Monday, August 13, 2007

Kosambi on Subhasitaratnakosa

Subhasitaratnakosa is an anthology of Sanskrit verses compiled by a Buddhist scholar named Vidyakara who lived in Bengal from the latter half of the 11th century AD to c 1130 AD. The first edition of this anthology, containing over a thousand verses, was prepared by Vidyakara shortly before 1100 AD. This first edition's palm leaf manuscript was discovered at the Ngor monastery in central Tibet. A second edition of the Subhasitaratnakosa (treasury of well turned verse), increased in size by about one third, containing 1738 verses, was compiled by Vidyakara himself not later than 1130 AD. A paper manuscript of this expanded edition was found in the private collection of the Nepalese Rajaguru, Pundit Hemaraja. The researches of DD Kosambi have shown that an anthology of Sanskrit verses published by FW Thomas in 1912 under the conjectural title Kavindravachanasamuchchaya from a fragment of a palm leaf manuscript represents the second edition of Subhasitaratnakosa.

About Vidyakara, the compiler of the Subhasitaratnakosa, no details are known. Researches of DD Kosambi have shown that Vidyakara was a monk at the Jagaddala monastery (in varendra) and in the compilation of his anthology he used the manuscripts kept in the library of that monastery.

Atomic Energy for India

(This is the unabridged text of a talk by Professor

D.D. Kosambi to the Rotary Club of Poona, on July 25, 1960.)

Atomic Energy for India

The word energy is associated in the minds of most of you with steam engines, electric supply, diesel or petrol motors, water-turbines and perhaps windmills. The word evokes others like horsepower, kilowatts, and calories; perhaps also electricity and petrol bills, price per ton of coal, and increased taxes for the Five-year Plans. I want only to point out to you that these technical, social and economic considerations go very deep, down to the foundations of human society. With the coming of atomic energy, they have reached a stage, which is critical for the whole of mankind, far above mere personal considerations.

We rarely think of the simplest and most familiar type of energy, namely that derived from food – though far too many in this world still have to think of food as the one overwhelming need for their lives. Man needs from 2000 to 4000 calories of nutritional energy per day, according to the climate, conditions of work, and type if food taken. In our ordinary discussions of a balanced diet vitamin etc. this elementary fact is often forgotten; namely that the value of food depends upon the amount of energy it can release in the human or animal body. To make this energy available in the digestive system, man needs to have his food cooked by fire, which means another form of energy obtained by burning fuel. The history of mankind begins with the first steps above the animal stage, when man learned to control fire, and began to produce food instead of just gathering it.

The next step, the formation of human society proper, with division of labour and differentiation of social functions, was made possible only by more power: that of animals such as cattle or horses for agriculture and transport. Human labour-power was also used in greater quantity, whether slave labour or that of paid drudges. Other sources such as windmills and water wheels helped. The industrial revolution could not have been realised before the discovery and the extensive use of the steam engine, in the early 19th century. Man succeeded in the conversion of fire-energy into mechanical work. Electricity came later in that century. It could be generated with or without the steam engine, as for example waterpower or the windmill; its chief advantage lay in the transmission of energy to places distant from the point of generation. The steam engine used directly meant chains, driving rods, gears, cables, or some such mechanical transmission. You know how much human society has been changed by electricity in a single lifetime, say the life-time of Edison.

What is the ultimate source of all such power? Food- grains, fruit, nuts etc. store their energy from sunlight, which is absorbed by the living plant, along with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, water vapour and other substances. Cellulose thus made is also the main source of the energy stored in firewood. Coal and oil are simply organic matter converted by deep burial in the earth for millions of years. Hence, all these forms of energy come from the sun, the difference being in the method by which the energy is stored. The chemical processes involved may be described as molecular change. The breakdown of the energy in food and fuel is also chemical and molecular. The molecules may change, their atoms do not. For wind-power, the sun heats up some of the air, which rises, and is replaced by other, cooler air. These air-currents drive the windmill. Water- power is similarly drawn from the sun without chemical change. The water evaporated by the sun's heat rises, forms clouds, and comes down again as rain. What we utilise is the how of rainwater from a higher to a lower level.

