From: Rakesh Bhandari (email@example.com)
Date: Wed Sep 11 2002 - 10:51:53 EDT
The making of an Indologist K.M. SHRIMALI D.D. Kosambi: Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings; compiled, edited and introduced by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya; Oxford University Press, 2002; pages xxxvii+832; Rs.995. WITHIN the first decade of India's Independence, studies on early Indian history moved away from the humdrum style of documenting political and dynastic events. Interest in the routine melange of dates and events, wars and conquests, and the "achievements and failures" of individual potentates started dwindling when two very significant works came out in the 1950s. A.L. Basham's The Wonder That Was India (1954) and D.D. Kosambi's An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956) epitomised this shift. The first one is the work of a professional historian and the second is from an "amateur Indologist". A doyen among Indologists, Basham romanticised the vast sweep of India's history. He pleaded for a new emphasis on the cultural history of India. The Wonder... was written to interpret ancient Indian civilisation to the ordinary Western reader who had little knowledge but some interest in the subject. This kaleidoscope of early India's social structure, cults and doctrines, and arts and languages was such an engrossing venture that it won for Basham the love and appreciation of scholars and laymen alike, both in India and outside. It is regrettable, however, that his fascination for the inclusive aspects of Hinduism has been completely distorted and turned upside down to read like an account of "glorious Hindu India" by some self-appointed guardians of Indian cultural traditions. Kosambi's Introduction is an iconoclastic Marxist critique of the undulating path of historical change. For him "the subtle mystic philosophies, tortuous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture, and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, senseless opportunism and termite greed of the 'cultured' strata, sullen un-coordinated discontent among the workers, the general demoralisation, misery, squalor, and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other, the one is the expression of the other." Such an understanding not only enabled Kosambi to question the stereotypes of the colonialist-imperialist and the so-called "nationalist" historiography but also focus on a more positive and constructive approach to comprehend the prime movers of history. Since society is held together by bonds of production, answers to the following questions become rather crucial. Who gathers or produces things and by what implements? Who lives off the production of others, and by what right, divine or legal? Who owns the tools, the land, sometimes the body and soul of the producer? Who were the Aryans - if any? Why did India never have large-scale chattel slavery as in classical Greece and Rome? When did regular coinage appear? Why do Buddhism, Jainism, and so many other contemporary religious sects of the type arise in Magadha and become prominent at roughly the same time? Why did the Gupta empire produce great Sanskrit literature when the Maurya empire did not? Such searching questions had set the agenda for a new kind of history writing. It is perhaps not a mere coincidence that two of the most renowned living historians of early India, Professors R.S. Sharma and Romila Thapar, received their doctoral blessings from Basham (who had guided a generation of historians from India at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London in the 1950s and the 1960s) and were either closely associated with or inspired by Kosambi. Known among professionals for his pioneering mathematical research (his formula for chromosome distance occupies a central place in classical genetics), Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi had developed serious interests in Indology, history, archaeology, anthropology and several other disciplines rather early in his life. He also had an amazing skill in languages. A polyglot, he knew well more than a dozen languages, both Indian and foreign, modern and classical. He died rather young, not quite 60. It is a measure of his intellectual impact that three commemorative volumes were issued within 10 years of his death. While Marxism of all varieties has been marginalised from the historian's intellectual context, the political context in which the historian of India finds himself today is dominated by the advance of the Hindu Right and 'global' capitalism. The reappearance of 52 major contributions of Kosambi, many of which have been quite inaccessible for decades, in the form of the volume under review, therefore, could not have been more timely. Barring three posthumous publications (Nos 2, 5 and 13) of 1967 and of the late 1970s, the remaining 49 essays in this anthology were written between the late 1930s and early 1960s. It seems that Kosambi was extremely prolific during the 1950s, which account for as many as 22 contributions. Essays have rightly been arranged thematically in five sections, chronology by and large