One man, many lives
Freedom Fighter, Buddhist Monk, Pioneer of Hindi Literature—An Insight into a Unique Personality, a Product of his Time
History shows that ideas spread across many a nation through scholarly wanderers like Hsuan Tsang, Marco Polo, Fa Hien and Ibn Battuta, who have recorded their experiences for posterity. In the Indian context, Rahul Sankrityayan aptly fits the bill through his innumerable writings on his journeys within and outside the country. Though very well-known for his Volga to Ganges, an enchanting collection of stories which describe the evolution of humanity and society in the Indian context, there is very little material available about his own evolution as a multi-lingual scholar from a boy born as Kedarnath Pandey in a Brahmin family in a village in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh.
Best known as Rahulji across the country, Rahul Sankrityayan has donned many a robe. A vaishnav sadhu, Arya Samaji activist, a freedom fighter, a Buddhist monk, a Communist who fought for the rights of peasants, a pioneer of modern Hindi literature, a scholar who brought many rare Sanskrit manuscripts, mostly Buddhist classics to the outside world from inaccessible Tibetan monasteries, which still feeds the hunger of scholars throughout the world and a multi-linguist (he is a master of 33 languages) who became an ardent advocate of the supremacy of Hindi… the list is endless.
A Freethinking Cultural Nationalist—Life History of Rahul Sankrityayan by Alaka Atreya Chudal and published by Oxford University Press gives us an insight into the personality of Rahulji as a product of his time, i.e., a period of social reforms and movement for freedom from the foreign yoke. Based upon his writings, this book unravels the thread which held together different aspects of his personality and proceeds to weave a portrait in technicolour not just of the man, but of India itself.
The author has undertaken this task to validate a point that his nationalist yearnings drove Rahulji to don many a hat. Chudal has placed him at the centre of development on the Indian sub-continent during his life time and yet, paradoxically attempts to re-identify him in terms of the influences of his time.
Besides looking into his development through his six parts, four-volume autobiography, the author also delves deep into his Buddhist philosophy which ultimately led him towards Marxism as well as his special relationship with Nepal and its redemption from the autocracy of the Ranas.
Chudal also explores Sankrityayan’s unique contribution to modern Hindi literature. The Afterword brings out the main theme ‘his Nationalist fervour’ through many stages of his life which presents us with a multi-faceted picture of India itself, covering many important aspects of its rich past and its struggle to make the transition to the future worthy of that past.
One of the lengthy appendices describes Sankrityayan’s long and deep association with Nepal, both in terms of the development of Theravada Buddhism in that country and the influences of his (banned) political writings among the youth of Nepal. The other parts list out the research undertaken so far across the world on his writings as well as his own writing in various languages.
Rahulji was a person who had no formal education or a university degree. However, he did learn Sanskrit and other languages well enough to later edit texts, translate, produce literary works and do professional research. He was largely self-taught. With this wider knowledge acquired over the years, he taught Sanskrit at Vidyalankara Parivena, Sri Lanka, and earned the title ‘Tripitakacharya’ for his knowledge in Buddhist Philosophy. In 1929, he was accorded the title ‘Mahapandit’ by the Kasi Pandit Sabha and taught Sanskrit at Leningrad University. He was accorded the title ‘Sahitya Vachaspati’ by the Hindi Sahitya Sammelan. In later years, he was a professor at Leningrad University and also headed the Department of Philosophy at the Vidyalankara University, Sri Lanka.
It is noteworthy to mention here, that in his early life itself, due to his deep religious education, he was chosen as a successor of a Vaishnav Math at Paras, Bihar, as Sadhu Ramudhar Das and again initiated by the head of Uttaradhi Math, a Vaishnav Math at Thirumazhisai, near Chennai, with the name Damodarachari. However, in his own words, despite the peace, prestige, power and cosy life attached to such positions, he was in silent agony to get out of what was a narrow pit and to enter a wide lake. But he had no idea in what direction the lake lay or what it will look like.
Indeed, he entered not into a lake, but an ocean of knowledge through his findings of Buddhist Philosophy and searched for something similar to communism that could be applied to modern-day India. His imagining of a socialist community shot through with Indianness placed him apart from many patriots of his time.
In all, despite a lack of a single picture of the scholar in the book, it is indeed an engrossing study of a stalwart who rekindled the knowledge of Buddhism in India and the world and who lived as an Indian at heart and in his writings all through.
Credit: The Hindu