24 January 2012

D D Kosambi: An Introduction to the Study of Indian History

D D Kosambi (1907–1966) did his BA at Harvard University. His "An Introduction to the Study of Indian History" (1957) was the first Marxist history of India. Sham Lal, then assistant editor of The Times of India, reviewed the book. Some excerpts from the review(1):

Vishnu and Shiva

"New god developed, better suited to the rustic mentality, and more paying to the Brahmins" he writes. "The most successful was Vishnu-Narayana-Krishna, who dominates the final rendition of the Mahabharata, which is closely related to the Manu Smriti." But as it happens, the Krishna of the Mahabharata is as far from being a rustic god as one can imagine. He is a warrior and thinker of the first order. Or does Kosambi think it is too homespun for those who live in big cities, or for the semi-literate Khrushchevs and Eisenhowers who run advanced industrial societies today?

"The ancestry of the new gods – Shiva and Vishnu – is no longer relevant" he says. The trouble starts when the two new worships come into violent conflict. "The reason was" snaps the professor's explanation "that Shiva had by then become the god the great barons, whereas the cowherd-boy Krishna remained associated with small producers." Was the South full of barons and the North of small producers? And did the later worship of Hari-Hara or Vishnu and Shiva as one god mean that the barons and small producers had become one class?

Bhagavad Gita

In regard to the syncretism achieved by the Bhagavad Gita over 2000 years ago, Kosambi says "it is still powerful in forming the consciousness of upper class Hindus by furnishing the ideological spheres where they fight out their conflicts." How does he hope to get away with so daft a generalisation? What about its part in forming the consciousness the lower classes? How has the superstructure(2) managed to remain intact over the centuries while the base(2) has changed out of recognition? Or does Kosambi mean to say that the base hasn't changed? Or that even if it has, the ideological needs of the upper classes have remained the same under pre-feudal as well as capitalist systems? In any case, how does the philosophical reconciliation of Yoga and Sankhya or Jnana and Bhakti help to provide weapons in the fight against new taxation and new bureaucratic controls?

Gupta Empire: Golden Age of India

Who spoke of the Golden Age of the Guptas? Not Kosambi. It is true, he tells us, that we have more gold coins from the Gupta period than from any other, but gold coins don't make an age golden. What about Kalidasa? We mumble. And Aryabhata and Varahamihira? And those who painted the murals in caves 1 and 2 and 16 and 17 at Ajanta, and carved the face of the Sarnath Buddha? Kosambi dismisses these questions with a shrug of the shoulder. "I know all that and much more" he says in effect. "But bejewelled Avalokiteshvaras and faintly smiling Buddhas don't make an age golden either. Look at the languishing cities, a more hidebound caste system, and the idiocy of life in the stagnating villages." We are not convinced. There must be something more to it than the idiocy of village life. How could so much idiocy sustain so much sophistication in both art and thought?


Kosambi dismisses the earlier split in Buddhism without much ado. It is true, as he says, that the Mahayana school "changed its language to Sanskrit" and the Mahayanists "drifted away further from the common people in their refinement of doctrine, researches into science, and higher abstract philosophy." But to concede this is not to say that the Hinayana school was more popular. Indeed the very raison d'etre of the Mahayana school was its greater appeal to the mass of the people. Its elaborate mythology was a concession to popular taste, and the thousands for whom the austere Hinayana doctrine had no attraction fell for the new creed.


While referring to the priestly myths, he says that "these fables and a certain rigid discipline were helpful to impose upon savages, to initiate a class society." These fables were a part either of the superstructure of a pre-class society or of a class society. If they were the product of a pre-class society, they could hardly be expected to serve the needs of a class society. If they were them selves the product of a class society, how could they help to initiate it?


He says that the Indus Valley cities rested upon trade, not fighting. This naturally raises the question: If the army or police was not very strong, what helped the trader to maintain his unequal sharing of profit? Kosambi thinks the answer is religion. But this is really no answer, for it evades the real question as to why religion became such a force here and not elsewhere. Kosambi says "dominance of religion would explain the changelessness of the culture over at least 500 and more, probably 1500 years." But the real question is: What explains the dominance of religion in the first place?

Culture and Philosophy

Kosambi ties himself in an impossible knot when he asserts that "the subtle mystic philosophies, tortuous religions, ornate literature, monuments teeming with intricate sculpture and delicate music of India all derive from the same historical process that produced the famished apathy of the villager, the senseless opportunism and termite greed of the cultured strata, sullen uncoordinated discontent among the workers, the general demoralisation, misery, squalor and degrading superstition. The one is the result of the other; the one is the expression of the other."

Yet, this is precisely what he fails to prove. How do we explain the sheer beauty and depth of the music? Is it the result of the "termite greed of the cultured strata"? Or is it the expression of the "sullen discontent" of the subalterns? Are the mystic philosophies the result of "greed", or do they try to do away with this evil – at least in those who really believe in them? It does not help to explain a part of the superstructure as a result of economic causes, and the rest as a reflection of economic conditions. It only makes the confusion worse confounded.

1. Indian Realities in Bits and Pieces (2003)
2. See Karl Marx's base-superstructure theory