The Hindu : Magazine / Columns : The life and death of a Buddhist Gandhian
A portrait of Dharmanand Kosambi as revealed through the letters of Mahatma Gandhi.
We do not know whether Kosambi agreed with Gandhi’s interpretation of the proposed temple to Buddha…
After I wrote my last column on the Kosambis, father and son, I decided to check for references to them in that capacious repository of relevant knowledge, the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (CWMG). The Marxist historian D.D. is not mentioned, but there are as many as 29 entries pertaining to his father, the Buddhist scholar Dharmanand. The first dates from January 1922, when in an article written in Young India, Gandhi quotes a letter written to him from Cambridge (Mass) by the professor, enclosing a cheque for $ 156 collected by him for the Tilak Swaraj Fund, the money mostly contributed by “poor Indian students”. In this letter, Kosambi also told Gandhi that the “Press of this country [the United States] from the most radical to the most conservative is unanimous in praising you and the Indian national movement”.
In 1930 the professor returned to India to participate in the Salt Satyagraha. He went into jail, and after he came out, started work on a temple devoted to the Buddha. It was to be called Naigaum Vihar, and the Mahatma had been asked to help. Gandhi, in turn, wrote to the Maharashtra Congressman B.G. Kher, urging him to oversee the collection and disbursal of the money for the project. Kher answered that he could do the job (of monitoring expenses) until the temple was built, but after that had to excuse himself. For, “how am I to work on a Buddhist Vihar committee?” enquired Kher: “Are they all going to become Buddhists? Where is the need?”
To this Gandhi replied: “There is no question of anyone becoming a Buddhist. The temple is meant to be one dedicated to Buddha as temples are dedicated to Rama, Krishna and the like. There is no proselytising taint about this movement. At the most it is to be a Hindu temple of an advanced type in which a very learned man will be keeper or pujari. That is how I have understood the whole scheme of Prof. Kosambi. You may share this with the Professor, and if he endorsed my position, with Shri Natarajan [presumably another promoter of the temple idea] so that there may be a common understanding about the temple”.
We do not know whether Kosambi agreed with this interpretation of the proposed temple to Buddha — would he have accepted that it merely represented Hinduism “of an advanced type”? But we learn, from the CWMG, that Kosambi worked in the early 1940s for the Hindi Sabha, and later joined the Gujarat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad to teach Buddhist literature. In September 1946, Gandhi, then in Delhi, heard that the Professor had gone on a fast. He wrote urging him to desist. He suggested that Kosambi restrict himself to cow’s milk and boiled vegetables which “too would be a kind of fast”. Apparently, the advice was not immediately accepted. Three days later, Gandhi wired a colleague to tell Kosambi “not to be obstinate”, and to at least take milk and fruit. Five days later, another wire was on its way, with Gandhi saying that “I cannot understand this obstinacy on Kosambi’s part. Please plead with him again [to] desist”.
The fast was called off. The next relevant letter in the CWMG is dated May 5, 1947. This was written by Gandhi in answer to a postcard of Kosambi’s on an important subject, possibly the most important there is. “Death is our true and unfailing friend”, remarked the Mahatma: “He takes charge of one when one’s time is over”. Then he added: “So, if you must depart, first enshrine Rama in your heart and then go to meet Him cheerfully”. So evidently death was very much on Kosambi’s mind. A week later, from Sodepur in Bengal, Gandhi wrote to a follower asking him to “keep me informed of any changes in Kosambi’s condition. I prefer cremation but I shall not insist on it”. (A foonote in the CWMG explains: “Kosambi had expressed a desire to be buried after death, it being the least expensive disposal of the body”.)
Ten days later Gandhi wrote to Kosambi directly, saying that he got “regular reports” about him, that he was “very happy that you are staying in the [Sewagram] Ashram” and that he had “no doubt that you will depart in peace”. A letter to some ashramites followed, asking them to tell Kosambi that Gandhi would ensure that his wishes to send Indian students to study Pali in Sri Lanka were carried out. Gandhi then asked that Kosambi be requested “to forget about such matters and fix his mind on withdrawing himself into a state of inner concentration whether the body subsists a little longer or withers away soon”.
Dharmanand P. Kosambi left this world on June 4, 1947, after voluntarily and deliberately fasting to death. In my next column I shall write of what the death of this Buddhist Gandhian meant to the Mahatma himself.