Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Science versus Miracles: Fire by Mental Power

B Premanand

In 1980 a number of yajnas were conducted on behalf of our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, for her long life. But the yajnas could not save her. She was assassinated in 1984.

A yajna was performed at Delhi by one Sadachari Sai Baba, a youth with black beard and long hair. Millions of people witnessed the yajna. The special significance of the yajna was that when he poured two or three spoonfuls of ghee (clarified butter) on the firewood and concentrated on it by mental power, it got lighted and began to burn.

This Baba made about eighty-six lakhs of rupees within three days of the yajna. He was exposed in Singapore when he collected money for a yajna to treat incurable disease and was deported to India by the Government. While at Madras Airport, when the customs department wanted to search his luggage, he became panicky. His hand-bag fell and caught fire. He was charge-sheeted for carrying explosives in his baggage.

Later, when he tried to raise the Kundalini Shakti of his followers at Bombay, he was exposed. He was using an electronic instrument which would give a shock to any person when he touched their head. He explained that the shock was the sign of rising of the sexual energy to sahasrara. Now criminal proceedings have been taken against him for murdering his first wife. These godmen claim to be the avatars of Krishna who had thousands of lovers. His modus operandi was to cure incurable diseases through yajna (Homa therapy).

When these godmen and Babas claim to have sacrificed everything, it is surprising that they are after money, fame and women. The last charge on him is for running a prostitute den in his ashram. He used to lure the rich to the den in the guise of Kundalini awakening and blackmail them after photographing them in compromising positions with the call-girls.

How did the Baba create fire?

Experiment: 75

Effect: Fire by mental power.

Props: Dry wood shavings or paper pieces, a metal plate, potassium permanganate and glycerin.

Crystals of Potassium Permanganate
Method: Arrange some dry wood shavings or paper pieces in a metal plate with some powdered potassium permanganate in the centre. In the guise of pouring ghee, pour two or three drops of glycerin over the potassium perman­ganate with a spoon, and act as if you are sending mental power through your eyes and fingers. With glycerine on potassium permanganate, a reaction takes place, first smoke comes out, and then the paper catches fire and flares.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Ganapathi and the Trinity

A N Moorthy Rao

Ganapathi ranks between the deities just mentioned and the divine Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara­he is not a force of nature but possesses certain unique characteristics  He is reverred and worshipped more than all the gods mentioned before. Not only this; He is close to us and dear to us; and he stimulates humour. We do not, and cannot, take with other Gods the same degree of liberties as we do with Ganapathi. We have ascribed to Siva and Vishnu exquisite forms. Adorned with ash and a serpent around his neck, the beauty of Shiva comes from restraint and renunciation. While His form may, at times (eg: when you think of his 'Runda Maale') appear intolerable - even disgusting- yet, there is glory about Him. Vishnu is the God of splendour. Shiva may turn into furious 'Rudra'. Vishnu, except on some special occasions, is serene.

Courtesy: Wikipedia
It is all totally different with Ganapathi. For one thing, we have given him a grotesque form. The head of an elephant with a skewed trunk: a broken tusk: a protruding tummy, a serpent tied around the belly, lest it should rupture. And the vehicle of this huge, rotund deity is a rat!

If you ignore a few obscure stories, Shiva and Vishnu are without beginning and without end. While their various incarnations do have a beginning and an end in time, they themselves are beyond time. There are many stories connected with Ganapathi's birth. He does have an origin. He has an explicit birth. The story of His birth which I am going to narrate, is one with which we are all familiar. Whether this story is found in any text or is only a popular legend I do not know.

Parvathi wanted to have a bath. She needed some one to stand guard at the entrance to the bath room. She scrapped the dirt on her body (alternate version: the perfumes and cosmetics applied to her body) and made a doll out of it, in the shape of a boy, and infused it with life. Then, she asked him to stand guard at the door. Soon after, Shiva arrived there and was promptly stopped by the boy at the door. Enraged, Shiva cut off his head. This distressed Parvathi. In order to console Parvathi, Shiva tried to revive the boy, but the body had no head at all! "Bring me the head of one who is sleeping with his head to the north," He ordered his servants. They could find only an elephant sleeping in that manner, and they brought its head. Shiva joined the head to the boy's trunk and gave life to it. Thus was born our 'Gajavadana'.

Couldn't Parvathi find clay or flour or some such substance with which to make a doll? Was there so much dirt (or cosmetics) on her body that she could make a doll of the size of a boy out of it ? Was her bathroom not fixed with bolts? Is Shiva so cruel as to just kill a small boy without any enquiry? He could have used the boy's own severed head, which was lying there (or had it been moved away already?), to revive the boy. Why did he have to get another head? Is it not wrong to behead someone sleeping with his head to the north, for no reason at all? Some people have a pseudo-scientific answer to this. I do not quite remember it - it relates to magnetism which is said to flow from the north. Asking these questions - well, it is just not 'done'. It is said it is not advisable to investigate the origins of rivers and saints. If so, investigating the origins of deities is inexcusable! 

Well, let us leave aside the incredibility of this story. Instead, let us be grateful that the imagination of our people could give us a deity like Ganapathy. We cannot say that before this century Indians were bereft of a sense of humour. Still I have at times felt that the literature of those ages was deficient in humour. The legend of Ganesha makes up for that deficiency to some extent. I remember Masti Venkatesha Iyengar's praise of the lotus: 'Though born in mire you won renown'. Similary though fashioned from dirt, Ganapathi won world-wide fame. What an odd shape!! An elephant's head, a human body, and a broken tusk (He is 'ekadanta') and a huge tummy. We can indeed be proud that we have dared give deity such a grotesque shape. If a Christian had so portrayed God it would have been blasphemous. But our people have joyously welcomed such a form. A broken tusk, a skewed form - these may be derisive accounts. But when applied to Ganapathi they are charged with devotion. 'Vakradanta mahakaya',' Pranavaswarupavakradantam', 'Ekadantha ­mupaasmahe' - such expressions are found in hymns and devotional songs.

Evidently, bringing in the rat to carry the huge body (mahakaya) of Ganapathi was a joke. The conveyance for the comic Ganapathi is the rat! But strangely enough, when we worship Him at the time of the Ganapathi Festival, not a sense of the comic but devotion is active. My mind is pervaded by the attractiveness of this conception rather than devotion.

We have seen that Ganapathi, who logically should have been the butt of our jokes, in fact, inspires reverence in us. He can provoke laughter and also laugh at others, If we have to have a presiding deity for impishness (from among our deities) Ganapathi alone would qualify. But behind his puckishness, there is also an active mind. As the story goes, once He and Kumaraswamy quarrelled, each claiming superiority. Shiva, their father, had to resolve the dispute. He told them, "You must both set out at the same time and go round the earth. Whoever comes back first will be adjudged the superior." The two agreed. Poor Kumaraswamy trudged around the globe and returned. But Ganapathi just went round His parents once, and quietly settled down. Kumaraswamy thought, "How can this Ganapathi with His huge tummy go round the earth? Surely I will win". But lo! Ganapathi was already there, and Shiva and Paravathy were all smiles. Explaining how He had so swiftly completed the circumambulation of the earth, Ganapathi said, "The entire universe is in Shiva; I just went round Him. That's all!" This had not occurred to Kumaraswamy.

