Last Polymath : D D Kosambi

“Young man, I find that people who know nothing about Kosambi want to talk about him! Let me tell you this: he was one of the finest intellects to come out of your country”.

                                                                                              — M S Raghunathan,
                                                          Current Science, 85(4) (2003), 526-36 (531). 

“The intellectual potentialities of the Indian nation are unlimited and not many years would perhaps be needed before India can take a worthy place in world mathematics.

                                                                               – Andre Weil

Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi belonged to rarest breed of Indian scholars – a polymath. Trained as a mathematician, he did seminal work in history of India. ‘D. D. Koshambi along with R. K. Sharma and Daniel Thorner’, says Irfan habib, ‘brought Indian peasants into the study of history of India’. I like to see him as Premchand of Indian History. Before Premchand, Hindi literature was about kings and queens, away from the real world of masses. Indian history, before Koshambhi, was the same : a point he himself made in his ‘Introduction to the study of Indian hostory’. Varrier Elvin did the same with Indian tribal.

Finding polymath in the history of modern India is hard, and harder these days. In addition to his multiple skills, he also had a wonderful grip over languages. He published in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Russian journals. He became a historian sympathetic to Marxism which enabled him reconstructing the social and economic and social life of the civilization long dead. He hated to be known as “official Marxist” or ‘OM’ for short. Though these days, OMs consider him one of their own.

Kosambi was weak in body as well as in Mathematics in his early days at Poona. While at Harvard Grammer School, He improved in both of them and called himself ‘strongest mathematician’ (in physical sense). He believed that ‘specialization’ is a form of ‘semi-illiteracy’. That surely did not go well against him. In this world of science which is thought to be capitalist in nature, specialization is very much appreciated. Here, In India, our universities, put a lot of premium on ‘specialization’, In addition, our universities are also hostile towards ‘other-forms of knowledge’. But even in ‘so-called-better’ universities of the West, things perhaps are NOT much different. After being encouraged by his father to go along the path he has chosen, to acquire as much of scholarship he desired. Kosambi used the freedom granted in American University to offer 18 courses in a year. He valued what he called, “Renaissance type of versatility: wide range of know­ledge without sacrificing depth”. When I think about it I can somehow equate it with what Donald E. Knuth likes,

I have always liked the concept of universities as they were in Ancient Greece, where folks who had something cool to say would just come and say it. It wasn’t about recognition; the impetus was the thought that you were resonating with ideas.

If you intelligent enough, that reason alone is enough to get you eliminated from a system. There is a story about Paul Samuelson that Harvard made no attempt to keep him, even though he had, by then, developed an international following. Solow said of the Harvard economics department at the time: “You could be disqualified for a job if you were either smart or Jewish or Keynesian. So what chance did this smart, Jewish, Keynesian have?” In case of our Kosambi, He was also an idealist. And he suffered from a prevalent disease of idealist a tendency to say what he has to say. Outspoken! Well, in our time, people are not forced to drink poison like Socrates, so he survived with a good sanity. Perhaps he had a ‘sense of humor’, it always helps maintaining a reasonable sanity.

The pursuit of ‘specialization’ was not only a form of illiteracy but also ‘unethical’ to him. The ‘expert raj’ where few expert control the direction of the profession may have be ‘abusive’ for him. A professor at my department told me once,

Do not make Mathematics your profession, keep it as a hobby. There are few great man have already said something about math. Other people, just to prove that they are intelligent, works on their idea.

Though this regime of ‘specialization’ is very useful for ‘capitalists’ or ‘industries’, people are realizing its hostility towards scientific progress. Science is nowadays more of ‘getting funds’ than ‘getting truth’. Now it has become a ‘holy cow’ of the society. After cinema and politics, it is the most prominent source of glamor. Among the students, the notion that famous universities are the better universities is the reeks of this culture (well, mostly they are!). But hey, reputation is also build by work done on these institutes.

