Monday, January 15, 2007

Inventing India: A Documentary based on the works by Kosambi

Arvind N Das, who died seven years ago at a tragically young age at 52, nevertheless packed a lot in his intense life. A product of the "Spring Thunder over India" in the late 1960s, he was part of the brilliant team at the Times of India in the late 1980s which is when one became acquainted with his insightful writings.

Trained as a historian, he moved, first to print journalism and then to the medium of TV setting up Asia Pacific Communications to produce a nuanced documentary on the history of India. In the documentary, as in his writings, he showed himself as a student of DD Kosambi to whom he dedicated the documentary that appeared in 13 parts on Doordarshan. He remained an engaged social historian in the tradition of DD Kosambi and EP Thompson.

In his book "India Invented", he made the observation that India is not something waiting to be discovered, as Jawaharlal Nehru had treated it in his Discovery of India, but something that is to be constantly invented in the process of understanding it- that was his statement of praxis.

The first part of the documentary is now available at google videos. It is also available from Asia Pacific Communications and can be ordered, I believe, from the address given at the google videos site.

Link to Google Videos

Needless to say, it is a very ennobling, and educative experience to be able to watch this documentary once again. One of the best in the series is the one where Das delves into the emergence and decadence of Buddhism (part 5), though this one doesn't seem to be available online as yet. DD Kosambi had himself written very insightfully on the decline of Buddhism in India in his collection of essays Exasperating Essays.

Cross posted here

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Doing Business for the Lord

Doing Business for the Lord: Lending on Interest and Written Loan Contracts in the Mulasarvastivada-Vinaya by Gregory Schopen; The Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 114, 1994, makes a reference to Kosambi's insight on the importance of Chinese records to understand Indian history.
Scholars working on China have in fact very often been the first to introduce and make available important Indian material bearing on the institutional and economic history of Buddhism, but this material rarely, or never, makes it into Indian studies. References to Gernet's Les Aspects economiques du bouddhisme, for example, are extremely rare in works on Indian cultural and economic history. D. D. Kosambi long ago referred to Gernet when he raised the "fundamental question" of the extent to which Buddhist monks and monasteries in India participated directly in trade. "The documentary evidence" for such participation, Kosambi said, "exists at the other end of the Buddhist world, in Chinese records and translations," of the sort presented by Gernet.(7) But few have followed this up.

J.D. Bernal: A Centernary Tribute

Arjun Patel, an experimental scientist, pays a tribute to JD Bernal and recalls his association with DD Kosambi.

The other episode relates to Kosambi. Bernal introduced A.R. Vasudev Murthy (a chemist and sanskritist) of Indian Institute of Science to D.D.Kosambi (Bernal uses Kosambi’s characterization of science as the ‘cognition of necessity’ in Science in History) during the Indian Science Congress in Poona in 1950. Kosambi told Vasudev Murthy that he intended to make a study of Indian history on the lines given in Engels’ “Origin of the family, private property and the state”. It was in this way that Kosambi’s collaborations with the scientific community in Bangalore began and stimulated them in lively debates on the social functions of science and the culture and civilization of ancient India, the outcome being Kosambi’s widely read monographs on the subject.

India's Lopsided Science

Dhirendra Sharma on India's lopsided science program makes a reference to Kosambi's tenure at TIFR
In 1962, Prof D.D. Kosambi was removed from the senior fellowship at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, for questioning high expenditures on atomic energy research and development. Kosambi made a brave but unsuccessful attempt to take up where Saha left off, trying to maintain an open and participatory system. It is difficult to find critics of Kosambi's stature in Indian science today.

Tamil Traditions on Subrahmanya­-Murugan

Kamil V. Zvelebil : An Introduction to the Tamil Traditions of Subramanya- Murugan

On the other hand, one must be careful not to succumb to the "habitual failing of the philologist whose learned candour leads him to infer that all things have their beginning from the time of their first mention in the texts."[10] We must avoid the 'tunnel vision' (D.D. Kosambi) of armchair Indologists who avoid any disagreeable contact with fieldwork - with anthropology, sociology, folklore, or reality at large. The long and exclusive concentration of such scholars on written, particularly Sanskrit, rahmin-produced documents seems to have impaired their ability to distinguish between myth and reality.

The German Connection

In Dr. Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer, who travelled to India at least 35 times in a span f 27 years of active academic life at the South Asia Institute of Heidelberg University, we find a scholar who was completely different. He was one Indologist who, under the inspiration of mathematician, archaeologist and historian D.D. Kosambi, developed a deep interest in folk religion and mythology as well as the regional roots of Indian cultural traditions. This had convinced him about these traditions, especially the ritual and mythology of Hinduism, being rich tapestries woven with varied regional, tribal, pastoral and agrarian elements.

