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Ram Sharan Sharma (1920-2011)

R S Sharma was among a small group of historians who in the 1950s broke new ground in the study of ancient India. One pioneering development was the expansion in the range of sources, from using texts alone to supplementing them with archaeological data and introducing data from inscriptions. R S Sharma's second major contribution was in using an analytical method to examine data.

Ram Sharan Sharma (1920-2011) Romila Thapar pioneering developments in the writing of that history over the last half century. The first of these was the expansion in the range of sources, from using texts alone to co-relating archaeological data and intro-

R S Sharma was among a small group of historians who in the 1950s broke new ground in the study of ancient India. One pioneering development was the expansion in the range of sources, from using texts alone to supplementing them with archaeological data and introducing data from inscriptions. R S Sharma’s second major contribution was in using an analytical method to examine data.

Romila Thapar is professor emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

first met R S Sharma in the mid-1950s at the School of Oriental and African Studies (soas) in London University. I had just started on research for a PhD and he had come to do postdoctoral research. I had completed a BA Hons degree with a specialisation in ancient Indian history. A L Basham had recommended reading the established historians such as R C Majumdar, H C Raychaudhuri, Vincent Smith, and so on. But he mentioned that the app roach of R S Sharma was different and that of D D Kosambi even more so. This was made apparent when we sat in on the first ever conference on south Asian historiography and heard R C Majumder on ancient Indian historical writing followed by R S Sharma on the historiography of ancient Indian social history. The even more memorable occasion was when Basham invited Kosambi to SOAS to give a series of lectures on Hinduism. This introduced us to an altogether new dimension in the study of ancient history and was a demonstration of the intellectual challenge to conventional history. The presence of these two scholars, however brief, created an interesting little niche of new thinking in an institution which 50 years ago was generally conservative in its study of Asia.

R S Sharma, who stayed for a longer period at SOAS, would often chat with the students about things ancient and modern. He was a remarkably accessible person, always ready to discuss one’s problems of research or help in locating possible sources. And together with this he was a source of great encouragement to young scholars who showed a serious interest in the subject. His early study of Marxism was reflected not only in his research on social and economic history but also in his interest in contemporary peasant movements, and in Marxist writing on India. I first learnt of Rahula Sankrityayana from him.

Pioneering Developments

R S Sharma’s approach to the history of ancient India incorporates two of the

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ducing data from inscriptions. Descriptions from texts although detailed were integrated with visual and tactile remains from excavations. This suggested answers to questions such as, how did people live, what objects did they use in the form of pottery and tools, how advanced was their technology as a gauge of material conditions. Textual descriptions tell us many things but the information is not always exact.

R S Sharma’s second major contribution was his use of an analytical method to e xamine data. This meant checking the reliability of the evidence in arguing for the possible causation of events, assessing the logic and rationality of the inferences drawn, and presenting an explanation which for him drew on Marxist historical materialism. Recognising that a given situation has changed, the relevant question is asking why and how it has changed and what has evolved out of the change. A few such questions were asked by earlier historians but the more extensive and rigorous questions were posed by D D Kosambi and a similar method was followed by R S Sharma. Both were using Marxist methods of enquiry and therefore in some cases argued in a similar fashion, but in others argued differently.

Marxist Method

This may now seem normal in historical research but half a century ago it was r elatively new. Then too, ignorance of M arxism led to the common misconception that a Marxist method and historical materialism was merely the application of economic determinism. As a methodology that encompasses a range of human activity it can be used either selectively up to a point, or else creatively to interrelate evidence and to suggest insights, depending on the practitioner. It can also be used in combination with other analytical methods

– as was demonstrated by Kosambi when he analysed coins by statistical methods. There can be more than one explanation for why something happened in the past,

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but the historian in maintaining a priority has to back it with evidence – a procedure followed by competent historians.

The earlier studies focused on political and dynastic history – quite legitimate for this limited purpose – began to change in the middle decades of the 20th century, when reconstructing social and economic history became the more important focus. The work of D D Kosambi and R S Sharma became a turning point. They enlarged the categories of sources. Descriptions of conditions from texts were juxtaposed with archaeological data where possible. The attempt was to approach the reality of society to the extent that it was feasible. Kosambi argued that it was necessary for historians to do fieldwork in order to understand how society functioned.

