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D D Kosambi: The Historian as Writer

This essay looks at D D Kosambi as a historian steeped in things literary, and the ways in which Kosambi's literary sensibility influenced the subjects, the structure, and the character of his history writing. Why should a reader who is interested in Indian writing in English read Kosambi? What would he find in his writings that he is unlikely to find in the historical writings of his contemporaries? How do his narratives reveal his interests, whose range extended far beyond the narrow specialisation of "Ancient India"? How did Marxism develop and hinder his insights and his writings? These are some questions that the essay tries to answer. It examines Kosambi's work and life together. Many elements of Kosambi's life figure in his historical works, and help in giving material substance to his writings.


D D Kosambi: The Historian as Writer

Nayanjot Lahiri

This essay looks at D D Kosambi as a historian steeped in things literary, and the ways in which Kosambi’s literary sensibility influenced the subjects, the structure, and the character of his history writing. Why should a reader who is interested in Indian writing in English read Kosambi? What would he find in his writings that he is unlikely to find in the historical writings of his contemporaries? How do his narratives reveal his interests, whose range extended far beyond the narrow specialisation of “Ancient India”? How did Marxism develop and hinder his insights and his writings? These are some questions that the essay tries to answer. It examines Kosambi’s work and life together. Many elements of Kosambi’s life figure in his historical works, and help in giving material substance to his writings.

It was on the invitation of Rukun Advani and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra that I began writing this essay, a short version of which will appear in the new edition of Mehrotra’s A Concise History of Indian Writing in English (Ranikhet: Permanent Black). I would like to acknowledge Rukun’s extraordinary editorial inputs, as also those of Ram Guha who offered many unusual insights and made some valuable additions. Among those of my friends who are admirers of Kosambi, Jairam Ramesh needs a special mention. On numerous occasions, since 2005, he has waxed eloquent about Kosambi’s writings. It was the interest of people like him in Kosambi which made me want to reread him which, I must confess, I have done seriously after some 25 years or more. I am also grateful to Shobhit Mahajan and Sumit Guha for reading an earlier version of this paper.

Nayanjot Lahiri ( is with the Department of History, Delhi University.

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amodar Dharmanand Kosambi is usually remembered as a scholar whose passion for the history of ancient India was matched by his admiration for Marxism. Yet his admirers are not limited to those who are either Marxists or scholars of antiquity. Kosambi is quoted approvingly by medievalists writing on Indian feudalism and by historians of modern India on themes that range from forms of popular expression in the 1857 revolt to the advent of colonialism. That he was by profession and training a mathematician rather than a historian makes his work and its influence all the more remarkable.1

This essay, though, is not about the multi-faceted intellect of Kosambi. I will instead look at him as a historian steeped in things literary, and the ways in which his literary sensibility influenced the subjects, the structure, and the character of his history writing. Why should a reader who is interested in Indian writing in English read Kosambi? What would he find in his writings that he is unlikely to find in the historical writings of his contemporaries? How do his narratives reveal his interests, whose range extended far beyond the narrow specialisation of “Ancient India”? How did Marxism develop and hinder his insights and his writings? These are some questions that this essay will try and answer. I shall examine Kosambi’s work and life together. Many elements of his life figure in his historical works, and help in giving material substance to his writings.

1 Early Life

Kosambi was born on 31 July 1907 in Goa (for biographical information on Kosambi, Deshmukh 1993). His parents, Balabai and Dharmanand Kosambi, were Gaud Saraswat brahmins by birth. Kosambi, most unselfconsciously, tells us about the specific antecedents of his clan, about his gotra being Vasistha and his pravara that of Vasistha-Maitravaruna-Kundina (Kosambi 1950, reprinted in Chattopadhyaya 2002: 102). Being the first born male in the family after the death of his paternal grandfather also meant that the infant was supposed to have “automatically inherited his soul” as he mentioned in his writings, as also his nickname, and his actual name – Damodar (Kosambi 1962: 158). This was a family that was patriarchal and brahmanical – in its outlook and traditions, in its dress and manners, and in its treatment of friends. He was told that his grandfather took a purificatory bath after talking with any or many of his Christian friends.

Rather than lineage, it was the unusual life of his father that stamped Damodar’s upbringing. Early in his married life, Dharmanand left home many times, wanting to learn Sanskrit and attemp ting to immerse himself in the teachings of the Buddha. In 1899, about a month after the birth of his daughter, he disappeared for as many as seven years. During those years, he became an itinerant Buddhist, wandering across north India, Nepal and Ceylon, and visiting places which were associated with the Buddha’s life and teachings. Dharmananda finally returned to his family only in 1906, when he brought his wife and daughter from Goa to Calcutta where he had begun teaching Pali in the National College there. However, in December that year, because of his wife’s illness, he sent her back to Goa, where his son was born. Later, Damodar’s own research would reveal an enormous empathy for Buddhism. At this point of time, however, Dharmananda’s itinerant inclinations – moving from Calcutta to Bombay, Pune, Harvard, and back to Pune – ensured that most of the son’s early childhood was spent in Goa.

