Sunday, August 24, 2008

Kosambi on Questions of Caste by Kumkum Roy

Source: Economic and Political Weekly, 26th July 2008. Download pdf format

Summary: Caste assumed a centrality in D D Kosambi’s relentless quest for the origins of Indian society, since for him it was a category to understand socio-economic differences. This essay first investigates how Kosambi conceptualised caste as a structure. It then examines some specific aspects of his study of caste such as how caste identities were constituted, consolidated and even contested. And, third, the essay seeks to contextualise both the issues and methodologies of Kosambi’s scholarship within more recent discussions and debates on caste.

Kosambi on Questions of Caste by Kumkum Roy

It is inevitably platitudinous, but nonetheless true to state that it is a privilege to be able to share one’s ideas and readings of Kosambi as part of the centenary celebrations of an indubitably (and possibly the sole) iconic figure within the domain of the historiography of early India.1 What is equally if not more true is that Kosambi remains, 40 years after he passed away, one of the most challenging and demanding of historians. His hypotheses may sometimes seem to border on the realm of speculation, we may often find it difficult to keep pace with his arguments, almost invariably presented with an impatient erudition, yet his concerns with historicising the early Indian past continue to inform our understanding, just as we revisit his wide-ranging methodologies, often eclectic in the best sense of the term.

1 The Centrality of Caste

What I will attempt to explore is Kosambi’s handling of caste. I will focus on the space the category occupied within his analytical framework, and the related issue of his understanding of the institution. In a sense, this will involve an investigation of the ways in which he conceptualised caste as a structure.

Second, we will examine some of the specific aspects of caste that attracted his scholarly attention. Here, as we will see, he devoted considerable attention to the processes whereby caste identities were constituted, consolidated and even contested. As may be expected, there is often an implicit if not explicit tension between the ways in which Kosambi identified the structural elements of caste and his more detailed investigations of the specific processes that shaped the structure over time. As latter-day scholars, we may find it tempting to brush aside these tensions, which may seem anomalous and confusing. However, it is also possible to revisit these as issues that demand critical investigation. I will also touch briefly on his analytical strategies.

Finally, I will attempt to contextualise both issues and methodologies within more recent discussions and debates on the theme. As may be expected, the exercise is selective rather than comprehensive. While this has its obvious limitations, it will have served its purpose if it succeeds in reviving serious academic interest in an institution that we often take for granted as a given of social history. And we may recall that it is not only caste that is treated as a given. Kosambi, too, often shares a similar fate. His works find mention in the syllabi of some university, but closer investigations indicate that these are rarely read in practice. Informal discussions suggest that his style is often perceived as difficult,and his formulations too sweeping to be accommodated within the framework of courses. It is in this context that it is critical to use the occasion of Kosambi’s centenary to return to the issues which drew one of the best mathematical minds of the last century away from the domain of formulae and theorems into a relentless quest for origins.

Caste assumed a certain centrality in this quest, as it became, in Kosambi’s understanding, a category through which to understand socio-economic differences. It figured explicitly as a vital element in two of the six stages into which Kosambi classified Indian history in an article (‘Stages in Indian History’) published in 1954. It was also implicit in his understanding of the first stage, which he identified with the Harappan civilisation; he often suggested that the social institutions of the period left their imprint on later developments. The second stage, which he referred to as Aryanisation (Kosambi 2002: 58) was characterised by Kosambi in terms of technological changes, a shift from bronze to iron. It was also a period of socio-economic transformation, defined in terms of a shift from a pastoral-nomadic tribal organisation with a two-caste system to four caste-classes. The third phase was defined in terms of agrarian and political expansion. The former, according to Kosambi, was made possible by harnessing the labour force of the fourth varna, the śūdras, while the latter was typified by the expansion of the Magadhan/Mauryan empire.

Caste and Class

As is evident, caste was undoubtedly one of the most significant categories in Kosambi’s understanding of early Indian history. At one level, he equated the institution, often explicitly, with class. In his classic formulation, for instance, he stated: Caste is an important reflection of the actual relations of production, particularly at the time of its formation (ibid: xxiii, emphasis original). More elaborately, he wrote (ibid: 59):

India has a unique social division, the (endogamous) caste system. 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. This is done with the adoption of local usages into religion and ritual, being thus the negation of history by giving fictitious sanction from ‘times immemo rial’ to any new development, the actual change being denied altogether. To this extent and at a low level of commodity production, it is clear that an Asiatic Mode did exist, reaching over several stages; at least, the term is applicable to India, whatever the case elsewhere.

