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A 'Scientific' Historian

R S Sharma, historian, teacher and founder chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research was a Marxist who was averse to the mechanical application of Marx's ideas to the Indian situation. He also used his considerable scholarship on ancient India to fight communal propaganda and actions.


A ‘Scientific’ Historian inter action with Pandit Karyanand Sharma,
who began his political career with the non
cooperation movement in 1920 and later
emerged as an important leader of the
D N Jha p easant movement and the Communist Party

R S Sharma, historian, teacher and founder chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research was a Marxist who was averse to the mechanical application of Marx’s ideas to the Indian situation. He also used his considerable scholarship on ancient India to fight communal propaganda and actions.

D N Jha ( is former professor of history, Delhi University, and one of R S Sharma’s closest students.

Economic & Political Weekly

SEPTEMBER 17, 2011

orn on 1 September 1920 Ram Sharan Sharma got his early education in his village, Barauni, and later at Begusarai, then a subdivisional town of Bihar. He joined Patna College in 1937 where he completed his Masters degree in history in 1943. After a brief stint at the H D Jain College, Arrah and the TNB College, Bhagalpur, he became a lecturer in Patna College from where his services were requisitioned by the Bihar government for some time to prepare a report on the boundary dispute between Bihar and Bengal. In 1958 he took over as head of the department of history, Patna University, a position he held until 1972 when he became the founder chairperson of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), New Delhi. In the following year he moved to Delhi University which offered him professorship and headship of its history department. At Patna and Delhi he not only expanded the departments of history but, more importantly, modernised the syllabi and freed history teaching from the colonial influence. As chairperson of the ICHR he initiated many projects involving a large number of historians from different parts of the country, thus promoting Indian historical studies at a national level; such was his vision and foresight that the agenda he set for the ICHR still continues. As an institution builder he faced many difficulties but R S Sharma never despaired.

In his youth R S Sharma met the progressive polyglot and polymath Maha pandit Rahul Sankrityayana and several prominent political personalities who played an important role in the freedom struggle, and peasant movements. In his private conversation he used to recall his close

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of India. He also interacted with another f amous peasant leader Swami Sahajanand Saraswati who founded the Bihar provincial Kisan Sabha in 1929 and became the first president of the All India Kisan Sabha in 1936. Sharmaji, as he was known to his friends and students, shared with both of them some personality traits like a spartan way of life, and unpretentiousness. With these qualities combined with his disarming humility and unassuming manners.

R S Sharma could easily reach out to p eople from different walks of life and win their hearts. It was not an unusual sight to see him sitting on the lawns of the Delhi University talking to the non-teaching staff discussing their problems and, negotiating on their behalf in a situation of confrontation with the authorities.

His simplicity was best reflected in his classroom teaching and in all his writings. His success as a teacher lay in his ability to carry his erudition lightly and to explain even the most difficult ideas and concepts in a simple language to all his students. His writings attracted a very wide readership because they were free from jargon and phrase-mongering. He spoke and wrote in the language of the common people and treated himself as one of them.

Fighting Spirit

R S Sharma’s association with peasant leaders and with the movements led by them made him a man of robust optimism and steely will which was evident in all his acti vities throughout his life. But I would like to recall three occasions when he fully demonstrated his fighting spirit. In 1975 when he was the general president of the Indian History Congress he persuaded its members to unanimously adopt an anti-Emergency resolution and gave it the


unique distinction of being the only organisation of scholars to have opposed the Emergency openly. Second, in 1977 in the post-Emergency period when the Janata Party came to power, the obscurantist and communal elements launched a vicious attack on several National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks, including his own book Ancient I ndia. But R S Sharma mobilised the support of his colleagues and history teachers and other social scientists throughout the country. He also wrote a booklet In Defence of Ancient I ndia (1978). The demand for the restoration of his book took the form of a popular movement of academics in the country and ultimately the ban order had to be withdrawn. Third, when the rabidly communal Ram Janma bhoomi move ment gathered momentum, R S Sharma moved the Indian History Congress to pass a resolution year after year for the protection of the Babari Masjid. He himself, along with his three

o ther colleagues and friends, participated as independent scholars in the parleys between the protagonists of the temple movement and the Babri Masjid Action Committee.

R S Sharma also wrote extensively in the newspapers and magazines on the communalist attempt to distort the history of Ayodhya. He authored a booklet Communal History and Rama’s Ayodhya (1990) and, along with his colleagues, including myself, authored the Ramjanamabhumi- Baburi Masjid: A Historians’ Report to the Nation (1991) focusing on the historical issues involved in the Ayodhya imbroglio. He was thus in the forefront of secular academics combating the communal elements and provided them with an ideo logical weapon through his writings which were an antidote to communalist onslaught culminating in the demolition of the mosque.

