Monday, December 29, 2008

Postal Stamp on DD Kosambi

The Nation as a Cultural Site

Culture emerges as site of struggle: K.N. Panikkar (The Hindu)

Communal historiography seeks to deny the secular heritage and ignore the variety of cultural articulations

‘Nationalism given cultural character’

‘Political discourse not divorced from cultural concerns’

KANNUR: Indian History Congress (IHC) president K.N. Panikkar said here on Sunday that culture had emerged as a site of struggle as the communal historiography in the country seeks to deny the secular heritage and ignore the variety of cultural articulations within a community.

Delivering his presidential address titled ‘Culture as a site of struggle’ at the 69th session of the IHC on the Mangattuparamba campus of Kannur University, Dr. Panikkar said the communal historiography had attributed an exclusively cultural character to nationalism because in the bulk of Indian historiography, the nation was located either in the economic or the political space without tracing its connection with the cultural.

Observing that the political discourse was not divorced from cultural concerns implicit in goals of national unity, social diversity and religious communitarianism, Dr. Panikkar said cultural attributes such as homogeneity, plurality and superiority informed these goals.

Protagonists of communalism masquerading as historians were seeking to besmirch the secular heritage of Indian civilisation. The Indian historiography had thus become a site of struggle between secular and communal interpretations, among others.

Stating that the ideological influence of the colonial and neo-colonial histories continued to persist, the IHC president said these histories tended to mask the reality of colonial oppression. Communal interpretation was primarily engaged in undermining the secular traditions, while nationalist historiography tried to expose the colonial structure of exploitation.

He said Marxist historiography not only exposed how the hegemonic character of culture justified and maintained the exploitative system, but also underscored the role of culture as a source of resistance.

“In the communal strategy, the study of culture fulfils two purposes: first, to identify culture with religion and secondly, to redefine the nation exclusively through this relationship,” he said. Distortion of history, either through factual misrepresentation in textbooks or invention of facts in research, was intended to achieve these purposes.

Dr. Panikkar said an implicit struggle between those who viewed culture as a secular practice and those who identified it with religion was inherent in the making of India as a nation. The significance of Mahatma Gandhi’s initiative to create a cultural consciousness was that it sought to equip the people for higher social and political efforts. The secular conception of Indian culture was the common thread connecting the ideas of Gandhiji, Tagore and Anand K. Coomaraswamy.

The nation was a cultural construct in the communal conception of the nation, with culture understood as an integral part of religion, Dr. Panikkar said. This conception assumed that each religious community was culturally homogeneous and distinct. “The cultural logic of communalism seeks to unburden the secular cultural baggage that society has acquired historically,” he said. In the process, the heterogeneity was ignored.

in his speech delivered after being installed as general president of the IHC, Dr. Panikkar said cultural Marxism opened up a range of possibilities for enquiring into the problems relating to culture and social consciousness.

D.D. Kosambi’s study of Indian history represented a re-orientation, with culture occupying a central place. He lamented that the critical and innovative approach to the study of culture which Kosambi had pursued was yet to herald, in any significant measure, the arrival of a new cultural turn in Marxist historiography in the country. “The relatively inadequate attention to the study of culture in Marxist historiography has made it easier for communalism and imperialism to appropriate the study of culture,” he said.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Kosambi, Marxism and Indian History

(This article is taken from the 26 July 2008 EPW issue  on DD Kosambi (download pdf version)

By Irfan Habib

(Irfan Habib is professor emeritus, Department of History, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.)

Summary: D D Kosambi profoundly redefined the message that Marxism had for historians. What set him apart from others who “applied” Marxism to Indian history was his determination to maintain, indeed increase the standard of rigour in his factual and textual research, for Marxism dealt with a far more extensive area than the one over which research had conventionally been conducted. Guided by the basic thesis about how social evolution occurs, he rejected the view that India had ever passed through a phase of slavery; rather it was the construction of caste society that happened here. The reasons for his acceptance of a stage of feudalism spanning the period from that of the Guptas to the Mughals are most interesting.


It was a happy day for Indian historiography when  D D Kosambi began to take interest in the interpretation of  the past of Indian society, doubtless at the expense of his studies in Mathematics, the field where he had already earned so much distinction. This shift of interest was probably not unconnected with Kosambi’s own growing sympathies with Marxism. The collection of Kosambi’s articles on history, which Brajdulal Chattopadhyaya has assembled with so much labour, contains one published as early as 1938-39, in which Kosambi cites Marx and calls attention to his articles on India, to which he had apparently gained access through a publication by the Socialist Book Club, Allahabad.1 He was later to express the grouse that the editors of this volume did not tell the reader of Marx and Engels’ writings on primitive societies.2 After Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, communist literature began to be widely available in India. Kosambi himself now contributed a paper to the American Marxist journal, Science and Society, as early as 1944, on the issue of caste.3 He was apparently greatly affected by the famous passage in Marx’s Preface to his Critique of Political Economy, where Marx concisely enunciates his thesis that historical changes are brought about by the growth of contradictions in each “mode of production”, and explains how man’s “social being” shapes his action.4

Applying’ Marxism to Indian History

What sets Kosambi apart from some others who began to “apply” Marxism to Indian history around the same time, was his determination to maintain, and, indeed, increase, the standard of rigour in his factual and textual research. His own work on the Sanskrit poet and grammarian, Bhatrihari, published during the years 1945-48 was in the best “Orientalist” tradition. In 1949 in his review of S A Dange’s India from Primitive Communism to Slavery, published that year, he took Dange to task for his gross errors of fact and lack of linguistic comprehension, and issued a notable caution: “Marxism is not a substitute for thinking, but a tool of analysis”.5

In the same article Kosambi noted that “most of our source material was first collected, analysed and arranged by foreign scholars”, though he agreed that the British historians’ writings had been coloured by their “national and class prejudices”.6 He would not also allow any pandering to nationalist or communal prejudices. This was especially brought forth in his critical review of the first three volumes of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s History and Culture of the Indian People, with K M Munshi and R C Majumdar as the principal editors. Observing that Islam’s chief contribution to India was to increase commodity production in the feudal period, he noted dryly that this was the period “when Munshis and Majumdars were created, though not their mentality”.7

For Kosambi, Marxism required more academic rigour, not less, while it dealt with a far more extensive area than the one over which research had conventionally been conducted. The post-modernist insistence on the non-separation of subject and discourse had not been heard of in his time; in fact, that separation was basic to his method. The critical tools shaped by “orientalism”, or, in India’s case, “Indology”, had to be perfected further, not thrown away or bypassed. This was the thrust of his influential paper ‘Combined Methods in Indology’, published in the most “orientalist” of journals, the Indo-Iranian Journal, in 1963.8 Here Kosambi takes up words and concepts and offers important hypotheses on the basis of critical studies of them. He also insisted on fieldwork, that is, looking at customs and practices whether recorded in the past or found, unrecorded, among contemporary primitive communities or, for that matter, among Brahmans, so as to trace earlier situations from later distorted or altered survivals.9

With the knowledge so gained, and constantly expanded, Kosambi embarked on his ambitious project of studying Indian history on the basis of his own understanding of the ideas of historical materialism laid out by Marx and Engels. An early critique of a Soviet writer D A Suleikin in 1951 and, then, a clearly outlined statement of his own views on the stages of evolution of Indian history in 1954 were preliminary indications of where his research and reflection were leading him.10

Two years later, in 1956, came Kosambi’s major historical work, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, Bombay, which substantiated and extended his views on both how Marxist insights needed to be used to reconstruct Indian history and how history would appear after being thus reconstructed. It was not intended to be a straightforward narrative: it assumed that the reader has read the conventional “bourgeois” textbooks by V A Smith and his successors. After expressly locating his basic approach in Marxist theory, Kosambi eschewed conventional narrative and raised such problems as he thought to be important in successive periods. He, however, often enters lanes and by-lanes, linked to the main path of his argument, whether to substantiate a hypothesis by appealing to a distant piece of evidence or just to record a curiosity. He could also go forward and then come back: In his Chapter VII, Asoka came first, and “the pre-Asokan state and administration” later: this apparently seemed to him to be the more convenient way to present his argument.

From a less sure hand, such a procedure might have looked especially idiosyncratic, but the mere weight of  what Kosambi had to say reduced all such objections to petty carping. 

Periodisation of Indian History

In the first place, Kosambi profoundly redefined the message that Marxism had for historians. In an attempt to impart to the Marxist perception of class struggle and its different forms the colour of universal application, the “Leningrad discussions” of the 1920s had led to the conclusion that the unilinear succession of modes of production, primitive community-slavery-feudalism-capitalism, was followed in practically all countries, except for those with very recent immigrant populations. This thesis played its part in countering the belief fostered in western social democracy that, in the words of an anti-communist propagandist, Karl A Wittfogel, “class-struggle far from being a chronic disease of all mankind is the luxury of multi-centred and open [that is, Western] societies”.11 But having played its due part in controverting such beliefs, the standard scheme of periodisation began to gravely shackle Marxist historiography. By overuse both “slavery” and “feudalism” seemed to lose all meaning when the most divergent forms of social organisation in different societies went on being assigned to these two categories, just to keep formally to the standard scheme. Kosambi now boldly asserted that Marxist historians ought to take their cue only from the basic thesis about how social evolution occurs, and not blindly apply a single prescribed pattern.

Taking the case of India, Kosambi summarily rejected the view that it had ever passed through a phase of slavery. Rather it was the construction of caste-society that happened here – a cruel form of bondage, but different, nevertheless, from slavery. He argued that the term “Asiatic” occurring in Marx’s passage in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy should be taken to cover a case like India’s and, for this reason, the term should not be ignored, as had been done in Stalin’s interpretation of the passage.12 This did not mean that he accepted for the “Asiatic”, the sense of a stagnant despotic system, as some of Marx’s own words would suggest.

Indeed, Kosambi directly contested Marx’s observations about the “unchangeableness” of Asiatic societies. Conceding that these remarks were “acute and brilliant”, he yet held that the proposition was “misleading” and “cannot be taken as it stands”.13 It was as if Kosambi was inviting historians to take Marx’s method and apply it to Indian history on a clean slate; and his own book was to serve as an illustration of what could be achieved if this was done.

What Kosambi set out to do in his Introduction was, therefore, to investigate both the economic basis (“the means and relations of production”) and the changing beliefs, customs, and culture (“superstructure”) and their mutual relationships. In carrying out this task he raised questions that conventional historians too found challenging and exciting. For example, should not the technology of production be closely studied, so as to understand the nature of the social organisation that corresponded to it? Quite early in his book he commented:

The villages did not exist “from times immemorial”. The advance of plough-using agrarian village economy over tribal India is a great historical achievement by itself.14

Before Kosambi, little work had been done on the history of technology in India; his senior friend, P K Gode, was practically the lone scholar in the field, with a series of papers on the most diverse devices and processes of manufacture in ancient and medieval times. But the evidence available had not yet been assembled and critically analysed. Kosambi underlined the importance of this aspect of history by his numerous references to tools and products, such as the late use of the shaft-hole axe or the arrival of the coconut no earlier than the first century AD.

On the other side of the spectrum was religion: Kosambi saw in religious beliefs and ritual the reflections of economic and social circumstances which he so loved to trace often in minute detail.16 Religion was also the means by which exploited classes could be kept reconciled to their position, believing it to be divinely ordained, and, by such consent, reducing the amount of violence (with the expenses involved) which would be otherwise needed to keep them under control.17 To Kosambi, this role of religion provides the key to a proper understanding of the rise of the caste system. 

Rise of the Caste system

To begin with, he had no quarrel with the suggestion made by many Indologists that the Shudra class arose largely out of the subjugated Dasas, though some of the latter were admitted into the Aryan fold as well. Such a situation, however, would not of itself create a caste system as the parallel Iranian development showed.18 The evidence as to how castes were created could be seen in the evolution of the priestly Brahman caste.

Kosambi shows that Brahman priests did not belong to any tribe and there were non-Aryan priests who also entered their ranks. He concluded that the Brahmans created the model for the other castes: “With him (the Brahman)”, he says, “begins the later reorganisation into caste”.19 The priest served not only as the model but also, of course, the religious spokesman of the caste system. There was another process too behind the formation of castes, namely, “tribal elements” being “fused into a general society”.20 Kosambi appeals to contemporary ethnography to show how endogamous tribes or clans have been absorbed into society as castes.21 In a sense, then, priestly consolidation, on the one hand, and tribal absorption into the agrarian population, on the other, have been the historical sources for the creation of a caste system, serving for India’s major institutional frame for exploitative relationships. One can here go back to what Kosambi had said in his 1954 ISCUS article:
Caste is class at a primitive level of production, a religious method of forming social consciousness in such a manner that the primary producer is deprived of his surplus with the minimum coercion.22 

Indian Feudalism

Kosambi has much to say in the Introduction about the growth of the states, the rise of Jainism and Buddhism, the punch-marked coins and the economy of the Mauryan Empire. Important as many points made by Kosambi about these themes are, lack of space forbids a discussion of these here. However, one cannot leave Kosambi’s reconstruction of Indian history without a comment on his acceptance of a stage of feudalism spanning the period from that of the Guptas to the Mughals.