I recall a verse[i] which bears testimony to Ganapathi's sense of humour. This is the context: 'Shiva and Paravathi are engaged in a lively conversation, with little Ganapathi between them. There arises in both simultaneously, the desire to fondle Ganapathi. Their faces bend down towards Ganapathi, sitting between them. Just as they are about to kiss Him, Ganapathi suddenly draws back His head. Shiva and Paravathi kiss all right - but each other! Ganapathi smiles mischievously.

Ganapathi and excellent dishes go together. The delicious 'kadubu' is particularly associated with Him. The food on the day of His festival is a gourmet's delight. On this account we certainly owe our gratitude to Ganapathi.
But Ganapathi is not just a glutton, He loves literature too. Wasn't it He who wrote down the Mahabharatha to the dictation of Vyasa? Moreover, he is somehow linked with music. As part of His festival (Vinayaka Chouthi) music concerts are held for 10 to 15 days. All music concerts begin with songs in His praise - 'Vathapi Ganapathim', 'Siddi Vinayakam', 'Gajavadana beduve' etc.

Impishness, sociability, humour, learning, intellect, art (even dance - there are statues of dancing Ganapathi. Just imagine the huge-tummied Ganapathi dancing! His shape does not embarrass him in the least): the ability to inspire not just devotion, but even affection among people, the healthy attitude of never neglecting food - in no other deity of any religion can we find all these qualities. Our people admire this unique synthesis of qualities. That explains why every auspicious occasion begins with the worship of Ganapathi. It is not accidental that we have dwelt here at such length on Ganapathi - it is the honour due to His greatness, His pre-eminence.

How could people who created such a deity be attracted to sterile renunciation!

The Trinity

From the theological standpoint, the concept of the Trinity[ii] (Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara) represents a stage which is just one step below the zenith of human imagination. Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara perform the functions of creation, preservation and dissolution, respectively. When man rises to the level of the concept of the Trinity, the water-deities, the mountain deities and the forest deities simply disappear or are relegated to the position of servants of the trio.

Here, 'Brahama' refers to t.he 'Chaturmukha Brahama' of theology and not the 'Parabrahma' of philosophy. Brahma is already through with his function - creation. In fact, there is nothing for him to do until the current 'Shvetavaraha kalpa' runs out. It may be for this reason (according to a story, it is because of a curse from Shiva) that no temples are built for him[iii] nor is he worshipped. He is only nominally a deity. We are told that he would lose even this once the present 'kalpa' ends. Anjaneya is said to succeed him in the next 'kalpa'.

Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (left to right) at Ellora Caves
Courtesy: Wikipedia

There are any number of temples for Vishnu and Shiva where formal worship is offered. Each of them has an exclusive festival for himself - Shivarathri and Krishnashtami. Vishnu or Shiva or both of them have always remained radiant in the hearts of the Hindus. Mahalakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, and Parvathi, the wife of Shiva, are reverred and worshipped almost as much as their husbands are.

Although we have divided the (cosmic) functions and entrusted 'preservation' to Vishnu and 'dissolution' to Shiva, yet, there is within us, the underlying feeling that in truth they are one. We are familiar with the lines: 'Shivaya Vishnu roopaya Shivaroopaya Vishnuve' (Shiva, taking the form of Vishnu, and Vishnu taking the form of Shiva)[iv], "Shivasya hridayam Vishnuhu Vishnoshcha hridayam Shivah" (Vishnu is the heart of Shiva: Shiva is the heart of Vishnu). Harihara, Shankaranarayana - such names reflect only this idea that the two different deities are indeed one. There are temples dedicated to a deity combining these names.

Still, the idea that Shiva and Vishnu are separate is quite deep-rooted in the Hindu psyche. The Smartha community worships both Vishnu and Shiva, but not with the belief that the two are one. This is true not only of laymen. Even learned men and scholars talk of Vishnu and Shiva being separate or of one being superior to the other and so on. Then there are also those who love one deity but cannot bring themselves to give up the other ­they want to eat their cake and have it, too! One such person (I do not remember who) wrote a verse which can be summarized thus: "Certainly I am a Shaiva; I regularly chant the panchakshari. Still my mind lingers with the smiling face of Krishna, radiant like the agase flower, and the darling of the Gopis." This is a liberal-minded author. Perhaps, if engaged in a debate, he would have argured that Vishnu and Shiva are in fact one. But the verse does not transcend the duality of Visnu and Shiva. Vishnu is the Supreme God of the Madhwas and the Srivaishnavas, and Shiva of the Shaivas.

[i] I do not remember the poet. The verse:
Yugapat swagandachumbanalolou pitarau nirikshya herambah | Thanumukhamelanakuthuki swananamapaneeya panhasan paayat ||

[ii] That the Trinity are one single person performing three types of functions is the highest stage. There are 'Thimurthi' icons which present a single human body with three faces.

[iii] I have heard that there is only a single temple dedicated to Brahma in India. I remember reading in the newspapers recently that now (1989) some traditionalists are planning to build thousands of temples dedi­cated to Brahma.

[iv] Shiva vayam, na khalu tatra vichaaraneeyam;
Panchaakshareejapaparaa nirathaam, tathapi |
Cheto madeeyamavathaseekusumaavabhaasam
 Smeraananam smarathi Gopadvadhuukishoram ||

Akkihebbalu Narasimha Murthy Rao (June 16, 1900—August 23, 2003) was an eminent Kannada writer.  He was the first Director of Kannada and Culture Department of the Karnataka Government.

His popular book, Devaru (God), won (1992) the Pampa Award instituted by the Government of Karnataka.

This is the Chapter-2 of the book, which was translated into English by Prof LS Seshagiri Rao and published by Kannada Sahitya Parishath, Bangalore in 1995.

Science versus Miracles: Ash from Coins

B Premanand

While on a vijnan yatra in Maharashtrn in 1981, Vilas Baba, a godman from Phelton, challenged us that if we proved that his miracle ia false he would pay us Rupees five lakhs. His challenge was published by many vernacular dailies in Maharashtra. We agreed to investigate his clim and fixed a day for the same. In his reply he informed us that he was going into samadhi from that day up to the end of my tour in Maharashtra and as his soul would be roaming in the Himalayas, the date given was not suitable for him. Therefore, I gave rum the next day to investigate his claims and my lecture was arranged at Phelton on that date. Most of the people of Phelton and the suburbs had come to witness what would happen to me and the Baba. We waited for him for an hour and he did not turn out. Our people went to his ashram. It was locked and no one was there. He has not come back to the village to this day.

In 1982 when I visited Madhya Pradesh, I found that he had collected Rs. 5000 from a rich merchant for a male child and given him a coin to be placed in his prayer-room.

He claimed to be a Baba of the poor, and initially asked only 5 and 10 paisa coins. He took the coin and, bringing it near his mouth, recited some mantras and gave it back to the person to hold tight in his fists. Within a few minutes it became hot and when he opened his hand, vibhuti was seen emanat­ing from the coin. Even when the com was washed, vibhuti still formed. Being satisfied with his supernatural powers, the gullible met him to solve their prob­lems. He exploited them to the size of their purse. I was informed that he charged five to ten thousand rupees to see that one got a male child.

Experiment: 74

Effect: Ash from coins.

Props: Saturated mercuric chloride solution in water in a small container, an aluminium coin or a plate.