Damodar lived with his maternal grandfather in Goa, where he became fluent in Konkani and Marathi. His grandfather came from an old and well-known family, the Lads of Goa, the same one whose last family records, he remembered as being “destroyed by white ants or used up in covering temporary assembly halls” in his boyhood (Kosambi 1962: 158). In his description of the village community of Goa which figures in his academic writings, Kosambi would draw heavily on the verbal lore, reliable and unreliable, that he presumably picked up during those years. He tells us there that his “grandfather is certainly reported to have seen the brilliant light cast at night by the jewel that a king cobra had laid aside while feeding, although no such jewel has ever been found in the head of any cobra in spite of the most active research” (1962: 17o). At the same time, he also believed that “tradition as separated from folklore has always a certain element of truth. Under the crumbling, triumphal arch of Vasco da Gama in Old Goa, I was told (in spite of its bombastic Latin inscription) that the statue was that of a sailor who came from afar and became king of the country, which represents the facts better than one could have expected” (1962: 171).

Juxtaposition of the Ancient, Medieval and Modern

The juxtaposition of the ancient, the medieval and the modern, an element that runs through Kosambi’s Indological work, was probably first noticed by him in his childhood. His paternal grandfather’s farm was sited where the service settlement and the dancing girls’ houses of Sancoale’s Narasimha temple once stood (on the site of which a chapel came up). In a memorable footnote in his book An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956: 328), he vividly evoked its multilayered history – from its pre-Portugese past to its present. The Narasimha temple, he tells us, was “wrecked by the Portugese, who built a chapel over the site. Its lotus-pond still survives; very old, gigantic templecobras have occasionally crossed the paths of people who are considered very fortunate to have survived the encounter”. In the same vein, he recounted that as late as 1924, it was possible “to sit through Christmas-eve on a platform built on a fruit tree, watching a tigress return to her kill of a buffalo calf” near the farmhouse, while “from the chapel side could be heard an impassioned sermon in Konkani by the Padre, while from the house came hunting stories in the far-carrying country voice of the aged head of the family, my uncle.”

In 1912 when his father started teaching at Fergusson College in Pune, Damodar began living with his parents and elder sister, and subsequently, two younger sisters. He was, in fact, first institutionally exposed to English at the New English School in Pune.

Kosambi himself, though, never dwelt on his early exposure to either education or the English language in Pune. An autobiographical account, “Steps in Science”, traces his intellectual evolution to the United States of America (Kosambi 1974: 194). This was because his father went to Harvard University in 1918, to complete the critical edition of Visuddhimagga, a book on Buddhist philosophy on which he had also worked in 1910 there. Kosambi, then all of 11 years of age, travelled with his father to Cambridge, Mass, and it was at schools there, and later at Harvard College in 1926 when he returned to Cambridge after a two-year sojourn in India, that he learnt several languages, including French, German, Greek, Latin and Italian. His felicity with languages allowed him to dip into the classics in original, and later publish in Europeanlanguage journals. He also began speaking English with an American accent. While the accent remained with him for the rest of his life, his relationship with the English language was an ambiguous one. Although his writings were largely in English, towards the end of his life, English for him became an exemplar of the stamp of the foreigner. Writing in 1965, he strongly regretted that “14 years after independence English still remains the official language of administration, big business, and higher education in India. No significant attempts have been made to change over, beyond pious resolutions in shiftless committees” (Kosambi 1965: 6).

Kosambi studied mathematics at Harvard, graduating with distinction in 1929. It was a subject that he would teach and research all through his life. Harvard also made accessible to him an astonishing range of ideas and books. He mentions several of these in his intellectual autobiography:

Alexander Von Humboldt’s Cosmos surveyed the whole universe known to the 19th century, from the surface of the earth to those mysterious prawn-shaped figures visible through the most powerful telescopes, the spiral nebulae. The Einstein theory, arousing passions of theological intensity, had just been regarded as proved, and offered new insight into the structure of space and time. Innumerable outlines made it easy to learn something about every branch of science. Freud had taught men to take an honest look at their own minds; H G Wells showed through his Outline of History how much the professional annalistic historian had to learn (1974: 194).

This literary appetite would later stamp his historical writings.

Kosambi, however, mentions no Indian litterateur. Instead, he somewhat pejoratively contrasts the achievements of Humboldt, Wells and others who he described as “the real rsis and bodhisattvas of modern times” with “mythical Indian sages, expressed in incomprehensible language and fantastically interpreted by commentators” (Kosambi 1974: 194-95). Kosambi would have been familiar with Indian texts and writers living in close proximity to his scholar-father, even absorbing Sanskrit, as he acknowledged, through the pores. The readings and lives that he remembered as making an impression on him at Harvard, though, were western sages. In fact, only one Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, figures in the reminiscences of a college friend of his Harvard years. Apparently, Gandhi’s portrait graced Kosambi’s room in Cambridge. The elder Kosambi had sought employment on his return from Harvard, in the Archaeology Department of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth in Ahmedabad which had been founded by Gandhi. Surely, young Kosambi must have met him when he visited his father in 1924-25, and Gandhi’s influence on him apparently ensured that for some

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time he wore khadi cloth. Not surprisingly, it was anti-colonial thought which left its mark on Kosambi’s first piece of writing in his Harvard freshman year – a short story entitled “The Kanpur Road” (reprinted with additions in Kosambi 1957: 67-71).