Three critical, if somewhat conflicting ideas find expression in this paragraph: one, an equation of caste with class (under delimited conditions, it is true), an idea that Kosambi frequently reiterated and occasionally substantiated. The second was the religioritual dimension of caste, and its implications for understanding of historical change. Here Kosambi seemed to suggest that caste both represented change as well as became a means of denying it. Many of his detailed studies on specific dimensions of caste relations focused on this particular aspect in all its complexity.

The third idea pertains to an association between caste and social (and by extension historical) stagnation, typified by the Asiatic mode of production. It is possible, with hindsight, to see that the reconstructions of caste as a dynamic institution that Kosambi developed with painstaking scholarship informed with imagination, expressed in his typically provocative and incisive style, was at variance with the soporific societies considered characteristic of the Asiatic mode of production. Perhaps we can explain his invocation of the Asiatic mode in terms of his exasperation with the pace and direction of social change in his own milieu: we find him reverting, time and again, to the hope that the caste system would wither away. In 1953 (‘The Study of Ancient Indian Tradition’) he wrote (ibid: 415):

Its [the caste system’s] supposed unshakeability and inherent strength vanish as soon as new forms of production come in: when railways jumble people together regardless of caste and are much more efficient as well as cheaper for the passenger than a bullock cart; when factories produce better goods cheaper, employing labour that has no caste- guild technical secrets of any use at the machine. The modern Indian city implies productive relations not based upon caste, often in conflict with caste, whence the system is least effective in our cities, in contrast to the villages.

Sadly, these hopes, as indeed many others, have been belied by the historical processes that Kosambi tried to both understand and shape.

2 Does Caste equal Class?

One of the ways in which Kosambi developed the equation between caste and class was through his analysis of the category of the śūdra, arguing that this social group initially equated with the dāsa, represented slaves maintained by the community, who later acquired a position almost identical with that of the Spartan helots. In other words, he visualised the śūdra as constituting a class of more or less dependent labourers with virtually no independent access to productive resources. This was spelt out in stark clarity in one of his earliest articles, titled ‘The Emergence of National Characteristics among Three Indo-European Peoples’ that appeared in 1939:

The most important function of the system was to prevent the worker, the śūdra, learning the use of weapons and from learning to read and write. He had no share in the culture of his age and country. He could not resort to armed revolt. There remained no way for him to keep his traditions alive, if indeed he had had any in the pre-Aryan days; no means of expressing his agony or communicating extensively with his fellow sufferers: no escape except through religion. Even a change of rulers did not bring about a change of caste. The Brahman relieved the warrior caste of the need of constantly policing the state to prevent an armed uprising. The benefits of an extensive helotage were obtained without Spartan efforts (ibid: 758).

At the same time, in an essay titled ‘Early Stages of the Caste System in Northern India’ that appeared in 1946, he held that (ibid: 196):

It should not be forgotten, on the credit side of the caste system, that the early reduction of the śūdra to serfdom or helotage freed India from slavery and slave-trading on a large scale. It also allowed new land to be opened up and settled with an early development of a stable agrarian economy which gave the country its economic power as well as its basic unity in spite of great local variations.

Located as we are in the 21st century, in a world complicated by the diverse manifestations of globalisation, we might find it difficult to share Kosambi’s optimistic vision of progress at the cost of those located at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.

