With the passing of Ainslie Embree on June 6, America has lost a great scholar and respected dean of South Asian history and cultural studies. India has lost a tireless advocate for greater understanding between the US and India. From the late 1940’s to his professorship of history at Columbia University, Ainslie Embree shaped the thinking of a generation of South Asian scholars in the US. He believed in the practical application of scholarship to the task of cross-culture understanding and the tough job of the building of a stronger relationship between two nations, as different as ours. Ainslie Embree had a lifelong love of India and her culture and everything he wrote and thought, gave voice to that passion.
Ainslie’s career in academe is legendary; in addition to his years at Columbia, he taught at Brown University, John Hopkins, and St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. A prodigious writer, Ainslie Embree’s ‘Sources of Indian Tradition,’ published nearly 60 years ago, remains a core text for the study of South Asia’s intellectual history.
Ainslie’s reach into the world of scholarship extended beyond universities. Throughout his life, he was active in associations devoted to the study of Asia and India. Ainslie Embree rightly received many distinctions for his scholarship, including an honorary doctorate from Columbia.
Those of us, like myself, lucky enough to have been associated with Ainslie knew him to be a modest but wise man, endowed with a wry sense of humor. In everything he undertook, he was deeply responsible.
When President Clinton asked me in 1994, to serve as his ambassador in New Delhi, I reflected on the inadequacy of my background in the affairs of South Asia, the history of India and the American relationship with it. Several years earlier, my dear friend, Richard Holbrooke, faced with similar circumstances as ambassador to Germany, invited the great scholar of Germany, Fritz Stern, to accompany him to Bonn and instruct him.
Taking a leaf from Dick’s copy book, I turned to the United States Information Agency for help and they reached out to the scholarly community. Ainslie Embree was everyone’s suggestion. He agreed to give up his retirement and join me in New Delhi as my advisor.
Over the months which followed, my advisor became my mentor and friend. I was able to see India, in all its diversity, through his thoughtful and caring eyes. I spent hours with Ainslie being instructed in India’s history, culture, and religions. He was determined that I understand Indian perspectives, beginning with Indian assumptions about the nature of power, international relations, society and economics. He believed deeply that only an informed view of India could be the basis of sound American policy.
Ainslie was a man of great patience. When he finally satisfied himself that I had grasped the rudiments of what he had to say, he moved on to work with the officers in our embassy. Ainslie was determined to give them insights similar to those he had shared with me. When this was done to his satisfaction, Ainslie Embree returned to the India that he knew and loved, traveling widely and renewing his friendships in India’s academic communities. He traveled the length and breadth of the Indian republic to promote another subject dear to his heart, the Indian study of the United States.
Few men I have known had Ainslie’s informed passion for India and its past. Few had Ainslie Embree’s confidence in India’s future. At heart, Ainslie’s life was about sharing the fruits of his discovery with those of us with a need to know.
Ainslie and his wife Sue were first drawn to India in the wake of the grim events of World War II; they were inspired by the message of peace and understanding which Mahatma Gandhi brought to a despairing world. In 2007, in the twilight of his long and rich career, Ainslie remarked that to him being involved with India “seemed then and still does 50 years later, the most fascinating event in twentieth century history”.
Those words sum up Ainslie’s love for India and his gift to all of us.