“The Kanpur Road” is historical fiction, deploying the 1857 rebellion as a backdrop. The story’s Sikh protagonist, Govind Singh, “had campaigned in Abyssinia with Napier, entered Kabul and Kandahar with Roberts, fought in almost every outpost of the desert, mountains, swamp”. Govind Singh had cut down a rebel

– his own brother – who had killed the British brigadier served by Govind Singh. What is most striking is not this act of “fratricidal loyalty” but the lifelong trauma that it unleashes within that old soldier, whose face, slashed in combat by the brother who he overcame, bears a “great livid scar” and the star that was pinned on his chest was “not to show others my glory, but to remind myself of my grief.” Kosambi then uses this persona and event to draw a parallel with an ancient encounter, that of the invading Alexander and the indigenous King Porus: Govind Singh “was worthy to have stood with King Pauravas on that fateful day when the tricky manoeuvres of Yavana invaders prevailed against simple bravery”. Also woven into this tale of ancient and modern tragic heroes in times when India was invaded is the dust of the Indian countryside and the pain of hunger and disease. The narrator of “The Kanpur Road” had heard this story of Alexander and Porus by his “village school teacher, now dead of starvation and cholera”. The story prefigures the key intellectual features of Kosam bi’s later work: finely phrased historical themes with a bearing on the present encompassed within a progressive worldview.

2 On Bhartrhari

When did Kosambi begin writing on ancient India and its history? Not before 1940 and 1941 it seems, when he published a short statistical analysis of the coins from Taxila and a long essay on the poetry of Bhartrhari, a philosopher-poet of some distinction.

After graduating with distinction from Harvard in 1929, Kosam bi was unsuccessful in finding funds for continuing his studies there. So, he returned to India, and spent the next few years teaching mathematics, first at Banaras Hindu University (1929-31), then at Aligarh Muslim University (1931-32), finally settling down in Pune where, in the footsteps of his father, he began teaching at Fergusson College, and continued to do so for the next 12 years or so. While Kosambi described them as a kind of penance, it was in those years that he ranged beyond his competence in mathematics and began to write about numismatics, ancient texts, classics and contemporary affairs as well. By 1939, in an article on “The Function of Leadership in a Mass Movement” for the Fergusson & Willingdon College Magazine, he was describing himself as a Marxist (reprinted with additions in Kosambi 1957).

Marxian dialectics figures in fact in both the pieces that he wrote in this magazine in 1939. In the first essay, he examined various types of leadership. Good leadership, he says, explains why the communist revolution was successful in Russia, but failed in Germany. In the same breath, he describes part of Mahatma Gandhi’s leadership as belonging to a “restoration of law and order” genre, which devised methods for dissipating excess energy of the lower class (Kosambi 1939a). Evidently, by the time Kosambi

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became a Marxist, he had moved beyond and against Gandhian ideas, unlike his father who remained devoted to Gandhi. Incidentally, Kosambi’s essay was written in the immediate aftermath of the failure of Gandhi’s satyagraha at Rajkot, and it was probably this as well as the 1930 satyagraha that he had in mind when he wrote about Gandhi’s leadership. This approach would remain typical of a large part of Kosambi’s work. While he would devote asides and paragraphs to a class analysis of ancient and modern persona, a full critique, as in the case of Gandhi, would frequently fall short of being presented. Yet the ability to be critical about those who he admired, without fear or favour, remained and marks his later critique of the other powerful Indian leader of his time, Jawaharlal Nehru. Being a “humble admirer” of Nehru, as he described himself, does not prevent him from pointing out the flaws in Nehru’s The Discovery of India (1946), especially the absence within it of class analysis (Kosambi 1946: 10-18).

Class analysis features also in the second essay of 1939, which introduces Marxian dialectics into ancient Greece. Writing “On the Trial of Sokrates”, he thinks it would be of “interest to Marxists” that the method of Sokrates “was the dialectic one, questioning and cross questioning, showing up the contradictions in a plausible and even accepted statement till, by a succession of negations, some sort of valid conclusion was reached” (Kosambi 1939b: 57). Kosambi’s empathy for the courage and intelligence of that great ancient thinker who “was guided by an inner voice” and who “never allowed fear of the consequences to divert him from obedience” shines through as does his recognition of the continuing relevance of the classics: “The inner voice could have told him nothing about the far distant future: that liberalism in 19th century England would flourish because of Crote’s close study of Athens in his days; that a study of the classics would be an important political asset for both democrats and reaction aries. But I do think that the inner voice should have made it clear to him that a certain class of people would twist his teaching to their own profits as against the well-being of the body politic” (1939b: 62).

Statistics Route to Indology

What led Kosambi into Indology, though, was not Marxism but statistics. As a mathematician, he must have known a fair bit of statistics but obviously, not nearly as much as he wanted to know (Kosambi 1974: 198). In order to teach himself statistics, he began to statistically study punch-marked coins from hoards found at Taxila. Kosambi’s study revealed that the oldest group there was the lightest in weight. But, who were the kings who issued these coins lacking all inscription and legend? This made the task of assigning them to kings and dynasties a tricky one; it required an exploration of king lists and the names mentioned in literary texts. So, from statistical problem solving Kosambi turned to Puranic, Buddhist and Jain texts.

