Deconstructing D D Kosambi: Myth and Reality
This is the first part of a series deconstructing Marxist historian and scholar D D Kosambi’s work, “Myth and Reality.”
In 1962, the Marxist historian D D Kosambi published a work titled Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture. The first part of the book is called ‘Social and Economic Aspects of the Bhagavad-Gita’ and deals with the philosophical, ethical, and historical aspects of the Gītā. Not only are most of his arguments baseless, they also reek of a deeper intellectual dishonesty, which possibly stems from an ulterior motive of trying to malign one of the most comprehensive summaries of Hinduism, the oldest living tradition in the world. Let us consider the eight fundamental contentions of Kosambi and then go ahead to show how they are founded in either falsehood or ignorance or both.
One of the earliest arguments that Kosambi makes is that since the language of the Gītā is flexible and can be variously interpreted, it has no validity as a text. He says (emphasis is mine) –
“The Gita has attracted minds of bents entirely different from each other and from that of Arjuna. Each has interpreted the supposedly divine words so differently from all the others that the original seems far more suited to raise doubts and to split a personality than to heal an inner division. Any moral philosophy which managed to receive so many variant interpretations from minds developed in widely different types of society must be highly equivocal. No question remains of its basic validity if the meaning be so flexible.”
Just because different people view the same thing in different ways doesn’t imply that the subject under consideration is flawed. In the case of the Gītā, the very fact that so many people have interpreted it in subtly different ways over time indicates that they have all found the text rather interesting. They have found it worthwhile to spend their time and understand the text in their own way. Further, the interpretation of a text doesn’t happen in a vacuum – there is a tradition of interpretation and anyone who has written a classical commentary adheres to the tradition. This is different from the commentary of someone like Gandhi, who interpreted the Gītā based on his own whims without a strong grounding in the traditional commentaries.
The Gītā is considered as one of the prasthāna-trayī (three fundamental texts) according to the Vedānta school of philosophy. It is a synthesis of the best teaching from the various foundational works of Hinduism, starting from the Vedas and Upaniṣads all the way to the various smṛtis and the different schools of Indian philosophy. And even among the traditional commentators of the Gītā, there are only about 10-12 verses that have been differently interpreted, while there is concurrence with respect to all the other verses. In other words, more than 98% of the Gītā was understood in the same way by the traditional commentators. As for the modern commentators, those who have an understanding of Hinduism’s foundational works have also said more or less the same things, though their focuses are diverse. As for the Gītā itself, it doesn’t propagate any dogma or ideology.
At any rate, expecting everyone to understand a given topic in an identical manner is impossible. Even a topic in the physical sciences, such as the nature of light, is understood and interpreted differently. What then to say of religious texts? Although the different schools of philosophy interpreted the Gītā according to their bias, the text of the Gītā remained untouched and also, the disciples of the various schools didn’t kill each other because they didn’t agree with one another.
The fundamental intention of the Gītā is to heal an inner division and the Mahābhārata bears testimony to the fact that the wartime counsel was successful.
After briefly referring to some commentators on the Gītā—including Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Jñāneśvar, Tilak, Aurobindo, and Gandhi—Kosambi again raises the question as to how the same text could appeal to different people in different ways. He concludes his rant with these ridiculous lines (emphasis is mine):
“What common need did these outstanding thinkers have that was at the same time not felt by ordinary people, even of their own class? They all belonged to the leisure-class of what, for lack of a batter term, may be called Hindus.”
Before refuting Kosambi’s claims on this point, let us first take a look at the minds that the Gītā has attracted: Humboldt, Schopenhauer, Emerson, Thoreau, Schweitzer, Jung, Hesse, Eliot, Huxley, and Oppenheimer, among others in the West; Tilak, Malaviya, Gandhi, Coomaraswamy, Rajaji, DVG, Munshi, Radhakrishnan, Nehru, Bhave, and Bharathiar among other Indians. The choice is eclectic yet this includes only the ‘secular’ minds. Our spiritual minds were almost unequivocally influenced by the Gītā, starting from Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, and Madhva to Jñāneśvar, Chaitanya and Ramdas to Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and Aurobindo.
The influence of the Gītā has not been limited to a single period in history or a single place in the world; it has not been bound to a single school of philosophy or a single sect of people. It transcends all boundaries and distinctions.
The Gītā is the most popular book from India and one of the most popular books in the world. There are at least a hundred commentaries on the Gītā in Sanskrit alone. There are more than a thousand English translations. Apart from most Indian languages, it has been translated in several foreign languages as well. And this has only been increasing over the years.