The electric energy, which appears on out monthly bills (in the few Indian homes fortunate enough to have the supply) is measured in kilowatt-hours. One-kilowatt hour is equivalent to one horsepower for about an hour and twenty minutes. It is also equivalent to a little more than 860,000 calories of heat. But these are the equivalents when nothing is lost in the change from one form to the other. In practice, something is always lost. No transformation of energy is a hundred percent efficient, and most of them are decidedly inefficient. The machine loses a good deal of energy in friction; electricity is lost in transmission, and by leakage; heat is radiated away. These losses are physically inevitable, and a fundamental property of matter. But energy is also a fundamental property of matter, apart from the chemical changes and mechanical processes. Matter cannot be destroyed by ordinary mechanical or chemical processes. But if it could be annihilated in some way, an equivalent amount of energy must appear. This was finally proved by Einstein, who summed it up in the formula E = mc2 which gives the absolute energy available from a given amount of matter.

Atomic energy is fundamentally different from molecular energy. For the first time in history, man has been able to duplicate the solar processes for himself on earth. Solar energy depends upon the breakdown of the atomic nucleus, with the resultant emission of heat, x-ray radiation, longer electric waves, and particles such as electrons, neutrons and the like. These last correspond to the smoke and ashes of ordinary fuel, but are much more dangerous to man. The electricity cannot be utilised directly. The main useful output of atomic nuclear reactions is still the heat, which has then to be converted into power like any other source of best. This might seem wasteful, but is much less wasteful than other forms of conversion. The animals, including man, cannot convert more than a limited amount of food per individual into energy, and that too not without considerable waste. Not only is the animal power plant quite inefficient, but it has to be stoked and fed all the time, whether any energy is utilised or not. You all know the low efficiency of coal and oil fuel. Hydro-electricity is better, but limited by lack of flexibility, and restriction to certain favourable localities.

What can humanity do with atomic energy? We must distinguish between what is now technically possible and what might theoretically be achieved in the very distant future. The most that has actually been done is to break down uranium nuclei, and to use the energy liberated. Other atomic nuclei can be broken down, but generally the process eats up more energy than it liberates. You know that this process has been misused. The atomic age arrived with a bang at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the form of a most deadly bomb. Its main use since then has been as a military and political weapon in the cold war, with which certain powers have tried to cow their opponents. The sun gets most of its energy from fusion. Four nuclei of hydrogen are squeezed together under immense heat and pressure to form one of Helium. A certain amount of mass left over in the process is converted directly into energy, by Einstein's Law. This has been done on earth in the hydrogen bomb. No materials known on earth can withstand the temperatures of fusion energy. If the available uranium were properly shared, we could convert many deserts into veritable gardens, industrialise the densest Amazon jungles, and free mankind from the worst forms of drudgery. This is no longer a technical problem, but a social one. A few pounds (about 8) of uranium sufficed to run a great submarine for seventy days. Automatic power plants could in theory be built which could be refuelled by air once every few months. Half a dozen trained men could run them. These plants could be located in any part of the world, without railways, waterways, or even road communication. But is the world prepared for this? The main question that most of you will ask is: What is the investment value of atomic energy? If the preliminary research and refining is to be done, there is virtually no investment value, for the private sector. The whole affair is fantastically costly. Those who say that atomic energy can compete with thermal or hydro-power, carefully omit to mention the fact that the preliminary costs have always been written off to someone else's account usually that of some government. Only in some socialist countries, where uranium is relatively plentiful, and new lands have to be opened up, is it possible to utilise atomic energy properly. Even there, military considerations play a considerable part, because of the cold war.

It is true that the known resources of radioactive material in the world exceed those known for coal. But the cost of uranium is artificially high. Then there is also the question of by-products. Animal by-products are good fertilisers; the skins and meat can also be used. For human beings, the by-products are taken care of by a good sewage system and the dead bodies by funerals. In industrial countries, the average temperature over cities (e.g. London) goes up by a couple of degrees Fahrenheit, due to the use of coal. There is also the smoke, acid deposits that corrode buildings, carbon monoxide poisoning of the air by petrol fumes, and smog. These are trifling in comparison with the waste products of atomic power plants. The pile has to be very heavily shielded to screen harmful radiation. No one knows where to put the radioactive wastes from uranium piles. Every possible mine or pit is being rapidly filled up in the USA; the sea is unsafe, the rivers even more so. This is best brought out by the effects of atom-bomb tests. The fallout is found ah over the world. The Bikini tests made grass in California radioactive and poisoned fish that would otherwise have fed Japanese a few thousand miles away. Excessive doses of radioactivity always came serious changes in all living organisms. Some of these changes lie in the mechanism that enables the organism to breed. Most of these hereditary changes are lethal; that is, they kill the organisms born in the next generation. The Japanese have followed up persons exposed to atomic radiation at Hiroshima. Many of the children born to women who have been so exposed can hardly be called human; but they do not live to grow up. The real danger lies in the minute genetic change that does not show itself for some generations. It is known from experiments on smaller animals that these changes, when fully developed, may lead to incurable mental derangement within a few generations. By the time we know what the effect on mankind is going to be, it will be far too late to do anything about it. The changes will have been bred into millions of human beings of that generation and remain thereafter. This is not a disease, or an infection that I am talking about, but hereditary insanity, physical degeneracy, and worse. The only cure is to stop all atomic tests immediately, and to take great care that the waste pro- ducts of atomic power stations for peaceful purposes will be safely isolated. The advanced countries have quietly reduced their atomic power programs. The prestige of having atomic power stations does not compensate the extra expenditure or the extra danger involved,