Kosambi saw this as ‘nothing less than a superstitious’. It is a common mistake to suppose that this sort of thing happens only in India. For example, Stephen Hawking’s singularity theory is a sophisticated discourse on creationism. But few people, even among relativists, understand singularity theory. So, to decide scientific truth, they weigh social authority. Thus, millions can be persuaded about creationism simply by marketing Hawking as the new scientific messiah. You may have used the words like “Newton once said …. ” and “Eisentien once said … ” to weigh the public opinion in your favor before even making your point. Take it from me, you are either not confident about your argument or worse don’t know what you are saying.

In India, science (western science) flourishes quite rapidly when Indian elites concluded (rightly or wrongly,) that we were inferior because we were colonized because we lacked ‘science’ and became ‘superstitious’. During the first part of the 20th century, with Calcutta at its center, science was pursued in missionary mode.

Post-independence, however,  science became kind of a quest of fund. Name any big name in Indian science, they were the holder of the biggest funds without any accountability (that how one define Mafia, right?) which He resisted.

But 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 can persuade complaisant politicians to sanction crores of the taxpayers’ money. Our research has to be translated into use.

At Harvard, due to his non-compliance to pursue only a narrow specialty, he was not given fellowship to pursue. He came to Banaras Hindu University, and despite of sympathetic Madan Mohan Malviya, he did not find atmosphere there conducive for knowledge. The he shifted to Aligarh Muslim Universityi where Math department was headed by Andre Weil of Bourbaki fame, another polymath and lover of Sanskrit. He could not handle the politics over there and soon sacked. By the way, despite of glorious past, both Banaras Hindu University and Aligarh Muslim University are at their nadir. In India, most of the Institutes which did not have any hand of Nehru in their foundation have collapsed.

Like his father, he also took up a low-paid job in the nearby Fergusson College, where he taught mathematics for many years. As recognition for his research in path geometry, he received the Ramanujan prize in 1934. He described this situation as 12 years vanvas (banishment to a forest), for he lived in Erandavane, and had no one with whom he could discuss his mathematical research. His students were only interested in passing examinations to secure a job. The few mathematicians he could interact with in Poona included a person with the improbable name of Wrangler Paranjape, who carried his undergraduate achievements in Cambridge as a sort of British-conferred title all his life (and even beyond, in that at least one building was named after him) though he never did any research in mathematics. The anecdote goes that, one day, Paranjape arrived to meet Kosambi and was late by some 10 minutes. An annoyed Kosambi, who had imbibed the value of punctuality in the US, opened the door himself and said “Professor Kosambi is not at home” and then shut it. (There are other, milder, versions of this anecdote.) One must recall that as principal of Fergusson College, Paranjape had given jobs, even if only ill-paid ones, to both Bapu and Baba Kosambi.[1]

Eventually, Fergusson College sacked Kosambi, on the alleged grounds that students did not understand the mathematics he taught. I give them one LOL. Mathematics is all together a very difficult subject to teach, especially to exam-oriented students in India. If one tries to teach the subject in its proper spirit, as Kosambi did, one loses most of one’s students whose aim is a job or a degree, and not knowledge. The best lectures I ever had in Mathematics was from Prof. Narayanan in Advanced Network Analysis Course about which he generally says, “You were horrible. It is a chaos. You were failed it but the concept of failure is not clear in my mind so you got the grade you got!”. I now take it as a compliment. He can also be sacked on the same grounds.

Forced out of his vanvas, Homi Bhabha put him in TIFR (a very prominent Indian institute of Modern time).

As it is well known, Kosambi commuted from Poona on the Deccan Queen, switching from daily commute to weekend commute and back to daily commute. Seven hours journey! He used to carry a hell lot of books to read on the train and he loved the countryside on the way. “history was not only in the past but also in the present”, said someone about him, so his thoughts on these journeys naturally turned to history. His book on history was written on the Deccan Queen during these lengthy commutes. Since he had a few kilometres to go on the Bombay side, first to Kenilworth, on Peddar Road, and then to the Old Yacht Club at Gateway of India, and finally to Holiday Camp (now Navy Nagar) beyond Afghan church, Kosambi naturally joked that TIFR was just a “third-class waiting room”, which he used between train journeys. I can only imagine Prof. Dinesh K Sharma having this sort of energy and enthusiasm. About him I generally mock, If you dissect him, you will find a small nuclear reactor.

