Monday, October 12, 2009

Popular introduction to DD Kosambi

This is the chapter on DD Kosambi which appears in a forthcoming book on a popular introduction to Indian scientists. The book has been written by Arvind Gupta and is being published at the initiative of the Indian Science Academy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Recent Researches into the Harappan Script

Veteran epigraphist Iravatham Mahadevan shares some fascinating breakthroughs on his researches on deciphering the Harappan script.
When the Indus script became extinct, the memory of its grammatical elements should have been lost; but it did not quite happen that way. Since most of the Harappan ruling classes had names or titles ending in -(a)nr , that sound was borrowed by Indo-Aryan as an ethnic name to denote the neighbouring Non-Aryan people. Thus, Dr. –(a)nr > IA anr > andhra ( attested in Aitareya Brahmana VII:18).


The ‘alpha and omega’ signs have been so designated not only because they respectively commence and end most of the Indus texts, but also because they sum up the essence or most important feature of the Indus seal-texts, namely, the identity of the Harappan ruling class. This is shown below schematically (from left to right for convenience) :...


After the collapse of the Indus Civilisation, the institution of mel-akam (‘High House’) did not survive. But those who owned allegiance to the mel-akam , the akatt-u people, did survive and, in course of time, re-emerged in the Vedic period as the ‘jar-born’ priests typified by Agastya. A section of the ruling classes did not stay on, but migrated under the leadership of the Akattiyar clan to South India, where they founded the Early Historical kingdoms (of Andhras and their successors in the Deccan, and the triple kingdoms, Chera, Chola and Pandya, in the Tamil country).
Download pdf file

Courtesy: Harappa Project

Note: This article is not related directly to DD Kosambi but I felt it might be of some interest to the readers of this blog.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

DDK on Solar Energy

An Indian Express editorial cites DDK's views in favour of solar energy.
In the ’50s and ’60s, solar energy was just a glint in the Indian scientific establishment’s eye. Two of our intellectual heavyweights, D.D. Kosambi and Homi Bhabha, clashed over whether India should concentrate on solar or nuclear energy. Kosambi’s view that India has a natural advantage in the solar sector, compared to the enormous costs of nuclear power, was ultimately disregarded. Since then, we have dawdled for years. According to the CAG, our solar energy centre in the renewable energy ministry, which is meant to link government, institutions, industry and consumers, sent back 44-76 per cent of its budget between 2002-7. There was practically no headway in research or tech, or any productive relationships with industry.

But now, India is all set to come up with a global energy breakthrough, with a solar plan that aims to generate 20 GW (that is, 20,000 MW) over the next couple of decades (the largest in the world). This would make us a leader in renewable energy, and would radically change India’s role in climate change mitigation. Obviously, there is much to be worked through in order to transform solar energy from a small boutique alternative to a steady and substantial part of our energy mix — most importantly in the price differential between conventional and solar power. India’s solar plan aims for grid parity by 2020. Another significant shift is the focus on solar thermal, along with photo-voltaic (electricity-generating) technology.

All of this sounds thoroughly commendable, but the question is, how will it be executed and who will pick up the tab? While private industry is most competent to take on this task, payback will take a long time, and much of the risk and R&D will have to be publicly footed. The challenge is to structure incentives to spur disruptive innovation, without having to prop it up altogether. Once we have a clear aim, cost estimates, and a set of our own commitments by the time Copenhagen rolls around, India is entitled to ask the world to pitch in, at least in terms of financial support. Either way, India has finally come to a constructive position and crafted a plan commensurate with its capacities, rather than whingeing about the unfairness of having to take action on the world’s behalf.

DDK on Adivasis

JJ Roy Burman cites DDK in his article on the term 'Adivasis':
At the outset it needs to be realised that a nation-state like India is not a cultural but political entity which was borne due to a quirk of history. Imposing Hindi as a national and official State language over all the regions is not a very civilised act—it smacks of North Indian chauvinism. Secondly, it is also not true that the tribes in all quarters of the country are aboriginals of the regions where they inhabit at present. While the famous historian Kosambi (1956) viewed that the tribes had migrated to the plain areas at a much later date only after the vegetation had thinned out and wild animals became less numerous—making the area less dangerous for human habitation and fit for settled cultivation, Archana Prasad (2003), the young scholar from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, feels that the tribes practising settled cultivation in the plains were pushed to the hills and forests by the profligate Aryan invaders and later Hindu settled cultivators and the outside traders. Either way the tribes are not autochthons of the spaces occupied by them at present. In 1980s Andre Betteille` had similarly expressed about the inapplicability of the concept of aborigine to the tribesmen in India.

MR Rajagoplan on DDK

MR Rajagoplan of the Gandhigram Trust writes a biographical sketch of DD Kosambi and Dharmanand Kosambi. (.doc file)
The impact of his work, however, continued growing after his death. Eight years after his death, in 1947, three books honouring Kosambi were published. As many as 14 years after his death, in the year 1980, he was decorated with the ‘Hari Om Ashram Award’ by University Grants Commission for bringing to light the mutual relationship between science and society. The freshness of his ideas and thoughts has not reduced one bit even nearly half a century after his demise. Last, but not least year long celebration has been arranged for his centenary in Pune beginning from July, 2007. The inaugural lecture was delivered by Romilla Thapar a famous Historian. Prabhat Patnaik and Irtan Habih have delivered talks. The last in the series would be in June 2008. Pune University would bring out a publication of these 12 lectures.

Prime Minister of India has sanctioned a Chair in the name of Kosambi with an amount of Rs. One crore in Pune University. He has also announced the release of a postal stamp in Kosambi’s honour.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Kosambi the Mathematician

Dr. CK Raju writes in the current issue of the EPW on DD Kosambi the Mathematician (pdf file). I will convert the pdf to html at a later point and re- post the full article here. Here is the summary:
Apart from his more popular work on numismatics and genetics, D D Kosambi worked on path geometry, exploring the foundations of general relativity. He also worked on statistics in infinite dimensions, computing, and probabilistic number theory. His whole mathematical career appears as one long clash of values. A rejection of the value of specialisation saw him leave Harvard. The high value he placed on research saw his exit from Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University. His attempt to impart real knowledge of mathematics saw him sacked from Fergusson College, Pune. His insistence on ethical and relevant research led to his exit from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research where, too, the diversity of his interests was portrayed negatively, though he continued his mathematical research till the end of his life. His mathematical career raises a number of questions regarding science management in post-independence India. These questions are vital today when the state is again making huge investments in science and technology.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kosambis at Fergusson College

Dr Meera Kosambi, daughter of DD Kosambi, writes about her family's association with the Fergusson College in Pune. (via Arvind Gupta)
My father, Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (1907-1966), followed in his father's footsteps by joining Fergusson College in 1933. He had completed his schooling at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and passed his Bachelor's degree from Harvard University with distinction, majoring in Mathematics. On returning to India he taught for two years at Benares Hindu University and then for two years at Aligarh Muslim University before coming to Pune and Fergusson College. Here he taught Mathematics and Statistics for 13 years, before joining the newly opened Tata Institute of Fundamental Research as a professor of  mathematics to work there until he retired.

The informal American style characteristic of D. D. Kosambi contrasted with the more British and staid atmosphere of Fergusson College. He gave extra help to the interested students (who also adored him), but felt little sympathy for those whose only interest was in scraping through the examination (and who found him to be strict and demanding). One of his foremost students was A.R. Kamat who was associated with the Deccan Education Society as a professor of Statistics for many years.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Review of DDK's Collected Works

A fitting centenary tribute (Source)


A compilation of Kosambi’s writings on Indology and other areas

THE OXFORD INDIA KOSAMBI — Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings: Compiled, edited and introduced by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 1250.

D.D. Kosambi has been rightly described as responsible for a “paradigm shift” in Indian historiography. His writings went beyond providing variations in the narrative of history. However, most of them remained in journals that are not easily accessible to the ordinary reader. B.D. Chattopadhyaya has put students of Indian history under a heavy debt not only for bringing together the writings of Kosambi but also for the learned introduction and the piece “Remembering Kosambi” written specifically for this edition. In the introduction, Chattopadhyaya had earlier raised many refreshing questions concerning the methodological turn that Kosambi brought about in Indian historiography. A few of these questions, and the tentative answers he had given them, are taken up for reconsideration in the freshly written piece. This is a clear example of the self-reflexivity of an honest scholar constantly interrogating his own positions — not clinging fast to an opinion, however considered that may have been.

Distinct historian

What distinguish Kosambi as a historian are two things — unorthodox ways including a consistent application of Marxism and uncompromising fidelity to evidence whether textual or generated by himself through field work. Field work for him included not only walking the difficult terrain in a literal sense; it also meant going through the grind, discovering and deciphering inscriptions or comparing and collating recensions to fix a text. The first of these, Marxism, was not the official one — what one would have been initiated into by the Communist Party of India or through the Soviet Union. He and the party were ill at ease with each other: he had only contempt for the Official Marxists (“OM”) while the party thought that Kosambi’s Marxism was only skin-deep (to which he would retort that they did not know how thick his skin was!). Hence it is difficult to explain his Marxism.

