Friday, January 30, 2009

Kosambi on Knowledge Creation in the Punjab

Source: Wichaar Link via Indus Online Journal. The article is titled:

People’s history of the Punjab: Baba Farid – the province’s first poet

Dr Manzur Ejaz taught at the Punjab University, Lahore, for many years and now lives in Virginia.


Every invasion of historical proportion resulting in prolonged occupation of territory results in reconfiguration of the intellectual discourse and state of knowledge in society. Mahmud Ghaznavi’s several incursions triggered the process which led to the reorientation of intellectual and scholarly pursuits, and the formalisation of the Punjabi language in the Punjab.

D. D. Kosambi, the renowned Indian historian, is not very impressed with the level of knowledge created during the transformation from Vedic tribalism to feudalism in the Punjab and the rest of India. The Punjab was in the forefront of such a transformation from tribalism to feudalism, giving birth to isolated villages and cities where kings and priestly classes had developed close links. Kosambi argues that the isolation of villages and their surplus channeled through the king and not through market mechanism, created conditions that were not conducive to enhancing knowledge: The interaction of individuals through commodity markets creates and builds institutions of knowledge.

Kosambi maintains that the Punjab was at par with Greece in the early periods, but the repulsion felt by the priestly classes for material reality hindered progress. In his words, “Thus, Brahmin indifference to past and present reality not only erased Indian history but a great deal of real Indian culture as well. The loss may be estimated by imagining the works of Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides and their contemporaries as replaced by priestly rituals rewritten [by the Greek intelligentsia]...” In other words the priestly classes were just rewriting rituals, while society was transforming its base in the Punjab.

Against this backdrop Al Beruni’s assertion that Ghaznavid invasions drove Punjabi intellectuals, scientists and high level scholars towards Kashmir, Banares and other Southern states should be viewed in relative terms. The Punjabi state of knowledge may have been far ahead of that in Ghazni or Central Asia, but it was far behind the Greeks who were at a similar stage at their time of transformation. Probably, it was the Brahmin priestly class that abandoned the Punjab, taking with them whatever knowledge there was. But in the long run the absence of the overwhelming Brahmin class may have benefited Punjab’s egalitarian spirit.

In general, for good or for bad, knowledge-producing institutions can only survive on a society’s capacity to generate surplus production and its transmittal to urban centers. Punjab being a prosperous country, had been able to support mammoth Hindu priestly institutions. The temples had become centers of visible and hidden wealth, inviting Mahmud Ghaznavi and other invaders to destroy them completely. Similarly, sprawling Buddhist monasteries could not have existed without substantial surplus production by the agriculture sector and other commodities, including handicrafts. If the Punjab had been barren and impoverished, neither could Buddhist monasteries have survived nor would Hindu temples be sitting on huge piles of cash, gold, silver, diamonds and other precious artifacts. And, probably, they would not have attracted northern invaders.

Mahmud wrecked the Punjab by devastating the land and taking a huge chunk of its population away with him as slaves to Ghazni. What was left of the Punjab’s wealth was also extracted by Mahmud and his heirs to Ghazni. Consequently, Ghazni became a very prosperous city, attracting scholars and traders, which included Hindus (especially traders) as well. This is the reason why many students started going to Ghazni for enhancing their knowledge.

Before northern invasions, the priestly classes and the rulers used Sanskrit as the spoken and written language, while the common folk used Apabhasha, which means a corrupted language. Some scholars hold that it was derived from Prakrit. However, a few linguists claim that in the Punjab neither Prakrit nor Apabhasha was in use. The language used was on the periphery of both, and was close to Masood Ganj-i-Shakar aka Baba Farid’s language written in the 12th century, which means it was Punjabi as such. Incidentally, Baba Farid (1173-1265) rarely borrowed a word or term from foreign languages like Persian and Arabic: his entire poetic discourse was purely in the indigenous language of the people of the Punjab.

Baba Farid is considered the forefather of the Punjabi language. As a matter of fact he can be honored as the first poet who wrote in the Punjabi people’s language for the first time in centuries. What we have from the previous periods is written in Sanskrit, which was the language of the elite. Of course a great Sanskrit writer like Panini created everlasting pieces of literature in the Punjab, but we don’t find anything written in the people’s language. Most probably writings may have been lost, because other than Sanskrit manuscripts there was no institution or mechanism to preserve people’s literature. Therefore, Baba Farid’s thought-provoking poetry is the first written document to be handed down to us by courtesy of the Sikh Gurus’ commitment to preserve Punjabi classics.

Baba Farid’s poetry has many philosophical dimensions, but we will limit ourselves to a few couplets which portray the condition of people in the Punjab at that time. Baba Farid was born in Punjab (Khotowal near Multan) and after his education and rigorous spiritual training were completed, he left the comfortable life of Delhi after he was made the head of the powerful Chishtia sect, and re- settled in the Punjab. He chose Pakpattan (then Ajodhan) where he had to fight with the ruler and the Qazi of the city. Baba Farid had to face socio-economic and ideological difficulties like a common man at the hands of the new alien rulers and their religious establishment. In one of his couplets he characterised the relationship between the peasants and the plundering rulers:

Farida, eeh vis gandlan dhrian khand liwar
Ik rahidey reh gaey ik radhi gaey ujar

(O Farid, the poisonous stems are sugar-coated. Some tilled the land and the others plundered)

In the first line of the couplet the stems of growing plants are depicted as being wrapped up in sugar. To the tiller his plants look like sugar. Because they will bring him the sweetness of life. But he is unaware that these plants will become poison because his oppressors will take them and gain strength from his ( the tiller’s) produce and will oppress him even more than previously. In other words the tiller is producing for his death and not for life.

In the second line Farid overtly pronounced what was implicit in the first line by saying that some continue ploughing and tilling, while others keep on plundering. One should note that Farid’s words describe the relationship between tillers and oppressors as an ongoing process in continuum for centuries.

In another couplet Baba Farid describes the nature of a class-oriented society and its uneven distribution of wealth:

Iknan aata aggla, iknan nahin loon
Aggay paey sunjansan chotan khasi kaon)

(Some have abundance of flour and some don’t have even salt
Only time will show who is hit more)

In this couplet the first line is a straightforward depiction of the economic disparity between the rich and the poor in the Punjab of that time: Some have so much that they cannot possibly consume it all, while others have nothing. Here flour symbolises material and personal freedom. The society around Farid was comprised of a large population of slaves and impoverished peasants, artisans and workers. They had neither material resources to sustain themselves nor the means to act freely.

The second line of the couplet is complex and can be understood in many ways. Of course if we go by the establishment’s religious doctrine it means that the Day of Judgment will tell who will be punished and who will not be. But, since Farid does not adhere to such a ritualistic religion, the line refers to the process of history. In other words time will tell which class will prevail and which one will be destroyed. Farid has referred to the destruction of one class of rulers by another. In the following couplet he portrays the temporary nature of power:

Jin loein jag mohia, sey loein main dith
Kajal raikh na sahndian, sey pankhii soey bith

(I have seen those eyes which mesmerised the world; they could not bear a touch of mascara but I have seen birds pouring stool on them)

An eternal sad undertone pervades Baba Farid’s poetry which more than anything else captures the melancholy of the injured soul of 12th century Punjab.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Kosambi: Life and Work

... Yet socially however, he was an exile not only in Maharashtra but also in Pune itself where he had produced such voluminous work. The intellectuals of Pune, a retreat for scholars and known for its educational institutions failed to honour or reward this great thinker. On the contrary he had created a number of enemies for himself amongst these intellectuals and finally had to resign from Ferguson College. Kosambi had himself to thank for all the bitterness that was caused. He was not an amicable person and had many disagreeable facets to his personality. He was short tempered. He would not stand any nonsense ( pp 47) and would not hesitate to cut any one to his size irrespective of his age, seniority of prestige. Many times he would loose his temper for small negligible mistakes and offend others. He took great pride in his intelligence. His intellect was not matched with humility because of which he tended to underestimate others. In addition he had a childlike impishness and indulged in teasing people. He was also given to using shock treatment to stir people out of their habitual thinking by taking an extreme stand. He would never attempt to interact or mingle with others and in case anyone dared to communicate with him he seemed to disappoint him as far as possible.

