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. This was the path taken, for instance, by historians like Jadunath Sarkar and RG Bhandarkar. Sarkar began life in a village, then studied and taught at Presidency College. Bhandarkar took the regular exams and taught at Elphinstone and Deccan College. Both wrote for English-reading audiences. This made them widely known.
It is virtually impossible to come across a scholar of international stature who had neither access to a regular education nor libraries. Dharmanand Damodar Kosambi (1876-1947), a self-taught man who became a scholar of Pali and Buddhism, is in this sense unique. Obscured by the fame of his historian son D.D. Kosambi (1907-1966), Dharmanand also remains little known outside Maharashtra because he preferred Marathi to English. His local renown will now become widespread because his granddaughter, Meera Kosambi, has recently edited and translated his writings into English (Dharmanand Kosambi, The Essential Writings, Permanent Black, 2010).
What these writings reveal, described so well in her introduction, is a man of phenomenal intellect with a matching capacity for austerity. Kosambi the Elder scripted for himself “a trajectory of intellectual and ideological adventure” that transported him, in his search for knowledge about Buddhism, from an impoverished rural Goa to various places in India, Nepal, Ceylon, Burma, Russia and America.
It has been said that our lives are irrevocably shaped by the cards we are dealt in childhood. The frail and mentally impoverished Dharmanand, a Gaud Sarasvat Brahmin by birth, seemed destined to spend his life tending the family’s coconut grove in village Goa. But his passion for reading, which developed around the time he was married off at age 14, spurred him out of domestic disenchantment into a life filled with an almost incredible severity of self-teaching. Reading material wasn’t readily available. So, every month he travelled to Madgaon to borrow it from friends and relatives. In a Marathi magazine, Bal-Bodh, he first read about the Buddha. Later, travelling to learn Sanskrit in Poona, he read a Marathi translation of Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia (which also influenced Gandhi and Nehru). For Dharmanand, this book on the Buddha became a religious text: “I have still not forgotten how,” he says, “while reading certain portions of it, my throat would constrict and tears would stream down my face.”
Roughly half of Kosambi’s Essential Writings comprises an unusually moving autobiographical narrative: ‘moving’ in both senses, because this is an Indian Pilgrim’s Progress crafted to inspire disadvantaged people to carve out extraordinary paths; and because his self-abnegation in the cause of replicating the Buddha’s suffering for self-enlightenment leaves one close to tears. The almost penniless Dharmanand, after studying Sanskrit in Varanasi, walks virtually barefoot to Nepal in February 1902 because he has been told that knowledge of Buddhism might be acquired in the vicinity of Kathmandu. Reaching the promised land exhausted, he finds only sadhus who tell people’s fortunes by throwing dice.
Filled with sorrow, his search resumes, taking him towards Bodhgaya, and then, by begging for money in the prescribed manner of the true bhikshu, to the doorstep of the Mahabodhi Society in Calcutta. Supplication here results in sponsors who send him to Colombo, where he finally acquires direct knowledge of Buddhism. Now Dharmanand becomes a monk, subsisting daily on begged food, which must be consumed before noon. Through all his trials and tribulations he neither loses his sense of humour nor his aversion for unappetising food: in Kashi the dal was, as he nicely puts it, swimming in Ganga water.
The pilgrim then becomes a missionary. Forsaking the monk’s cowl, Dharmanand repays his debt to Calcutta, introducing Pali into the curriculum of the National College and teaching at the university. The restlessness of the truly zealous overtakes him again: he gives up a bhadralok’s salary to be closer to Marathi-speaking regions where he may spread knowledge of the Buddha. He lectures in Baroda, introduces Pali to Bombay University, and writes copiously in Marathi on Buddhist texts and ahimsa. His itinerant narrative ends at Harvard, where over three spells he helps prepare a critical edition of Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhi-magga.
Paradoxically, the journey to capitalist America opened Dharmanand’s mind to socialism. At Liverpool, a Dutch accountant introduced him to Marx’s thought and bought him books on socialism that he followed up with others in America. In his later writings, Dharmanand consistently sought to trace socialism’s compatibility with ancient Indian thought.
Dharmanand’s writings on Buddhism made him a celebrated figure across Maharashtra: they comprise the second half of his Essential Writings. The most unusual here is a play, Bodhisattva. In it he enlists the past for present social reform. Yashodhara is shown marrying Bodhisattva knowing full well that celibacy for a protracted period is the condition of their marriage.
A critique of child marriage, and the difficulties faced by couples married before their time, is implicit and links with what Gandhi said of his failed attempt to teach Kasturba, whom he married when she was 13: he was anxious to teach her, but lust left him little time, and later public life left him none. Dharmanand worked with the Mahatma and must have known this. Sensing and espousing the connections between Buddhism, socialism, and Gandhianism, it was in Gandhi’s Vardha ashram that he chose to die in 1947 — voluntarily, by giving up food. In his tribute to Dharmanand, Gandhi said: “May God inspire us all to walk in his footsteps.”
Pay and promotions provoke rather more passion among academics now than the disinterested quest that so nobly motivated Dharmanand. 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 live it.
India has produced outstanding and committed scholars. And then there is Dharmanand, the only scholar-sage that Indology has known.
Nayanjot Lahiri is a member of the Delhi Urban Art Commission
The views expressed by the author are personal