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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 30-31, July 22 & July 29 2023

Life of D.D. Kosambi: Brilliant Intellectual & Humanist | Kobad Ghandy

Saturday 22 July 2023, by Kobad Ghandy


On his 116th birth anniversary (July 31st, 2023) we not only remember Kosambi (31 July 1907 — 29 June 1966) but seek to emulate his spirit. While most left intellectuals today are more preoccupied with building careers or absorbed in petty intrigues, one could, on this auspicious occasion, learn from DDK’s total focus on research and the interests of the people. Without such focus, discipline, and single-minded effort nothing great can be accomplished in life. We will be condemned to a mundane existence with mediocre results. Take a look at the life of DDK

As his daughter, Meera said “Kosambi seemed to have only three interests, which filled his life to the exclusion of all others — ancient India, in all its aspects, mathematics and the preservation of peace. He worked hard and with devotion for all three, according to his deep conviction.”

All his life, Kosambi remained very health and fitness-conscious. He would walk every morning to the railway station more than three miles away, with his backpack filled with books, to catch the Deccan Queen to go to work at TIFR in Mumbai while living in Pune. Meera adds: He also concentrated on physical fitness during his school days (when he was a Boy Scout) and later college days, working out in the gymnasium, swimming, rowing, going on long hikes, and developed a splendid physique. Academically he did brilliantly at Harvard. A college friend remembers Baba’s (as he was fondly referred to by his daughter) inexpensive room, with a photo of Gandhiji as the only decoration, and lined with shelves full of books on many subjects and in many languages.

He was a larger-than-life personality, and even his personal life was an important statement. His integrity — personal and intellectual — was beyond question. Secularism formed the core of his personality. He made no distinction based on religion, caste, race, or gender, and brought up his children with the same secular ideology.

Of course, he had the advantage of a father like Dharmanand, who lived a very principled life even for some time as a Buddhist mendicant. He had learned Pali and lectured on Buddhism in Ferguson College Pune and often at Harvard. DDK after five years of schooling in Pune, his father took him to the US where he finished his schooling and college in Harvard. DDK returned to India in 1929. At Harvard, Dharmanand learned Russian and took a keen interest in Marxism. He travelled to the USSR in 1929 and taught Pāli at Leningrad University. As early as 1912 he lectured on Karl Marx well before the Russian revolution. He was also close to Gandhiji and died at Sewagram.

For some 20 years, the son, Kosambi’s main work lay in tensor analysis and ‘path-geometry’ (a term he coined). While engaged primarily in mathematics, he wrote a paper on genetics which was very successful. What became known as ‘the Kosambi formula for chromosome mapping’ was widely used by professional geneticists. The formula was an advance over the existing chromosome theory of heredity, comprising the arrangements of genes and their recombination through the phenomenon of crossing over.

Kosambi taught mathematics all his life of which 15 years was at the Fergusson College at Pune. He then moved to TIFR at the invitation of Homi Bhabha and finally in 1964 he was appointed Scientist Emeritus by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and affiliated himself to the Maharashtra Association for the Cultivation of Science at Pune.

General E B Habibullah, commandant of the National Defence Academy at Khadakwasla near Pune, too founded the Archaeological Society in the ‘hobbies’ section of the Academy. With an enthusiastic band of instructors and cadets, Kosambi hunted for microliths and megaliths, rock carvings, and other artifacts across the Deccan tract (as he did with his group of dedicated though informal students). In the process, he discovered the Karsambla caves in the forest at the foot of the Western Ghats below Bhaje caves, which Habibullah describes as containing ‘evidence of frescos and decorations that must have made Ajanta provincial’, though in a state of decay due to greater exposure to the weather. This discovery resulted from Kosambi’s thesis that Buddhist caves were located at a day’s march of merchant caravans along major trade routes (and not at inaccessible spots suitable for hermits, as had been believed).

As a mathematician, Kosambi taught himself statistics by selecting practical problems to solve. One of them was a study of punch-marked coins, undertaken about 1940. The only large hoard available was that of Taxila coins, and as a control group, he used modern coins. After weighing over 7,000 modern coins (making a total of about 12,000 coins), he says, “it was possible to lay the foundations of numismatics as a science, as contrasted to a branch of epigraphy and archaeology.” His articles on numismatics were numerous enough to merit publication in a separate volume entitled Indian Numismatics, though this happened years after his death.