Further, there are about forty gītās that were inspired by the Bhagavad-Gītā including Uddhava Gītā, Guru Gītā, Rāma Gītā, Gaṇeśa Gītā, Ribhu Gītā, Devī Gītā, Avadhūta Gītā, and Pāṇḍava Gītā. Recent works like Satyāgraha Gītā, Saṅgha Gītā, and Śrama Gītā are also inspired by the Bhagavad-Gītā. In fact, there are also parodies like Chaha Gītā. And yet when one says Gītā, it always refers to the Bhagavad-Gītā.
It is rather strange that Kosambi should refer to them as a ‘leisure’ class when each one of the names he has quoted― Śaṅkara, Rāmānuja, Jñāneśvar, Tilak, Aurobindo, and Gandhi―were active members of the society pursuing a great ideal. It is unclear on what basis Kosambi confidently concludes that the Gītā did not influence ordinary people (while it appealed to these ‘outstanding thinkers.’)
Kosambi then tries to demonstrate how the laity and the bhakti poets thrived without the Gītā. He says:
“…the great comparable poet-teachers from the common people did very well without the Gita. Kabir, the Banaras weaver, had both Muslim and Hindu followers for his plain yet profound teaching. Tukaram knew the Gita through the Jnaneswari, but worshipped Visnu in his own way by meditation upon God and contemporary society in the ancient caves (Buddhist and natural) near the junction of the Indrayam and Patina rivers. Neither Jayadeva’s Gita-govinda, so musical and supremely beautiful a literary effort (charged with the love and mystery of Krsna’s cult) nor the Visnuite reforms of Caitanya that swept the peasantry of Bengal off its feet were founded on the rock of the Gita.”
Any student of philosophy knows that texts of universal wisdom like the Gītā need not be formally read, just like one need not read Newton’s findings to acknowledge or comprehend gravity. Just because it is possible to understand the wisdom of the Gītā without formally reading it does not make it a vestigial text. Kosambi himself calls Jayadeva’s Gīta-govinda a “musical and supremely beautiful…literary effort” – how does he hope to find philosophy in it? It is a poetic journey into Kṛṣṇa’s youthful love-life. Why should it be “founded on the rock of the Gīta”? If one were to write a poem about the formative years of an M S Subbulakshmi or an Abdul Kalam, why should it have anything to do with the fact that they won the Bharat Rathna? And as for Chaitanya, he was a strong proponent of the Gītā.
Further, what does a Kabir or a Tukaram say that is wholly different from the Gītā? Knowingly or unknowingly most of our saints and mystics have echoed the wisdom of the Gītā.
The Sangam poet Kaṇiyan Pūṅgunṟanār (c. 5th century BCE)sings in the Puṟananūru (verse 192) –
yādum ūre yāvarum keḻir
tīdum nanṟum piṟartara vārā
nōdalum taṇidalum avaṟṟōranna…
(Every town is home, everyone is kin
Evil and good are not gifts from others
Pain and pleasure are our own doing…)
In the Gītā, one of the traits of a bhakta is aniketaḥ (BG 12.19) – one who considers no place as his home but feels at home everywhere. Pūṅgunṟanār says the same thing with yādum ūre, which literally means: ‘which is my town?’ Kṛṣṇa says in the state of brahman one sees the same ātman in all beings; he sees oneness everywhere (6.29). People, not God, are responsible for good and evil in the world (5.15). One should advance by one’s own efforts and that the self is one’s true friend or enemy (6.5).
Here is an abhang (poem) by Tukaram (c. 17th century CE) –
Don’t kill a snake
Before the eyes of a saint
For the saint’s being
Includes all living things
And he’s easily
See this in light of some Gītā verses – 5.18 (A wise person treats everyone equally), 6.32 (A yogi relates to the joy and sorrow of others just as he relates to his own), and 6.9 (A yogi behaves in the same way with everyone – be it family, friends, foes, mediators, bystanders, saints, or sinners).
A famous doha (couplet) from Kabir (c. 15th century CE) goes thus –
kabīrā khaḍā bāzār mein, mānge sabkī khair
nā kāhū se dostī, na kāhū se bair
(Kabir is at the market; he wishes well for all
He seeks neither friendship nor enmity)
In the verses 14.22-25 of the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa speaks about such a detached person. He says that one who has gone beyond the influence of guṇa (innate qualities) remains unruffled and unattached. In 3.25, Kṛṣṇa speaks of how the wise work for everyone’s welfare.