Kosambi recognised that the elements of demesne-farming and serfdom, crucial to the Marxian perception of feudalism as a mode of production, were missing here; but he believed that other features were common between the Indian and European forms, viz, low level of production techniques, growth of rusticity and decline of urban life, political decentralisation and service tenures, and that these justified one to designate the mode of production in India for well over a millennium as “feudal”.23 In the political and fiscal spheres, he discerned two different processes of feudalisation: (1) “From above”, when centralised states created local rights by grants and concessions; and (2) “From below”, when “landowners developed from within the village [to stand] between the state and the peasantry”.24 There seems to be an echo here of Marx’s formulation about capitalists emerging from above (merchants) and below (craftsmen). It may be noted that Kosambi’s remarks about the period of Muslim dynasties (thirteenth to seventeenth centuries) also contain many important insights and suggestions: For instance, we have  from him the significant proposition that “Islamic raiders” played “a role similar to that of the Aryans over two millennia earlier, in breaking down hidebound custom, in the adoption and transmission of new technique”.25

One needs to stress that like any work of history, Kosambi’s work too is limited by the evidence available at the time it was composed; and there is the further matter of the range of an author’s own extent of knowledge (vast enough in Kosambi’s case) and his own subjective preferences when attempting an analysis of existing evidence. Kosambi asked questions few or none had asked before, and as a pioneer many of the solutions he proposed needed verification. Some assumptions (such as the one regarding the absence of plough in the Indus Civilisation) were not sustained as more evidence came to light. For Kosambi himself, the Introduction was not the end-product of his research. He continued to contribute research papers and published two important collections of essays,26 and a straightforward restatement of his major findings in The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline, published from London in 1965.27 Death took Kosambi away the very next year when he was at the height of his powers – not yet even 60. But he had done enough to ensure that history-writing in India would not be the same again. 

A Personal Note

On late December evening in 1963 at Pune, Barun De (later to be professor and director, Centre for the Study of Social Sciences, Kolkata) and I called on Kosambi at his house. I had arranged the interview on telephone but perhaps I was not able to explain clearly who both of us were, since we had no claim on his attention other than a desire to have his darshan. He apparently thought we were some Soviet scholars. As may be imagined he was none too pleased when he found that we were not the guests he expected. A certain coolness on his part was the natural result and Kosambi was not the one to hide it. He spoke acidly of his bad experience with some people at my university (Aligarh) where he had served early in his career. Seeking to turn the conversation into other channels, Barun mentioned that we were due to attend H D Sankalia’s lecture the next day. This too did not help matters: “Oh, Sankalia! He would show you how the primitive people of Narbada culture had windows in their houses, as if they were cottages in Sussex.” (Sankalia must have had some telepathic means of knowing about our conversation, because the next evening he began his lecture with a respectful reference to Kosambi as a theoretician, while he himself was only a fieldworker. The windows, however, were there on the slides.) When exactly Kosambi changed his mind about us I cannot tell; but soon interpreting prehistory and tracing its distorted survivals in enough we found him showing us microliths and explaining living communities. We had an evening to remember all our why you could not cross the Ghats along just any straight line lives. Kosambi later visited Aligarh especially to see the early you choose. Even a sudden recollection that I had in an article iron site of Atranji Khera. He had wonderful stamina, and when in Seminar expressed reservations about his hypothesis of I received him at the railway station, he insisted on carrying his feudalism from above and below did not lessen his gracious own rucksack. Who could then imagine we would so soon lose friendliness, and he continued telling us about properly him for ever?

See the pdf version for notes

Monday, December 15, 2008

Kosambi on Solar vs Atomic Energy

By: Latha Jishnu

Dec 13, 2008 The Sun Also Sets (source: Business Standard)
(link via email from AG)

In the 1950s and 1960s, D. D. Kosambi, the brilliant mathematician, historian and eclectic thinker, put forward the most compelling arguments that the country has heard in favour of developing solar energy. This was at a time when the scientific establishment was pushing for nuclear power. Kosambi's view that solar energy was the most appropriate for India was based on a commonsense approach: there was surfeit of sunshine in India whereas nuclear energy would come at a fantastic cost with India's limited reserves of low-grade 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. 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."

It didn't help that Kosambi fell out with Homi Bhabha, who had the backing of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, when both were working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Bombay. Kosambi had to leave TIFR and although he was made scientist emeritus by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), neither the scientific community nor the politician were enamoured of solar power which they believed would keep India in the bullock cart age! The interesting point in this debate was India opted for the easier technological solution because the setting up of atomic power stations had been quite easy then, and the US, the then Soviet Union and Canada among others were ready to build reactors for India — and did so at a cost.

Not without having been warned about the consequences. Kosambi had pointed out that there was no investment value in atomic energy. "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."

The choices India made half a century ago are having an impact on the broad direction of scientific research in India. In the case of atomic energy, not only is the country dependent on western suppliers for uranium, unable to fuel even the promised 10,000 Mw of nuclear power from our own resources, but also for new generation nuclear reactors that have outstripped the country's reactors in terms of size, efficiency and safety. All that the signing of the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the US has done is to lift the embargo on fuel and technology trade; as before France, the US and Russia are rushing to offer us expensive deals.

This is a sad commentary of India's scientific prowess since the Department of Atomic Energy gets as much as 40 per cent of the total expenditure on the scientific departments. In 2006-07, it got as much Rs 8,058 crore of the total of Rs 20,278 crore which was a 24 per cent hike in allocations over the previous year.

Along the way, India has also learned to its cost that the rest of the world is light years ahead in development of solar energy, too. Among the many breakthroughs, researchers in the US have discovered a way to make efficient silicon-based solar cells that are flexible enough to be rolled around a pencil and so transparent that they can be used to tint windows. What is the state of play in India? Pathetic, is the answer. Take the performance of Solar Energy Centre (SEC), a dedicated unit of Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. The SEC is an illuminating example because it serves as the interface between the government, institutions, industry and consumers for the development and widespread use of solar energy in the country. The latest CAG report on the performance of the scientific departments of the government comes down heavily on SEC. It notes that the SEC surrendered 44 to 76 per cent of the funds allocated to it during 2002-07 because there was little work of project implementation. SEC did not take up any in-house or collaborative research with other institutions, consultancy, much less bilateral and multilateral projects with other institutions/industry. It also did not develop any new technology or have research papers published in reputed Indian or foreign journals. The testing facilities established at SEC's sprawling campus in Gurgaon remained under-utilised.

The SEC is not alone in this. Of the total allocations of Rs 20,278 crore for scientific departments, close to 15 per cent remained unspent as projects did not start, were delayed or were poorly designed. The primary reason for this, according to SEC, was the lack of suitable manpower. This is the problem afflicting research as a whole, a peculiar irony in a country which is said to have the largest pool of scientific and technical manpower in the world — India is said to produce less than 4,000 PhDs annually compared with around 10,000 for Brazil and 16,000 for China.

C N Rao, chairman of the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, admits that the lack of 'minds' and not funds is one of the major problems of Indian science today. In a recent article, he noted that in the early decades after Independence, India had great difficulty in obtaining chemicals and equipment because of the acute shortage of foreign currency and yet "outstanding research came out of our universities, the percentage contribution of the universities to research publications in the country being well over 50 per cent in the '60s and '70s. Although the development of science was somewhat uneven, with some areas such as medical and health research receiving less attention, the general feeling by the 1980s was that we were catching up with the advanced countries."

Now, the general view is that things have deteriorated very sharply primarily because universities are no longer able to produce as much research as in the past, specially in crucial areas.

Rao thinks the future is bleak unless there is a collective vision for making up for the deficiencies in the system. The most important step, say most experts, is to improve the standard research output. This would entail first of all raising the quality of India's scientific journals and also making scientists aware new H-index that is used to quantify the impact of the contributions of individual scientists. The number of Indian scientists with a high H-index is microscopic and unless this number doesn't increase significantly Indian science would be doomed.

As Kosambi noted research is not about the "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." India has yet to do that.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

DD Kosambi on Religion

This article appeared in EPW's 26th July issue earlier this year. Download pdf version.

Author: Kunal Chakrabarti

Summary: D D Kosambi’s investigations into religion in ancient India led him to look at the subject from a point of view that radically departed from the traditional and employ a method of analysis that combined the use of a variety of sources, disciplines, and comparative techniques. A theoretical framework that was new to the study of Indian history supported his reconstruction of the religion of the Indus valley, as well as his explanations for the spectacular rise and fall of Buddhism, and the enduring appeal of the Krishna myths. From today’s perspective his work betrays a few blind spots, but it remains largely relevant for the intellectual leap it took in exploring the essential relation between faith and socio-economic factors, and its consciously creative use of Marxism.

There is an interesting paradox in D D Kosambi’s treatment of religion. He considered religion to be an epiphenomenon of material life, a set of beliefs and practices that depended on the means and relations of production at a given point in time and space for its precise expression [De 2007: 12532]. Towards the beginning of the ‘Introduction’ in his Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture, a collection of essays on religion, he wrote, “One of the main problems for consideration is: Why is a fusion of cults sometimes possible and why do cults stubbornly refuse to merge on other occasions? Naturally, this question cannot be answered on the ‘highest plane’, for it simply does not exist on that level” [1962: 2].

At what level does it exist, then? When Kosambi formally addressed the question of religion in the context of the earliest class-based society in India – the Indus valley civilisation – he asked, “The main question is, how was class structure maintained?”. His characteristically unambiguous answer was that, in the final analysis, class division rested on the use of force by which the surplus produced by the working class was expropriated by the ruling minority. However, the need for violence was reduced to a minimum by using religion to convince the working class that it must give up the surplus, “lest supernatural forces destroy them by mysterious agencies” [1975a: 62].1 Therefore, religion for Kosambi was a supplementary instrument for extracting the surplus by threatening divine retribution. This conception of the role of religion in human history keeps coming back in almost identical terms throughout his corpus. For example, in an article published in 1954, even before his first book was published, he wrote,
Caste is class at a primitive level of production, a religious method of forming social consciousness in such a manner that the primary producer is deprived of his surplus with the mini­mum coercion” [emphasis in the original, 2002: 59]. Similarly, religion was a “tool of the state – which meant the ruling classes” – and “the brahmin was an essential adjunct of the state in reducing the mechanism of violence” [1975a: 292, 313].
Kosambi had a low opinion of religion. He believed that popular religion comprised “superstition” and “ritual malpractices”, and stated that “Indian tradition combines religion with love (or sex with superstition)” [1962: 1, 7]. Yet, he was primarily concerned with the popular aspects of religion rather than the ideal and the philosophical. Writing in the early 1960s, he knew that this approach required an explanation. He therefore proceeded to pose a question and then answer it in his usual dialogic manner.
“Why should anyone ignore the beautiful lily of Indian philosophy in order to concentrate upon the dismal swamp of popular superstition? That is precisely the point. Anyone with aesthetic sense can enjoy the beauty of the lily; it takes a considerable scientific effort to discover the physiological process whereby the lily grew out of the mud and filth” [1962: 1].
“The beauty of the lily” was a concession, for he considered much of Indian philosophy to be pointless hair-splitting. If so, why deal with religion at all? This question would have surprised Kosambi, for religion occupied a central place in his analytical scheme. He stood out among his fellow historians because of a theoretical framework that
“For all that...remain(ed) Marxist” [1975a:12] remained Marxist, a method of analysis that combined the use of a variety of sources, disciplines, and comparative techniques, and a vision that attempted to “comprehend the totality of Indian history” [Thapar 1993: 100].

