Kosambi and the discourse of civilization

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya

The polymath’s most enduring and wide-ranging contribution to the interpretation of Indian history was his approach to the idea of India as a civilization.

D.D. Kosambi (1907-1966) was a polymath who made original contributions in diverse areas including pure mathematics, quantitative numismatics, Sanskrit studies, and ancient Indian history. But he is remembered today chiefly for his work as a historian. That is not without reason. That is where he made an enduring impact even if some details of his findings and observations may be open to question in the light of later research. If we try to situate his contribution to the interpretation of history, the most enduring and wide-ranging in significance appears to be his approach to the idea of India as a civilization.

When he wrote in 1965 his last major work, The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India, he gave a central place to the notion of civilization. He began with the question: what unifies Indian civilization amidst cultural diversities within? He goes on to ask: what explains “the continuity we find in India over the last three thousand years”? He underlines the importance of the “material foundation for Indian culture and civilization” and, in the concluding chapter, explores the reason why, in his judgment, the ancient civilization was destined to stagnate.

In posing such wide-ranging questions about the civilization in India, Kosambi differed from the general run of academic historians of his times for they rarely engaged in the discourse of civilizations. He was swimming against the current. The specialised and fragmented view in the academic historians’ professional writings did not usually add up to that vision of totality that the notion of civilization demands. The fact that Kosambi was never given his due by them in his lifetime can be, arguably, ascribed to their disdain for a non-professional who was not only an avowed Marxist, but also given to talking about a dubious entity called ‘civilization.’

On the other hand, when Kosambi talked about the Indian civilization, he entered a discourse of civilization that was developed by some of the most creative minds of twentieth century India, including Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, and Jawaharlal Nehru. The questions that engaged such minds were roughly the same as those Kosambi grappled with. What kept India together as a civilization through the millennia? Was it a Hindu civilization, as some would have us believe? Is it possible to discern a continuity in this civilization from the prehistoric to colonial times? How does a notion of an ‘Indian civilization’ accommodate the immense diversities in the constituent communities and cultures? Is it necessary, even if it were possible, to talk of an ‘Indian civilization’? How did Kosambi’s intervention relate with the nationalist discourse of civilization?

It is interesting to recall that about two years after the birth of Kosambi (July 31, 1907), M. K. Gandhi, not yet the Mahatma, published his very first political tract, Hind Swaraj (1909). It was an unusual political tract in that it was mainly about India’s civilization. “It is my deliberate opinion that India is being ground down not under the English heels, but under that of modern civilization” (chapter VII). In a chapter entitled ‘What is civilization’ Gandhi poses a choice between what he considered to be true Indian civilization and the ‘materialistic’ civilization of Europe, for that choice would determine the outcome of the clash between the two. Gandhi virtually subordinates the political agenda before India to the cultural agenda and goes so far as to say our goal was not the expulsion of the English: “We can accommodate them. Only there is no room for their civilization” (chapter XIV).

Gandhi’s denunciation of Europe and idealisation of the non-materialistic tradition in India was, of course, distant from Kosambi’s emphasis on the material basis of India’s attainment of a high level of civilization. On the other hand, consider the fact that throughout the text of Hind Swaraj Gandhi never talks of a Hindu civilization. He talks of an Indian civilization. And the seminal notion of syncretism as the key to comprehending Indian civilization is already there in this very first piece of political statement by Mahatma Gandhi. He speaks of India’s “faculty of assimilation.”

Between this approach and Kosambi’s there are close parallels. Kosambi begins his treatise on The Culture and Civilization of Ancient India with the statement that India displays “diversity and unity at the same time.” And he deploys the notion of syncretism in Indian civilization in explicating the absorption of peripheral tribal groups into the mainstream, “their merger into general agrarian society,” in terms of the accommodation of their religious belief systems within the Brahmanic scheme of things. He saw a “process of syncretism” in the absorption of “primitive deities,” a “mechanism of acculturation, a clear give and take,” which allowed “Indian society to be formed out of many diverse and even discordant elements” (chapter 7).

The idea of a syncretism in the construal of India’s civilizational unity was of crucial importance in the nationalist discourse. The absence of the European concept of nationhood in the pre-colonial past, despite the substantial evidence of the existence of an indigenous notion of patriotism at the regional and sometimes also at the supra-regional level, was undeniable. The intellectual response to this perception was the idea of India’s civilizational unity, cutting across and over-riding all diversities.