So also, being professionally trained in Mathematics and staying at the forefront of its practice, what took him to Indological research of the most rigorous variety is another question. Chattopadhyaya suspects that he acquired both, as well as his somewhat eclectic approach, from his father although the two shared little ground. The rejection of the European model of historiography, too, is at the centre of Kosambi’s philosophy although it is seldom recognised by those who claim to follow him. Here Kosambi shares, strangely, common ground with Rabindranath Tagore.

Another uncomfortable question that Chattopadhyaya raises relates to the somewhat high decibel produced on the occasion of the birth centenary of Kosambi. Kosambi, in reality, has not been read as much as he has been sought to be appropriated. Both as a person and as a scholar, he has been somewhat inaccessible; and his writings were more so. This inaccessibility has been responsible for the relative obscurity of the genius. Despite this, scholars have sworn by him, chanting a few things he said as a formula. Chattopadhyaya shows that much of this is make-believe.

The instances of the major debate on feudalism and a recent book on prehistory, both by leading Marxist historians of India, where Kosambi is practically ignored in spite of his path-breaking work in these areas should open our eyes. Repeating mindlessly what Kosambi had said more than half a century ago is not the best way to achieve greater clarity on issues he had raised; but refusing to so much as consider him, even while swearing by him and his philosophy, certainly is not a step in that direction.

Besides these two pieces by Chattopadhyaya, the volume contains almost all articles Kosambi has written on Indology and have not been included in collections already available. It will be preposterous to say anything about the articles of the giant, except to salute the memory of the path-breaker. We are beholden to the publisher and the editor for the yeoman service of making these articles available to us, so that we can be partly absolved of the charge that Chattopadhyaya makes in remembering Kosambi. In short, it is the most fitting centenary tribute to the polymath.

The volume would have been even more useful had it contained a bibliography of Kosambi’s writings. This is important because Kosambi wrote on aspects outside Indology. Apart from mathematics and statistics — his own professional concerns — he wrote on many other subjects. An index would have been of help, particularly given the size of the volume, and misprints abound. The volume is too important and valuable to be marred by such minor irritants.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

DDK's online works moved to Google Site

In light of yahoo's recent announcement that the platform will be soon discontinued, I have moved the online works of DD Kosambi that I had built at geocities to google sites. I find google sites to be simpler to build, besides it gives a good sitemap for better navigation. As readers of this blog probably know, these are only partial content from Kosambi's books from my original project. To get complete access to all his works, please go to Arvind Gupta's site.

I plan to expand the scope of the new site to add works by other historians, preferably those who have followed DDK's trail here. If you would like to join the effort, please send me an email at: readerswords at gmail dot com. Thanks!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dalits, Beware of DD Kosambi !

Leo Alston: Brahman Misrepresentation through Grand lama
What was once a human-centered Buddhist land got the insensate casteist Bharat. It was as a event of Babasaheb that Buddhism was resuscitated in Bharat. The Dalit Bahujans got back their original faith. Babasaheb cognise the foxiness and intriguing Brahman heads rattlingly goodly and he composed the Gautama and his Dharma ', the greatest book of Buddhism ever pent. In that book Babasaheb took all the corruptness presented in the instructions of the Buddha by the Brahman priests. The Brahminic karma and reincarnation theories were completely debunked by Babasaheb. Siddhartha was the original and the macrocosm 's foremost positivist.

In the 1900 's there were even Brahman Buddhist students like the Sarswat Brahman Dharmanand Kosambi, begetter of DD Kosambi the noetic leader of all Indian Marxist who are all decpective and disgised Brahmans. The Brahmins hold a tradition named Purva Paksha ', that is survey the enemy goodly before assailling. These pseudo Buddhists like Kosambi are the people who examined Buddhism so that Brahmins can strategize against theenemies.Babasaheb whounderstood the foul Brahman psyche and schemes to a higher degree anyone else, holded analyzed Buddhism for twenty ages before converting to the faith at the historical Nagpur observance in 1956. The Brahmins as was common holded an oculus on this changeover. They whiff this menace.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Kosambi Effect on Indian Historiography

The Kosambi Effect: A Hermeneutic urn that shook Indian Historiography

Rajan Gurukkal

Source: EPW, 26th July 2008 Special Issue on DD Kosambi (Download pdf)

Kosambi was a scientist who talked about the past with the politics of intimacy with the present. This paper identifies the “Kosambi effect” and its various constituents. The most crucial constituent is the awareness that historical knowledge cannot be based on empirical givens and that a methodology guaranteeing a systematic, deductively formulated, and empirically verified concept of reality about the past is indispensable. The adaptation of historical materialism to serve the purpose, and accordingly writing a history worth designating a genre by itself in form, content and hermeneutics is another crucial constituent.

I am grateful to Kesavan Veluthat for his comments on the draft of this paper.

Rajan Gurukkal ( is currently visiting professor, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.


Indian historiography in the mid-1950s, when D D Kosambi turned to the field, was not all that weak, thanks to contributions of both foreign and indigenous scholars towards discovery and publication of sources as well as standardisation of the positivist craft of reconstructing history. However, limitations like preoccupation with dynasties and kings, their incomplete lists, obscure dates, eulogistic biographies and spiced tales of wars and conquests, extent of kingdoms and typology of administration, persisted ad nauseam. Books of James Mill and Vincent Smith were still inescapable master-narratives, even for those engaged in corrective efforts on them. Kosambi, a hard scientist, was impatient of the kind of soft knowledge that historians fabricated around India’s past. He was, hence, looking for ways of charting the main currents of Indian history without losing the logic of science, although he never ever hoped to turn history into a science. His goal was to be scientific about the past, which hardly meant equation of science with non-science; it meant steadfast adherence to the logical relationship between premises and conclusions. Marxism was the answer he sought and it resulted in bringing a fundamental hermeneutic turn virtually questioning the meanings, measures and values hitherto accepted in contemporary Indian historiography.1 The present paper seeks to try and identify what can be called “the Kosambi effect” and figure out its constituents.

1 Adapted Marxist Methodology

It is well known that Kosambi’s historical methodology was founded on Marxism. Exploring “scope and methods”, the opening chapter of his book, he states: “The present approach implies a definite theory of history known as dialectical materialism, also called Marxism after its founder”.2 In another context he reaffirms: “...the theoretical basis remains Marxist – as I understand the method.”3 Historical materialism, “a definite theory of history”, as he put it, was indeed his framework of comprehension and source of interpretation of historical societies. Accordingly he defined history as “the presentation, in chronological order of successive developments in the means and relations of production”.4 He quotes a long passage from Marx’s preface to Critique of Political Economy (1859), as an excellent statement of what he needed by way of a theoretical basis for characterising historical societies and their transformations. The famous passage begins as the following:

In the social production of their means of existence, men enter into definite, necessary relations which are independent of their will, productive relationships which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The aggregate of those productive relationships constitute the economic structure of the society, the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure arises and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of the material means of existence conditions the whole process of social, political and intellectual life.
Though Kosambi quotes the entire paragraph from Marx’s preface, what seems to have attracted him most is the portion reproduced above, as evident from the essence of Marxist historical perspective summarised elsewhere in his own words:

An aggregate of human beings constitutes a society when, and only when, the people are in some way related. The essential relation is not kinship, but much wider; namely, that developed through production and mutual exchange of commodities. The particular society is characterised by what it regards as necessary; who gathers or produces the things, by what implements; who lives of the production of others, and by what right, divine or legal – cults and laws are social by-products; who owns the tools, the land, sometimes the body and soul of the producer; who controls the disposal of the surplus, and regulates quantity and form of the supply. Society is held together by bonds of production.5

Kosambi understood Marx’s class theory in the least literal sense as referring to the embedded dynamic of difference in the social form rather than a conflict manifesting itself in war. To quote him: “The proper study of history in a class society means analysis of the difference between the interests of the classes on top and of the rest of the people....”6 Obviously, what he has in mind is the contradictory dynamic of class differentiation carried forward to diverse aspects of social life.

It appears that Marx’s primacy thesis about social transformation theorising the process of one mode of production dissolving into another, impelled under the dynamic of incompatibility between forces and relations of production, does not seem to have engaged Kosambi much. It is true that he talks about tools and implements as fundamental determinants in a social form. He says:
“Social organisation cannot be more advanced than the instruments of production will allow...”7

However, the theoretical insights underlying the following sentence from Marx’s preface to Critique of Political Economy do not seem to have prompted him to explain transformation:
A social system never perishes before all the productive forces have developed for which it is wide enough; and, new, higher productive forces never come into being before the material conditions for their existence have been brought to maturity within the womb of the old society itself.