The demolition was condemned by the World Archaeology Congress III (1994) in the strongest terms on his initiative despite vehement opposition from the Indian a rchaeological establishment which has been a citadel of communalism and revivalism. His crusade against Hindu communalists and xenophobes continued unabated and his two books, Looking for the Aryans (1995) and Advent of the Aryans in India (1999), convincingly refute the indigenist propaganda of the Aryan autochthony, identifying the authors of the Vedic texts with the Harappans. What is remarkable about all his writings against communal or xenophobic view of India’s past is that, even if polemical at times, they are based on hard irrefutable evidence and are written in the best tradition of historical scholarship.

A Pragmatic Marxist

Coming as he did from a peasant background R S Sharma had first-hand knowledge of the hard realities of rural life and its trials and tribulations. This was further enriched by his association with contemporary peasant leaders and naturally drove him towards the Marxist ideology and very close to the Communist Party of India whose leadership often turned to him for advice. Far from the doctrinairism of many communists, his Marxism was pragmatic and pervades all his research work without drumbeating on Karl Marx. Whether it was the choice of the themes he wrote on or his understanding and treatment of them, there was nothing formulaic about it. Like D D Kosambi, he was averse to the mechanical application of Marx’s ideas to the Indian situation.

R S Sharma began his research career by writing on the Indian social structure whose exploitative dimensions he saw from close quarters. The first piece that he wrote in English dealt with some economic aspects of the caste system in ancient India (1952). He continued to pursue it in subsequent years at Patna and published several articles in Hindi magazines and journals on various aspects of caste, especially the servile position of those occupying the lower ranks in the social hierarchy. He was the first professional historian to undertake a comprehensive study of the shudras in ancient India – a theme on which he completed his monograph in 1956 at the School of the Oriental and African Studies, London. The work earned him the doctoral degree of the University of London and was published in 1958. It was based on a rigorous analysis of ancient Indian literary texts and sought to examine the changing position of the lower orders up to the Gupta period and opened up new lines of enquiry pursued subsequently by some of his students. The main thesis expounded in the book was that the institution of caste was never static and, accordingly,

SEPTEMBER 17, 2011

the position of the lower orders – shudras and untouchables – underwent changes over time which were inextricably linked with their changing relations with the means of production. In 1959, he published his Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions of Ancient India which questioned the national chauvinist and revivalist approach to the past as seen in the writings of K P Jaiswal and other nationalist historians. More importantly, it underlined the dialectical relationship between the m aterial forces and – power structures in a ncient India – this theme later received s pecial attention in his Origin of the State in India (1989) and The State and Varna Formations in the mid-Ganga Plains: An Ethnoarchaeological View (1996).

These studies taken together mark the different stages in the development of the ancient Indian state and polity and, for the first time, draw attention to many of their features. For example no one before him had written about the Vidatha which was the earliest folk assembly of the Vedic Aryans.

R S Sharma has also critiqued in some detail the concept of oriental despotism, which has been put to tendentious use by some western scholars (e g Wittfogel), but his perception of the Mauryan state as centralised has not gone down well with some historians. His seminal work, Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India (1983) has, however, generated more academic heat than his studies of ancient Indian polity. Written within a “plain evolutionary framework based on the findings of Marx, Engels and Morgan and enriched by the generalisations of Gordon Childe and other investigators, who have explored archaeology, anthropology and sociology more or less on the lines of historical materialism”, the book seeks to analyse the transition from Vedic pastoralism to sedentary agriculture in the later Vedic and post-Vedic periods and to explain the formation of class, state, economic surplus and the emergence of towns in the age of the Buddha. In his analysis R S Sharma has highlighted the transformatory role of iron technology and for this reason some scholars have bitterly criticised him and have charged him of technological determinism. They have however missed the point that far from treating the

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Economic & Political Weekly


advent and dispersal of iron technology as a single factor of social transformation, he has viewed it as one of the important catalysts of change and as part of the general growth of productive forces.

A Different View

Of all his writings, R S Sharma’s work on feudalism in India has generated the most heated debate among historians. Although first mentioned in the early Indian context by the Indian Marxist scholar Bhupendra Nath Datta as far back as 1944, it was in the post-independence period that the discussion on it gained momentum when Kosambi asserted in 1956 that India passed through the phase of feudalism in two stages. More or less at the same time R S Sharma wrote on the subject and published an article in 1958 which he developed into a book called Indian Feudalism whose publication in 1965 marks a landmark in early Indian historiography.

