03 November 2012



Unknown Aspects and Scholarly Assessments of D.D. Kosambi

This is a collection of obscure and unknown writings by D.D. Kosambi alongside assessments of his contribution to various areas of scholarship -- ancient history, mathematics, Sanskrit literature, numismatics, and marxism as a method for understanding the past.

An array of the great man's unpublished letters, unearthed from the Harvard and TIFR archives by his daughter Meera Kosambi, comprises one section of the book. Kosambi's correspondence includes an exchange with Robert Graves on comparative aspects of Indian and Greek myth.

Almost no one has ever seen this cache of incredibly interesting letters which reveal new facets of Kosambi's insights, range of interests, methods, friendships, and affections. Some wonderful photos of Kosambi, mostly unavailable, also feature in the book. They reveal a man resembling a Greek god, 5 ft. 10 in. tall, who was humane, compassionate, and caring in unexpected ways, as for example in a photo showing him bathing one of his two dogs, Chatya. (The other one was called Bonzo, who too is revealed in the book.) Some people have it all: intellect, physique, Harvard education, bungalow in Poona ... Kosambi had it all by the spadefull. It comes almost as a relief to know that in later life he suffered from arthritis -- though even about his illness Kosambi is wonderfully blunt. In the last year of his life, in one of his letters to a Japanese collaborator, he writes presciently:  "I find that my health trouble has been due to long standing and apparently incurable virus infection. The main site is the sinuses, with secondary sites in the chest and bowels. The arthritis is a result of this, and so cannot be cured except by death."

While all the contributors in this book are in awe of Kosambi's intellect and the variety of his achievements, certain aspects of his work and its importance today are questioned. The extracts below suggest the directions of some of the essays in the book.

… to what extent did Kosambi’s An Introduction [to the Study of Indian History] succeed in sketching out a scheme of evolution in which the Indian past can be seen as the development in chronological order of basic changes in the means and relations of production? His exploration of prehistory (‘The Heritage of Pre-Class Society’) did not succeed in making visible a pre-class tribal society, partly because of the thin evidence on which it was based. He says less there about the remnants of those who peopled the prehistoric past, and much more on tribal survivals in modern India. Thick detail is largely limited to what had been observed by him in and around Poona where he lived. Kosambi’s justification for this was that ‘the difference between the locality selected and any other in India will be primarily of detail, not of substance.’ But the use of such a small sample for making large generalizations would appear a lazy explanation, as also an unconvincing one. Actually, his description is the account of an engaged fieldworker who imbibed many different realities first-hand.

It could be argued that for Kosambi the field is, in fact, a variety of literary text which needs careful and detailed scrutiny to be properly understood and endowed a history… Perhaps prehistory would have been far more visible if he had taken the trouble of using and citing the work of his predecessors and contemporaries. Had he done so, he would also have noticed that, from the nineteenth century onwards, juxtapositions of the kind that fascinated him had been documented and used to impart meaning to prehistoric remains. Robert Bruce Foote, the pioneer prehistorian of India, was among those who had offered an explanation for the neolithic ash mounds of Bellary by drawing attention to the burning of accumulated cow dung inside African zaribas and to the Caribbean method of celt hafting to explain the absence of perforation in neolithic specimens from South India. With Kosambi one is sometimes left with the impression of a litterateur lost in his own world, so immersed in crafting his own work of art—a Marxist grid—that he was blinkered against integrating the enormous range of archaeological discoveries which had, by then, changed the face of the Indian past.

Flowing from this I would, in fact, be inclined to offer my own proposition about what lies at the core of the Kosambi corpus: namely, that literature was the larger encompassing grid which framed even his Marxism. His childhood and education show his immersion in languages, the Classics, and a Western liberal education in which he revelled and excelled—the formation in fact of a personality on strongly bourgeois lines. His subsequent rebellion against the worldview fostered by this ‘aesthetic’ universe towards Marxism—which in his case was the philosophy of Dharmanand Kosambi and Mahatma Gandhi stretched in extremis—failed, in my opinion, to really invalidate or entirely overpower the aesthetic values of the Classical universe that, in a sense, had been poured early into his veins. My central point is, therefore, that Kosambi’s abiding value as a historian is less his Marxism than what might as useful shorthand be called his Classicism. By instinct he is a writer forged in Goa and Harvard, and only by persuasion an ideologue forged by Marx. What we as historians have failed to adequately note—hegemonized as we ourselves are into being more receptive to ‘ideas’ than to ‘style’ in the writing of history—is that Kosambi is first a historian in the traditional mould whose strongest instincts draw him powerfully to the great texts of civilizations with whose languages he is familiar (or which he sets out to master); second a writer of enduring prose about these texts and civilizational change; and third an influential Marxist historian whose ideas—if one disregards for a moment the ritual genuflections to him by Left historians—have in fact endured less well than expected, and considerably less well than the dominant academic ethos in India would have us believe.  

The reason for the neglect of Kosambi’s Sanskrit scholarship as contrasted with the celebration of his work in many other fields is, I believe, not difficult to find. Basically, I would argue, it is to be located squarely in what many perceived as a dissonance in the collocation of Kosambi’s philological accomplishments with his grounding of his analysis of Sanskrit poetry in the historical materialism articulated by Marx and Engels. For the simple fact is that, aside from Kosambi himself, for most Indologists the relationship between Sanskrit Studies and political economy might best be summarized by the maxim ‘kvoshtrah kva ca nirajana?’—‘What possible connection can there be between a camel and the ritual lustration of a king’s forces?’ The fact is that, historically, knowledge of Sanskrit in India has been largely confined to traditional elites who by nature and inclination have tended toward conservatism. These, the custodians and transmitters of Sanskrit-based systems of scientific knowledge and religious belief have, to put it delicately, not been very receptive to materialist philosophies in general and to Marxism-Leninism in particular. By the same token, theorists and activists involved in Marxist critique and social activism have directed scant regard and even (as with the Maoists in Nepal) violent hostility for the Sanskrit establishment, which they see as aligned with archaic traditional systems of social inequality and which in the contemporary era they denounce as ‘Manuvad’. They are unlikely to know any Sanskrit much less to read and write about Sanskrit kavya.  