Kosambi did think about forces of production central. He underlines the centrality of plough and discovers economic practices, ideas and institutions indicative of a transformed society in the course of critical analysis of ancient Indian literary texts, but hardly seeks to interpret change by problematising the incompatibility between forces and relations of production, which Marx emphasised the most.8

Like any other historian, what Kosambi wanted to adopt too was the direct procedure from historical records to history, but he was confronted by the question as to how history of India could be written in the absence of sufficient documentation. The texts and traditions of ancient India are not only different but also do not have social continuity of contacts with accuracy of space and time.9 He says: “We are thus led inevitably to concentrate upon successive developments, in chronological order, in the means and relations of production. Only this can tell us how people lived at any period. The point of view here is, as in any other science worth the name, purely materialistic.”10

2. Anti-Deterministic Stance

D D Kosambi’s historical methodology does not let us just brand it as Marxist and be done with it. Historical materialism was indeed his framework for comprehending the past but his procedure was not exactly as construed in Marxism, the basic presumption of which meant formulation of theoretical truth first and checking it against the theoretically accessible empirical evidence. Kosambi often preferred to proceed the other way around, of course under the predicament of lack of direct sources. He says:

We shall at times have to reconstruct the material changes from what survives as marks upon the ideological superstructure, but let it be noted that Marxism is far from the economic determinism which its opponents so often take it to be. For that matter, any intelligent determinist must discuss ‘conditions’ rather than ‘causes’ and take full cognisance of the course of historical development.11

Kosambi had little regard for theoretical empiricism that precluded hypothetico-deductive destined to deviate from the foundational theory, perhaps the central property that can be called the Kosambi effect. He says: “When one applies (Marxism) to the Indian problem, it must be kept in mind that Marx speaks of all mankind where we deal only with a fraction”.12

Kosambi does not adhere to the teleological evolutionary schema through which Marx illustrated his theory unlike most Marxist historians who religiously do, often to the extent of even taking the illustration itself for theory.13 Though he has not defined it anywhere, it appears that he understood and practised Marx’s theory exactly as construed by the structuralist Marxists who took it more as an instrument of analysis than a typology of social development. Kosambi observes “ single mode prevailed uniformly over the whole country at any one time; so it is necessary to select for treatment that particular mode which, at any period, was the most vigorous, most likely to dominate production, and which inevitably spread over the greater part of the country, no matter how many of the older forms survived in outward appearance.”14 However, he had accepted feudal mode of production with least botheration about its non-universal characteristics that historians subsequently debated at length in the Indian context.15 At the same time, he summarily rejected the concept of Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP) by dismissing Marx’s remarks inapplicable to Indian history in the following words: “Acute and brilliant as these remarks are, they [Marx’s words] remain misleading nevertheless”.16

He makes clear that his position is far from mechanical materialism:

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. The complete historical process through which the social form has been reached is also of prime importance. ...If the superstructure cannot be adjusted during growth, then there is eventual conflict. Sometimes the old form is broken by a revolution in the guise of a reformation. Sometimes the class that gains by preserving the older form wins, in which case there is stagnation, degeneracy or atrophy. The early maturity and peculiar helplessness of Indian society against later foreign invasions bears testimony to this general scheme.17

Kosambi’s scathing review of S A Dange’s “painfully disappointing book”, India from Primitive Communism to Slavery, based on “facile pseudo-Marxism” shows the extent of his intolerance towards mechanical application of Marxism.18 However, Kosambi was never reluctant to ascribe universal generalisations to the particular context, even deterministically, so long as sources supported it, as the following statement exemplifies: “At every stage the survival of previous forms and the ideology of the top classes exert tremendous force – whether by tradition or revolt against tradition – upon any social movement.”19 In short, what Kosambi made clear was that the adoption of Marx’s thesis never meant blind repetition of all his conclusions (and even less, those of the official, party-line Marxists) at all times.20

Kosambi was always an ideal analyst who produced the same results every time, and hence, quite scientific. Nevertheless, his views were hardly independent of himself. They were invariably mixed up with sense of justice and empathy, a feature quite sufficient for a scientist to see the approach unscientific. Perhaps, this duality is inevitable to any social scientists, for they make a different sense of “scientific/unscientific” as well as “objective/subjective”. To be scientific for social scientists means to be truthful to and self-reflexive about their ways and means of knowing the social. The central reason is the epistemological distinction they make between the objects of knowledge of science and non-science. The objects of science are ontologically objective and those of social sciences, subjective.21 Marxist concept of objectivity takes it out of the sphere of humanist perception and places it in the sphere of theoretical statements although many Marxists do the other way. Kosambi’s historical methodology was more humanist than Marxist in the theoretical sense. He always insisted upon following a scientific investigation but his observations were objective in the social scientific sense, according to which objectivity resided in the openness and transparency of the evidence and analytical procedure as well as commitment to social justice. His observations seldom became objects of theoretical statements and they often deviated from the avowed theory as required by the nature of the source and probably under various influences including the pressure for rendering his arguments plausible to the sensibility of fellow-historians and readership. These account for the dominance of empiricist language over theory in his writings. It is a fact that they precluded the possibility of theoretical production, though marvellously transcended theoretical empiricism.

Kosambi has delineated a schema of the stages of social development in Indian history with unevenly evolved “tribal forms co-existing in varying concentration” as the long lasting background in time.22 The question as to “how at various points these tribal forms were assimilated to the society” has been central to his identification of the developmental stages. The oldest progressive stage that he identifies in Indian history is that of the class-structured society whose surplus sustained the Indus cities. The next stage he makes out is that of the Aryan pastoral tribal population with horse, mobile food-supply in cattle, and metal weapons, which overpowered the urban population and moved on to the east by clearing forests and assimilating lesser tribes by force and peaceful means. The subsequent stages are those of the rise of agriculture, trade, states, state-controlled agrarian villages and feudalism. There is no Marxism, deterministic or otherwise, in this schema of developmental stages, for it does not address itself the question of transformation from one stage to the other in the light of the theory of conflict between material productive forces and social productive relations. Nonetheless, it was indeed with Marxist insights he identified the advance of agrarian village economy over tribal country as the first social revolution in India, albeit without detailing the incompatibility between the forces and relations of production. Of course, he does state: “Nevertheless, just those social relations within the tribe that had made the first settlements possible had at this stage turned into fetters which had to be broken before society could advance to a higher level.”23 But even when he turns towards changes in forces and relations of production, there is a top-down stare precluding theoretical focus on the process at the base.24 Obviously, the inadequacy of sources disallowed Kosambi to ask from which forms of development of productive forces what relations turned into their fetters where and when. Perhaps, it is not accidental that his definition of history emphasises changes in means and relations of production and not forces.

3 Fieldwork and ethnography

While Kosambi’s hermeneutics was based almost entirely on Marx’s social theory and universals, his heuristics was based on ethnographic fieldwork and particulars. Field was his laboratory and ethnography of the present-day practices, his experiments. The importance he had given to fieldwork, his caution about ways of conducting it and the ingenuity he insisted are evident in the following words:

...fieldwork has to be performed with critical insight, taking nothing for granted, or on faith, but without the attitude of superiority, sentimental reformism, or spurious leadership which prevents most of us from learning anything except from bad textbooks... The paramount importance of fieldwork in the study of Indian history seems altogether to have escaped their [historians’] attention. Such works in the field falls into three inter-related classes: archaeology, anthropology and philology. All three need some preliminary knowledge of local conditions, the ability to master local dialects, and to gain the confidence of tribesmen as well as peasants. In all fieldwork it is necessary to develop a technique and critical method during the course of the investigation itself. Fitting observations into rigid, preconceived moulds is ruinous. The technique of asking the right question in the proper way cannot be taught nor mastered except in the field. Whatever transport is used to reach any given locality, the actual fieldwork can only be done on foot...there is no substitute for work in the field for the restoration of pre-literate history. This extends to all historical periods for any country like India where written sources are so meagre and defective while local variations are indescribably numerous...25

This methodological emphasis on field data for the study of history is not something common to historians, for their approach is normally confined diachronically to a specific period in the past presupposing a rupture with the present. Further, they seldom learn things from living objects; they derive their knowledge out of dead relics in their archaeologically stratified contexts. Kosambi, on the other hand, stated:

Archaeology provided some data, but I could get a great deal from the peasants. Fieldwork in philology and social anthropology had to be combined with archaeology in the field as distinguished from the site archaeology of a ‘dig’.26

It is chiefly out of ethnographic survivals identified through careful observations that he sought to construct ancient socioeconomic processes. For instance, he argued that the change from an aggregate of gentes to a society, by relying on factors such as the endless ramifications of the extant caste system and the continuation of caste names, endogamy, commensal ‘tabu’, exogamous ‘septs’ (often with totemic names), and caste ‘sabha’ councils of tribal origin.27 One thing that is exciting about Kosambi’s fieldwork is his rare acumen to tracing survivals of the past in the present without losing the embedded evolutionary dynamic in the diachronic perception. It is an extremely difficult exercise with the lurking danger of being anachronistic any time unless the continuity is archaeologically and theoretically well-sustained.

