Monday, July 30, 2007

Seminar on DD Kosambi

A report by Prof KP Rao posted as a comment here:

The seminar to commemorate the centenary of Prof. DD Kosambi, “Remembering Kosamb i” was conducted between 9-30 AM and 4-30 PM on 22 nd July 2007 in the premises of Manipal Institute of Communication.
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We had about 50 people attending the proceedings and most of them were from the academic world.

We had breakfast at 9-30.

The proceedings started with no prayer/invocation, no lighting lamps, on the dot at 10.00

The deliberations were planned into 3 parts to cover the person and life of Kosambi, the work of Kosambi and the vision of Kosambi.

Prof. K P Rao gave a brief speech on the life, education and career of Prof. Kosambi. Personal references were avoided and what Damodar Kosambi inherited from his father, what influenced him, how he got interested in History and Indology, the persons that he came across, his career as a teacher and later an employee at TIFR, his friends and enemies at TIFR, post TIFR life etc. were highlighted.

Prof. Surendra Rao of Mangalore University conducted the next part.

He introduced Prof. Hayavadana Upadhyaya who talked on the class, caste and slavery in ancient India. He briefly mentioned Prof. DD Kosambi’s concern for the underprivileged and also observed that not much has changed even in modern times.

Prof. Stephan Vadakkan (professor of Mathematics) of Manipal talked on KKL functions and their application in data encryption and computers. He touched upon the point as to how a forgotten work of Prof. Kosambi was recognized and revived and due credit was given to him

Prof. Prabhakar Acharya, novelist and English teacher talked on the Urvasi myth, the original v/s the interpretation by Kosambi, as done in the second chapter of the book Myth and Reality. The brilliant capability to summarize classical works was also highlighted. He found it impressive that some one like Mr. Beram Sakatwala should be inspired to write a poem on Urvasi.

Prof. Surendra Rao welcomed Prof. Peter Claus, Anthropologist from the California Sate University who had just walked in.

Prof. Surendra Rao talked on the problems the historian faces in documenting events and on the value of progressive methods in History research.

Prof. Arun Kumar of MGM College and Mr. Tonse Krishna Bhat presented a paper on the role of fieldwork in many a field with special reference to the region of Udupi where such work was put to use. They cited the example of some local rituals where the procedures had to be reconstructed from collective memory and also referred to the Tulu lexicon project where most of the words had to be taken entirely on the basis of fieldwork rather than written documents. They also talked on the qualities of a good field worker and cited the examples of Prof. Kosambi, Prof. Sontheimer, Prof Honko and Prof. Claus.

Prof. Peter Claus talked briefly on his interest and knowledge of Kosambi and said how he was to participate in a joint research project with Prof. Sontheimer (who was guided by Prof. Kosambi) on Khandoba cult, and that the project was abandoned due to the sudden demise of Prof. Sontheimer.

Prof M G Narasimhan of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, conducted the after lunch session.

The first presentation was by Prof. N A Madhyastha. He described the importance of calculation of linkage distances in chromosomes especially as an important tool in the pre DNA structure days and how the Kosambi-Haldane formula helped achieving this.

Prof. Kesavan Veluthat of Mangalore University gave a talk on DD Kosambi in Indian Historiography. He talked about the importance of understanding and analysing DD Kosambi’s contribution at the time when they were put forth rather than now, and said that they were really original, path breaking and revolutionary for his time. He explained in detail the dedications of Kosambi’s works and how they indicate his attitude to people. Kosambi’s contribution to understanding the Harappan Culture, the Vedic Society, The eastward expansion in the puranic period, the function of the Mauryan Empire, the concept of feudalism from above etc. were discussed in detail.

Prof. K G Vasantha Madahava gave an introduction to DDKosambi.

Prof. Phaniraj revisited the pioneering Marxist scholar’s review articles on ‘Official Marxist’ thinking. He spoke on the need of finding open ended answers to Kosambi’s own stated positions on politics, his ideas on India’s ruling class and his expectations of Marxist leadership in light of his own frame work of criticism.

Prof. MG Narasimhan spoke on the science revolution, its gains and losses and the need to keep the balance right for obtaining progress and benefit to society. He talked on Prof. Kosambi’s concern for peace and harmony amongst common men as the prime criterion of healthy society and how this becomes and has to become the basic vision of everyone concerned.

