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Acharya Kosambi

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Biography of a Great Scholar
by Dr.(Mrs.) Jyotsna Kamat

Our special thanks to Mrs. Leela of University of Mumbai in assistance in this research.

Dharmananda Damodar Kosambi was born in the Sankhval village of Goa in 1876. Goa then was a Portuguese colony and was very backward in education. Smarter boys of good means went to Bombay (present day Mumbai) for higher education or/and proceeded to Portugal for medical degree. Dharma, as he was known, could not get any education at any school for more than three months. His childhood and adolescence was spent watering coconut trees and  he was married at the young age of sixteen. His father, Mr. Damodar Shenoy had limited resources. But Dharma went on reading Marathi books and was drawn to Buddha's teachings. He decided to study Buddhism.

© K. L. Kamat
Portrait of D.D. Kosambi, a great Sanskrit and Budhist Scholar
Acharya Dharmananda Kosambi (1876-1947)

However no academic guidance or financial help was forthcoming. He went to Pune to consult   with Dr. R. G. Bhandarkar, the great orientalist and Sanskrit scholar. He was advised to go to Benaras to study Sanskrit which could help him in his further study of Pali language and Buddhist texts. Living on alms and undertaking his long journey by foot, Dharma reached Ujjain-Varanasi and was able to study Sanskrit grammar and holy texts with great hardship.

Dharma's main goal was far from being reached. He wanted to study Buddhism in its original form, in Pali. But by then the Pali language had disappeared from India already for centuries along  with Buddhism. From Varanasi Dharma went to Nepal hoping to study Buddhism only to face further disappointment.

He returned to Calcutta and came to know that the only way to study Buddhism in its ancient form, in Pali, was to go to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Determined in his pursuit, he reached Ceylon, where he was admitted to Vidyodaya  University. The University  was under the charge of Sumangalalacharya, an internationally  known scholar of Pali and Buddhism. In only  three years Dharma mastered the Pali language and all existing sacred works compiled in three Pitakas. He specialized in Visuddi Magga (Vishuddhi Marga in Sanskrit), a compilation of Buddha's complete teachings, edited by Buddhaghoshain in the 5th century. He became a Buddhist receiving initiation from his great Guru and assumed the name of  Dharmananda.

Thereafter he proceeded to Myanmar and undertook comparative study of Buddhist texts in Burmese. Here he met a German Bhikku (Buddhist monk) and both used to converse in English. In a few months Dharmananda could speak fluently in English. By the end of the7th year of his sojourn abroad, he returned to India. In addition to Sanskrit ( specified by Dr. Bhandarkar ) Dharma attained mastery in Pali as well as in Sinhalese and Burmese.

His mastery in Pali brought him a remunerative post of reader at Calcutta University. He returned to a householder's life and brought his wife and daughter Manik to Calcutta. His son Damodar (later Prof. Dr. D. D. Kosambi ), the renowned mathematician, historian, and Sanskrit scholar was born in 1907. However monkshood marked deep Dharma. He was very fond to travel, to see new places, to meet and study people. He wanted to devote his life for the study and the propagation of Buddhism. Hence he gave up his university job to accept a research fellowship of  fifty rupees per month and proceeded to Baroda. He started touring and lecturing in Western India and landed in Bombay.

At that time Dr. James Wood from Harvard University was in Bombay and was looking for a scholar adept in Sanskrit, Ardhamagadhi, and Pali. Dharma Kosambi met all the requirements and was invited to Harvard to help edit and translate Visudalhi Marga into English. There Kosambi not only completed successfully the job, but studied the Russian language and Marx's teachings on his own. Later he went to Soviet Russia and taught Pali at the Leningrad University. By the time he returned to India the freedom struggle was at its peak. Under Gandhi's influence he took a teaching assignment, without remuneration, at the Gujarat University. However, the call of freedom was too tempting. He started recruiting volunteers for Salt Satyagraha where  he also participated. In return he got six years of imprisonment.

But nevertheless his research and translations of Buddhist works continued. Until then Buddhism was known to outsiders only through the translations and interpretations of Westerners. Acharya Kosambi's interpretation was purely Indian, rooted in his knowledge of Sanskrit and Pali. He was fearless and honest  to the core and many of his conclusions angered the traditionalists, including some Buddhists and Jains. But nobody could dare question his scholarship.  He continued to translate many Buddhist and Jain works with detailed notes.

Perhaps the long association with these two religions left an unusual mark on Dharma. First he renounced the world. Then he wanted to give up life by practicing prayo pavesa. But Gandhiji prevented him at this stage. He then founded Bahujanavihara, a shelter house for Buddhist monks in Bombay, which received people from  all over the world.

Goa's status as a Portuguese colony always pained him. He wanted to start a freedom movement in his motherland, like Gandhiji did, but he was getting old. The time of privation and hardship has taken its toll. He was bent on fast unto death and breathed his last at Sevagram on the 5th of June 1947 just two and a half months before the Indian Independence Day. Gandhiji, who was in Delhi at the time, paid a lasting tribute to Acharya Dharmananda Kosambi during the prayer meeting of that evening.

Kosambi's  'Bhagavan Buddha', written originally in Marathi, is translated in English and in all Indian languages by Central Sahitya Academy- New Delhi. Kosambi also authored eleven books on Buddhism and Jainism. His autobiography in Marathi, 'Nivedan' gives glimpses on  the social life in Goa at the tail end of the 19th century, besides providing insight of a rare genius who weathered all storms in life, without any resources, background, or encouragement, but attained his goal. His education started at the age of twenty-three and he earned name and fame in two ideologically opposite countries at the time: United States and Soviet Russia. But, until his last, he was a follower of Buddha and of Ahimsa (non-violence).


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