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.

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