4 detection of Long Continuity

Kosambi was pretty sure that there existed a long continuity of past traditions in the folk present. He could theorise convincingly that change in ancient times was extremely slow and hence despite the distance in time, the past persisted in the present under certain historically contingent material conditions of human existence. Pre-history thus turned out to be a heritage of pre-class society to Kosambi. Archaeology of early tools and materials made a live sense to him more in the light of the current ethnography of tribal life with the notion of continuous acculturation. Likewise, the social anthropology of the rise of patriarchy, elaboration of ritual and sacrifice, and disposal of the dead, made sense to him in the perspective of sustained continuity. His analysis of the power of group-life and the interpretation of the descent of castes from tribes are based on ethnographic insights into continuity as well as change. We are shaken to open our eyes when he says: “The vast majority of country-side gods are still daubed with a red pigment that is a palpable substitute for long-vanished blood sacrifices – which also survive in a few cases, although the very idea of blood sacrifices would now come as a shock to many devotees. One finds rites practised which clearly go back to the Stone Age, though the votaries – often people with a modern education – are not conscious of the incredibly long continuity.”28 His first book, after discussing “scope and methods”, goes straight into the heritage of pre-class society, focusing on tribal survivals by way of cults, festivals and rites.

Kosambi’s “long continuity thesis” goes far beyond material artefacts, pursuing ancient ritual practices through a rigorous literary critical analysis of cultural texts. Continuity of culture is a rare trait that Kosambi ascribes to India on the basis of his superstructural analysis, seminal in the absence of historical records and feasible, thanks to the presence of ritual or religious texts in plenty. In response to allegations such as: “India was never a nation”, “that Indian culture and civilisation is a by-product of foreign conquest”, Kosambi argued that the continuity of Indian culture in its own country is perhaps its most important feature unlike other continents of ancient civilisations.29 He observes: “At every stage, in almost every part of the country, a great deal of the superstructure survived, along with the productive and formal mechanism of several previous stages; there always remained some people who could and did cling stubbornly to the older mode.”30 He discovers as “an extraordinary feature of the literary source, namely, that even the latest of the works may be the first to contain a very ancient tradition not recorded earlier, except sometimes by passing mention”.31

Kosambi owed his method of linking the past with the present-day folk-life to his father who had used the method of reconstructing the past practices and their contexts out of village life.32 He was pretty sure of the long historical continuity of folk practices and the continuity had brought him great relief as a researcher of ancient history encountering acute dearth of source material. To quote his words: “Nevertheless, the country has one tremendous advantage that was not utilised till recently by the historian: the survival within different social layers of many forms that follow reconstruction of totally diverse earlier stages. To find these strata one has to move from the cities into the countryside.”33

5 Politics of intimacy with the Present

Kosambi sought to study the past not out of antiquarian interest, but under pressures of socio-economic problems of the present. A praxis interventionist seeking resolutions to the problems of the present out of the past, he went about mastering history under the politics of intimacy with the present. Learning about the past was drawing oneself intimate to the present as far as he was concerned. It was learning about the present in the light of the past too. He was aware of and deeply committed to the political function of history, which meant facilitation of critical understanding of the past in relation to the present. Kosambi makes his function as a historian clear by quoting E H Carr:
The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present. Great history is written precisely when the historian’s vision of the past is illuminated by insight into problems of the present... To learn about the present in the light of the past also means to learn about the past in the light of the present. The function of history is to promote a profounder understanding of both past and present through the interrelation between them. 34

Kosambi’s starting point of investigation into Indian history is critical consciousness about deeper socio-political and cultural conditions of the contemporary India. He begins identifying and characterising the Indian ruling class in the following way:
The class that rules India today, the paramount power, is the Indian bourgeoisie. This class has some peculiar characteristics, due primarily to the course of history. The Indian bourgeoisie is technically backward. Its production (and mentality) is overwhelmingly that of a petty bourgeoisie as yet... Its government has a unique position as by far the greatest power of capitalist assets, and a monopolist wherever it chooses to be. This seemingly absolute power is under compulsion of reconciling the real needs of the country, and its professed socialist goal, with the rapacity of both petty-bourgeois and tycoon sections of the ruling class. Finally, the class came to power too late, in a world where the international bourgeois failure and crisis had already manifested itself.35

The first chapter of Culture and Civilisation, ‘The Historical Perspective’ opens with characterisation of “the Indian scene” of unity and diversity, diversity as the cultural truth and unity as created by the modern ruling class consisting of the capitalist bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, its politicians and bureaucrats and, the government as a single entrepreneur. Going into the historical composition of the Indian bourgeoisie and its multi-class origins, he observed: “A good deal of modern Indian Capital is, in fact, transformed primitive feudal and moneylender’s accumulation... In recent times even India’s feudal princes have had to (turn) their crude hoarded wealth into shares and stocks or sink into poverty... The feudal, moneylending, and trading families, especially their womenfolk never lost the outward forms of their religious superstition.”36 Characterising the Indian villages he viewed: “...the dominant class in India and India’s urban life bears the stamp of foreigners who imposed bourgeois mode of production

– the countryside and religious institutions carry the indelible mark of their primitive origins because primitive modes of life have been and are still possible in many parts of the country”.37 Discussing difficulties of the historian against such traits of the contemporary socio-political and cultural reality, he sets unique procedure.

Kosambi’s context of doing history is not merely the bourgeoisie present theoretically abstracted, but done to the empirical details of everyday life, such as daily food requirements per Indian adult, in ounces. He grows impatient of official declarations stating that Indian food consumption continues to decline.

The grim tale of a diet so miserably deficient in every single particular is made still more tragic by the fact that it is a rare Indian who can afford to buy even the food assigned to him by the statistical averages. The question is, whether this situation of a populace doomed to hunger and disease is permanent, or whether Indian society is about to rid itself of such basic evils. How long can any country remain a democracy with this little sustenance for the average man? The answer has to be worked out by correct thinking, for which the study of history is quite indispensable. But the solution has then to be made a reality by correct action, which means a step beyond mere study of the past. Control over history is not to be attained by the passive suffering that has perpetuated Indian life from generation to generation. The time has now come to make history, to a seriously thought-out, conscious design in order to preserve the peace of Asian and of the world.38

The intimacy that he purposefully maintained between the past and the present gives credence for his commitment to generating critical consciousness by linking specialised knowledge to politics, the most crucial service that the people need from a social scientist. This strong attitude to politics of knowledge showing clarity about and insistence upon the epistemological connection between the history one constructs and its relevance to the contemporary problems, makes the form and content of his history different, as the vital constituent of the Kosambi effect.

6 Primacy of Evidence

Absence of the usual Marxist teleological schema in Kosambi’s Indian history can be understood in the light of his anti-deterministic stance. That there is no direct discussion of the changes in the means and relations of production, which is his definition of history, in his books is a feature of apparent surprise. We have already seen that the stages he identified in Indian history are not theoretically given but empirically endowed.39 There is a discussion of the need for a radical change at the end of the chapter on Aryan expansion. But even that refers to intricacies of ritual as an unimpeachable testimony to the need for a more productive social organisation.40 The observation is that rituals reflected the underlying necessity – the shortage of food under the inadequate system of production. Analysing post-vedic rituals and rites, he identifies emergence of castes as indication of economic differentiation among tribes and class structuring within. He digs out from his sources the relics of institutions like mortgage, interest, usury and so on to characterise a changed society. However, nowhere does one come across in his writings a direct entry into the question of social form and its means and relations of production, despite the avowed methodological insistence upon the primacy of material processes.

Kosambi sought to discuss the cultural first, for the evidence existed there. It helped him reach out to the material basis of social existence by a reversal of the Marxist methodological strategy of proceeding from the base to the super structure with the theory of the homologous bearing of the former on the latter. For instance, he begins his discussion of the transformation from tribe to society by characterising the new priesthood, new religions, the mid-way approach of the Buddha, the dark hero of the Yadus, and the rise of Kosala and Magadha. Speaking about the new creeds and sects that emerged in the Gangetic region he comments:

In the study of these sects, the finer metaphysical differences are of lesser importance than the background phenomena of tribal life and the monstrous cancer growth of sacrificial ritual in the tribal kingdoms. It is out of these and as a protest against their anti-social features that every one of the sects appeared... The new society had gone over to agriculture, so that the slaughter of more and more animals at a growing number of sacrifices meant a much heavier drain upon producer and production.41

The following statements show how he related contents of cultural texts to the historical context of social change.

Truth, justice, non-stealing, not encroaching upon the possessions of others show that a totally new concept of private, individual property had arisen... The injunction against adultery denotes a rigid concept of family and the passing of group-marriage. Without such a morality taken for granted today, trade would have been impossible... The ahimsa doctrine first expressed the basic fact that agriculture can support at least 10 times the number of people per square mile than a pastoral economy in the same territory.42

Likewise, he characterises political changes before examining the economic processes.

