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.
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
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