Yet, fortunately for us, Kosambi pursued the specific with as much, if not more zeal than he brought to his quest for generalisations. This is evident, for instance, in the short piece titled ‘The Working Class in the Amarakośa’ that appeared in 1954-55. Here he argued that the organising principle of the text was hierarchical (ibid: 285 ff). Having established this, he went on to elucidate the working of this principle in the case of the ‘śūdra varga’. This included several categories ranging from the ‘kāyastha’ (scribe) to the ‘cāndāla’ (one of the “untouchable” categories according to the brahmanical tradition) regarded as the offspring of “mixed” marriages between men and women belonging to different varnas. More specifically, the list included several crafts groups: the garland maker, potter, mason, weaver, tailor, painter, armourer, leather-worker, blacksmith, goldsmith, bangle-maker, copper smith and carpenter. Also present were those who provided services, including the barber and washerman, as well as a whole range of entertainers. They were followed by hunters, trappers and butchers, who were succeeded by labourers, the bhrtaka, ‘karmakāra’ and the ‘vaitanika’ (labourers and wage earners) amongst others. Further down the list were various categories of near servile and servile populations. They in turn were succeeded by the ‘cāndālas’, ‘nisādas’ (forest people), Śabaras, ‘Pulindas’ (tribal groups) and ‘mlecchas’ (a term used to designate a wide range of “outsiders”). The list ended with a set of animals including the dog, followed by a set of terms for thieves. By drawing attention to such lists and their implications, Kosambi moved away from the relatively simplistic equation between śūdras and helots to a far more complex socio-economic scenario, one that had scope for dynamism and diversity. In this one can see ideas that were developed, more or less simultaneously, by that other giant of Marxist investigations into early India, Ram Sharan Sharma, whose classic study of the śūdras in ancient India was produced around the same time.

Kosambi’s reflections on the vaiśya were relatively less substantial. While he recognised the importance of the vaiśya “settler” and his crucial role as surplus-producer and tax-payer (ibid: 63) this did not extend into more detailed investigations. Could this be because of the relative invisibility of the vaiśya in textual representations and/or as some would argue, the existence of alternative forms of social identity that did not neatly correspond with varna categories?

Also worth noting is that Kosambi did not develop the complement of the śūdra-helot equation at any length. In other words, he did not expend intellectual energy in trying to establish that the brāhmanas and/or ksatriyas exercised a monopoly over productive resources. Clearly, Kosambi was not preoccupied with defining the material bases of these varna categories. As we will see, his discussions on both these categories, especially the former, were substantial. However, these focused on issues of socio-political identity and the ways in which ritual was both envisaged and enacted.

As is evident, even as Kosambi argued that caste is class, the equation was, for him, rarely simplistic, or even simple. In ‘Living Prehistory in India’ that appeared in 1967, he pointed out that there are categories that appear to be tribal in present-day (as well as past) caste lists (ibid: pp 31-33). This, according to him, merited explanation. He worked with a definition of tribes as being typically food-gathering peoples, characterised, amongst other things, by a bounded homogeneous social universe. This homogeneity was maintained by prohibitions on marriage outside the group, and restrictions on sharing food with strangers. In other words, he suggested that two of the typical features of the caste system, connubium and commensality in the jargon of sociologists, owed their origin to tribal practices.

At the same time, Kosambi was quick to point out that the acceptance of these practices within the framework of caste society did not mean that tribal people were treated with respect. Their position, he argued, depended on their ability to generate resources in general and produce a surplus in particular. He suggested that tribes people who were assimilated within the caste order would have had a higher status than those who remained outside, because the shift to food production, that he considered typical of caste societies, would enable them to support larger populations. In an essay titled ‘The Basis of Ancient Indian History’ that appeared in 1955, he wrote (ibid: 312):
The major historical change in ancient India was not between dynasties but in the advance of agrarian village settlements over tribal lands, metamorphosing tribesmen into peasant cultivators, or guild craftsmen.

However, as we will see subsequently, there were also other ways in which he conceptualised the tribe-caste interface.

3 In search of origins

Kosambi often attempted to distinguish between the origin of the caste system and later developments within the institution. Let us examine how he visualised the first of these processes. He contextualised this in terms of a pre-existing stratified society, that of the Harappan civilisation. The first plank of the argument was that urbanism presupposed social hierarchies. This in itself is unproblematic and may seem almost self-evident. Where Kosambi stepped in with a degree of imagination and, some would perhaps feel, unwarranted speculation was in suggesting that priesthood and ritual authority were probably important in maintaining social control in Harappan society. From this, he went on to suggest that survivors of the Harappan priesthood negotiated with the Aryan ruling elite. These complex negotiations and interactions, according to him (‘On the Origin of Brahmin Gotras’, originally published in 1950), resulted in the emergence of the fourfold varna order, with the brāhmana claiming ritual superiority, while conceding political precedence to the ksatriya (ibid: 126).