Use of Text and Artefact

R S Sharma used the juxtaposition of text and artefact to enlarge the evidence. Two examples come to mind. In the early u rbanisation in the Ganges Valley the basic question relates to how towns evolved in the middle Ganges plain in about the 6th-5th century BC – the question that is inevitably asked wherever there is evidence of urban settlements. The texts do not tell us much about this process. But archaeology suggests that one among other reasons may have been a change in technology, namely, the use of iron technology – in addition to and gradually replacing the use of the earlier bronze/copper technology. Iron is more efficient for cutting forests, and for turning the deeper layers of soil with irontipped plough-shares useful in the cultivation of rice. R S Sharma argued for this change accelerating the growth of urban centres in some places. This argument has been much discussed and the discussion has led to further studies.

Another example relates to the Gupta period being a “golden age”. R S Sharma gathered data on the excavations of the period in various parts of north India. He saw in the data a decline in material culture during that period, particularly in the urban centres. This he discussed in his book Urban Decay in India (c 300 – c 1000). (1987). Far from being a golden age it was in effect an age that seems to suggest a decline in living standards. The generalisation of a decline was arguable, but it raised

Economic & Political Weekly

SEPTEMBER 17, 2011

a range of valuable questions, especially relating to how a “golden age” should be defined if the concept is to be used at all. Further, if it was a period of decline how did the royal courts of that time sustain the patronage towards building and embellishing temples and monasteries. This needs finance quite apart from creative activity. What were the resources that provided the finance? The creative outburst in literature and philosophy also required patronage but to a lesser degree.

The contrast that immediately comes to mind is that in the pre-Gupta period the monuments and the artistic creativity were in many ways superior to that of the Gupta period. Could the achievements of the Gupta period have been the continuation of an impetus from these earlier times? For example, there were multiple stupas constructed all over the subcontinent, encapsulating the spread of a vibrant Buddhism. The financing of these came from royal families but also from those involved in a network of enhanced trade. These were the merchants, artisans, small landowners, monks and nuns, all of whom describe themselves as having contributed to the construction of the monument, their contributions recorded in votive inscriptions.

Opening Another World

When inscriptions began to be read as documents recording social and economic history, another world opened up. For instance, the importance of women donors and what we now know about the status and function of women at various levels of early Indian society. This was data that did not conform to either the negative image of the status of women in the dharmashastras or the high status projected in earlier histories of ancient India. The inscriptions suggested a varying status dependent on occupation, caste and wealth.

Today there is a serious interest in gender studies pertaining to early times and a large amount of evidence has been ferreted out which provides a fuller picture of Indian society. It also explains a dimension of caste society that was usually not mentioned in previous histories – that it was necessary to keep sections of society suppressed in order to make caste functioning congenial to those in the upper ranks.

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Control over women ensured the working of caste, although there were deviations that had to be covered up. Control over the lower castes and particularly those we now call dalits ensured a permanent supply of labour. Since caste identity is through birth it is difficult to change one’s caste status, so those born to labour, performed the same task for generations. These were attitudes discussed by R S Sharma in his Sudras in Ancient India (1958) complemented by his study of

Aspects of Political Ideas and Institutions in Ancient India (1968, 2nd revised edition). Such discussion has encouraged the more detailed and wider exploration of these subjects by other historians.

Inscriptions as Source Material

Inscriptions as source material for writing history were used extensively by R S Sharma who derived new kinds of data from them. They had been read from the early 19th century but used largely for sorting out the chronology and succession of rulers and dynasties – because history was at that time seen to be essentially political information arranged in chronological order.

In examining social and economic history in the period after the Guptas, there had initially been a reliance only on texts. Excavations for this period were not c ommon. But once again when historians turned to re-examining the inscriptions, they began to see the evidence for reconstructing the political economy and society of the many kingdoms of the post-Gupta period. Some earlier historians had hinted at a change and looked to the E uropean model of a feudal society in the middle ages in western Europe as a possible parallel. The structure of society was envisaged in the form of a pyramid – the

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all powerful king as overlord, his vassals as his feudatories/intermediaries who had rights over those who laboured for them, the serfs. But a few other historians rejected the possibility of feudalism in India.

Marx had suggested five stages or modes of production, for European history, where in each stage the political economy and society underwent change or mutation and gradually moved from one form to the next. The important point was that the change evolved gradually, from the existing system to another, the cause of the change growing out of what he saw as contradictions in the existing system.

