Ainslie Thomas Embree (born January 1, 1921) is an American Indologist and historian. He has been considered a leading scholar of modern Indian history and has played a seminal role in the introduction of South Asian studies into US college and secondary education curricula. In addition to his academic work, Embree has made significant contributions to peace efforts between India and Pakistan as a member of the Kashmir Study Group and the Council on Foreign Relations, and has acted as a consultant to the US diplomatic and intelligence communities.
Embree is Professor of History Emeritus, Columbia University. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, and has taught at Indore Christian College, Duke University, and Columbia. While at Columbia he served as Director of Contemporary Civilization of the undergraduate Asian civilization program; as Chairman of the Middle East Languages and Cultures Department and the History Department; as Director of the Southern Asian Institute; and as Acting Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. Since his retirement in 1991, he has taught at Columbia, Brown University and Johns Hopkins, SAIS.
In addition to his teaching positions, Embree has served as President of the American Association for Asian Studies and of the American Institute for Indian Studies; as Chair of South Asian sections of the American Council of Learned Societies and of the Social Science Research Council.
From 1978-80, he served as the Counselor for Cultural Affairs at the American Embassy, New Delhi, and from 1994–95, he served as consultant to the American Ambassador in India, Frank Wisner. He was editor-in-chief of the four-volume Encyclopedia of Asian History (1989) and editor of the revised Sources of Indian Tradition (1988), Asia in Western and World History (with Carol Gluck, 1997), and India’s World and U.S. Scholars: 1947-1997 (with others, 1998). Professor Embree also has authored Imagining India: Essays on Indian History (1989), Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in India (1990), and India’s Search for National Identity (1988). He has contributed chapters to many books on India and Southern Asia.
At Columbia, Embree helped develop a broad-based study program on Asia and integrated Indian and Asian studies into the Columbia College Core Curriculum. His 1958 book, Sources of Indian Tradition, is widely considered the core text of the intellectual history of South Asian civilizations.
Embree has been awarded multiple citations and honorary degrees, including an honorary Doctor of Letters from Columbia University in 2009. He has been an active member of the Kashmir Study Group and the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a member of the Columbia University Society of Senior Scholars.
Early Life and Education
Embree was born and spent his childhood in Port Hawkesbury, on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, Canada. He was one of 5 children (Vivian, Gerald, Jesse, and Elliott) born to Ira Thomas Embree and his wife, Margaret (nee Langley). At the age of 16, he won a scholarship to attend Dalhousie University in Halifax, earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1941. Although he considered himself a pacificist, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and was assigned to the Royal Air Force in England, serving as a navigator (Pilot Officer) on Halifax bombers flying nighttime missions over Germany during World War II. On his return home, he continued his studies at Dalhousie University before receiving a fellowship to pursue advanced studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
It was at Union that he met and married a fellow student, Suzanne Harpole. After their marriage in 1947, they moved back to Nova Scotia to pursue graduate studies at Dalhousie. He worked as an advisor for returning veterans and secretary of the Maritime Provinces Christian Students Association while his wife earned her Diploma in Education. The couple then accepted positions (through the United Church of Canada) to teach in India at Indore Christian College: he taught European history and acted as a college administrator; she taught sociology. They remained in Indore for 10 years, from 1947 to 1957; their 2 children (Ralph Thomas and Margaret Louise) were both born in India.
During their decade in India, Embree became increasingly interested in and committed to understanding the rich history and culture of the subcontinent. In a 2009 interview with Mark Juergensmeyer of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Embree noted that he and his wife had been drawn to teach in India because, as young people who had served during World War II (Suzanne had served in the US Navy WAVES as a cryptanalyst), they were inspired by Mahatama Gandhi’s messages of peace.
Decades later, in a reflection on the India-US relationship since India gained independence that was originally published in the New India Digest in 2007, Embree observed, “Going to teach in India meant a chance to be involved in what seemed then, and still does fifty years later, the most fascinating event in twentieth century history.”
In 1957, Embree was offered the opportunity to go to Columbia University to help the noted sinologist Wm Theodore de Bary establish an independent program within the Department of History that would be dedicated the study of the subcontinent. In the process of helping to build what became one of the world’s most highly-regarded programs for South Asian studies, Embree received his PhD in history in 1960.
Embree remained at Columbia University for most of his academic career, other than serving on the history faculty at Duke University from 1969 to 1973. He chaired the history department and served in a number of other administrative posts at Columbia, including acting dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. Nevertheless, his commitment to South Asian studies was not limited to the classroom. He returned to India frequently for study trips, and for two years served as Cultural Counselor in the US Embassy at Delhi during the administration of US President Jimmy Carter. He retired in 1991, but continued to write and teach at Columbia, Brown University and the Johns Hopkins SAIS.
- with Friedrich Wilhelm Indien, Fischer Weltgeschichte Band 17, 1967
- Charles Grant and the British Rule in India, London: G. Allene 1962
- Herausgeber mit S. M. Ikram: Muslim civilisation in India, New York 1964
- Herausgeber The Hindu Tradition, New York: Modern Library 1966
- Herausgeber: Encyclopedia of Asian History, Collier/Macmillan 1989
- Herausgeber: Sources of Indian Tradition, Columbia University Press, 2. Auflage 1988
- Editor with Carol Gluck: Asia in Western and World History: a guide for teaching, Armonk (New York): M. E. Sharpe1997
- Imagining India: Essays on Indian History, Oxford University Press 1989
- Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in India, University of California Press 1990
- India’s Search for National Identity, Knopf 1972
- Editor with others: India’s worlds and U.S. scholars, 1947-1997, New Delhi, American Institute of Indian Studies 1998
- with Mark C. Carnes: Defining a nation : India on the eve of independence, 1945, W. W. Norton 2013.