His project was to identify and analyse the dynamics of the socio-economic and political processes that contributed to successive stages in the evolution of Indian society from the earliest times to the present. In an article in 1955, Kosambi declared, “The major historical change in ancient India was not between dynasties but in the advance of village settlements over tribal lands, metamorphosing tribesmen into peasant cultivators, or guild craftsmen” [2002: 312]. State-sponsored religion contributed to this process by assimilating divergent local cults through comparatively peaceful means. He wrote,
“The complicated brahmin pantheon conceals beneath its endless superstition the effort to assimilate and to civilise the most primitive and gruesome cults, without destroying them, just as the people were assimilated without violent conflict” [1975: 45].
Kosambi subsequently showed that this chain of transformation of tribes into peasants, into castes, was the major trajectory of social change in India, which was not confined to the ancient period alone. The main advances in Indian history, as he envisaged them, were from the urban Indus valley civilisation to Aryanisation, then clearing and settlement of the forested Gangetic plain, followed by a “primitive” feudalism, “pure” feudalism, and modern capitalism, points out B D Chattopadhyaya (2002: xxvii). These changes occurred through transformations in the modes of production, and religion, which played a vital role in maintaining a class-based social structure and the expansion of state society, was implicated in this process in a fundamental way. This is what one means when saying Kosambi’s treatment of religion is paradoxical. Other historians may have far greater respect for religion as a personal faith and allow it an autonomy of agency in social processes that Kosambi would have denied, and they may yet end up placing it on the margins, while for Kosambi, religion was no less a factor than any other that contributed to the complex processes of social change. He preferred the “scientific effort” of investigating the mud than contemplating the lily, for he believed that it was the responsibility of the historian to unravel what lay hidden beneath and locate it on the larger canvas of human experience as a whole. His project was ambitious, but he was equipped to pursue it, and his works have changed our understanding of Indian history in a fundamental and unprecedented way. All major historians, who have written on Kosambi, acknowledge the paradigm shift brought about by him in the study of Indian history. One of Kosambi’s major preoccupations was studying tribal religions through meticulous fieldwork and tracing the patterns of their interaction with institutional religions. His observations on the subject are scattered throughout his work. In this essay, we will look into some recurrent themes that he dealt with in detail – his reconstruction of the religion of the Indus valley civilisation and his understanding of its interface with the Vedic civilisation; the rise and fall of Buddhism; and the Krishna cycle of myths. This will allow us to identify both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach towards religion.

Indra and Vritra

Kosambi argued that in the prosperous Indus valley civilisation,
“the tools of violence were curiously weak” [1975a: 63]. The weapons were flimsy and nothing like a sword had been discovered. In the absence of a strong army or police, the unequal sharing of surplus was maintained by deploying religion. He believed that the citadel at Mohenjodaro was a religious complex corresponding to “the temple-zikkurat structures in Mesopotamia” [1975a: 63].
The adjacent Great Bath was a ritual tank, which was a prototype of the sacred lotus pond, and it was dedicated to the worship of a mother goddess. He speculated that consorting with the temple slaves at the sacred pool had been part of a fertility ritual. Besides, the Indus valley seals depict cult figures of male animals and a few human figures. Summing up the state of Indus valley religion, Kosambi said, “The picture here is of a fixed class of traders under the tutelage of a mother-goddess temple” [1975a: 66]. The monopoly of the traders was secure and its continuation was ensured by a static tradition. He believed that this explained why the Indus script – and the culture as a whole – did not change over 500 years or more.

This static tradition was broken by the Aryan invasion. The Rigveda describes the chief Aryan war-god Indra, “a model of the marauding bronze-age chieftain” [1975a: 72], who busily looted the stored treasures of the godless. Kosambi believed that this referred to the Indus valley settlers who were defeated in battle by the invading Aryans. “At Harappa, the top layer of occupation is distinctly foreign”, he observed [1975a: 72]. The Aryans also destroyed the agricultural system of the Harappans, the basis of their food production, which explains why the cities disappeared soon after their arrival. The pre-Aryan method of agriculture, Kosambi argued, depended on natural floods and on damming small rivers to flood their banks so that a fertile deposit of silt was obtained to be raked with harrows. He categorically stated, “The Indus people did not have the plough...but only a toothed harro...” [1975a: 68]. This flood and harrow agriculture was disrupted by Indra, who is repeatedly described in the Rigveda as freeing the rivers from the grip of a demon called Vritra. Kosambi cited philological evidence to suggest that the term vritra meant an “obstacle” or “barrage”, which fitted in with the description of the encounter between Indra and Vritra. The Rigveda says that the demon lay like a dark snake across the slopes, obstructing the flow of the rivers. When the demon was struck by Indra’s thunderbolt, the ground buckled, the stones rolled away like chariot wheels, and the pent-up waters flowed over the demon’s recumbent body. Kosambi pointed out this was a good description of the breaking up of dams. Indra is also praised for restoring the Vibali river (unidentified), which had flooded land along its banks, to its natural course. Kosambi argued that flood irrigation was the Indus practice. This would have made the land too swampy for the Aryan cattle herds, while the blocked rivers made grazing over long reaches impossible. With the disappearance of dams and the rivers restored to their natural courses, an enduring occupation of the Indus cities became possible [1975b: 80].

Kosambi not only believed in the Aryan conquest and occupation of the Indus valley cities, but also suggested that the first brahmanas were a result of the “interaction between Aryan priesthood, and the ritually superior priesthood of the Indus culture” [1975a: 102]. He found evidence for “non-Aryan brahmins” in that some of them, unlike the Vedic peoples, were called the sons of their mothers. He argued that in the light of this, the legend of the blinded Dirghatamas, the son of a dasi floating east down the river “to find honour among strange people, as Indus priests might have tried to do”, became meaningful [1975a: 102]. In an essay written as early as 1946, Kosambi pointed out that the “passage-over” of sections of the conquered as priests to the conquerors led to “the unhappy existence of a cultured priest-class” and many discrepancies between the Vedic and the epic records [2002: 200]. He wrote later that the brahmanas were initially not proficient in performing the fire sacrifice. Many passages in the Upanishads suggest that the brahmanas of the Ganga valley had to learn the ritual from the kshatriyas or had to go to the north-west, where, presumably, the tradition was still alive.
“This shows that the older brahmin tradition in the Gangetic basin could not have been of the Aryan sacrifice, but was something else; perhaps secret lore from the Indus valley or from tribal medicine-men, or both” [1975a: 132].

It seems that Kosambi was a little uncertain about the origin of the brahmanas, but he firmly and consistently held that they originally belonged to non-Aryan cultures and were very probably drawn from the Indus valley priests. He wrote elsewhere that the god who was above everything was originally Indra. This position arose from the historical fallout of the Aryan conquest and brahmanical assimilation of him, “for a destructive chieftain had to be worshipped as a god by those priests whose very civilisation he had destroyed” [2002: 383]. Kosambi then worked his way through a dense textual tradition to demonstrate how the character of Vritra changed over a period of time in Sanskrit mythology. For instance, in the vulgate Shanti-parvan of the Maha­bharata, Vritra appears as a very noble king, who is magnificent even in defeat. He is taught by no less than Ushanas, a Bhargava brahmana. The Bhargava redactors of the Mahabharata possessed “hostile myths...which they wrote into the Aryan sacred documents”. Indra, known for his harshness to the brahmanas, was not considered suitable as an object of faith and had to yield place to Vishnu-Narayana-Krishna in later mythology. The transformation of Indra showed that the killing of Vritra rankled, at least in the minds of one important group of brahmana clans.

“Indra’s most difficult achievements appear later as transgressions against Brahmins. This submerged portion of the tradition must have had some historical foundation, and therefore been retained, painful and humiliating though it was, in Brahmanical memory throughout the early period of Kshatriya dominance” [2002: 387-88].

This reading of a strand in the evolution of the brahmanical tradition explains Kosambi’s characterisation of the cultured priestly class as unhappy. He even referred to the existence of “a Brahmanical...pre-Vedic golden age” [2002: 386].

Faulty but Impressive

We can see now that there are many problems with these formulations. For instance, it has been suggested that Kosambi’s assumption of the centrality of religion in Indus civilisation is farfetched. Sufficient evidence does not exist either to suggest that the Indus state had only a weak command over force, or to definitely identify specific structures as temples or sites of ritual. It has also been pointed out that the assertion that the Indus people did not know the use of the plough and that the Aryans introduced it to India is untenable. Recent evidence suggests that plough agriculture was practised by non-Aryans in the pre-Harappan period. Indeed, the more commonly used term for the plough in Vedic literature is of non-Aryan etymology. Further, Kosambi’s dependence on philology in linguistic analyses, for example, in detecting non-Aryan elements in brahmana ‘gotra’ names, is considered outmoded even for his time [Thapar 1993: 101-102, 94-95]. Also, historians now prefer the theory of Aryan migration to Aryan invasion and are much more circumspect about the Indus Vedic continuum than the manner in which Kosambi envisaged it.

At the same time, the qualities that distinguish Kosambi as a historian, such as his holistic and original vision, the range and breadth of his scholarship, his analytical rigour, and his courage to break away from the traditional mould and offer alternative readings of sources, are evident in his treatment of these contentious issues. His imaginative interpretation of the Indra-Vritra myth was radically new and not implausible in the light of the Rigveda’s description of the encounter, even if his theory that agriculture in the Indus valley was dependent on natural and artificial flood irrigation was a little speculative. Besides, Kosambi’s poser about how the agrarian base of the Indus valley culture declined has not yet been satisfactorily answered. New evidence has established the pre-Aryan existence of the plough, but Kosambi’s reconstruction of the agrarian technology of the Harappans was not wild conjecture. He had painstakingly built his case on the basis of evidence obtained from Mesopotamia and Egypt, archaeological artefacts such as Indus valley seals, and the oldest known description of the Indus valley climate and agriculture by Greek geographer Strabo. Most importantly, he demonstrated how to look for information on material life in sources as remotely connected to it as myths describing the exploits of divinities, and how the expression of religious ideas could potentially be conditioned by historical events. New research will always overtake older conclusions, but it is difficult not to appreciate Kosambi’s method and insights.

However, the most provocative and problematic of all issues discussed here is Kosambi’s contention that the brahmanas were initially non-Aryans. An amazing display of textual scholarship, not even a fraction of which can be reproduced here to illustrate the point, accompanies this conclusion, however baffling it may appear to us today. But, in the process, he drew attention to a now accepted proposition that the Vedic texts are not written in pure Aryan and that non-Aryan structures and forms are evident both in their syntax and vocabulary [Thapar 1993: 94]. This proves interactive proximity between Aryan and non-Aryan social groups, but does not necessarily suggest a crossover or co-option of the Indus priests into the Vedic religious apparatus. It should be noted that Kosambi arrived at this conclusion rather early in his career as a historian and stuck firmly to it until the end. This indeed is by and large true of almost all his conclusions, which show his courage of conviction on the one hand, and an unwavering, if stubborn, commitment to his ideology, method, and judgment on the other.

The Shakya Prince

Kosambi was comparatively soft on what is often called heterodox religions, especially Buddhism. He never categorically stated this, but the fact that Buddhism, Jainism, Ajivikism and some other minor religions with comparable features came in the wake of a felt need for a more productive social organisation, and contributed substantially to a series of major socio-economic and political changes, seems to have met with his approval. “The 1,500 years of the full cycle of the rise, spread, and decline of Buddhism saw India change over from semi-pastoral tribal life to the first absolute monarchies and then to feudalism,” he wrote [1975b: 97]. A usually taciturn Kosambi (except when he disapproved of the conduct of a god, a Buddhist monk, or a brahmana) waxed eloquent about the achievements of Buddhist Asia, seemed to admire the Buddha’s renunciation of “the life of a Sakayan oligarch”, considered the Buddha’s approach to the human condition as “a scientific advance” [1975a: 162-63, 165], and described him as the “unquestionably great founder” of a forward-looking religion [1975b: 100]. He wrote, on a rare personal note, that the blood sacrifices offered to goddess Lumbini at Rummindei (the birthplace of the Buddha) “disgusted pious Buddhists, my father among them” [1962: 101]. This might have been his own feeling as well.

Kosambi argued that the simultaneous rise of so many “religious sects” of considerable appeal and prominence in one narrow region (the eastern Ganga valley) implied some social need that the older doctrines could not satisfy. All the new religions denied the validity of Vedic rituals. The greatest fruit of the sacrificial ritual was success in war. Fighting was glorified as the natural mode of life for the kshatriyas, and the performance of Vedic sacrifices was the duty and means of livelihood of the brahmanas. The vaishyas and the shudras had the task of producing the surplus, which the priests and the warriors took away by natural right. Kosambi added that the sacrificial ritual was formulated at a time when the Vedic tribes were primarily pastoralists and collectively owned large herds of cattle were the main form of property. When agriculture replaced pastoralism as the mainstay of the economy, the slaughter of a large number of animals at a growing number of sacrifices meant a much heavier drain on producer and production. The number of cattle bred per head of population decreased and they were now privately owned by clans or families rather than tribes. Besides, cattle became more valuable to peasants than to herdsmen. But cattle continued to be taken for sacrifice without compensation, as before, which meant a heavy tax on the vaishya producers. Apart from this waste of resource, trade and production were disturbed by unceasing petty warfare. Both Buddhism and Jainism based themselves on ahimsa, or non-violence, which opposed both ritual sacrifice and war.