Kosambi carefully checks whether the absence of clues to theoretically valid hunches is accidental or natural. He always preferred to explain the absence and go by the evidence. One cannot see arbitrarily imposed theoretical extrapolation in his construction of the past. Absence of evidence for the existence of slavery in ancient India was not accidental for him but quite natural because, as he explains:

There was neither surplus nor enough commodity production for extensive slavery to be profitable. The territory was still thinly settled over long distances in difficult country... There was plenty of room for retreat of the tribesmen as well as for expansion of plough-cultivation, in contrast to the limited useful terrain in Greece or Italy.43

Therefore, he asserted:

 “ is impossible to see slavery in the classical European sense in India at any period”.44

In chapter VII of his Indian History he himself says:

“The last three chapters drift away from the definition of history given at the beginning of this work. The reader may be lost in the text-critical morass presented by tenuous legendary material uncollated with archaeology.”

It is only at the end of a long discussion of polity in five sections based on clues ferreted out from the jumble of literary texts he focuses on the class structure and state-controlled agrarian village as the basic production unit of the Mauryan economy supplemented by trade. The next chapter is about the post-Mauryan polity, superstitions of agrarian society, caste village and Manusmriti, change in religion, development of Sanskrit and its social functions, etc, – apparently topics never to have anything to do with changes in the means and relations of production. He could not find evidence for delineating the conditions of change in the means and relations of production leading towards the genesis of feudalism in India, exactly as the theory would have him extrapolate. Therefore, he preferred to go by what the palpable sources had him believe and characterise feudalism in India, a two-way processes from above and below respectively.45 The first was a stage of state initiative from above in the form of land-grants. He defined feudalism from above “as a state wherein an emperor or powerful king levied tribute from subordinates who still ruled in the right and did what they liked within their own territory – as long as they paid the paramount”.46 The next was a stage of landed intermediary developing within the village, between the state and the peasantry, gradually to wield armed power over the local population.47 According to him feudal developments were inevitable with the growth of small kingdoms over plough-using villages.48

Kosambi explains probably this contradiction by saying:
“Unfortunately, none of these fasts can be elicited without tedious discussion of badly analysed sources. The reader who is dissatisfied with my treatment has only to compare it to any other standard discussion based upon documentation rather than pure conjecture. The most that could be expected here is a sketch of the possibilities for further work.”49

His question is what one would do if the sources to be depended upon for discussing economic transition from pastoral to agrarian are mostly later ritual legend, myth, fable or sermons. According to him many of them have been readjusted by the priestly class which had begun to grow further and further away from the producers, rewriting tradition to prove their own importance or to claim special caste/ class privileges.50

Kosambi states:
“A change of the utmost historical importance is in the relation of the ideological superstructure to the productive basis; what had been an indispensable stimulus at the beginning became a complete hindrance by absolute stagnation at the end.”51

His argument is that the tribal society could not have been converted peacefully to new forms and free savages changed into helpless serfs without the ideological superstructure replete with superstitions such as worship of the cow, cobra, and monkey.

Such theoretical arguments apart, he let the evidence go first and theory to follow. Kosambi did not do theory through history. Theory dissolves and disappears into the history that he writes. Advancing from the superstructure through culture to property relations and economic base was his methodological procedure, which involved rigorous text-critical analysis in search of evidence, a feature of high level technical competence that saved his arguments from being easily branded as Marxist reductionism.

7 Sources First

Kosambi’s top priority was sources, a quality that he inherited from his father. There was a marked difference in Kosambi’s purpose and mode of dependence on sources, particularly literary texts that historians had searched for annals and dynastic accounts. He believed: “So far as annals, king-lists, chronicles, dates of important battles, biographies of rulers and cultural figures go, there is no Indian history worth reading”.52 Therefore, his approach to sources, especially literary texts, was analytical and multidisciplinary, which he called “combined methods in Indology”, putting linguistics, archaeology, anthropology and sociology together in the perspective of the materialistic social theory of history.53 He goes deep into the structure, composition and social context of every text with enormous insights into their constitution. The study of Mahàbhàrata generally and Gita particularly exemplify the thoroughness of the texts with which he proceeded to interpretations implying significant hermeneutic departures in Indian historiography.54 His critical literary analysis, genealogy of myths, archaeological corroboration, etymology of terms, their social anthropological implications such as tabu and totemic importance and so on running in several pages ingrain indications of the pattern of land-use, the presence of plough, the producers, surplus, trade, social groups and relations of appropriation. All this is done not by presenting evidence from texts full of legends and myths, the rationalisation and pursuance of the tantalising contents of which, he knew, would rarely yield direct historical information.55 His use of source was indirect in the sense that he relied on the analytically accessed historical signifiers in it, which in turn could be produced as evidence theoretically.

His critical literary analysis of the available sources was thorough, contextualisation unique and the mastery, amazingly profound, as his reviews, articles and books testify.56 It was a tedious process of critically knowing the internalities and externalities of the texts, which can be illustrated with the help of a few sample quotes from him:

“The Rigveda was put together from clan books combined with certain additions, and then transmitted to us Sakala recension which was generally accepted.... Sàmaveda may be discarded immediately, for its words are almost entirely from the Rigveda with trifling adjustments for the purpose of musical chanting at the fire-sacrifice”.57

Then he goes into the several recensions of the Yajurveda and takes the Taittirãyasamhita of the Black ‘Yajus’ and the Satapathabràhmana portion of the Vàjasneyisamhita of the White Yajus as the most useful texts. In preserving the Yajurveda, several other widely separated tribal groups participated. Names like ‘Kañha’ connected with the tradition are confirmed by Greek sources as Indian tribal names at the time of Alexander. The ‘Taittirãya’ is only one such recension...”58 “The name of the Taittirãyasamhita, derives from ‘taittiri, patrodge gotra totem’, all the more interesting because the book itself tells us that one of the heads struck off from three-headed ‘Tvaùñç’ by Indra became a taittiri bird. The taittiri country produced fine horses according to Mahàbhàrata.”

The Atharvaveda is the late text. He finds the two epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata very difficult to fit anywhere into the closed sequence forming the next group of sources. Finally, there exists the Buddhist canonical literature in the simpler Pàli language, which was first written down in Bihar about the time of Asoka, say about two and a half centuries after the events narrated, and about which grew up a whole series of tales in the nature of commentaries, the Jàtakas being the most informative. He says that Pàli literature brings us into verifiable history, for archaeology supports the record. He thinks that the Jain sutras must be included therewith though in their present state they are later as well as less important. Kosambi delves into the complex sources with his profound multidisciplinary scholarship and amazing competence in linguistics and comparative literature to see what could be historical about them and does archaeology support their historicity.

There is always a detailed examination of sources at each stage with exhaustive critical comments on what to be used, why and how in the light of what were composed when. For instance, speaking about the Buddhist literature, he would note:

 “...Jàtakas cannot be utilised directly for a picture of social relations at the time of the Buddha. The reason is that they were written much later, in a traders’ environment – perhaps, during the Satavahana period. They have in addition been influenced by the lost Ceylonese versions of Buddhist stories from which the present text was again reduced to Pàli. The Buddhist canon was mostly formed about the time of Asoka, a part even later. Only the fact that society and its means of production changed slowly, that there was no special reason to invent the particular details cited, allows parts of the canon to be used as evidence for conditions at the time of the Buddha’s death.”59

The multidisciplinary insights and comparative cultural wisdom with which he handled the sources can be exemplified by a couple of his reflections on the flood incarnations: “The tortoise is of totemic importance, as it has to be built into the sacrificial altar though not a sacrificial animal. It is etymologically related to the Kasyapa ‘gotra’ of the brahmins, which is notorious for being able from early days to absorb (as the name Màtanga Kassapa shows) aborigines who wanted to become brahmins and as the gotra of all those without a clan name or unable to remember their clan name or born of mating against exogamic gotra rules. Kasyapas were negligible in the Rigveda, of growing importance in the traditions above while they took the lead in the early Kosala-Magadhan Buddhist order. The tortoise is specifically included in the list of five nailed animals which may be eaten without breaking a tabu. This shows that it was eaten by brahmins apparently for totemic rights since it is nowhere prescribed as an article of diet nor known to have been specially popular as staple or delicacy. The fish incarnation goes back to Sumeria, perhaps through the Indus culture; the goat fish is a symbol of Ea who is also ‘Enki’ and sleeps in a chamber within the waters just as Vishnunàràyaõa sleeps upon them. The very name Nàràyaõa may be of non-Aryan derivation, for Nara is explained as the waters. The word is probably borrowed by Sanskrit and may be Dravidian, or even Assyrian.”60