One of the most explicit and lucid statements of this appeared in ‘Early Stages of the Caste System in Northern India’ (ibid: 200):

It is at least plausible to assume that these Brāhmanas were associated with the rich pre-Aryan Indus valley culture, discovered by our archaeologists; a culture that may have been destroyed by Aryan invaders or died out because of the shift of the Indus. This passage-over of sections of the conquered as priests to the conquerors would account for the many discrepancies between Vedic and epic records, and for the rewriting of so much Indian tradition. It would account also for the early systematic development of Sanskrit grammar, generally necessary when a complicated foreign language has to be studied. In the same way, the astounding development of religious philosophy in India at a very early date again supports the hypothesis of violent assimilation as it speaks for the unhappy existence of a cultured priest-class.

The process that Kosambi thus reconstructed enabled him to explain variations and changes within the brahmanical tradition.

However, he could hardly have anticipated that nearly 60 years later, the relationship between the Harappans and the Aryans would become, to use a popular term, “controversial” in more ways than one. In a situation where, in the 21st century, we now have a vociferous view proclaiming the identity of the Harappan and the Vedic, we may soon have a curious situation where some of the contents of Kosambi’s scholarship are selectively appropriated, to suggest “parallels” between the two traditions. What possibly prevents such co-option is the distaste with which Kosambi’s overarching Marxist perspective is viewed in such circles.

On the other hand, most Marxist and many non-Marxist historians find themselves committed to emphasising the disjunctures between the Harappan and the Vedic (and sometimes later) traditions, and are suspicious, perhaps justifiably, of notions of survival and continuity from the former into the latter. In other words, there is an implicit if not an explicit distancing from the origins of caste as envisaged by Kosambi. Some may also suggest that looking for an originary moment for this complex institution may be an exercise of limited relevance.

Spread of Caste

In a sense, Kosambi’s ideas on the ways in which caste was perpetuated and spread to several parts of the subcontinent are perhaps more relevant today. In ‘The Basis of Ancient Indian History’ he conceptualised this as the outcome of two simultaneous processes:

First, the kings use brahmanism and village settlement to make themselves independent of tribal usage and tribal economy, and to introduce caste as a regular class structure into their territory; secondly, the brahmins themselves accept all sorts of local superstition, ritual, worship, even service of guilds, becoming a cartilage group which secured the adherence to society of elements that would otherwise have been antagonistic (ibid: 320).
To paraphrase his other well known formulation, he seemed to be suggesting that caste relations were generated both from above and below. He cited examples of the complexities generated by this process. Given the nature of sources, these pertain to ruling elites. These included the classic case of the Sātavāhanas who claimed to be brāhmanas, a somewhat anomalous identity for a ruling lineage. To complicate matters further, they married into the ruling Śaka lineage of the region (ibid: 321). The Śakas, as indeed several other social groups, were designated as mleccha within the brahmanical tradition.

Also worth revisiting are his ideas on the ‘ ‘Indo-Aryan’ Nose Index’ (ibid: pp 524 ff) originally formulated in 1958. While the specificities and technicalities might seem obscure to the social historian, what is evident is Kosambi’s steadfast refusal to reduce caste to race. Particularly noteworthy is his denial of the possibility that variations in physical appearance, such as they were, could be explained mainly or solely in terms of genetics. He stressed the need to consider other factors that could influence physiognomy – including diet, occupation and environment. Additionally, he pointed to the weaknesses of the sampling procedures adopted. While supposedly random, these were in fact biased in favour of the presuppositions with which Risley, the proponent of the nasal-index/caste status equation, worked. Besides, he drew attention to the fact that caste endogamy, with its implications of frozen social relations was a brahmanical ideal. The real world was far messier, with caste mobility as an option that was open to the wealthy and the powerful. In his inimitable style, he pointed out that in earlier times:

Greedy brahmins found without difficulty if suitably rewarded, for any person an eponym among the ‘Aryan’ heroes. Moreover, there exists a quite expensive ritual of ‘rebirth’, that permits a change in the caste affinity, independent of the nose index (ibid: 533).

In other words, Kosambi dismissed the possibility of caste having its roots in some immutable, natural, biological state in no uncertain terms.

