ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

Dharmanand Kosambi: Socialist Shraman and Shramanic Socialist

In this proposed series of blogs I seek to discuss some relatively unknown/overlooked works by Marathi thinkers/activists/scholars engaging with the ideas of socialism. This is not meant to be treated as exhaustive, but should be seen as an annotated translation with questions for further inquiry.

Buddhist scholar and activist Dharmanand Kosambi can be credited as the first person to have introduced basic principles of socialism to Marathi discourse in the first decade of the 20th century (Kosambi 2010: 14–16). Though Kosambi’s introduction to socialism and Marxist literature happened during his visit to  United States (US) where he had gone to teach Pali language, he did visit the erstwhile Soviet Union (USSR) in the 1920s at the invitation of Fyodor Shcherbatskoy, renowned indologist and professor at the  Leningrad Academy of Sciences. This visit to the USSR contributed significantly towards Kosambi’s positive assessment of the Bolshevik Revolution. Notably, Kosambi uses the core principles of Buddhist ethics as evaluative categories or yardsticks to assess and enrich the idea of socialism itself. 

Kosambi’s effort to give a socialist rendering of the principles of shramanic tradition is visible in his later text, Parshvanathacha Chaturyam Dharma (Four-fold path of Parshvanath)[1].  In this text he elaborates the four principles of truth, non-violence, non-theft and non-possesion (satya, ahimsa, asteya, aparigraha) and explains their efficacy for contemporary times. Reordering the society and world on the basis of these principles is seen as the establishment of socialism; thus Kosambi also brings the ethical side of socialist project to the fore. 

Kosambi was critical of nationalism, and his antipathy towards it is particularly pronounced in this text as it was written in the immediate aftermath of World War II and the looming Cold War. Kosambi points to the linkage between nationalism and capitalism and finds that western liberalism to be constituted by those. On the other hand, he notes the role of sectarian orthodoxy (sampradayikata) in constituting Indian nationalism(s). He finds both to be inimical to the moral progress of human civilisation as both essentially lead to violence and this quest to go beyond them leads him to the synthesis of shramanic tradition with socialism.

Kosambi states that if Indian Leaders were moved by the plight of the masses like Soviet leaders and understood that socialism can achieve universal well-being, then India could have achieved freedom along with Russia. But Indian nationalism based on religious symbolism and invocation of tradition led to hardening of religious divides and communalism. While he notes that Gandhi has applied the principles of truth and non-violence for political organisation, his reliance on those who indulge in steya and parigraha (theft and possession), that is, the business class, poses an impediment. 

Kosambi states that our task should be to reorder society where theft and possession will not have any place, but this needs to be done on the basis of cultivation and application of the four-fold path. For Kosambi, cultivation of these principles is a social pedagogical exercise which needs to be systematically undertaken. Even though Kosambi was never an active political organiser and essentially had a temper of shraman-scholar, in this regard his effort to build a Buddha Vihar in predominantly Dalit-bahujan working class area of Parel needs to be noted. He had named it Bahujan vihar and its purpose was ethical–pedagogical.  In what appears to be an implicit critique of Gandhian ashrams and their practice, he warns that these social-pedagogical experiments can become sectarian if they were to be  defined in terms of rituals such as recital of bhajans in mornings or daily khadi spinning among other things. . 

For Kosambi the ethic of non-violence espoused by shramanic tradition could not become a political principle and hence was reduced to sectarian rituals. He credits Gandhi for politicising this ethical principle, but sees the danger of nationalism for its realisation. Therefore, he posits that the ethic of non-violence needs to be synthesised with socialism for it to lead to the well-being of bahujans. The principle of non-violence cannot be a basis of new social order, unless it is charged with three other principles: non-theft, non-possession and truth. 

Juxtaposing truth to dogmatism, Kosambi argues that democracy as propagated by Western capitalist countries (in the context of Cold War) has been made into a dogma. It is so because the continuation of this democracy rests on violence, theft and possession. That which requires the use of atomic bomb, requires the subjugation and exploitation of the toiling masses, and plunder of colonised nations cannot be a democracy, and it cannot claim truth for itself. Kosambi says that humankind must be made conscious of the threats posed by his version of democracy. 

Kosambi argues that while  theft, where one person steals from another, is considered to be a crime, it is not the case when it comes to capitalist profits. Those who accumulate profits are not called thieves; instead they are hailed as a “captain of industry.” Equating profit with theft is consistent with Marx’s own formulations and Kosambi seems to be attempting a “Marxification” of the shramanic ethical principle. Kosambi says that if profit is a social virtue and profiteering is hailed or legitimised, then that society is not only devoid of the principle of asteya because it necessitates untruth and possession and its preservation necessitates violence. He remarks further that continuation of this violence requires the veneer of democracy.

An instance of how Kosambi was seeking to modernise or contemporise shramanic thought is his emphasis on manual labour which he invokes as a socialist principle. What Kosambi seems to be doing is to introduce an ethic of labour, whereby productive activity is deemed essential for the moral progress of the individual and society. He argues that the well-being of humanity cannot be achieved as long as a class of appropriators—which does not engage in productive activity—and priests and intellectuals reliant on them exist.  These sections would delude the toilers in the name of religion or so-called democracy and push them to the brink of war. He notes that expropriating these sections like it was done in the Soviet Union is not possible as it involves violence. It must be achieved through mobilisation of toiling peasants and workers for the establishment of socialism. 

[1] Even though he refers to Jaina Tirthkankar Parshvanath, the principles were also espoused by Buddha and thus it is common to the shramanic tradition.

Kosambi, Meera (2010): Dharmanand Kosambi: The Essential Writings, Ranikhet: Permanent Black


The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect the collective view of the journal.


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