A tribute to Prof. Dwijendra Narayan Jha (1940-2021): A historian extraordinaire

Why have temples thrived by amassing huge wealth but without investing them in gainful activity, asked the historian, who questioned myths that Hindus were peace loving, tolerant and vegetarians

A tribute to Prof. Dwijendra Narayan Jha (1940-2021): A historian extraordinaire

Rakesh Batabyal

Not too long ago, universities in Bihar would have the doyens of Indian history – Jadunath Sarkar, A.S. Altekar, K. Datta, B.P.Majumdar, B.P. Sinha, Radha Krishna Choudhry, Sita Ram Singh, Jagadish Narayan Sarkar R.S. Sharma and so many others, enriching the life of the mind.

The University of Patna alone, for example, would have R.N. Nandi, Vivekandna Jha, Vijay Thakur, Imtiyaj Ahmad or D.N. Jha singlehandedly trained under Prof. Ram Sharan Sharma, who would trail the blaze in methodologically one of the richest traditions in history writing in the world: robust, factually rich and critical in its interpretation. Till he breathed his last on Thursday evening at his Delhi residence, in many ways, Prof. Dwinjendra Narayan Jha was the last of the greats of this famed lineage.

India has been quite fortunate to have produced a legion of extremely capable historians and in this it has carved a niche in the global map of historians. The discipline itself had emerged contesting colonial presuppositions, methodologies and stereotypes. The generation of R.S. Sharma, Bipan Chandra, Satish Chandra, Irfan Habib, Romila Thapar, B.D Chattopadhaya, M.G.S Narayanan, to name a few, were to refashion the work based on the riches endowed by the preceding generation. They also had to keep the communal and other mumbo jumbo away from historical scholarship in a country where institutional structures were yet not so robust to provide the professionals a free academic space. Prof. Jha (affectionately referred to as D.N), while committed to a materialist interpretation of history, where real life context of history and not woolly idealism was to constitute historical gaze, gave us some of the finest pieces of history of our land and our people.

With his early training in Calcutta’s Presidency College, where he also met some of his lifelong colleagues like B.D. Chattopadhaya, another historian of eminence, Prof. Jha moved to Patna and completed his higher studies with Prof. R.S.Sharma. Critically looking into the economic foundation of the ancient and early medieval historical society, Prof. Jha gradually began writing on the economic history of the period.

When Prof. Sharma moved to enrich the Ancient section of the University of Delhi. Prof. Jha too shifted his base to Delhi and the duo has the credit of building Delhi University as one of the largest constellation of young scholars in ancient Indian history. With JNU coming up in the neighbourhood with B.D. Chattopadhyaya, Romila Thapar, Suvira Jaiswal and R. Chamapakalakshmi, the collegiums were undoubtedly enviable. The camaraderie and competition of such collegiums must have enthused all, including Prof. Jha, who both contributed as well as prospered in this lettered city.


In a Paper published in 1968 entitled, ‘Marxist View of Indian History’ in which the young D.N. Jha not only was to explain the Marxist historiography of his inspiration, D.D. Kosambi, he indicated his own position too. For him, it was clear from the way Kosambi asked those penetrative questions of his sources, that with ‘sources’ and their correct interpretation lay the key to unravelling lives of the people in the past.

His discussion of Kosambi’s explanation of the decline of Buddhism was quite revealing. The latter had argued that the reason for the decline of Buddhism has been that while Brahmanism, ‘divested of Vedic ritual took hold of newly colonised areas and their aboriginal population’, Buddhism and its vast monastic foundations became a drain on resources. The young scholar asked a question: why has the Brahmanical religion survived with its temples amassing huge wealth without necessarily investing them in any gainful activity? This question has significance even today, when temple building has become a public passion.

Jha carried this investigation forward and in his ‘Temples and Merchants in South India (c. AD 900-1300)’ and ‘Feudal Traits of Temples in Early Medieval South India (c. AD 700-1300)’ (1974) he could see that there were intractable and intimate relationships between the merchants and the temple management. The mercantile interests implicated themselves in the management of the temples to use its finances. In the latter work, he also showed how the grant of land to the temples and also immunities of many sorts to temple authorities by the central authorities of the Cholas and other kingdoms had led to the gradual feudalisation of the agrarian system and increased subordinisation of the peasantry on one hand, and loss of the power by the central governments on the other.

These were important observations and this led him to follow up the larger studies on feudalism in India. Indian historians of its ancient and medieval period had invested in the idea of feudalism to explain the large social formations across the landmass. Feudalism was seen by some as explaining the European social formation, and its import to explain Indian conditions was not warranted in conceptual as well as factual terms.

Prof. Jha, like his mentor Prof. R.S. Sharma, however, did not find the criticism robust, despite the fact that there were obvious gaps in factual symmetries, and took to defend the use of the term as well as its application. The debate, in fact, produced some of the finest pieces of historical writings in India and has given us a rich corpus of source material and methods of source interpretation. Many of Jha’s students worked to uncover the processes in greater detail. One of the characteristics of Prof. Jha’s scholarship became crystal clear in this debate: his felicity of articulation with absolutely straight, clear and trenchant enunciation of arguments and criticism.


One of the most creative phases of Prof. Jha’s thinking and writing must be seen after his retirement from University of Delhi around 2005-6. It is when he was actually investing time to critique the new-fangled communal historiography on the one hand, and a strange concoction of historical religious studies coming from the West.