Here are a few episodes illustrating this queer behaviour. Many youngsters eagerly sought his guidance in history, Marxism, etc., and requested him to hold tutorial classes for them. However when they ventured to ask him about it, he used to forewarn them, (q 20) His reply used to be, ‘Yes, I will. But only on one condition, i.e., those who attend the class on the first day must attend all the subsequent classes on time. Bring the others only if you can guarantee their attendance.’ Who can guarantee such regular attendance and strict punctuality on the part of all students and that too in India? So the frightened pupil would withdraw never to turn up again. He would ask even casual visitors such awkward questions so that confused and discomfited, they would soon leave him. This treatment was not restricted to ordinary or unfamiliar visitors. He was notorious for treating even the distinguished and well-known people in the same manner. Once P.G. Sahasrabuddhe visited him with the intension of discussing Marxism. At the outset Kosambi asked him if he had read certain books. When the answer was negative, he bluntly dismissed Sahasrabuddhe asking him to read those books first and then approach him. He would not waste even a few minutes in any informal talk.

Read Kosambi: Life and Work by Chintamani Deshmukh translated from the Marathi by Suman Oak

Monday, January 19, 2009

Seminar on DDK in Kolkata

January 19 at the Humayun Kabir Hall of the Asiatic Society; 1 pm: A seminar on The Life and Works of Professor D.D. Kosambi on the occasion of his birth centenary. Participants include Prof. B.D. Chattopadhyay, Prof. Karunasindhu Das, Prof. M.K. Pal and Dr Balai Chaki. Prof. Biswanath Banerjee, president, The Asiatic Society, will preside.


Friday, January 16, 2009

DD Kosambi's Worldview

DD Kosambi's Worldview

by Kusum Madgavkar
(Niece of Prof. Kosambi who knew him from childhood)

Source: Truth and Acion News letter (via Orkut group on DDK). Download T&A Newsletter (pdf)


D D Kosambi's mind was versatile.Though a scientist and mathematician by profession, he took an interest in history, and brought to its methodology an original approach. Kosambi was a Marxist by conviction, and his definition of science has Hegelian echoes--"Science is the cognition of necessity."

Science had a continuity that other subjects lacked. He often said, "I stood on other people's shoulders, still others will stand on mine." The job of science, he wrote, was to make "better and better approximations to the truth", but for science to make an advance, the scientist needed freedom, yet he found himself surrounded by restrictions on what to think and what to say. For instance, Galileo's astronomy was thought dangerous, because Galileo by stating factually what he saw, challenged the prevalent theory of the ruling class and its right arm, the Church, so that " implication the rest of the social system was also laid open to challenge, something no man is free to do without risk," then or now. Kosambi spoke from personal experience. He knew the fetters Big Business could and did place on a scientist with an inquiring mind, questioning all matters.

Science flourished when the scientist carried on his investigations unhampered, which was the case during political upheaval, when a new class gained power. Along with the rising class came a bumper crop of scientists: Newton, for example, whose discoveries coincided with the rise of the bourgeoisie in England. Famous French scientists sprung up after the French evolution smashed the feudal system. The bourgeoisie needed and encouraged scientific discoveries. But to Kosambi there was no justification to tie science to the apron strings of a decaying class just because that class in its prime 400 odd years ago had brought into existence science as we know it today. The world and the bourgeoisie have changed since then and the scientist needs to be free of that class, for, "....if he serves that class which grows food scientifically and then dumps it into the ocean, while millions starve all over the world, if he believes the world is over-populated and the atom bomb is a blessing that will perpetuate his own comfort, he is moving in a retrograde orbit on a level no beast could achieve."

Though not prone to imagine virtues in the bourgeoisie, Kosambi gave that class full credit for being the harbinger of modern science. But the bourgeoisie per se is not essential to scientific growth and the reason why the scientist in today's capitalist society feels choked is that the class he serves fears the change it sees in a different social structure which has managed to survive and to thrive without a bourgeoisie. This difference cannot be freely discussed by scientists in the 'Free World' he noticed. For if they did, they risked losing their jobs. Studying a different social structure,inquiring into and questioning the social need for the bourgeoisie, or for classes today, are topics debarred from scientific inquiry.

After World War II, scientists grew worried about their dwindling freedom, which Kosambi found out, meant pursuing their work in their chosen field, and being paid for it by Big Business, war departments, or universities whose funds depended chiefly on these two sources. So scientists were "under the necessity of producing regular output of patentable or advertising value while avoiding all dangerous philosophical or social thought."

Kosambi laid bare the class basis of science and called it "the theology of the bourgeoisie". In the days of handicraft production, before machines came in, technical knowledge was passed on slowly and production limited. And when the indebted craftsman mortgaged his tools, they brought no profit to the usurer though the craftsman starved. So there came into being a new class whose labor could be exploited. The usurer became the capitalist and the craftsman formed the proletariat. This necessitated fresh thinking to fit in a managing class which doesn't handle the tools of production. Here Science came into its own, and Galileo's study of pumps, for instance, resulted both in hydrostatics and more efficient pumps, because, "Science is nothing if it does not work in practice. In Science, practice and theory cannot be divorced." Kosambi often stressed that science was not the result of talented people thinking up scientific problems in their minds. Only when there was the social need, did the necessary invention come up.

Dialectical materialism was the method Kosambi followed in his study of ancient Indian history in which source material is meager and chronology, extremely difficult to fix. Kosambi's basic method of tackling chronology was by demarcating periods in history according to the means of production, not by battles or changes in dynasty. But here too, Kosambi recognized that in an undeveloped society, socioeconomic forces guiding historical development, major wars, major changes in rulers, major religious upheavals, all revealed the fundamental changes in productive relations. Kosambi regarded these as basic, while they had been ignored by earlier bourgeois scholars. In addition, India had an uneven course of development, what with the size of the country, the different languages and differing natural environments, so that even if some ancient document did reveal the mode of production and so the level of development of that society, it would be a job to fix its chronology. Unlike Brahmin records, Kosambi found Jain records more dependable. The Jains had a large number of traders to whom years and dates meant something, and they had to get their records straight.

Another difficulty faced by any student of ancient Indian history, was the terms used. Terms can be, and have changed their meaning, and Kosambi noted that this was more so in India where the priestly control over Sanskrit led to secrecy, to memorizing, and consequently, to ambiguity. Kosambi suggested that a scientific Indian chronology would be possible only by the method of citation. Researching into the earliest mention of customs, techniques, and foodstuffs was one of his methods. "Digging in the right places" could help evaluate written sources, such as the Mahabharata War or Rama's invasion of Lanka.

