D.D. Kosambi and the Ambiguous Transitions from Indology

C.N. Subramaniam

‘It seems to me that a great deal more in the way of field work is needed in every part of the country before we can begin to theorise. However imperfect, the beginning is made here.’

D.D. Kosambi in Myth And Reality.

This is the birth centenary of Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (1907-1966) one of the most influential intellectuals of the post-Independence era. Kosambi was a renascence intellectual with an abiding interest in science, mathematics, languages, literature, ethnology, history, and above all an abiding social and political concern. He was deeply influenced by Marxism and indeed he wore this influence on his sleeves which has led many to characterise him or even dismiss him as a ‘Marxist historian’. Kosambi, unlike the intellectuals of the preceding generation who had been influenced by Marxism was not a Party member and nor did he jump into mass activism. He was among the first radical intellectuals who pursued their aims exclusively through professional fora like research institutions, seminars and journals. He built an aloofness from the Party to which he ascribed a doctrinaire kind of Marxism which he termed OM or Official Marxism. Of course this did not prevent him from being invited by the Soviet and Chinese academies. Even though he was greatly moved by the two revolutions and impressed by the construction of socialism in those two countries he remained critical of many aspects. His marginal notes on books and journals (unfortunately badly kept in Jawaharlal Nehru University Library) indicate that he was critical of what he considered wasteful planning in the USSR and also of the espionage and intrusion of the state organs in the private lives of citizens. These however he considered to be aberrations necessitated by contemporary world situation.1

Indian historiography took time to recognise Kosambi’s contributions to the discipline, but today he is celebrated as the author of its most important ‘paradigm shift’.2 In this essay we will try not to restate what the eminent historians have said of his contributions but focus on a few issues that remain relatively ignored.

Indology as is widely known was a product of the colonial attempts at comprehending Indian reality and establishing a framework within which to understand and justify colonial intervention. It brought to the study of India critical tools being developed by European scholars to the study of Graeco-Roman and later on Near Eastern histories. These critical tools related particularly to the study of languages and texts, but were soon enough supplemented by cartography, archaeology and ethnography, which too were emerging as major methods of scientific enquiry driven by colonial requirements. This intervention therefore ushered in the era of modern scientific study of Indian history and society in India. A host of Indian scholars either directly trained or influenced by Europeans took to these methods and made meaningful contributions. However all this operated within frameworks dictated by colonial intervention. Too much has been written about this in recent years to warrant a restatement. These debates have taught us not to approach this problem simplistically. There were many and often opposing strands within the ‘orientalist’ or colonial scholarship, each influenced by this or that intellectual movement in Europe.

Despite advances in allied fields like archeology, Indology largely remained focused on the linguistic and textual studies of Sanskrit works, Persian court chronicles and classical literature of some regional languages like Tamil. It nevertheless claimed primacy in constructing a framework of Indian past over the other emerging disciplines. Indian past was seen as being fundamentally different from that of Europe. While European society was seen as going through a number of distinct historical phases with revolutionary epochs marking the transformation, India was seen as relatively changeless. This was implicitly attributed to the overwhelming religiosity or spiritual orientation of the Oriental people and the only change was seen in religious terms. Thus India was given an ancient Hindu period with a distinct Buddhist phase followed by a medieval Muslim phase to be followed by the blissful British and implicitly Christian phase.

Indology thus adopted a framework which led it to intensive investigation into the normative religious texts, cultural details, while some Indologists also departed to study folk religious and cultural traditions. Another major area of investigation related to land revenue arrangements and issues pertaining to rights over land and other resources. This led them to the study of legal and administrative texts and also field level investigations. They brought to these studies the rigorous use of methods developed by European scholarship. Despite its major success in resurrecting India’s past from oblivion, and in bringing old forgotten texts within the gamut of modern scholarship, Indology remained weak in its explanatory framework due to its inability to evolve a materialist understanding of Indian history. Some breakthrough was being achieved by scholars inspired by Marxism like W.C. Smith in the forties who studied the impact of Mughal land revenue burden, but these remained occasional flashes in the pan.

The nationalist historiography essentially responded to the colonial interpretation by inversing the premises but very well staying within the parameters established by the colonial scholars.

Indological studies resulted in a history of India which was divided broadly into three major religious phases within which royal dynasties of various regions competed and succeeded each other. All this on a foundation of unchanging society based in villages. In terms of methods and scholarship Indology firmly established textual criticism and study of texts as the foundation of Indian studies. For some reason the different streams of Indian studies like anthropology, archaeology or cartography did not influence each other beyond a minimal point.