R S Sharma, unlike Kosambi but without joining issue with him, produced e pigraphic evidence which contradicted Kosambi’s two-stage theory of feudalism. According to R S Sharma feudalism in I ndia, unlike in Europe, began with the land grants made to brahmins, temples and monasteries for which the epigraphic evidence begins from the first century BC and multiplies by the Gupta times when villages with their fields and inhabitants, with fiscal, administrative and judicial rights and with exemption from the interference of royal officials were given to r eligious beneficiaries. What was abandoned step by step in favour of the priestly class was later given to the warrior class and in course of time religious as well as secular land grants became popular. This, R S Sharma argued, gave rise to the characteristic economic feature of feudalism which consisted in the rise of a class of landed intermediaries, leading to the servility of peasants by depriving them of their rights over communal resources like pastures, forests, fisheries, etc, which were transferred to the beneficiaries, through mounting tax burden, increasing obligation to perform forced labour (vishti) and, equally importantly, through restriction on their mobility.

The phenomenon of the rise of feudal property and the mode and mechanism

Economic & Political Weekly

SEPTEMBER 17, 2011

of peasant exploitation as delineated by R S Sharma bear similarity with developments in medieval Europe and hence he seems to have been tempted to draw somewhat heavily on European parallels to construct his feudal model. But the c rucial chain in R S Sharma’s argument is the premise that around the middle of the first millennium urban centres and commodity production underwent a decline, and there was a marked downturn in trade, leading to ruralisation of arts and crafts. This created self-sufficient village economies in which metallic currency, in contrast to the pre-Gupta period, tended to become scarce so that the State was compelled to make all payments to the priests or to the government officials through a ssignments of land.

This portrayal of the economic scene around the fifth century tallies with the perception of Kosambi who also speaks of the emergence of the self-sufficient Indian village from the Gupta period onwards. But R S Sharma, unlike Kosambi, has made a phenomenal use of archaeological evidence to demonstrate the decay of towns during the period 5th to 9th century. His Urban Decay in India c400-1000 (1987) adduces archaeological evidence from about 140 sites all over the country to show that de-urbanisation took place in most parts of the subcontinent.

Similarly on the basis of his study of coin collections in about a dozen museums in India and abroad he has shown that the number of coins in circulation during the period fourth-tenth century was extremely limited (Early Medieval Indian Society: A Study in Feudalism, 2001, chapter 4). R S Sharma, however, has faced some captious criticisms from some historians who have failed to situate his feudal model in a correct chronological perspective. The massive archaeological evidence of urban decay is thus sought to be countered by the post-9th century epigraphical references to towns; one critic even goes to the extent of “imagining the urban” on the basis of literary descriptions. The idea of a relative paucity of metal currency is similarly contested on the basis of later numismatic evidence. But despite criticisms R S Sharma’s idea of feudalism has generated a vast amount of research on the social and economic history of different

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parts of the country and remains much more useful than the newfangled theories that have invaded the academia in the wake of the postmodernist onslaught on history and other social sciences.

Ram Sharan Sharma was a tireless researcher and published many more books than mentioned here. A new book on the economic history of ancient India came out just earlier this year when he was ailing. He was unorthodox in his approach and made sharp departures from the colonial historiographical legacy in several ways. He shifted the focus of history writing from the chronicle of kings and queens to the history of the common people, especially the underprivileged and the marginalised. He took history away from the realm of myth and legends and demystified it. He fought for a scientific history of India and did all that he could to maintain its secular social fabric. He gave the s logan “no theory, no history” but did not build theories in the air – they were firmly r ooted in sources of which he had profound knowledge.

R S Sharma made major methodological breakthroughs in his research. Unlike his predecessors who used inscriptions for writing dynastic history and for fixing the chronology of kings and their battles, R S Sharma used them for reconstructing the social, economic and cultural history. Unlike the Indologists who depended on coins to work out the minor details of p olitical history, R S Sharma fruitfully used them to write economic history. U nlike the Indian archaeologists who used their artefacts and antiquities to satisfy their antiquarian appetite he used them as a source for the history of early I ndian settlements and urban centres. His unusual mastery over different types of sources coupled with his grasp over the current anthropological and sociological theories gave R S Sharma an edge over his peers and shaped him into a social scientist with an interest in a wide range of d isciplines. Not surprisingly, he founded a journal called Social Science Probings in 1984 with the objective of providing a f orum for interaction between scholars of different dis ciplines.

In R S Sharma’s death the academic community has lost a historian who wrote scientific history but did not gild the lily.

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