Slavery in India was another disputed issue to which Kosambi tried to find an answer by relating it to the method of production. Greeks and Romans, accustomed to slaves, couldn't recognize any class that looked like their own slaves. Besides, neither in inscriptions nor in literature is there any mention of slaves taken in battle, slave marts or caravans of slave traders. Kosambi concluded that dasa or sudra were alternate terms describing the same thing. The caste system according to Kosambi prevented slavery in India in the Greco-Roman sense. The Aryans destroyed the earlier Indus Valley civilization, with an urban population comparable to the early Sumerian. The urban population must have been kept going by a large, surplus-producing agrarian population, who became the dasas. The Rigveda mentions two varnas, as caste was then known--the Arya and the Dasa. Later on Dasas acquired the meaning of Sudra and the Sudra served the three upper castes. The other ground on which Kosambi refutes the possibility of classical slavery in ancient India is that at the time of the Aryan invasion, the Aryans had no private, only tribal property, and the Sudras were the slaves of the entire tribe.

In the course of his study of ancient Indian history, Kosambi found tribal people whose lives, because of the availability of food, had remained basically unchanged when too much deforestation hadn't ruined their traditional food and living habits. With plough agriculture began the mutual acculturation of food gatherers and farmers, who, in time, found their place in the caste system, and the food gatherers contributed their two main don'ts -- not accepting food from a stranger and no marriage outside the tribe -- to the caste system. Kosambi also traced the tribal origins of many Hindu deities. One of the tribes he studied was the Ras Phad Pardhis, nomads of the Deccan.

Field work played an important part in Kosambi's study of history. He came by evidences of mutual acculturation first hand. He went over to the farmers, unmindful of heat, dust, or their unhygienic conditions. More important, he crossed the barriers formed by generations of poverty on the one hand and exploitation on the other. "Such field work," he wrote, "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."

Dialectical materialism found its way into Kosambi's views on literature. He felt that arrangement of words alone did not make an author great and that Shakespeare's greatness was due to his expressing a new class basis. In those days, the bourgeoisie was the rising class, and their interests coincided with those of the oppressed. To be great, Kosambi held, a poet had to show up some part of the social structure and the seeds of its negation, which happened during the emergent stage of a new class. With his scientific mind always on the lookout for suspicious coincidences from which to draw general truths, he felt: that was why the greatest names in literature come at the emergent and not the decadent period of a particular class, and why literature, fulfilling these requirements outlasts the society it reflected.

But after socialist revolution, somehow,the literature in the socialist country lacks both the power and the literary forms which arose during earlier social upheavals. Kosambi, with his critical admiration for socialist achievements explained: that was because the new class in earlier societies emerged while the old class was dominant. The new class turned to literature to express its hopes and aspirations because any political expression was denied it. But when in a socialist society, the working class gains power, it gains political expression. The struggle has always been bitter, and the new, socialist country tries to reach the advanced level of the older capitalist countries, which have probably tried to kill its socialist revolution. On the literary front, writers face another difficulty, in that they have spent their formative years in the old society. Classless society did not exist as far as one can remember; and the literary production takes on what Kosambi called the 'boy-loves-tractor' pattern. Party directives and writers' conference resolutions cannot remedy the situation.

The cure, as Kosambi saw it, was to abolish illiteracy and make classical works in that language easily available. In addition, he felt that some way had to be found to link the aesthetics of the new socialist society to production, and then new art forms would develop, as music did, originally, to make the crops grow, and dance, drama, painting and sculpture originated in primitive initiation rites and sym- pathetic magic.

But these developments, however beneficial to mankind, need one prerequisite, peace. The argument that war requirements allotted vast funds for research and scientific development, was, he felt, "vicious." He wrote, "Quite apart from the destructive- ness of total war, the crooked logic of Big Business and warmongers is fatal to the clear thinking needed for Science." Kosambi felt that lasting peace had to be based on "true democracy", where all men were truly equal and no one could claim any superiority by virtue of any right whatsoever, whether divine, of birth, conquest or that of private property. Otherwise peace, as imperialists have seen it over the centuries, would have no meaning. Kosambi often quoted Tacitus on the subject, who had written, "He made a desert and called it peace," referring to a contemporary Roman Emperor. To Kosambi, it was "twisted logic" that waged war in the name of peace, and "which bombs people indiscriminately to save them from Communism."

Being an active fighter for peace, Kosambi went into the causes that prevent peace, and saw in food a powerful weapon in the war against mankind, excepting that fraction of the people to whom food is a very minor item of expenditure. "In a word it is class war, and all other wars of today stem from attempts to turn it outward. Even the Romans knew that the safest way to avoid inner conflict and to quiet the demands of their own citizens was to attempt new conquests." World War III, Kosambi felt, was not inevitable, and that public opinion, once aroused, could stop it; and he spared no effort in mobilizing that public opinion. He also felt that colonial liberation would help the cause of world peace, being one step towards making "have-not" countries a thing of the past.

Kosambi's approach to life was based on his Marxism -- but not its blind, uncritical application. "Marxism cannot be reduced to a rigid formalism like mathematics, nor can it be treated as a standard technique such as an automatic lathe."

The way to cherish Kosambi's memory is to acquire a mastery over his methods.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

On Sin and Science by DD Kosambi

The following article is reproduced from Thought and Action. Link via the DD Kosambi Group on Orkut. (Download pdf version of the T&A Newsletter). Source of the article is not indicated in the newsletter.


Every person who has reached social maturity in a modern city can say that the meaning of crime, sin, and science is self-evident. Most of us, in India at least, know that sin depends upon the particular religion professed; drinking wine is a sin for a Muslim, beef eating for a Hindu, while the Christian does both without a qualm. This variable concept of sin being no longer sufficient to regulate society, legal sanctions are applied to forbid certain actions which are labelled as crimes, to be punished by police and court action. A crime must be detected and the offender put through some legal formalities before punishment becomes effective; retribution for sin can hardly be proved in most cases, hence is usually relegated to the next world or the next rebirth. For science, the consequences rest upon logical materialist interpretation of careful experiments or observations, independently of theologicalor juridical regulations. He who swallows a certain dose of poison must die whether the action is legal or not; allowing the proper number of bacteria to lodge in your system develops corresponding disease - whether God wills it or not -with a definite statistical frequency.

If now all three of these approaches tell us the same thing, if the commission of sin should lead to a strong possibility of disease while being also a crime, society then seems to be doing its best to stamp out a dangerous evil. This is certainly the case in the regulation of sex relations, with its concomitants: divorce, venereal disease, prostitution; similarly for drunkenness and its effects upon the individual, upon his family, and upon society as a whole through increase of accidents in a machine age.

