Monk, Mathematician, Marxist
How the talented Kosambis made India modern
By ANANYA VAJPEYI
Published :1 February 2012
COURTESY PERMANENT BLACK
Dharmanand Kosambi (left) may be described as a scholar and proselytiser of Buddhism and a practicing Buddhist, a Gandhian, and a feminist. The polymathic DD Kosambi (right) was a mathematician, a historian and a Marxist.
I NDIA HAS REMADE ITSELF at least twice in the past 100 years. The economic and political character of the country, which was of a colonial-nationalist nature in the early 20th century, became Nehruvian-socialist after Independence and then shifted again toward globalising neoliberalism in the last decade of the century. An effective way to track the cultural effects of these very large shifts is to compare the trajectories of successive generations of Indians. The lives of the extraordinary father-son duo of Dharmanand Kosambi (1876-1947) and Damodar Dharmanand or DD Kosambi (1907-1966), both brilliant scholars and pioneers of entire fields of study, vividly illustrate the first great transformation of modern India, effected over the course of the 1950s and early 1960s, during three administrations under Jawaharlal Nehru.
The recent translation of several of Dharmanand’s Marathi writings, including his partial autobiography Nivedan (A Narrative): 1912-1924 (Permanent Black, 2011), and a broad retrospective exercise by a number of contemporary historians occasioned by Damodar’s birth centenary in 2007, allow us to follow Kosambi père and fils in some detail, and through them to view the changing historical contexts in which they were embedded. Dharmanand’s granddaughter and DD Kosambi’s daughter, Meera Kosambi, herself a sociologist specialising in urban studies and women’s studies, and an accomplished translator between Marathi and English, has in the past two years helped bring both her eminent forbears back into focus for students of modern India.
Father and son were polymaths, and in this regard they remind us of other talented public figures in South Asia prior to Independence, like the poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and the art historian Ananda K Coomaraswamy (1877-1947). Together and individually, the Kosambis also exemplify a confluence of intellectual streams that coloured the biographies of a large number of prominent Indians, men and women, in the first three quarters of the 20th century: Buddhism, Marxism, Gandhianism and Socialism. For reasons that remain culturally and sociologically under-studied and have as yet to get any sort of systematic treatment in the intellectual history of modern India, some blend of these ideological currents impacted a range of thinkers and leaders, from BR Ambedkar to Ram Manohar Lohia, Narendra Dev to Rahul Sankrityayana, Jai Prakash Narayan to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Vinoba Bhave to JB Kripalani.
In fact, if we take widespread influence of Gautama Buddha, Karl Marx and Mahatma Gandhi on intellectual elites in the founding generations seriously, as we ought, then it becomes very difficult to figure out how, against their inclinations, we arrived at the second great transformation of India into a globalised free-market economy with powerful rightwing political forces active in it. It is as though all of the genuinely egalitarian and emancipatory tendencies within politics, that had an organic relationship with Indian political thought on the one hand and that could have made possible a properly Indian social revolution on the other, somehow foundered before they could flourish. As late capitalism makes its relentless advance into India and the left is driven further and further into the political wilderness, it does us good to remember the nuance and the promise of a more complex time, scarcely half a century ago, when unusual men like the Kosambis were included in the intellectual leadership of this country.
If we aim for brevity, Dharmanand Kosambi may be described as a scholar and proselytiser of Buddhism and a practicing Buddhist, a Gandhian, and a feminist; DD Kosambi may be described as a mathematician, a historian and a Marxist. Both men, born Brahmins, had pronounced linguistic abilities, and especially loved Sanskrit. Both moved around within India and South Asia, and also travelled the world, but must be seen as rooted primarily in the cultural ground of greater Maharashtra (including Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada, Hindi and Konkani-speaking areas, and the former princely states of Indore, Gwalior and Baroda). Both had intellectually significant, if not definitive experiences at Harvard University—the father as a philologist of Buddhist texts, the son as a student of mathematics. It doesn’t seem as though they had a very warm or expressive bond with one another as parent and child; nevertheless, they were profoundly similar to and connected with one another in terms of their intellectual personalities. Between them they shaped the disciplines of Buddhist studies, Indology, history, archeology, numismatics and mathematics in India; the imprint of Marxism—whether as class analysis, dialectical method, or a critique of caste—is all over their work.
