Remembering R.C. Majumdar, one of India's greatest gifts to the world of historical scholarship
In its noblest definition, History is the conscience of society and the function of a historian is to test the events of an age with an unbiased mind and equanimous attitude. Unlike the various fashions that developed over time, there is actually no “goal” of history. At best, history is an incessant pursuit of the truths of the past, a sacred calling that should be undertaken with meticulous care so that the temporary fruits of this pursuit represents the most accurate and reliable picture of the past. One must fundamentally remember that history is also about people of the past, and given that we live in an age of heightened individualism where utmost care is taken not to hurt or offend another person’s sensibilities, it makes eminent sense that we must apply the same yardstick while dealing with the people of the past.
Acharya Ramesh Chandra Majumdar fits this definition of history perfectly. He was a legend both in life and death and lived a full, productive, and useful life spanning nearly a century: from 1884 – 1980. Here’s a brief list of his extraordinary accomplishments:
Born on 4 December 1888, at Khandarpara district, Faridpur ,now in Bangladesh. He was the youngest of three brothers.
On the advice of that other brilliant educationist and multifaceted scholar, Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee, the then Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, R.C. Majumdar joined the University as a Lecturer in the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture in July 1914.
His PhD thesis titled Corporate life in Ancient India was published to acclaim.
At various points, he became the Vice Chancellor of the University of Dacca, was appointed as the first Principal at the College of Indology, Benares Hindu University (BHU), and then, Nagpur University.
He was Visiting Professor of Indian History at the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania
He was Honorary Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and Bombay
He became the president of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, a Honorary Member of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Poona.
He was made president of the Indian History Congress and the All India Oriental Conference.
He was also made the president of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta.
In recognition of his scholarly services, he was appointed the Sheriff of Calcutta in 1967-68.
And here’s a brief list of his authoritative works of pristine scholarship. Acharya R.C. Majumdar wrote a total of thirty-seven volumes and hundreds of articles and papers primarily in English and Bengali.
The Early History of Bengal, Dacca, 1924.
Champa, Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East
Suvarnadvipa, Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East
The History of Bengal,
Kambuja Desa Or An Ancient Hindu Colony In Cambodia
An Advanced History of India
The History and Culture of the Indian People (in eleven volumes): General Editor
History of the Freedom movement in India (in three volumes),
Vakataka – Gupta Age Circa 200–550 A.D.
Hindu Colonies in the Far East
India and South-East Asia
The History of Ancient Lakshadweep
I unfortunately don’t know Bengali but to those who know it, it is my earnest plea to read and savour his inspiring autobiography titled Jibaner Smritidipika, parts of which I have read in translation.
Acharya Ramesh Chandra Majumdar’s early life wasn’t easy. He lost his mother when he was just 18 months old and was brought up by his aunt along with his siblings. He was born in a family which was in utter penury. In his own[i] words…
There were times when we went without food for more than two days at a stretch. When we were around five or six years old – we were given “Nima”(A bush shirt like apparel with buttons), costing about five or six annas…those days were highly painful. We didn’t even have a pair of shoes. When I was an infant, one day I was about to be swept away in the floods in the night. Somehow my aunt was woken up, and I am alive today to tell you my story.
But that was not all. R.C. Majumdar recounts how
In those days, there were neither buses nor trains; there were not even the roads. So learning swimming was inevitable. No need for fuel, no need to stand in the line just jump into the water and swim to the destination. When we went to school we used to make rafts from the banana tree stamps or hollow palm logs to stay dry. There were palm leaves to write upon, but in my school, we preferred banana leaves as they were available in plenty. We used sharp bamboo sticks to write on them.
From a very early age, he distinguished himself as a scholarship student and consistently secured great levels of academic merit. His talent knew no bounds, “like the Padma (or Podda) river that flows in Bengal.” While in college, he developed a lifelong love for the study of history and dedicated himself to it for more than seventy years. Here is how he describes a historian:
A historian must divest his mind of sentiments, prejudices and preconceptions, and all kinds of human emotions which are likely to distort his vision and judgement.
R.C. Majumdar was influenced by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar in his school days and eventually became a great devotee of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda. Till the very end of his life, R.C. Majumdar proudly displayed a life size painting of Swami Vivekananda in his living room. From these and other inspirations, he developed an unshakeable conviction in the eternal genius of Bharatavarsha and distinguished himself as a great patriot. In fact, it was his attachment to India that led him to investigate our past and establish the fact that we were the greatest civilization in the world, uninterruptedly for over two thousand years.