The emphasis on not stealing or encroaching on the possessions of others in the new religions shows that a totally new concept of private, individual property had come about. The injunction against adultery denoted a rigid conception of family. Kosambi pointed out that without such a morality, trade would have been impossible. The most devoted of the Buddha’s lay followers were traders. These basic changes in the forms of property and means of production necessitated a corresponding change in the religious sphere.
“New gods had to be invented thereafter, because Indra and his Vedic fellow deities...went out of fashion with their Vedic sacrifices” [1975a: 167].
Kosambi argued that the new ideology was also against tribal exclusiveness. For instance, these religions declared that all living creatures would be reborn on the basis of their good or evil karma (actions) – not into a special totem, but into any species determined by their karma, which could range from the smallest insect to a god.
“Karma therefore was a religious extension of an elementary concept of abstract value, independent of the individual, caste, or tribe”, he wrote [1975a, 167-68].
Since karma would grow and ripen like a seed planted in the previous season, or mature like a debt, the concept had a wide appeal to peasants and traders, and even to shudras who could aspire to be reborn kings.

Finally, the new religions, in the beginning, were much less costly to support than Vedic brahmanism. The Buddhist monks and ascetics took no part in production. But, at the same time, they did not exercise any control over the means of production. They were forbidden to own property and were supposed to live on alms. They thus broke the commensal taboos of both tribe and caste. The monks not only renounced family, but also caste and tribal affiliations at the time of their initiation. They went along new trade routes, even into tribal wilderness, preaching to people in their own language. They lived closer to the people than the priestly brahmanas. However, none of the new religions rejected the notion of caste (which, for them, was more a sign of social distinction than a mark of an innate and inflexible social hierarchy, as in brahmanism), or fought to abolish the caste system. But the Buddha is credited with saying that the status of the Arya and the Dasa (the earliest scheme of social classification in the Rigveda) was interchangeable, thus rejecting the brahmanical assumption that the caste system was part of the natural order. Kosambi pointed out the Buddhist precepts were meant for a class-based society, which went far beyond the lines drawn by tribe, caste, or cult.
“It must be kept in mind that we are in the presence of the society divided into classes, linked indissolubly to a new form of production…” [emphasis in the original, 1975a: 170-71].
He argued that the punch-marked coins were an indication of developed commodity production.

Among these new classes were the free peasants and farmers for whom the tribe had ceased to exist. Some traders became so wealthy that the ‘shreshthi’ (financier or head of a trade guild) became the most important person in many of the emerging urban centres. The term ‘gahapati’ (‘grihapati’ in Sanskrit), which referred to the principal sacrificer in Vedic literature, now came to signify the head of a large patriarchal household of any caste who commanded respect primarily for his wealth, irrespective of whether it was gained by trade, manufacture, or farming. “The gahapati, as the executive member of the new propertied class... was no longer bound by tribal regulations”, as Kosambi put it [1975b: 101]. The new religions were attempting to reach out across castes and tribes “to a wider social range through their universal ethic” [Thapar 1993: 104]. The Buddhist scriptures addressed the whole of contemporary society and not a particular community or a few learned adepts. Thus, with the dissolution of tribal bonds, a new class-based society was emerging, which required a different socio-political order to regulate it. The incentive for the farmer to produce surplus came from trade in that surplus. The trader had to travel long distances and needed safe trade routes. It needed a political authority that would rise above smaller communities and establish what Kosambi called a “ ‘universal monarchy’, the absolute despotism of one as against the endlessly varied tyranny of the many” [1975a: 169]. Later traditions record that the Buddha suggested that it would be the duty of this universal monarch to address the problems of poverty and unemployment, which could not be solved by either charity or force. He should supply seed and food to those who lived by agriculture and cattle breeding, and necessary capital to those who lived by trade. The best way of spending the accumulated surplus of the treasury would be to invest it in public works such as digging wells and planting groves along trade routes. Kosambi described this as “a startlingly modern view of political economy” and “an intellectual achievement of the highest order” [1975b: 113].

Ashoka and After

This political philosophy of the new religions penetrated the state mechanism with the Muaryan emperor Ashoka (273-232). After his conversion to Buddhism, following a traumatic war, he declared that in all his actions he would strive to discharge his debt to all living creatures. This was completely strange to earlier Magadhan statecraft, and the concept of kingship in the Artha­shastra (the paradigmatic text on polity in early India), which held the king owed nothing to anyone. Historians, including Kosambi, have suggested that though Ashoka was a Buddhist by personal faith and promoted Buddhism within his empire and abroad, the moral code he adopted as the guiding principle of state was influenced by, but not synonymous with, Buddhism. His pillar and rock edicts, containing his message to his subjects, were placed at important crossroads on major trade routes or near the new centres of administration. The edicts show a basic change in policy on the part of the state. For instance, Ashoka established hospitals and laid out groves, fruit orchards, resting places, and wells along all the major trade routes. He instituted the office of Dharma­mahamatra (translated by Kosambi as High Commissioner of Equity), whose duty was to ensure that all law-abiding groups and sects were treated fairly. These were welfare measures that brought no material return to the state, but conformed to the idea of the ideal ruler mentioned in Buddhist discourses. Ritual sacrifice was forbidden by decree and burning down forests for hunting animals or clearing land was prohibited.

Kosambi argued that the Vedic Aryan way of life passed the point of no return. Society had made the final transition to agrarian food production,
“so that the rougher customs of the pastoral age would no longer suit” [1975b: 162]. More importantly for him, “The new attitude towards subjects and new works on the trade routes established a firm class basis for the state...The state developed a new function after Ashoka, the reconciliation of classes” [1975b: 165].
He felt that the special tool for this conciliatory action was the universal dhamma (dharma in Sanskrit), which brought the king and the citizen to the common ground of a newly developed religion.

Buddhism continued to flourish, both in the north and the south. A Buddhist council was held during the reign of the Kushana emperor Kanishka (late 1 CE), where a split between two schools of Buddhist thoughts occurred. The northerners claimed the Great Vehicle (Mahayana), corresponding to the activities and tastes of the nobles and satraps who continued to make large donations to Buddhist monastic foundations. The Mahayana school changed its language to Sanskrit, and drifted away from the common people with its refined doctrines and abstract philosophy. The conservative Lesser Vehicle (Hinayana) retained a “primitive austere Buddhism”, with its simpler Pali language, which, however, was as incomprehensible to the common people of the south as Sanskrit was to those of the north. Kosambi wrote,
“The basic productive difference upon which the rest was embroidery may roughly be put as follows. The Mahayana abbeys took direct part in exploitation of their considerable accumulation in land, metals, and other means of production. The Hinayanist were, on the whole, less efficient in such exploitation...” [1975a: 261-62].
The Kushana rulers ushered in a new era of magnificent donations to the Buddhist monasteries. In western India and the Deccan, gifts poured in from kings and governors, merchants and bankers, merchants’ unions and guilds of artisans, individual scribes and craftsmen, and even fishermen and peasants. Donations from artisans, workers and peasants suggest that “society then must have been of commodity producers, on a scale not familiar to later days in the Deccan, or indeed anywhere else in the country” [1975b: 184]. Interestingly, some gifts to the monasteries were made by Buddhist monks and nuns. The monasteries became very wealthy from donations and from their involvement in long-distance trade. The Buddhist missionaries who went to China were associated with overland merchants. The Deccan cave monasteries were located on frequently used trade routes. The monasteries were important customers for the caravans, and were resting places, supply houses, and banking houses for the caravaneers. Kosambi pointed out that the monasteries performed an important task of the universal monarch; the monastic wealth often provided some of the capital so badly needed by early merchants in the Indian hinterland.
“The church and state had come to terms. The Buddha had correspondingly turned into a regular counterpart in religion of the civil life” [1975b: 178].
Kosambi wrote that this special economic function of Buddhism was
“the main reason why Buddhism could grow for so many centuries after the ancient pastoral yajna [sacrificial ritual] against which it protested so effectively had vanished under pressure of widely developed agrarian food production” [1975b: 182],
that is, long after Buddhism had performed its original economic function, which had accounted for its initial success.

But wealth corrupts. The accounts of Chinese travellers reveal how the monks gave up austerities and adopted an extravagant lifestyle. Buddhist art, such as the frescoes at Ajanta, portraying bejewelled Bodhisattvas towering above ordinary human beings, demonstrate the extent to which the religion departed from the spirit and precepts of its founder. Some other developments also fundamentally altered the original character of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism admitted a whole new pantheon of gods and goddesses, and the number of past Buddhas multiplied beyond limit. “The most primitive fertility rites reappeared, sublimated in form, as Tantrism” [1975b: 178] and penetrated Buddhism, Jainism, and other contemporary religions. The Buddhist principle of non-violence was adopted by Ashoka as state policy. Yet, “[T]he devout Buddhist emperor” Harsha of Kanauj (605-655 CE) “fought incessantly for at least thirty years” to enlarge his empire. The “system and the monasteries it supported passed away when Buddhism had become a drain upon the economy instead of a stimulus,” wrote Kosambi [1975b: 185]. The monasteries locked up a vast amount of precious metals, which were badly needed for currency and tools. The long-distance luxury trade, especially with the Roman empire that collapsed in 3 CE, was surpassed in volume by predominantly regional barters in essentials, under a wholly different set of merchants. The long caravans gradually dwindled and the powerful guilds of artisans and merchants broke up.
“Production increased, but commodity production per head and the incidence of exchange over long distances both declined” [1975b: 186].
From about 6 CE, the passes were guarded by forts, “a new feature of the feudal landscape,” which began to collect tolls from caravans. With the decline in the economic base of Buddhism, the large monasteries had to go, but the ancient goddesses, whose primordial cults had been situated near the monasteries and were displaced by Buddhism, sometimes returned to their old haunts.In this context, Kosambi remarked, in a slightly disjointed manner, “In India the necessary economic measures often appeared with theological trappings, as a change in religion” [1975b: 186]. In the paragraph, this sentence reads like an interpolation, but it encapsulates his basic assumption and analytical approach towards the history of religion.

Kosambi’s treatment of Buddhism is a good example. It is not as if he did not briefly recount the Buddha’s biography or discuss his basic teachings, but his understanding of the phenomenon of the rise of a set of religions in a particular time and space was predicated upon the thesis that this religious movement was in the vanguard of a transition in the nature, technology, and organisation of food production, as well as a facilitator and a legitimiser of it. It marked a transition from the sacrifice-oriented pastoral system of communal production to a non-killing agrarian system of private production. Artisanal production and long-distance trade were woven into this argument, and the persistence of a religion such as Buddhism, even after its original economic function was fulfilled, was explained in terms of the involvement of monasteries with trade in various capacities. In fact, it is possible to detect an element of determinism in this teleological vision of the “functions” of a religion, though it undoubtedly performed important and necessary functions, economic or otherwise. Still, when he writes,
“This trade died out... The monasteries, having fulfilled their economic as well as religious function, disappeared too” [1962: 100],
it reads a little mechanical. However, it should be remembered that the correlations he worked out were by no means forced or simplistic. They were marked by the same intuitive insight, logical rigour, and textual density that characterised his analysis of the Indus and Vedic religions. Indeed, his presentation of the origin, evolution, and decline of Buddhism was more closely worked out than the preceding case. Romila Thapar has criticised Kosambi for not considering the monastic institution as the foci of political and economic control, a role it often played [1993: 110]. It is true that he did not adequately emphasise the political aspects of monastic wealth and influence, but he did not ignore it altogether. He repeatedly drew attention to the close linkage between the monastery and the state, to the extent of claiming that the monasteries took over certain economic functions of the state, such as financing merchants. Rather, he tended to generalise, without acknowledging that it is difficult to compute how substantial this financial support was in quantitative terms. The history of Buddhism in early India has remained a neglected field of study for the last half century. The few important works that exist are mostly social histories based on data drawn from the Buddhist textual corpus or studies of socio-political phenomena influenced by Buddhist ideas, rather than religious history proper.

A parallel process was under way alongside the growth of the heterodox religions. The pastoral life of the Punjab tribes with their ritual sacrifices was wrecked beyond any possibility of revival, first by Alexander’s invasion (330-327 BCE)and then by the Magadhan conquest of this area in the following decade. Ashokan reforms completed the mutation of the older Aryan tribal priesthood, the brahmanas.
“An important class was thus freed for the first time from tribal bonds and traditional Vedic ritual duties,” wrote Kosambi [1975b: 166].
The brahmanas were the one social group in ancient India with obligatory formal education and an intellectual tradition. The respect shown by Ashoka and his successors to the leading brahmanas of the day was due to the important role that they had already begun to play in maintaining a class structure in society, which involved the unification and absorption of originally irreconcilable social groups, and aiding the spread of an agrarian society.

