Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Comprehensive tribute to man of many parts


D.D. Kosambi was a rare genius. In a world that revels in narrow specialisation, he was truly a man of Renaissance versatility: a mathematician of distinction, a polyglot, a Marxist, an active member of the World Peace Council and a man who had strayed into Indian history (“… I had fallen into Indology, as it were, through the roof.”) and yet created a major paradigm shift there. He had creatively subverted — which means enriched — the understanding and writing of Indian history.

A whole generation of historians has harnessed his ideas to new areas and destinations, to test his theories and hypotheses, and drawing on not only his critical, scientific temperament but also his strong social commitment. That 45 years after his death his discerning admirers should yet join together to re-visit him shows how strong his impact is on Indian historiography. Professor D.N. Jha and the scholars who have participated in this academic venture and produced this book deserve our compliments.

The book has eight essays that touch upon the myriad aspects of Kosambi's work and legacy. D.N. Jha's essay highlights the various areas of Indian history which Kosambi upturned to achieve newer perspectives and refreshing harvests like numismatics, religious and secular literature, ethnography and even archaeology.

Though Kosambi was a Marxist, he refused to be dogmatically so. It was for him a method, a ‘tool of analysis' and not ‘a substitute for thinking.' He questioned the received Marxist notion of Asiatic Mode of Production and the simplistic slavery-feudalism-capitalism scheme of epochal progress. But Kosambi could identify features of feudalism in India, which, he believed, had its source both from below and from above, an idea which has been productively debated and cultivated in Indian historiography.

Irfan Habib's essay points out that for all his sturdy independence, Kosambi had accepted the universality of class struggle and hence the foundational idea of Marxism. But what he would not compromise with was the academic rigour with which to test a theory or a hypothesis. Irfan Habib gratefully acknowledges that “He opened doors for many of us to new ideas and new questions …”


Not only did Kosambi adopt a framework in which to explain Indian history, but as Prabhat Patnaik shows in his brilliant essay, he extended the frontiers of dialectical materialism. His concept of ‘acculturation' by which the tribal societies were anaesthetically subjugated and sucked into the agrarian and hence class societies, was new to the usual Marxist analysis, which also proves the point that the theory is much more open-ended than its traducers would have us believe.

Kosambi's understanding of medieval India has been analysed by Eugenia Vanina, who takes up certain issues like ‘ahistoricity' of ancient and medieval India, the applicability of feudalism as an idea or the class character of medieval literature and argues for the need to extend the researches to areas such as culture, literature, mentalities, ethical values, and scientific views.

K.M. Shrimali's attempt to explore Kosambi's idea of religious histories of India is done by strenuously juxtaposing it with the work of Mircea Eliade. He points out that contrary to the belief that Marxism denies religion and culture, Kosambi sought to study religion in the larger historical contexts and as responding to various ideas. Suvira Jaiswal's essay on ‘Kosambi on Caste' takes up several strands of debates and shows how material conditions and ideologies together went into its making and consolidation.

Kesavan Veluthat in his essay points out that Kosambi, notwithstanding his uncharacteristic modesty about his facility in Sanskrit, was the first to analyse Sanskrit literature within the framework of historical materialism to show its class character. He contends that Sheldon Pollock's rejection of Kosambi's thesis is based on exceptions which proverbially prove the rule. The last essay by C.K. Raju deals with Kosambi's work on mathematics which the author interestingly and illuminatingly links with the status of science management in post-Independence India which has consecrated the idea and workings of hierarchy.

All the essays seek to reaffirm the place of Kosambi in Indian historiography. He could be faulted in matters of some details and judgments; but it is less important to criticise or defend them than acknowledge the shifts he had effected and the larger debt we owe him. Some critics have gleefully noticed his influence only with the Left, which at least concedes that scientific and critical history is possible with, and palatable to, a few.

THE MANY CAREERS OF D. D. KOSAMBI: Critical Essays: Edited by D. N. Jha; LeftWord Books, 12, Rajendra Prasad Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 275.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Renaissance man

Renaissance man
Mar 04, 2012 :
Lead review
This collection of essays manages to bring out various facets of a man who has been able to authoritatively comment on a wide range of topics, writes S Nanda kumar.

Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi was a remarkable person — mathematician, statistician, historian, numismatist and Sanskrit scholar — who lived between 1907 and 1966.

The Many Careers of D D Kosambi: Critical Essays is a collection of essays that throws more light on this rare and interesting human being.

