Apr 7, 2008

The Kosambis, father and son

D.D. Kosambi was a mathematician who trained himself to be a world-class historian. His father's life was even more remarkable…
A friend who lives in Goa writes to say that he is greatly enjoying the series of lectures being organised there to commemorate the centenary of the polymathic scholar D.D. Kosambi. The historian Romilla Thapar had spoken in the series, as had the jo urnalist P. Sainath; two Indians one thinks the notoriously judgmental Kosambi would have approved of, both for the depth of their research and the commitment to their craft.
Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi was a remarkable man. Trained as a mathematician, he then went on to train himself as a historian. His day job was as a Professor of Mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. On the train up and down from Poona (where he lived), and during the evenings, nights, and weekends, he gathered the materials to write some pioneering works of historical scholarship, among them A Study of Indian History and The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline.
A pioneer
Apart from his books, Kosambi also published collections of scholarly essays, in one of which he wrote about the village communities of his native Goa. The languages he knew well included Sanskrit, Pali, Marathi, and English. Among Indian historians, he was a pioneer in the use of numismatics, linguistics, and, above all, anthropology.
Kosambi was a man of a fierce and at times truculent independence. He was sympathetic to Marxism, whose materialist approach he found useful in reconstructing the economic and social life of civilisations now long dead. But he abhorred the dogmatism and insularity of what was then the undivided Communist Party of India. It was impossible for him to follow a party line. In his political writings (which too were collected in several volumes, one of which bore the charming title Exasperating Essays) he was sharply critical of what he called the "Official Marxists" (or OM, for short).
Among the community of Indian historians there is almost a "Kosambi cult" in operation. It is good that the civil society of Goa is joining academics elsewhere in India in paying tribute to his memory. But mostly forgotten in the meantime is a Kosambi who was perhaps an even more remarkable man. This was the historian's own father, Dharmanand.
I first heard of Dharmanand Kosambi from a friend who taught for many years at the University of California at Berkeley and is arguably the greatest living scholar of Jainism. His name is Padmanabha Jaini. It was in Berkeley on a cold January afternoon, years ago, that Professor Jaini acquainted me with the elements of Kosambi pére's life. As a young man he felt the urge to learn Sanskrit; finding the urge irresistible, he left his wife and baby boy to go to Poona and study with the great Sanskrit scholar R.G. Bhandarkar. His studies inculcated further desires and ambitions; among them to make a deeper acquaintance with Buddhism. He travelled around the country, spending time in Baudh Gaya, in Sarnath, and in Kausambhi, near Allahabad, where the Buddha lived after attaining enlightenment. It was from this last place that he took the name by which he and his son came to be known. So far as I know, this remains the only "Kosambi" family in Goa, India, or the world.
In search of a living Buddhist tradition, Dharmanand Kosambi also spent several years in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), where he learnt Pali. By now, he was a world authority on the language and culture of early Buddhism. He taught briefly in Bombay and Poona before attracting the attention of the American academy, then (as now) on the look-out for world authorities to attract (or seduce). With his wife and son, Kosambi travelled across the seas to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was put to work editing Pali texts for a series published by Harvard University.
Moved by Gandhi
Dharmanand Kosambi spent a decade in the United States, in which time his son studied mathematics at Boston University (to add to the Sanskrit and Pali that he learnt at home). Reading about Gandhi's movement made the senior Kosambi turn his back on America (and the scholarly study of Buddhism) to return to India and court arrest during the Salt Satyagraha. He was deeply attached to Gandhi; when the Mahatma moved to Wardha in 1934, Dharmanand Kosambi moved with him too. When I visited the ashram in Sewagram some years ago, an elderly (and knowledgeable) guide showed me the hut Gandhi lived in, as well as the huts occupied by his closest associates, such as Mahadev Desai and Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade). Then he pointed to a structure, as modest as the others, which he called "Professor Sahib Ki Kutir". This was where the one-time Goan, Buddhist scholar, and Harvard academic had spent his last years.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this most remarkable man concerns the manner of his death. In the summer of 1947, with the country on the eve of independence, Dharmanand Kosambi decided he did not need to live any more. So, in the hallowed Buddhist tradition, he simply fasted to death.
There is, I am told, some amount of biographical writing about the senior Kosambi in Marathi. Still, there is certainly room in English for a single volume study of Dharmanand Kosambi and his son Damodar. This would be a story of two utterly absorbing lives, and, through them, a history of Goa, India, and the world.


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