Making of Kosambi – T S Venugopal




Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi  was born on 31 July 1907. His father Dharmanand Kosambi was a reputed Buddhist scholar. D D Kosambi had his initial schooling in Pune. He started his career in mathematics, but went on learning new areas like Statistics, Numismatics, Indology, History and Archaeology as and when he came across new problems. His eagerness to apply Mathematics lead him to study Statistics. To learn Statistics he took a “fruitful problem”, study of coins and made exhaustive study of punch marked coins. His study rather influenced the very field of Numismatics. It gave new dimension to the study of numismatics.  To a question which cropped up during the study of coins, “Who issued these coins?” lead him to study classical Sanskrit literature on his own. As usual to acquaint himself with the knowledge of Sanskrit he involved in the study of editing of Sanskrit texts on his own. He acquired mastery in Sanskrit language, which is evident in his study of Amarakosha.  His work in critical editing of some Sanskrit texts set a new standard in critical edition. This process lead him to give a new method to study of history-the combined method of study of history. He has gave a new dimension to the very concept of historical materialism.

The following is a brief study of his journey which started with mathematics and ended with the study of History.


Career in Mathematics


He went to study Mathematics at Harvard University.  He studied under the famous mathematician G.D. Birkhoff.  Birkhoff, who spotted Kosambi’s talent advised Kosambi to focus on Mathematics.  For Kosambi any specialization was a disguised form of semi-literacy.  He believed in the ‘Renaissance type of versatility: wide range of knowledge without sacrificing depth’.  Hence he studied 18 courses in a year. It did not prevent him from excelling in his studies. He did not get a fellowship. His insistence on non-specialisation cost him the fellowship.


After returning to India in 1929 he joined the Benares Hindu University. Atmosphere in the university was not conducive to research. So he joined Aligarh Muslim University. André Weil was heading the Department of Mathematics, but Weil left the university notwithstanding the politics in the university. He joined Fergusson College as professor of Mathematics. The fourteen years he spent was vanavasa – hard time – for him.  In 1946 he was offered the Chair of Mathematics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bombay, a position that he held till 1962. There he was able to interact with scholars of equal calibre from all over the world. His insistence on ethical and relevant research led to his exit from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research where, the diversity of his interests was portrayed negatively, though he continued his mathematical research till the end of his life. His work especially on Path Geometry is an important contribution in the field of mathematics. His works never got the importance they deserved. “Kosambi was, by all accounts, an extremely erudite and creative person, and such people are needed for research. The systematic elimination of knowledgeable and creative persons has practically characterized science management in post-independence India –Kosambi was repeatedly eliminated by the system.” There are many reasons for this. one may be his views on research and his outspokenness.


Research According to Kosambi


“By research is not meant the writing of a few papers, sending favoured delegates to international conferences and pocketing of considerable research grants by those who could persuade complaisant politicians to sanction crores of the taxpayers’ money. Our research has to be translated into use.”  Throughout Kosambi, was a symbol of dissent.


Statistics in the Study of Numismatics.


Kosambi was by profession. His earlier papers were on various aspects of Mathematics. As a mathematician Kosambi applied his abstract mathematical methods to the study of various branches of social sciences. He has used his knowledge of Mathematics to the study of numismatics.  Kosambi took to the study of coins with the dual intention of “to teach myself statistics” and secondly because a quantitative analysis of early punch marked coins will be “a more fruitful problem”


“A more fruitful problem was the statistical study of punch-marked coins. It turned out that the apparently crude, bits of ‘punch-marked’ silver were coins carefully weighed as modern machine-minted rupees. The effect of circulation on any metal currency is obviously to decrease the average weight in proportion to the time and to increase the variation in weight. This is the mark that any society leaves upon its coinage, just by use” [Kosambi 1986].


His works on numismatics were published between 1940 and 1952. He selected only punch marked coins for his study. He selected 1059 coins and grouped them on the basis of shapes- square shaped and round shaped. And again divided them into 10 groups based on the marks on the reverse side of the coin.


On the basis of the study of these coins his conclusion was, “There is regular drop in average weight with the increase in the number of marks” His tentative hypothesis was, “The only hypothesis that can account for our results is that the reverse marks are checking marks stamped on by contemporary regulations or controllers of currency, at regular intervals.”  He maintained that the coins were originally issued by the traders and later ratified by the rulers.  He also maintained that the debasement of the coins dated to the late period of Mauryan rule.   He concluded that the decline of the Mauryan Empire was due to a fiscal crisis. This gave a new dimension to study of reasons for the decline of kingdoms, which is different from usual “foreign invasion theory”.  Whatever be the validity of the findings of the Kosambi, he pointed out that we need to think differently and find new ways to look at the material from the past. In the process, sometimes we may have to turn our perspective upside down.