R.C. Majumdar was also one of the pioneers in researching and writing on obscure or little-known topics of history: for example, in his time, there was little or no information about the enormous influence of Indian civilization on South East India. And so, he decided to look into the matter. The result is the comprehensive volumes of:
Champa, Ancient Indian Colonies in the Far East (includes today’s Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia)
Suvarnadvipa (Burma or Mynmar)
Kambuja Desa Or An Ancient Hindu Colony In Cambodia
India and South-East Asia
R.C. Majumdar didn’t write these volumes by merely consulting books. He actually travelled to these places and stayed there months together, spoke to the locals, read inscriptions in their native languages, deciphered obscure scripts…it was thorough, painstaking, boring work. But this is precisely why his books are authoritative and have become indispensable guides for future generations of scholars. Perhaps it was R.C. Majumdar who wrote the first comprehensive history of ancient Lakshadweep. As the proverb goes, a path is automatically carved wherever the elephant treads.
But above all, R.C. Majumdar was conscientious to a fault, honest to his own detriment, and fearless in face of adversity. No matter who it was, he would not compromise on truth. To quote his own words, “History is no respecter of persons or communities, and one must always strive to tell the truth.” And the Acharya told the truth and paid the price for it. India’s first Prime Minister, Nawab Nehru ensured that R.C. Majumdar’s career would never be the same again. Why? Because R.C. Majumdar openly wrote that he would tell the true story of the Indian freedom struggle including some stark truths about the role played by Gandhi and Nawab Nehru. The full story of the Acharya’s hounding by the cronies of Nawab Nehru is narrated in this article on The Dharma Dispatch. But let’s hear the most vital part of that story in his own words.
I have been a witness to the grim struggle from 1905 to 1947, and do not pretend to be merely a dispassionate or disinterested spectator; I would have been more or less than a human being if I were so…Without denying this possibility…I have tried my best to take a detached view. On the other hand, I possess certain advantages … in having a first-hand knowledge of the important events and … impressions and sentiments they left behind on the minds of the people. It is difficult to form a proper idea of these by one who, living at a later period, has only to rely on the record of the past in order to reconstruct its history.
Acharya R.C. Majumdar represents the distinguished example of a committed scholar working alone and eventually publishing the exemplary three volumes of the history of the Indian Freedom Movement five years before the “official” Nehruvian version was published. I would daresay that these volumes stand unrivalled even to this day.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of his life was the eleven-volume masterly work titled History and Culture of the Indian People of which he was the general editor. This colossal project was the result of an extraordinary intellectual, spiritual, and patriotic marriage between Acharya R.C. Majumdar and K.M. Munshi. In K.M. Munshi, R.C. Majumdar found an unstinted supporter who shared his passion for historical truth, and in R.C. Majumdar, Munshi found the best man to implement his grand vision of writing Indian history. At no point did Munshi question the Acharya about any aspect of the project. He was content merely to write the foreword for each volume as and when it was published. Here’s a sample of K.M. Munshi’s vision of Indian history:
I had long felt the inadequacy of our so called Indian histories…for many years, I was planning an elaborate history of India in order…that the world might catch a glimpse of her soul as Indians see it. The history of India is not the story of how she underwent foreign invasions, but how she resisted them and eventually triumphed over them…
Indeed, “vision” is too narrow a word for it: it is truly a Maha-Sankalpa on the part of K.M. Munshi. This Maha-Sankalpa was realized by R.C. Majumdar. The History and Culture of the Indian People took thirty-two years to complete, a task for which R.C. Majumdar assembled a veritable army of the finest scholars of India who shared both his passion and dedication. Published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, these eleven volumes are still the most definitive body of historical work documenting the entire history of India from the Vedic period up to 1947. Acharya R.C. Majumdar was 88 years old when it was completed – that is, just four years before he passed away.
There’s no better way to conclude this essay than by quoting the Acharya’s own words:
It is…not unlikely that the views I have expressed may not commend themselves to any, and…a large section of my countrymen would bitterly resent some of them. But I find consolation in the wise words of one of the greatest Sanskrit poets…‘there may be somewhere, at some time, somebody who would agree with my views and appreciate them; for time is eternal and the world is wide and large.’ [Emphasis added]
Perhaps the best homage and tribute that we can pay to Acharya R.C. Majumdar is to revisit and read and re-read and widely disseminate his invaluable body of work. These are not merely works of historical scholarship but civilizational guideposts.
[i] In a 1980 Interview to Smt Jyotsna Kamat for Mallige, a Kannada monthly