In one of her vacanas (free verse), Akka Mahadevi (12th century CE) says –
Till you’ve earned
knowledge of good and evil
site of rage,
ambush of greed,
house of passion,
fence of pride,
mask of envy.
She is basically referring to the ari-ṣad-varga (the six primeval enemies) of lust, rage, greed, passion, pride, and envy. Kṛṣṇa refers to the same thing in the Gītā – 16.21 (lust, rage, and greed are the three gates to degradation), 16.10 (the wicked are soaked in passion and pride), 4.22 (the wise ones are free from envy).
Contrary to Kosambi’s claims, the Gītā had a wide-ranging influence on the laity. We see a reference to the Gītā in popular literature as early as Kālidāsa. In chapter 10 of Raghuvaṃśa and chapter 2 of Kumārasambhava, we find verses that are almost identical to that of the Gītā. In the Hindu tradition, the Vedas were accessible exclusively by the men from the brāhmaṇa, kṣatriya, and vaiśyavarṇas. But for the sake of the education of women from all varṇas and the śūdras, the entire corpus of the purāṇa and itihāsa literature was composed.
Jñāneśvar’s 13th century commentary is one of the finest examples of the attempt of the learned to share the wisdom of the Gītā with the laity. The Jñāneśvarī is composed in a beautiful folk poetic meter called ovi, which was often used for composing lullabies. It is such a simple, down-to-earth meter. Why did Jñāneśvar choose that meter? It underscores his intent to share the message with everyone.
Under the patronage of king Raja Raja Narendra, the poet Nannayya Bhaṭṭa (1000-1060) started translating the Mahābhārata into Telugu but died after working on two episodes. Many years later, Tikkana (1200-1280) translated 15 episodes and Errā Pragaḍa (1280-1350) completed the work. Vedānta Deśika (1268-1370) composed a summary of the Gītā in Tamil titled ‘Gītā Prabandham.’ Mādhava Paṇikkar prepared a condensed Malayalam translation of the Gītā in the 14th century. Kumāra Vyāsa (Gadag Vīra Nāraṇappa) rendered the Mahābhārata into Kannada in his Karnāṭa Bharāta Kathamañjari, which was finished in 1430. The poet Nāgarasa translated the entire Gītā into Kannada ṣatpadis (six-line verses). Kabi Sañjaya translated the complete Mahābhārata into Bengali during the first half of 15th century CE. King Lakṣminārāyaṇ commissioned Govinda Miśra to translate the Gītā into Assamese verse.
We can also see the influence of the Gītā in the various music compositions, dance forms, folk poetry, paintings, harikathas (musical discourses based on traditional stories of various Hindu deities), and sculptures.
Continued in the next part
 Kosambi, D. D. Myth and Reality: Studies in the Formation of Indian Culture (1962). p. 17
4 Jan. 2009 <http://vidyaonline.org/arvindgupta/mythandreality.pdf> [Hereafter referred to as M&R]
 Even in the various translations of the Gītā, there are only about 20 verses (out of 700) that have been given different shades of meaning depending on the bias of the translators. Rest of the verses are pretty much straightforward.
Just because light can be seen as both a particle and a wave, do we say that light itself is suspect and therefore should be trashed? That is precisely what Kosambi is suggesting – just because the Gītā is variously interpreted, it is meaningless!
 It is ironic that over the years, even Communism/Marxism has been subject to a lot of interpretation. Would a full-blooded Marxist like Kosambi be self-aware enough to apply the same argument to texts of Marxism?
This is a common problem with the Semitic faiths as well as with Communism/Marxism. And yet Hindus in general have never had a problem when a Jesus or a Mohammed or a Marx or a Kosambi is venerated. Hinduism is perhaps the only consistently tolerant faith in human history.
 M&R, p. 18
For those interested, there is a long list of quotations about the Gītā from various sources in The New Bhagavad-Gita (pp. 325-33) by Koti Sreekrishna and Hari Ravikumar (Mason: W.I.S.E. Words Inc., 2011)
 In general, any form of art, science, or technology will be truly understood only by a small number of people; but the benefit will be accessible by all. For example, only musicians know the mechanism of producing good music but everyone can enjoy that music; only telecommunication experts know exactly how a mobile phone works, but everyone can use the device.
 M&R, p. 18
In many later philosophers and writers – be it Spinoza or Kant or Voltaire or Mark Twain – we can see the wisdom of the Gītā though they might not even have known of its existence.
 Tukaram. Says Tuka. Tr. Chitre, Dilip. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1991. p. 155
 Ramanujan, A. K. Speaking of Śiva. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1973. p. 108