K.M. Shrimali reviews three anthologies and intersperses with references to Kosambi

On the Birthplace of the Plough

The plough in the Indus valley remained an enigma for a long time. D.D Kosambi assumed that the Indus people practiced neither canal irrigation nor ploughing and that was a culture without a plough.[1] The plough that the Aryans brought with them effected a change in the agricultural technology, he realized.
Read on

An Asian Framework for Governance

The Arthasastra was written by Canakya or Kautalya around the fourth century BC. One of the eminent historians of Indian History, D D Kosambi, has observed that

The title Arthasastra means `The science of material gain'¡Xfor a very special type of state, not for the individual. The end was always crystal clear. Means used to attain it needed no justification. There is not the least pretence of morality or altruism. [In the Arhtasastra] the only difficulties ever discussed, no matter how gruesome and treacherous the methods, are practical, with due consideration to costs and possible effects... Espionage and the constant use of agent-provecateurs is recommended on massive and universal scale by the Arthasastra. The sole purpose of every action was safety and profit of the state. Abstract questions of ethics are never raised or discussed in the whole book. Murder, poison, subversion were used at need by the king's secret agents, methodically and without a qualm... Strife for the throne is treated as a minor occupational hazard by Canakya. No regard to morality or filial piety is ever questioned. He quotes a predecessor's axiom; `Princes, like crabs, are father eaters¡K' The eleventh book (probably shortened in transmission) of the Arthasastra is devoted to the methods of systematically breaking up free, powerful, armed tribes of food producers that had not yet degenerated into absolute kingdoms.

The main technique was to soften them up for disintegration from within, to convert the tribesmen into members of class society based upon individual private property..
Read On

On Centimorgan

Other mapping functions are possible. After Haldane's, the most common is that of D. D. Kosambi. Haldane function is purely mathematical; Kosambi's incorporates an empircial term. distinguish between "Haldane centimorgans" or "Kosambi centimorgans"
Read on

A Review of "An Introduction to the Study of Indian History"

Neutral Observer reviews Kosambi's book "An Introduction to the Study of Indian History."
Kosambi is a master of all he surveys in this book - his dexterity, scholarship and decisive judgments reminded me of Eric Hobsbawm. The book is fascinating in many respects - the choice of photographs, the detailed endnotes, the insistence on deducing historical information from observing ritual and practice among the various castes and tribes in India, the obvious comfort with the ancient history of Iran and the near east, the deep knowledge of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature, Kosambi's scientific studies of coin hoards etc. His contempt for poor scholarship is expressed without reservation and with caustic precision. His writing is terse and elegant. It often rises to the eminently quotable.

Kosambi and the Numerical Analysis of Mahabharta

I recall sitting in the lecture hall where he used to teach, when I was reading his statistical analysis of the mahAbhArata. It was a pioneering work for its time, using distribution of upa-parvan length and syllable statistics to study the concordance between the critical edition initiated by Sukthankar and the parvasaMgraha section. The implications of this study, and a more modern overview, need to be narrated at some point. In several ways Damodar Kosambi was like Rahul Sankrityayan another Marxist historian-- both were genuine scholars whose intellectual breadth should be appreciated. Both were however deluded simultaneously by the bauddha heresy and the red-book of the bearded German.
Read the full post here.


I had set up a site on the Indian historian D.D. Kosambi many years back, perhaps in the late nineties, as a tribute to a man who has contributed so much to applying the dialectical method in investigating ancient Indian history. In my student days, it was very inspiring to have read his books starting with The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline. Over the years I have received a number of emails from those interested in the life and works of D.D. Kosambi.

A lot more material is now available on the internet about D.D. Kosambi than when I started out. My initial project was to scan and make available on the internet works by the number of Marxists that have contributed to our understanding of India and its history. For various reasons, the original project never beyond putting up some of his works online.

Only a few months back, I was amazed to find that Arvind Gupta has made available all the significant works by Kosambi on the internet. It lessens my feeling of guilt at not having completed my initial project.

Since his death in 1966, many of Kosambi's formulations have been disapproved. Still, his works retain their significance for their pioneering efforts and rigour that has laid the foundations of modern Indian historiography.

His quintessentially humanistic streak that still inspires many to read his works is reflected in his own words.
"The subtle mystic philosophies, torturous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the ‘cultured’ strata, sullen, uncoordinated discontent among the workers, general demoralization, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, one is the expression of the other…it is necessary to understand that history is not a sequence of haphazard events but is made by human beings in the satisfaction of daily needs."
This blog will serve the purpose of collecting links to internet resources on Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi and his works. There is a Wikipedia entry on Kosambi now, and has a number of useful links, this blog will supplement the Wiki entry and link to a wider range of information on the internet.