Obituary Tribute to Prof. A.K. Narain

Prof. A.K. Narain, who was, more than any other individual, responsible for the founding of IABS, passed away in Varanasi on July 10, 2013 at the age of 88. He is survived by his wife Usha, two sons, and three daughters.

Professor A.K. NarainProfessor A.K. Narain (1925 – 2013)Awadh Kishore Narain was born in Gaya on May 28, 1925. An honors graduate in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology (AIHC) from Benares Hindu University, he received his Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London in 1954. He taught at B.H.U. throughout the 1950s and 1960s, serving as Manindra Chandra Nandi Professor of AIHC & Archaeology, Head of the Department of AIHC & Archaeology, Principal of the College of Indology, First Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and Director of Archaeological Excavations and Explorations. In 1971, he shifted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He taught there for nearly two decades, in the History department and the university’s world-famous programs in South Asian Studies and Buddhist Studies. After his retirement from Wisconsin in 1990, he returned to Varanasi, where he founded the Bhikkhu Jagdish Kashyap Institute of Buddhist and Asian Studies and continued his research, writing, and editorial work. In addition to his long tenures at BHU and Wisconsin, Prof. Narain held visiting professorships at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, U.K.; Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota; Visvabharati, Shantiniketan, West Bengal; the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; Columbia University; and New York University.

Prof. Narain’s scholarly work contributed to a variety of fields, including history, archaeology, art history, epigraphy and paleography, numismatics, Buddhist studies, and religious studies. He established his scholarly reputation with his groundbreaking book, The Indo-Greeks, published by Oxford University Press in 1957. The Indo-Greeks went through several editions, and was most recently reissued, with supplementary essays, in 2003. Prof. Narain also focused his research on Central Asian peoples who followed the Indo-Greeks, including the Indo-Scythians, Tokharians, Indo-Parthians and the Yue Zhi/Kushans. As part of his research on the Kushans, he organized an international conference in London on the problem of the date of Kanishka. He also published important works on Indo-Greek and Indian coins, archaeological excavations at Rajghat, and numerous other topics related to ancient Indian and Central Asian history. At the time of his death, he was working on a multi-volume project entitled From Kurush (Cyrus) to Kanishka, several volumes of which will be published soon.

Prof. Narain was the nephew of one of the great figures on the Buddhist revival in India, Bhikkhu Jagdish Kashyap (1908–76). Before his death, Bhikkhu Kashyap asked Prof. Narain to start an international organization for scholars of Buddhism. Honoring his uncle’s request, Prof. Narain in 1976 hosted the founding meeting of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, in Madison. At the meeting, he was elected the IABS’s first General Secretary. He also served as the first editor of the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, a post he held for seven years. He oversaw five important edited volumes on Buddhist history, all published in India: Studies in Pali and Buddhism (1979), Studies in the History of Buddhism (1980), Studies in Buddhist Art of South Asia (1984), Dr. Ambedkar and Social Change (1993), and, most notably perhaps, The Date of the Historical Śākyamuni Buddha, a collection of world-class papers on one of the most controversial topics in Buddhist studies. Despite the inclination of many scholars to propose circa 400 BCE for the Buddha’s parinirvāṇa, Prof. Narain felt that the archaeological evidence favored the “traditional” earlier date of circa 483 BCE.

After his return to Varanasi in 1990, Prof. Narain founded the Indian Congress of Asian and Pacific Studies (ICAPS), serving as its first president. He also established and edited the Journal of Indian Buddhist Studies, which in 1999 became the Indian International Journal of Buddhist Studies, editorship of which he relinquished in 2002. Beyond those mentioned, Prof. Narain held positions in and received honors from scholarly organizations, especially in India, too numerous to mention. He also was awarded grants by the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Philosophical Association; and received both the Chakravikrama Gold Medal of the Numismatic Society of India and the Asiatic Society of Bombay’s Campbell Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievements in Ancient History, Numismatics and Archaeology.

As must be evident from even this brief accounting, Prof. Narain worked tirelessly to advance Indian historical studies and Buddhist studies, both in India and around the world. Apart from his talents as a scholar, he possessed the creative vision to imagine new and important scholarly enterprises others had not considered, and a gift for organization and administration that allowed him to see his vision through to fruition. He cheerfully delegated responsibility, often to younger and less experienced scholars, thereby encouraging their growth as members of the profession. As the editor of JIABS and other publications, he maintained high standards, while consistently encouraging contributions from the full range of scholarly voices: from up-and-coming scholars to established figures in the field; from European and American scholars to contributors from various Asian countries, including Japan, China, Southeast Asia, and, of course, India. Far from least importantly, Prof. Narain was a warm and generous human being, who is greatly missed, not only by his large and loving family but by friends and colleagues on every continent, whose task it now becomes to carry on his extraordinary legacy.

Submitted by Roger Jackson, Carleton College, Minnesota, U.S.A.