But despite commonalities and continuities between Dharmanand and Damodar Kosambi, what emerges from the former’s autobiography, Nivedan, translated and edited by Meera Kosambi, and from the volume The Many Careers of DD Kosambi: Critical Essays, edited by noted historian DN Jha (Left Word, 2011), is that there had been a sea change in India between the time when the father was a young man and the time when his son came of age. Dharmanand wandered in a country where Buddhism as discourse or as practice was all but extinct; where almost all his personal contacts and professional networks consisted of fellow Brahmins who housed, clothed and fed him as he went from city to city in search of Buddhism; where Hindu mathas and Buddhist viharas dotted the landscape through which he travelled—from Goa in the west to Burma in the east, from Nepal in the north to Sri Lanka in the south. The scholastic terrain of India was still largely unchanged from precolonial times.
By contrast Damodar navigated a very different academic territory, one dotted with prestigious colonial establishments such as the Fergusson College in Pune, institutions that were a product of the nationalist movement such as the Aligarh Muslim University and the Banaras Hindu University, as well as emerging Nehruvian institutions such as the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. Traditional learned classes—Brahmins, Kayasthas and residual Buddhists had given way, within the space of scarce two or three decades, to a modern knowledge elite of physical and social scientists, as well as technocrats charged with building a range of institutions for the new nation-state. Ancient Buddhism, long vanished, had reappeared in a variety of postcolonial guises, from the Navayana (‘New Way’) of Babasaheb Ambedkar, to other sects flowing back into India from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Japan as well as the Anglo-American West. With the demise of the British Empire, colonialism, together with its Orientalist and Indological apparatuses, had packed up and gone home, leaving independent India in charge of its own cultural pasts as much as it was now responsible for its own political futures.
A S A GRADUATE STUDENT SOME YEARS AGO, I would spend months on end in Pune, reading Sanskrit and Marathi texts, and travelling around in Maharashtra, as well as in neighbouring Karnataka and Goa, in search of archives, individuals and institutions connected with my research. Between 1998 and 2003 I journeyed up and down the Deccan landscape and the Western Ghats, mostly by road or rail. The spirit of DD Kosambi was often with me on my forays into this—to me—unfamiliar part of the country. On one of my earliest trips to Pune, a friend introduced me to Meera Kosambi, who invited me to see her father’s house off Law College Road, where I would go almost every day to the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
The Kosambi residence was built in a coastal Goan style, its sloping roof covered with rounded red tiles of baked clay, a central courtyard open to the elements, and a covered verandah running around all four sides of the house. The large front room was set up as the late Damodar Kosambi’s study, with a number of books, papers, pens, paperweights, inkstands and other things lying on his large desk as though he had just left the room and gone into a different part of the house. But behind his chair hung a very large photographic portrait of him, reminding us that he had—already, at that time—been dead for well over 30 years. Perhaps there were photos of Dharmanand too, though I have no recollection of seeing them, nor would I have known, then, who I was looking at. Later I learned that the house had been sold to builders, who demolished it and replaced it with a block of apartments; I could not bring myself to go and see the place in its new avatar.
Pune is one of the many smaller cities in India that has found its historic architecture under severe stress over the past two decades. Just in the 12 or 15 years that I have been going there for my scholarly work, its graceful edifices and sleepy neighbourhoods, and with them their ways of life, have been vanishing before one’s eyes. But that Pune city, Maharashtra state or indeed the Indian government let the Kosambi home, built circa 1931, go the way of other old buildings is a sad commentary on our inability to recognise and respect the landmarks of our intellectual life and cultural history. A recent trip to Simla, where I saw an incredibly decrepit house called ‘Wood Field’ that Rabindranath Tagore had vacationed in, in 1893-94, together with other members of his illustrious family, and where he wrote a number of the poems in his collection Shonaar Taari (The Golden Boat), filled me with the same despair that I invariably feel in Pune: as a culture, we fail to honour and commemorate our greatest minds.
Indian history as a discipline was dominated by Marxism for so long—from the 1960s through the 1990s—that most leading historians over two generations, at universities such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Aligarh Muslim University, as well as a number of campuses in West Bengal, have studied DD Kosambi thoroughly, and had the opportunity to both learn from him as well as critique his methods and findings. A July 2008 special issue of the Indian social science journal, Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), brought together a symposium on DD Kosambi’s work as a historian. Historiography within Maharashtra and of Maharashtra and the Deccan, as an important subset of Indian history, has benefited especially from his insights and innovations—those who read Marathi can access the rich debates there. It is good that at last he is also being assessed seriously from the perspective of other disciplines to which he contributed so much: Sanskrit philology, archaeology, numismatics, anthropology, religion and—unusually—mathematics and statistics.
