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”.

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