being retained within themes. From mathematics to Indology may have been an obstinate transgression. In his Indological studies, however, Kosambi developed his trademark methodology through an extremely creative transgression whereby frontiers of narrow academic disciplines got blurred. His mathematical precision and training in statistics enlivened literary criticism and notions of textual transmission and opened phenomenal vistas for understanding the dynamics of the monetary economy. When the "Baba", as he was affectionately called by his friend and critic Basham, went out to trek the Buddhist caves in western India; collected, identified and explained the functioning of microliths from the Deccan plateau; explored prehistoric rock engravings and megaliths in Pune district; looked for historical roots of bloody rites connected with the cult of Mhatoba (at Pandharpur, the great pilgrimage centre of Maharashtra); and determined the irrationality of any links between shape and size of nose and racial hierarchisation - one sees the archaeologist, the sociologist, the anthropologist, the historian and other social scientists. He passionately pleaded for field work even for literary criticism. His writings on Brahmins and Brahmanism and gotras-pravaras (Nos 6-9) and the critique of John Brough's translation of the gotra-pravara-manjari underscores this. This indeed was Kosambi's case for "Combined Methods in Archaeology" - long before "multi-disciplinary studies" came into vogue in India. Kosambi dedicated, in 1948, when it was politically risky to do so, his critical edition of the Shatakas of Bhartrihari to Marx, Engels and Lenin, "the vanguards of the new human society", in pure Sanskrit. Although he adopted the Marxist approach to history, he did not accept the conclusions of Marx himself, not to speak of the views of the official Marxists in the erstwhile Soviet Union and Indian theologians of Marxism. Kosambi strongly denied the presence of the "slave mode of production" in ancient India and was not fully convinced about the validity of the Marxian characterisation of the "Asiatic mode of production" being a specificity of "Oriental Societies". He characterised S.A. Dange's India from Primitive Communism to Slavery (first published in 1949, reviewed in No.48 in this volume) as a "painfully disappointing book". And in his critique of another Marxist formulation, namely, Antonova's writing on the development of feudalism in India, Kosambi argued that her understanding about "caste (being) of no importance to the serious materialist historian" is indeed throwing away what little remains to us of source material in Indian history. Given the phenomenal diversity of India, Kosambi completely rejected any unilinear sequence of "modes of production" and argued for the simultaneous presence of several modes of production at any given time in India's long history. This comes out strongly when he questioned (No.3) D.A. Suleikin's note on periodisation of Indian history and admonished him thus: "India is not a mathematical point... Neither in the means of production nor in the stages of social development was there overall homogeneity in the oldest times." Kosambi's famous dictum has been: "Marxism is not a substitute for thinking, but a tool of analysis which must be used, with a certain minimum of skill and understanding, upon the proper material." No wonder, he was sceptical about orthodox Marxist Indologists' willingness to accept his approach; he was apprehensive of the kind of reception his The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline (1965) would receive because he made "no mention of the great authorities on Indian history (or anything else), namely Marx, Engels, Lenin"! WHILE Kosambi is famous for defining history as the "presentation in chronological order of successive changes in the means and relations of production", he was also candid in saying: "Our position has also to be very far from a mechanical determinism, particularly in dealing with India, where form is given the utmost importance while content is ignored. Economic determinism will not do." To him, "the complete historical process" was a uniquely Indian process, to be explained by the logic of Indian societal developments and in terms of Indian cultural elements, culture being understood "in the sense of the ethnographer, to describe the essential way of life of the whole people". As early as 1951, when the talk of "Colonial Indology" was not fashionable, Kosambi wrote: "Indian archaeology is still at the bourgeois-colonial stage of digging for museum exhibits that look impressive to foreigners." Similarly, long before professional archaeologists made a fetish of ethno-archaeology, this "amateur indologist" was working on ''Living Prehistory in India'' (No.2) and could venture to suggest the need to distinguish between "field archaeology" and "site archaeology" even to a reputed archaeologist of the stature of F.R. Allchin of Cambridge. That he had the phenomenal foresight to recognise cautiously the technical requirements of archaeological training is evident in this advice to a young fieldworker who had been