Method: Dip your index finger and thumb in the mercuric chloride solution stealthily. Call for a volunteer and ask for a five or ten-paisa coin. Take it and rub the coin with your index finger and thumb on both sides while chanting incantations. Then place it in the palm of the volunteer and ask him to close his hand. The solution and aluminium reacts, heat is generated and a grey sub­stance looking like vibhuti starts forming on the coin. Washing the coin starts the reaction again.

Take the plate, rub it with a piece of cloth dipped in the solution, and the same chemical reaction will occur.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Rape: Patriarchy and Selective Historiography

Ram Puniyani

The spate of horrific rapes in Haryana in particular (Sept 2012) has drawn the national attention to this abominable phenomenon. Various diagnosis and prescriptions have also come forward about the causes and as to how to prevent these rapes is also being suggested by different people. Interestingly the world view of those advising on the issue is shaped their world view as such. While the progressive liberal tendencies and ideologies will link the phenomenon of rape to the prevalent uneven gender equations and so what follows as a preventive measure is the need to empower women and strengthen liberal norms in the society. The conservative opinions also have a wide shades of understandings.

Courtesy: wccpenang
Not too long ago a police top cop in Hyderabad linked rape to the clothes of girls, and he was applauded by the Rashtra Seviak Samiti, the women’s organization subordinate to the RSS. There is caste equation also in the phenomenon seen in caste atrocities where dalit women bear the large brunt of the phenomenon, the worst of which was witnessed in Khairlanji. In communal violence, the ‘women of other community’ are subjected to this humiliation. In a way the bodies of women become the site of contestation amongst these social groups, where women are regarded as the property of men.

In the spate of recent shameful incidents, the notorious Khaps gave the dictat that the age of marriage of girl should be lowered to 15 as now the girls reach puberty early, before 11 years of age so this change should be exercised. Omprakash Chautala, before retracting his statement later, said “In the past, especially in Mughal era, people used to marry their girls to save them from such atrocities. Currently a situation of similar kind is arising in Haryana.” This formulation has lot of holes in it. Does marriage prevent rapes? Married women are also subjected to this atrocity is too well known. Is it that the early marriage for girls has become because of the atrocities of Mughals on ‘Hindu’ women? The latter formulation is also a part of social common sense prevalent in the sections of society. Many an instances like Padminis’ Jauhar (Putting oneself in the fire) to prevent being humiliated by the rival king and the army is supposed to be one such example.

There is no doubt that many women might have committed such suicides to save themselves from anticipated situation. In the classic serial Tamas, a similar scene where women jump into the well to prevent their humiliation also starkly comes to one’s mind. But is it that the Mughal rule or the rule of Muslim kings in different parts of the country stands out for such horrendous ignominies, while rulers of other religions were protecting women? One recalls when Shivaji’s armies went to plunder Kalayan, apart from other loot they also brought the ‘daughter in law’ of Kalyan’s ruler as a gift for Shivaji. It is another matter that Shivaji sent her back with full honours. The plunder of wealth and the humiliation, rape of women by different armies was and is the part of the highhanded behaviour of the armies. Armies in the past, irrespective of being Hindus, Muslims or Christian did it and are doing it even now. One should shudder to think of the atrocities, which took place in Bosnia and Rwanda. Closer home this is what took place and is taking place in Kashmir or North East. The case of Manorama, who was abducted, raped and killed by the Indian army, will be etched in the memory of the nation as a dark spot on national conscience. After this event many a women protested in a most shaming way, stripping and carrying a banner “Indian Army rape us”. The phenomenon which has taken place has been due to the armed might of Kings-Generals- armies. This is a phenomenon cutting across religions. Here in India to attribute it to Muslims Kings and army alone is a part of ‘Communal historiography’ presented in a selective way. Incidentally, communal historiography is a way of presenting history through the prism of Kings’ religion, which was introduced in India by British to pursue their ‘divide and rule’ policy. One should also remember that the armies of Mughal kings were mixed, with Hindus and Muslims both being part of it. Do remember that the Commander of Chief of Akbar was Raja Mansingh and Aurangzeb had Mirza Raja Jaisingh as his associate.

As such the child marriage, early marriage and marrying the girls before they attain puberty had become a part of ‘religion’ so to say. During nineteenth century when the reformers were calling for the raise in the age of marriage of girls, the conservative sections argued that the Hindu girls must cohabit with their husbands before their first menses. During a debate on raising the age of consent for girls it was argued that raising the age of consent to 12 would increase such a possibility of a girl having her menses before cohabitation so such a move by the state will tantamount to the ruler interfering in Hindu religion. The trends for early marriage and few voices calling for the raise in the age of marriage has been debated since quite few centuries and those wanting to increase the age of marriage could succeed only gradually and more so after Independence. Even amongst Muslims the conservative sections have been demanding the lowering of the age of marriage for girls. Both conservative sections think alike, as the real issue is not religion, but control over lives of women, strengthening patriarchy. This patriarchy has been presented as the part of religious practice, and in that way the imposition of patriarchal norms becomes easier.

White Ribbon
Early marriage ensures a total slavery of the girls, apart from other miseries which follow due to early child bearing apart from the responsibility of household chores. The early marriage and pregnancy is also a biological risk to the mother and the child. So the struggle as such is between the attempt to rid the society of patriarchal control on one side and re-imposing the feudal norms in current times on the other. It is no wonder that Khaps, which are the most assertive in Haryana and other regions of North India, is also the area where the atrocities against Dalits are on the peak and the sex ratio is the lowest in the country. The agenda of these Khaps, the exclusive male bodies, is very visible in this area in the form of caste and gender subjugation. The Khaps, which are illegal, have been asserting and giving dictats on intra gotra marriages and the cases which are equivalent of honour killing are also visible on and off. Overall the likes of Chautala, may retract their statement due to the pressures of political considerations, but their articulations do express the reality of places like Haryana. The need for social reform, women’s education-employment-empowerment is one of the keys to overcome the fatwa’s of the self appointed lawmakers. These Khaps need to be done away and Panchayats with 50% reservation for women need to be empowered as per our Constitutional norms. The interesting point of the Haryana phenomenon is that the major victims of their agenda, women and dalits, both are facing the atrocities.

While multiple theories and opinions on why rape as a phenomenon prevails, the major cause of this phenomenon, the patriarchy and the uneven gender relations need to be highlighted to be able to go to the root of the issue. Doing away with Khap and promoting the grass root democracy through Panchayat system will be the way towards a more just, gender just, sans the chains of the likes of Khap or their equivalents in some form or the other.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Remembering D. D. Kosambi

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

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.

Kosambi was a difficult man to work with. He was a veritable Durvasa, the sage known and feared by all for his irascibility.  As Vasudev Viswanath Gokhale, foremost of the very few friends Kosambi had, and himself one of the greatest Indologists of our times, wrote in the obituary on Kosambi: 
“As an independent thinker with a passionate devotion to scientific research, he seemed to be almost exclusively preoccupied with his own intellectual pursuits. As such, he was sometimes accused of  brusqueness and intolerance, but he had obviously no use, nor time for all the sophistications of our normal social life, nor could he afford to waste his energies on empty rituals and ceremonies, except for treating them as objects of his anthropological studies” (Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, vol. 47 (1967), reprinted in: R. S. Sharma (ed.), Indian Society: Historical Probings, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1974, p. 4).
Not that Kosambi himself was unaware of his acid tongue. He has himself recollected how, in his early boyhood, his grandmother would seat him upon her lap and put sugar into his mouth with a benediction that his words might be sweet. Kosambi wryly commented: “Those who witnessed this charming, ridiculous, now forgotten observance feel, judging from the result, that she did not use enough sugar!” (An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, revised second edition, Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1975, p. 381 n).