Dyson Carter reports fairly and dispassionately upon the methods used quite recently to stamp out these evils in two entirely different contemporary civilizations, each a leading model of its own type. In the USA no one can deny the powerful development of science, with an even more powerful development of the police force; all American religious groups combine their efforts upon such questions. Nevertheless, the divorce rate is increasing, turn and is about the highest in the world; venereal disease, prostitution, alcoholism remain ineradicable spite of ‘reform’ political campaigns, special police drives, and constant exhortations from the pulpit. In the USSR the first and greatest representative of of a new form of society, there was every reason for these deadly by-products of modern society to have hared up. Well Organized religion was smashed by the revolution, most former restraints removed, the prostitute no longer punished as a criminal, divorce made almost effortless, and cheap liquor provided by the is Government. Add to this the misery of wars of intervention following the revolution and of the constantly increasing rate of production; then, bourgeois logic would lead you to expect a continuous debauch. Yet, we find that prostitution has disappeared altogether, the divorce rate forced down to a negligible level, drunkenness now almost unknown in a country once notorious for its besotted muzhiks and workers

These results, which might seem paradoxical and even fantastic, were obtained simply by turning scientific inquiry upon the sorts of the problem, following its conclusions to their logical end. What the policeman dare not, priest cannot, scientist does not ask in capitalistic countries is why the social evils exist at all. The Soviet answer is that they exist because certain classes of people make heavy profits thereby. The exploitation of vice is a simple consequence of that general exploitation of the vast mass of people, which necessarily drives a considerable number to vice. Removal of the general exploitation took away the prime cause, and ruthless punishment was served out to those who tried to make profit, not to their victims: to the brothel keeper, not the prostitute; to the bootlegger, not the drunkard. At the same time, the right to employment became part of the way of life, a decent livelihood being made possible for all. Then it was easy to observe the effects of the new freedom, to on legislation, party propaganda; scientific education of the people. Alternative forms of amusement and relaxation had been provided for all with full literacy and cheap as well as good reading matter, fine music, excellent cinema, parks culture, sport. The former evils disappeared simply because they no longer had any reason to exist. Life became so worth living for the first time that escape from it was no longer necessary.

We face the same problems in India and are now trying the American system, including prohibition. However, any profiteer free to shorten the lives of his countrymen by denying them the essentials life and he does this as member of a highly respected class. The police protect him and his gains against the victims. The scientist ignores the effects of starvation, filthy lodging, lack of education upon those misbehaved in a previous birth to suffer so who made the profit possible, and rushes to now; that is, they may be ignored altogether help the capitalist with technical advice, or squeezed even more painfully. The medical aid, or even gratuitous praise; for reformer, with the best of intentions, who but the rich can pay well, who but attempts to gain the benefits of a revolution those who have made heavy profits endow without the revolution itself. research? As for religion, it merely proclaims that the oppressed will get their due in some other life or still more comfortingly that they must have misbehaved in a previous birth to suffer so who made the profit possible, and rushes to now; that is, they may be ignored altogether help the capitalist with technical advice, or squeezed even more painfully. The medical aid, or even gratuitous praise; for reformer, with the best of intentions, who but the rich can pay well, who but attempts to gain the benefits of a revolution those who have made heavy profits endow without the revolution itself.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

D D Kosambi and Sanskrit

(This article was published in EPW's special issue on DD Kosambi on 26th July 2008. Download a pdf copy.)

Towards a Political Philology: D D Kosambi and Sanskrit

Sheldon Pollock

Summary: D D Kosambi’s engagement with Sanskrit was marked by an intense search for both a text-critical method and a theory for interpreting culture and power. His method was positivist but sophisticated in its positivism, and if recent work in the history of textuality (Indian and other) suggests that more attention to cultural difference is needed, his text-critical work remains foundational for further scholarship. His theory was positivist, too, in keeping with his vision of scientific Marxism, and if its strong universalism here produced a skewed interpretation that is now in all its essentials dead, he introduced a new and crucial critical dimension to Sanskrit studies. Perhaps the most remarkable (and most disturbing) realisation about Kosambi’s quest for a political philology is that nearly 50 years after his death he has had not a single successor in India.

I am very grateful to Dipesh Chakrabarty and Sudipta Kaviraj for their comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Sheldon Pollock ( is at Columbia University, New York.


Two traits, as an ensemble, distinguish D D Kosambi in his work on Sanskrit not only from the scholars who were his contemporaries, but also from almost everyone since. The first is his search for a method in the editing of Sanskrit literary texts, and the second his search for a theory in the reading of these texts. In the former case, if judged by the practices of editing Sanskrit literary texts in India at the time, Kosambi emerges as a remarkable pioneer, his concrete accomplishments hardly in danger of being superseded anytime soon. In the latter, he is exceptional in the history of Indology for his awareness that the method of philology is always inseparable from a theory of philology, itself produced by a tradition of writing and reading, and from a cultural and political criticism specific to that tradition. If Kosambi’s theory has proven to be flawed, we have only come to know the flaws and sought ways to overcome them because he had the courage to enunciate the theory in the first place.

How old fashioned, even quaint, it must seem to readers of the Economic and Political Weekly to find the word “philology” used in its pages, and how odd to see it coupled with the qualifier “political.” But there is nothing quaint about what philology represents, at least according to its most robust self-understanding. This is not the shrunken and withered idea it conjures in the minds of many people today because of the shrunken and withered practice it often embodies, but rather a core human concern: the fullest use of the most human attribute, language, which occurs in the making sense of texts. Such is the conception Nietzsche once sought to promulgate. He conceived of philology as an active mode of understanding that directed its powers towards every kind of text, from weather reports to the “most fateful events”, and he viewed it as deeply political as well, in his case as a crucial antidote to the dehumanisation of capitalist modernity, to the “age of work” in which we are now imprisoned more remorselessly than Nietzsche could ever have dreamt. In one of his most luminous passages he describes philology as

that venerable art which exacts from its followers one thing above all – to step to one side, to leave themselves spare moments, to grow silent, to become slow – the leisurely art of the goldsmith applied to language: an art which must carry out slow, fine work, and attains nothing if not lento. For this very reason philology is now more desirable than ever before; for this very reason it is the highest attraction and incitement in an age of “work” ...Philology itself, perhaps, will not “get things done” so hurriedly: it teaches how to read well [Nietzsche 1887: 11].
Although it may not always be possible to draw a perfectly straight-line between a philological method and a critical theory of culture and power, there is nothing odd in suggesting that philology has political projects to achieve and political lessons to teach, which Kosambi knew, without perhaps making it fully explicit, and which many have since forgotten. This lesson, in its most fundamental form, is that we can actively make the future only because we know who we are and where we have come from, and we can only know these things – know the past – because we have learned the discipline of philology, “the great, the incomparable art of reading well.”

Like every other human practice, making texts and reading texts are activities that are (as Karl Popper would say) wholly theory-laden: we neither could nor would do these things unless we had some sense of how to do them and why. As with every other practice, however, most of us tend to ignore the conceptual foundations of how we make and read texts. We just seem to do it. Philologists are the people who try to bring these foundations to consciousness, and to constantly test their validity. Although the history of philology globally viewed is actually co-extensive with the history of textuality, a new and critical – even sceptical and suspicious – philology came into existence in the early modern period, and did so, again, globally. Editors and critics in Europe from around 1400 to 1650, such as Lorenzo Valla, Erasmus, and (most explosively) Spinoza; the new historical philologists of late imperial China such as Yan Roju; and Indian grammarians and linguists such as Melpathur Narayana Bhattatiri in 17th century Kerala (for Sanskrit) and Siraj al-Din Ali Khan Arzu in 18th century Delhi (for Persian), put philology front and centre in their intellectual practice as each in his own way redefined such core questions as textual authenticity, canonicity, and the very historicity and sociality – the humanity – of language itself.1

Positivist science of Philology

An outgrowth of this process was the positivist science of philology that reached its apogee in Germany in the second half of the 19th century. Pune in the mid-20th century, when Kosambi was working on his Sanskrit philological projects, was imbued with the spirit of this science: V S Sukthankar, general editor of the critical edition of the Mahabharata and mentor to Kosambi, had brought it with him from Bonn, where he had been a student of Hermann Jacobi. The textual method was that of Karl Lachmann, which posited (on the basis of the history of Greek and Latin texts) an orderly ramified descent of manuscripts from a stable authorial archetype [Timpanaro 2006]. Assembling all the manuscripts and determining what they held in common should in principle enable one to reconstruct that archetype. This was not a method without its challengers. French scholars, in particular, who worked with medieval Romance materials – troops in a philology war contemporaneous with the Franco-Prussian political wars of the period – encountered vastly different textual phenomena from those of classical antiquity. In such a textual world, where no chanson de geste may have ever existed in a stable original, variation was not accidental but constitutive: there was nothing but variation. 2 Lachmann’s crystalline sphere was already beginning to crack.

