Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A discussion with Romila Thapar

I hope that this discussion with Prof. Romila Thapar might be of interest to the readers of this blog. Prof Thapar is one of the outstanding historians who were inspired by DD Kosambi's writings. Of particular interest are her comments on how British colonial perception led to the creation of the 'Hindu' identity and ignored other streams like Buddhism, Jainism and others.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Quest of Dharmanand, a review by Romila Thapar

Dharmanand Kosambi: The Essential Writings edited and translated by Meera Kosambi
(Ranikhet: Permanent Black), 2010; pp xv + 421, Rs 695.

A review essay by the historian Romila Thapar.

Dharmanand Kosambi was an extraordinary man. He sought knowledge about Buddhism when few in India were interested in it. He virtually trained himself as a scholar of Buddhism and did so in a manner that was the polar opposite of how we train to be scholars in our time. He had neither degrees nor research fellowships nor attachments to academic institutions but was recognised as a scholar.

Born in 1876 in a village in Goa he slowly became obsessed with wanting to learn about the teachings of the Buddha. This he proceeded to do and it involved him in long wanderings. It took him to various teachers and places for short or longer periods and in Sri Lanka and Burma he honed his knowledge.

The way he set about becoming a scholar shows immense determination but is at the same time a very moving articulation of a genuine wish to know and without any motives other than the acquiring of this knowledge. There are few who are motivated in this manner. He virtually worked out a curriculum for himself addressed to the knowledge for which he was searching.
In this volume under review, his grand-daughter Meera Kosambi has translated from the original Marathi and edited some of his more important writings. This provides a welcome acquaintance with the man, his scholarship and his social commitments. Complete Surrender His memoirs, written as a series of articles between 1912 and 1924 under the title of Nivedan, describe his early life. Declaring in 1899 that he had become a complete Buddhist at least in his mind, he left home and his young wife. He travelled first to Pune known to be a hub of Sanskrit scholarship. A smattering of Sanskrit provided an introduction to various scholars who helped him improve his knowledge of the language. Among them was R G Bhandarkar who was also developing a scholarly interest in Buddhism. From here Dharmanand travelled with his meagre belongings to Ujjain, Gwalior, Varanasi, Kathmandu and Gaya. He wandered often barefoot, ill-clad and accepting food where offered in the spirit of a bhikshu. This took him all over northern India and to sites linked to Buddhism.

During his travels he met Sanskrit teachers in various towns connected by a close network often through oral communication. These were not Indologists studying Sanskrit as something apart from their lives but were scholars for whom the study was itself a way of life. Money was extremely short and he was living on the edge of every coin. He was warned not to mention his interest in Buddhism which was frowned upon by the orthodox.

They associated it with the nastikas, the unbelievers and the pashandas, the heretics. As a contrast to this, initial studies and translations of Buddhist texts into English, such as those published by the Pali Text Society founded in 1881, were beginning to recognise the importance of Buddhism in south Asia, a recognition emerging from a mist of forgotten ideas. In eastern India, the Mahabodhi Society was slowly becoming a hub of studies on Buddhism, using both Sanskrit and Pali sources.

Dharmanand was directed to the Mahabodhi Society in Calcutta and from there he scraped together a few rupees and with a little help from his friends eventually reached Sri Lanka in 1902. Here he could openly state his purpose. The Mahabodhi Society extended support and he joined the Vidyodaya Vidyalaya.

International Recognition 

 A major movement in Sri Lanka at this time was focusing on the revival of Theravada Buddhism which had gone into a decline. The movement began in the late 19th century with the activities of the Theosophists– in particular Henry Olcott and Madame Blavatsky – who had links in India and with some organisations such as the Arya Samaj. The revival was pursued vigorously by Anagarika Dharmapala. An effort was made to propagate Theravada Buddhism and to identify it with Sinhala Buddhism. Tied into this revival were the current European theories of race with claims that the Sinhala Buddhists were Aryans. These theories were to contribute to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The movement has recently been described as “Protestant Buddhism”. Dharmanand met Dharmapala briefly but the meeting left little impression on him. It would have been interesting to have had an outsider’s view of the movement and particularly one sympathetic to the religion.

From Sri Lanka he went for a while to Burma where he was ordained a monk. But by now his health was so impaired that he had to discontinue monkhood. Nor was there a monastic network in India to maintain monkhood. He came to Calcutta in 1906 and taught Pali first in the National College and then at the university. His wife joined him but not for long. In 1907 their son was born. A stipend from the Maharaja of Baroda permitted a period of further research, Baroda being one of the princely states that took an active interest in furthering education. He eventually settled in Maharashtra.