The brahmanas continued to perform rituals, though not exclusively Vedic. In this, their rivals were tribal priests, “the primitive medicine-men,” who began to be absorbed “with their superstitious lore” within brahmanism. Sometimes, the brahmanas took over and supplemented the priestly tasks for a guild caste or a tribe caste with their own rituals, “always excluding or softening the worst features of the primitive rites” [1975b: 168]. The heterodox religions had abandoned all rituals. So, only the brahmanas could officiate at the sacraments of birth, death, marriage, and other life cycle rituals, bless the crops at sowing time, propitiate evil stars, and placate angry gods. These new rituals were profitable if they served the householder class (‘grihapati/gahapati’) of agrarian and trading society. The brahmanas offered their services to all, regardless of caste, for a fee and on condition of respect for brahmanical institutions. “This process of mutual acculturation accompanied the introduction of a class structure where none had existed before,” Kosambi pointed out [1975b: 171]. The brahmanical ‘smritis’ (law books) emphatically stated that kingship was essential for the preservation of the social order. Many kings of tribal origin had the brahmanical “Golden Womb” ceremony performed by which they were symbolically born into a new caste, usually kshatriya. The later kings, of whom some were Buddhists, insisted that that it was their duty to uphold the four-caste class system. All this amounted to keeping down a newly created set of vaishyas and shudras by brahmana precepts and kshatriya arms. The chief, supported by a few nobles freed from tribal laws, became the ruler of his former tribe while the ordinary tribesmen merged into a new peasantry. Kosambi very perceptively observed,
“Disruption of the tribal people and their merger into general agrarian society would not have been possible merely by winning over the chief and a few leading members. The way people satisfied their daily needs had also to be changed for the caste class structure to work. The tribe as a whole turned into a new peasant ‘jati’ caste-group, generally ranked as shudras, with as many as possible of the previous institutions (including endogamy) brought over” [1975b: 172]"

The brahmanas acted as pioneers in undeveloped localities. They often brought with them plough agriculture to replace slash and burn cultivation or food gathering, new crops, knowledge of distant markets, organisation of village settlements, and trade. As a result, kings invited brahmanas, generally from the distant Ganga valley, to settle in unopened localities. From the fourth century CE onwards, almost all extant copper plate inscriptions in India record land grants to brahmanas unconnected with any temple.

“This procedure enabled Indian society to be formed out of many diverse and even discordant elements, with the minimum use of violence. But the very manner in which the development took place inhibited growth of commodity production and hence of culture, beyond a certain level” Kosambi wrote [1975b: 172-73].

The inclusivist approach of the brahmanas led to an incredible proliferation of rituals. Similarly, tribes, castes, clans, guilds, and even civic bodies were allowed to retain their laws, which were never recorded. Thus, the basis for a broad, general common law on the principle of equality was lost. The development of an idealist philosophy by Shankara (9 CE and others led to a disregard for mundane reality, which inhibited the growth of science. Kosambi said,
“The advance of culture needs exchange of ideas, growing intercourse, both of which depended in the final analysis upon the intensity of exchange of things: commodity production. Indian production increased with population, but it was not commodity production. The village mostly managed to subsist on its own produce...This curious isolation of village society accounts for the fantastic proliferation of the medieval Indian system of religion and religious philosophy...” [1975b: 175].
He described the post-Gupta phase (6 CE) in early Indian history as “the triumph of the village”.

This process of brahmanisation and its consequences, both positive and negative, have been extensively discussed by Kosambi in two monographs and several essays, particularly “The Basis of Ancient Indian History” in two instalments. He brought in issues, such as the role of Sanskrit in uniting the new upper classes, which meant a reallocation of the surplus and legitimisation of new cults, ideas that were novel in his time and have been introduced into discussions on the socio-cultural formations of early India only in recent years. However, after this brief summary of Kosambi’s outstanding and highly nuanced analysis of one of the most fundamental civilisational processes in India, we turn to the more overtly religious aspect of the same assimilative practice – the making of a new pantheon.

The Dark Hero

Kosambi pointed out that in the process of inducting the tribes into a caste society, the exclusive nature of tribal rituals and tribal cults was modified, tribal deities were equated with standard brahmanical gods, or new brahmanical scriptures were written to make inassimilable gods respectable. With the new deities or identities came new rituals, special dates for particular observances, and new places of pilgrimage – their antecedents and rationale explained in suitable myths in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and, in particular, the Puranas. The mechanism of assimilation followed a pattern. Some totemic deities, including the primeval Fish, Tortoise and Boar were made into incarnations of Vishnu-Narayana. The monkey-faced Hanuman, hugely popular with cultivators, became the faithful companion servant of Rama, another incarnation of Vishnu. The great earth-bearing Cobra became the canopied bed of Vishnu-Narayana, and the same Cobra became Shiva’s garland and Ganesha’s weapon. The bull, which was worshipped in south India as an independent cult object, became Shiva’s mount.

“The worship of these newly absorbed primitive deities was part of...a clear give-and-take. First, the former worshippers, say of the Cobra, could adore him while bowing to Shiva, but the followers of Shiva simultaneously paid respect to the Cobra in their own ritual services...” [1975b: 170].

“Matriarchal elements” were won over by identifying the mother goddesses with the wives of male gods, such as Shiva’s Durga-Parvati and Vishnu’s Lakshmi. The complex divine household carried on the process of syncretism. The marriages of gods implied human marriage as a recognised institution and would have been impossible without the social fusion of their formerly separate, and even inimical, devotees. The integration of the new jati castes was guaranteed by the respect their gods now received from society as a whole, while they became an integral part of that society by worshipping other gods along with their own transformed deities.

Of these new gods and goddesses, Kosambi’s favourite was Krishna, judging by the number of pages he devoted to the exposition of this deity. Summing up the character and achievements of Krishna, as represented in brahmanical mythology, he wrote, “The many-faced god is...inconsistent, though all things to all men and everything to most women: divine and lovable infant, mischievous shepherd boy; lover of all the milkmaids in the herders’ camp, husband of innumerable goddesses, most promiscuously virile of bed-mates; yet devoted to Radha alone in mystic union, and an exponent of ascetic renunciation withal; the ultimate manifestation of eternal peace, but the roughest of bullies in killing his own uncle Kamsa, in beheading a guest of honour like Shishupala at someone else’s fire sacrifice; the very fountainhead of all morality, whose advice at crucial moments of the great battle (in which he played simultaneously the parts of dues ex machine and a menial charioteer) nevertheless ran counter to every rule of decency, fair play, or chivalry. The whole Krishna saga is a magnificent example of what a true believer can manage to swallow…” [1975b: 114].

Still, according to Kosambi, Krishna’s popularity had to be explained in terms of his having performed a complex set of important socio-economic functions. He observed that this versatile god had a humble beginning. The only archaeological data about Krishna comes from his traditional weapon, the discus. This was not Vedic and went out of fashion long before the Buddha. But a cave drawing in Mirzapur district of Uttar Pradesh shows a charioteer attacking the aborigines – who drew the picture – with such a discus. Kosambi put the date at about 800 BCE, roughly the time Banaras was first settled. The charioteers were Aryans exploring the region across the river for iron ore. On the other hand, Krishna in the Rigveda was a demon; his name was the generic designation of hostile dark-skinned pre-Aryans. Kosambi suggested that the basis of the Krishna legend was a hero and later demi-god of the Yadu tribe, one of the five main Aryan people in the oldest Veda. But the Yadus were alternately cursed or blessed by hymn singers according to the current alignment in the constant fighting between the Punjab tribes. Krishna was also a Satvata, an Andhaka-Vrishni, and was fostered in a ‘gokula’ (cattle-herders’ commune) to save him from his maternal uncle Kamsa. The transfer related him to the Abhiras, a historical and pastoral people early in the Common Era, the progenitors of the modern Ahir caste. Later, Krishna’s marriages were a vital step forward in assimilating “patriarchal Aryans to some matriarchal pre-Aryans”, Kosambi pointed out.
“It must always be remembered that not only would food-gatherers rise to food production, but Aryans could also degenerate into food-gatherers because of the environment; at both stages, fusion between the two sets of people was possible and facilitated by mutual adoption of cults. The divine marriage reflected human unions. The resultant social combination was more productive, with a better mastery of the environment” (1975b: 117)
Among the various heroic feats of adolescent Krishna, such as the taming of the poisonous many-headed Naga, Kaliya, one early exploit accelerated his rise to fame – protecting the cattle of the gokula from the Vedic god Indra. The gokula shifted from the river bank opposite Mathura to higher ground at Mount Govardhana for the rainy season. This annual pastoral movement was marked by sacrifices to Indra. Krishna changed the custom, substituting it with worship of the mountain and the cows. An enraged Indra showered missiles on the renegade cowherds, but Krishna easily lifted the mountain with one finger, sheltering the cows and their masters. Kosambi argued that the conflict clearly signalled a change from Vedic pastoral sacrifices to cults more suited to agriculture.

He also suggested that the fight was a three-cornered one, for Indra saved most of the Nagas (Kosambi understood this term as referring to “savage tribes” with a ‘naga’ (cobra) totem, “combined under a generic name by the Aryans”, 1975a: 128-30) whom Krishna and the Pandavas, the protagonists of the Mahabharata, crushed whenever possible. Krishna was a “late intruder” into the epic. He joined the Pandavas in burning down the Khandava forest to clear the land. It was only after the sage Markandeya informed the Pandavas that their companion Krishna was actually a god that they recognised his divinity. Kosambi speculated that the ambiguous position of the Yadus in the Rigveda and Krishna’s dark skin might have been one step in the recombination of the Aryans with the aborigines, just as the irreconcilable Naga stories were a clear step in that direction. The Mahabharata begins with an account of how the Nagas were saved from Janamejaya’s sacrificial fire by the brilliance of a priest called Astika. This young brahmana was the son of a Naga mother. Janamejaya’s chief priest similarly had a brahmana father and a “snake” mother. These indicate that the assimilation of the Naga food-gatherers into the caste-based peasant society had already begun. The process was completed by Krishna’s older brother and associate Balarama, who was made into an incarnation of the primeval naga. Balarama is also called Samkarshana, the ploughman, who carries a plough as his insignia. Even today, the Indian peasant’s favourite guardian of the fields is the sacred cobra. Thus, Kosambi argued that Krishna was not a single historical figure, but compounded of many semi-legendary heroes who helped in the formation of a new food-producing society.

“The Bhagavad Gita was put into the mouth of Krishna only because he had by then a powerful following among the food producers, who worshipped him for various reasons: as the first to abolish fire sacrifices of cattle to Indra, the husband of the local mother-goddesses, or the ancestral Yadu father-god” [2002: 403].

Kosambi’s “Social and Economic Aspects of the Bhagavad Gita”, a socio-economic analysis of the Bagavad Gita, is one his best-known essays on religion [1962: 12-41]. The Gita is, for all practical purposes, the most important scripture of the Hindus. It has therefore been subjected to a variety of interpretations, beginning with the religious philosophers of the early medieval period to the political leaders of the 20th century. They have arrived at wildly divergent conclusions regarding its basic tenets. The reason for this, Kosambi argued, is the essential ambivalence of the Gita. Practically anything can be read into it by a determined person, without denying the validity of a class system.

“THE GITA FURNISHED THE ONE SCRIPTURAL SOURCE WHICH COULD BE USED WITHOUT VIOLENCE TO ACCEPTED BRAHMIN METHODOLOGY, TO DRAW INSPIRATION AND JUSTIFICATION FOR SOCIAL ACTIONS IN SOME WAY DISAGREEABLE TO A BRANCH OF THE RULING CLASS upon whose mercy the brahmins depended at the moment” [emphasis in the original, 1962: 15]. The technique that Krishna adopted in unfolding his philosophy of desireless action in the Gita was to set out each doctrine in a sympathetic way without dissecting it and skilfully passing on to another as Arjuna asked an uncomfortable question. Thus we have a “brilliant (if plagiarist) review-synthesis” of many schools of thought, which were in many respects mutually incompatible. The incompatibility is never brought out; all views are simply facets of the one divine mind. The best in each system is thus derived naturally from the high god. Indeed, “the utility of the Gita derives from its peculiar fundamental defect, namely, dexterity in seeming to reconcile the irreconcilable” [1962: 17].

