Monday, March 31, 2008

The Kosambis, father and son

The Hindu : Magazine / Columns : The Kosambis, father and son
The Kosambis, father and son


D.D. Kosambi was a mathematician who trained himself to be a world-class historian. His father’s life was even more remarkable…

Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

Multi-faceted: D.D. Kosambi.

A friend who lives in Goa writes to say that he is greatly enjoying the series of lectures being organised there to commemorate the centenary of the polymathic scholar D.D. Kosambi. The historian Romilla Thapar had spoken in the series, as had the jo urnalist P. Sainath; two Indians one thinks the notoriously judgmental Kosambi would have approved of, both for the depth of their research and the commitment to their craft.

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi was a remarkable man. Trained as a mathematician, he then went on to train himself as a historian. His day job was as a Professor of Mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. On the train up and down from Poona (where he lived), and during the evenings, nights, and weekends, he gathered the materials to write some pioneering works of historical scholarship, among them A Study of Indian History and The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline.
A pioneer

Apart from his books, Kosambi also published collections of scholarly essays, in one of which he wrote about the village communities of his native Goa. The languages he knew well included Sanskrit, Pali, Marathi, and English. Among Indian historians, he was a pioneer in the use of numismatics, linguistics, and, above all, anthropology.

Kosambi was a man of a fierce and at times truculent independence. He was sympathetic to Marxism, whose materialist approach he found useful in reconstructing the economic and social life of civilisations now long dead. But he abhorred the dogmatism and insularity of what was then the undivided Communist Party of India. It was impossible for him to follow a party line. In his political writings (which too were collected in several volumes, one of which bore the charming title Exasperating Essays) he was sharply critical of what he called the “Official Marxists” (or OM, for short).

Among the community of Indian historians there is almost a “Kosambi cult” in operation. It is good that the civil society of Goa is joining academics elsewhere in India in paying tribute to his memory. But mostly forgotten in the meantime is a Kosambi who was perhaps an even more remarkable man. This was the historian’s own father, Dharmanand.

I first heard of Dharmanand Kosambi from a friend who taught for many years at the University of California at Berkeley and is arguably the greatest living scholar of Jainism. His name is Padmanabha Jaini. It was in Berkeley on a cold January afternoon, years ago, that Professor Jaini acquainted me with the elements of Kosambi pére’s life. As a young man he felt the urge to learn Sanskrit; finding the urge irresistible, he left his wife and baby boy to go to Poona and study with the great Sanskrit scholar R.G. Bhandarkar. His studies inculcated further desires and ambitions; among them to make a deeper acquaintance with Buddhism. He travelled around the country, spending time in Baudh Gaya, in Sarnath, and in Kausambhi, near Allahabad, where the Buddha lived after attaining enlightenment. It was from this last place that he took the name by which he and his son came to be known. So far as I know, this remains the only “Kosambi” family in Goa, India, or the world.

In search of a living Buddhist tradition, Dharmanand Kosambi also spent several years in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), where he learnt Pali. By now, he was a world authority on the language and culture of early Buddhism. He taught briefly in Bombay and Poona before attracting the attention of the American academy, then (as now) on the look-out for world authorities to attract (or seduce). With his wife and son, Kosambi travelled across the seas to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was put to work editing Pali texts for a series published by Harvard University.
Moved by Gandhi

Dharmanand Kosambi spent a decade in the United States, in which time his son studied mathematics at Boston University (to add to the Sanskrit and Pali that he learnt at home). Reading about Gandhi’s movement made the senior Kosambi turn his back on America (and the scholarly study of Buddhism) to return to India and court arrest during the Salt Satyagraha. He was deeply attached to Gandhi; when the Mahatma moved to Wardha in 1934, Dharmanand Kosambi moved with him too. When I visited the ashram in Sewagram some years ago, an elderly (and knowledgeable) guide showed me the hut Gandhi lived in, as well as the huts occupied by his closest associates, such as Mahadev Desai and Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade). Then he pointed to a structure, as modest as the others, which he called “Professor Sahib Ki Kutir”. This was where the one-time Goan, Buddhist scholar, and Harvard academic had spent his last years.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this most remarkable man concerns the manner of his death. In the summer of 1947, with the country on the eve of independence, Dharmanand Kosambi decided he did not need to live any more. So, in the hallowed Buddhist tradition, he simply fasted to death.

There is, I am told, some amount of biographical writing about the senior Kosambi in Marathi. Still, there is certainly room in English for a single volume study of Dharmanand Kosambi and his son Damodar. This would be a story of two utterly absorbing lives, and, through them, a history of Goa, India, and the world.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Indian Postal Stamp on Kosambi

Request for Stamp on DD Kosambi
March 25: The human resources development ministry has requested the secretary, department of post, to release a postal stamp in the honour of Prof. D.D. Kosambi, one of the finest intellectuals of the last century who applied mathematical methods of research to history and the culture of India.

In a letter to Planning Commission member Bhalchandra Mungekar, HRD ministry joint secretary Sunil Kumar said the proposal to release a postal stamp has since been approved by the minister of communications and IT and that the same is likely to be released this year after the department of posts completes the formalities.

Dr Mungekar had requested HRD minister Arjun Singh to release a postal stamp in honour of Prof. Kosambi on July 31 last year and institute a Prof. Kosambi chair in history in any of the universities.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

DN Jha at the DD Kosambi Memorial Lecture

Vidyadhar Date in the Free Press Journal
D N Jha, a noted history scholar who has proved that ancient Indians ate cow meat, delivered an interesting lecture in Mumbai recently dispelling several myths on Hinduism. He is a deceptively simple man with various stimulating ideas.

In his D D Kosambi memorial lecture, he did well to refute several popular misconceptions about Hinduism and its being tolerant. Giving numerous examples he showed that the term Hinduism was not at all ancient. Two Sanskrit encyclopaedias of the 19th century make only a slight reference to Hinduism. The word Hindu rarely features in ancient literature. In Bhakti literature, it is used, but mainly with reference to Brahmins not in the manner Hinduism is understood today.

What he meant was that though India was ancient, Hinduism as a concept is quite recent. We had different sects and Brahminism but there was nothing like Hinduism in ancient times. Not a single major ancient Sanskrit text refers to the word or concept of Hinduism. Besides, Hinduism as such has never been monolithic. The Lingayat sect never accepted the superiority of the Vedas, nor did the Mahanubhavas.

There were also many instances of several groups being intolerant towards Buddhists and Jains. So religious conflict was there in India even before the arrival of Islam. India did see several reform movements but all these were absorbed by the caste system. Another noted history scholar in the city recently was Barun De who delivered the Mani Kamerkar memorial lecture at the Asiatic Society.

Interestingly, he spoke without a prepared text which made the presentation much more interesting as compared to the reading of text which can become quite prosaic and dull. He dwelt with the writing of history of Maharashtra in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an indication of his humility that he said he was not an expert in any discipline of history for that matter.

That was interesting considering that he is a historian in the true sense, he has an understanding and skill to analyse whole epochs of history. But then the term historian is trivialised by the media and is used for even routine researchers. Some of these worthies too have the gall to call themselves historians.

Another point he made was that history should include interesting stories, not just dry, hard facts. He also lauded the contribution of social reformers Jotirao Phule and Tarabai Shinde in our understanding of 19th century Maharashtra with their critical look at the elite and their way of looking at issues from the perspective of the toiling people.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Nandi: Children's book by Kosambi

This is the only book written by Kosambi for children. via the redoubtable Arvind Gupta's site.

DD Kosambi's only known book for children. Source:

Direct Link to document at Scribd: Nandi- A book of Children's Stories by DD Kosambi