Prior to the Mahabharata work initiated by Sukthankar at the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune (this was to have been a European project, but it was scuttled after first world war), modern Sanskrit text editing was a relatively simple affair. Editors were typically traditional pandits who would print what was judged by some (usually unspoken) criterion or other to be the best manuscript; variants from other manuscripts would occasionally be recorded in footnotes but with no attempt to investigate the logic of variation. Such colonial-era practices arguably marked something of a decline from premodern times, under the constraints of print capitalism. But this is speculation; we have still no history of what might be called script mercantalism – the social-economic form of manuscript culture – let alone its relationship to and supersession by print [Pollock 2006a]. We do know that for centuries prior to the rise of the colonial printing industry Indian scholars produced thousands upon thousands of editions of Indian texts and published them. We may still have little sense of what “publication” meant in the premodern era, but we are coming to better understand the principles that traditional commentator-editors used to establish their texts – and there is no question they did edit, and on the basis of philological principles (including the recording of variants, or ‘pathantaras’) about which they were fully self-aware, if rarely fully forthcoming.3

Kosambi as Heir

Kosambi was heir, at least in part, to all this philological ferment, and his work represents a decided advance over anything his contemporaries had achieved, Sukthankar and his fellow epic editors aside. His engagement with Sanskrit poetry concerned two bodies of materials, one vast corpus and one more stable text, which are in fact intimately related, since both comprised poetry of the genre known as muktaka, the “isolate” or stand-alone verse that constitutes the bedrock of Sanskrit literary culture. The first and larger project was an edition of the poetry collection, Sataka-trayam (st) that has come down to us under the name of Bhartrhari; the second, an edition of the “Treasury of Literary Gems” (Subhasita-ratna-kosa, srk) of Vidyakara, the oldest example of what was to prove an enduring genre of Sanskrit literature, the literary anthology.

Kosambi’s involvement with the Bhartrhari corpus extended over more than three decades. The Epigrams Attributed to Bhartrhari appeared in 1948. This critical edition of the poems was preceded and followed by a series of editions of traditional commentaries on the text, either wholly or collaboratively edited by Kosambi (one by a Jain from western India, Dhanasara Gani, the oldest, if an often sophomoric, scholiast; a second, of very high quality, by Ramacandra Budhendra, possibly 17th century Andhra (the work was previously published and re-edited by Kosambi); a third by a south Indian commentator, whose name we now know to be Arkuttyalaya Balarama Kavi; the last by one Ramarsi, date and place unknown). Kosambi’s concern with commentaries may in the first instance have been with their textual testimony, what they could say about the historical development of the Bhartrhari corpus. But in making them available he at least intimated an understanding (as classical scholars of his day almost never did) of the importance of the history of the reception of the poetry, of changing reading practices – what I term vernacular mediations, those moments of edition-making or interpretation that constitute an essential second domain of a text’s truths, beyond that of the putatively singular authorial one. What people in history have taken to be the truth (or in Sanskrit terms, vyavaharika sat) is as important as what may have once been the truth (paramarthika sat). What we want to know is the history of these truths, and the ways in which they made sense in their worlds – and we want then to apply (in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s sense) the same analytic to ourselves, to understand what truth the text is making for us. Accessing these truths in all their variety and plurality is one of the great promises of philology.

It was, however, primarily to get at that one primordial textual truth that Kosambi studied 377 manuscripts of st (out of a “conservative” estimate of 3,000 extant manuscripts), undoubtedly a larger number than has ever been used for any single text in the history of Indian literary criticism.4 He believed these could be divided into two grand regional recensions and some 12 lesser versions, an analysis that was a notable accomplishment in itself.5 What he found was not the orderly disagreement of manuscripts that classical philology had taught Sukthankar to expect. It was instead (as Sukthankar himself and his colleagues were to find, though to varying degrees, for the Mahabharata) the textual chaos of a beloved living tradition, where thousands of manuscripts diverge in the order of poems, their number, and their content, where the conflict between the “linguistic code” and the “bibliographic code” becomes utterly dizzying [McGann 1991: 48-68]. Kosambi could find only some 200 poems on which a sufficient number of manuscripts agreed closely enough to allow for inclusion in a hypothetical archetypal source (“Ur-Bhartrhari”). While clinging to a Lachmannian image of orderly dispersal – a neatly branching European oak – Kosambi seems to have felt that a banyan’s controlled anarchy of aerial shoots and roots (Bernard Cohn’s wonderful analogy) offered an arboreal figure far more pertinent to the Indian textual condition [Cohn 1985: 327].

I say “seems to have felt” since Kosambi never offered an explicit defence of his philological method – as opposed to his general, and far more innovative, interdisciplinary historical method – or an argument about Indian difference in the world of textuality, in order to trim the universalist pretensions of European philological theory. In fact, India reveals cultural processes that seem altogether inassimilable to that theory, in the same way we find it to reveal social and political processes inassimilable to European social or political science. We can observe how orality could thrive utterly unimpeded by the rise of literacy, so that in a work like the Mahabharata a wide spectrum of communicative media came to be sedimented over the centuries (some sections were transmitted entirely orally, others entirely in written form, and yet others in a mixture of the two, presumably in relation to their performativity); how regions tended to produce their own recensions of given works, with their own effective history, among which sometimes none evinces primacy; or how some genres were completely open to variation or expansion (the epics, for instance) while others remained almost completely closed (the mahakavyas, or great courtly poems).

Core Verses

All that said, the complex reception history of the Bhartrhari corpus still needs to be reconciled with a more familiar genetic history disclosed not only by a concrete core of stable verses – it is Kosambi’s signal accomplishment to have demonstrated the existence of this stable core buried in the slag heap of tradition – but by an attribute more difficult to define yet no less real. There is something about those 200 poems, and more than a few of the 150 classified by Kosambi as doubtful, that marks them off from almost all other Sanskrit literature, a personal voice of the sort one hears only rarely, in Catullus, say, or Du Fu, or Heine. In the Sanskrit world no one–with the exception of a stray verse here of Bhavabhuti, or one there of Dharmakirti–wrote the sort of verses we find in the Bhartrhari corpus, such as this one:

I never rightly fixed my thoughts
on the foot of God, to end rebirth,
I gained no moral strength enough
to force open the gate of heaven,
not even in dreams did I embrace
the full breasts of a woman – I did
nothing but act as an axe to lay waste
the forest of my mother’s youth.

Kosambi himself was unable to reconcile this incontestable if maddeningly elusive authorial presence – what today would be called an almost confessional voice – with the complex history of the transmission of his work and the various identities of the author mirrored in that history: the indecisive Buddhist monk, the learned king, the wise ascetic, the Vedantic mystic.6 But if anyone in the future proves able to do so, it will be because of the materials Kosambi provided.

