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)

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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 "....by 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.



3 comments:

subhajit said...

I have immense respect for D D Kosambi's unique scholarship on various subjects and his idealist views. He was a polymath 'par-excellence'. I also think his views on the need for peace are right on the mark. However, I must respectfully disagree with his categorical acceptance of the so-called "Aryan invasion" theory in the light of recent archaeological research on the Indus-Saraswati (Harappan) civilization. I believe he would have changed his view on this topic had he been aware of them.

amy said...

kosambi undoubtedly,was one of the greatest scholar india has ever got when we talk about historical approach in ancient india.but when i read his opinion on indus valley religion i found that he has tried to bring a watershed division in harappan society by taking into account trading activities showing the presence of trading elites.but i think he should have thought that trading activities were not everywhere but there were rural agrarian settlements also.what about those areas then?

readerswords said...

@subhajit and @amy: I wish I could answer your questions, but I am only a layman with interest in DD Kosambi's works. However, I do hope that more researchers use this site for exchange of ideas, so please keep posting your questions.