Particularly interesting, in both the EPW (2008) issue as well as the recent DN Jha edited volume, are the essays by CK Raju, which walk us through some of the more technical aspects of Damodar’s mathematical gifts even while recounting his misadventures in the Indian science academy. In Raju’s telling, DD Kosambi must be seen as an early figure of dissent in Indian mathematics and science. He had significant mathematical abilities, which might have been encouraged in another country, but were only thwarted in India. It did not help that Damodar was a serious pacifist and spoke out publicly against the dangers of nuclear power (including its potentially harmful side effects on the genetic structure of human and other life forms—a prescient warning that no one heeded at the time or is likely to heed now, for that matter). His would-be patrons, the physicist Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s atomic energy programme, and the industrial family of the Tatas, eventually denied him tenure at TIFR, alleging that he had failed to solve a particular mathematical problem, and adding on the snide caveat that relieved of his scientific job, he would be better able to devote his time to his other interest, history—an insult to him both as a mathematician and as an historian that is infuriating to read about even today. This after Damodar had won the Raman Prize in 1934 and the Bhabha Prize in 1947 for his mathematical work!
In fact, two things stand out consistently about the man: first, his undoubted genius, the gifted and multi-faceted quality of his imagination; and second, his inability to function within institutional contexts populated by lesser minds and their propensity to play petty politics. Clearly, as a scholar, Damodar was brilliant, eccentric, prolific and even playful; but as an academic he was also condemned to a rather solitary existence, unable to find colleagues, interlocutors or students who might have kept up with his astonishing inventiveness. With the passage of time, DD Kosambi’s polymathic intellect stands vindicated; but it has to be said that the condition of Indian academia, especially of prestigious institutions meant for specialised research, has only deteriorated in the half century since his death. If extraordinarily talented individuals like him were undervalued, isolated or actively persecuted by the academic establishment in the 1950s and 1960s, they are likely to be even worse off today. Interdisciplinary abilities have never been nurtured or rewarded in our postcolonial systems of higher education.
Dharmanand, however, presents a rather different sort of an enigma. In him we see a thirst for Buddhism that propels him into arduous journeys—away from his native caste background and ethnic, regional identity as a rural Goan; often outside of India to neighbouring countries in South Asia; into languages that for him, a high-school dropout, have to be diligently learnt: Marathi, Sanskrit, Pali and English (for starters); and last but not least, away from his family, including his wife and children, for long periods of time. He seems to grapple with a genuine struggle between the responsibilities of bourgeois domesticity and the rigors of a monastic life. His health is in ruins from extreme poverty, his innate asceticism, the physically grueling nature of his travels and his exercises in bodily self-discipline. Some inner fire compels him to both try to master Buddhism and spread its message among his indifferent countrymen.
Surely a comparative study of the Buddhist zeal of the Brahmin Dharmanand and the Untouchable Ambedkar, both active in Maharashtra in the first half of the 20th century, is crying out for the attentions of a PhD candidate somewhere. Now that more and more of Dharmanand’s writings are becoming available to us in translation, we may begin a systematic analysis of the biography and work of this strange, tortured, questing individual who finally gave up his life in an act of voluntary starvation (following the Jain practice known as sallekhana) in Gandhiji’s ashram at Wardha in early June 1947. Meera Kosambi’s ‘Introduction’ to her grandfather’s Essential Writings (Permanent Black, 2010), as well as to his autobiography in its new freestanding and paperback edition, both open the door onto a potentially rich area of research and scholarship in modern Indian intellectual history.
T O GRASP THE ASTONISHING DIVERSITY of DD Kosambi’s interests and talents requires nothing more than a glance at the table of contents of his Exasperating Essays: Exercises in the Dialectical Method (People’s Publishing House, 1957). This slim little volume contains pieces on, among other topics, the trial of Socrates, the Cultural Revolution in China, the quality of renunciation in the work of the Sanskrit poet Bhartihari (whom he compares and contrasts with Dante and Goethe), the relationship between scientific knowledge and class society, the reasons for the decline of Buddhism in ancient India, imperialism and peace in a post-war world, and a critique of Nehru’s The Discovery of India (1946) from a Marxist perspective. The breadth of Damodar’s interests is breathtaking, as also the ease with which he writes about both contemporary issues as well as scholarly matters. Few intellectuals exhibit this kind of supple, capacious curiosity about past and present, India and the world, science and literature today—Ashis Nandy comes to mind as a rare exception, and certainly it is hard to think of anyone in the younger generation who will confidently take on this range of subjects. As India’s economy opens itself to global markets, what accounts for the closing of the Indian mind?