Kosambi explained that such a dovetailing of the superstructure was possible only when the underlying differences were not too great. Thus, the Gita was a logical performance for the early Gupta period – the time of its composition – when expanding village settlements brought in new wealth to a powerful central government, when trade was again on the increase and many sects could obtain economic support in plenty. To treat all views tolerantly and to merge them into one implies that the crisis in the means of production was not too acute.

FUSION AND TOLERANCE BECOME IMPOSSIBLE WHEN THE CRISIS DEEPENS, WHEN THERE IS NOT ENOUGH OF THE SURPLUS PRODUCT TO GO AROUND, AND THE SYNTHETIC METHOD DOES NOT LEAD TO INCREASED PRODUCTION” [emphasis in the original, 1962: 31]. The Gita might help reconcile certain factions of the ruling class. Its inner contradictions could stimulate some exceptional reformer to make the upper classes admit a new reality of recruiting new members. But it could not possibly bring about any fundamental change in the means of production, nor could its fundamental lack of contact with reality and disdain for logical consistency promote a rational approach to the basic problems of Indian society.

But, Kosambi added, the Gita did contain one innovation, which fitted the needs of a later period – ‘bhakti’, or personal devotion. Bhakti was the justification, the one way of deriving all views from a single divine source.
“With the end of the great centralised personal empires in sight...the new state had to be feudal all the way through from top to bottom” [1962: 31].
The essence of fully developed feudalism is a chain of personal loyalty; not loyalty in the abstract but loyalty with a secure foundation in the means and relations of production. To hold this type of society and its state together, the best religion is one which emphasises the role of bhakti, personal faith, even though the object of devotion may have clearly visible flaws. And the Gita suited the need admirably. Kosambi was emphatic and categorical, as usual.

Kosambi’s originality was primarily derived from his creative application of the Marxist method of analysis, and the amazing breadth of his scholarship, which included a deep familiarity with a variety of sources – archaeological, textual and ethnographic. Added to these were his expertise in the languages of the early Indian texts and inscriptions, his engagement with a range of theoretical literature, and an international perspective. He also had an uncanny knack of making connections between apparently disparate pieces of information, which was basically intuitive, but in his case strengthened by a holistic knowledge of the field and a passionate desire to understand the civilisational trajectory of India. And his analytical rigour, which did not allow a lazy or careless gap in the argument or a sloppy generalisation, and his vision of a total history, made him a unique historian. We have never had a historian quite like him, either before or after. It is possible to fundamentally disagree with Kosambi, but it is difficult not to appreciate the quality of his mind. More than 40 years after his death, his writings remain inspirational.

One can cite two striking examples of his ingenuity and scholarship from his treatment of the mythology of Krishna. Kosambi observed that late in 4 BCE, invading Greeks found that the worship of an Indian demi-god, whom they equated immediately with their own Herakles, was the main cult of the Punjab plains, while Dionysos continued to be worshipped in the hills. He suggested that this Herakles was “unmistakably the Indian Krishna” [1975b: 117; 2002: 393]. He pointed out that the Greek hero was traditionally a matchless athlete burnt black by exposure to the sun, who had killed the Hydra (a many-headed snake like Kaliya) and violated or wedded many nymphs. Kosambi did not pursue the point, but Benjamin Preciado-Solis wrote a monograph in the 1980s elaborating on the identification of Krishna with Herakles, systematically matching their heroic feats, such as Kaliya with Hydra, the demon horse Keshin with Diomedes’ horse, and the bull Arishta with Achelous.

The other relates to the application of an unusual discipline for an avowed Marxist. Kosambi observed in connection with Krishna’s killing of Kamsa, his maternal uncle and the king of Mathura, “It should be remembered that in certain primitive societies, the sister’s son is heir and successor to the chief; also, the chief has often to be sacrificed by the successor. Kamsa’s death has good support in primitive usage, and shows what the Oedipus legend would have become in matrilocal society” [1975b: 116]. It is true that he did not mention the Oedipus complex and only referred to the legend. But he was certainly familiar with psychoanalytic literature and cited it in relevant contexts. While analysing the layers in the Urvashi and Pururavas myth, he wrote,

“Psychoanalysts have maintained that ‘drawn from the waters’ is an old representation for just ordinary human birth. The treatment by Freud and Otto Rank of this motive propounds that Sargon, Moses, or even Pope Gregory the great...being taken from waters (like Karna in the Mbh [Mahabharata]) is merely a birth story, the waters being uterine or those within the amnionic sac” [1962: 58-59].

Kosambi did not accept this psychoanalytic interpretation as clinching, but he pressed psychoanalysis into service once again to make possible sense of the same motif in a different context.16 It is not surprising that he was familiar with Freud, but the book by Otto Rank (although Kosambi did not cite it), where the Austrian psychoanalyst discussed mythological instances of birth from waters, including that of Karna, is a comparatively obscure one.

Besides, the reference to Oedipus in the context of the killing of Kamsa cannot be entirely impervious to psychoanalytical readings of the legend. Psychoanalysts who have worked on the Krishna cycle of myths suggest that he is the only major character in Indian mythology who repeatedly and aggressively defies father figures. His making love to Kubja, the beloved of his surrogate father Kamsa, and the subsequent beheading of Kamsa, is the only unequivocal instance of a successful oedipal struggle in the large corpus of Sanskrit mythology. Kosambi showed both insight and discretion in detecting an oedipal resonance in the Kamsa myth and overcoming the traditional Marxist distrust of psychoanalysis. Kosambi wrote his books and articles on early India between the mid-1940s and 1960s. Predictably, his ideas and attitudes were to an extent influenced by those which were current during that time. Now, historians no longer accept the theory of the Aryan invasion of India, more so as a cause of the decline of the Indus valley civilisation. It is also doubted whether matriarchy, which Kosambi took for granted,existed anywhere in the world at any point of time. Instead, historians make use of concepts such as matriliny and matrilocality, which often correspond to what Kosambi and others of his generation meant by matriarchy. It is possible that his somewhat uncritical endorsement of Frederick Engels’ formulations on the origin of the family, private property and the state (although he does not mention him) made him accept matriarchy as a necessary stage in the evolution of social formations.

However, it is difficult to understand why, even in the mid-1960s, a historian so discerning as Kosambi kept referring to tribes as savages. Possibly he borrowed this expression from contemporary anthropological usage. It appears from his works that there was no value judgment involved in this description, but it makes one feel a little uncomfortable when one reads him now.

Despite his very consciously creative use of Marxism, and his explicit contempt for the “official Marxists (hereafter called "OM"), he seems to have been a little ambivalent about the applicability of the Asiatic mode of production in the Indian context. Chattopadhyaya has attributed this to “Kosambi’s understanding of the power of ideology...” [2002: xxix]. Kosambi certainly believed in the power of ideology. He repeatedly referred to the role of ideology in minimising violence in Indian history, which brings to mind Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Despite categorically asserting, “Economic determinism will not do. It is not inevitable, nor even true, that a given amount of wealth will lead to a given type of development” [1975b: 12], on several occasions he came close to such a position. For instance, he explained the sectarian conflict in early medieval eastern India in terms of possession and exploitation of land alone. He wrote that the followers of Shiva or Devi were for a long time great landlords while the worshippers of Vishnu were small producers, and “theological conflict developed only because economic conflict was a reality”. Needless to say, this view ignores the complexity of religious life in which these sects themselves were each divided into many groups, none as a whole being exclusively associated with any particular social class. At one level, Kosambi was absolutely convinced about the correctness and efficacy of his method. This may explain why he used anthropology primarily as a source of information rather than a method to collect and analyse data. Similarly, there appears to be no other reason why such a brilliant mind and avid reader took no notice of the various approaches to the study of myths available to him, such as structuralism.

It also seems to me that the implied teleology of Marxism made him believe in the progress of humanity as the stuff of history. It has been justly pointed out by Chattopadhyaya that his repeated references to the “primitive survivals” in Indian society were not judgmental; they only meant “the vertical continuity of myriad cultural elements, in a state of flux...” [2002: xviii]. However, his unstated but recognisable approval of agents of change leading to an “advance” in society, such as Buddhism, or his critical remark made while commenting on the state of Sanskrit literature under feudalism that “not every new class is progressive...nor does it necessarily perform the task of reorganising the whole society into a new, more productive form” [1975a: 286], indicate his preference for progress in history.

His convictions, deliberate or inadvertent, and his method, conditioned his understanding of the nature and functions of Indian religions. He showed how religious ideas and practices can be read meaningfully when located against the backdrop of the networks of production and distribution. While this approach fundamentally changed our perception of the role of religions in Indian history, it had its pitfalls. For instance, Kosambi’s conclusion that the bhakti propounded by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita provided the ideology to hold feudal society together, was based on his calculation that the Gita was composed “somewhere between 150 and 350 AD (sic) [1962: 16]. Even if we accept this date to be correct, it has to be admitted that the far-sighted Krishna promulgated a philosophy to suit the needs of a society that was still a few centuries away. However, a number of Sanskritists and historians, such as M Hiriyanna, M A Mehendale, Thapar, Suvira Jaiswal, Arvind Sharma and G C Pande, have suggested a much earlier date for the text, namely 2 or 1 BCE [Bhattacharyya 1996: 215]. If so, it questions Kosambi’s assumption that the brahmanical upper class intended to forge an ideology for a feudal society in the composition of the Gita, even though the suggestion was extremely innovative and might have served as a useful ideology at a later date. However, N N Bhattacharyya, a Marxist historian of early Indian religions, considered Kosambi’s reading of the Gita “subjective” and commented with disapproval on the “fashion” of “Marxist and near-Marxist scholars” to “connect the Bhagavad Gita with feudalism”, which he found “oversimplified” [1996: 222-25]. Thapar pointed out more perceptively that bhakti was not an undifferentiated category and the idea was put to use in various contexts in different ways. The bhakti endorsed by the Gita, for instance, was not identical with that which was taught by the later bhakti teachers. Whereas the single-minded devotion to a deity was retained, the social content changed substantially, and was expressed in a concern with a universal ethic, which echoed that of the Buddhists and the Jains and which permitted the bhakti movements to become powerful mobilisers of various social groups.

It is possible to differ with Kosambi on specific issues, but his greatness as a historian remains undisputed. A L Basham wrote after Kosambi’s death that once when he was mildly complaining of pains which the doctors seemed incapable of curing, he thought that their cause might be psychological, “the product of the tension between the unbelief to which his reason compelled him and the deep-seated traditions of his ancestral faith”. Basham tentatively suggested, “as a psychologist of the Jungian school replied that he could not do this, however beneficial to his might have done”, that Kosambi go on a pilgrimage to health, for thus he would betray his faith in reason and common Pandharpur and perform all the rituals an ordinary pilgrim sense”, even if he had no belief in them. Kosambi "laughed,replied that he could not do this, however beneficial to his health, for thus he would betray his faith in reason and common sense”.(24) This sums the both the man and the historian of early Indian religions.

Notes (for notes download pdf version)

Kunal Chakrabarti ( is with the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Science is the Cognition of necessity

Science is the Cognition of necessity

by Vivek Monteiro

Published in the Special EPW issue on DD Kosambi, 26th July 2008 (download pdf)

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi, eminent mathematician and Marxist historian, wrote extensively on the development of science and its use. He focused on the Marxist understanding of science as having an all-encompassing and universal role in engaging with reality. Marxism provided Kosambi with the tools to write on a variety of subjects such as the use of atomic energy, “science and religion” and the need for alternative technology for energy (solar power).

Vivek Monteiro ( a trade unionist who was trained as a theoretical physicist. He is currently a secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, Maharashtra.


D D Kosambi’s classic definition of “science” is by itself sufficient to secure him a place in the history of thought. It is as profound as it is brief: “Science is the cognition of necessity”. D D Kosambi certainly realised the significance and power of his definition. In his essays on science and society, which are reviewed in this article, he repeatedly refers to and develops this theme. A critical assessment of these writings requires a prior consideration of the question of the relation of Marxism to science which we discuss briefly in the following.

The concept of “necessity” as a category for understanding reality is not new. In the fifth century BC, the Greek materialist philosopher Democritus, with incredible foresight, writes: “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity”.

But, a 100 years later, Aristotle found this assertion unacceptable, and wrote disapprovingly: “Democritus, however, neglecting the final cause, reduces to necessity all the operations of nature” [Generation of Animals V 8]. For more than two millennia thereafter, Aristotelian conceptions continued as the dominant ideas in western science and philosophy. The Democritan insight, though dormant, was far from dead. In fact with the progress of science, it was slowly awakening.