Two traits, as an ensemble, distinguish D.D. Kosambi in his work on Sanskrit not only from the scholars who were his contemporaries but also from almost everyone since. The first is his search for a method in the editing of Sanskrit literary texts, and the second his search for a theory in the reading of these texts. In the former case, if judged by the practices of editing Sanskrit literary texts in India at the time, Kosambi emerges as a remarkable pioneer, his concrete accomplishments hardly in danger of being superseded anytime soon. In the latter, he is exceptional in the history of Indology for his awareness that the method of philology is always inseparable from a theory of philology, itself produced by a tradition of writing and reading, and from a cultural and political criticism specific to that tradition. If Kosambi’s theory has proven to be flawed, we have only come to know the flaws and sought ways to overcome them because he had the courage to enunciate the theory in the first place.      

When Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi’s first major work, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, was published in 1956, it had to contend with two mutually exclusive narratives. Each of these had a whole decade since Independence to tell its side of the story of that historic event. On one side, there was the official nationalist account glorifying the Transfer of Power and the formation of a sovereign democratic republic as a victory of the nation as a whole, with the nationalist elite acting and speaking for the people as a whole. On the other side, this version of what happened in 1947 was challenged by political elements on the Left, mostly grouped around the Communist Party of India. They argued that the ruling nationalist elite—Kosambi characterizes this elite as the bourgeoisie—were not entitled to speak in the name of the people, for they had betrayed the socialist ideal that was implicit in India’s struggle for independence during the 1930s and 1940s. This interpretation, generally identified with the views of the Indian communists at that time, stood for Marxism as Kosambi encountered it when in 1956 he decided to join the debate in An Introduction to the Study of Indian History.   

Kosambi’s first book, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956), was a major shift in the paradigm. Kosambi had little use for a chronological narrative since he argued that chronology for the early period was too obscure to be meaningful. For him history was the presentation in chronological order of successive developments in the means and relations of production. Because of the absence of reliable historical records, he argued, Indian history would have to use the comparative method. This meant a familiarity with a wide range of historical work, and his own familiarity with classical European history is evident in his writing; it also meant the use of various disciplines and interdisciplinary techniques to enable the historian to understand the pattern of social formations. His definition of the comparative method required the historian to be an interdisciplinary creature in himself, with the ability to use a large number of investigative techniques. This ability he demonstrated to the full in his own writings on Indology. Added to this was his conviction that the historian in India was in a particularly happy position since so much of the past survived into the present. As he put it, ‘the country has one tremendous advantage that was not utilized till recently by the historians: the survival within different social layers of many forms that allow the reconstruction of totally diverse earlier stages.’ This compensated for some of the absence of reliable historical records.   

D.D. Kosambi is possibly the sole iconic figure in the historiography of early India and remains, almost fifty years after he passed away, one of the most challenging and demanding of historians. His hypotheses may sometimes seem to border on speculation, and we may often find it difficult to keep pace with his arguments—almost invariably presented with an impatient erudition—yet his concerns with historicizing the early Indian past continue to inform our understanding, just as we continue to revisit his wide-ranging methodologies, often eclectic in the best sense of the term. What I will attempt to explore is Kosambi’s handling of caste. I will focus on the space the category occupied within his analytical framework, and the related issue of his understanding of the institution. In a sense, this will involve an investigation of the ways in which he conceptualized caste as a structure. Second, I will examine some of the specific aspects of caste that attracted his scholarly attention. Here, as we will see, he devoted considerable attention to the processes whereby caste identities were constituted, consolidated, and even contested. As may be expected, there is often an implicit if not explicit tension between the ways in which Kosambi identified the structural elements of caste and his more detailed investigations of the specific processes that shaped the structure over time. As latter-day scholars, we may find it tempting to brush aside these tensions, which may seem anomalous and confusing. However, it is also possible to revisit these as issues that demand critical investigation. I will also touch briefly on his analytical strategies.  

There is an interesting paradox in D.D. Kosambi’s treatment of religion. He considered religion to be an epiphenomenon of material life, a set of beliefs and practices the precise expression of which depended on the means and relations of production at a given point of time and space. Towards the beginning of the Introduction to his collection of essays on religion, Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture, he says: ‘One of the main problems for consideration is: Why is a fusion of cults sometimes possible and why do cults stubbornly refuse to merge on other occasions? Naturally, this question cannot be answered on the “highest plane”, for it simply does not exist on that level.’ At what level does it exist, then? As Kosambi formally addressed the question of religion in the context of the earliest class-based state society in India—the Indus valley civilization—he asked: ‘The main question is, how was class structure maintained?’ His characteristically unambiguous answer was that, in the final analysis, class division rests on the use of force by which the surplus produced by the working class is expropriated by a ruling minority. However, the need for violence may be reduced to a minimum if religion is deployed to convince the working class that they must give up the surplus ‘lest supernatural forces destroy them by mysterious agencies.’ Therefore, religion was for Kosambi a supplementary instrument for the extraction of surplus via the threat of divine retribution. This conception of the role of religion in human history is reiterated almost identically throughout his corpus.

Hardback / 404pp / Rs 895 / ISBN 81-7824-365-2 / World rights / Nov 2012

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