Friday, May 15, 2009

Review of DDK's Collected Works

A fitting centenary tribute (Source)


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

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

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

Distinct historian

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vivek said...

As far as I have been able to make out (I have not had a chance to examine the book), this is just a new edition of Chattopadhyaya's earlier work (OUP, 2002) titled D D Kosambi: Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings). The only addition seems to be the piece Remembering Kosambi in which, among other things, Chattopadhyaya raises a question that "relates to the somewhat high decibel produced on the occasion of the birth centenary of Kosambi."

I wonder if any visitor to this blog can confirm or refute my observation in this regard. Veluthat in his review, by referring to "this edition" seems to confirm it. However, I feel it is less than honest of OUP not to clarify this point and instead misleading potential buyers into making a rather considerable investment of close to Rs. 1,000.

Anonymous said...

I kind of assumed that it is the same book that was published previously. I agree with you that the magazine should have reiterated it more clearly.

Vivek said...


More than the magazine, its OUP that should have made it clear.

If the difference between the two editions is indeed only the one I identified in my first comment, maybe OUP should voluntarily contribuite Chattopadhya's solitary 'new' piece Remembering Kosambi for publication on either this blog or Arvind Gupta's site. It will mean a considerable saving for those who bought the first edition, and for those who did not, that piece by itself will not stop them buying the new edition. As a matter of fact it may encourage them. OUP should consider trying this out as a marketing strategy.

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Vivek said...

Since writing my earlier two comments on this particular post, I have had the opportunity to examine the Table of Contents of the book, at

The differences between the 2002 and 2009 editions (apart from the deliberately misleading change in title by the publisher) consist of the inclusion in the latter of the following additional material:

New Introduction

Ch 53. On Valid Tests of Linguistic Hypotheses

Ch 54. At the Crossroads: A Study of Mother-Goddess Cult Sites