4 Who were the brahmanas?

Some of Kosambi’s most substantial investigations into the caste system focused on a somewhat different set of issues – of which the constitution of the brāhmana varna is possibly the most significant. To some extent, this sprang directly from the centrality he assigned to caste in his understanding of historical processes. Consider, for instance, the following (‘The Basis of Indian History’):

The position of the Brahmin (whether immigrant or risen from tribal priests) as tool for change of status is not to be doubted; he traced not only the theological but the real foundation of absolute monarchy by helping form the defenceless, agrarian, non-tribal village, first providing social contact beyond the tribe (ibid: 317).

In one of his earliest essays on the theme (‘Early Brahmins and Brahmanism’, 1947) he opened up Patanjali’s Mahābhāsya and the Upanisads to highlight potential differences in physical appearance amongst brāhmanas, some of whom could be fair skinned, while others were dark. While Kosambi’s suggestion that this was indicative of racial diversity (ibid: 87-90) may seem dated, it is important to remember that this was for him part of a larger project, of establishing the heterogeneity of the brāhmana varna, which was often masked by the veneer of a monolithic ideology, typically codified in the ‘śāstras’.

This is evident, for instance, in Kosambi’s detailed discussion on the brāhmana gotras (‘On the Origin of Brahmin Gotras’, 1950). Here, the argument he advanced was complex and sophisticated: gotras, originally cow pens, symbolic of shared property rights, were attributed to ruling lineages. Gotra identities were then extended to priests, not necessarily Aryans, a term that is invariably non-racial in Kosambi’s work. Subsequently, the priests acquired a monopoly over such identities, lending them on occasion to ksatriyas and vaiśyas in ritual contexts (ibid: 99).

Amongst other instances, he elucidated this process through an examination of the legends of the rivalry between Viśvāmitra and Vasistha that surface in early and later Vedic traditions as well as in the epics and the Purānas. At one level, the two can be seen as competitors for the patronage of chiefs or kings such as Sudās mentioned in the Rigvedas. However, as Kosambi pointed out, it was not simply a case of conflict over patronage: Viśvāmitra and Vasistha seemed to represent alternative modes of acquiring access to the status of priests. Kosambi drew attention to the fact that, as in the case of several other gotras, Viśvāmitra was associated with a totemic element, ‘kuśika’, the owl. Vasistha, on the other hand, was of relatively obscure origin. While both were recognised as archetypal founders of gotras, the attitude towards Viśvāmitra within the later brahmanical tradition was characterised by considerable ambivalence and a more or less grudging acceptance of his position. This, according to Kosambi, could be explained by taking into account that he was a ksatriya who functioned as a priest.

What Kosambi was suggesting is that gotra had become a marker of brāhmana identity. Consequently, the ways in which it was acquired, conferred and hierarchised needed to be understood through a detailed analysis of complex textual traditions. Through his own analysis he demonstrated that brāhmana origins were only seemingly uniform: in effect, brāhmanas were recruited through a variety of social processes. Also, claims to the status of brāhmana could be validated through diverse and even conflicting strategies.

At another level, in his exploration of the specificities of the brāhmāna varna in Kashmir, Kosambi (‘Origins of Feudalism in Kaśmir’, 1957) drew attention to regional variations in what purported to be a pan-subcontinental social category (ibid: 297-98). He used the evidence of the Rājataranginī to highlight the range of activities attributed to brāhmanas, some of whom were government functionaries, whilst others were warriors – both deviations from the prescribed occupations for the varna laid down in the śāstras.

If we wish then, to provide an answer to the question with which we began, it is evident that Kosambi provided several answers: brāhmanas were drawn from various groups – pre-Vedic and non-Vedic. They could, moreover, perform a range of functions, both sacred and secular. The abundantly varied traditions of brāhmana origins and brahmanical practices that he documented would point to the dynamism of caste identities, a dynamism that he was sometimes reluctant to acknowledge.

5 The relationship between tribe and Caste

Kosambi’s exploration of the tribe-caste interface also exemplified the dynamism of caste. At one level, as we saw earlier, he conceptualised tribes as pre-class social formations. At another level, he recognised that the relationship between tribe and caste was often complex. This is evident, for instance, in his discussion on the Licchavis, whom he classified as a tribe, acknowledging, at the same time, that ‘khattiya’ identities were important within the social formation, evidently trying to capture the process of internal differentiation by taking recourse to apparently incompatible modes of classification.