Here his writings and lectures led to recognition. It also brought him into contact with James Woods to whom he taught Pali. Woods was at Harvard University and his colleague there, H C Warren, a professor of Sanskrit, was searching for a Pali scholar to help edit the Visuddhimagga, a major work on Theravada Buddhism. In 1910 Dharmanand was invited to Harvard to help with this work, the first of many visits. This established Dharmanand internationally as a scholar of Pali and Buddhism.

An Alternative System

His determination to study Pali is all the more impressive given that Buddhism elicited no interest in Goa. Nor was it much sought after elsewhere in India at that time. Apart from a children’s book on the Buddha, he mentions that he read a Marathi translation of Edwin Arnold’s poem on the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia. This narrative in uninspired Victorian verse, published in 1879, was an instant success. Buddha’s life was portrayed as exemplary and reminiscent of Christ. Those of us that scoff at this poem will have to reassess its influence.

The poem coincided with the emerging Orientalist interest in Buddhist texts and the study of Pali in the latter half of the 19th century. Buddhism was absent in India although prevalent in other parts of Asia, so its Indian context remained somewhat in the shadow. The historical background of the Pali Buddhist Canon associated with Theravada Buddhism and later with the Hinayana, “lesser vehicle”, was rooted in northern India of the fifth century BC. There was a tendency therefore to treat it as just another manifestation of Hinduism not recognising that it was projecting an alternative system. At best it was compared to the Protestant Reformation in Christianity. But Dharmanand’s memoirs confirm that the Brahmana orthodoxy regarded it as a definitive opposition to Brahmanism. It had no place for deity and its social ethic was not based on the code of the four castes. It was, however, vibrant in other parts of Asia and the Canon was elucidated by extensive commentaries which gave the teaching an additional provenance in Asian cultures. Those recorded in Pali came to be viewed as a source of pristine Buddhism.

There was another tradition of Buddhist teaching dating to the early centuries AD, the texts of which were largely in Sanskrit. These were associated more often with the other school of Buddhist thinking, the Mahayana, “greater vehicle” whose initial core area was north-western India but extending into other parts of south Asia as also into central Asia and beyond. It would perhaps have been easier for Dharmanand to have worked on these Sanskrit texts. He does refer to the biographies of the Buddha in Sanskrit, the Lalita-vistara and the Buddhacharita of Ashvaghosha, when writing his biography of the Buddha, Bhagvan Buddha. But the Pali texts were the earliest and thought to be the original teaching whereas the Sanskrit texts reflected later changes in belief and ritual.

Buddhism, Brahmanism, Islam

Despite having to go outside India to study Pali and Buddhism, Dharmanand surprisingly says little about why he thought it had faded out in India. There are, of course, many reasons. It could be argued that language may have played a partial role. The Buddha had stated that his teaching was to be in the local language and not in Sanskrit so as to reach a wider audience and remain distinct from Brahmanism. The Prakrit used by the Buddha has been labelled “Old Buddhist ardha-magadhi” to distinguish it from the Jaina Canon. From the mid-first millennium AD Sanskrit became the hegemonic language of religious and cultural discourse. Had there been more visibility of Buddhist writing in Sanskrit, it is just possible that Brahmanism may have had to defend itself with greater vigour.

The fading out of Buddhism also came with a decrease in patronage both royal as well as that of wealthy householders. Patronage gradually shifted from Buddhism and Jainism to the Vaishnava and Shaiva sects and to Brahmanas.

Buddhism had emerged from an ethos of gana-sanghas, chiefships and oligarchies. The organisation of monasteries used these as their model as directed by the Buddha. Dharmanand insisted, quite correctly, that the Buddha was not the son of a king which at that time was almost a lone opinion. He commented on the similarity of social organisation in the ganasanghas and in socialist systems. Kingship eventually became the more powerful political form and kings treated patronage as a means of building support and acquiring legitimacy. Religious sects therefore competed for patronage and the competition would have encouraged making concessions in belief and worship.

The patronage of wealthy householders had earlier drawn in small-scale land-owners, artisans and merchants as testified in the votive inscriptions at stupa sites such as Bharhut, Sanchi, Kanheri, Amaravati and others. Many of these spectacular Buddhist structures date to the period between the Mauryas and the Guptas when trade was at a peak. A slowing down of the trade in some areas may have affected patronage from these groups. Eastern India was an exception where Buddhism remained a strong presence until the early second millennium AD. But here Buddhism was of the Vajrayana form infiltrated by Tantrism and in the proximity of Tibetan Buddhism. This created some difference with the Theravada form.