A grave and sombre person, he could, on rare occasions, relax, and then, as Gokhale assures us, “his childlike simplicity and sparkling wit were most refreshing even to those who were nearest to him and he spread laughter and sunshine around him.” But this is only one façade of his personality. He was also capable of playing pranks, just to irritate people who did not share his views. Think of his dedication of the Three Centuries of Bhartrihari’s Sanskrit Epigrams published in the Singhi Jain Series in 1948. In chaste Sanskrit he dedicated the work (which may be translated as follows): “In sacred memory of the pioneers of new human society, the vigorous great men (mahamanava) named Marx, Engels and Lenin.” Similarly he dedicated the collection of epigrams, Vidyakara’s Subhashita- ratnakosha (1957) edited jointly by him and V. V. Gokhale, “to all those who work for peace by peaceful means”. The work was published in the Harvard Oriental Series with Professor Daniel H. H. Ingalls as the Series editor, who was an anticommunist to the core. Kosambi was active in the World Peace Council, suspected by the U. S. establishment as a front organization of the international communist movement. The highly skilful editing of the joint editors was appreciated by all (well, almost all) but Louis Renou, the doyen of French Indologists, was taken aback by the Introduction written by Kosambi. Renou could not understand why a scholarly work, a critical edition of an anthology, should contain such items as class struggle (Jounal Asiatique,vol. 245, fascicule 4, 1957, p. 406).

To take another example: Kosambi dedicated the second dition of  his Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1975)  “to Indo-Soviet Friendship” (the first edition (1956) was dedicated to Monica Felton, a Stalin Prize winner) in place of an individual.

It is not enough to explain Kosambi’s pranks as something to be expected of a true Marxist disdaining to conceal his views. More likely he had a puck in him who encouraged him to do and say things that would irritate other people. In his meetings with Homi Bhabha in TIFR, he used to oppose whatever Bhabha proposed. Bhabha could not tolerate contradiction and Kosambi revelled in it. This did not contribute to the furtherance of his career but he could not help being what he was: a maverick.

Kosambi has often been accused of his disrespectful attitude to and open sniggering at eminent scholars, who were  his contemporaries. It cannot be denied that he was a man of strong likes and dislikes. To take one example, look at his dismissal of an erudite German Indologist: “W. Ruben’s Einführung in a. Indienkunde shows how a good Sanskritist can go to pieces because of Marxism ill disgested…” (Introduction, etc., p. 14 n1). O. Herold is curtly written off for assuming the Urvasi-Pururavas legend as a case of Aryan group-marriage, “for which there might be no evidence but which apparently makes no difference to his judgment, being required by some (presumably Marxist) theory” (Myth and Reality, Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1962, p. 54 n6). Anyone unacquainted with Kosambi’s world view would take him to be an anti-Marxist if such comments are read out of context. Or one might think that Kosambi considered himself to be the sole depository of Marxism, every other Marxist unfit to be called so.  

Yet the fact remains that Kosambi was always prepared to honour those to whom it was due. Naturally his standards were very high, and so the only names he mentions are bound to be of persons of the first water. At the end of his Introduction to Myth and Reality he writes: “Readers will recognize my debt to B. Malinowski, H. Obermaier, H. Breuil and H. Frankfort, among other giants; but more than any other, to K. Marx” (p. 11 n). Strangely enough, F. Engels is not mentioned here, although in a letter to Vidal-Naquet (dt. 4 June 1964) Kosambi said: “I learned from these two great men [Marx and Engels] what questions to ask and then went to fieldwork to find the answers because the material did not exist in published books.” In course of a conversation with Charles Malamound, Romila Thapar came to learn that Kosambi had admitted to him that the deepest intellectual influence on him had come from the works of Engels (R. Thapar, “The Contribution of D. D. Kosambi to Indology”, Journal of the Asiatic Society  of Bombay, New Series, vols. 52-53/ 1977-78, pp. 381 and 384 n55). Kosambi’s admiration for Stalin, more particularly for his polemics against Academician Marr, is apparent from a reference to the rejoinders written by Stalin and printed in the journal, Soviet Literature (Myth and Reality, p. 44 n1).

Kosambi’s respect for truly eminent persons was not confined to Marxists. In a sharply phrased passage he makes fun of worthless Sanskritists and upholds a Christian Missionary: “The ability to replace incomprehensible Sanskrit works by still larger and equally meaningless English terms can make a prosperous career. It cannot produce an Albert Schweitzer, whose magnificent study Von Reimarus Zu Wrede, analysis of Bach’s music and record as medical missionary at Lambarene were impressive even in my irreverent undergraduate years” (“Adventures into the Unknown” in K. Satchidananda Murty and K. Ramakrishna Rao (ed.), Current Trends in Indian Philosophy, Waltair: Andhra University Press/ Bombay: Asia Publishing House, [1972] , p. 154).

There is no denying that Kosambi was a proud man, impatient with lesser mortals and aggressive in attitude. But by no means was he too proud to accept his own errors. When J. Brough corrected one of his mistakes, he admitted it in unequivocal terms (see Introduction etc., p. 109 n12).

Archaeological fieldwork took up a large part of Kosambi’s time and he was accused of neglecting mathematics by his superiors in TIFR. Kosambi did not neglect mathematics; it was his first love. He was working on prime numbers and one paper had already been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U. S. A.), vol. 49, 1963, pp. 20-23. The paper, however, failed to evoke the expected response. When Kosambi was invited by the Andhra University to write on his personal philosophy as a scientist and research worker, he vented his despair in an epilogue to the autobiographical essay he contributed. It is necessary to quote the relevant passage in full if the reader is to comprehend how crest-fallen Kosambi had felt at being spurned by Western mathematicians: 
Every competent judge who saw only this radically new basic result intuitively felt that it was correct as well as of fundamental importance. Unfortunately, the Reimann hypothesis followed as a simple consequence. Could a problem over which the world’s greatest mathematicians had come to grief for over a century be thus casually solved in the jungles of India? Psychologically, it seemed much more probable that the interloper was just another ‘‘circle-squarer.’’ Mathematics may be a cold, impersonal science of pure thought; the mathematician can be thoughtless, heatedly acrid, even rabid, over what he dislikes. Let me admit at once that I made every sort of mistake in the first presentation. There is no excuse for this, though there were strong reasons: I had to fight for my results over three long years between waves of agony from chronic arthritis, against massive daily doses of aspirin, splitting headaches, fever, lack of assistance and steady disparagement. It was much more difficult to discover good mathematicians who were able to see the main point of the proof than it had been to make the original mathematical discovery. How much of this is due to my own disagreeable personality and what part to the spirit of a tight medieval guild that rules mathematical circles in countries with an ‘‘affluent society’’ need not be considered here. There is surely a great deal to be said for the notion that the success is fundamentally related to the particular form of society. (Current Trends in Indian Philosophy, p. 168. A part of this posthumously published essay has been reprinted in other volumes by and on Kosambi   bearing a new title, “Steps in Science,” without, however, this significant Epilogue).
How should one judge the matter? Are we to take this as the raving of a paranoid or are we expected to sympathize with a man silently rejected for being a non-Westerner? Much depends on one’s attitude. I for myself believe that Kosambi was right; he has been shabbily treated both in India and abroad. Even now he remains neglected and misunderstood. Death released him from all ignominy in the early hours of 29 June 1966.