In ‘Ancient Kosala and Magadha’ (1952) Kosambi drew attention to the ambivalence towards such groups evident in the brahmanical tradition. On the one hand, they were treated dismissively in texts such as the Manusmrti (ibid: 222). On the other hand, they evidently commanded respect amongst their contemporaries, obvious in the marriage between the early Gupta ruler, Candragupta I, and the Licchavi princess Kumāradevī, proclaimed on coins and in inscriptions issued by the Gupta rulers.

That the ambivalence was mutual is evident from another frequently-cited anecdote of the Pali tradition that Kosambi dissected with his typical deftness. This was the story of Pasenadi, the powerful king of Kosala, who wished to marry a Sākyan woman (ibid: 225). According to the story, Pasenadi could claim such a woman on account of his political strength. At the same time, the Sākyans resented the claim, as they considered him to be their social inferior, and dealt with the tricky situation by passing off a slave woman as a Sākyan. Ultimately, the ruse was discovered and the Sākyans had to pay a heavy price. In the process of recounting this story, Kosambi recognised the validity of these conflicting perspectives on social status. At the same time, he documented the process whereby the category he designated as tribal ksatriyas was destroyed with the rise of the Magadhan empire (ibid: 228).

In his brilliant thumbnail sketch of political history (‘The Basis of Ancient Indian History – 1’) from the Mauryas to the Guptas (ibid: 311) Kosambi alluded to this process of disintegration and decimation. Here he pointed out that Asokan inscriptions indicate that kingship as an institution was well known along the western frontiers of the Mauryan empire, but was virtually unknown along the other frontiers, where the references are to peoples rather than states. However, the Allahabad Pillar Inscription of Samudragupta depicted an entirely different scenario: it mentions several kings who had been uprooted and contains some of the last available references to ‘ganas’ or ‘samghas’, often regarded as tribal oligarchies or republics. Kosambi argued that the intervening centuries had witnessed the formation of monarchical states in several parts of the subcontinent. While many of these may have originated from tribal chiefships, they represented a radical departure from earlier political institutions.

Kosambi’s discussion on the tribe and the brāhmana is also illuminating (ibid: p 310). On the one hand, he visualised the brāhmana as an agent of change, transforming tribal societies and assimilating them within a more stratified socio-political order. From this perspective, “the brahmin immigrant into tribal lands was at first an effective pioneer and educator, though inevitably becoming a mere drain upon production”. Perhaps more interesting, because less expected, is his designation of a category of “tribal brahmin” whom he located specifically amongst the peoples referred to in accounts of Alexander’s campaigns in the north-west. According to Kosambi this priesthood played a crucial role in organising resistance to the invader.

What is evident is that while at one level Kosambi conceptualised tribe and caste as mutually opposed social formations, he explored the intervening terrain, recognising it as a complex continuum rather than as a barren, polarised landscape.

6 The text and the Field

I had mentioned at the outset that Kosambi’s methodologies were often eclectic. On the one hand was his insistence that the scholar needed to step beyond the library or the archive. Consider for instance, his characteristically scathing dismissal of the 19th century debates on widow remarriage in the essay titled ‘Combined Methods in Indology’ (1963):

That 85 per cent of the population in their immediate locality allowed widows to remarry (and permitted divorce when either party felt aggrieved) made no impression upon the scholars nor upon the authorities on Hindu Law (ibid: 4).

As he never tired of repeating, fieldwork, which included observing tangible material artefacts as well as the more intangible modes of communication in lived, quotidian environments, was, according to him, indispensable for both understanding the past and shaping the future. Kosambi often suggested analogies between present-day practices/events and those of the past. In the light of more recent investigations and more complex ethnographies, it is possible to dismiss some of the specific correlations that he worked out. Nonetheless, the acknowledgement that the frontiers between past and present were porous rather than water-tight allowed him to arrive at insights denied to those whom he described sarcastically as “avoiding any disagreeable contact with anthropology, sociology, or reality” (ibid: 4).