Eastern India maintained trading activities as with south-east Asia until Arab intervention diverted this trade. This coincided with the Turkish conquest of the area resulting in political confrontation, sometimes violent. But the contention that Islam was responsible for the decline of Buddhism hardly holds. Xuanzang’s account of India in the seventh century AD indicates that the decline in various parts of the subcontinent was noticeable and this was prior to the arrival of Islam. The contrast with eastern India a little later is quite striking.

Whether or not Dharmanand subscribed to this view is not stated. But he comes down heavily on the Muslims ascribing the decline and destruction of the cultures of central Asia, Persia and Egypt to Muslim conquest. He then adds, “They could not entirely destroy Indian culture; but during their reign it was almost dead; the suffering of the Hindus knew no bounds” (p 330). As a Maharashtrian he would doubtless have been familiar with the compositions of Ekanatha and the activities of the court of Shivaji, so his assessment could have been more nuanced. But this was a facile explanation and did not require questioning possible changes in Buddhism.

Large grants of land to monasteries became less frequent (except in eastern India) as compared to grants to Brahmanas which increased. Rituals of all kinds were performed and astrological predictions came to the fore in which monks were not adept. Jaina monks in particular became a sign of the inauspicious. The antagonism between Shaivas and Shramanas was almost a given, although its intensity varied. Nevertheless the Jainas maintained a position of eminence especially in western India.

Non-violence over Suffering

Despite the increasingly low profile of Buddhism some aspects of Hindu belief and thinking were likely to have been altered by the proximity of the heterodox sects, and vice versa, as is evident from the sectarian fissions that emerged in each of the religions. It is a moot point whether the essentials of Puranic Hinduism (as distinct from Brahmanism) would have evolved the way they did had there not been the proximity of the Shramanic sects. This is not to argue that the one deliberately took from the other, but rather that given the relatively decentralised of religion in the subcontinent, osmoses among religions were the more likely processes of change. The identification of such processes is significant to understanding religion in pre-modern India.

Possibly one could argue that Dharmanand subconsciously recognised the presence of these processes in the world around him and set out to seek for their roots. However, commenting briefly on the interaction of Buddhism and Hinduism he maintained that the essential values of Buddhism – non-violence and the need to eliminate suffering – had bypassed Hinduism. He gave priority to non-violence over suffering. The cause of the Buddha’s renunciation was less due to his experience of seeing sickness, old age and death, and more the imminent violence between the Shakya and the Koliya clans of Buddha’s time. (This situation is described in the Kunala Jataka.) Dharmanand maintains that the violence between the clans was averted by his renunciation. This marks an important segment of his book, Hindi Sanskriti ani Ahimsa (Indian Civilisation and Non-violence), and is stated more clearly in his play, Bodhisattva, published posthumously in 1949.

Socialism and Neo-Buddhism

His interest in socialism could also have led him to underline the social message of the Buddhist ethic. In the early part of the 20th century there was an incipient dialogue between some Buddhists and Marxists. Ideas about socialism were also in the air.

Dharmanand makes some connections and these would have been an innovation at that time. Such ideas were subsequently expressed by others of the next generation such as Rahul Sankrityayan. These may indirectly and to some degree have contributed to neo-Buddhism.

Dharmanand’s initial reading of Marx impressed him enough for him to take up a short teaching assignment at Leningrad University. The application of Marxism to organising society as in the Soviet Union interested him. He was clearly impressed by the low incidence of unemployment in the Soviet Union and by the freedom accorded to women.

In the Name of the Father

These interests of Dharmanand are reflected in some of the ideas that surface in the writings of his son who was at the time completing his degree at Harvard and returning to Pune. Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi read Mathematics at Harvard. His training as a scholar was the reverse of the path followed by his father. He took regular courses in school and at university, studied a variety of European languages and above all familiarised himself with the methodology of scientific investigation. But the impact of his father’s work and concerns seems to have been enormous. This can be seen in what began as an extra-curricular study of ancient history and Sanskrit texts.

For theories of historical explanation he drew on Marxism about which he must initially have heard from his father. In his discussions on ancient Indian history he was concerned with giving visibility to the role of Buddhist social and economic activities emphasising a dimension that had received less attention in earlier general histories. Where Dharmanand had casually mentioned the Buddhist rock-cut monasteries, his son studied the sites in order to understand their function as socio-religious institutions of early India. However, for him these were not the articulations of the holy but of history.

This is also reflected in his choice of texts to edit. He chose courtly literature in Sanskrit reflecting his definition of feudal society. Refusing to be limited to texts and library research he walked the countryside around Pune collecting data to reconstitute “living prehistory”. This ranged from the study of microliths to that of mother-goddesses. One cannot help but suspect that Dharmanand’s walk across the land inspired his son not to neglect the continuities, literally on the ground.

