Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Monk, Mathematician, Marxist

Dharmanand Kosambi may be described as
a scholar and proselytiser of Buddhism and
practicing Buddhist, a Gandhian, and a feminist

By ANANYA VAJPEYI February 1, 2012

INDIA 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.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Remembering D. D. Kosambi

Remembering D. D. Kosambi

Progressive circles in India have been late in remembering D. D. Kosambi in 2007, the centennial year. Of course Pune, where Kosambi lived and died, led the way to centenary celebrations. A committee was formed with R. P. Nene and Meera Kosambi, daughter of D. D. Kosambi, to pay homage to the savant extraordinary in a befitting manner. A number of public lectures were organized on and from 31 July 2007, with Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Prabhat Patnaik, and others as speakers. The Birth Centenary Committee has also been successful in persuading the Government of India to issue a postal stamp and instituting a Chair in the name of Kosambi in the University of Pune. The Human Resources Development ministry has sanctioned a grant of Rs. one crore (ten million) for this post. One, however, cannot be sure whether the right man will be appointed to continue the works of Kosambi along his lines.

DD Kosambi
Memorial meetings have been held in Aurangabad, Kolkata, Goa, Manipal, and Mumbai and maybe in other places in India. A Kosambi Festival was held in Goa from 4 to 7 February 2008 to celebrate “the life and work of an extraordinarily erudite son of a legendary figure in Goan intellectual history, the Abhimanyu of an Arjun, as someone has said about Damodar Kosambi and his father Dharmanand” (Reported by Sandhya Palekar in Indian Skeptic, 21: 1, 15. 05. 2008, p. 18). Dr.Vivek Monteiro, a Harvard doctorate, who abandoned the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research to teach mathematics and science to the children of slum-dwellers of Mumbai,  and finally became a trade unionist, gave a talk on “Science as the cognition of necessity”, the definition of science proposed by Kosambi.

Such attempts, however laudable, are not sufficient to make the new generation aware of what a versatile genius Kosambi was. Of course, it is not possible for a single person even to describe in broad terms, not to speak of evaluate, the contributions made by Kosambi in such diverse fields as anthropology, archaeology, classical genetics, Indian history, mathematics, numismatics, statistics, and Sanskrit text criticism. He was equally thoroughgoing in all the disciplines he had enriched. The bibliography of his works is bound to fill anyone with awe. A man like him is rare in all ages, more particularly in our times when ‘superspecialization’ is the key to both fame and success. In what follows I shall try to give an inkling of the man Kosambi, not the prodigious scholar he was.

D. D. Kosambi and the Sociology of Literature: A Critique

D. D. Kosambi and the Sociology of Literature: A Critique

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

D. D. Kosambi (1907-66) was trained as a mathematician and used to teach and research in mathematics till 1941. Then he wrote an ‘exasperating essay’ on the Sanskrit epigrams attributed to Bhartrihari. This essay, Kosambi says, ‘caused every godfearing Sanskritist to shudder’ and consequently ‘I fell into Indology, as it were, through the roof’.1

The essay ‘upset’, among others, V. S. Sukthankar, the celebrated general editor of the critical edition of the Mahabharata.2 He was however, not able to give a definite contradiction in any essential of Kosambi’s basic contention. There were also a few points in the essay that caused others to be puzzled. Some readers, for example, felt that there was ‘a seeming inconsistency’ in a passing reference to Shakespeare’s dramas which ‘were assigned a class basis of the rising proto-bourgeoisie’.3

Kosambi took up the matter in a short essay written in 1958. Since this piece has not been included in any collection of writings by Kosambi, it is necessary to quote long extracts from it and then critique his approach. Kosambi had also touched on the same issue in a section of his Introduction to an anthology of Sanskrit poetry which was edited for the first time by him and V.V. Gokhale.4 It will be my endeavour to show how Kosambi makes use of Marx’s formulation of the relationship between the base and the superstructure and how Kosambi demonstrates its validity in two disparate cases, namely, ancient Sanskrit literature and English literature of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Although Kosambi does not explicitly refer to Marx in this connection there can be little doubt that he drew his conclusions from Marx.

Untouchability, Gita and the Pursuit of Truth

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Remembering Vivekanand Jha
by Vishwa Mohan Jha

It might come as a surprise to the uninitiated that untouchability remains among the darkest aspects of India’s social history – despite Bhimrao Ambedkar, Marxist and “post-Marxist” histories, a wealth of contemporary caste studies, and the rise of dalit politics. It is to the labours of Vivekanand Jha, who passed away on 30 November 2012, that so much of our present understanding of the history of untouchability in ancient India is indebted to.

Historians had generally been evasive about the issue; or else we had apologias. Thus in the brief chapter on untouchability in the second volume of P V Kane’s masterly History of Dharma śāstra, all that he discussed was that inequities such as untouchability were not unique to India but were a fairly widespread phenomena; that it was not to be found in our glorious Vedic period; and how in numerous ways it has been  is represented, its evils exaggerated. While we need to recognise, for example, that concern with hygiene contributed to the making of untouchability, we can equally be certain (Kane contended) that it was imposed with no hard feelings towards the untouchables!1 Ambedkar sought to fill the void and provide a corrective. In his Untouchables: Who Were They? and Why They Became Untouchables? (1948), he historicised the issue in important ways, as by drawing the crucial distinction between impurity and untouchability, and located the origins of the latter in the beef -eating of the downtrodden. 

Historian’s Labour 

DD Kosambi Commemoration Volume (1974)

We now have this veritable goldmine of essays in honour of DD Kosambi, brought out in 1974. Thanks, once again to Arvind Gupta.

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