Shortly before Gandhi wrote famously of India as a civilization, Rabindranath Tagore articulated the idea of syncretism in some less-known essays. “We can see that the aim of Bharatavarsha has always been to establish unity amidst differences, to bring diverse paths to a convergence, and to internalize within her soul the unity within severalty, that is to say to comprehend the inner unity of externally perceptible differences — without eliminating the uniqueness of each element.” Tagore wrote thus and much more in that vein in 1902 in an essay, ‘History of Bharatvarsha,’ which was reproduced many times during the Swadeshi agitation in Bengal from 1905. More prominent in the public mind were of course the pronouncements of the nationalist leadership.

While Kosambi shared this perception, while he underlined the unity within apparent diversity, he went on to make a point that was not often made in the nationalist discourse of civilization. “The modern Indian village gives an unspeakable impression of the grimmest poverty and helplessness,” he writes in 1965 in the book cited earlier (chapter 1). “The surplus taken away from people who live in such misery and degradation nevertheless provided and still provides the material foundation for Indian culture and civilization.” This evaluation was a radical departure from the oft-heard paeans of praise of the civilization.

Another new note struck by Kosambi was that stability of a civilizational unity was secured at the cost of stagnation and subjection to a regime of superstition and primitiveness. In this regard he follows Marx’s tendency of thought and at one point he even quoted Marx on ‘the idiocy’ of rural existence. Kosambi argues that syncretism allowed the admission of many a “primitive local god or goddess” and religious beliefs into the ancient Brahmanic system, along with the merger of different social groups with their own belief-systems and cultures. But he adds: “Brahmanism thus gave some unity to what would have been social fragments without a common bond. The process was of crucial importance in the history of India, first in developing the country from tribe to society and then holding it back, bogged down in the filthy swamp of superstition.”

His notion of the ‘primitive’ and the implicit idea of progression to ‘higher’ stages may be open to question today. In fact that approach is not so pronounced in his earlier essays on this theme, for example Myth and Reality (1962). However, the point for the present is that, contrary to the usual nationalist position with regard to the virtues of syncretism, he was critical of the consequences in terms of the obscurantism that enveloped the Indian mind.

The most famous exposition of the theme of the unifying Indian civilization in Kosambi’s lifetime was Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India (1946). Nehru commences with the question, “what is this India, apart from her physical and geographical aspects?” (p.36) He goes on to hazard a bold generalisation: in India’s past “disruptive tendencies gave rise immediately to attempts to find a synthesis. Some kind of a dream of unity has occupied the mind of India since the dawn of civilization.” He returns to this theme through the entire work time and again. He ends the book with reflections on the same question: India is “a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads…She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive” (p. 378).

The idea that India was held together by bonds of unity rooted in the past of Indian civilization was not of course new. What was new was its assertion at a time when that unity was threatened by a communal divide that was soon to bring about the Partition of 1947. In the face of the threat, Nehru speaks of a dream of Indian unity. In early 20th century that unity appeared as an undeniable reality to Gandhi or Tagore; to Nehru in 1946 it was a dream, although it was in some ways also a reality. To Kosambi that unity possibly appeared as an enduring fact of history.

But when Kosambi reviewed this book, in Science and Society, he did not comment upon this aspect of it. Actually he found Nehru to be a poor historian so far as ancient India was concerned; he added however that he was “an admirer of the author” and he could see how difficult it was for Nehru, sitting in jail, to get the sources he needed. His critique was directed mainly against Nehru’s failure to attempt class analysis in understanding modern developments in India (Exasperating Essays, 1957). In this regard Kosambi was consistent in that he made class analysis the basis of his analysis of changes and continuities in Indian civilization when he turned to that theme in 1965.

That raises finally another question. What explanatory weight is to be assigned to Kosambi’s Marxian method in our effort to understand and contextualise his approach to the civilizational discourse? In a letter to his old friend Daniel Ingalls, an Indologist at Harvard, he wrote in 1953: “The world is divided into three groups: (1) swearing by Marxism, (2) swearing at Marxism, (3) indifferent, i.e. just swearing…I belong to (1), you and your colleagues to (2).” Perhaps Kosambi’s adherence to Marxism was to its use as a method, not as a source on par with empirical sources of knowledge.

He allowed that in some respects there was a poor fit between Indian history and the classical Marxian scheme. But he consistently used Marx’s method as a tool. Hence his scorn for ‘theological’ tendencies in Marxism. In his Introduction to Exasperating Essays he writes: “Indian Official Marxists hereafter called OM” were often displeased with him but he could not but protest their “theological emphasis on the inviolable sanctity of the current party line, or irrelevant quotations from the classics.” In using Marxist method in his own lights, in his effort to construe the civilization in India, in the convergences and divergences between his approach and the nationalist discourse of civilization, D.D. Kosambi has left much for us to try and understand and evaluate.

    (Dr. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya is Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research and a former Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University. This article is based on his Kosambi Birth Centenary Address at the University of Mumbai.)

Courtesy: The Hindu


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