I am not competent to speak of Kosambi’s achievements in scientific fields. As a student of Indology, I believe that his books and articles remain a quarry of the most fruitful ideas to be developed by his successors. This is not to say that Kosambi was always right. Some of his cherished theories and hypotheses have been challenged and, in a few cases, disproved. But that does not detract  an iota from the merit of his works or his achievements as a historian. As D. Lorenzen observed, when some otherwise sound historians like A. L. Basham purposely hesitated to offer  radically new and speculative interpretations of the sources of change and conflict in ancient India and of the interrelations of economy, politics, social structure, and cultural values, “ D. D. Kosambi has no such hesitations. His two general works, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History and The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India in Historical Outline, spew forth new ideas and provocative comments as if from a shotgun . Although some of his speculative hypotheses are virtually impossible to verify, many have opened up fruitful new paths of understandings and research” (“Imperialism and the historiography of ancient India” in: S. N. Mukherjee (ed.), India: History and Thought, Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1982, p. 98). This boldness is what is lacking in the works of many later historians. They are afraid to go in for systematic theoretical generalizations.

Kosambi never refrained from doing this very thing.  Lorenzen has noticed that “Kosambi’s edition of Sanskrit texts and many of his articles display an academic rigour sometimes lacking in  these two works [Introduction and Historical Outline],’’ but added that in spite of this shortcoming, they do not fail “ to be original and provocative” (p. 98 n29). And this is what really matters. I can do no better than end this tribute to Kosambi by quoting Lorenzen again: 
A historical work which makes such generalizations undoubtedly risks, indeed requires, the formulation of an ideological bias, but this is, after all, what makes it food for thought. No one today reads Grant or Mill, or even Nehru, because of their historical accuracy. They remain important works precisely because of the ideological biases of their authors. ‘‘Accuracy,’’ as Housman once remarked, “is a duty, not a virtue.’’ (p. 100).

This essay was first published in Frontier, Annual Number 2008

Miracles of Godmen, Psychics and Tantriks

B Premanand

Once while in Bombay, a youth approached me to help him. His mother, a widow, was not able to get her daughter married without dowry and was approaching many godmen to bless her. At that time, a particular godman was visiting their home to conduct -prayers. The youth needed my help to expose him.

After prayers the Baba asked the daughter to bring a little mud, which he wrapped in a paper. After chanting some mantras, he gave it to the girl to open. Surprisingly, the mud had been transformed into haldi powder. He declared that god was very pleased as haldi is the sign of good luck. Again he touched the haldi powder and it was transformed into Kumkum, the sign of marriage. He blessed her and predicted she will get married within two months. Pocketing five hundred rupees the fellow left.

I did not want to denounce the man then. But I told the youth that we should wait for two months until his mother herself realized the man was a fraud. Then I would talk to her

Later, when I visited Bombay again, the youth met me and took me to his home. The daughter was still not married. I then demonstrated the same trick of the Baba and explained how be had done it.

Experiment: 73

Courtesy: Wikipedia
Effect: Transformation of mud into Haldi (turmeric powder) and haldi into Kumkum.

Props: Two pieces of paper of same size and quality. In one a little haldi is packed. Slaked lime container in your pocket.

Method: Palm the haldi packet. Keep the other paper in hand. Keep the slaked lime container in your pocket

Ask a person to bring a little bit of mud, wrap it in the piece of paper the same way haldi was packed and bring it near your face. While chanting mantras, palm the mud packet and bring the haldi packet forward and give it to the person to open. He will be surprised to see haldi. While the attention of the people is on the haldi, put your hand into your pocket and touch the slaked lime on your index finger. Stir the haldi powder with the index finger and it will change to red kumkum (saffron).

I explained to her that no prayers can help anyone. We must all struggle to fill our six inches of belly for no prayer can ever get it filed up. I requested her not to worry about religion or caste, and allow the girl to choose her own husband and marry. Later, she found someone and got married. 

Friday, 26 October 2012

Faith versus Sanitation: Jairam Ramesh’s Remarks on Temple, Toilets

Ram Puniyani

The Union Rural development Minister’s remark that “toilets are more important than temples” (October 2012) was met with diverse responses. Ramesh was speaking at a launch of campaign to sensitize people about the ill effects of open defecation, a practice very common in rural areas and city slums, where sanitation facilities are poor or non-existent. Ramesh said that open defecation was the main reason for the hygiene related problems and that there are more temples than toilets in the country.

The BJP and friends immediately pounced on the minister saying that he is insulting their faith.  While BJP’s associates VHP and Bajrang dal took to strong condemnation of Ramesh, demanded an apology from him and launched protests. One case has also been registered against the minister for insulting the faith. Congress spokesman, in order to play safe said that Congress respects all religions. The only support the minister could get was from the NGO Sulabh International, the NGO which has initiated a chain of public toilets in places where they are most needed. 

What a shame that the basic point Ramesh is making is undermined by most and is being taken as an insult to Hindu religion. Surely he is talking of the holy places which have been the center of attention for spending money for their construction and upkeep while the core social issue is being undermined.  Temple here is a metaphor for the holy places, where people go for worship and associate it with their identity. Being in India the dominant number of temples is very obvious. The UN data shows the gross inadequacy of our sanitation facilities. While our sanitation system suffers from gross neglect, during last few decades many grander temples have come up along with the other small ones also. Even the affluent NRIs have also donated heavily for these temples. One should also notice here that even when Pundit Nehru, when he underlined the importance of dams, industries and modern education, he also used the word temple, saying that these are the temples of Modern India.

One should register that when the holy Hindu practices are done in the state functions, breaking of coconut, lighting the lamp, the BJP and company and many others take it as a routine. Now but when the word temple is generalized to draw the attention of deeper social issue, their protest and hysterical reaction, their defense of ‘faith’ is deafening! One concedes that as such also during last few decades many a Muslims making living in the gulf countries have been remitting money home for Mosques. During the relief work of Gujarat carnage victims, when the Modi Government stopped the rehabilitation work for the victims, the Muslims’ conservative organizations continued the relief work. In the colonies which they got constructed for the violence victims, the Mosques are big and grand while the houses are small. 

The core issue is related to social concerns of poor versus the identity based concerns in general. In independent India, thanks to the uncompromising values of Nehru, he could ward off the pressures of conservative sections to get Somnath temple repaired from state coffers. He also advised the President of India not to inaugurate the Somnath temple. His focus was on the basic issues of bread-butter, shelter, employment. Even at that time the previous avatar of BJP, Jan Sangh was talking of identity based issues related to protection of Mother Cow. This dichotomy, as to which type of issue is more important has been an age old one. Lord Gautama Buddha while opposing the caste system, focused that the central concerns are related to life in this world, ‘the other’ world around which identity is constructed, Brahma etc. are not his concern. Dr. Ambedkar pointed out that Buddha’s teachings were the major revolution in India, whereby the low caste could come out from the grip of Brahminical exploitation and identity issues. This revolution of Lord Buddha was met with the counter revolution led by Shankaracharya, as per whom this world is Mythya (illusion) and one should focus on the real truth in the form of Brahma.