To Kosambi goes the credit of breaking this mould set by Indology, and breaking it so decisively that it could not be used again. This he did by grounding himself in the best traditions of Indology itself, namely textual criticism. Kosambi though trained as a mathematician and statistician, began his explorations in Indology by critically editing some important Sanskrit texts, and doing it so masterfully as to set new standards in the field.3 He brought to the study of Indian texts his familiarity with the Graeco-Latin texts and the modern European studies in them. It appears that he was influenced by the studies of George Thomson on the history and texts of ancient Greece. At the same time he pointed out the limits of textual criticism as the texts and their language could not be understood unless one employed a sociological-historical approach. Indian linguistic studies which had so crucially contributed to the understanding of the diversity of the sub-continental societies had remained trapped in the crude sociological framework inherited from early linguists who took the Biblical myth of the dispersion of Noah’s children as their starting point. Kosambi opened up new vistas of materialistic explanations. ‘Language is surely a means of exchanging ideas, which cannot precede the exchange of surplus. This implies that any language common to more than a handful of people must have been preceded by commodity production and exchange on a corresponding scale. But it is known that in the most primitive societies, such exchange is not simple public barter …’4

Kosambi broke from the Indological tradition by posing questions outside the framework defined by colonial and counter-colonial nationalist scholarship. Indology in basing itself on the classical texts was necessarily confined to the cultural world of the elites. Kosambi was quick to point out that many of the details in such texts could not be understood without reference to the lives and labour of the working people. Whether it be the myth of Urvashi and Pruravas mentioned in the Rig Veda and turned into a classic play by Kalidasa or an obscure ritual performed by the hero of Sudraka’s Mrchchakatika at cross roads,5 Kosambi demonstrated that they could be understood only in terms of interaction between radically different societies and cultures in distant past whose memories still survive in the practices of the labouring masses of the subcontinent. Thus he made two decisive movements: to begin with he posed new questions which could only be answered by looking into the modes of production and the basic social formations; secondly he shifted the site of investigation from the texts to the living practices of the labouring people. In turning attention to productive labour and to folk cultural practices Kosambi doubly ensured that the labouring people occupied the centre stage of studies.

In decisively shifting the focus of Indian studies to matters concerning the modes of production, social formation, processes of social integration and evolution and a materialist explanation of culture Kosambi actually set the decolonisation agenda in Indian social sciences. It is this that the Indian Historians in recent years have celebrated as the ‘paradigm shift’. Similar break had been attempted by S.A. Dange and Soviet scholars like D.A. Suleikin, but Kosambi dismissed them as attempts at dogmatically applying Marxist formulae without basing themselves on the concrete conditions as revealed by the sources.6 His famous statement in this connection is worth quoting here: ‘Marxism is not a substitute for thinking, but a tool of analysis which must be used, with a certain minimum of skill and understanding, upon the proper material. Interlarding groundless conjectures with quotations from Engels does not suffice.’

He was also critical of the Soviet Indologists attempt at arriving at generalisations based on texts which could neither be dated nor located in any part of the country with any degree of firmness. Of course his main difference was over the attempt at characterising a period of Indian history as being based on slavery.

Kosambi’s break with the old Indology in this sense had a greater impact on future writing of history in India than Dange or Suleikin. Kosambi was able to critically sift the textual materials and chronologically arrange different layers in them before using them. More important he was able to combine this reading of the texts with the findings of archeology and other fields of enquiry amply supplemented by his own extensive field work and ethnological observations. In this he chanced upon a discovery – the fact that Indian history was constantly witnessing a transition from food-gathering to agricultural modes of life and from tribalism to caste-based village societies. This meant that people of diverse cultures and belief systems were constantly being integrated into a larger society and this left a deep imprint on the culture of the larger society which had embedded into it layers of social beliefs. (Of course this brought to fore the question as how this supply of ‘primitive’ societies remained inexhaustible, a question which Kosambi failed to address.) Kosambi believed that the integration of the varied communities within the larger society was accomplished relatively peacefully (violent integrations were not absent either) with the help of the caste system and development of a culture and religious ideology which accommodated the beliefs of the integrated communities. As Kosambi never tired of pointing out, these survived tenaciously even as the society changed and evolved into modern colonial and capitalist times.

The break that Kosambi made with Indology was thus a qualified one: he accepted many of its premises. For example he was critical of Soviet Historiography’s abandonment of the concept of Asiatic mode of production. This ambiguity in his approach has been pointed out by the editor of his papers, B.D. Chattopadhyaya. Kosambi seemed to believe that the caste-based village communities provided the basis of an unchanging social order which supported forms of despotism.