associated with him. "By all means concentrate upon new techniques like soil analysis. Pollen does very well in Denmark, with peat bogs for example; but what will work in India I don't know.... If these could be used in some way for dating, all the better." Critics of the so-called "Marxist historians" accuse them of being insensitive to India's "glorious cultural tradition embodied in the holy Vedas and Puranas". Only a certain gross insensitivity to the methods introduced by Kosambi would sustain this attitude. Yes, Kosambi was disdainful of the "ludicrous 'Indian history' that (was) still being written, with the Puranas as gospel, dating the Vedas back several million years, crediting our mythical sages with every modern scientific discovery down to the electron and the bacteriophage" (page 793). But he also wrote: 'The apparently senseless myths so illogically put together in our Puranas have a peculiar basis in reality." He illustrates this by making a case for correlation between literary works and archaeology: "for the pre-literate period there is no other source of information (other than archaeology); but it is not generally recognised that even written records gain their full meaning only if material objects to which they refer can be examined..." (No.22) Kosambi's method in reconstructing early India's history on the basis of epic-puranic literature casts its lengthy shadow on such burning issues as the historicity of Ayodhya. The logic of his method (a combined invocation of literature and archaeology) demanded the prior presence of settlements before states and empires such as those of Kosalan kings (supposedly the ancestors of 'Lord' Rama) could emerge. As is well established, archaeological evidence of settlement at Ayodhya does not go beyond 800 B.C. This evidently does not suit the present-day champions of rewriting history. Kosambi steadfastly argued against all racist constructions of early India: "I have never believed in an Aryan race, having found considerable evidence for progressive Aryanisation of people, whose beliefs were penetrated by Brahmin ritual, with reciprocal influence upon Brahmanism." (No.8, page 172). And all those who established links between nose indices, language and health immunity with the hierarchy of races (white man vs local population, Aryan vs the aboriginal) were brutally and convincingly put down by Kosambi (No.34 and 45). Kosambi's numerous writings on textual transmissions and textual fluidity (mostly written in the 1940s) reflected in his analyses of the Mahabharata, Vatsyayana's Kamasutra, Kautilya's Arthashastra, Bhartrihari's three Shatakas, an 11th century astronomical work Chintamanisaranika (Section IV) have been trendsetters and his editing of the oldest known Sanskrit anthology (Subhashitaratnakosha) is acknowledged as a landmark in Indian text-criticism. "Clearly, the Mahabharata 'war' - as distinct from some stages of the redaction - cannot represent 'Aryan' or 'Hindu' expansion, a supposedly universal 'epic period' between the 'Vedic' and the 'Buddhist' periods which appear in our textbooks" (No.19, 1964), he said. Commenting upon Geldner's German translation of the Rigvedic hymn X.108, Kosambi refuses to accept that there was any reference to Indra's cows stolen by the Panis and underlines: "The hymn derives from an earlier period when the aggressive demand for wealth... had come down to a ritual, somewhat like the simollanghana and 'looting of gold' at Dasaraa commemorating the fortunately brief period of Maratha robbery" (No.47, 1949-50). Surely, the 'Hindu' Right today will treat such writings as blasphemous. Kosambi does occasionally and loosely use such terms as "Muslim period", but in his long-distance vision of Indian history, there were only "main advances", not the replacement of one period of Indian history by another. In "What Constitutes Indian History" (No.49) he reviewed the first three volumes of The History and Culture of Indian People, published by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and made this perceptive comment: "In the preliminary remarks to the first volume, both K.M. Munshi (who wrote the foreword to each volume) and R.C. Majumdar (the chief editor) dismiss with contempt the nomenclature of the 'so-called Muslim period'; it may be correct to eliminate the term altogether from Indian histories, but the proposal is surprisingly incongruous when made by two Hindus with good Muslim professional names, Munshi and Majumdar." Kosambi made the first serious attempt to apply the theory of the mode of production to the study of social, economic and other processes in ancient Indian history. The ideas and insights generated by him are still being pursued by a host of researchers not only in India but also in other countries. There is no doubt that the pioneering and perceptive contribution of Kosambi to early Indian history has stood the test of time and continues to inspire historians. Hopefully, Chattopadhyaya's compilation would help the cause of constituting an authentic history of India. K.M. Shrimali is Professor of History, Delhi University.
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