Jairam Ramesh
Courtesy: Wikipedia

In medieval times the saints of bhakti tradition in particular, like Kabir Tukaram, Dadu, Paltu, Pipa all drew our attention to the plight of people of the world, while clergy called for importance of rituals, holy places and the wrath of God, if people don’t follow their dictates about the identity related concerns. Sufis and Liberation theologians also talked about people’s issues and showed the path of love. Kabir at one point compares the grinding stone (chakki) and the idol of God. For him the grinding stone is more important than the idol of the Lord as grinding stone helps people to grind the grains and satisfy their hunger. During most of the social transformations when average people, poor come up to rebel, their issues are related to bread, while those opposed to social change harp on the identity related temples and mosque. During freedom movement, while National movement was talking about the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity so that people’s problems can be solved the communal organizations, standing for status quo, Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha-RSS were taking the cover of their respective religions and keeping aloof from freedom movement for preserving their privileges under the garb of their religion.

Post Independence we see that the ideologies of status quo, have been taking up defense of Holy cow, and later India politics got transformed with the identity related issue of Babri Mosque, opposition to Shah Bano getting maintenance. Later other such issues have been waiting in the wings to oppose the social issues; the ones’ like Amarnath yatra, Ram Setu and a list of temples, which need to be built. The politics around temple, identity, issues related to ‘other world’ are stalking the world. Most fundamentalist politics is revolving around Temple (Mosque and Church), while the hunger pangs, basic necessities and violation of human rights of weaker section are being bypassed. On the side of temple are the practitioners of politics in the name of religion. On the side of Toilet, provisions for social living are the ones’ who are denied this basic survival thing in daily life or those who give primacy to these. There is bit of mix up also. Pure agenda may be difficult to come by so there are different degrees of emphasis. While the most radical one’s like Bhagat Singh, Ambedkar and their followers will talk of this world and rights, the middle of the road parties will give less emphasis to identity, temple, while the electoral wings of fundamentalist will give primacy to temple and lip service to grinding stone or toilets. In a way the temple-toilet debate is reminiscent of Kabir’s grinding mill versus stone-idol debate. Who dare to stand for toilet and who stands for temple, mosque church will tell us their social commitment. Commitment to social change versus aggressive desires to maintain status quo is the issue!

Thursday, 25 October 2012

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.


In his essay on Bhartrihari Kosambi observed:
‘The greatness of an author does not lie in mere handling of words. Indeed, the finest craftsmanship of such manipulation is impossible without the expression of a new class basis. This does not mean that every writer who seeks enduring fame must express only the glory of the dictatorship of the proletariat: it is doubtful if Shakespeare could have grasped the meaning of the word (proletariat) itself except perhaps as a mass of Calibans. But in Shakespeare’s day there were other classes, the new trading gentry for example, that had begun to force their way to the front and had yet to become, in their turn, obstacles to human progress. One must remember that, during the course of its struggle against the old, every new class tends to assimilate and identify itself with the entire oppressed section of the human race – to take its own victory as the total desideratum of the progress of civilisation.’ 5
The question that Kosambi had to face from others is: if Shakespeare’s plays reflect the class basis of the rising proto-bourgeoisie, why do they so often portray high nobility and rarely the bourgeoisie? Can we really ascribe any class basis to Shakespeare other than the feudal?

Kosambi began his reply with the following observation:
‘The question is of importance in learning to distinguish between form and content, between the superficial mould and what has actually been poured into it.’ 6 
He then expatiates on the matter in more detail:
‘The main assertion hardly needs proof. Shakespeare made a comfortable living (without court or baronial patronage) out of the theatre as a business, where a penny counted as such whether from the apprentice or the lord. The plays and their author grew in literary stature only with the growth of the new class. Though his principal characters are so often kings, princes and leisured aristocrats, the characterization is not done in the manner in which feudal nobility and royalty liked to visualize itself. This may be seen by contrast between the Elizabethan dramatists and the Chanson de Roland or Orlando Furioso. Honour and prowess were essential for a feudal noble while the villain who lacked these qualities had to be painted in dark monochrome, as for example “false Ganelon”.’ 7
 Kosambi then provides an instance from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
‘With Shakespeare, those parts (such as Hamlet) that call upon the finest histrionic ability are far removed from the older princely concept. Hamlet does not challenge to mortal combat the usurper king, murderer of his father and seducer of his mother. The prince of Denmark takes his revenge as carefully as the head of any successful trading house, with all the hesitations, doubts, need and planning for evidence that this new type of humanity would have shown.’ 8
Two other examples are provided by Richard III (Richard III) and Shylock (The Merchant of Venice):
‘Richard III is a villain, but of unfeudal complexity in his overriding ambition as no knight, true or false, of the Round Table could be. The tricky Jewish usurer Shylock is heroic in his desire for revenge against insults to his race, human in love for his daughter and pathetic in his sorrow. One could never put him into the Charlemagne cycle nor the Arthurian.’ 9
Do all heroes and villains in Shakespeare’s plays correspond to this kind of interpretation? Kosambi admits an exception for Othello (Othello) but rather summarily dismisses him in this fashion: ‘One hero of the plays who could fit into the uncomplicated antique mould is Othello; but his story is purely that of a jealous, easily duped Negro condottiere for the merchant republic of Venice.’ 10