Dharmanand’s writings, as evidenced in the selection made by his granddaughter, hew closer to his principal areas of commitment and concern: Buddhist texts and history, nonviolence both Ashokan and Gandhian, and the incipient labour movement in India during the final decades of the British Raj. The father has an implacable seriousness; the son can take more liberties because in a sense his father’s struggles and privations have created a space in which he may pursue whatever topic engages or excites him with a degree of ease. The father was born in a small village in Goa and never even made it through secondary school; the son went to college at Harvard and spent most of his life as a middle-class professor in Mumbai and Pune. While Damodar’s brilliance is undeniable, perhaps it would be fair to say that the greater distance covered, the bigger achievement, was really that of Dharmanand.
Given the welter of areas of intellectual endeavour in which the Kosambis participated, Dharmanand’s greatest contribution was to the revival and spread of the message of Buddhism in Maharashtra; Damodar’s was to the opening of Indian history to class analysis and dialectical materialism. Both these are truly significant interventions, although for different reasons and in different ways. Arguably Dharmanand’s Marathi writings on Buddhism, including his primer Buddha, Dharma ani Sangha (1910) and his play Bodhisattva, published posthumously in 1949, prepared the ground for the eventual popularisation of Ambedkar’s Neo-Buddhism in Maharashtra in the late 1950s, after Ambedkar’s formal conversion of himself and of about 400,000 Untouchable followers in October 1956, just prior to his death in December that year. Dharmanand helped create a climate of ideas, in which once again after a hiatus of centuries it became possible for ordinary people to reimagine and identify with the life and words of Siddhartha Gautama, and for them to aspire to creating a more equitable society based on the Buddha’s teachings about freedom, community and what it means to be human. The story of Buddhism’s modern rebirth in the land of its original birth, India, has a special chapter that unfolds in Maharashtra, and surely this owes as much to Dharmanand Kosambi as it does to BR Ambedkar.
DD Kosambi, as is relatively better known, transformed Indian history as a discipline by advocating for the integration of the study of material artifacts with the study of texts; by taking the category of ‘tribe’ as seriously as others had previously taken the category of ‘caste’; by introducing the ‘class’ into our understanding of Indian social structure; by finding innovative ways to read literary, religious and mythical textual materials as part of the historical record without getting bogged down in imponderable questions about their own historicity; and by continually placing India in a broad comparative perspective along with other ancient and modern societies. Even a casual student of history in this country has the two celebrated snapshots of Damodar’s scholarly life imprinted on his or her memory: his walks in and around Pune, carrying a walking stick with which he probed the ground, turning up all kinds of objects and fragments, literally feeling his way through the layers of historical time upon which we stand; and his regular train rides between Pune and Mumbai on the Deccan Queen, which allowed him a physical view of Maharashtra’s landscape that over the years yielded a subtle and complex historical vision. DD Kosambi showed that history has to be rooted in the earth on which it unfolds—a valuable, indeed indispensable corrective to a scholarly culture otherwise driven and shaped by the Brahminical preference for abstraction over materiality and text over lived experience.
The first half of the 20th century, an exciting and as yet mostly uncharted period in India’s intellectual history, produced many families that were active in political and intellectual life—the Nehrus, the Tagores and the Bhandarkars come immediately to mind. To this list we must add the Kosambis, over not just two but now three generations. After almost 65 years of political independence and a good two decades into globalisation, it is hard to imaginatively reconstruct, today, a time when a young man could wander the length and breadth of South Asia and be genuinely surprised, discombobulated and inspired by the cultural diversity he encountered along the way; a time when the seeds of history still lay scattered and expectant underneath the surface of our collective consciousness, awaiting the ministrations of a perceptive and careful farmer to flower into a vivid picture of our past, and a warrant for our future flourishing.
Ananya Vajpeyi is a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi in 2011-12. Her book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, is forthcoming.