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.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Scholar Rebel- Dharmanand Kosambi


- A window into a remarkable mind

Dharmanand Kosambi: The essential writings Edited by Meera Kosambi,
Permanent Black, Rs 695

The Kosambi whom historians know well is D.D., the brilliant iconoclastic scholar who brought about a fundamental change in the writing of ancient Indian history and who, ironically, himself acquired an iconic status in Marxist historiography. But this book is about another, less-known Kosambi, D.D.’s father, Dharmanand (1876-1947). And the editor-translator is yet another Kosambi — Meera, eminent sociologist, daughter of D.D. and granddaughter of Dharmanand. Given the fact that Dharmanand was a grandfather whom she did not know, the book no doubt represents an important personal journey for her. For the reader, what lends it importance and interest is the remarkable life of its protagonist, and his amazing life-journey, which took him from a small Goan village to Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma, Russia, the United States of America and back. Not a bad record for a man who was afraid to travel!

Dharmanand is known as a Buddhist scholar in Maharashtra but is scarcely known elsewhere. This is because, although fluent in English, he chose to write in Marathi. This book introduces the man and his ideas to a wider audience and offers the first English translation of some of his writings. These include his autobiography, Nivedan,and his essays on Ashoka, Buddhism, non-violence, socialism, and the Indian working class. There is also a play (was it ever performed?) titled Bodhisattva, where Dharmanand wove satyagraha, women’s emancipation and his own vision of an ideal conjugal relationship into the story of the life of the Buddha-to-be.

Dharmanand was a school drop-out, his early education interrupted by frequent bouts of ill health. Married at the age of 14, shouldering the responsibility of the family business at 16, he had a strong contemplative and melancholy streak right from his childhood. Being a voracious reader only increased his dissatisfaction with life. The turning point came when he chanced upon a biographical sketch of the Buddha in a Marathi magazine, and later read a Marathi translation of Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia. He resolved to renounce his family and worldly life and to embark on a quest in search of knowledge of Buddhism. The problem was that he didn’t know quite where to look, because in the late 19th century, Buddhism had practically disappeared from India. After a seven-year-long journey, during which he became a monk, Dharmanand returned to the worldly life, determined to spread the Buddha’s message among his fellow Maharashtrians.

It is a gripping story. Dharmanand’s was not the usual search for an academic understanding of Buddhism. He was inspired by an intense, desperate yearning to comprehend the Buddha’s teaching from within the tradition, from practitioners of the faith. And his extraordinary spiritual quest was combined with a grim struggle for survival. He had no money and no wealthy patrons. He lived on the edge of starvation, begging for food and shelter, his body frequently racked with sickness. Concealing his interest in Buddhism, he set out to learn Sanskrit in Kashi, submitting to the Brahmin hierarchy which often left a Saraswat Brahmin like him hungry because he could only eat in the second shift. His pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy places speaks volumes about their sorry state in the early 20th century. His account of his sojourn in Burma is frank about the practical difficulties faced by a vegetarian monk in that country. After his return to the worldly life, Dharmanand travelled to the US, where the Harvard Indologist, Charles Rockwell Lanman, tried to deprive him of credit for translating the Visuddhi Magga — a story recounted with an admirable lack of rancour.

In the Harvard libraries, Dharmanand discovered Marx. His thoughts moved from religion to social and political issues, but he viewed these through a somewhat innocent Buddhist lens. He saw Buddhism as an ancient form of socialism. He talked about the incompatibility of fear and national freedom. National craving was the cause of war and world suffering. He urged capitalists to love their workers. He wrote against child marriage, caste discrimination and untouchability. Dharmanand was also inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. He became the leader of the Maharashtra Satyagraha Mandal and led the salt satyagraha in Shirode village near Goa. But he was not an unquestioning camp follower and criticized both Gandhian ideas and Marxism. He was drawn towardssatyagraha, but thought it dangerous to base a philosophy of non- violence on the Bhagavad Gita. Moved though he was by Marx’s egalitarian message, he was repelled by the conflict and violence that was inherent in that message and in the Bolshevik revolution.

The autobiography is fascinating not only for what it says but also for what it does not talk about. There is remarkably little about his family, even in his account of his life after he gave up monkhood. There is no description of what must have been a very poignant family reunion. Was this reticence due to indifference, or was it too personal or painful a subject? Other relationships that remain hazy include Dharmanand’s relationship with Anagarika Dharmapala, and with Ambedkar and his movement. A very significant point mentioned by Meera Kosambi is that although Ambedkar does not mention any sources in his The Buddha and his Dhamma, he was probably indebted to Dharmanand for his understanding of the life and ideas of Gautama Buddha.

Historians are bound to be very curious about the relationship between Dharmanand and his historian son, Dharmanand Damodar. Did D.D. inherit some of his talents, ideas and methods from his father? Or did he react against his father’s engagement with religion and spirituality that had torn his family apart? In spite of being a great scholar, Dharmanand did not make a major scholarly impact. This was because he was essentially a loner who chose to operate within a Maharashtrian world. Even after renouncing monkhood and engaging directly with the world as a teacher of Pali and Buddhism in various universities, he remained unmoved by the lure of money and ambition. His death was as unusual as his life. Wearied by persistent illness, he decided to end his life through sallekhana, fasting unto death in Gandhi’s ashram near Gorakhpur. Dharmanand died just a few months before India became independent. Do not be misled by the gentle unpretentiousness of his writings. This book is a window into the remarkable life and mind of a rebel who lived by his convictions, who combined scholarly erudition with spirituality, simplicity and social commitment, with no interest in mundane personal gain.