July 2007 – June 2008 was celebrated as the birth centenary of Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi. DD was a multi-disciplinary scholar who made original contributions in the fields of mathematics, statistics, indology, ancient Indian history, Sanskrit literature, numismatics and archeology. Though he was a mathematician by training and profession he is best known for his contributions to Indology.
DD studied history as a product of the socio-economic and cultural influences of times past rather than merely looking at it as a chronological ordering of ‘events’. Although DD used Marxism as his basic historic framework he didn’t follow it blindly, or blandly. His disdain for the ‘official Marxists’ (OM) is well known. According to DD ‘Marxism is not a substitute for thinking but a tool for analysis’. DD’s scathing review of Dange’s (CPI general secretary) ‘painfully disappointing book’, India from Primitive Communism to Slavery, based on ‘facile pseudo Marxism’ shows his rejection of mechanical application of Marxism.
I will highlight a few of DD’s most though provoking contributions.
Indra and Vritra
DD argued that the tools of violence were curiously absent in the prosperous Indus Valley civilization. The weapons were flimsy and nothing like the sword was found. In the absence of police or an army the unequal distribution of surplus was maintained by deploying religion. According to DD the Mohenjodaro citadel was identical in its function to the Mesopotamian ziggurats while the great bath was a sacred bathing tank dedicated to a mother goddess. Consorting with the temple slaves may have been part of a fertility cult. The picture that emerges is of a fixed class of traders worshipping a feminine deity. The monopoly of the ruling class of traders was secured by the deployment of religion.
This static tradition was broken by the coming of the Aryans. The Rig Veda’s chief war-god is Indra who looted the stored treasures of the godless. DD believed that this was a reference to the Indus Valley people who were defeated by the invading Aryans. The Aryans also destroyed their agricultural system which was the basis of their food production which might explain why the cities went into decline soon after the Aryans arrived. The pre-Aryan system of agriculture depended on damming small rivers and flooding their banks so that silt was deposited which could be ploughed. The Rig Veda mentions that Indra freed the rivers from a demon called Vritra. DD interprets the term Vritra as ‘obstacle’ or ‘barrage’. The Rig Veda says that Vritra lay across slopes like a dark snake obstructing the flow of rivers. When he was struck by Indra’s thunderbolt the ground buckled and the stones rolled away, a good description of breaking up dams.
Flooding would have made the land too marshy for the Aryan’s cattle herds thus leading to conflict between the two groups.
Origin of Brahmins?
Related to this early encounter (whether invasion or not) between the Aryans and the Indus Valley people is DD’s hypothesis that Brahmins belonged to the non-Aryan culture and were probably drawn from the priesthood of the Indus Valley people. To support this view DD drew upon the myth of Indra, the most important of the vedic gods who was later replaced by the trinity of Bramha-Vishnu-Maheshwar. DD attributes this to Indra’s appropriation and subsequent debasement by the Brahmin class who, after negotiating entry into the Aryan fold, would have had the galling task of worshiping and performing rituals to the very god who had destroyed their civilization. For instance, the character of Vritra changes over time and in the Mahabharata he appears as a noble king, magnanimous in defeat whereas the cult of Indra and the Vedic gods was ‘lost’.
Further, this explanation would account for the systematic early development of Sanskrit grammar as the product of studying a complicated foreign language. In the same way the development of religious philosophy in India at a very early age supports the hypothesis of violent assimilation as it speaks of an unhappy existence of the priestly class under the war-like ksatriyas.
The Dark Hero
Of the new gods and goddesses DD’s favourite was Krishna, whose mythos he found inconsistent. Krishna was at once a divine and lovable infant, lover of the milkmaids, promiscuous and yet ascetic renunciate, humble charioteer and omniscient god, man of peace and vilest of bullies in killing his uncle Kamsa and beheading Sishupala, fountainhead of fairness and deviousness personified. Krishna’s popularity had to be understood in terms of his having performed a complex set of socio-economic functions.
In the Rig Veda Krishna is mentioned as a demon. In fact the word Krishna means dark and is used as a generic term for the dark skinned natives that the vedic people encountered. Krishna’s rise to prominence begins with the legend where he holds up mount Govardhan to protect the cowherds who failed to perform sacrifices to Indra from his wrath. This could mark the transition from the vedic cult of sacrifice to a pastoral society. Whether Krishna was a single historical figure or a compendium of people from various points in a historical time line amalgamated into a single godlike figure, for DD Krishna performed a number of complex socio-historical roles.
DD observed that in the 4th century BCE the Greeks who invaded India found that the worship of an Indian demi-god, whom they equated with Herakles, was the main cult in the Punjab. DD concluded that this was Krishna. In Greek legend, Herakles is a machless athlete who is burnt black by exposure to the sun, who had killed the Hydra (a multiple headed snake like Kaliya), and violated or wedded many nymphs (like the Gopikas). Other commentators have noticed more similarities between the two cults: the demon-horse Keshin with Diomedes’ horse and the bull Arishta with Acheolus.
Further, Krishna’s killing of his uncle Kamsa and making love to his wife Kubja is the only instance of an oedipal struggle in the Sanskrit corpus.
Note: Most of the material here is from a series of articles that appeared in EPW commemorating DD’s birth centennial