Into the Indology


In his intellectual autobiographical essay ‘Steps in Science’, Kosambi gives an account of how he came to the study of Indology. During his study of numismatics he was trying to find out, who issued these coins and who used them. Then he noticed that ‘the written sources displayed a shocking discordance. The Puranas, Buddhist and Jain records often gave different names to the same king.  As a result he decided to go into the records himself, but “study of the records meant some mastery in Sanskrit, of which I had absorbed a little through the pores without regular study. Other preoccupations made it impossible to spend as much time as the average student on the classical idiom.  The same method was adopted for the study of Sanskrit, that is, to take up a specific work, of which the simplest was Bhartruhari’s epigrams (Subhashitas). The supposed philosophy of Bhartruhari, as glorified by the commentators, was at variance with his poetry of frustration and escape. By pointing this out in an essay, which made every god-fearing Sanskrit scholar, who read it, to shudder.  Kosambi says, “I had fallen into Indology, as it were, through the roof.”


Despite his modest statement, his proficiency in Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit is widely acclaimed. His association with his father and V S Sukthankar had made him acquire mastery over Sanskrit.  It ranged from his interest in searching the manuscripts to their editing and publication. His critical edition of Bhartruhari’s Shatakatraya, Chintamanisharanika of Dashabala, Vidyakara’s Subhashitaratnakosha, as well as his writings on the Parvasamgraha of the Mahabharata (1946) and the text of the Arthashastra (1958) are testimony to Kosambi’s mastery over Sanskrit. His translation (jointly done with J.L. Masson) of Bhasa’s drama Avimaraka (1970) also bears witness to this claim.


Kosambi makes the most provocative statement on Sanskrit language and Sanskrit literature. He says that ‘Most of the surviving Sanskrit literature has been the creation of Brahmins or they are in their possession’.  He argues that it did not produce ‘books of any use to the blacksmith, potter, carpenter, weaver, ploughman. . . .”


Here he strikes a comparison between Sanskrit and Arabic works. Arabic works on medicine, Geography, Mathematics, Astronomy, practical sciences were precise enough to be used in their day from Oxford to Malaya. Sheldon Pollock after expressing his reservations and criticism about Kosambi’s findings, makes the following statement, “Fifty years after Kosambi wrote this, we have still a long way to go in developing an even remotely adequate social history of Sanskrit literary culture.”  It is true that Kosambi’s findings are not the final words, but definitely one needs to engage with his study. It is high time that we should relook into the study made by D.D. Kosambi.


Kosambi’s combined methods in history


D.D Kosambi is not a professional historian in the traditional sense. But his works on history has left an indelible impact on the methodology of historical reconstruction. He has given a new perspective to approaching history. The very method of looking history has changed after Kosambi took to it. Though he is a part of the Marxist tradition, he rejected the mechanical application of Historical materialism, which was followed by other Marxists like S. A. Dange and others.  His approach has given a new perspective to the understanding of Indian history both in content and methodology.  It is noteworthy that Kosambi applied the methodologies of statistics, mathematics, numismatics, linguistics, anthropology, genetics, archaeology, etc. nearly half a century ago,



Kosambi writes,


I have adopted a certain method of historical analysis only because it works. We have not the dates and episodes which fill out European history. No chronicles, family records, church annals are to be found – a symptom of local rustic production, the idiocy of village life as lived from year to year, absence of the trader’s influence. We have therefore to abandon the scissors-and-paste method. Our history has to be written without solid documentation of episodes, in large outline. At the same time treating history as a science, regarding it not as successive waves of emergency or acts of god but the combined effect of human effort enables one to realize that the future is not a blank, that a correct analysis of present factors tells us what is to come, and may enable us to make history. (Kosambi 1954)




He was aware of the usefulness of archaeology for the reconstruction of the Indian past and did much valuable archaeological work himself. He discovered megaliths in the Poona district, collected huge amounts of microliths and on the basis of his finds, tried to explain the  movements of ancient peoples and establish prehistoric links between the Deccan and central India. His field work also led to the discovery of ancient trade routes, Buddhist caves at Kuda, and some ancient inscriptions, which he published along with his own comments. Kosambi undertook archaeological explorations more than half a century ago and, not surprisingly, some of his conclusions appear dated, flawed and unacceptable now.

But the archaeological method of Kosambi was vastly enriched by ethnographic material he has used. This was neglected all these days. The neglect of ethnographic material has lead to, as Kosambi tells “ a ridiculous distortion of Indian history and to a misunderstanding

of Indian culture, not compensated by subtle theology or the boasts of having risen above crass materialism.”

His archaeology, despite its limitations, may be the precursor of what is nowadays fashionably called ethno-archaeology just as his historical work introduced into Indian historiography an interdisciplinary approach, which is nowadays more often talked about than practised.