The immense potential of such “disagreeable contact” is evident in his discussion on the gotra system (ibid: 175). Here he pointed out that while the brahmanical textual tradition was seemingly congealed, there were virtually infinite variations on the ground: in south India alone, vaiśyas, who were ascribed a single “gotra” according to the “high” tradition, had as many as a thousand gotras of their own.

It is not surprising that Kosambi viewed the vast textual corpus (mainly Sanskritic) of early India with suspicion and scepticism. In his own words (ibid: 190)

In attempting to trace briefly the main features of the earlier caste system down to the age of the Buddha (fifth century BC) we shall have to keep in mind the brahmanic origin of most Sanskrit texts, and the brahmanic transmission of all of them. As far as accurate historical evidence is concerned, most of these are mere verbiage; an occasional reference is all we have to piece out Indian history, the confusion being aggravated by fantastically ignorant late brāhmana commentators, as well as by that fact that it is a poor Sanskrit word that has less than a dozen meanings.

He used his formidable grasp of ancient and early medieval Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit textual traditions to highlight the complexities of the caste system in practice. His discussion on the heterogeneity of the category of the Aryan, illustrated through the example of the people designated as Madra (ibid: pp 19-21), is a case in point. Starting from the acknowledged association of the Madras with the north-west, he established that this region in general was recognised as an area where scholarship flourished. The grammarians Pānini and Patanjali belonged to the region; it was also regarded as a centre of learning in the Brhadāranyaka Upanisad. Further, this was independently corroborated by the Jātakas, which almost invariably represented Taxila as a centre of learning.

At the same time, the Mahābhārata contains a famous (or infamous) diatribe, attributed to Karna, condemning the Madras as people amongst whom norms of “proper” womanly behaviour are not maintained, and where the ideal constancy of the varna order has been replaced by a state of unprecedented flux. Other sections of the epic suggest that the region was associated with distinctive marital practices, including the payment of bride- price. Kosambi showed that this representation had parallels with the descriptions of social conditions in the region found in Pali canonical literature. He also drew attention to the irony implicit in such opinions being ascribed to Karna, whose own social origins are depicted as being obscure. Note the range of sources Kosambi marshalled to establish his point that the meaning of the term Aryan was context-specific rather than immutable: works on Sanskrit grammar, the Upanisads, Pali texts, and the Mahābhārata. And he concluded the discussion by reverting, typically, to present-day practice:

It might be added that the custom [of marriage with bride-price] is permissible and normal in some 80 per cent or more of the Maharashtrian population; brahmins do not hesitate to officiate (for a consideration) at such weddings (ibid: 21).

Consider another, seemingly trivial instance of the way in which he deployed his virtually encyclopaedic knowledge (‘Development of the Gotra System’, 1960). In discussing the range of meanings that could be assigned to the term “vrata” he suggested that it could be connected with the notion of food taboos: “vrata has also the meaning ‘feeding exclusively upon’, proved by madhu-vrata for a bee” (ibid: 173). It was this phenomenal ability to draw on both minute details as well as on broader issues of perspective and context that enabled Kosambi to weld together insights from explorations into texts and the field into complex and challenging analyses.

7 Towards subversive histories of Caste

Rich and relevant as Kosambi’s investigations of caste were, it is necessary to recognise that there were areas that remained unexplored, questions that remained unasked, and consequently unaddressed within his framework. Kosambi attempted to work with the equation between caste and class, defining both with a somewhat narrow precision. Although his own explorations often led him beyond this postulate, one senses that it was a constricting factor as well. The equation was useful up to a point, beyond which it deflected his attention away from certain other facets of caste.

Present-day sociologists(2), for instance, have drawn attention to the category of dominant castes, not necessarily identified as brāhmanas or ksatriyas, who owe their power to their control over land in specific localities. Searching for such categories in the early Indian textual and epigraphic material is obviously an avenue worth exploring. Reconstructions of the histories of ruling lineages in the early medieval period point to the potential of such investigations.

Other studies (3) have focused on how exchange (including gift- exchange) constitutes social relations, especially those of caste. While the ingredients of these exchanges do not necessarily or always fit in within easily identifiable of means of production, they are nonetheless significant in creating and maintaining caste identities and relations.