This seems to have been Kosambi’s first academic encounter with Sanskrit, a language that he already knew but one which he now wanted to master. At Fergusson College, his friend (and later collaborator) V V Gokhale, a distinguished Sanskritist, proved a help. Again, Poona was also home to the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute where the Sanskrit scholar, V S Sukhtankar, was preparing a critical edition of the Mahabharata. Sukhtankar suggested to him that he should take up a specific text in order to improve his language skills, and he specifically recommended Bhartrhari’s epigrams or Subhasitas. Through this text, Kosambi would later say, he fell “into Indology, as it were, through the roof” (1974: 199)

Much of the literary value of Kosambi’s exploration of Bhartrhari (published in its first form in 1941) can be derived from the structure of its narrative, and among his writings this is one of the few where he betrays his admiration for the literary skills of an ancient Indian writer. He begins by describing Bhartrhari as one of the great Indian poets “if for nothing else, Bhartrhari would deserve a place in the front rank of world literature for his consummate handling of so difficult a language as Sanskrit….Few could exceed the force of his epigrams, the finality with which the sentiment is rounded out in many of his concluding half-lines” (Kosambi 1941: 704). At the outset too, the lack of information about the persona of Bhartrhari is stated. However, the purpose of the essay was really to query both these propositions. Through the prism of his poetry and the figures of speech that he employed, Bhartrhari was shown to be a brahmin but one of a comparatively late period. This is not merely because of references to the 10 incarnations of Vishnu in his work but also because he used the word ‘samanta’ which “originally ‘neighbour’, can only mean ‘feudal baron’ in V 42. This usage, though current in the sixth century, would be difficult to establish before the Gupta period” (Kosambi 1941: 717).

Proceeding to critique the “greatness” of Bhartrhari, much of the essay is devoted to demonstrating that his concept of renunciation simply did not match up to either that of western poets like Goethe or those from the east like Sa’di. While this served the purpose of demonstrating that Kosambi had read widely, a literary sensibility that he would make evident in his later work as well, the comparisons between Bhartrhari, a poet of the 3rd/4th century in India, with the works of a German author of the 18th/19th century and a Persian one of the 12/13th century appear far-fetched. Kosambi himself appears to have been aware of the problems inherent in this because, half way through his exposition on Bhartrhari, he conceded there that “no criticism can be called substantial that does not judge an author on the basis of his own axioms, within the framework of the author’s own implicit universe of discourse” (1941: 708-09).

For that reason, Kosambi then examined Bhartrhari, as it were, on his own terms, and again, found him wanting. Curiously enough, an important reason for his diminished appreciation of the poet’s idea of renunciation is because it seemed fractured by an inner conflict. Take, for instance, the way in which he examines verse 99 of Bhartrhari’s work (Kosambi 1941: 709):

‘Fixed in the padmasana seat upon a Himalayan slab on the banks of the Ganges, lost in a yogic trance in the contemplation of the Eternal, shall I ever see those blessed days, when old untimid stags rub their bodies against mine?’ Now, clearly, this is not the utterance of a man who has actually tried the joys of yogic contemplation, but of one who feels how happy he might be if he achieved it, in the yet distant future. The composer of these lines still hankers after physical sensation, such that of the stags rubbing themselves against him: sensation which would be completely inhibited by any successful trance, yogic or otherwise.

Such conflicts and dualities exist in the lives of many men and women, and usually, a glimpse into these conflicts imparts an honesty to their writings that is widely admired. In the case of Bhartrhari, the Chinese pilgrim, I-tsing apparently wrote that he alternated no less than seven times between the pleasures of worldly and monastic life. If this was so, it was a duality that was reflected in his work. But, for Kosambi, this is what precisely diminished Bhartrhari.

But coming back to the form of his argument, just as one begins to wonder why he had begun his essay by unequivocally ascribing greatness to Bhartrhari, a new yardstick is introduced which restores the ancient poet to a measure of distinction. The reason why Bhartrhari’s poetry was singular, Kosambi wrote, was because the poet had the courage to voice fears of not being employed and the attendant poverty that this would bring – themes that are rare in writings of that genre. The verse that he quotes most approvingly is one which reveals the poet visualising “his wife as sad-faced, unfed, miserable, with her worn raiment constantly tugged at by pitiful, hungry, crying children” (Kosambi 1941: 713).

Ironically, Kosambi approved of Bhartrhari’s honestly expressed sentiments as long as these engaged with the dread of poverty, even while frowning upon a similar honesty in the poet’s enunciation of renunciation. This may have been because the court poet, through the expression of his fear of poverty, gave away his class status, a status that Kosambi believed tended to be masked in what he described as a literature of escape. That poetry should largely be valued for its class resonance and not for its multilayered meanings or its style is an argument with which not everyone can agree. But, one does not have to agree with Kosam bi in order to admire the dialectic that structures his work – where a great poet’s warts are strongly foregrounded, and just as the reader begins to doubt this greatness, a little known aspect of his work is highlighted. So, finally, there is an appreciation of Bhartrhari but not for reasons of either style or expression which Kosambi had begun. Bhartrhari continued to figure in Kosam bi’s horizon: he eventually examined some 400 Bhartrhari manuscripts, culminating in a critical edition of the Satakatrayam in 1945 and a further critical edition of a Bhartrhari recension in 1946.

