Sunday, September 26, 2010

Scholars Extraordinary

Dileep Padgaonkar reviews the book on Dharmanand Kosambi edited by Meera Kosambi.

Scholars Extraordinary - The Times of India
For close to four decades after his death, the name of Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi did not ring a bell outside a small circle of academics engaged in the study of ancient Indian history, society and culture. But interest in his prodigious output revived in India and abroad on the occasion of his birth centenary three years ago. Younger generations of scholars discovered a man of many parts: a polyglot fluent in Sanskrit, Pali, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, German, French, Italian, Portuguese and Russian, not to mention English and Marathi; an internationally-acclaimed mathematician, statistician, Indologist, Sanskritist, archaeologist and expert in numismatics; a creative, if contested, Marxist; a peace activist and, not least, what in today's parlance is known as a 'public intellectual'.

One sad consequence of his towering achievements, however, was the near-eclipse of attention to the achievements of his father, Dharmanand Kosambi, that were, in some respects, even more remarkable. These have now been brought into focus thanks to Meera Kosambi who represents the third generation of this family of scholars extraordinary. She has brought together, for the first time in English, the essential writings of her grandfather prefaced with a succinct account of his fascinating life and career.

Born on October 9, 1876 in a humble Gowd Saraswat Brahmin family in a small village in Portuguese-ruled Goa, Dharmanand, beset with persistent health problems, dropped out of school and was compelled to manage the family's coconut grove. The routine asphyxiated his restless mind. Adding to his despair was his marriage at the age of 14. He sought and found salvation in books in Marathi, particularly books about Maharashtra's saint-poets like Tukaram and about the Buddha. The latter's teachings made such a strong impression on him that he resolved in his early 20s to devote all his energies to the study of Buddhism and to propagate Buddhist philosophy throughout the Marathi-speaking world.

Soon after his father's death in late 1899, Dharmanand left behind his wife and infant daughter in the village and, on borrowed money, headed for Pune, then recognised as one of the foremost educational and cultural hubs in the subcontinent. Here he began to study Sanskrit in earnest and, thanks to Dr R G Bhandarkar, a fellow Saraswat, came in contact with the Prarthana Samaj. Over the next six years, he travelled, penniless and often on foot, to places in India and in neighbouring countries including Nepal, Burma (where he was ordained a monk) and Ceylon to deepen his knowledge of Buddhism.
It is in Calcutta that he got a break to enter the mainstream of academic life. His principal mentors were the linguist Harinath De, Prof Manmohan Ghosh, (brother of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh), Satyendranath Tagore and, above all, Justice Ashutosh Mookerjee. The latter invited him to introduce Pali in the curriculum of the National University and, later, at the University of Calcutta. From here his reputation as a scholar of Buddhism spread wide and far in academic circles.

As a result, Dharmanand launched on the international lecture-cum-research circuit that included four stints at Harvard University (also the alma mater of son Damodar), teaching assignments in Leningrad and, at different intervals, at Pune's Fergusson College and finally at Gandhi's Gujarat Vidyapeeth and the Vernacular Society in Ahmedabad. Along the way, he became more and more drawn into the Mahatma's inner circle, took part in the salt satyagraha, spent time in jail and worked among mill workers in Bombay. He continued to write prolifically on Buddhism and socialism in Marathi periodicals, making sure, as Meera Kosambi notes, to anchor his social and political concerns in spirituality and moral uprightness.

In 1947, much against his son's wishes, Dharmanand chose the Jain manner to end his life he fasted unto death at Gandhiji's ashram at Wardha. A deeply anguished Mahatma paid tribute to him saying that he was a scholar who "preferred to work silently in the background and never blew his own trumpet". It would have embarrassed Dharmanand Kosambi who disdained money and celebrity no end to learn that six decades after his death there is a surge of curiosity about his work on Buddhism, especially among young Ambedkarite scholars; a surge that will now doubtless soar on account of his granddaughter's diligent labours.

2 comments:

Bal Patil said...

PLEASE NOTE HOW DHARMANAND CHOSE 'JAIN MANNER TO END HIS LIFE' KNOWN AS 'SALLEKHANA'-VOLUNTARY FAST UNTO DEATH' DESPITE HIS LIFELONG BUDDHIST PURSUITS. BUT I FAIL TO APPRECIATE WHY DILIP PADGAONKAR IN HIS REVIEW IN TIMES OF INDIA OF MEERA KOSAMBI'S BIOGRAPHY MAKES IT A POINT TO MENTION DHARMANAND KOSAMBI'S 'GAUD SARASWAT BRAHMIN CASTE' AS ALSO THAT OF 'RG BHANDARKAR' 'A FELLOW SARASWAT'

readerswords said...

@Bal Patil: Now that you mention it, it does strike one that DP sould have mentioned Kosambi's caste :-)