Noted historian Prof D N Jha, who has
edited the book, says in his preface that the book attempts to bring together articles by scholars “who are neither allergic nor adulatory about the work of Kosambi.”

Through the essays, one is introduced to a man with the ‘renaissance’ type of versatility: a wide range of knowledge without sacrificing depth. This important choice was made when he was studying mathematics in Harvard University in the 1920s. The famous American mathematician George David Birkhoff told him to focus on this field.

He is said to have consulted his father, another versatile scholar, who agreed that he should instead acquire knowledge as widely as possible. Kosambi then went to take advantage of the freedom available in American universities to take 18 courses in a year!

In his essay, C K Raju writes that Kosambi’s refusal to specialise went against him, even at the beginning of his career, since “on the capitalist value of specialization, non-specialists are taken non-seriously.” The essays also underscore the loneliness of a man who refused to kowtow to authorities, or dabble in the politics that even academic institutions revel in.

Kosambi used his abstract mathematical methods to study various branches of social sciences. He studied numismatics purely to get a better grasp of statistics, and weighed nearly 12,000 coins for this exercise. Kosambi, through his detailed studies of coins, was able to reconstruct the social and economic history of India. For instance, the paucity of coinage in the post-Gupta period led him to link it with the decline of trade and the emergence of the self-sufficient village economy during the same period in history.

Kesavan Veluthat, a professor of history at Delhi University, who has written an essay on Kosambi’s contribution to Sanskrit, outlines how Kosambi took up the analysis of coins to solve a statistics problem, and states that he had used the famous Taxila hoards for this purpose. Kosambi found that the “written sources display a shocking discordance. The Puranas, Buddhist and Jain records give different names for the same king.” So, he decided to go into the records himself.

Veluthat quotes Kosambi as saying that he selected a specific work, Bhartihari’s Subhasitas. But Kosambi found that the philosophy of Bhartihari, as glorified by commentators, was at variance with his poetry of escape and frustration. He quotes Kosambi, “By pointing out this (variance) in an essay, which made every god-fearing Sankritist who read it shudder, I had fallen into Indology, as it were, through the roof.”

C V Raju’s essay brings out human facets of the man, who restlessly flitted from the Banaras Hindu University to the Aligarh Muslim University, and then to Fergusson College in Pune.

Kosambi was sacked from Fergusson’s on the alleged grounds that students did not understand the mathematics he was teaching. Finally, he met Homi Bhabha, who was expanding the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) at Mumbai, who offered him a lucrative job in pure research. Even at TIFR, Kosambi was sacked for playing a prank – albeit on a high intellectual plane – by publishing a proof of the Riemann hypothesis. He meant this as a joke. Kosambi continued to remain active in mathematics, and continued his work on probability and the number theory even after his removal from TIFR.

I do not know if Raju, in his essay, has sought to make an example of Kosambi’s sacking from TIFR for a debate on Nehru’s vision; or questioning Nehru’s packing the top three departments of atomic energy, space, and Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) with the scions of leading industrial houses: Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai and the Birlas respectively.

Raju points out a very relevant fact — that Kosambi argued in vain for technology to be better adapted to the needs of Indian people, such as solar energy, small dams, even small reactors. All contrary to Nehru’s vision of mega projects — and we are, as Raju points out, still debating this even today.

That Kosambi belonged to a tight group of Marxist scholars who were against many of Nehru’s ideas makes it more difficult to understand in today’s era, when there is no USSR, and when China, a country that was impressed by some of Kosambi’s thoughts, is relentlessly pursuing capitalist methods of capturing the world market.

While there is no doubt that the essays in this book bring out fascinating facets of Kosambi, they might only interest those who are of a more academic bent of mind. Some of the essays are beyond the common man’s grasp, and are too scholarly and specialised.

The essays, however, do manage to bring out captivatingly the man who was able to comment on the caste system, Sanskrit, numismatics, the religious history of India, on how Bhartihari’s poetry resonated with “the groans of the oppressed man,” and of course, his contributions to mathematics. Common readers like myself can only marvel at Kosambi, the man, the mathematician, the historian, and believer in world peace.

I certainly have been captivated by the remarkable D D Kosambi, and do hope that somebody would soon undertake the task of writing a faithful biography of the man that will reach the common masses, rather than specialised tomes on him that adorn just the bookshelves of mathematicians, scholars and Marxists.