In his valedictory remarks Prof. Rao briefly touched upon the Bhabha-Kosambi controversy and said how this should be viewed by historians as a classic case of clash between two towering personalities each great in his own way. He mentioned the legacy of DD Kosambi and spoke on the 13 Part TV serial that was produced by late Dr. Arvind N Das and dedicated to Prof. Kosambi. A mention of Dr. Arvind Gupta of Pune, an ardent admirer of DD Kosambi was also made. Copies of the serial were made available to those interested.


DD Kosambi Centenary said...

The Urvasi Myth


Prabhaker Acharya

This paper examines Prof. D. D. Kosambi’s analysis of the Urvasi legend in the Rgveda. The purpose is to draw attention to some of the qualities that made him one of our leading thinkers.

The distinguishing feature of Prof. D. D. Kosambi’s work – in history, anthropology, archaeology, numismatics or mathematics – was his passionate involvement with his subject. Passion, precision, and brilliant flights of imaginative reasoning - these are some of the qualities that made him one of the intellectual giants of his time. All these qualities are much in evidence in his treatment of the Urvasi legend.

Kosambi was intrigued and fascinated by a passage in the Rgveda, a dialogue between Urvasi and Pururavas, which he found “totally foreign in appearance to anything else in the Rgveda.” He published a paper on it in 1951, transliterating the whole passage – all eighteen verses – into Roman script, and also giving a literal prose translation and a commentary. Ten years later, this became ‘Urvasi and Pururavas’, the second chapter of his monumental work, Myth and Reality.

The chapter begins with a summary of Vikramorvasiyam: “One of Kalidasa’s finest plays, Vikramorvasiyam, has for its theme the love, separations, and final reunion of King Pururavas…and the nymph Urvasi. The apsaras, on her way to heaven, is abducted by the demon Kesi, from whose clutches the mortal king rescues her. This led to their falling in love… She is recalled to heaven, to act the part of Laksmi in a play staged before Indra. But the divine stage-director Bharata sentences her to assume human form for mispronouncing Visnu’s name Purusottama as Pururavas. The curse is no great burden, as it enables her to mate with Pururavas, but the course of their true love is interrupted again and again. The heroine is turned into a vine, because of an unwitting transgression… But she is changed back and restored to her husband by a charmed jewel. The jewel is stolen by a bird of prey; the bird is shot dead by an arrow bearing a legend which tells the king that Urvasi has borne him a son. This means another reunion, which would be terminated by Urvasi’s restoration to heaven; but Indra, having a war on his hands, allows her to remain on earth till her husband’s death.” Though Kosambi says that “this crude analysis of a beautiful play by one of the world’s great poets and India’s great dramatist does no justice to the consummate skill with which the theme is handled,” it is, in fact, a brilliant summary of a very complex plot.

But Kosambi’s chief interest is in the theme of the play, the Urvasi legend, which he traces back to our oldest extant records, Satapatha Brahmana and the Rgveda. The dialogue in the Rgveda begins abruptly, with Pururavas’s pleading: “Alas, O wife, desist from your intentions. O dreadful one, let us discourse together. If our chants remain unuttered, they will bear no fruit for distant days.” Urvasi replies, “What shall I do with these discourses of yours? I have gone over like the first of the Usas. O Pururavas, go back to your destiny; I am as hard to catch as the wind.” But Pururavas speaks of his “heroic determination,” and of moving “like an arrow to a target.” A third voice – obviously a chorus – speaks of their union. Then Urvasi says: “Thrice a day didst thou ram me with thy member, and impregnated me unwilling as I was. Pururavas, I yielded to thy desires; O hero, then wert thou king of my body”. Pururavas says: “She flashed like falling lightning, bringing me the craved waters – from the water was born a noble lad. May Urvasi grant long life.”

But there is a change in the situation now. Urvasi says: “I, the initiate, warned you on that very day. Thou didst not listen to me, why dost thou now speak like an innocent?” When Pururavas pleads that his son will yearn for his father and shed tears, she says, “he will not cry, heedful of my sacred office…Go to thy destiny, thou fool, thou canst not reach me.”

Pururavas raves at first, “there is no friendship with womenfolk, their hearts are the hearts of hyenas”, and then calms down: “I, the best of men, submit to the atmosphere-filling, sky-crossing Urvasi. May the blessings of good deeds be thine; turn back, my heart is heated (with fear).” Urvasi says: “Thus speak these gods to thee, son of Ila: inasmuch as thou art now doomed to death, thy offspring will offer sacrifice to the gods, but thou thyself rejoice in heaven.”