The srk presented a rather different kind of text-critical problem. There exist only three partial manuscripts of the anthology, though a large number of the poems it includes are represented both in the manuscripts of the works from which the poems were selected and in other later anthologies. (For many of the great Pala-era poets such as Yogesvara, the srk, which was produced at a Pala-supported Buddhist monastery, is our only source – and their work is one of the anthology’s great revelations.) Here the great contribution of Kosambi, along with V V Gokhale (1957), his collaborator, was, first, to have adjudicated with great care among the various readings in manuscripts often very difficult to read, printing the most credible version possible while respecting Vidyakara’s authority, and, second, to have provided a historical catalogue raisonné, so to call it, of the poets included in the work. Although Daniel Ingalls, the translator of the anthology, was later to suggest more than 200 changes to the text, Kosambi’s srkstands as one of the most valuable works in the history of Sanskrit philology.


Why should Kosambi, a mathematician by training and a Marxist by persuasion, have cared about Bhartrhari’s poetry or Vidyakara’s anthology? Why did he almost drive himself mad editing the first (“Baba has nearly lost his mind in the work”, says Jinavijayamuni in the foreword), and spend so many of his productive years editing the second? He certainly developed a theory to explain the nature of this literature. But although as we will see this theory is in some way connected with his philological method, insofar at least as both show the same unquestioned commitment to positivist science and singular truth – there is one correct reading of a text, a society, a history7 – it does little to explain the nature of his deep involvement with the literature. On the contrary, it is hard not to feel that the two are in serious tension, and that the theory is a mechanical and ill-fitting adjunct to an inherited passion that long antedated it.8

Kosambi’s cultural theory is only briefly enunciated in the Bhartrhari book, though it is trumpeted in the dedication – or more justly, the provocation – whose Sanskrit expression is meant to embody the very tension: nutana-manava-samajasya puras-caranam marx-engels-lenin-namadheyanam tejasvinam maha-manavanam punita-smaran-artham (“To the sacred memory of the great and glorious pioneers of today’s society, Marx, Engels, Lenin”):
The to the men from whose writings I first learned that society can and must be changed before we attain the stage at which human history will begin. The senseless bloodshed and increasing distress of our times are inevitable only because of the present class-structure of society; Bhartrhari’s poetry of frustration provides at most an escape, but no solution [Kosambi 1948: 11].
The “literary physiognomy” of Bhartrhari with his “poetry of frustration” – Kosambi’s characterisation of the powerful poem translated above, among others – is reduced in the introduction to stto that of a “miserable class”, the brahmans, who shared his frustrations. Bhartrhari’s popularity is attested by centuries-long reproduction of manuscripts across the subcontinent, copied not just by and for brahman elites but by kayasthas, Dadupanthis, Nath yogins, and a host of others across the social spectrum, including simple everyday readers, in vast numbers unknown for any other work of classical Sanskrit literature. Kosambi explains this rich complexity by a single fact, namely the growth of that class whose misery resulted from the contradiction of their status and their power, “the anomalous position of possessing knowledge of Sanskrit but no certainty of employment” [Kosambi 1948: 81].9
‘Brahmanical Class Parasitism’

The introduction to the srkpresents the story of brahmanical class parasitism in a fuller form, but – and here I confess my surprise on revisiting work that so impressed me almost 40 years ago – with argument shallower than I remembered and a disdain that is almost Olympian. The line of thought is adequately signalled in the subheadings: ‘The Basis of Feudal Sanskrit Literature’, ‘The Twilight of the Gods’, ‘The Social Functions of Literature’. Sanskrit, for Kosambi, was a language that had lost all contact with the sensuous world of “real life” in ancient India (some lives being apparently more real than others); it was purely an instrument of elite power and “legitimisation” of power. As for the actual life of Sanskrit in society, it is altogether tangential to Kosambi’s analysis: Given that India lacks the records to write normal empirical scholarship since “the episodes and details are lacking”, Kosambi can make a necessity of what to him is a virtue, “to specify the basic theory” that would explain the data if we had it. This theory requires an analysis that “must therefore derive from the class divisions of every society in which literature was cultivated”. The ruling class in India was not a rising class and hence could never view the interests of all as interests of its own; its poets, and the priests who were their confreres, could therefore never transcend the narrow sectional interests of the elites. No new classes inevitably meant no new literature, and this held true in India until the late colonial period (Bankim, Tagore, etc); preceding this were endless “centuries of dreary classical imitation, even in the vernaculars”. As for the Sanskrit poets themselves, their work “necessarily” carried the stamp of parasitism and decay. This prohibited them from ever addressing “major problems of the individual spirit” or of humanity at large, and it condemned their works and biographies to near oblivion [Kosambi 1957: xlv-lxii].


There is no question that Kosambi sought to revitalise what he viewed as a moribund scholarly practice, and that for many students of the era and into the 1970s the work was electrifyingly transgressive – even to formulate a theoretical approach, of whatever stamp, to the field was unprecedented. What remains vital in this theory is another question, and to try to find an answer I examine it briefly on three fronts: its understanding of the social history of Sanskrit; its historical and economistic foundations; and its metatheoretical presuppositions.

“Neither [the Sanskrit] language nor [its] literature were for the vulgar herd”, Kosambi asserts; “Sanskrit meant less to [the ‘proletariat’ of medieval India] than Greek to the soldiers of Marcus Aurelius” [1957: xli-xlii].10

Fifty years after Kosambi wrote this we have still a long way to go in developing an even remotely adequate social history of Sanskrit literary culture. But it is becoming increasingly clear that brahmans were not alone in writing Sanskrit poetry; Buddhists and Jains wrote it, too, studied it, taught it, and cherished it. And the social spectrum of secular Sanskrit seems to have been far wider than that: How else are we to understand verses from a 13th-century literary anthology that praise the Sanskrit poetry of a simple potter named Ghrona (“Caste is no constraint for those rendered pure by the Goddess of Speech”) or that of a chandala named Divakara (“Ah, what power does the Goddess of Speech possess, that Divakara should have been a member of the literary circle of King Harsha, and the equal of Bana and Mayura”).11 Manuscript colophons, a huge and (for social history) as yet almost untouched archive, give abundant evidence that the readership of Sanskrit far exceeded the bounds of Kosambi’s “miserable class”. The most varied testimony from later periods also tells a story incompatible with Kosambi’s narrative. Consider just the Jain merchant Banarsidas’ autobiographical Ardhakathanak (1641). Here he recounts how as a child he learned Sanskrit in addition to Prakrit and various vernaculars, that he studied a wide range of Sanskrit shastric materials, and translated a Sanskrit namamala into Hindi (it is extant, and dated 1613) along with a Jain Sanskrit work. Brahmans no doubt typically promoted themselves as the custodians of the language, but it is to swallow their ideology whole to equate Sanskrit and brahmanism, as Kosambi, to say nothing of other far less critical scholars, invariably does.