3 On Vidyakara’s Subhasitaratnakosa

By this time, 1945, Kosambi had been invited by the scientist Homi Bhabha to join the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay as professor of mathematics; he remained there till 1962. The TIFR years were marked by an uninterrupted spate of writings on texts and coins, aspects of ancient India, and books that synthesised his view of ancient India. Naturally, Kosambi’s mathematical research continued; in 1949, he delivered lectures on tensor analysis at the University of Chicago and spent time at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he met with Einstein. The US would figure on his Indological horizon as well. In 1951, he was invited to produce a critical edition of the Subhasitaratnakosa which was eventually published in the Harvard Oriental Series in 1957. The invitation had come from Daniel Ingalls, a professor at Harvard University, and a scholar who also became his friend. Kosambi’s friend from his Fergusson College days, V V Gokhale, would be his coeditor.

The Subhasitaratnakosa was an anthology of Sanskrit poetry compiled by Vidyakara in the 12th century AD. Kosambi’s study of it followed that of his exposition of Bhartrhari. Vidyakara was

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shown, on the basis of internal textual evidence, to have compiled his anthology at the Jagaddala Vihara in Malda in the time of the Pala dynasty. In a memorable deduction, he tells us that the poet was unmistakably a Bengali poet since he “brags of the large number of pond fish, highly spiced and fried in oil, that he had gulped down without even troubling to wash up first” (Kosambi 1957: 729). As before, he found Vidyakara’s text wanting in comparison to western poets. Kosambi could not recall a single subhasita or epigram which could compare with what was expressed in a stanza in Blake’s Jerusalem: The Hymn which is quoted in extenso by him (Kosambi 1957: 744):

Bring me my bow of burning gold;

Bring me my arrow of desire;

Bring me my spear: O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental flight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

That England’s most popular patriotic song should be compa red with verses composed several hundred years ago by a poet of east India, is a parallel that tells us rather more about Kosam bi’s literary interests and the extraordinary ideas that he sought in Vidyakara’s work than anything much about the Subhasitaratnakosa. Unusual literary analogies are in fact an intrinsic part of Kosambi’s writings. The introduction he wrote to Myth and Rea lity (1962), a collection of essays based upon the fusion of field work with texts, quotes long stanzas from Robert Graves’ White Goddess and the Illiad. While the comparisons are not entirely successful as explanatory devices, they do reveal the range of Kosambi’s reading and the ways in which he could use his thoughts on ancient India to show his deep appreciation of western literature.

Assessment of Vidyakara

Similarly, Kosambi’s assessment of Vidyakara’s exploration of love reveals perhaps more about his own sensibilities than Vidyakara’s ideas. It seems that, at least on one count, he believed that medieval Indian poetry was better than modern western verse. In medieval Indian poetry, there was little of prostitution and nothing of “homosexuality or other abnormalities that now seem proper literary material in the west” (Kosambi 1957: 729). Instead, “this is love in the direct Indian tradition, sensuous erotic experience that left visible marks (of teeth and nails) upon both participants” (Kosambi 1957: 728). The distinction that he perceives and highlights between an Indian sense of love and eroticism as against a western one, is surprising, for in the 195os, it was well known that in early India, same sex love was as common as in the west, certainly acceptable enough to be depicted on temple carvings and on ordinary terracottas. In any case, as with Bhartrhari, after offering samplers of ancient erotica, Kosam bi reveals that he is more impressed with the poet’s allusions to mundane elements, as when a “dog chases a cat, quail pick up seed at the edge of a muddy field, sparrows scratch in plowed furrows” or when “a bull startles the peasant woman butting his way into the hut” (Kosambi 1957: 729). Again, class centrally figures. How it limited the writings of poets of that time is to Kosambi a matter of great interest. Their

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work, he says, was steeped in an atmosphere of luxury, parasitism and decay because of the class that patronised it. Its fundamental limitation was that it was a literature “of and for a class, not a people”. For the same reason, Kosambi is known to have admired Dandin, the famous Sanskrit writer of prose and poetry. It was not enough that there was the verve, gusto, gentle humour and irony in Dandin’s work. It was the way in which this was combined with his “extensive knowledge of life among all strata of common people” which made him peerless (Kosambi 1956: 289).

Kosambi’s interest in class analysis was criticised strongly by the Harvard Oriental Series editor, Daniel Ingalls, in his preface to the Vidyakara volume (1957). While pointing to the genuineness of the Kosambi-Gokhale reading, he underlined that he himself “judged the artistic merits of the poems to be higher” than Kosambi because he felt that “a class theory, while it may explain to some extent the content of a literature, is a very improper guide to its excellence”. A similar sentiment was expressed by A L Basham, another scholar-friend of Kosambi when he argued that “many of Professor Kosambi’s most valuable insights into his country’s history are derived from his Marxism. A certain lack of sympathy for many aspects of the ancient culture of India, and a tendency to judge the past from the point of view of the present, may also stem from the same Marxism” (1967).

4 An Introduction to the Study of Indian History

Ancient texts formed merely one of the areas that Kosambi explored during his TIFR days. His recognition as a foundational historian of ancient India really rests on the book that he wrote there – An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956).1 His definition of history “as the presentation, in chronological order, of successive developments in the means and relations of production” that the book begins with, sets the tone (Kosambi 1956: 1). India’s past in its entirety is seen through that prism – beginning with the pre-class society of prehistoric India, to the class structure of the riparian Indus civilisation, moving right into medieval feudalism and the bourgeois methods of exploitation pioneered by the British in India.