I have, for the sake of brevity and clarity, dropped a few lines, and added a couple of comments, making, perhaps, the passage less baffling than it actually is. The passage did baffle all later writers and commentators. The Satapatha Brahmana tried to make sense out of it by giving it a ‘setting’. In this episode Urvasi loves Pururavas but accepts him as her husband on the condition that she should never see him naked. She lives with him for a long time and is with child by him. The Gandharvas, who want her back, contrive a situation where Pururavas’s nakedness is revealed to her by a flash of lightening. She leaves him. As he is wandering distraught near a lake, Urvasi, swimming there in the form of a swan with other nymphs, sees him. She reveals herself to him, and then follows a dialogue very similar to the passage in the Rgveda.

The modern commentators of the passage, Kosambi feels, have nothing much to offer by way of explanation. To Keith the hymn was simply about “one of those alliances of nymphs and men, which are common in all literature.” The trouble with this, says Kosambi, is that it explains nothing. If the legend is common, and primitive, it has to have some fairly deep significance. What is that significance? Geldner, whose main service was a painstaking report on the principal versions of the story, still had no proper explanation of the original legend to offer. Oldenburg and some others thought that the passage was obscure because some prose passage was missing. Max Muller had a very simple formula. To him ‘Urvasi loves Pururavas’ meant ‘the sun rises’; ‘Urvasi sees Pururavas naked’ meant ‘the dawn is gone’; and so on. Though Kosambi values Muller’s substantial contribution to Indic philology, he has only contempt for this kind of “fatuous equivalence”. A healthy irreverence for established ‘authorities’ is one of Kosambi’s strengths. He is often blamed for his irreverent attitude to the Vedas. What he has is love, not reverence. Reverence does not open doors. Love does.

What is Kosambi’s explanation? It is a simple but startling one. He says that it “derives from as literal a reading as possible, with the ambiguities left unresolved till the end, and then determined - as far as possible – by taking the sense of the whole” – surely a sensible thing to do. He thinks that Pururavas is to be sacrificed after begetting a son from Urvasi; in the dialogue he pleads with her, in vain, to spare his life. What we have here, according to Kosambi, is a primitive ritual, a fertility myth, well-known to anthropologists. The Goddess of fertility or mother-goddess was represented by her priestess. A man was chosen to be her husband for a year, and then sacrificed. The ritual, a primitive one, must have become obsolete during the Vedic times but the myth survived. (The passage is a perfect example of a myth, because an ancient Greek definition of myth is ‘the things which are spoken in rituals acts’.)

So the Urvasi passage can be seen as a dialogue between the priestess and her husband, to be used in a liturgical play. What is missing is perhaps stage-direction for the mime, and not some prose narrative. So Kosambi’s conclusion is that Kalidasa’s play is very naturally based upon the oldest of plays.

Before arriving at this conclusion, and after, Kosambi gives us a plethora of information, explanations and insights that are simply mind-boggling in their range and depth. His comments on Kalidasa’s other plays, for example, are perceptive – especially the off-the-cuff remark that in Sakuntala the Urvasi myth is neatly reversed, the mortal king rejecting the apsaras-born Sakuntala. But perhaps the most heavily loaded – and fascinating – part of this chapter is the one where he identifies Urvasi with Usas, the goddess of dawn, and explores the position of Usas as a mother-goddess. Why is this goddess of dawn so prominent in the Rgveda? There are twenty-one complete hymns dedicated to her. But she lost her importance after Indra vanquished her and she fled in fright, leaving her wagon smashed to bits on the river Vipas. “Indra”, says Kosambi “is the young god, one whose birth is mentioned several times, and who takes the lead…because of his prowess in battle. In fact, he reflects the typical Aryan tribal war-chieftain, irresistible in strife after getting drunk on Soma.” Usas, on the other hand, is an ancient goddess. What happens is “a clash of cults, that of the old mother-goddess being crushed on the river Beas by the new war-god of the patriarchal invaders, Indra.”

