19 June 2014

THE ACADEMIC PILGRIM'S PROGRESS


The ancient India historian Nayanjot Lahiri, author of several books published by Permanent Black -- including the unputdownable academic thriller Finding Forgotten Cities about how the Indus Civilization was discovered -- has just finished writing a biography, ASHOKA IN ANCIENT INDIA, which will appear in mid 2015. Needing a break from the Buddhist emperor, she went on a pilgrimage to the forgotten home of a Buddhist saint ...

REMEMBERING AND FORGETTING
Dharmanand Kosambi and Other Goan Saints

Nayanjot Lahiri

Sancoale seemed similar yet different from many of Goa’s villages. Spread across a couple of hills, its traditional houses near the edges of forested tracts were like those that grace rural landscapes elsewhere. Mercifully, because of its interior location, far from sand and surf, the strawberry pink and fluorescent yellow flats that have come up in many of the more accessible villages were missing.

The house in Goa where Dharmanand Kosambi and his family lived more than a century ago

My reasons for coming to Sancoale had nothing to do with its physical beauty. I came because I had read about Dharmanand Kosambi's birth here in 1876. It was from Sancoale that this self-taught scholar-sage began a trajectory of intellectual and ideological adventure’ that transported him in search of knowledge about Buddhism to various places in India, Nepal, Ceylon, Burma, Russia, and America. His son D.D. Kosambi, the mathematician turned historian, was also born in this village. So, for people who dig history, Sancoale has a kind of incantatory resonance attached because of the Kosambis.

Their old home still stands with a forest in its vicinity and a flat valley of fields as frontage. The house was locked but I could wander around its large compound and take in the surrounding vegetation, especially the coconut trees, a reminder of the grove that Dharmanand tended as a teenager. Accompanying his father, his main job there was ‘to protect the coconuts from monkeys and thieves’. Looking at the landscape of his childhood, it struck me that Dharmanand’s autobiography Nivedan (translated by his grand-daughter Meera Kosambi and published by Permanent Black in 2011) could have been subtitled ‘From Coconut Groves to Wide(ne)r Vistas’. Dharmanand’s memoir shows us a rare and astonishing transition, almost certainly without parallel in Indian academic life: a young village boy with no English education chasing away primates, growing to become the great Pali scholar of his day who edited Buddhaghosha’s Visuddhi-magga in the environs of Harvard’s Widener Library.

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Three other things struck me about Sancoale, and the remembrance of people and things past.

First, there is no material pointer to the fact that the Kosambis lived here. The house is now the Sancoale Ashram of the Sahaj Marg Spirituality Foundation, presumably given to it by a part of the Kosambi family. Neither the family nor the foundation have thought it necessary to put up signage saying Dharmanand was born and brought up here. (Incidentally, the founder of the Sahaj Yoga movement, Nirmala Devi, was married to Sir C.P. Srivastava, the biographer of Lal Bahadur Shastri.) I am sure earlier academic pilgrims have felt saddened by this saintly forefather of ours having simply been forgotten in his own home; or will feel so if they visit.

Second, Sancoale actually produced two saints, Dharmanand’s predecessor in the holiness stakes, Joseph Vaz, having been born in the middle of the 17th century. This Vaz is remembered for his travails and travels in Sri Lanka; he seems to have saved Christians being persecuted there by the Dutch and has long been regarded as a founding father of the Church in Sri Lanka. Many books have been written about him. In 1995 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II and became the ‘Blessed Joseph Vaz’. The speed with which this has happened must be the envy of the Indian legal system: why does Indian litigation have to progress at such a dizzying pace? Mother Teresa will, if fast tracked, be Saint Teresa within a mere couple of centuries. What's the rush?

This first saint’s memory is alive and well in Sancoale. A big church is named after St Vaz, a small museum illustrates his life-history, and a surviving room in the house associated with him carries a chronology. Judging by the two Sancoale saints, it looks like in India unless you’re a Tagore or a Gandhi or a Nehru, only religion will save you from the oblivion of cultural amnesia: thus Dharmanand.

And third: Dharmanand, who connected himself and Joseph Vaz, got his facts wrong. While speaking of his service to Roman Catholicism in Ceylon, he said Vaz ‘could not in his wildest dreams have imagined that at the beginning of the twentieth century a young aspirant from his native village would undergo ordeals to reach Ceylon in order to study the religion which he [Vaz] had taken such pains and endured such adversities to destroy.’ Nivedan shows us Dharmanand studying Buddhism and Pali in imperial Ceylon, but only that bit of his statement is true. Vaz’s mission had little to do with the Portuguese and his relationship with the Buddhist kingdom of Kandy, which is part of local lore there, was actually very cordial, even warm.

Vaz does not figure in the writings of Dharmanand’s son D.D. Kosambi. In a historian who showed such deep interest in his surroundings, this looks a strange omission. Kosambi the Son remembered churches in various parts of Goa -- including those where he lived -- coming up on the ruins of temples. He mentions the Narasimha temple which, as in his day, continues as the main temple of Sancoale. D.D. wrote at length about the village community in Goa too. But having read practically the lot, I’ve never seen Vaz in his writings. 

Which may be because Kosambi was mostly preoccupied poking the earth around his own bungalow in Pune, nosing around for his version of truffles: potsherds.

Permanent Black welcomes contributions of this broad type by friends, scholars, etc. If you've been anywhere interesting and feel like writing up a short and generally accessible reflective essay about a place or event or whatever, email it to The Publisher, Permanent Black: perblack@gmail.com and we'll get back to you very quickly about whether we'd like to blog it here.

2 comments:

Sumedha said...

I clicked to read this as the reflections of a historian on other historians;I find it a rambling touristy article with no academic insights at all. Disappointing. This 'broad type ' of article does not seem to be a very good idea.

T. Raman said...

While an interesting account of regional history, there is much here that is misrepresented. For instance, Joseph Vaz hasn't actually been sainted by the Vatican. There are several steps in the canonisation process, venerability being one of them. For this reason, Father Vaz is referred to as 'Blessed' but not 'Saint' Vaz.

Further, by implying through the use of D. D. Kosambi that all churches came "up on the ruins of temples," Lahiri leaves the door open for malicious speculation. Such views give rise to belated allegations of effrontery upon Hinduism (which the post does not serve to differentiate historically or by caste allegiance). Additionally, there is also a failure to engage with the localisation of Catholicism beyond colonial implementation.

One hopes that Lahiri will be more careful in future research.