[OPE-L:7647] Kosambi

From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@stanford.edu)
Date: Wed Sep 11 2002 - 10:51:53 EDT

  The making of an Indologist

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 

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 

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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