But the cult survived, and got assimilated in the new order. It even gave birth, according to Kosambi, to two Brahmin clans, the Vasisthas and the Agastyas. The flight of imaginative reasoning with which Kosambi reconciles the multiple account of Vasistha’s birth in the Rgveda is admirable. Vasistha was born of the apsaras; he was culled by the gods from a lotus pond; he was born from the seed of Mitra and Varuna poured into a kumbha. All this is reconciled when it is realized that the apsaras is a water goddess (like the Nereids) and the “kumbha is itself the mother-goddess”. Kosambi points out that the Katha-sarit-sagara equates the kumbha or ghata explicitly to the uterus; and of how the Navaratri fertility festival to all mother-goddesses begins on the first of Asvin with ghatastapana, the installing of a fertility jar. The kumbha as a representation of a mother goddess still survives in many south Indian festivals. Kosambi gives a detailed account of the Karaga at Bangalore, the special annual fertility rite of the Tigalas, as an example.

Vasistha’s birth in a kumbha, according to Kosambi, suggests that he is of non-Aryan origin. So also is the other jar-born sage, Agastya, who “nourished two colours” (ubhau varnau puposa) where the two varnas, Kosambi opines, “cannot mean two castes, but both Aryans and non-Aryans, for he belonged to both, and his hymns show clearly the character of the compromise.” Kosambi wonders whether the Agastyan penetration of the South is just a myth or a historical fact.

What about Urvasi and Pururavas? Primitive rites are never completely erased from racial memory. So Kosambi suggests that even the custom of Sati might be an inversion of the older sacrifice of the husband. He reminds us of the ancient but still recited marriage hymn from the Rgveda, which admonishes the bride: ‘a-pati-ghni-edhi,’ meaning ‘become a non-husband-killer.’ “This excellent advice,” says Kosambi “is followed up with an invocation to Indra to give her ten sons and to make her husband the eleventh. This would carry the proper meaning only in a society which had not completely forgotten that the husband was once sent to the gods in sacrifice, but never the son.” I think Kosambi has gone overboard here. The interpretation of ‘a-pati-ghni-edhi’ is Kosambi’s, and suits his thesis, but most would read it as ‘a-pat-agni-eti’, meaning, ‘may your house-fire remain burning.’ At the time when there were no matches, and a housewife’s primary duty was to guard the house-fire and keep it burning, ‘a-pat-agni-eti’ would have been an appropriate blessing for the bride.

What can one say about a book that holds such an incredible wealth of knowledge and insight? It is like a kumbha – like the one Vasistha and Agastya came from - filled to the brim with grain, but packed so tight it is difficult to take the grain out. Kosambi’s book is not an easy one to read. His brilliant, coruscating mind emits sparks of insight in every page - sparks that could have ignited the imagination of other writers, if only the book were more accessible.

Igniting the imagination. One notable instance of that is worth recording. Kosambi’s paper of 1951 inspired one Mr. Beram Saklatwala, born and educated in U.K., working as the Managing Director of Tata Ltd., London, to write a long narrative poem - in 120 decasyllabic lines - titled ‘Urvasi and Pururavas.’ I quote a single stanza from it:

Ah, love, the goddess said, “You did embrace

And take me wholly, as a living fire.

Unwilling was my body, and my face

Turned from you, yet I yielded to your desire.

Though I a goddess, you were king of all

My body’s realm, and held me in your thrall.”

The poem is a well-written one, though its Tennysonian mellifluousness is no improvement on the simple, sensuous and nascent lines of the Rgveda. But what Mr. Saklatwala says about Kosambi in his introductory remarks is worth quoting:

“I first met him when he was in England as a guest of the British Council to give a series of lectures, to which he invited me. I knew him by repute as a mathematician and therefore declined to go to the lectures…He told me that in fact his lectures were to be on the subject of Mesolithic archaeology. It was thus for the first time that I realized how broad were his interests and how complete a polymath he was. His interests were extra-ordinarily wide-ranging. When I took him to Salisbury Plain to show him the great monument of Stonehenge, I found he was familiar with all the background and all the interpretations put upon the monument by English antiquarians since the 17th Century. He was well-read in Medieval Latin texts, an authority on the punch-mark coins of Western Asia, skilled in the science of genetics. Like a latter-day Lord Bacon, he had taken all learning to be his province. He was not only learned, but a stimulator of learning in others.”

Prabhaker Acharya is the author of The Suragi Tree, published by Mapin. His second novel, Manu in Kishkindha, is ready for publication. He lives at Ambalpady, a small village near Udupi. Email:

bhupinder said...

Thanks for sharing, I have put up the comment as a post in itself.