‘Feudalism’ in Medieval India

Kosambi’s sense of the “feudal” structure of medieval Indian culture-power, as it emerges from his literary-historical scholarship, affiliates him with the strong universalist tendencies of much Indian Marxist thought of the time, which held not only that Marx’s social theory exhausted the possible forms of social life, but that every society was destined to experience all these forms in sequence, including what is most important for our present concerns, feudalism.12 Here is not the place to recapitulate the long feudalism debate that continues to choke the landscape of medieval Indian historiography like kudzu weed [Byres and Mukhia 1985].13 The contemporary literary or intellectual historian, however, would hardly hesitate before confessing that it has been singularly sterile. Its dust-dry shastric exercises over tax or rent, peasant or serf, class or caste are often completely a priori and devoid of any engagement with real empirical data and actual texts. They have little help to offer to those trying to make any sense of the real nature of polity or the character and grounds of cultural change. After half a century of discourse on feudalism, we still seem to have little idea about the political order in middle-period India. To repeat questions I ask elsewhere, “Was [it] segmentary in the African sense or feudal in the European? Did the polity consist of hierarchically parcellated authority with ritual hegemony at the centre, or did it wither away under vast transfers of wealth to a feudal nobility? Was the state the Great Beast, the Great Fraud, or the Great Drama?” [Pollock 2006: 6]. Moreover, participants in the debate often interpreted cultural production mechanically according to an inflexible economism and an equally dismal functionalism; as Kosambi himself put it, real history is the story of the development of productive forces; “any other type of history deals only with the superstructure, not with the essentials” [2002: 794]. If the model of feudalism was the way to restore to Indian culture-power formations something of their historical dynamism in order to erase the stain of stasis imputed by colonialism, these formations risked losing their specificity along the way. Why even bother to study them if we know in advance what they should mean? Kosambi’s work shows this risk was real and present.

Finding precisely what theory prompts us to look for is a ubiquitous danger, one that engulfed communist politics, too, whose often uncritical “philology” similarly led to a search everywhere for what used to be called “the correct line”. But the problem, and the irony, was doubled in the colonial context. Kosambi’s historical theory unquestioningly accepts that the world works in uniform, lawlike ways, and these laws have been discovered by western science. Equating as he did Marx with Carl Friedrich Gauss, Michael Faraday, and Charles Darwin, he would hardly have been prepared to allow that the social science developed out of the sociality of 19th century Europe was specific to that world (though good Marxist theory – with social existence determining social consciousness – would seem to require this radical historical difference), and therefore not easily, and perhaps not logically, transposed across space and time. Yet scholars increasingly argue that the history of capitalism, let alone feudalism, produced no such uniformity or universalism, upon which a supposed science of history was in part to be built.14

Kosambi’s general cultural theory and metatheoretical assumptions, to turn to my last rubric, are derived from the darkest and most undialectical period of Marxist intellectual history, Stalin’s Diamat of the 1940s compounded with Plekhanov’s earlier historical materialist vision of literary change. Here all cultural particularities and differences are dissolved in the universal solvent of class. Kosambi was not alone in this, of course; the “epistemic inability to see any stratificational kind other than class” is part of the history of Indian Marxism.15 It is class alone that can serve as a diagnostic for the judgment about literature: what is to be accepted and cherished as accelerating the movement of history, what is to be denounced and discarded as retarding it. Kosambi’s application of this theory shows all the flaws we have already met: anachronism, false comparison, misapplication of a social-science apparatus developed out of and for 19th century capitalist Europe to a non-capitalist Indian world; a proclivity for allowing theory to shape the interpretation of texts rather than to permit the evidence of texts to reshape theory, since our concern should apparently be less with what social actors did think and write than with what, in our theoretical view, they should have thought or written. There is a special impropriety to his arguments in the case of the srk, however, with its remarkable “poetry of village and field,” whose complex sociality Ingalls was the first to grasp though never theorise. Here are two of Ingalls’ translations:

Somehow, my wife, you must keep us and the children
alive until the summer months are over.
The rains will come then, making gourds and pumpkins grow aplenty,
and we shall fare like kings.

* * *

The children starving, looking like so many corpses,
the relative who spurns me, the water pot
patched up with lac – these do not hurt so much
as seeing the woman from next door, annoyed
and smiling scornfully when every day my wife
must beg a needle to mend her tattered dress [Ingalls 1968: 257].

This is poetry Kosambi cannot assimilate to his theory; it is dismissed as the “poverty of the intelligentsia”, as if Brecht’s poverty, or Villon’s, or Cervantes’, was not an intellectual’s poverty [Ingalls 1954].16


Kosambi’s philosophy, in contrast to his philology, was received with cold silence by cold war-era western Indologists, politically conservative as most were and constitutionally incapable of any theoretically informed response.17 Only Ingalls, his editor, paid him the courtesy of serious engagement. He too observed that Kosambi’s ideas were specific to the world out of which they originally arose and faltered against the histories of China and India; that the standards of judgment he employed were entirely alien to the standards by which the poets measured themselves (Kosambi makes no reference anywhere to Sanskrit alankara and rasa-sastra, probably the most sophisticated discourses on the nature of literature in the premodern world); that culture is not always completely homomorphic with power (in his own words, “Must we hate the intricacies of [the 10th century Sanskrit playwright] Murari because we hate the social system of his time?”). In the end, however, Ingalls was able to oppose to Kosambi’s scientific pretensions only the disinterested interest of a Kantian subjectivist aestheticism: “The poetry of Bhartrhari remains beautiful and sometimes truly great,” he wrote in reference to st; whereas in srkhe could only complain how unreasonable was the man “who will not listen to beauty until he knows that it comes from a new economic class”, as if to “listen to beauty” were itself an entirely unmediated act, unaffected by history [1965: 51-53; 1950: 262].18

To ask what claims Bhartrhari or Sanskrit literature (or the Indian past as such) makes upon us here and now is indeed one of the most interesting if intractable puzzles that a historicist cultural criticism is compelled to confront, especially a Marxist criticism – after all, its first clear formulation is given in the Grundrisse: “But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model” [Marx 1973: 111]. Hegel posed the same problem earlier in a more lyrical vein in the Phenomenology:
A friendly fate presents [the works of classical antiquity] to us as a girl might offer those fruits. We have not the real life of their being – the tree that bore them, the earth and elements, the climate that constituted their substance, the seasonal changes that governed their growth. Nor does fate give us, with those works of art, their world, the spring and summer of the moral life in which they bloomed and ripened but only the veiled memory of this reality.19
How do philologists who retain a fundamental commitment to historicism and to grasping the relationship of culture and power– and who thus remain Marxists après la lettre and deeply sympathetic to Kosambi’s project – respond to Marx’s difficulty? How is it we actually want and are able to eat, and be nourished by, the fruit offered by Hegel’s phalwali?

We cannot dissever a text from the world in which it originated. Philology demonstrates the truth of this proposition in every line we read – which becomes unintelligible in the absence of a grounded understanding of the language of that world, even in the case of a language like Sanskrit that sought to occlude its own grounding in space and time. And “world” of course means the whole world, not just other texts but the political conditions of the text’s possibility. At the same time, we cannot deny a text’s capacity to speak to us in the present; it is part of the history that has made us what we are, all of us (for texts do not respect the silly boundaries drawn and defended by cultural nationalists). Kosambi understated that capacity of the text, blinkered by his concentration on its historical origins, and a very partial, often anachronistic, and Euro-derivative view of those origins (unlike Marx himself, we should note, who was open to the pull of Greek works even though the society from which they emerged had been deformed by slavery); Ingalls understated the text’s historical origins, blinkered by his concentration on its very capacity to speak to us still, while ignoring the fact that the claims of our historicity are not satisfied by pure subjectivism. Since our history is made up of and emerges out of that of earlier worlds, it is precisely in coming to understand them that we attain an understanding of our own historicity. Kosambi and Ingalls need each other, therefore – perhaps this was the unacknowledged basis of their deep friendship20 – and both in addition need the long and deep history that connects the text’s and the reader’s historicity, the sum total of vernacular mediations that constitute the full range of the text’s truths.