Marx had projected a system for Asia which he called the Asiatic mode of production, which assumed Asian societies to be static and governed by despots. This was examined by a variety of Marxist scholars all over Asia and by now has been discarded. But most Asian Marxist historians did look more closely at the systems Marx had suggested for Europe, and the feudal mode of production aroused intellectual curiosity. It seemed to provide a possible explanation of historical change with the caveat that the picture would not be identical with that of Europe. The data from inscriptions in India from about the 8th century AD onwards, suggested parallels to this pattern on the polity and the agrarian economy.

Kosambi used it for exploring the post-Gupta period, as a method of analysis, examining the state, the economy, caste and religion, but posited a variation. He wrote of feudalism from above – the control of the king over his feudatories, and feudalism from below which focused on the relations between the feudatory and the peasant.

Indian Feudalism

R S Sharma’s notion of Indian feudalism, which he set out in Indian Feudalism (1965) also followed the model of Marx, but did not make this distinction. He envisaged a relative decentralisation of power with a more extensive administrative authority given to the feudatories. This was through many brahmanas and a few high level officers being given grants of land by the king for their services. What was actually granted was the revenue from the land and not the land, but soon the grantees claimed rights of ownership over the land. The institution of landowners as a major social force came into existence. Those who had large areas of land could use these grants as the base for slowly building up principalities and then small kingdoms.

New societies emerged with characteristics different from earlier times. Families claimed kshatriya pedigrees, new occupations led to the establishing of new jatis. The ranking of the jatis at the middle level underwent some change, as for example the kayasthas who became powerful as administrators. Those at the top end, the brahmanas, and those at the lowest, what we now call dalits, did not undergo change, except that some new groups were added from time to time. The dalits and the low castes still provided labour. The existence of serfdom was a much debated question. Drawing on his thesis of urban decay and using the inscriptional data from the post-Gupta period, R S Sharma argued for a decline of trade and of cities. This argument met with problems since although there had been a lull in trade to begin with, it soon picked up. Indian traders, Buddhist monks and brahmanas were travelling to distant parts of Asia – central Asia, China, south-east Asia.

Cultural Change

There was also a cultural change. Sanskrit as a court language was used extensively and texts both in the form of manuscripts and inscriptions became common with the help of royal patronage. But when the regional languages emerged by the second millennium AD, these languages began to replace Sanskrit in essential local administration and some aspects of court functioning. The kings, the intermediaries and

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wealthy merchants became patrons of new religious sects propagating bhakti or devotional worship, dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva or other deities. But at the same time the local regional religious forms of worship and their deities were incorporated into the mainstream. The significance of the change to a feudal society, although most clearly reflected in a change in the political economy, was however not restricted to this alone. There was also the evidence for new religious and cultural movements and the creation of new castes. These aspects were studied by those who argued for feudalism, but also by those who saw the process of change somewhat differently, expressed in forms of state-formation, Puranic Hinduism and the lateral spread of clan identities converting into castes, in parts of northern India.

The feudal mode of production, as adapted by R S Sharma, led to extensive and lively debates that opened up other aspects of the history of this period. His work had both supporters and some critics. He replied to the latter in Early Medieval Indian Society (2001). The greater importance of his work in this area was that it brought a range of fresh questions into the discussion and the answers to these further stretched the potential of a variety of source materials.

R S Sharma’s explorations in co-relating material culture with textual evidence and his use of an analytical method of enquiry, enabled him to maintain, in all his research and writing, an essentially secular understanding of the Indian past. As with all such scholarship, it too had to face vehement criticism from the Hindu right. He defended, with ample evidence, his reference to beef-eating in ancient India

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Economic Political Weekly


mentioned in the textbook he wrote for the National Council for Educational Research and Training; and he wrote on the site of the Babri masjid, contesting the claim that it had replaced a temple to Rama commemorating the birthplace of Rama. In both these issues his views are supported by a large number of historians. That R S Sharma not only withstood these critics but battled against them, gave immense strength to those working towards establishing secular history writing in





-the context of early India. His ideas have been influential in giving shape to the study of this history in the last few decades. Hopefully the debates that his writing gave rise to will continue to e nrich the discipline.

Economic Political Weekly

SEPTEMBER 17, 2011 vol xlvi no 38

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