But perhaps the most substantive challenges to earlier understandings of caste have emerged from Marxist feminist and dalit feminist perspectives. The former is exemplified in the Indian context in the writings of Uma Chakravarti.4 Chakravarti draws attention to the need to reconceptualise both caste and class in terms of gender. This rests on an understanding of class as having a sexual dimension – to be understood not simply in terms of control over inanimate or non-human material resources, but also in terms of control of sexuality and reproduction (both biological and social).

Chakravarti documents how, in both contemporary and early contexts, caste identities are/were often shaped through the regulation of female sexuality. Thus, claims to high caste status are/were often bolstered by the seclusion of women. Thus gender identities are implicated in and in turn feed into the construction of caste identities. To cite an example that Kosambi would have immediately identified with, restrictions on widow remarriage are often an index of high caste status, ensuring that access to the sexual resources of the woman rest in the hands of the privileged men who constitute her “protectors”.

Explorations of the engendered nature of caste can, then, radically alter some of our earlier ideas of both structure and process. Kosambi’s stimulating analyses of goddess traditions, where he documented how these modes of worship underwent a process of uneasy accommodation within the brahmanical tradition, came tantalisingly close to opening up these possibilities, but did not lead to any major reformulation of his core ideas.

Dalit feminist studies pose further challenges – systematically contesting tendencies to normalise and naturalise a top-down brahmanical perspective on caste as the only or dominant understanding (5)by drawing attention to “histories of caste oppression, struggles and resistance” (Rege 2006:13). As Rege points out (ibid: 67):

The theory and practice of women’s studies has, from its inception, underscored the relation between knowing and transforming; dalit feminism qualifies this relation further. It places at the centre of knowing, not the unmarked category ‘woman’ but dalit women who have an interest in overthrowing the system and not rising within it.

It is in this context that Kosambi’s reasons for engaging with history bear reiteration:

The principal aim of history, as written hitherto, has been the presentation of great events in a chronological sequence. However, the relative importance of events rarely appears the same to people of another time, place, civilisation, or class bias, so that a mere chronicle does not suffice. The course of social development, the inner causes which ultimately manifest themselves in the striking events, the driving forces which underlie great movements, have to be made clear before any work can be dignified by the name of serious history. Yet this type of analysis is not always welcome to some historiographers. They, or the people who really condition their version of history, are unwilling to face the inevitable consequences of this procedure. For the implication is necessarily that all history can be so analysed, hence current events; but if so, it follows that the course of events can be influenced by deliberate action, that history has hereafter to be consciously made by those that live it, not merely set down after a safe interval of time by the professional historian. This is clearly dangerous to those who would suffer by the change, usually those in power. Thus such historical writing is labelled subversive. History then remains a means of escape, a romantic pastime, a profession, or a method of inducing submissiveness; it cannot become a scientific pursuit (ibid: 407).

The invitation to write subversive histories remains as challenging as when it was first issued by Kosambi more than 50 years ago (‘The Study of Ancient Indian Tradition’, 1953). Perhaps the best tribute we can pay to his memory while celebrating his birth centenary is to remind ourselves of the need to write such histories.


1 B D Chattopadhyaya’s edited anthology of Kosambi’s essays (Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002) has proved invaluable for the present exercise. All citations, unless otherwise stated, are from this anthology.

2 See for instance, M Srinivas, The Dominant Caste and Other Essays, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987.

3 For example, G Raheja, The Poison in the Gift: Ritual, Prestation and the Dominant Caste in a North Indian Village, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1988.

4 Uma Chakravarti, Gendering Caste: Through a Feminist Lens, Stree, Calcutta, 2003.

5 See for instance Sharmila Rege, Writing Caste/Writing Gender, Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios, Zubaan, New Delhi, 2006.


I would like to thank B P Sahu and the members of the Indian History Congress for inviting me to present an earlier version of this paper as part of the panel discussion to commemorate the birth centenary of Kosambi during the 68th session of the Congress, Delhi 2007. Suvira Jaiswal, who presided over the session, initiated many of us into reading Kosambi and understanding caste. I would also like to thank all those present at the Calcutta University Department of History seminar to commemorate Kosambi for their interventions. The paper draws substantially on these earlier versions and the discussion on them. Thanks, finally, to Romila Thapar for her careful reading of the text and suggestions for improvement.

Kumkum Roy ( is at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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