Making of a National Treasure: How the History and Culture of the Indian People was Written

The full story of how the eleven volumes of the majestic History and Culture of the Indian People were written. About fifty scholars working over 26 years created this masterpiece of Indian history.
Making of a National Treasure: How the History and Culture of the Indian People was Written

In this series

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Making of a National Treasure: How the History and Culture of the Indian People was Written
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K.M. Munshi's Flowing Stream Approach to the Study of Indian History
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Making of a National Treasure: How the History and Culture of the Indian People was Written

The eleven volumes of The History and Culture of the Indian People are among India’s most valuable national treasures in book form. In ambition, scope, treatment and accomplishment, they remain unequalled till date. Perhaps the only other comparable feat are the volumes of the Cultural Heritage of India.

As we noted in the previous part of this series, The History and Culture of the Indian People was both the fruition and realization of K.M. Munshi’s magnificent vision of writing a comprehensive history of India from the Vedic period up to 1947.

This is the story of how those volumes were written.

Almost immediately after establishing the iconic Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in 1938, K.M. Munshi began to develop the outline he had prepared for writing the full history of India. The initial plan was to bring out ten volumes of roughly five hundred pages each. Munshi knew that it was an audacious and long-drawn project that would involve enormous sums of money and the effort of scores of people and the collaboration and assistance of several institutions. Undeterred, Munshi pursued his quest with single-minded purpose. In every sense, it was tapas. After six years, he achieved his first breakthrough.

G.D. Birla's Patronage

In 1944, Ghanshyam Das Birla offered his selfless patronage and generous funding for Munshi’s project through his aptly-named Sri Krishnarpan Charity Trust. The outcome was an institution named Bharatiya Itihasa Samiti (Academy of Indian History) formed “with the specific object of preparing the series” of the History and Culture of the Indian People.

And then there was the critical question of finding the most qualified person to head this mammoth undertaking. Neither was it a question of mere qualification. The person had to share Munshi’s vision, dedication, and his abiding reverence towards Bharatavarsha. In the same spirit of a true seeker that animated almost every area of his work, Munshi began his search for such a person. After nearly a year, he had found him.

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Sometime in 1945, Dr. Ramesh Chandra Majumdar who had recently retired as the Vice Chancellor of the Dacca University, received an invitation from K.M. Munshi. Majumdar was surprised. Although he knew of Munshi as a freedom fighter and a distinguished public personality, he was genuinely astonished why he of all people had been invited: “I was a complete stranger to Munshi,” records Majumdar. Please meet me in Bombay, said the invitation letter. And so, Majumdar went to Bombay.

Historic Meeting with Dr. R.C. Majumdar

The meeting was historic. Majumdar was not only impressed with Munshi but was captivated by the man’s vision of and insights into Indian history. This is how Majumdar describes the meeting:

Far greater was my surprise when I listened to him explaining the ideals and method envisaged by him for the publication of a series of ten volumes on the history and culture of the Indian People, laying particular stress on the two words, ‘culture’ and ‘people.’ I was very much surprised to hear all this from one who was not a professional historian. But MY SURPRISE REACHED ITS CLIMAX WHEN HE REQUESTED ME TO ACCEPT THE POST OF THE GENERAL EDITOR, FOR WE HAD NEVER MET EACH OTHER BEFORE.

Contemporary management Guru types will describe this in vapid language, calling it “talent spotting” but those well-versed with the society and the national climate of that era will immediately know that this was national service on the part of both men.

Needless, R.C. Majumdar accepted the position of General Editor for the entire project on a simple condition: Munshi would not interfere in the actual writing of the history and supply Majumdar with any assistance he would need, be it men or money or institutional support. It was a condition the large-hearted stalwart in Munshi honoured till the end as we shall see.

Enlisting Titans

Next, R.C. Majumdar began scouting the country and enrolled only the finest scholars for this grand endeavor. Throughout the duration of the project, he was assisted by a “young and promising scholar” Dr. A.D. Pusalker who became assistant editor to the project. Here’s a partial list of the kind of titans who contributed to the volumes of the History and Culture of the Indian People: Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri, K.N. Dikshit, Suniti Kumar Chatterji, H.D. Sankalia, Dr. A.L. Srivastava, N. Venkataramanayya, T.M.P. Mahadevan, K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, G.S. Sardesai, Radhakumud Mookerji, S. Krishnaswamy Iyengar, Prof. U.N. Ghoshal, V.M. Apte, G.V. Devasthali, A.S. Altekar, Dr. Paramatma Saran…a resplendent galaxy of only the most luminous stars of scholarship, erudition and learning. It was indeed befitting that a multi-volume history of Bharatavarsha was filled with the sacred waters drawn from almost all Tirthas of its sacred geography: places as diverse and widespread as Calcutta, Delhi, Agra, Kurukshetra, Varanasi, Lucknow, Jaipur, Navsari, Pune, Bombay, Dharwad, Mysore, Bangalore, Vishakhapatnam, Guntur, Madras…This also reveals a straightforward truth of that period: Majumdar was able to enlist the services of these distinguished scholars because the academia throughout India was populated by such top quality talent.

