ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Remembering Vivekanand Jha

Untouchability, Gita, and the Pursuit of Truth

A tribute to a historian who brought the rigour of historical methods to the study of untouchability in ancient India and who contributed in various other ways to developing the discipline of history in India.

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 Dharmaśāstra, 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 misrepresented, 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

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