8 AfterWords

A scientist who talked about the past with the politics of intimacy with the present, Kosambi remained an intimidating scholar for his contemporaries (for that matter he still does so even for scholars today), to take issue with him, thanks to what can be epitomised as “the Kosambi effect”, the most crucial constituent of which is the awareness that historical knowledge cannot be based on empirical givens and that a methodology guaranteeing a systematic, deductively formulated, empirically verified concept of reality about the past is indispensable. The adaptation of historical materialism to serve the purpose, and accordingly writing a history worth designating a genre by itself in form, content and hermeneutics is another crucial constituent. The authority and authenticity with which he wrote his strong prose of political determination based on a commendable grasp of classical world history, profound knowledge in Sanskrit and Pali texts, scholarship in several foreign languages, intellectual honesty with sources, extensive fieldwork, ethnographic wisdom, familiarity with cognate disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, economics and sociology, and technical competence in epigraphy and numismatics, are other constituents. Naturally, scholars seldom braved a cognitive encounter with his conclusions. They never dared to dismissively brand them Marxist either, since he himself was a ruthless critic of contemporary Marxist arguments. He has noted once that his conclusions “...had a mixed reception because of the reference to Marx, which automatically classifies them as dangerous political agitation in the eyes of many, while official Marxists look with suspicion upon the work of an outsider.”61 Kosambi, distinguished from the positivist, re-constructionist mainstream with empiricism as the central methodology for discovering reality, was a Marxist constructionist inclined to proposing conditions of historical happenings, rather than discovering their causes. He knew that the knowledge about the past in terms of specific details will always remain tentative leaving historians’ representations unending since real past never exists out there for verification. Nevertheless, the version with “the Kosambi effect” will last long, for it ingrains the ultimate realisation expressed in his own words echoing Marx’s philosophical position:
“It is doubtless more important to change history than to write it…”.62


1. Interestingly, Kosambi arrived in Indology gently addressing Marxists and later thundering at them by putting across his views in a few provocative reviews and assertive responses. An example of the gentle tone is ‘Caste and Class in India’, Science and Society, Vol III, No 3. New York, 1944, pp 243-49. A typical example of thundering is the review of S A Dange’s book, India from Primitive Communism to Slavery, D D Kosambi, ‘Marxism and Ancient Indian Culture’ in Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol xxIx, No 4, Poona, 1948, pp 271-77. Also see ‘On a Marxist Approach to Indian Chronology’ in Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol xxxI, No 4, Poona, 1950, pp 258-66, wherein he makes critical responses to D A Suleikin’s note on the periodisation of Indian history. But his book appeared strikingly quite unassuming and humble. The preface to the first edition of the book says: “This book does not pretend to be a history of India. It is merely a modern approach to the study of Indian history, written in the hope that readers may be impelled to study that history for themselves, or at least be enabled to look at the country with greater sympathy and understanding”.

For rest of the notes, download the pdf

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Kosambi's Lecture on Problems of S&T in Third World

Thanks to Arvind Gupta, we have available one of, if not the, last lecture that DD Kosambi delivered in 1966, presumably a few days before he passed on.
Download pdf version.

In the present context of the crisis in Indian life and economy here, is a thought provoking essay which has unleashed lashing attack on Indian planning which cares little for the socio-economic context of your present day living. This speech delivered by. Prof. D. D. Kosambi in the Seminar organized by the C. S. I. R. in April 1966 focuses deep and penetrating light on the problem and illuminates the way out of it.

Problems of Science and Technology in Under- Developed Countries

What I have to say here is, admittedly, going to be unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, most of us know what our problems are; secondly. I have no spectacular solutions to offer; only a rather small technical suggestion or two which may help analyze the particular problems in each case, and may help towards a planned solution.

The Context

The background is all important. Most of us are so deeply concerned with science and technology that we forget the context in which both science and technology must be applied. The context may be divided into three parts, deeply interconnected: Political, Economic and Sociological. After all, we have no special science or technology of our own. Arabic science or Indian algebra, once the leading disciplines in the world are both out of date. One cannot speak of African chemistry or South-East Asian engineering. Science and technology know no national frontiers. Therefore, the background before which they must function becomes a prime consideration for us.
The political situation is all important. Most under-developed countries have been under foreign domination for a long time. That is, in fact, the primary reason for their being under-developed. So, freedom must come first. We cannot speak of science and technology for Angola and Mozambique, for example. The South African situation is even more complex. The land has a few outstanding, technological developments; their laboratories and engineering works are by no means to be despised. But the real Africans are not even citizens in South, Africa, which remains for them under-developed, while being in a quite satisfactory stage of development for property owing whites and for the investors-in London who stand back of them. A similar situation is true, with lesser development, of Rhodesia.

In such cases, we have no solution to offer, for our conference restricts itself to science and technology. However, the context tells us that the special problems in such countries cannot even be discussed here. There may be some exceptional possibilities. Perhaps Hong Kong may claim to be one of those exceptions. But it would be difficult even here to consider the problems of Hong Kong without a solution of the obvious political question.
The second point, which too many tend to regard as the main problem, is economic. In fact the very word ‘under-developed’ has this connotation, namely economic underdevelopment. Most of our countries lack the necessary resources for develop¬ment, along with the actual manifestations of development: electric power supply, factories, railways and shipping, roads, motor transport, air¬planes, and of course, consumer goods and decent housing. The lack of resources is fortunately not present in all countries. Several Arab lands have discovered in oil and natural gas a commodity which can be exploited sufficiently well to solve their economic problems. However, whether the oil and other resources are properly used or not depends once again on the context. First, the foreigner must not take away the lion’s share, as happened in Iran for so many years. Secondly, those in power must feel the need for developing the country rather than for building palaces for their own families and living a life of Arabian Nights Style. This remains, therefore, again an internal political matter, namely who plans and for whose advantage. It is not sufficient to announce grandiose plans; one has to convince the people that they stand to gain and to secure popular support. Development in Ghana and Indonesia show what happens otherwise. Going deeper into this question but that would cause unpleasantness.

However, we reach one important principle here: underdeveloped countries need a planned course of development, which necessarily implies a planned economy.

Merely admitting this principle is not enough. The context once again thrusts itself upon your attention who does the planning, and for whose real advantage? The solution generally offered is to invite foreign experts to offer advice and draw up schemes. With the best will in the world, this will not succeed. The foreign expert has been used to planning for an entirely different purpose, in totally different surroundings. He pays little attention to local needs during the course of development. Oftener than not, the foreign expert is interested in selling the products of some companies with which he might be connected. Here, we could learn a good deal from Chinese experience, were it not for the political problem, once again, which makes it impossible to secure cooperation from that great country at such a meeting. But let me give some simple examples to illustrate what I mean.

In our sugar producing cooperatives, the bagasse was burned for fuel. One brilliant and remarkably honest foreign expert suggested that this wasted most of the contents of the bagasse, except what remained in the ash. The cellulose could be used in paper manufacture, the wax and oils extracted for other purposes, and so on. In fact, Indian chemists had actually analyzed the possibilities so that no foreign expert was needed. It was suggested that the paper factories be set up, by the cooperatives or sugar companies themselves, and the bagasse used to proper advantage. But in the event this could not be done economically for two reasons. First, the Factory machinery would all have to be imported. Secondly, the amount of bagasse withdrawn from the fuel used in sugar manufacture would mean greater outlay for other fuel. Oil is too costly, we have no natural gas in the sugar producing regions, and coal meant additional strain on the transport. In any case, the extra fuel costs would have made just the difference between a successful cooperative and one running at a small deficit half the time. The solution in the present context was given by Hunga¬rian experts. They suggested, and worked out in data a scheme for using the bagasse as fuel with¬out losing all its value in other ways. The stuff was to be fermented in vats, and the gas used as fuel, converting one or more furnaces completely to gas burners, as the total amount of bagasse would not suffice to stoke all furnaces. Then the wet sludge could be put directly on the fields, with every substantial savings in fertilizer. In fact, there was an added advantage in lightening the soil, which would be ruined by steady application of chemical fertilizers over a number of years. Finally, I pointed out that there would be an educational advantage: The peasant members of the cooperative could use the method for their own surplus bagasse, and also for cattle dung. At present, the cattle dung is dried into cakes and used for fuel, again destroying its value as fertilizer. Gas generated from such waste products would save all the fuel value without affecting the fertilizer value, and make for easier cooking as well.

The scheme has not been adopted, after all. The reasons were political and sociological, for the people who were to make the final decision had other ideas of their own, when they had any ideas at all. We still go on wasting the bagasse, though a factory two for paper will eventually be set up-with foreign expert advice, of course.