Where does that leave us in India? We do need every available source of power quickly. Can we utilise atomic power for national progress? This question has already been answered in the affirmative by the high command. The papers inform us that another hundred crores or more are to be devoted to this purpose beyond undisclosed millions already spent. It was announced in August 1956 that India had joined the ranks of the atomic-energy producing countries. Actually, we were not then producing any atomic power. Though a second reactor costing another ten crores of rupees has gone into operation, and the staff has reached over two thousand highly trained graduates, we still, produce no utilisable atomic power. The setting up of atomic power stations in other countries is now quite easy. Even China has one giving 7000 kilowatts since last year, and may build more. The USA, UK, USSR, France, Canada and some other countries could build one or more for us--if we are willing to pay the cost. The question is whether this cost is worthwhile.

I do not propose to answer this question, because all of you here are intelligent to work out the answer for yourselves. But I do wish to point out that the main work in producing atomic energy has already been done without coat to India by a permanent source, which has only to be utilised properly. This generous source is the sun, which goes on pouring its blasting rays into every tropical country, at an uncomfortable rate. Can solar energy be used directly?

The answer is yes. The USA, Russia or England, for example do not receive so much direct solar radiation as India. There is no reason why we should ape them in all things, including the development of atomic energy at a fantastic cost with low-grade Indian uranium. On an average day, every hundred square metres (1100 square feet) of area will receive about 600-kilowatt hours of heat. This comes to over 160 pounds of high-grade coal, or more than 16 gallons of petrol, in energy equivalent. If it could all be utilised at 100% efficiency, we could evaporate some 240 gallons of water per day. At present, the best known efficiency of utilisation is by solar batteries, which are between 11% and 15% efficient. The Americans are already using such batteries to boost telephone currents in long-distance lines. If I could use such batteries on my own bungalow roof, it means 7 kilowatts for every hour of average sunshine, say 60-kilowatt hours per day. This would give my family enough power for all cooking, lights, hot water gadgets, (vacuum cleaner, fridge) air-conditioning, and still leave enough for an electric automobile run on storage batteries. The Russians produce enough steam power from solar energy to supply all the needs of a modern town of over 15,000 inhabitants in the southern USSR. Even as early as 1876, a 2.5-horsepower steam pump was run on solar heat in Bombay. A striking instance of the immense reach of solar power comes from the space-satellites, which send their information to earth by radio transmitters that run on solar batteries. The best of them continued to communicate with our globe from well over 20 million miles away.

It seems to me that research on the utilisation of solar radiation, where the fuel costs nothing at all, would be of immense benefit to India, whether or not atomic energy is used. But by research is not meant the writing of a few papers, sending favoured delegates to international conferences and pocketing of considerable research grants by those who can persuade complaisant politicians to sanction crores of the taxpayers' money. Our research has to be translated into use. The catch in solar energy is its storage. The current you may want at night can be produced irregularly in the daytime. This is not an insoluble difficulty. Quite efficient forms of storage batteries are known. It is possible to combine several uses with mechanical storage. For example, water could be pumped up into 50-foot village towers during sunlight hours, and then allowed to run out for irrigation, or home use, through low-pressure turbines that generate electricity whenever wanted. This is not very efficient at the second stage, but the main purpose of augmenting our poor water supply will have been efficiently served, village-by-village.

The most important advantage of solar energy would be decentralisation. To electrify India with a complete national grid would be difficult, considering our peculiar distribution of hydropower and thermal resources. With solar energy, you can supply power locally, with or without a grid. Solar power would be the best available source of energy for dispersed small industry and local use in India. If you really mean to have socialism in any form, without the stifling effects of bureaucracy and heavy initial investment, there is no other source so efficient. Take the simple problem of reforestation, which alone on change India's agriculture, preserve her rapidly eroding soil, and increase production. This problem is insoluble unless people have cheap fuel for cooking, so that they need not cut down trees. The solar cooker if it worked, would have been the answer. We know that the cooker produced some years ago with such fanfares and self-congratulations is useless. Even a schoolboy should have known that the pot at the focus of the solar cooker, being nickelled and polished, would reflect away most of the heat. But our foremost physicists and research workers, who rushed to claim personal credit and publicity, did not realise this. That is the result of paper research and research for advertisement. If we get over this fundamental hurdle, we have the real cost-free source of atomic power, the sun, at our disposal, for more than eight months of the year.

