From where I sit: Noble quest for knowledge

July 22, 2010

How do you become an academic and a scholar? Usually, those who aim to research and teach are privileged with a formal education and spend their lives in academia. It is virtually impossible to come across a scholar of international stature who had neither access to a regular education nor to libraries. Dharmanand Damodar Kosambi (1876-1947), a friend of Mahatma Gandhi who became a scholar of Pali and Buddhism, is in this sense unique.

Kosambi remains little known because he preferred writing in Marathi to writing in English. His local renown will now become widespread because his scholar granddaughter, Meera Kosambi, has edited and translated his writings into English (Dharmanand Kosambi: The Essential Writings, Permanent Black, 2010).

What these writings reveal is a man of phenomenal intellect with a matching capacity for austerity. His quest for Buddhist knowledge took Kosambi from impoverished rural Goa to Nepal, Ceylon, Burma, Russia and America.

Kosambi was born into a rural Brahmin family and, as a frail child, he seemed destined to spend his life tending the family's coconut grove. But his passion for reading, which developed around the time he was married off at age 14, spurred him out of domestic disenchantment and into a life filled with an incredible severity of self-teaching. Inspired by reading about the Buddha in a Marathi magazine, he set off to learn Sanskrit. Later, Edwin Arnold's Light of Asia (which influenced Gandhi and Nehru) moved him to tears.

Half of Kosambi's Essential Writings comprises an unusually moving autobiographical narrative: this half is an Indian Pilgrim's Progress crafted to inspire disadvantaged people to carve out extraordinary paths. The penniless Kosambi, after studying Sanskrit at Varanasi, walks virtually barefoot to Nepal in 1902 because he is told that knowledge of Buddhism might be acquired in Kathmandu. Reaching the promised land exhausted, he finds only charlatans who tell people's fortunes by throwing dice. Filled with sorrow, his search resumes, taking him towards Bodhgaya (where the Buddha attained enlightenment) and then, by begging for money in the prescribed Buddhist manner, to Colombo, where he gains direct knowledge of Buddhism. Now Kosambi becomes a monk, subsisting on begged food that he had to consume before noon. Through all his trials and tribulations he neither loses his sense of humour nor his aversion to unappetising food: in Banaras the dhal was, as he nicely puts it, swimming in Ganga water.

The pilgrim then becomes a missionary. Forsaking the monk's cowl, Kosambi's mastery of Pali procures him a teaching job at the University of Calcutta. But the restlessness of the truly zealous overtakes him. He lectures in Baroda, introduces Pali to what was the University of Bombay, and writes copiously on Buddhist texts and the Buddhist-Gandhian doctrine of ahimsa. His itinerant narrative ends at Harvard University, where over three periods of time he helps to prepare a critical edition of Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga. His years at Harvard opened Kosambi's mind to socialism. In his later writings, he sought to trace socialism's compatibility with ancient Indian thought.

Pay and promotions provoke rather more passion among academics now than the quest that so nobly motivated Kosambi. In a consumerist world, where socialism and Gandhian principles are thoroughly dead, it is difficult even to imagine a life of the kind lived by Dharmanand Kosambi, let alone to live it.

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