The past and present is viewed as a continuum, and this way of looking at history, for Kosambi, is rooted in the nature of the land itself. “India is a country of long survivals” wrote Kosambi where “people of the atomic age rub elbows with those of the chalcolithic” (1956: 8). It is for this reason that he believed that field work was central not merely for recovering the remains of antiquity on the ground but also for understanding the lives and manners of all kinds of people who continued to live there. The element of continuity is highlighted by photographs that accompanied the book, in which an Indus seal depicting a humped bull, and a Gandharan Buddhist sculpture depicting a plough were placed alongside a bull in modern Banaras, and a buffalo relaxing in Pune. If Kosambi had his way, he would have made the buffalo India’s national animal, and his explanation for this is delightful (1956: Ixiv): “Heavy, dark, sluggish, hardy, fertile, productive with little care, far cleaner than it looks, docile enough to be led by a child, but suspicious of innovations and perfectly capable when roused, of charging a tiger or a locomotive, the buffalo would be a fitting national symbol for India”.

These delightful asides notwithstanding, to what extent did Kosambi’s Introduction 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? Kosambi’s 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” (1956: 27). But the use of such a small sample for making large generalisations would appear as a lazy explanation as also an unconvincing one.

Actually, his description is the account of an engaged field worker who imbibed many different realities first hand. He would return again and again to the heterogeneous ancient and modern juxtapositions, to the lowland track “behind the cricket field of the Fergusson College” where microliths were found, to the ways in which trade routes followed microlithic tracks. Interestingly enough, Poona seems to have had a similar effect on another of Kosambi’s contemporaries, the archaeologist H D Sanka lia (1978). He apparently found so many scrapers and cleavers around the diorite dyke near his residence in Deccan College that his colleagues used to tell him that he was actually occupying the site of his prehistoric residence! Of course, when Sankalia wrote on the Prehistory and Protohistory of India and Pakistan (1963), Maharashtra only figured as one element in the larger archaeological mosaic of the Indian subcontinent. The same balance cannot be discerned in Kosambi’s Introduction. 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. If he had done so, he would also have noticed that from the 19th 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 one of those who had offered an explanation for the Neolithic ashmounds 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 (1887).

Reading Class in Indus Civilisation

Class figures prominently in Kosambi’s analysis of the Indus civilisation. For him, the main question was how this civilisation’s class structure was maintained (1956: 62). Since the cities “rested upon trade, not fighting” and since the “tools of violence” in the form of weapons are flimsy, what “helped the trader maintain his unequal sharing of profit?”. The explanation for him lay in religion. The centrality of religion in understanding India is deve loped at length by him in his analysis of the historical period, a reflection of which he saw at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro. The Indus civilisation, he believed, had much in common with Hinduism. The human figures on stamp seals, Kosambi noted, “showed a bearded three-faced deity which has some of the attributes of the later Hindu god Siva.

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october 24, 2009 vol xliv no 43


For that matter, iconotropic seals from the Indus may explain many legends of later Hinduism, as say that of Trisanku” just as he recognised the tree that was most worshipped in India – the pipal – on representations of Indus seals (1956: 64). This was an explanation that was rooted in the description of Indus religion that is contained in what John Marshall, the director-general of the Archaeological Survey under whom the Indus civilisation was discovered, wrote in the first excavation report on Mohenjo-daro (1931). It was also similar to what his fellow historian Ramesh Chandra Majumdar in Ancient India (1952) surmised about Indus religion. Majumdar, too, like Kosambi, recognised Siva and the sacred pipal in the Indus civilisation. None of them betrayed any preoccupation with what it meant to locate the long story of Hinduism in eternal archetypes, where the contrasts of complexity and scale that exist from anti quity to modernism are not taken on.

There are, of course, important differences. Majumdar’s is a traditional history and did not aspire to present an analysis of the forces and relations of production in ancient India as was the aim of Kosambi. In it, while political, cultural and religious conditions in different phases are carefully described, no insights from eith er ethnography or the historical sources of other lands light up the narrative as in the case of Kosambi. But, equally, the similarities are worth mentioning since Kosambi and Majumdar are usually placed on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Those similarities are not confined to their understanding of archaeological phenomena like Indus seals. They shared similar ideas about sources. When, for instance, Majumdar (1952: 7) noted that “Indians displayed a strange indifference towards properly recording the public events of their country”, it is not very different from Kosambi’s view that “it is precisely the episodes – lists of dynasties and kings, tales of war and battle spiced with anecdote…that are missing in Indian texts.” Similarly, there is a fundamental agreement about how the Indus civilisation was destroyed – by a hardy group of Aryans that entered India from the north-west. Majumdar believed that Aryan marauders destroyed the forts and cities of the Indus people (who he believed were Dravidian) and burnt their houses, also reducing a large number of them to slaves (1952: 30). A strong echo of this can be seen in Kosambi’s argument that the Rgvedic Aryans killed the Indus civilisation. Interestingly, the view that the Aryans destroyed the Indus civilisation was under serious question even while Kosambi and Majumdar wrote about them with the utmost confidence. There is enough about a temperamental Indus river in the 1930s and 1940s reports of John Marshall and Ernest Mackay on Mohen jo-daro and Chanhu Daro to make us wonder why these historians did not at least in the 1950s acknowledge that there could have been causes other than an Aryan invasion in explaining the collapse of the Indus civilisation.

