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


Excellent article. It introduces an unknown aspect of his contribution ie. to literature or criticism of literature. Thanks for your valuable inputs

Friedrich Nietzsche once observed, that India and England represented
the two different poles of the gift of speculative thinking. India is
the richest in terms of speculative, or metaphysical thinking. What is
the world picture of this type of man? Here, in the beginning, we see
a kind of hidden history. The development of man's world consciousness
in union with the development of his self consciousness. The fact
that man can orient himself in the world, can learn more and more
about himself, and finally, in the end, can even come to himself;
that, is the real inner history of the development of mankind. This
very important and decisive historical development is what we are
analyzing and watching. It all starts with this first conception. Now
I have, of course, analyzed many myths (Babylonian and so on). I
have found finally that there exists one common denominator in Indian
myths. This common denominator is that man behaves, or thinks as if
his primary task is to relate everything to everything else. In a way
this task has already been accomplished. It is no longer a task,
because it has been done. It is there. Later, men will reduce it all
to a method, or give it an abstract formula. Mythical people never
give abstract formulas. In later India, as the myths develop, we will
see the beginning of abstract thinking, of philosophy and so on, but
it is all merely based on myths. They are never really broken with.
That's where this mythical illusion becomes so much of interest, to
all the future generations to come.
After Renaissance what we saw in the west was, all breaking away with
tradition, in every area where creativity could be traced. Breaking
away from tradition means to start from the fragment where one has to
draw that new line from the rough. India never seemed to have braved
that path which would have given perhaps modern philosophy a new life.
But no there were cowards and followers. Buddhism dared to deviate
from the Hindu mysticism , but we know how much it has become one of
the symbol from which it revolted.
I know of no other intellectual gamble going so wrong as to find
itself utterly bankrupt in ideas as India had.

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