He has been called liberal India’s favourite western scholar but the breezy descriptor doesn’t begin to describe the vast, intimidating, extraordinary body of scholarly work of Richard Eaton.
A historian at Arizona University, Eaton’s interests focus on the social and cultural history of pre-modern India (1000-1800), and especially on the range of historical interactions between Iran and India.
In fact Islam in South Asia, as a whole, fascinates him. He has published monographs on the social roles of sufis in the Indian sultanate of Bijapur, on the growth of Islam in Bengal, and on the social history of the Deccan from 1300 to 1761.
Most recently, he has co-authored a monograph entitled Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau – a title that doesn’t give away some of the myth-shattering revelations he makes with regard to India’s eternal mandir-masjid questions.
A glance at his CV – the list of awards and published works seem to hint at more than one lifetime spent in research – is enough to convince the most skeptical that this is a man dedicated to a reasoned, logical telling of the grand historical narratives we have grown up with.
Which is why it comes as a shock to learn that he became a historian so accidentally, it wouldn’t seem believable if it were in a movie: as a 21-year-old college graduate with a degree in philosophy, he was travelling through an American county looking for a teaching job. They needed a history teacher. He became one.
Today, Essays on Islam and Indian History, Eaton’s seminal work compiling the painstaking research of over 25 years, sets the foundation for reasoned conversations about the Hindu right’s accusation that Mughal rulers destroyed thousands of temples in India.
Though the courses he teaches most often include the History of Medieval India and History of Modern India and Pakistan, he is also active in the growing sub-field of world history, and comparative history.
But it is as a plain-speaking historian of India and Islam that he is at his most compelling – shattering myths, debunking false beliefs, and putting out the facts in a manner designed to shift the terms of debate from emotional to erudite.