Invasion Argument

In the case of Kosambi, it is possible that, notwithstanding the flimsy evidence, he stuck to the invasion argument because his theory of the emergence of the caste system was crucially dependent upon it. In his Introduction, he claimed that the Indus settlers were the Dasyus or Dasas (conquered people) and the panis (traders) of the Rgveda. On other occasions, he argued that while many of the conquered Indus people were reduced to serfdom, the culturally

Economic & Political Weekly

october 24, 2009 vol xliv no 43

advanced priests of the Indus civilisation were able to impose themselves upon their conquerors. If, to put it another way, Kosambi saw the brahmins as having developed through an intermixing with the older Indus priesthood and the Aryans, obviously, the context in which these two phenomena first confronted each other – invasion – could hardly be jettisoned.

Overall, in Kosambi’s Introduction, we find a picture of India after the “Aryan invasions” which is largely, though not exclusively, confined to north India. Settlements in the Deccan plateau do not figure until more than half the book is done, over a large part of which the Aryans are depicted as triumphantly sweeping across India, from the north-west where the Aryan hordes destroy the Indus civilisation to the “wilderness of the east” which they settle. In the process, pastoral raiders become agrarian food producers. It is not that Kosambi lacks a sense of different social and cultural groups coexisting in India. The main story, however, is that of the Aryans colonising and incorporating them. Today, the archaeological landscape of the vast Gangetic plains, unlike the 1950s when Kosambi wrote, is very different. There is an impressive body of archaeological evidence about the regional cultures of ancient north India, whose chronology and character cannot be integrated with the putative Aryans of the Vedic texts. These are discoveries that postdate the life and writings of Kosambi, so one can hardly fault him for being unaware of them.

Still, it is somewhat amazing that a scholar who displayed such an acute sense of the coexistence in modern India of groups at different social and economic levels of existence, stopped short of showing discomfort with a history of ancient India which, instead of being informed by the presence of a multihued human mosaic, was a saga of foreign invasions, subjugation and incorporation. It was a tale in which preagricultural societies were destined to be subjugated or incorporated into an agricultural way of life because this was considered to be a more superior mode of production. And those who still stubbornly remained food gatherers “through inertia, tribal solidarity, common ritual” were the modern tribal remnants. Many decades later, the historian Sumit Guha, showed that Kosambi’s idea of forager communities as living fossils was at variance with what his own field work had thrown up in Poona: “when Kosambi himself carried out a pioneering foray into ethnohistory by discussing the Phase Pardhi community near Pune in the context of this hypothesis, he observed that as soon as the Pardhi community in question got access to some land they started growing vegetables, and were even prepared to pay rent to the alleged owner – so it could be argued that they had not intruded into the agricultural economy, but had been extruded from it” (Guha 1998: 432).

There is, in fact, a qualitative difference in the field observations on specific communities that Kosambi offered and the general statements that he made about tribals. In the history of early India that Kosambi sketched, it was these general statements that provided the narrative frame – where the story of the spread of agriculture is the one that seems to matter, where hunter-gathere rs were either in the process of being incorporated or kept volun tarily out of expanding agricultural regimes. Perhaps if Kosam bi had not considered the issue of a spreading agricultural economy as the issue in the material milieu of ancient India, the picture that he projected of it may have been as culturally diverse as what he so arrestingly outlined when he wrote about Poona and its surrounding regions.

5 Kosambi the Man

Prehistory and the transitions that marked its long passage, continued their stronghold on D D Kosambi through the rest of his life. In the 1960s, near his beloved Poona, he continued to observe and write about prehistoric rock engravings, and about microli ths and megaliths, and as always, these were seamlessly woven into what Kosambi called the living prehistory of India that was, he argued, kept alive by tribal people. Perhaps, his last piece of writing before he died in 1966 was centred on prehistory. Like his first foray into history, and unlike most of his later writings, this too was a short story. “The Hump on Nandi’s Back” sought to communicate the prehistoric past to children.

The story unfolds as a conversation between a human being (“Rama, son of the village headman”), a tree (the “old Bo tree”) and certain fauna (“Old Naag, the Cobra”, “Sher, the tiger”, “Rama’s dog, Moti”, “the great bull Nandi”). The setting, a pond on the edge of a forest “beneath the Bo tree of the village god”, is used by Kosambi to explain to his young readers about how humans evolved from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists. Thousands of years ago, humans were like the animals of today, gathering food: “They climbed trees for fruits and nuts. They plucked berries and mushrooms. Yams came out of the ground. Like Bhalu they would gather honey. They caught fish just as Bhalu does with his paw.” Over time, they domesticated