Solar energy is not something that any villager can convert for use with his own unaided efforts, at a negligible personal expenditure, charkha style. It means good science and first-rate technology whose results must be made available to the individual user. The solar water heater is the simplest to manufacture a black absorbing grid like an automobile radiator, and an insulated storage-tank. No moving parts are involved. The water can be delivered much hotter than needed for a bath, but below the boiling point. Such heaters are already used successfully in Israel and elsewhere, and would save a great deal of fuel by themselves in the Indian household. For the steam engine, it is necessary to concentrate the sun's rays, usually by a light silvered concave re- hector which moves with the sun. These are also quite practicable, and in use. Direct conversion of sunlight into electricity is familiar to many of us as the photoelectric cell, and the photometer used for correct exposure. These are very simple and efficient to use, but cost more money to make. The technique has now been simplified and the cost reduced by careful study of semi-conductors. The most effective solar battery of which I have any knowledge is based upon silicon-zinc crystals. Their production, too, is commercially successful, but needs still more research--which continues uninterrupted in other countries. The Chinese use semi-conductors directly to produce enough electricity even from the waste heat of an ordinary kerosene lamp to run a radio set; their appliances are on the international market now. What India could use best in this way still remains to be determined. The principle involved in the use of atomic energy produced by the sun as against that from atomic piles is parallel to that between small and large dams for irrigation. The large dam is very impressive to look at, but its construction and use mean heavy expenditure in one locality, and bureaucratic administration. The small bunding operation can be done with local labour, stops erosion of the soil, and can be fitted into any corner of the country where there is some rainfall. It solves two fundamental problems: how to keep the rain-water from flowing off rapidly into the sea, unused; and how to encourage local initiative while giving direct economic gain to the small producer. The great dams certainly have their uses, but no planners should neglect proper emphasis upon effective construction of the dispersed small dams. What is involved is not merely agriculture and manufacture, but a direct road to socialism.

Every notable advance in man's control over new sources of energy has been hampered by outworn superstition or obsolete social forms. Fire is regarded today as a convenient tool it the service of humanity. Primitive man thought ii necessary to worship fire as a god. Agni received human and animal sacrifice; vestal virgins might be dedicated to his service. Is it less miserable a superstition that calls for the sacrifice of millions of men and animals, living or as yet unborn, to atomic tests and radio- active fallout? It seemed inevitable to Victorian England that dreadful industrial slums should accompany the first large scale use of the steam engine; it also seemed necessary to conquer many colonies for supply of raw materials and as market for the finished goods of the factories that the steam engine first made possible. We claim to know better now. If so, has the time not come to change society so that the new discoveries will serve the needs of all mankind rather than the perverted greed of the few? Then, and only then, will it be possible to determine how much effort should be spent relatively on the development of the various.

The Marxist Historian

A short newspaper bio of DD Kosambi.

By Prajal Sakhardande

Mr Antonio Pereira Dangui, a friend from Benaulim lamented that we had forgotten a great Goan, Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi and it is very pertinent I pay a tribute to this great Goan Marxist historian on the occasion of the birth centenary year of this man who stands tall in the realm of ancient history.

Born at Kusman-Quepem, a beautiful village located on the banks of the river Kushawati, the late D D Kosambi, as he is popularly known, would have completed hundred on July 31. He was born on July 31, 1907.

Recently I had the fortune of buying a copy of D D Kosambi’s book titled ‘Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture’, at a bookstalls in Poona. As a student of the refresher course in History I was the student of D D Kosambi’s daughter Ms Meera Kosambi a well-know historian herself. As students of history at the Goa University we attended the D D Kosambi Memorial lectures. The History Department of the Goa University should organise lecture series to commemorate the birth centenary year of this great Goan historian. That would be a befitting tribute to D D Kosambi. His books on ancient Indian History include: ‘An introduction to the Study of Indian History’, ‘The Culture and Civilization of ancient India - a Historical Outline’, and ‘Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture’. Mr J Clement Vaz writes of Kosambi describing him as a renowned Indologist who pioneered the theory of finding the period of a civilization from analysis of ancient coins found without any inscriptions or date markings or legends. By a statistical study of the weights of the coins, he was able to establish the period of time they were in circulation and could accordingly date them. His historical writings provide an insight to his contribution to the new approach to history in which he would depend also on collected material through pioneer work in archaeology and ethnography. His wide study of ancient Sanskrit texts was truly remarkable as was his translation of Kautilyas Arthashastra the ancient treatise on political economy written in the 4th century BC.