His contribution to study of historical materialism


As has been frequently stated in this article he has expanded all the area he has studied. This is also true of his own ideology that is Marxism. He has expanded the concept of historical materialism.

Marxism for Kosambi is not a ‘closed system’. His Marxism was not a ‘formed’ theoretical system into which human history had to be fitted. It necessarily had to be open ended. Hence he was critical of the works of  S.A. Dange and other ‘official marxists’. As he put it, ‘to remain a living discipline, Marxism must continue to work with newer discoveries in science (including archaeology), and must yield new valid results in history. Its importance lies not only in the interpretation of the past but as guide to future action.


Prabhath Patnaik points out two such aspects of his work, namely his account of the ‘Magadhan State’ and his theory of ‘acculturation.’ Usually in Marxist analysis, the State, which is an instrument about establishing the sway of a new mode of production in which it is the dominant class. The Magadhan State according to Kosambi ‘was not characteristic of a society in which  some new class had already come into possession of real power before taking over the state mechanism; it was a State in which the king and his subordinate State functionaries themselves could be said to have constituted the ruling class.


In Kosambi’s words, the Kautilyan state appears so fantastic today because it was the main land clearing agency, by far the greatest landowner, the principal owner of heavy industry, and even the greatest producer of commodities. The ruling class was, if not created virtually by and for the State, at least greatly augmented as part of the administration: the higher and lower bureaucracies, the enormous standing army of half a million men (by 300 BC) with its officers of all castes and diverse origins; as important as either, a second but hidden army of spies and secret agents – these were the main supports of the new state.


Second is the concept of reciprocal acculturation. Expanding agrarian class society also absorbed into its fold the tribes and guild castes that were functioning outside of it. It did so through the penetration of Brahmanas into their midst in order to assimilate them through a process of ‘reciprocal acculturation’.


The tribal deities were accommodated into the Brahmanical pantheon, so that the tribes could worship the brahmanical gods together with their own deities, even as the rest of society also worshipped these transformed tribal deities. Matriarchal groups worshipping some mother goddess were assimilated through the ‘marriage’ of the mother goddess with some male god of the Brahmanical pantheon, such as Durga-Parvati (and a number of local variants) being made the wife of Shiva, and Lakshmi that of Vishnu. Together with this there came new myths, new rituals and new places of pilgrimage.  Kosambi expresses the process as follows: “The mechanism of assimilation is particularly interesting. Not only Krishna, but the Buddha himself and some totemic deities including the primeval Fish, Tortoise and Boar were made into incarnations of Vishnu-Narayana. The monkey faced Hanuman . . . with an independent cult of his own, becomes the faithful companion-servant of Rama, another incarnation of Vishnu. Vishnu-Narayana uses the great earth-bearing Cobra as his canopied bed to sleep upon the waters; at the same time the same cobra is Siva’s garland and a weapon of Ganesha. The elephant-headed Ganesha is son to Siva, or rather of Siva’s wife. . . . This conglomeration goes on for ever, while all the tales put together form a senseless, inconsistent, chaotic mass. The importance of the process, however, must not be underestimated. The worship of these newly absorbed primitive deities was part of the mechanism of acculturation, a clear give-and-take. What acculturation did was to assimilate tribes into the developing agrarian society without any explicit use of violence.


Prabhat Patnaik sums of the process of subjugation or rather process of ‘becoming.’ “In short, what we have here is not a simple subjugation of tribes by the non-tribal society, but the simultaneous existence of several processes of ‘becoming’: the ‘becoming’ of tribal society into class society; the ‘becoming’ of tribal society into an assimilated segment of a broader agrarian society; the ‘becoming’ of Brahmanical ideology into a dominant force in the tribal society; the ‘becoming’ of the Brahmanical ideology into a dominant force in the broader society by virtue of this fact; and so on. Such a rich and complex process must be historically quite unique; and so is Kosambi’s theorizing of it within the literature on historical materialism.


Concepts like the ‘Magadhan State’ and ‘acculturation’ contain deep insights into the process of Indian history and constitute major building blocks for constructing its totality. In addition however they push the frontiers of historical materialism outward

like any other beginner.



  1. D. Kosambi, “Combined Methods in Indology”
  2. Many Careers of D.D. Kosambi Critical Essays, Ed by D.N. Jha, Left World, 2011
  3. D. Kosambi, “History and Society The Problems of Interpretations”
  1. D D Kosambi, Indian Numismatics , Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 1981
  2.  An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (Popular Book Depot, Bombay), 1956
  3. Exasperating Essays: Exercise in the Dialectical Method (People’s Book House, Poona), 1957
  4. Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture (Popular Prakashail, Bombay), 1962
  5. The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London), 1965
  6. Indian Numismatics (Orient Blackswan, New Delhi), 1981


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