Logo of Allen & Unwin
Logo of Allen & Unwin

The first volume of the History and Culture of the Indian People was published in 1951 with a count of roughly six hundred pages. Interestingly, it was published not by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and it was not published in India. George Allen and Unwin Ltd published it in London. Which reveals another difficult fact: the tumultuous events of the Partition, the frenzied work of consolidating the freedom that India had just attained and other tough conditions made it impossible to publish the work in India. England was no exception. It was barely finding its feet again after being battered by World War II. In this light, we can only marvel at the manner in which K.M. Munshi had cultivated goodwill across a wide sphere ranging from politics to publishing, from India to England.

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Munshi's Abiding Involvement

Munshi’s involvement in his cherished project was, to borrow his own phraseology, a continuous stream. While he did not interfere in the actual writing and never micro-managed, he diligently read the typescript of the entire manuscript of each volume before it went to press. When we visualize how the actual process went, it is a source of enormous thrill and delight. After he had read the manuscript, Munshi would invite Majumdar to his Bombay home where he would be an honoured guest, treated with great cordiality and respect. Over several days, the two men would discuss the manuscript threadbare. This is how R.C. Majumdar describes it:

Our discussion on some disputed points of what I wrote was always carried on in a very cordial spirit…There was a tacit understanding between us that no objection would be made to any statement which is based on fact and supported by reasonable argument…however unpleasant or disagreeable it might appear…MUNSHIJI NEVER VIOLATED THIS AGREEMENT OR UNDERSTANDING.

As the adage goes, this was the spirit of the period and the spirit of our own period is defined by the violation of the spirit of that period.

The other facet of Munshi’s passionate involvement in this project was to write forewords to each volume. Every foreword is a masterclass in writing the entire history of a full epoch in about thirty pages without omitting the essential details. It is marked by an abiding passion for his beloved Bharatavarsha, punctuated with highly original insights and distinguished by his brilliant command over the subject. In fact, with careful editing, these six-and-half forewords can constitute an independent work by itself.

Six-and-half because K.M. Munshi did not live to witness the fruition of the Himalayan endeavor he had seeded.

In Memoriam

When the seventh volume titled The Mughul Empire was published in 1974, three years had already elapsed since the venerable Kulapati had discarded his mortal bonds. Dr. R.C. Majumdar writes a moving tribute to Munshi titled, In Memoriam, in this volume:

This is the first volume of this series…which appears without a Foreword from the pen of its inaugurator, the late lamented Kulapati Dr. K.M. Munshi. He died full of years and honours…it has been an irreparable loss to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan…To me the loss is also a personal one. I still cherish the memory of my first meeting with Dr. Munshi in 1945…I specially lay stress on this point, as I have learnt from personal experience that men in high position in India seldom exhibit his spirit. When, as the whole time Director, I prepared the draft of the History of Freedom Movement in India, I met with constant interference and obstruction from men in authority, having no knowledge of history, and I could not help contrasting their attitude with that of Dr. K.M. Munshi. When this unpleasant situation was reported to Munshiji…he said: “Leave the matter of writing to Dr. Majumdar as I have done, and don’t interfere with his freedom…” This I consider to be one of the noblest traits in his character. He had already earned my love and respect, but to this was now added admiration for a very high degree of intellectual integrity—so very rare in the leaders of Free India. It will ever remain a matter of deep regret for me that Munshiji did not live to see the completion of his cherished project...My only consolation is that he saw nine volumes comprising seven thousand five hundred pages already published…Whether I shall live long enough to bring out the remaining volume, I cannot say, but if I do, the day of its publication, and completion of Munshiji’s dear project, will be the proudest and happiest day of my long life.

Happily for us and happily for K.M. Munshi, Dr. Majumdar did indeed live and completed “Munshiji’s dear project.” Indeed, when he had chosen Dr. R.C. Majumdar to head the project, he had truly chosen well. The final volume of the History and Culture of the Indian people was published in 1977, the majestic finale of twenty-six sustained years of national service in the deepest sense of the word. Every single scholar who contributed to the volumes and the hundreds of unknown, unnamed folks who took part in this brilliant Yajna of history deserve a place of eminence in the hall of patriots.


History and Culture of the Indian People is also a profound exercise in national integration and a celebration of Bharatavarsha’s indivisible unity using history as a powerful vehicle. Even as K.M. Munshi’s treasured project took wings after 1945, he realized the alarming urgency and civilizational inevitability of such an endeavour. Indeed, when we read what he wrote so far ago, we are stunned at his foresight.

Another problem we have to consider is the persistent demand for rewriting history to foster communal amity. To my mind, nothing can be a greater mistake…Suppression and distortion of evidence, leading to false conclusions about the past, is hardly the way to…build up a better future.

This was at a time when history-sheeters and generation-destroyers like Romila Thapar were nowhere around. Equally, Munshi’s words reinforce the timeless truth that the spirit more than mere knowledge is what distinguishes truth from falsehood and insight from information. It is the selfsame spirit that made Munshi write these memorable lines as well:

In India, the greatest danger is the formation of sub-nation states and linguistic chauvinism…it is impossible to draw boundaries…so as to totally exclude linguistic groups from adjacent States. Nor is such a boundary desirable, for we are citizens of India, not of any State, though the present dangerous trend is to identify oneself with his State rather than with India…It has been the experience of history, as the…volumes of this Series testify, that…[India] has fallen a prey to foreign invasion in the absence of a strong central authority.

If you already haven’t, do buy all the eleven volumes of the History and Culture of the Indian People. If you have already bought them, do read them without missing a single alphabet. They remain one of the last safeguards to hopefully stop the tide of a rapidly eroding spiritual civilisation.

|| Om Tat Sat ||


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