Dharmanand’s major work was the editing of the Visuddhi-magga (Vishuddhimarga), the Path to Purification. This was a summation of his wish to learn Pali and expand the understanding of Buddhism. In the fifth century AD, the Brahmana acharya Buddhaghosha had travelled to various centres of learning, seeking knowledge through debating with philosophers both orthodox and heterodox. At the bidding of a Buddhist monk he went to Sri Lanka where he studied the Pali Buddhist Canon and its later commentaries. Some commentaries were composed in Sinhala and it was thought necessary to translate them into Pali so that they would circulate wherever Pali was known. At the time this would have included parts of south-east Asia. Such texts were crucial to the propagation of Buddhist teachings. Buddhaghosha became a major intellectual figure through the multiple commentaries he wrote on the Canon as well as the anthologies that he compiled. In his lifetime he was probably the foremost scholar of Theravada Buddhism and the Visuddhi-magga his most celebrated work. He is acclaimed in Buddhist writings such as the Mahavamsa, a Sri Lankan monastic chronicle of the Mahavihara monastery. In editing the text, Dharmanand was introducing a foundational text of Buddhism to the wider world. It is almost as if he was continuing the work of Buddhaghosha. And there seems to have been a resemblance in the unfolding of the two lives.

Path to Purification

The Visuddhi-magga is an anthology of Buddhist teachings and a manual on Theravada Buddhism. It was intended as a summary of the Canon and also incorporated the earlier oral commentaries, the atthakathas, subsequently lost. The texts claimed to be authentic, maintaining that they incorporated the actual words of the Buddha, or traditions vouched for by the elders of the Sangha familiar with the teaching. The concern with authenticity was necessary now that almost a millennium had passed since the time of the Buddha. Furthermore, dissenting sects were sparring over the correct reading of the texts.

The Visuddhi-magga encapsulates some of Theravada Buddhist thinking in focusing on three paths to purification/liberation: sila (shila) discipline, samadhi, meditation and panna (prajna) wisdom. Discipline included finding a teacher and a place. Meditation involved reflecting on the teachings and the stages of concentration. The acquiring of wisdom was in part based on the practice of what has now become fashionable, namely, vipassana, as a method of acquiring insight. Narrative is used to explain the more abstract concepts which form the essence of the teaching. Absence of the centrality of deity and the insistence on a social ethic that did not require religious underpinnings, distinguishes early Buddhism from other religions; or, as Emile Durkheim argued, denies it the label of a religion. Editing the text therefore was an intellectual challenge.

The Sanskritist Henry Warren had begun the editing but needed the assistance of a Pali scholar. On the death of Warren another Sanskrit scholar Charles Lanman took over but looked for a person with greater expertise. The editing required consulting important manuscripts in Pali and in the Burmese and Sinhala scripts. Dharmanand was therefore well-equipped to edit the text. Dharmanand and Lanman did not always see eye-to-eye, nevertheless the work was completed in 1927. It was published later in 1950 in the Harvard Oriental Series as edited by H C Warren and D D Kosambi.

In Death, So in Life

The quest of Dharmanand illustrates the potential of searching for knowledge by seeking it directly. Ultimately that is what makes for the excellence of a scholar however arduous the training, particularly if self-imposed. After the 1930s his views were more forthright on the politics of his time. The past is brought into play on issues of the present but only where relevant. What his son D D Kosambi managed to do was in many ways a continuation of his father’s enquiries but with methods appropriate to the requirements of knowledge that prevailed in the subsequent generation.

For him the historical context of event and knowledge had primacy. This required a detailed study of context in addition to the analysis of the language. Understanding the context involved drawing on a range of evidence and this in turn enlarged the scope of causal connections. And if aspects of the analyses of the early past required juxtaposing with present times, he did this by providing a contextual critique.

When ill-health became unbearable Dharmanand retired to the Sevagram Ashram at Wardha, having known Gandhi, discussed ahimsa with him and participated in his movement. Here he chose to die through deliberate slow starvation more often associated with the Jaina tradition of sallekhana. In death as in life the decision was his.

Dharmanand wrote almost exclusively in Marathi although he knew English and other languages. He too wished to reach a large audience to explain his understanding of the teachings of the Buddha and other matters of contemporary interest. This accounts in part for his not being as well known as he should have been elsewhere in the country. Meera Kosambi’s editing and translating of his writings, involving both determination and care on her part, will help to familiarise many more people with Dharmanand’s work and thinking.

Romila Thapar ( is professor emeritus at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.