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.

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