There were some central pointers in this. One was to see the old mythical presentation of Indian history as a Hindu history, finding a long and unbroken past, and merging into the contemporary effort at creating a Hindu nation. Similarly, unpalatable to him as a historian was the constitution of an ahistorical past by exporting to the past some of the current political desires, i.e., Indians were always peace loving; they were always only vegetarian; they were always tolerant.

His book on how ancient Indians ate beef was violently attacked and he was personally attacked for years. However, without giving any space to the communal vandalism, he produced some brilliant pieces including his General Presidential Address at the annual session of the Indian history Congress in 2006, where he decided to “argue against the fantastic antiquity assigned to Bhārata and Hinduism, as well as against the historically invalid stereotypes about the latter, and thus to show the hollowness of the ideas which have been the staple diet of the monster of Hindu cultural nationalism in recent years”

He ripped apart the effort to create such a historical lineage to the contemporary project. To him, it was only from 1860 that the name Bharatvarsha, as the name for the subcontienent began to be popularly mentioned. Its visual form came much later, he argued, in poet Abanindrnath Tagore’s painting and calling it Bharat Mata. Making this historiographically clear, Jha then came down sharply on the proponents and propagandists of these views in his characteristic style:

“Since these differently imagined geographical conceptions of Bhārata and Jambūdvīpa are factitious and of questionable value, to insist that their inhabitants formed a nation in ancient times is sophistry. It legitimates the Hindutva perception of Indian national identity as located in remote antiquity, accords centrality to the supposed primordiality of Hinduism and thus spawns Hindu cultural nationalism.”

He was quick to point out that all of these sophistry draws substance from ‘among other things, a systematic abuse of archaeology by a number of scholars.”

Prof. Jha also presented his masterly exposition of the myth of non- violence of the ancient Indians and also that they were essentially tolerant. He, with the help of an enormous corpus of epigraphic and inscriptional evidence, showed how intolerant the sects in India had been against each other all through the ancient and early medieval periods.

Thus, the battle between Buddhism and the Shaivites, and similarly between Vaishnavites and Jainas and others, had led to so many intense sectarian battles and bloodshed that it would be foolhardy to even claim non-violent history for the religious lives in India. He was absolutely brilliant in telling us how these shibboleths came about. He showed how western philosophers in the earlier century, in order to write their own history of violence, tried to find in Hinduism some kind of caricatured tolerant and non-violent religion and imputed these characteristics on a fangled history of the Hindus. Prof. Jha was quick to point out the anti- historical claims of these portrayals. He showed how such valorization of the Hindus being the most non-violent people in the world does not stand historical scrutiny and pointed rather to its futuristic project: militarization of the community.

In fact, as he pointed out in his writing, and most significantly in his Presidential address, that studies of ancient and early Indian history are replete with the instances and institutions, i.e., Salai, Ghatika, etc., which trained Brahmins in military practices.

While he has always exposed the anti-historical and hollowness of the claims of the propagandists, he also has never been less harsh on those who essentialised Indian history and helped present a timeless, contextless history of its people. To him, they were not only anti history but also quite often helped the Hindu nationalists’ efforts.

He would not even spare the work of Wendy Doniger, the doyen of Hindu Studies in the West. “While Doniger has been working on many “neglected aspects of Hinduism (e.g., myths, symbols, metaphors) on the basis of extensive Sanskrit texts and has provided interesting and provocative interpretations of the early Indian myths and religions which have cause a furore among the Indian diaspora and their Indian supporters, the fact remains,” as Jha pointed out quite often, “that she like many others has shied away from examining their changing social contexts.”

He was absolutely clear that these de-contexualised treatment of early Indian religion and culture by prioritising phenomenological interpretation rather than rational, historical interpretation in fact most often have returned as defence of this newly invented Hinduism, and also helped many of the defenders to masquerade as historians. Now this feeds back into the claims of the uniqueness of Hindu religion and its eternal character, etc., and in many ways supported them. This support, even if back handed at times, has increased particularly since the Second World War, as he would point out, “with the mushrooming of specialists on the Hindu religion and setting up of departments, about 1200 in the United States alone.”

It is here the stellar role played by Jha and his ancient and medieval Indian colleagues from all over India will be remembered. Anyone who savored the life of the mind of India’s first Republic would definitely have been made richer by the historical sensibilities that Prof. Jha provided.

Prof. Jha has travelled and had been part of the glorious days of institutions which contributed to the constitution and preservation of scholarship of highest order. They included Presidency College, Patna University, University of Delhi and Indian History Congress. He was involved in their respective community life and had contributed immensely by being in their academic, social and even political lives.

Notwithstanding the feuds and frictions of the institutional lives, his presence had made the life of the mind different in all these institutions in different times. His longest professional association however has remained with the Indian History Congress of which he was General Secretary, Executive Committee member and President. Quick with his characteristic humour and laconic punches, he fitted the famed stereotypical Maithili persona which savored a zest of life with an enormous sense of fun and laughter.

He was pleasant company even for those who were trenchant critiques of his communist beliefs. The young and budding historians would always seek him out in the annual Indian History Congress sessions, and his absence will be sorely felt.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

Published: 05 Feb 2021, 1:55 PM