Marxism was a major breakthrough in the history of science. Neither Marx nor Engels were born as Marxists. They arrived at what we today term Marxism, through a process of activism, study and criticism, culminating in Marx’s pathbreaking Theses on Feuerbach of 1845. Here Marx asserts that social change is also a subject within the purview of science and outlines in brief compass what it means to take up scientifically the problem of human action to change society. The year 1845 is thus a milestone in the history of science. It was in this year too that Marx and Engels enunciated the “materialist conception of history” in their seminal The German Ideology:

We know only a single science, the science of history. One can look at history from two sides and divide it into the history of nature and the history of men. The two sides are, however, inseparable; the history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist. The history of nature, called natural science, does not concern us here; but we will have to examine the history of men, since almost the whole ideology amounts either to a distorted conception of this history or to a complete abstraction from it.

Understanding “necessity” as manifested in a historical context – “historical science”, or a “materialist conception of history” (the science of history referred to in the previous paragraph), does not begin with social science, or with Marx. It has its origins in the philosophical and scientific debates of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in which developments in the natural sciences were most important. The reconstruction of biology as a historical science had begun well before Charles Darwin (whose Origin of Species was published only in 1859). In the preceding century it was becoming increasingly clear that two sciences – geology, and biology, could only be rationally understood as historical sciences. The fossil record, where geology and biology met, made up the pages of a history book, with a strong thread of causation linking the later pages of this book to the earlier ones.

This chain of causation strengthened the claims of the materialists. Developments in astronomy had already shown the irrelevance of divine intervention to explain the motions of the planets around the sun. In the battle between the religious establishment and the new scientific understandings in various areas of natural science, the religious establishments had to repeatedly retreat from the areas under debate. By the early 19th century, through the works of geologists like James Hutton and Charles Lyell, and biologists like Leclerc (Buffon) and Lamarck, it was being asserted that all of nature had a history, that this history could be understood, and that moreover, human beings, as a biological species were a product of this natural history. The threads of necessity running through natural science in the form of natural history were becoming increasingly evident. Natural science was taking shape as a programme of cognising this necessity. But what about human activity and social history?

What Engels writes many years later in his preface to Anti-Duhring, serves as a succinct description of the state of intellectual affairs at the turning point when Marx and Engels made their breakthrough to bring social change into the agenda of modern science.
Marx and I were pretty well the only people to rescue conscious dialectics from German idealist philosophy and apply it in the materialist conception of nature and history… ...Feuerbach is quite correct in asserting that exclusively natural-scientific materialism is indeed “the foundation of the edifice of human knowledge, but not the edifice itself”. For we live not only in nature but also in human society, and this also no less than nature has its history of development and its science. It was therefore a question of bringing the science of society, that is, the sum total of the so-called historical and philosophical sciences, into harmony with the materialist foundation, and of reconstructing it thereupon. But it did not fall to Feuerbach’s lot to do this.

Their contribution was to show how human social history could be incorporated into the agenda of rigorous science. Human social history presents a new problem – understanding human activity. Human societies too show regularities, have laws, but these laws are fundamentally different from the laws of nature which cannot be changed, and are only to be discovered. The laws governing human action are not only biological but also social. Social laws are made and can be changed by conscious human action. In natural science the theory does not and cannot change the phenomenon. But social theory “can grip the masses” and change the very reality being studied. Human beings can act consciously, have freedom to choose. How can this freedom of choice be reconciled with the aspect of necessity that is central to all scientific analysis?

Engels expresses how in Anti-Duhring, ...“freedom does not consist of any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends”.

He quotes Hegel:
“Freedom is the insight into necessity – necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood” and then adds: “Freedom of the will therefore means nothing but the capacity to make decisions with knowledge of the subject. Therefore the freer a man’s judgment is in relation to a definite question, the greater is the necessity with which the content of this judgment will be determined”.
But comprehending “necessity” in the context of society is more complex than in nature. There is the realm of the objective, the inevitable, what necessarily must happen, what is compelled by underlying conditions – and there is also the realm of the subjective, the desirable, the possible, the needs of human beings. Marx’s brilliant “Theses on Feuerbach” shows how this is to be done, taking both the objective and the subjective into account.

Marx thus completes what Democritus had only asserted, with astonishing insight, 2,300 years earlier. After Marx’s 1845 breakthrough, for the first time in human history, all of reality, both natural and social, becomes a subject of rigorous scientific inquiry.
With all of reality becoming the subject of science, science itself ceases to be a subject, and instead becomes a method for understanding and engaging with reality. Kosambi’s great achievement is to give a definition of science which can properly encompass this new comprehensive, universal role.

Science and Freedom

Kosambi examines the implications of his definition for the development of science itself in his article ‘Science and Freedom’, written for Monthly Review in 1952, and which is the most important of his essays on science. As Marx and Engels had done a century earlier in their 1845 writings, Kosambi begins by critiquing an abstract concept of “freedom”, now as professed by the bourgeois western scientists. He begins by taking on the intellectual dishonesty of a section of the American scientists who while themselves actively participating in the research activities of the US war machine, developing more and more lethal thermonuclear weapons, also would write profusely about intellectual freedom and its absence in “totalitarian” societies.

In 1949, I saw that American scientists and intellectuals were greatly worried about the question of scientific freedom, meaning thereby freedom for the scientist to do what he liked while being paid by big business, war departments, or universities whose funds tended to come more and more from one or the other source. These gentlemen, living in a society where he who pays the piper insists upon calling the tune, did not seem to realise that science was no longer “independent” … The scientist now is part of a far more closely integrated, tightly exploited, social system; he lives much more comfortably than Faraday, but at the same time under the necessity of producing regular output of patentable or advertising value, while avoiding all dangerous social or philosophical ideas. As a result, the worthies I mention were quite worried about the lack of scientific freedom in a planned society, but only indirectly and perhaps subconsciously as to what was actually happening to their own freedom in an age and time of extensive witch-hunting, where being called a communist was far more dangerous than being caught red-handed in a fraud or robbery. There is an intimate connection between science and freedom, the individual freedom of the scientist being only a small corollary. Freedom is the recognition of necessity; science is the cognition of necessity. The first is the classical Marxist definition of freedom, to which I have added my own definition of science. Let us look closer into the implications. (emphasis in original)

A scientist while performing his professional tasks of understanding the necessities of nature – nature’s laws – is also governed by other aspects of necessity:

…in addition, there is a technical level, which cannot be divorced from the experimental. Finally, there is a social structure that is not only intimately connected with the technical level, but also conditions the freedom of the individual by introducing a social necessity that in the abstract seems unnecessary but exists nevertheless…

What most of us do not realise is that science is also a social development; that the scientific method is not eternal and that science came into being only when the new class structure of society made it necessary. Of course, science really comes into its own with the machine age, which cannot develop without science and which in turn contributes highly useful technical aid to scientific discovery… Modern science is the creation of the bourgeoisie. (emphasis in original)
Kosambi then argues that not only technical necessity, but social necessity also is a powerful impetus to new science, it is not at all accidental that Newton, Lagrange, Laplace, Ampere, Berthelot and Gauss appear on the scene at the same time that the English, French and German bourgeoisie come into their own. The point of this essay is that,
There is no reason for science to remain bound any longer to the decaying class that brought it into existence four centuries ago. The scientist needs this freedom most of all, namely freedom from servitude to a particular class. Only in science planned for the benefit of all mankind, not for bacteriological, atomic, psychological or other mass warfare can the scientist really be free… But if he serves the class that grows food scientifically and then dumps it in the ocean while millions starve all over the world, if he believes that the world is overpopulated and the atom bomb is a blessing that will perpetuate his own comfort, he is moving in a retrograde orbit, on a level no beast could achieve, a level below that of a witch doctor
Kosambi concludes this essay with the question: “After all, how does science analyse necessity?” to which he answers:
In the final analysis, science acts by changing its scene of activity… There is no science without change...The real task is to change society, to turn the light of scientific inquiry upon the foundations of social structure. Are classes necessary, and in particular, what is the necessity of the bourgeoisie now? But it is precisely from cognition of this great problem of the day that the scientist is barred if a small class should happen to rule his country.

The last sentence is incongruous as coming from a Marxist scientist. We discuss this point at the end of this article.

The theme that the growth of the sciences in any society is conditioned by the kind of society in which this growth takes place is examined in other contexts like socialism and fascism by Kosambi in his essays: ‘Revolution and the Progress of Science’, written for New Age, ‘Soviet Science: What It Can Teach Us’ (Indo-Soviet Journal 1944) and in his review of Bernal’s The Social Function of Science (1940). Space does not permit a detailed discussion of these essays. However, comments about science in India made in the Bernal book review deserve mention.

Kosambi quotes with approval the following excerpt from Bernal’s book:
…there is hardly any country in the world that needs the application of science more than India. In order to release the enormous potentialities for scientific development in the Indian people, it would be necessary to transform them into a free and self-reliant community. Probably the best workers for Indian science today are not the scientists but the political agitators who are struggling towards this end. (emphasis in original)
Kosambi follows this with scathing comments on the sycophant science as it then existed in British India:
After this fair appraisal it would be our duty to say a few of the things that the author has left out for lack of space, or of malice. The research work today in this country is confined to the universities and to a few special institutions, controlled by and often actually worked by people who know nothing of science. Though it is no longer the custom to shove all the fat jobs of the educational system to one side for third rate Englishmen who cannot be accommodated in their own country, the mark of the beast has by no means been eradicated. The men who occupy the key posts have obtained them by other means than research ability, usually by pure charlatanism, bootlicking, and politics of the most decadent sort within academic circles…Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the Indian “professor” was a parasite on the already parasitic official services, assiduous only in licking the boots that seemed capable of kicking him the hardest, reactionary in politics, and proud at best of having helped some of his students to the supreme bliss of admission into the Indian Civil Service. Research was a difficult proposition for such people. (...)
Writing two decades later, in an autobiographical essay ‘Steps in Science’, Kosambi’s views on the Indian science establishment had not changed much.

The greatest obstacles to research in any backward, underdeveloped country are often those needlessly created by the scientist’s or scholar’s fellow citizens. Grit may be essential in some difficult investigation, but the paying commodity is soft soap. The meretricious ability to please the right people, a convincing pose, masterly charlatanism and a clever press agent are indispensable for success. The Byzantine emperor Nikephoros Phokas assured himself of ample notice from superficial observers, at someone else’s expense, by setting up in his own name at a strategic site in the Roman Forum, a column stolen from some grandiose temple. Many of our eminent intellectuals have mastered this technique. There is little point in discussing personal experience of the scum that naturally floats to the top in a stagnant class. 

Science for developing Countries

The paragraph just quoted is typical of Kosambi’s style. His language is direct. His purpose in writing is to call a spade a spade unmindful of the consequences. At a time when being a communist was surely a career liability, he did not hesitate to write for New Age and other left wing journals. Even in international conferences he was never averse to making a political statement when he thought it was necessary. In an address before an international conference of scientists on “Problems of Science and Technology in the Developing Countries” in 1964, he has this to say:

The political situation is all-important. Most underdeveloped countries have been under foreign domination for a long time. That is, in fact, the primary reason for their being underdeveloped. So, freedom must come first. We cannot speak of science and technology for Angola and Mozambique, for example. The South African situation is even more complex. The land has a few outstanding technological developments; their laboratories and engineering works are by no means to be despised. But the real Africans are not even citizens in South Africa, which remains for them underdeveloped, while being in a quite satisfactory stage of development for property-owing whites and for the investors in London who stand back of them… In such cases, we have no solution to offer, for our conference restricts itself to science and technology.
The lack of resources is fortunately not present in all countries. Several Arab lands have discovered in oil and natural gas a commodity, which can be exploited sufficiently well to solve their economic problems. However, whether the oil and other resources are properly used or not depends once again on the context. First, the foreigner must not take away the lion’s share, as happened in Iran for so many years. Secondly, those in power must feel the need for developing the country rather than for building palaces for their own families and living a life of Arabian Nights style. This remains, therefore, again an internal political matter, namely who plans and for whose advantage. It is not sufficient to announce grandiose plans; one has to convince the people that they stand to gain and to secure popular support. Developments in Ghana and Indonesia show what happens otherwise. Going deeper into this question but that (sic) would cause unpleasantness.

However, we reach one important principle here: underdeveloped countries need a planned course of development, which necessarily implies a planned economy (emphasis in original). Merely admitting this principle is not enough. The context once again thrusts itself upon your attention: who does the planning, and for whose real advantage? The solution generally offered is to invite foreign experts to offer advice and draw up schemes. With the best will in the world, this will not succeed. The foreign expert has been used to planning for an entirely different purpose, in totally different surroundings. He pays little attention to local needs during the course of development. Oftener than not, the foreign expert is interested in selling the products of some companies with which he might be connected. Here, we could learn a good deal from Chinese experience, were it not for the political problem, once again, which makes it impossible to secure cooperation from that great country at such a meeting. Hitherto, I have only pointed out the difficulties without suggesting a solution. As a matter of fact, I hold very strong views on the proper political structure and the correct foreign policy for underdeveloped countries; but this is not the time not the place to a develop those views... The scientific approach, on the other hand, tends to be rather vacuous and devoid of application unless these primary difficulties are solved.

