Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Dharmanand Kosambi: Dying with Dignity


We learn from the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG) that Dharmanand Kosambi’s middle initial was “P”. Did this stand for “Pai”, or “Panandikar”, or even “Pai panandikar” perhaps? These are all Goan names, although in the journey of his life (and death), the Buddhist scholar was to move very far from his Goan origins.

When the elder Kosambi fasted to death in May-June 1947, one of the men most moved was his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was then in Delhi. In a prayer meeting on June 5, he paid tribute to his recently departed follower. The audience would not know of him, said Gandhi, since “we are so made that we raise to the skies anyone who goes about beating his drum and indulges in political acrobatics but fail to appreciate the silent worker.”

To his Delhi audience, Gandhi filled in the details of Kosambi’s life. Born in a village, a Hindu by birth, he embraced Buddhism and studied its scriptures out of the conviction that “no other religion gave as much importance to non-violence, piety, etc., as Buddhism did.” Kosambi had “no equal in India in scholarship”, and gave “freely of his profound learning”... “In scholarship I cannot compare myself with Kosambiji”, said the Mahatma, adding: “I am merely a barrister who became one by attending dinners in England! I have a very meagre knowledge of Sanskrit.”

The last days

Gandhi then arrived at the manner and meaning of Dharmanand Kosambi’s death. He spoke in Hindi — the official English translation follows:

When Kosambiji realised that he was no longer physically fit to carry on any work, he decided to give up his life through fasting. At [Purushottamdas] Tandonji’s insistence I made Kosambiji, very much against his wishes, give up his fast. But his digestion had been severely affected and he was not able to eat anything at all. So, in Sewagram, he again gave up food and keeping himself only on water gave up the breath after forty days. During his illness he refused all nursing and all drugs. He even abandoned the desire to go to Goa where he was born. He commanded his son and others not to come to him. He left instructions that no memorial should be set up after his death. He also expressed the desire that he should be cremated or buried according to whichever was cheaper. Thus, with the name of the Buddha on his lips he passed into that final sleep which is to be the estate, one day or another, of all who are born. Death is the friend of everyone. It will visit us as destined. One may be able to predict the time of birth, but no one has yet been able to predict the time of death.

“I beg you to forgive me for taking so much of your time over this”, said Gandhi, a remark suggesting that he understood that his Delhi audience may not exactly have had the same interest in the subject. Three days later, in another prayer meeting in Delhi, Gandhi returned to the matter of Kosambi’s death. The Manager of the Sewagram Ashram, Balvantsinha, had written that “he had not witnessed such a death so far. It was exactly as Kabir described in the following couplet: The servant Kabir says: Although we wear this sheet with ever so much care, it has to be given up even as it is”.

Then Gandhi added: “If we can all befriend Death in this manner, it would be to the good of India”.

It is evident that Gandhi had been deeply affected by the manner of Kosambi’s going. On June 9, 1947, he wrote to an associate saying that, following the professor’s wishes, “we should send to Ceylon as quickly as we can some Indians who follow Buddhism and are desirous of learning Pali. Do you have some students in mind? Try to think over what rules we should frame for selecting such students and give me some suggestions. For instance, what would be the expense of each student, etc…”

Efforts for a memorial

This associate (unidentified in the CWMG) appears to have given an estimate of Rs. 25,000 as the money required to sustain the initiative. On September 24, Gandhi wrote to the industralist Kamalnayan Bajaj asking him to help in collecting this amount for the “Dharmanand [Kosambi] Memorial”. Another letter of the same day requested Kaka Kalelkar to “work as the chairman, secretary and peon all rolled into one in regard to this scheme”. He suggested that the politician B.G. Kher, the educationist James H. Cousins, and the Theosophist and philanthropist Sophie Wadia be asked also to help. It appears that all of the above were unavailable or unwilling, since on October 11, 1947 Gandhi wrote to Kalelkar from Delhi that if he and Kamalnayan Bajaj could not collect the Rs. 25,000, “I am in any case going to take up the burden”.

And there the Kosambi trail in the CWMG ends. We do not know whether the money was collected — even if it was, it is unlikely that any Indian students were sent to Sri Lanka to study Pali. For, less than three months later, death called upon Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The meeting was not (as Gandhi always knew to be the case) at a time and place of his choosing. But, when the moment came, he met death with the dignity and equanimity of his Buddhist friend and follower, Dharmanand Kosambi.

Kosambi’s life and death seem a subject fit for a full-length book, although the humdrum medium of biography may not be able to fully capture its manifest moral grandeur. Perhaps a feature film, then, or, better still, a play written by that most brilliant of modern playwrights, Girish Karnad.

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