What was the source of Shakespeare’s portrayal of his central characters in a mould quite unlike that of the past? Kosambi singles out Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince as the indirect source of influence:
‘We know today that the inspiration for these heroes who are above every traditional moral restrained comes indirectly from Machiavelli’s Principe (The Prince), with its new renaissance prince to whom murder, ambush, poison and betrayal were frankly normal, convenient tools for policy. That book supplied (in manuscript copies, even before its general publication) the theory upon which Thomas Cromwell and the officers of Henry VIII sequestrated the great ecclesiastical foundations in England, thereby putting a considerable amount of most useful capital into the pockets of the new and rising gentry. It was the same book which inspired Marlowe and is ultimately the ancestor of Nietzsche’s superman – originally the man who unhesitatingly tramples all social conventions into the mire of limitless personal ambition. Yet, at the bitter end, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus [in Dr. Faustus] paid for its wonderful fling with his precious soul like any upright bourgeois, were Goethe’s Faust [in Faust, part 2] cheats the devil’s painful contract.’ 11
In support of his contention Kosambi draws our attention to another significant event of those days, the discovery of the New World:
‘Finally when the most fantastic adventure was to be sought, Shakespeare did not send his people to quest after the Holy Grail or a-tilting just to break a lance, but cast them upon an unsuspected isle in the far seas [The Tempest ]. Such isles were then been discovered by intrepid voyagers who did not let the thrill of magnificent adventure into the vasty (sic) unknown interfere with their insatiable appetite and keen scent for profit and loot. Feudal prowess, on the other hand, was meant to impose respect for the upper class upon the common people; discovery or invention play (sic) no official part in it.’ 12
In order to set the action of his plays in such hitherto-unknown isles, it was not enough to have resort to bold imagination. The discovery of a new continent provided Shakespeare with this kind of setting. Here again Kosambi refers to history – not merely to geographical expeditions but to the appearance of a new class called the bourgeoisie which was forced to undertake such risky adventures into the open sea in search of gold:
‘To break with tradition, however, new discoveries in the Western hemisphere and the fabulous wealth of the Americas did not suffice by themselves; the rise of a new class was necessary.’ 13
If this could happen in England, why did it not happen in Spain, the pioneer of sea voyages in the fifteenth century? Secondly, does the whole of literature in Renaissance England exhibit the new spirit rather than the old? Kosambi’s response to these questions is as follows:
Spain retrogressed with the Inquisition. Its most appealing lay figure, Don Quixote, is after all a failure and misfit, precisely because he tried to experience the adventures then fashionable in feudal literature. The plays of Lope de Vega fail to move us in spite of their prolific elegance. In England itself, the older trend survives in Lyly’s Euphues which models the punctilious but empty superficialities of a courtier upon Castiglione’s Cortegiano [The Courtier].’ 14
Kosambi concludes his essay by contrasting Edmund Spenser with John Donne. In the last sentence he refers to Sanskrit literature as another case in point:
‘Spenser’s Faerie Queene with its unquestioned literary merit looks backward. The reason why John Donne is read rather than Spenser is precisely because his philosophy and his expression are both more acceptable to the bourgeoisie. In the same way, when the Sanskrit mahakavya [epic] tradition is analyzed, it shows devotion not to the gods and to religious life but to the feudal rulers whose life is lived in idealised form by Rama, or some other Puranic deity.’ 15
The last line comes rather abruptly but Kosambi had already written on the class basis of Sanskrit literature (more specially, the subhashita literature) in his Introduction to the Subhasitaratnakosa. He said:
‘[N]ew types of literature cannot be expected without the rise of new classes. The English reformation under Henry VIII shows the unmistakable beginning of such a new class, along with that of new literature. Even for the Elizabethan age, only the authors that look forward with the new gentry attain permanence, as, for example, dramatists like Marlowe and Shakespeare who did not scorn to display their wares to the London theatre audiences, or the keen-witted John Donne; the authors who look backwards to the court and its entourage wrote with no less skill, effort, mastery of words, but the Faerie Queene and Lyly’s Euphues seem comparatively insipid.’ 16
Kosambi then believes that only the coming of a new class can give rise to a new type of literature and, conversely, in spite of all talents, writers who remain tied to the old class fail to produce any work of lasting merit. It is to be noted that during the period of transition all authors do not tend to look forward; some continue to cling to old mores and stick to outworn ideas. Hence both kinds of authors co-exist for quite some time. Kosambi does not deny that poets like Spenser were highly gifted; they had ‘no less skill, effort, mastery of words’ than Shakespeare or Donne. But their adherence to the old, outgoing feudal mode of writing ultimately made them fall short of such poets who had adopted the outlook of the new class. Thus the writer vis-à-vis the class position he or she adopts during a period of transition is of seminal importance. Other things such as skill, effort, and mastery of words that constitute literary merit may be equal, but the outcome will not depend on these factors alone. The extra-literary issue, namely, the class position adopted by the writer, is the ultimate determinant.

By way of instance, Kosambi refers to the condition of Indian literature before and after the advent of the British rule:
‘In India, the new literature had to await the passage of centuries, till the great social novels in Bengal with Bankim Chandra Chatterji, matched by those of Rabindranath Tagore whose incomparable poetry speaks of completely new social aspirations. The social drama in Marathi hardly antedates the First World War. I am not qualified to speak in detail of contemporary Indian literature, but it will be admitted that these vigorous manifestation had been preceded by centuries of dreary classical imitation, even in the vernaculars. To those who could write, the ten-headed Ravana had remained more real than their living human neighbors, the woes of the Pandavas indistinguishable from their own.’ 17
Instead of resorting to the class question, could one not explain this stagnancy by other factors, such as foreign aggression and occupation? Kosambi makes short shrift of the suggestion:
‘Foreign conquest explains nothing, for where is the corresponding influence of Persian, though that had become a court language all over the country, to be cultivated by learned Hindus. The Fisana Ajayab and Bagh-o-Bahar might as well have been written at the time of the Arabian Nights.’ 18
How could the British rule make such a radical difference which the Mughal rule could not? Kosambi’s answer is as follows:
‘The difference is that the British introduced a fundamentally new, advanced mode of life, the bourgeois, as against Muslim feudalism which had meant a comparatively trifling readjustment of the way in which people lived. With Ghalib come new problems and new writing. The verse of Akbar Allahabadi shows what life nationalism could infuse; Mohammed Iqbal’s great days gave us an Urdu poem that became a national song, his words Hindostan hamara hai stirring every person who heard them – except the British’ 19
The new Indian literature that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, was no less class-oriented than before. Kosambi points out:
‘Yet this is unmistakably class literature. Munshi Premchand has many admirers, but no worthy successor, though the modern Urdu and Hindi short story begins with him. Iqbal’s later years showed higher Persianization, greater introspective detachment from the problems of the country, and a British knighthood! Competent writers increase, but the framework is now set, foreign models cheap and easy to imitate, profoundly original writing unnecessary as well as uneconomical, “progressive” writing no less imitative, though more dangerous and liable to be suppressed by police action.’ 20
Kosambi continues in this vein and reflects on the modern literary development in the west. But we have quoted enough to show that Kosambi takes his stand on Marx’s formulation concerning the relationship between the base and the superstructure. In his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). Marx wrote:
‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turned into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner of later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.’ 21
Kosambi creatively applies this general formula to interpret the radical changes both in form and content in Indian literature in the new bourgeois era and, as a parallel case, cites the case of English literature after the advent of capitalism. He does not lay the responsibility for the dreary monotony of premodern Indian literature at the door of individual authors, nor does he deny their literary merit. He blames the socioeconomic milieu that produced them. He demonstrates why new forms such as social novels could not arise in the old mould – not because some author or authors suddenly wished to opt for a new form of writing but because a radical change in the class relations had brought forward the replacement of old genres by the new. More perceptibly he points out that in case of Elizabethan literature, even though the characters appear to bear the stamp of old feudal nobility, their attitudes have undergone a sea change, as in the case of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. Thus mere appearance is not enough; one must go beyond appearance and look at the essence.

It should be emphasized at this point that what Kosambi succeeds in doing is to contribute only to the sociology of literature; his judgment in no way affects the aesthetic aspect of the works of the authors he mentions. His appreciation for poets, dramatists and story-tellers from Asvaghosha, Sudraka, Kalidasa and Dandin down to Jayadeva is well-attested. 22 While speaking of the beauty of the jativrajya verses depicting vignettes of everyday life of the people he notices perspicaciously: ‘These are quite exceptional topics for Sanskrit poetry, which only too often shows the unhappy crash resulting from an attempt at far higher flight.’ 23 He also makes another crucial observation in relation to the development of literature as a whole:
‘That society has progressed by the development of successive classes to positions of dominance implies that the progressive writer is oriented towards the needs of some rising class; his greatness derives from the inevitable tendency of the class to look upon the interest of all humanity as its own. It is a corollary that the great writers come far oftener at the beginning of their period than at any later stage; they are the ones whose appeal outlasts their times and societies. This is why we do not dismiss great writing because it is class literature. When the class in question has gained power, there follows a neat inversion whereby its own special interests are proclaimed to be those of all humanity. Then writers set themselves in a far narrower mold.’ 24
Kosambi sums up his evaluation of Sanskrit poetry, particularly of the authors of epigrams, in the following way:
‘The poetry strives to be and is, at best, exquisite rather than great. Yet though the voice be thin, it is clear. The field might be limited as to objectives, vision, or endeavor, but excess is rare. The poets speak across the centuries in refined musical tones bearing a soft but indelible charm, visualizing an elegant life. The dominant ideal, frankly expressed, is tasteful though not placid lovemaking in luxury – without vice, greed, brutal lust after blood, bourgeois concentration upon money-breeding profit.  It is only fitting that their names and verses should not be altogether forgotten.’ 25
So Kosambi finds at least one redeeming feature in classical Sanskrit poetry: in spite of all its limitations it is untainted by the despicable traits of the capitalist society!