The Sociological Context

Hitherto, I have only pointed out the difficulties without suggesting a solution. As a matter of fact, I hold very strong views on the proper political structure and the correct foreign policy for under-developed countries; but this is not the time or the place to develop those views. We are not here to offer political advice or to suggest political courses. Similarly for the economic situation. Most countries want and ask for capital. This conference cannot provide it, nor can it suggest means of raising funds. The scientific approach, on the other hand, tends to be rather vacuous and devoid of application unless these primary difficulties are solved. At least, we have proposed one main principle, namely that the economy must be planned, and the course of full development charted in outline, rather than left to individual initiative which means leaving it to private greed. Most of us fail to ask why our countries are underdeveloped, when we go begging abroad for financial aid and technical experts. The reasons for underdevelopment are precisely that our raw materials and our great markets were exploited by the foreigner to his own advantage. Our products were taken away for the price of the cheap labor needed to take them out of the earth, and we paid the highest prices for the finished goods. In a word, the developed countries with very few exceptions are developed precisely because they made profit both ways from us; we were never paid the actual value of the things taken away. It is our resources that have helped in the develop¬ment of the great industrialized nations of the world: yet we have to go to the same nations as suppliants, not as people demanding return of what is rightfully our own. Naturally no such demand could be enforced, even if it were made.
The foreign domination, whether in the form of colonialism or by other spheres of influence, has left an unfortunate mark on the society of our countries. The very languages we speak at such meetings are those left to us by the foreigner. This would not be bad, were it not for the insidious foreign way of thinking that too often goes with the languages. Most of us become honorary English¬men, or Frenchmen, or the like. The models seen in New York, London or Paris don’t seem out of reach in Bombay, Calcutta or New Delhi. But go a few miles away into the unaffected countryside and you will feel that you are in a different land altogether. Our development is not uniform. Attempts at catching up with foreign lands should not, but always do, accentuate the differences that already exist between towns and country.

Illiteracy, lack of technical education, lack of transport, paucity of telephones, cinemas, radio sets, absence of television—all these seem impossible hindrances to any foreign or foreign-trained expert. Very few people see the need for and the possibility of development by getting the common people interested and by using the techniques available in the countryside. Let me again give an example of what I mean.

During the Japanese occupation, when all major industrial areas of China had been taken over and the Kuomintang armies pushed into the backlands the problem of supplies became desperate. Chiang Kai-shek needed two million blankets for his armies, with no way of importing them from abroad. The blankets were supplied by a remarkable man and a remarkable movement, the Gung Ho (Work Together) cooperatives formed under the direction of the New Zealander REWI ALLEY. He knew China well having worked with its common people for over twenty years. The blankets were made by handicraft methods, were of satisfactory quality and capable of standing up under rough wear. Moreover, they were supplied in less than a year. The methods by which the work was organized, with the overwhelming majority of workers illiterate, scattered in small units over nearly two thousand miles, were undoubtedly the most astounding feature of the entire project. I only wish the history of Gun Ho were written, published and made available to all underdeveloped countries. In this case, Alley worked out a system of accounting that did away with almost all clerical work. The workers organized themselves in such groups as they liked, whether by families or by local crafts-guilds, with Alley guiding them in each case at the beginning. The wool was produced by the shepherds of the backlands. Per bale of wool supplied to the spinners, one colored bead was put in a bag. When a bale was used up on the spinning wheels one bead was taken out of the bag, so that the residue could be tallied with the stock in hand. Per unit of yarn produced (large hanks), a bead of a different color was put into another bag. Similarly for the yarn supplied to weavers and units (blankets) woven. This system worked without a hitch and without a penny lost, with almost no paper work. It furnished employment to the neglected areas, and blankets for the soldiers.

I wish the story could end here. Unfortunately the blankets delivered to Chiang’s officials did not all reach the soldiers. Not a few went into the black market. Other corrupt officials managed to get themselves jobs as managers of district coopera¬tives or of the larger factory units, and stole as much as they could. At the very top came Chiang Kai-shek, the CC group, the Kungs, Sungs and their selected henchmen, stacking away gold in the USA and letting the war take care of itself. The Academy of Sciences (Academia Sinica) had been evacuated to Chungking and Kunming. I recall making and sending copies of scientific papers from India for them, to help research that had no connec¬tion with the war or national needs; in some cases, I had also to arrange for publication. A few noble scientists and scholars were studying in India on generous subventions. One captain in the army had taken long leave to study Indian philosophy, while his company was fighting in the front line; he managed to get through the war years without difficulty. In other words, the social and political context was, after all, the determining factor.

Nevertheless, let me draw one more basic principle from this: In technological matters, particularly in consumer goods manufacture, use local technique, organized by drawing in as many of the local producers as possible. Naturally, this means primary producers, not the moneylenders, nor landlords. It also means organization without bureaucracy.

I have to make clear to this point the fundamental difference between this method and the philosophy of hand spinning on the hand wheel, charkha. The charkha is inefficient and uneconomic as a full time implement of manufacture. The late Mahatma Gandhi discovered mystical qualities in the art of hand spinning which raised it above yarn manufacture on power spinning machinery. Having gone rather thoroughly statistics of the resultant khaddar cloth, I can assure you that its effect was political, but nothing to speak of in national production as such. It shamed people into boycott¬ing British imports before the war, and provided a badge for the revolutionary. Today, khaddar cloth is a drain on the Government budget and a mark of the professional politician or his servant. This is in strong contrast, however, with handloom products which provide excellent patterns and has been a valuable aid to India’s export drive. The handloom which means mill spun yarn can be used as a part-time tool of production, especially in seasons when agricultural operations are slack. It saves transport of cloth and can break the shopkeeper’s black-market monopoly if used with proper care. It is also of considerable help in drawing partially disabled and otherwise unemployed people into useful production. Finally, it is simple in operation and easy to manufacture with local tools and materials. That perhaps, is the essential difference between what I should call the Gung Ho approach and the Gandhian: Use whatever local methods you can to produce consumer goods, while heavy industry is being built up.


If science and technology have any use at all, they must fit into a plan. This does not infringe the freedom of science, nor of the scientist in underdeveloped countries. There is an essential difference between the scientist in backward lands and his teacher in those parts of the world where science had long been developed. The latter is amply supplied with the costliest apparatus, good libraries and reference material, and a large number of auxiliary technicians. Such a scientist in advanced countries has often to fight for his freedom. His funds may come from some government project, dictated by third rate bureaucrats who insist upon secrecy for discoveries that ought immediately to be made public. Often, top scientific talent is wasted in ‘defense’ projects. This cannot be the case with underdeveloped countries. Mostly, they have no scientist of the first rank in world science, not even of a high second class. To speak of freedom of such scientists to do- what they like at someone else’s expense is to allow them to waste public funds in duplicating bad work done by second rate technologists in Europe or the U.S.A.

Let the scientist be free, but let him earn his living by doing something for his country that comes in the category of vital needs. For example, many of you here are bound to be impressed by India’s advance in science and may even persuade your own governments to copy us. But in what particulars? We have top class physicists, for example, our department of atomic energy is spending several hundred millions a year on an imposing establish¬ment. But how much atomic energy is this country actually producing? The plant that should have been in commission in 1964 will hot be operating till 1968 at the earliest. The delay has passed without criticism, while some politicians demand that we should produce the A-bomb to put us on at par with the big powers. In effect, the establish¬ment we have was built by foreign ‘experts’, is outdated already, and will produce atomic power if run as designed which is costlier than such power elsewhere and costlier than conventional power in India. Even then, all the basic cost will have been written off under the heading of ‘research’, (Science, or some such beautiful title).

Again, don’t misunderstand me, India, like every underdeveloped country on the road to industrialization, needs every sort of power it can get. Costly as it is, atomic power will be cheaper than human muscle power or the power drawn from bullocks. But is it the best source under our present economic conditions? Almost all the countries represented here have a much better and cheaper source of power available for their development Solar Energy. This has the defect of being irregular, but can we put to uses where regularity is not in demand. For example, pumps for irrigation, of 5 to 10 horse-power capacity, run by solar energy would help our agriculture immensely. This would not need centralized administration and a fantastically top heavy basic establishment. If mass produced, the pumps would be cheap; their fuel costs nothing at all, and the irrigation they provide would be a real god¬send. Maintenance would be easy and would also help mechanize the population in the most backward countries. Similarly, for cooking by solar energy. This will not only save such fuel as oil, but (in most of our lands) the firewood thus saved means reforestation of countryside now denuded. With¬out such reforestation, no real agricultural reform is possible, as we all know. The desert can be reclaimed, using the very sun that now blasts it. I say all this only to point to a further principle: In planning, work out the complete economic cycle at each stage. With solar energy, the cycle naturally included reforestation and development of agriculture, just as in the use of bagasse the land crop cycle was to be restored. Science does not mean working with a few test tubes but for a whole country on a country-wide scale.