 Prof. Narayanan was happy that I did not got admission at Institute of Mathematical Sciences for these guys would have not given you time to build up the mathematics and my confidence would have been broken. In general, mathematicians are alleged ‘ to have little or no sense of humor’ and being ‘stingy’. Ultimately he was sacked from TIFR also, partly for his prank he played about Riemann hypothesis and party his colleague at TIFR were undignified enough to hit him below his belt.

As late Ravindra Kumar used to say, “history is futuristic”. There are a lot of issues his life raises. Giving science into the hands of the managers, even if they were like Bhabha, has their own consequences. We have seen Dept. of Atomic Energy which interestingly is quite respected in the eyes of the mainstream media and thus in the eyes off the general public. Once managers start controlling an institute (for example take Times of India) it bound award the boot-licker who fall in line. As Koshambhi once said,

The greatest obstacles to research in any backward, under­ developed country are often those needlessly created by the scientist’s or scholar’s fellow citizens…The meretricious ability to please the right people, a convincing pose, masterly charlatanism, and a clever press agent are indispensable for success.

He was well aware how ‘financially insecure’ persons (mostly students) are exploited by ‘manager-scientist’ for their personal gains. You can find out many professors who make their students work for them (without even asking if they like it or not or would it help you becoming the person you want to be. They may be rewarded with good reviews or recommendation letters). He saw it as a natural phenomenon,

The Byzantine emperor Nikephoras Phokas assured himself of ample
notice from superficial observers, at some else’s expense, by setting up in his own name, at a strategic site in the Roman Forum, a column stolen from some grandiose temple. Many of our eminent intellectuals have mastered this technique. There is little point in discussing the personal experiences of the scum that naturally floats to the top…

We have ‘scientific authority’ in almost every way of science. Western approval (e.g. publication in “Nature”) is still considered the ultimate test of “truth-fullness”. There are stories that Bhabha made a clear distinction between an east canteen in TIFR (where ordinary folk ate, and which served Indian food), and a west canteen (where the scientists ate, which served western food). He always wore western clothes, and reportedly even went so far as to d­eemand that scientists in TIFR do the same.

Ramachandra Guha wrote about him, “Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi was a remarkable man. Trained as a mathematician, he then went on to train himself as a historian.” After quitting his job as a Mathematician from TIFR, says Guha, He went on “to write some pioneering works of historical scholarship, among them A Study of Indian History and The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline.”

Guha finds Kosambi as a man of a fierce and at times truculent independence. Though his father life was more remarkable but both of life represents quite an absorbing history and through them, may be, we can get glimpse of Goa, India and the world.


1. One of the important papers which we have used here was published in  Economic & Political Weekly,  may 16, 2009  vol xliv no 20. Indeed, this blog has take a lot of material and resources from there and can be easily be labelled as ‘plagiarised’ which this sure is.

2. The Hindu newspaper has written some of the articles about him time after time. But after they have launched a new website, the links which google generally gives are now broken. Situation is quite helpless. :-(

3. Integrating Mathematics and History: The Scholarship of D D Kosambi, Economic and political weekly, Vol 47, No 3.

Written on : Aug 20, 2010


Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

1 thought on “Last Polymath : D D Kosambi”

  1. "I have always liked the concept of universities as they were in Ancient Greece, where folks who had something cool to say would just come and say it. It wasn't about recognition; the impetus was the thought that you were resonating with ideas." – Donald E.KnuthThat's one of the beautiful favorite quotes in my collection of quotations and not often heard within academic portals! D D Kosambi is one of the few polymathic historians who traversed across disciplines with not just ease but newer insights. He shook up the complacent/complaisant among the historians who dare not accommodate the newer findings in their interpretations. The OUP's collection on the writings of D D Kosambi will remain an indispensable for historians and for anyone who is interested in history as done by Kosambi. So far, no one has done justice in profiling Kosambi yet. Your blog is most welcome for all Kosambi buffs in particular. – M S Dinakar.

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