1 I have analysed Kosambi’s An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956) and not his later work, The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline (1965). This is because the latter was a simplified condensed popular version of the former, broadly following the same framework and enunciating similar ideas. It even included several photographs that had been used in An Introduction. The most striking difference, to me appears to be in the introductory sections of the two books. Whereas An Introduction was interspersed with long quotations from the works of Karl Marx, those are missing in The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India. Equally striking is the opening paragraph to a subsection on “The Difficulties Facing the Historian” in The Culture, where Kosam bi (1965: 8-9) strikes a strong nationalistic note. Here, he seems to be contesting the claims of British historians of India like Vincent Smith whose History of India is an example of the textbook that Kosambi had in mind when he wrote about “foreigners” and their textbooks. The paragraph is worth quoting in full: “What has been said so far might lend colour to the theory sometimes expressed that India was never a nation, that Indian culture and civilisation is a by-product of foreign conquest, whether Muslim or British. If this were so, the only I ndian history worth writing would be the history of and by the conquerors. The textbooks that the foreigner has left behind him naturally heighten this impression. But when Alexander of Macedon was drawn to the East by the fabulous wealth and magic name of India, England and France were barely coming into the Iron Age. The discovery of America was due to the search for new trade routes to India; a reminder of this is seen in the name ‘Indians’ given to the American aborigines. The Arabs, when they were intellectually the most progressive and active people in the

48 animals. Rama wants to know how humans made dogs like his Moti. The Bo tree told him about how some wolf cubs in the company of men growing tame over time. The Bo tree had also seen when men ate leaves and grass seeds which, through a process of experimentation they later learnt to cultivate: “All grasses are not alike. Man found that these nice grasses grew best in soft ground. You don’t get soft ground very often. But if you dig yams with a sharp stick, the grass grows better there next year. So, man made holes in the grass for fat grass seeds.”

“Man made himself what he is” is what the story constantly conjures, reminding us of the title of a famous work of the Marxist prehistorian Gordon Childe called Man Makes Himself (1951).

The importance of Kosambi’s historical oeuvre for those interested in things literary is connected with the fact that this man made himself. A mathematician by profession, he trained himself to be a historian. Even as Kosambi the historian read written records while recording living people and ancient parallels to them, he wrote deliberately in a way that gives us a glimpse of Kosambi the man. That the man was born and grew up in Goa, with prolific literary interests honed at Harvard, and who spent much of his working life asking questions about India’s past, many times through the prism of what he observed in her present

– all this provides the picture of a kind of Indian historian that is all too rare. One might add, in the end, that the defining identity tag of Marxist historian that came to be attached to Kosambi, is perhaps what has also diminished an appreciation of this unusual mixture of qualities in his writings.

world, took their treatises on medicine and a good deal of their mathematics from Indian sources. Asian culture and civilisation have China and India as their two primary sources. Cotton textiles (even words like ‘calico’, ‘chintz’, ‘dungaree’, ‘pyjama’, ‘sash’ and ‘gingham’ are of Indian origin) and sugar are India’s specific contribution to everyday life, just as paper, tea, porcelain, silk are China’s.”


Basham, A L (1967): Review (D D Kosambi’s The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline) in The English Historical Review (82,322): 142-43.

Chattopadhyaya, B D, (ed.) (2002): Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Childe, G (1951, reprint 1965): Man Makes Himself. Watts, London.

Deshmukh, C (1993): Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi: Life and Works, (translated title), (Mumbai: Granthaghar), Anonymous English translation from Marathi.

Foote, R B (1887): “Notes on Some Recent Neolithic and Paleolithic Finds in South India”, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 56 (2), 259-82.

Guha, S (1998): “Lower Strata, Older Races, and Aboriginal Peoples: Racial Anthropology and Mythical History Past and Present”, The Journal of Asian Studies (57,2), 423-41.

Ingalls, D (1957): Introduction to The Subhasitaratnakosa compiled by Vidyakara (edited by D D Kosambi and V V Gokhale), Harvard Oriental Series (vol 42) (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Kosambi, D D (1957, reprint 1977): “The Kanpur Road”, Exasperating Essays, (mostly written in 1924) (Calcutta: India Book Exchange), pp 67-71.

october 24, 2009

  • (1939a, reprint 1977): “The Function of Leadership in a Mass Movement”, Exasperating Essays (Calcutta: India Book Exchange), pp 5-9.
  • (1939b, reprint 1977): “On The Trial of Sokrates”, Exasperating Essays (Calcutta: India Book Exchange), pp 56-62.
  • (1941, reprint 2002): “The Quality of Renunciation in Bhartrhari’s Poetry”, reprinted in B D Chattopadhyaya (ed.), Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 703-20.
  • (1946, reprint 1977): “The Bourgeoise Comes of Age in India”, Exasperating Essays (reprinted from Science and Society, Vol X, pp 392-98) (Calcutta: India Book Exchange), pp 8-14.
  • (1956, reprint 2008): An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan).
  • (1957, reprint 2002): “Introducing Vidyakara’s Subhasitaratnakosa” in B D Chattopadhyaya (ed.), Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), pp 721-49.
  • (1962, reprint 2008): Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture (Mumbai: Popular Prakashan).
  • (ed.) (1965, reprint 1994): The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House).
  • (1974): “Steps in Science”in Science and Human Progress (Essays in honour of late D D Kosambi) (Bombay: Popular Prakashan), pp 193-205.
  • Majumdar, R C (1952, reprint 2003): Ancient India (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass Publishers). Marshall, J H (ed.) (1931): “Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilisation” (London: Arthur Probsthain).

    Sankalia, H D (1963, reprint 1974): The Prehistory and Protohistory of India and Pakistan (Poona: Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute).

    – (1978): Born for Archaeology: An Autobiography (New Delhi: B R Publishing Corporation).

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