The last point can be driven home a little better. The cashew nut brings such high prices on the world market that many countries, including India, plan to increase cashew plantations to the utmost. I know something about this, having owned one of the best cashew-producing farms in Goa, years ago. The tree grows with virtually no care, in the deepest jungle. But it kills the under bush completely. The water level is immediately reduced and erosion sets in. Where the cashew fruit-pulp is dumped not even grass will grow for years afterwards. The proper utilization of cashew plantations would require a strong chemical industry which would utilize the powerful phenol byproducts of the tree, fruit, and nut-shell now entirely wasted. This again means a better developed country than most of us have the good fortune to live in. Should we give way to immediate greed, as some of our State forest departments are doing, it will ruin what is left of the forests, for relatively small gain. The cashew plantation must be properly terraced, so as to retain the water even when the cashew trees have killed off other vegetation. I could multiply these examples forever. The cocoanut trees that are so striking a feature of our coastal strip have yet to be properly exploited. Most-of what can be done is known to our cocoanut research institute, but hardly anyone knows that the institute exists. The husk (coir) can produce rayon, the trees improved by genetic selection, the oil processed by more efficient methods and factories, the final product scattered through the plantations. But this implies an efficient and effective method of planning which we do not seem to possess. Our planning commission writes excellent philosophical discourses, completely futile when it comes to effective translation into useful practice. The private sector wants immediate profits, and the public sector prefers large-scale enterprises which photograph well, get newspaper headlines and are useful in election propaganda.

Let me give an example of inefficient planning in which I was personally involved. The problem was one of dam construction. If the dam be too big, money is wasted; if too small, there is the risk of running dry too often. Suppose that we want dams which on the available rainfall and run-of figures will not run dry oftener than once in twenty years, in the long run. What is the correct formula for estimation of capacity? The experts quarreled, so the problem was put up to me. It was a simple matter to give the right formula based on R. A. Fisher’s test. But when I looked closer into the data, it was clear that many of the figures had been fake. Actually, the water run-off for certain years had not been recorded at all. The entries had been made by fitting a linear equation from the rest of the data against the rainfall figures which were accurately known. Finally, looking into the map of the area it was possible to show that large dams would be of no use as compared to many very small dams which would help terracing and would retain monsoon water mere efficiently. Small dams are of no use for power supply, but much more useful in, a monsoon country with eroded lands, for agricultural purposes. Moreover, the labor supply and’ most of the materials are local very little cement and no machinery would be needed. This has not only the further advantage of economy but of easing distress among the villagers by allowing them to earn some money while improving their own lands. Very little crop land is flooded by such dams, though the total amount of water conserved is nearly the same as large dam. In the event, my formula was adopted because the expert could propose as his own (he secured a promotion thereby). The remaining suggestions made by me never came before the meeting to which I was naturally not invited.


Hitherto all my suggestions have been critical and to a considerable extent negative. Let me speak of one special technique in order to make a positive contribution. This is statistics, and would be useful for any sort of planning, whether by indigenous or foreign experts, or simple allocation of resources. In fact, no planning can be successful’ which does not use good statistics correctly.

Statistics means the census type of complete enumeration, to most people who hear the term. However, counting everything is rarely possible and often not even practicable in most underdeveloped countries. The necessary staff is not available; clerical services remain slipshod or inefficient. Worst of all, people give wrong information because they feel that the figures they offer would in some way be of benefit to them, say in saving taxes or getting some government grants in aid. Finally, the process of getting accurate statistics of this type is slow while inaccurate statistics is worse than useless. It is all very well to suggest that areas under various crops could be quickly measured and even the crops identified, by air photography. I know that this is true. But how many countries can afford air photography and have the expert staff for evaluation? India has first-rate statisticians, but they are afraid that air photography may mean lack of jobs and retrenchment, so label it as ‘unpractical’. Let me add that for all the fame our statisticians have secured abroad (and the large number of theoretical papers which form an impressive background for an even larger number of blue book reports) our statisticians have failed in their main job, through no fault of their own. They have not been able to say exactly how much food is available from last -year’s harvest. As a result, we have several different sets of estimates of how much food India needs to import, whether as loans, gifts, or by purchase. I have seen it in print that five, seven, ten, fifteen, even twenty percent of our grain is eaten by rodents and vermin. No one knows how the figures were obtained. If so basic is a problem as that of food cannot be handled by really able men, there is something wrong in the way in which the men are used. We are led back again to the social and political context.

Granted the will to use statistics properly, there are now better methods than the census, quick as well as inexpensive. These are labeled sample surveys; the technique is very well known. One counts a small percentage and estimates the total. Besides, there exist methods for showing the limits of accuracy of this estimate, so that a suitable margin may be allowed. I do not mean to go into details, which will bore most of you. But if enough is known of the various types of villages, then a sample of nor more than 5% of the villages, and often one of less than 1% would suffice to give all essential information’s. The sample has to be scattered properly, every type of village must be proportionately repre¬sented. Some common sense has to be used. The actual sample must be studied efficiently and information about it obtained with complete truth and accuracy.

This type of sample survey gives data within a couple of weeks which would take over a year to obtain the complete enumeration. Its main uses are two: in industry and mass-production for control of quality and uniformity of the product. For example, cement from different kilns in different places differs in quality. Even different runs of the same kiln show a substantial variation. But the engineer can allow for this in his construction work if, with each run, he is given a test figure of the average strength and the standard deviation. These can be calculated by one person, with a double handful of cement from each batch, properly sampled. One such statistical assistant could easily be employed by every cement factory, sugar combine, or similar industrial enterprise. The total output of such enterprises, of course, is easily counted ; in such cases one has both the census type and the sampling type of statistics.

With the agricultural raw materials, the situation is entirely different. Without a good forecast of the crop in advance, it is not possible to plan for export, for processing of the raw materials, or for that matter even to avoid famine. This forecast can easily be provided in spite of great local variation, by crop cutting experiments before the complete harvest is in. There are, naturally, even more efficient methods. Given the variety of seed, machine planting is practiced, simply counting the number of plants actually growing in uniform squares and taking a few ears from each square gives a surprisingly accurate estimate. I have seen this in the Dobruja, in Rumania, 400 plants were put down mechanically in each square meter; and the counting frames were one meter square. The reports were sent in by the wheat cooperatives in this case, and the central institute gives the crop estimate well in advance, allowing for natural disasters such as flood and drought. Not all of us are so fortunate as to have such large cooperatives and machine planting of wheat. In that case, I suggest that local experience could be used.

Local experience means that the peasants must have been on the same land for some years, must know the particular variety of seed used, and must have farmed with the same technique. In that case, the Indian peasant can give an estimate within 6.5%, or better. The Chinese peasants, to my great surprise, could give estimates closer than 3.5%; the trouble in China (as of 1960) was an inefficient and bureaucratic central statistical organization which could give nothing accurately till the harvest was over and half-eaten. All their forecasts were revised again and again, so often as to be useless. They were gathered by the slowest possible methods, namely filling out forms and everything, sending them to local headquarters, and eventually to Peking. Neither the statistical man nor the leading scientists had bothered to ask the peasants how they estimated the crop, or even to compare estimates in routine yield. With our peasant, the trouble is to make him believe you that giving a truthful estimate will not lead to extra taxes. The difference between the illiterate peasant and the trained statistician is that the peasant cannot make large calculations, on the other hand, if the peasant is wrong in the estimate he makes for his own use (whether he tells it to government agents or not), he may starve. The statistician doesn’t have to live by eating is estimate or his standard deviation. The difficulty in the field is always getting a truthful figure from the peasant. In China this difficulty did not exist, but no one bothered about the peasants’ estimate before I tried to evaluate it. Money lenders, landlords, middlemen, purchasers and other interested parties including the profiteering grain dealer from the big city see to it that the truth is hidden when it is to their advantage to hide it. Once again, we come back to the context. There is a clear limit beyond which you cannot go by ignoring the social and economic conditions prevalent in the country.

One type of sample statistics is a valuable adjunct to democracy, namely the opinion poll. In developed countries, this is oftenest used by business firms to estimate the success of their advertising campaign, the popularity of their products (soap, tooth-paste etc.) and such profit making ventures. The politicians use it to see which way public opinion is veering. .The number of people sampled even in so large a country as the USA need not exceed 700 to 1000, so that a small trained staff can give the result (from the start of the sampling to the final figure) within a week at most. But this is not practicable in most underdeveloped countries. Let me suggest the use of another technique, to be used with sampling, but on different principles. This is called Mass Observation and was first developed by the British anthropologist B. Malinowski. It was very useful in wartime England. The main idea is to let a few selected people express their own opinion on some points in their own way, instead of asking specially framed questions that could be answered either yes or no, or in some other specific manner. The result in Mass Observation is less easily calculated than by the sample-survey, but gives much more information to the trained anthropologist or to any intelligent administrator. It reveals unsuspected needs that cannot be brought out by the western opinion poll. But once again, truthful and frank expression by the person questioned is absolutely essential. He or she must be guaranteed and convinced of complete secrecy and must be free from fears of reprisals for speaking too frankly. Such observation has been used with great effect in Poland by the Wroclaw Sociological group. Let me suggest that those of our countries that struggle towards democracy would find it a useful way of ascertaining democratic goals and popular wishes.