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 emperor...in 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 (shubhrachakrabarti@yahoo.com) is with the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

1 comment:

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?

http://www.YogaVidya.com/gita.html