Damodar D Kosambi was a scholar of international repute. He was invited by reputed international academic institutions to deliver lectures especially in the US and UK. In India in 1946 Dr Homi Bhabha invited him to join the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research as Professor of Mathematics where he worked for 26 years and did commendable work in that period. His autobiographical essay, ‘Steps in Science’, reveals him as a brave non-conformist who stood up against all forms of obscurantist orthodoxy. His father the great Buddhist-Pali scholar Dharmanand Kosambi is a well-known name in Sri Lanka. The son Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi or D D Kosambi lived up to his fathers name and achieved great heights as a scientist, mathematician, numismatist and Marxist historian. Let us celebrate this great Goan. History teachers in schools, colleges, and universities should make their students aware of the contributions of this eminent scholar. On June 29, 1966 he passed away at Poona at the age of 59. His mothers name was Balabai, wife was Nalini, daughter Meera and sisters Manik and Manorama.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Kosambi on Chanakya

But who was Chanakya or Kautilya? We know nothing about his personal life. We have some details about Chandragupta Maurya from Greek sources, who refer to him as Sandrokottos. But even these reports survive as fragmented quotations in other works- the original is untraceable. As D D Kosambi points out, as far as Chanakya is concerned, we only have legends fictionalized through the famous Sanskrit play, Mudra Rakshasa, written by Visakhadatta in the fourthcentury AD.

Romilla Thapar on DD Kosambi

Kosambi’s rich legacy unfolds as historian analyses his works

Romila Thapar traces academician’s contribution to ancient Indian history; UoP honours him through research chair, book

Express News Service

Pune, July 31: CASTE cannot be understood in terms of rigid categories, but as complex concepts that evolve through social change and subtle interactions between communities leading to the domination of one over the other.”

This basic principle used by noted academician DD Kosambi was highlighted by historian and Jawaharlal Nehru University professor Romila Thapar, as she delivered the DD Kosambi Memorial Lecture at the SM Joshi Foundation Hall on Tuesday.

Addressing a packed auditorium on the topic ‘Legacy of Prof. DD Kosambi in the Study of Ancient Indian History’, Thapar spoke about Kosambi’s work on the interactions between the Dasa and Aryan communities. “Kosambi had pointed out that though the Dasas had a lower status in most of the Vedic literature of the later era, there existed a category of so-called Dasyaputra Brahmanas, who were essentially Brahmins born of the Dasi women,” said Thapar, adding that there was evidence of India as a matrilineal society, wherein the men took the names of their mothers, which slowly later adapted to a more patriarchal culture.

Talking about the distinctions drawn between the communities over time, Thapar said that the cattle raids by the Aryans to secure the pastoral wealth of the Dasas, difference in rituals, as well as physical characteristics like colour, determined the change in mutual perceptions and treatment as the “other”.

The manner in which new technologies like the use of iron were appropriated and used also determined the dominion of one group over the other, said Thapar. “Parallels to this can be found in contemporary society with the advancement in information technology among certain groups,” she said.

Thus, the subtle layers of interaction among various communities needed to be analysed to gain an understanding of Indian society. “Simply to say that A conquered B is not adequate,” said Thapar.

Explaining Kosambi’s unique method of analysis using Marxist theories to interpret history, Thapar said that Kosambi studied whether Marx’s slave model could be equated with the shudra labour system in India. “He did not find similarities, and he was disdainful of attempts to apply the slave model to the Indian context without any analysis by what he called Official Marxists (OM),” said Thapar.

Thapar also spoke on Kosambi’s work in studying links between the Buddhist monasteries and trade, especially the trade routes via the caves in the Konkan region and the Western Ghats, which contain evidence of Buddhist inscriptions. She also highlighted Kosambi’s research on feudalism in India.

Commending Kosambi’s work, Pune University Vice Chancellor Narendra Jadhav said that while he would be commemorated through research conducted through the newly formed DD Kosambi Chair for history at the varsity, the University would also publish a Gaurav Granth, a book in honour of Kosambi. “This book will be published at the end of the centenary year on July 31 next year,” said Jadhav.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Urvasi Myth

by 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: