Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Untouchability, Gita and the Pursuit of Truth

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Remembering Vivekanand Jha
by Vishwa Mohan Jha

It might come as a surprise to the uninitiated that untouchability remains among the darkest aspects of India’s social history – despite Bhimrao Ambedkar, Marxist and “post-Marxist” histories, a wealth of contemporary caste studies, and the rise of dalit politics. It is to the labours of Vivekanand Jha, who passed away on 30 November 2012, that so much of our present understanding of the history of untouchability in ancient India is indebted to.

Historians had generally been evasive about the issue; or else we had apologias. Thus in the brief chapter on untouchability in the second volume of P V Kane’s masterly History of Dharma śāstra, all that he discussed was that inequities such as untouchability were not unique to India but were a fairly widespread phenomena; that it was not to be found in our glorious Vedic period; and how in numerous ways it has been  is represented, its evils exaggerated. While we need to recognise, for example, that concern with hygiene contributed to the making of untouchability, we can equally be certain (Kane contended) that it was imposed with no hard feelings towards the untouchables!1 Ambedkar sought to fill the void and provide a corrective. In his Untouchables: Who Were They? and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), he historicised the issue in important ways, as by drawing the crucial distinction between impurity and untouchability, and located the origins of the latter in the beef -eating of the downtrodden. 

Historian’s Labour 

The historian Ram Sharan Sharma of Patna University began to take interest in the history of the shudras about the same time when Ambedkar was coming out with his works on the shudras and “untouchables”. But the gauntlet that Ambedkar threw down before the specialist historians was to be picked up by  Vivekanand Jha in his doctoral thesis “Untouchables in Early Indian History” (1972) under the supervision of Sharma. 

Jha meticulously collected and vetted a truly impressive range of evidence and arguments, and marshalled them into a systematic account of the origin and development of untouchability in early India. This history unfolded itself as a part of the larger process of the transformation of a succession of aboriginal tribes (for example the Chandalas) into caste society as well as of the gradual degradation of the status of a number of professional groups such as washer-men and -women and leather workers. In the process a number of received ideas (beginning with the pet brahminical idea that untouchability proceeded from the “mixture” of castes) were, as they had to be, critiqued and set aside. A different chronology of the advent of untouchability than the one suggested by Ambedkar was worked out, sundering the causal connection between beef-eating and untouchability postulated by him.

It is revealing indeed that leatherwork, that was to become a surest sign of untouchability in medieval times, should not have been considered polluting, not only during the Vedic period, but for centuries thereafter. For instance, a record dating from early fi rst millennium AD refers to a pious donor named Vidhika as a Chamār (Cham makāra), the son of an Upājhāya (a teacher, Prakrit form of Sanskrit Upād hyāya). Incidentally, the surname “Jha” is supposed to derive from Upājhāya. 

Jha’s works became conspicuous for a wrong reason too, which he himself much regretted: for a long time he was perhaps the only standard authority on the subject, at least going by the references to untouchability in scholarly literature. The works of Mikael Aktor and Genichi Yamazaki (preceded by that of K R Hanumanthan) are beginning to redress the complaint, however, and they further underline the lasting nature of his legacy. 

As every student of Indian history knows, Vivekanand Jha stood out in the profession as much for his own researches as for looking after those of others. As the founder editor of the Indian Historical Review, he set high standards for editing and publishing 

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