Cultural theory since Kosambi

What has happened to critical cultural theory in the 50 years since Kosambi’s version of scientific Marxism? Everything. Any remotely adequate list would have to include Antonio Gramsci’s rich studies of Italian language, literature, and history, and of course his ideas of hegemony (from the 1930s but made available only in the 1970s); Raymond Williams’ cultural materialism that exploded the idea that culture was not a material practice, along with his concept of “structure of feeling” of the “deep community” above and beyond any given class; Louis Althusser’s structural Marxism and the idea of culture as expressive product of a totality in contrast to the mechanical causal output of an economic base; Gadamer’s historicist-antihistoricist hermeneutics with its understanding of “application” – the unavoidable historicity of the reader confronting the unavoidable historicity of the text (a concept that has a deeply radical potential often ignored due to Gadamer’s cultural conservatism); Michel Foucault’s new history of discourse, discursive formations, epistemic change and ruptures, and regimes of truth; Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and field, which resolutely contest the reduction of culture to power; and perhaps above all postcolonialism, that omnibus term for all manner of resistance to western epistemic domination.21

Central to all this contestation is a set of ideas and urges that are not easily disentangled: a disenchantment with the claims of a science of man and a discrediting of its tall tales of directionality in historical change (emancipation, enlightenment, the various stages of historical evolution), and a scepticism towards the transhistorical validity of its conceptual categories (ideology, legitimation, the unconscious); a refusal to make the cultural simply epiphenomenal to the economic, social, or political; an awareness of the plurality of textual truths across historical eras, and of their historical truth beyond any simple correspondence with positive fact, in other words, the historical facticity of their imaginations and lies; a desire to find what is specific to local forms of life; and, increasingly, a rejection of systematicity and of the mechanical a priori application of theory, a willingness to challenge theory’s omnipotence and omniscience with the realities of the particularities and messiness of history. The development of critical political theory and practice in India during the same period would show a similar decline of universalisms like Marxism-Leninism and the ascendancy, and success, of located – or in Sudipta Kaviraj’s term, better translated – doctrines such as Ambedkarism.

Vitality of Political engagement

Although Kosambi’s belief in a single total theory is long dead, the political engagement that gave it life has gained vitality over the years. Culture and power are two sides of the same coin, and it is the task of a critical philology to read both – not just the texts of literature but the texts of the political, too. And what have we greater need of today, when the unconstrained power of capitalism (no less than its one-time alternative, state socialism) has brought the Earth as a whole to the brink of yuganta? Kosambi deserves to be celebrated for his readiness – especially in view of what was on offer at that time in the west, a timid formalism inside the seminar room and a virulent anticommunism outside – to put on the table a set of critical questions and to try to find answers to them: Why do we, here and now, care about all that back then? What does it mean to us to study the past, what does it mean to our future? Kosambi believed, wrongly in my view, that we could in a sense know the answer in advance, whereby Indian data became just more raw material for the Lancashire mills of western science. Perhaps we have since learned that if the past is studied in a spirit of theoretical openness – and not as if we knew beforehand what it was going to tell us – it might teach us something we do not already know, and make once-old resources, of culture or power, newly available to us. Is there any greater inducement for the study of how the world was before capitalist globalisation has almost wiped the slate clean?

In raising the question of studying the past, however, we encounter one of the great challenges confronting the well-being of Indian scholarship today, one that would likely have astonished Kosambi himself: the cultural ecocide that has almost destroyed millennia-long traditions of language and literature. How are the pasts that produced us to be understood if no one can any longer read the languages in which they are embodied? It is not going too far to predict, I fear, that within a generation the number of people able to access the classical, medieval, or even early modern vernacular archive of India – in Bangla, Kannada, Marathi, Telugu, and so on – will have approached a statistical zero. This has already happened with Apabhramsha and the Prakrits, and real expertise in Indo-Persian is fast disappearing. As for Sanskrit, how saddened Kosambi would likely have been, despite his evaluation, to see this great tradition stultified in the bloodless teaching and bland research often practised in Indian colleges and universities, or captured and demeaned by the most retrograde and unphilological forces in the Indian polity, or, the worst fate of all, simply forgotten. In fact, the most pressing question to raise on the occasion of commemorating Kosambi’s contribution to Sanskrit may be, not why he used this method or defended that theory – though it is not the least of his achievements to force such questions upon us – but rather why India has not produced any scholar to succeed him, and what if anything can still be done about it.

See the pdf version for the notes

Monday, January 5, 2009

Subaltern studies a challenge to historians: Irfan Habib

The Hindu : National : Subaltern studies a challenge to historians: Irfan Habib
Subaltern studies a challenge to historians: Irfan Habib

‘Globalisation is accompanied by immense ideological offensive’

KANNUR: Historian Irfan Habib has said that post-modernist and subaltern studies in history, being promoted by the western establishment, are a serious challenge facing historians.

Talking to The Hindu on the sidelines of the 69th session of the Indian History Congress, which concluded on the Kannur University campus at Mangattuparamba on Tuesday, Professor Habib said globalisation was accompanied by an immense ideological offensive.

On the one hand, there was globalisation and on the other, “you are telling every country, along with every cultural community within that country, that your culture is different, your history is different,” he said.

Subaltern historians such as Ranajit Guha believed that only local alternative communities had history. That meant India did not have a history and even the working class did not have a history.

Professor Habib said the subaltern concept was similar to the view that Indian values were different from western values and, therefore, it could not be understood by western methods. That was the view of Edward Said, who said that oriental history could not be studied with critical tools fashioned in the west. That also meant that an Indian could not study Arab history. The post-modernist view was that every culture must have different tools.

According to this view, Marxism was a meta-narrative and rejected by Professor Said, subalterns and post-modernists. “British historians will never think of applying these methods to the British history. They are applying it to Indian history,” he said.

Asked about secular historians’ concern about distortion of history in the country, Professor Habib said it would be wrong to claim that Marxist historians alone were opposing Hindu communalism. In fact, none of the major historians had joined the communal interpretation of history. Even R.C. Majumdar, who might be right wing or communal, could not go the way of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Nationalist historians and historians who used Marxist tools were in agreement that the history propagated by the RSS was a ‘lunatic asylum.’

Not a single professional historian of any eminence could subscribe to the RSS view of history, he added.

Reacting to History Congress president K.N. Panikkar’s observation that Marxist historiography had paid inadequate attention to culture, Professor Habib said the country did not have a very large number of Marxist historians. They had concentrated mainly on elements of history which were more in the field of technology, economics, conditions of people, formation of classes and class struggle.

“Their interests have been different and are not likely to change very much,” he said. Even D.D. Kosambi’s interests in culture were very peripheral. The Marxist historians in the country had to work in a situation where several things were not clear. Kosambi had often said that he was going to culture to understand the economic bases because there was no direct evidence from economic base on which the historian could develop.

“It is different from saying that culture is the crucial element,” Professor Habib said.

Stating that no culture could be treated as superior, he underlined the uniqueness of every culture. “It would be absurd to say that European craftsmen did not contribute to the reshaping of the world and that China did not contribute to the development of technology to an extent other pre-modern civilisations had contributed.” But it did not mean that cultures could not be studied by same tools, he added.
Professional forum

Talking about the relevance of the Indian History Congress, the historian said it was first of all a professional forum where historians could interact and young historians and history students could meet each other, learn how to present papers and respond to questions.

The congress represented the tradition of its inception in 1935 as a body of nationalist historians. It opposed Emergency and passed a resolution against the Union government’s reference of the Babri Masjid case to the Supreme Court in 1993.

Professor Habib said history was about facts and their interpretation. “When people say there are fundamental disagreements in history, they relate to only part of the terrain.”

No historian would say that Akbar did not die in 1605, though there were debates on methods being applied to study history.