Kosambi had an all-inclusive taste in literature, unaffected by class considerations; he practised what he preached. Indeed he did ‘not dismiss great writing because it is class literature.’ This is proved by his choice of what he considered to be ‘great writing’: the Buddhist Pali Dhammapada, the fourteenth-century Italian classic, Dante’s Divine Comedy and the seventeenth-century English prose allegory, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.26 Kosambi does not allow his conviction in the class character of all hitherto existing written literature to interfere with his aesthetic appreciation. He keeps sociology of literature and literary judgment in two separate compartments. This distinguishes him from the horde of self-proclaimed ‘Marxists’ who approach literature as a mere mirror, without any inherent value of its own, and more often than not throw the baby with the bathwater. They forget (or perhaps are not aware of) Marx’s solemn warning: ‘If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically -cultivated person’ and ‘the most beautiful music has no sense for the unmusical ear.’ 27

It cannot be denied that artistically-uncultivated persons rather than the cultivated ones have long dominated the world of ‘Official Marxists’ (an omnibus term that Kosambi coined in 1957 to include ‘several factions of the [then undivided] CPI, the Congress Socialists, the Royists, and numerous left splinter groups’).28 Consistently and persistently the OM tended to equate literary criticism with sociology of literature. Yet Engels preferred to judge a work of art ‘both from the aesthetic and historical points of view’, a dual yardstick well worth keeping in mind for all times.29


Kosambi, it should be remembered, was a polyglot and a voracious reader of world literature. He was as much at home with Aeschylus and Kalidasa as with anonymous Old English poets, medieval Italian satirists, Renaissance dramatists and Villon, Goethe, Blake and Shelley.30 He could quite casually refer to the Wayland Smith Saga as well as the songs composed by Russian soldiers in honour of their general, Dovator.31 His views on literature thus are not those of a dilettante but of one who was as much accomplished in his own field, mathematics, as in history and literature.

What constitutes Kosambi’s contribution to the sociology of literature is that he was the first among the Marxists to apply the externalist approach (originally developed in the historiography of science, then extended to other, wider fields) to the study of literature.32 In this respect he was at one with John Bernal, Joseph Needham, Hyman Levy and Lancelot Hogben. They were inspired by the works of some Soviet historians of science and technology in the 1930s and consequently adopted the externalist approach in their studies in the history of science, both of the east and the west. As opposed to those historians who believe that individual genius alone is to be credited for all developments in literature (a view known as internalism), Kosambi worked out a scheme which, without discounting individual talent, placed literature in its proper historical perspective. The internalist approach can never account for the fact why Mukunda Chakravarti or Bharatachandra Ray in pre-modern Bengal, despite their talents, could not make any breakthrough in Bangla poetry either in form or in content and remained confined to the age-old tradition of the Mangalakavya. There can be no room for doubt about their worth. What held them back was the absence of a new class to which they could link themselves. Kosambi’s externalist approach emphasizes the fact that in the absence of a new class and new aspirations, the poets of the past could not but remain confined to the old groove. His analysis also explains the phenomenon called Iswarchandra Gupta more satisfactorily than any other. Since Gupta adhered to the old decaying class and its outworn ideas even in a transitional period when class relations were being radically transformed in the early nineteenth-century Bengal, he could not be a pioneer in the field of literature. His junior contemporaries, Michael Madhusudan Datta, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya and Dinabandhu Mitra, on the other hand, succeeded in bringing into operation both new forms and new contents.

Students of art and literature too have much to learn from Kosambi.

Notes and References

1 Kosambi, 1986, 9.
2 Kosambi, 1948, “Editor’s Preface”.
3 Kosambi, 1958, 45.
4 Kosambi and Gokhale, 1957, lvii.
5 Kosambi, 1957/1986, 89.
6 Kosambi, 1958, 45.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Kosambi, 1958, 45-46.
10 Kosambi, 1958, 46.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Kosambi, 1958, 46-47.
15 Kosambi, 1958, 47.
16 Kosambi and Gokhale, 1957, lviii.
17 Kosambi and Gokhale, 1957, lviii-lix.
18 Kosambi and Gokhale, 1957, lix.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Marx, 1970, 20-21.
22 For a detailed study see R. Bhattacharya, 2010, 21-38.
23 Kosambi and Gokhale, 1957, xlii.
24 Kosambi and Gokhale, 1957, lvii-lviii.
25 Kosambi and Gokhale, 1957, lxii. Elsewhere Kosambi has taken pride in ‘hav[ing] rescued over fifty poets [whose epigrams find place in the Subhasitaratnakosa] from the total oblivion to which lovers of Sanskrit had consigned them, not to speak of adding to our meagre knowledge of many others.’ 1986, 9.
26 Kosambi, 1975, 283.
27 Marx, 1961, 141 and 108.
28 Kosambi, 1986, 3.
29 Engels wrote this in a letter to Ferdinand Lassalle (May 18, 1859). Marx and Engels, 107.
30 Kosambi, 1986, 92; Kosambi and Gokhale, 1957, lx, xliv, lxii.
31 Kosambi and Gokhale, 1957, xlviii n.
32 For a brief account of externalism vis-à-vis internalism, see internet sources.

Works Cited

Bhattacharyya, Ramkrishna. ‘Marxism and Classical Sanskrit Literature: D. D. Kosambi’s Approach and Assessment’, Revista di Studi Sudasiatici, No. 4, 2010.
Kosambi, D. D. The Epigrams Attributed to Bhartrihari. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2000 (first published in 1948).
Kosambi, D. D. ‘European Feudal and Renaissance Literature’, New Age (monthly), 7: 10, October 1958.
Kosambi, D. D. Exasperating Essays: Exercises in the Dialectical Method. Pune: R. P. Nene, 1986 (first published in 1957).
Kosambi, D. D. An Introduction to the Study of Indian HistoryBombay: Popular Prakashan, 1975 (first published in 1956).
Kosambi, D. D. Science Society & Peace. Pune: Academy of Political and Social Studies, 1986.
Kosambi D. D. and V. V. Gokhale (eds.). The Subhasitaratnakosa Compiled by VidyakaraCambridgeMass.Harvard University Press, 1957.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961.
Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political EconomyMoscow: Progress Publishers, 1970.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. On Literature and Art. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976.

Internet Sources

[Acknowledgements: Amitava Bhattacharyya, Arun Ghosh (Bhowani Sen Pathagar), Subhasish Mukhopadhyay and Tarun Pyne]

This essay was first published in Frontier, 45:14-17, October 14-November 10, 2012, 36-41


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