence and concord all through Indian historical past.
Jha’s demise has disadvantaged us of a pillar of energy. He not solely offered a powerful historiographical course to the self-discipline of historical past but additionally demonstrated the energy of character to comply with that path.
This text first appeared in the print version on February 6, 2021, below the title “Historian And Reality-Teller”. The author is professor of historical past at Jawaharlal Nehru College.