The study of old coins aroused Kosambi’s intellectual curiosity about the kings who struck the coins. The study of old records, he says, ‘meant some mastery of Sanskrit, of which I had absorbed a little through the pores without regular study,’ having worked informally with his father. He acquired the requisite mastery by applying his usual problem-solving method. He took up a specific work, the simplest being Bhartrihari’s three shatakas, or centuries, of epigrams (subhashitas). His first articles on the topic were published in 1945. But Bhartrihari’s text was defective, necessitating text criticism, which he undertook by studying about 400 manuscripts. During the five years that the process took, he ‘rescued over fifty poets from the total oblivion to which lovers of Sanskrit had consigned them, not to speak of adding to our meagre knowledge of many others.’ In the process he had, in his own words, ‘fallen into Indology, as it were, through the roof.’ By now Kosambi had become so renowned for his text-criticism, that he was invited to edit the text of Vidyakara’s Subhashitar-atnakosha for the Harvard Oriental Series. (His text criticism was modelled on Dharmanand’s edition of the Pali Visuddhimagga, also published in the Harvard Oriental Series, in which he had possibly assisted him.) In his Preface, the series editor Prof. Daniel H.H. Ingalls acknowledges that ‘Kosambi has assembled here a wealth of precise data which not only aid the understanding of the present anthology but furnish precious material for the historian of Sanskrit literature’.. Kosambi’s insistence on treating Sanskrit texts and later also ancient myths as sources of data for analysing social and cultural life of their period of origin rather than as sacred words beyond analysis also led the more conservative Sanskritic in India to perceive him as an iconoclast.

Finally, Kosambi’s using his historical materialist approach together with archaeological interests brought out his first book on ancient Indian history, the path-breaking An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956), became so highly influential that, in Prof. Irfan Habib’s opinion, within five years of its publication, it was considered mandatory reading for professors and students of Indian history all over the world. The book, together with two more that followed — Myth and Reality (1962) and The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline (1965) — has been translated into many languages within and outside India.

In fact simultaneous to Kosambi, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya (19 November 1918 — 8 May 1993) was another Indian philosopher and intellectual giant who made huge contributions to the exploration of the materialist current in ancient Indian philosophy. He is known for Lokayata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism, which is his exposition of the philosophy of Lokayata. He is also known for his work on the history of science and scientific method in ancient India, especially his 1977 book Science and Society in Ancient India on the ancient physicians Charaka and Sushruta. Not only did he bring out the long atheist tradition in India (see also Indian Atheism brought out in 1980) but also carried it to children through simple popular stories in Bengali. An understanding of ancient Indian history is impossible without a study of both Kosambi and Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya. Unfortunately, there is no similar study (except localised, like on Tukaram and Basavana) of the medieval period and the great Bhakti tradition and their saints. The anti-Brahminical traditions are deep-rooted in India but have been brutally suppressed by the orthodox Hindu religious/political/academic onslaught.

The Lokayatas and Charvaka writings and thoughts were completely effaced and till today there is no knowledge of their leaders; Buddhism and Jainism were co-opted; and the bulk of the bhakti saints were murdered. One task before our Research Foundation is to build on these studies of Kosambi and Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya and bring out in-depth studies on the long tradition of the bhakti movement in India which laid the basis for not only a strong anti-brahmin tradition but the roots of our regional languages and culture.

Kosambi acquired his knowledge and interest in Marxism from his father and from his intellectual milieu in the US and expanded them further through his copious reading. Yet his Marxism was never dogmatic. Kosambi disagrees with Marx’s thesis of the small unchanging and self-sufficient villages, and his argument that the villages produced only what they required and not commodities for exchange. Unfortunately, these historic writings on history were produced in the last years of his life as Kosambi passed away at the young age of 59 from a heart attack in 1966.

On this birth anniversary, there is much we can learn from Kosambi’s life and method. Though we may not be able to become a polymath what we can learn from him is his commitment to his study and continuous search for truth. We vow to pay homage to the great personality by dedicating our Research Foundation to this spirit.

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