The empirical pre-eminence in the study of history in inscription-rich Tamil Nadu and a modern outlook on historiography combine to provide a fresh understanding of the past in a book launched here on Tuesday.

“Religion, Tradition and Ideology: Pre-colonial South India” (Oxford University Press) is a collection of essays by historian R. Champakalakshmi, discussing the origins and development of multiple religious traditions and their role in the evolution of a rich and complex socio-religious matrix in pre-colonial south India.

Champakalakshmi, who retired as professor of the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), has debunked the usual simplistic continuities between Vedic times and the present day that is the staple of the conventional historian's approach, and attempted to show how conflicting, even irreconcilable beliefs and practices, were incorporated into the Sanskritic tradition.

The work, which is the consummation of almost five decades of research during which the author “transformed from an Indologist to historian and social scientist,” sketches the emergence of Brahminism as a dominant tradition and the marginalisation of the “sramanic” religions — Jainism and Buddhism — in the socio-economic and political context.

N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, launched the book by handing over the first copy to Iravatham Mahadevan, an expert on Indus and Tamil-Brahmi scripts.

Describing the publication as “rich in its material and many-sided in its historical offerings,” Mr. Ram said one of the notable aspects was the nuanced treatment of the interaction between the Brahminical and “sramanic” religions.

The author's approach to caste and community was a breakthrough contribution in understanding caste and its changing dynamics with the community as was her bold treatment of the hegemony of one religion in an otherwise pluralistic tradition, Mr. Ram said.

Mr. Mahadevan said the author in her role of historian was “a bridge between tradition and modernity,” a product of the University of Madras who held on to conservative values and yet blossomed to expand her perspective in the JNU milieu.

Professor Champakalakshmi was someone who, while being rooted in tradition, brought to historiography the searchlight of modernity, he said.

Professor. Champakalakshmi said her over 55 years of research and teaching had been “an eventful and fascinating journey” that took her through many untrodden avenues of India's historical past.

Noting that south India's cultural past was not confined to one religion — in fact, there existed no Vedic linkage to the term Hindu which first originated during the Vijayanagara period of the 14{+t}{+h} century — Professor Champakalakshmi said she had studied counter-traditions (such as Jainism) to understand the historical processes that led to the dominance of Brahminism.

Shashank Sinha, OUP senior commissioning manager, said the book was another illustration of south India's emergence as an important component of the publishing programme that ranges across performing arts, music and literature.

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