Atomic energy

The issue of atomic energy is a recurrent theme in Kosambi’s writings, in the context of peace and disarmament, as well as in discussions on energy policy for India and other developing countries. Typically, Kosambi is both critical and outspoken on the issue of atomic energy. In his articles and talks he repeatedly points out that in discussions on the relative cost of atomic energy, the real cost is usually ignored, suppressed or hidden. Giving a popular lecture to the Rotary Club in Pune, in 1960, Kosambi says:
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.
At the international conference on science in the underdeveloped countries referred to earlier, he does some blunt speaking:
For example, many of you here are bound to be impressed by India’s advance in science and may even persuade your own governments to copy us. But in what particulars? We have top class physicists, for example, our department of atomic energy is spending several hundred millions a year on an imposing establishment. But how much atomic energy is this country actually producing? The plant that should have been in commission in 1964 will not be operating till 1968 at the earliest. The delay has passed without criticism, while some politicians demand that we should produce the A-bomb to put us on at par with the big powers. In effect, the establishment we have was built by foreign “experts”, is outdated already, and will produce atomic power if run as designed which is costlier than such power elsewhere and costlier than conventional power in India. Even then, all the basic cost will have been off under the heading of “research” (Science, or some such beautiful title).

Energy cost is something that can be rationally calculated. The cost of private sector nuclear power plants proposed to be imported in consequence of the Indo-US 123 nuclear deal has been estimated by technical experts from the left as approximately Rs 12 crore per MW installed, which is three times the present cost of conventional power plants. The proponents of imported nuclear power from the establishment have neither refuted this calculation, nor have they argued why such expensive power is necessary and how it is affordable. This straightforward but critical question which should be central to any debate on the 123 agreement has been effectively censored from mainstream media discourse. On this and many other straightforward technical/scientific issues pertinent to the Indo-US nuclear deal the Indian science establishment also has been typically silent and characteristically timid (as it was on the Enron issue), with some notable exemptions including a few retired senior scientists.
A logical discussion about India’s needs for affordable energy leads inexorably to the conclusion the Indo-US nuclear deal is less about electric power and more about politics. Kosambi’s writings on issues of science and technology in an age of US Imperialism are still topical, though nearly 50 years have elapsed since they were written. In an article for Monthly Review written in 1951, he gives a masterly analysis of what he terms the “crooked roots” and “crazy logic” of imperialism.

The crooked roots of imperialism lie deep in the need for profits and ever more profits for the benefit of a few monopolists. The “American way of life” did not solve the world problem of the great depression of 1929-33. In the US this was solved by second world war. But only for a short time. Korea shows that the next step is to start a new war to stave off another depression. The one lesson of the last depression, which stuck, is that profits can be kept up by creating shortages where they do not and need not exist. War materials are produced for destruction. Producing them restricts consumer goods, which increases profits in double ratio. Any logic that proves the necessity of war is the correct logic for imperialism and for big business, which now go hand in hand. Mere contradictions do not matter for this sort of lunatic thinking where production of food is no longer the method of raising man above the animals, but merely a way of making profit while millions starve.

Destroying stockpiles of food is the same kind of action as building up stockpiles of atom bomb. But the war waged by means of food is different in one very important respect from national and colonial aggression. It is war against the whole of humanity except that tiny portion to whom food is a negligibly small item of expenditure, war also against millions of American workers. In a word, it is class war, and all other wars of today stem from attempts to turn it outward. Even the Romans knew that the safest way to avoid inner conflict, to quiet the demands of their own citizens, was to attempt new conquests.

Quite apart from the destructiveness of total war, the crooked logic of big business and warmongers is fatal to the clear thinking needed for science. The arguments that modem science originates with the bourgeoisie, that the enormous funds devoted to war research are a great stimulus to science are vicious. The scientific outlook came into being when the bourgeoisie was a new progressive class, struggling for power against feudal and clerical reaction.

But for modern capitalists, a class in decay, the findings of science (apart from profit-making techniques) have become dangerous; and so it becomes necessary for them to coerce the scientist to restrict his activity. That is one reason for vast expenditure on secret atomic research, for putting third-raters in control to bring big business monopoly to the laboratory. The broad cooperation and pooling of knowledge, which made scientific progress so rapid, is destroyed… Science cannot flourish behind barbed wire; no matter how much money the war offices may pay to “loyal” mediocrity. Freedom is the recognition of necessity; science is the investigation, the analysis, and the cognition of necessity. Science and freedom always march together. The war mentality, which destroys freedom, must necessarily destroy science.

Solar energy and alternative technology

The better half of Kosambi’s address to the Pune Rotary Club on Atomic Energy for India was not about nuclear power plants on earth, but about the nuclear power plant in the heavens, i e, about solar energy. There is an impressive conviction and consistency in Kosambi’s essays on this subject. In his characteristic style, issues of basic science, technology, science policy, politics, economics and ideology are seamlessly interwoven in these popular essays, which, if anything are even more relevant today than when they were written. Kosambi repeatedly makes the important point that whether or not an alternate technology is viable is not only a technical question, but also a political and organisational question.

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 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 cost 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. The most important advantage of solar energy would be decentralisation. … 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. …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.

Kosambi’s comments on research on energy for a country like India are controversial and courageous. His essay ‘Sun or Atom’ (1957), poses the issue sharply:

In all this, the question of India has naturally to be foremost in our minds. …Our fissionable materials consist of the lowest grade uranium in central India, plus the radioactive (thorium) sands of Kerala, which are not immediately utilisable for power production. Add thereto the low achievements of our costly but inefficient science and technology, and the problem becomes formidable. All the more so because foreign sources of uranium are controlled, atomic research is everywhere a painfully guarded secret; power politics has entered into the thing else, with new gusto. Is there no other way that would be more paying, without interference with any other mode of power-produc-tion? The answer, for India is a definite YES. Instead of competing with the sun, what we have to do is to find some way of utilising what the sun thrusts upon us with matchless persistence. Let the sun split the atom, fuse the nuclei for us. Why should we not use the energy directly rather than wait for it to be absorbed by plants, converted into firewood, and so on? The cost of research on direct utilisation of solar energy would be far lower than for atomic energy. India has much greater supply of solar energy than most other countries; in fact, the problem is to keep the land from being blasted altogether by the sun. One difficulty is that the sun’s energy is not constant. The advantages are that the fuel – the sun’s radiation – costs absolutely nothing, and there are no harmful exhaust gases or radioactive by-products. Moreover, the installation can be set up anywhere in India, and will work quite well except perhaps in the heaviest monsoon season. The research is of no use for war purposes. This is why it attracts some of us, but does not attract those who control the funds. But the huge primary source of energy today remains the sun. Direct utilisation is hindered only by the desire for prestige, which makes India waste so much of her money in supposed research along other lines.
Writing similarly on the subject of ‘Solar Energy for the Underdeveloped Countries’ (Seminar, September 1964), Kosambi throws a challenge to the future:
These strictures seem rather harsh, but surely not undeserved. When some years ago, the main ideas of this note were spoken out in a popular lecture, the matter roused some heat not due to the sun… Questions were asked in Parliament and answered by high authority with the words that such projects are designed to keep India backward, in the bullock-cart age. This, in spite of the remark made during the lecture that the bullock-cart is inefficient, and that India needs every form of energy it can afford. A question of science, technology and economics was reduced to one of ostentation and prestige. However, the sun has not yet been abolished by decree, so that the matter may be taken up at some future date when common sense gets a chance. 
Science and religion

Kosambi’s essays also include two on the subject of superstition and religion: ‘Sin and
Science: Introduction’ (1950), and ‘The Scientific Attitude and Religion’ (Seminar, 1964).
In both these essays some social aspects of religion are considered in so far as they serve to keep India a backward country. The methods of cure suggested are by legislation, education and improved social conditions, with a brief example or two to bring out the basic idea in each case.

One-fourth of the essay of six pages on religion is an argument on how religion is akin to a drug or narcotic, and if alcohol and drugs are taxed and regulated by the state, why then should religion also not be taxed and regulated? Following this is a discussion on educating people out of superstition and a suggestion that the same almanacs which are the source of many superstitions can also be used to convey scientific information about the weather and seasons which can undermine those superstitions.

The next question taken up in the same essay is about “the most obscurantist of all Indian religious and social institutions, caste. The evils of the caste system are known, but no one asks himself why the system originated, and why it has held on in spite of so great a change in Indian life.” Having asked such a fundamental question, it is disposed of by a few observations in less than a page, with the conclusion:

The root cause is the abysmally low economic status of the lowest castes and their total lack of opportunity. Neither legislation, nor conversion, nor schoolroom education can remove this. The sole possible cure is more efficient production and distribution of the product in a manner equitable for all; most people call this socialism.

Coming from the pen of Kosambi, who in his writings on history has made such important contributions to an understanding of religion and caste in Indian history, this kind of sketchy commentary is surprising and disappointing. Any serious Marxist analysis of the role of religion in India would have to take up the problem of communalism. This however finds no mention in the essay. There is no mention of the role of religion in the democratic movements which are so important to the understanding of Indian linguistic, cultural and social history. And looking forward, when religion continues to play such an important role in the consciousness of most Indians, and the need to isolate communalism is of such political importance, when religious and caste organisations continue to play such an important role in mass mobilisation, one is left wondering – surely, as an exercise in Marxism Kosambi would never have written this. Is it that Kosambi understood Marxism as something different from science?

This question is also thrown up by the paragraph, quoted earlier in this article, from the conclusion of ‘Science and Freedom’.
This too is disappointing as coming from a Marxist scientist. As a rational and logical conclusion to his analysis, Kosambi ought to have concluded: “The irresistible conclusion of this analysis is that if the scientist must remain true to science, then he must also now become part of the task of changing society, which is a political task.”? If “the real task is to change society”, then is this not also a scientific task? Can science be only for understanding, and not for practice?
Kosambi ought to have proceeded to analyse the relationship between science and politics: Why a scientist cannot but be political, if he or she must remain true to science, and what does it mean to practise politics in a scientific manner. Scientific politics means organisation. Organisation means working with people. Was it Kosambi’s individualism which came in the way of his taking the analysis to its logical conclusion? A discussion of this question is beyond the scope of this article.

The resistance to science today comes not only from traditional quarters like reactionary religion, but also from modern sectors of the conservative ideological establishment. The belief that science must be apolitical, or antipolitical and that politics has no place in science is widespread among professional scientists.

Many scientists take pride in professing their political illiteracy as if this were a necessary consequence of their being scientists. Kosambi would have been the best person to demolish the obfuscation that is at the root of this retreat from science by the “science establishment”. But he does not do this, leaving an important unfinished task for those committed to rigorous comprehensive science.

In the eleventh and final Theses on Feuerbach Marx writes “The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it”.

In the very first thesis, Marx makes a number of assertions about science (materialism). In science, theory and practice come together (or as Kosambi expressed it in ‘Science and Freedom’: “In science theory and practice cannot be divorced”). Though science is objective, and conscious human activity subjective, the “subjective” and “objective” cannot be seen as always opposite or mutually exclusive. Conscious human activity is simultaneously subjective and objective. Science is practical-critical activity. It is not accidental that here Marx uses the word “revolutionary” to describe and qualify the term “practicalcritical” activity.

It must be understood that what Marx is asserting in Theses on Feuerbach is that revolutionary activity is not an external add-on to science, but a necessary consequence. Scientific practice, if it remains critical, realistic, consistent and true to the values of science necessarily becomes revolutionary. Engels expressed it thus: “…the more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds the more it finds itself in harmony with the interest and aspirations of the workers”.

Why has science revolutionised every area that it has entered? It has done so because to progress with rigour it must clear its path of all obfuscation and misconception. Since large-scale misconception is vital to the existence of societies based on the exploitation of the masses, science cannot but be revolutionary, when it takes up social investigation with rigour. Kosambi’s thought-provoking essays throw light on a number of subjects and issues which are today even more important than when he wrote about them. His writings are addressed directly to those working on issues of science policy in contemporary India. They fall squarely within the framework of the people’s science movement. In fact, they both inspire and challenge all those committed to science to take forward an unfinished agenda. We can add a corollary to Kosambi’s definition: “Scientific practice is understanding and doing what is necessary”.