After clarifying that India never had a slave mode of production he argues that India had the endogamous caste system:

‘Caste is class at a primitive level of production, a religious method of forming social consciousness in such a manner that the primary producer is deprived of his surplus with the minimum coercion. This is done with the adoption of local usages into religion and ritual, being thus the negation of history by giving fictitious sanction ‘from times immemorial’ to any new development, the actual change being denied altogether. To this extent and at a low level of commodity production, it is clear that an Asiatic mode did exist, reaching over several stages; at least, the term is applicable to India, whatever may be the case elsewhere’7 (emphasis in original).

Kosambi was of the opinion that actually the pre-agricultural societies in India supported a greater per capita commodity production and the expansion of agriculture was accompanied on the one hand by a greater volume of commodity production but a decline in per capita commodity production.8 This decline in per capita commodity production was in some ways related to the emergence of village artisans bound to the service of the villagers by tradition and the caste system. This position was in many ways indebted to Marx’s concept of ‘self sufficient village communities based on unalterable division of labour’.

There is a degree of ambiguity in Kosambi’s position as he was at the same time arguing for a process of continuous change – with feudalism from above (emergence of layers of power under the king – tiering of the state) and feudalism from below (emergence of lordship over villages) and its breakdown under British rule. This in some ways contrasts with his implicit argument that the process of historical change at the level of mode of production ends with the formation of the village communities. The responsibility for this ambiguity or tension between two opposing lines of perception of Indian history perhaps lies not so much with Kosambi but the very nature of his subject. As we had pointed out in an earlier issue in this journal most creative Marxist historians of India have been troubled by the combination of apparent changelessness and dynamism in Indian history.

If professional historians have been enthusiastic about the paradigm shift initiated by Kosambi in the subject of history in India, they have been lukewarm in the reception of his other major contribution – the emphasis on generating historical data through field based study of living survivals of the past.9 In his preface to the second edition of his book remarking on the response to his book he writes, ‘The paramount importance of field work in the study of Indian history seems altogether to have escaped their (professional historians’) attention…. there is no substitute for work in the field for the restoration of pre-literate history. This extends to all historical periods for any country like India where written sources are so meager and defective while local variations are indescribably numerous.’10 Forty years after his death the story remains the same and it can no longer be attributed merely to newness of the idea. Historiography remains more than ever dependent upon texts as new archives are being opened up, a greater corpus of texts have been made available and new perspectives for the study of texts are being explored. As Kosambi would have pointed out, in a society where literacy was confined to the elites, this self inflicted myopia can only result in a lopsided vision.

Why the professional historians have refused to trudge the path trodden by Kosambi11 is a moot question. Elite preference for elite sources, the values attached to textual and manual work, methodological sterility for as Kosambi pointed out his field work required efforts to build new methodologies, all these may give partial explanations. Perhaps in some ways the weakness of the movements of the masses, which could have provided an impetus to writing of their histories using new kinds of sources may also explain this lacuna in historiography.


1 D.D. Kosambi, ‘On the Revolution in China’ in Exasperating Essays: Exercises in Dialectical Method, 1957, Bombay, reprinted in 1986 pp. 32-43.

2. Romila Thapar, ‘Contributions of D.D. Kosambi to Indology’ in Cultural Pasts, OUP, New Delhi, 2000, pp. 52-73. For a more comprehensive review of Kosambi’s historical works see the introduction to his collected essays by B.D. Chattopadhyaya. Combined Methods in Indology and Other Writings D.D. Kosambi: compiled edited and introduced by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya, OUP, New Delhi, 2002 (hereafter, Combined Methods). For some early tributes see R.S. Sharma, Indian Society: Historical Probings, In Memory of D.D. Kosambi, PPH New Delhi, 1974.

3. He published four editions of Bhartirharis Subahshitas, Shatakas etc. between 1946 and 1957. He was already under the influence of Marxism and dedicated one of these to Marx, Engels and Lenin – nutanamanava smajasya purascharananam marx engels Lenin namdheyanam tejasvinam mahamanavanam punitasmaranartham in Bhrtrhari, 1948.

4. Kosambi, Combined Methods, p. 24.

5. Kosambi, Myth and Reality, Bombay, 1962.

6. Combined Methods, pp. 49-56 and 784-789.

7. Kosambi, Combined Methods, p. 59.

8. Kosambi, An Introduction to the Study of Indian History, Bombay, 1975, p. 336-7.

9. For example, Romila Thapar in her essay on Kosambi, is virtually silent on this point. BD Chattopadhyaya however, discusses this issue in greater detail in his introductory essay.

10. Kosambi, Introduction, p. ix-x. Unfortunately this preface is not dated, and seems to have been published posthumously in 1975.

11. There are some notable exceptions like Gunther Sontheimer who have carried on the tradition of Kosambi.

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