Dr. Prabhakar Apte talks about his work, its significance and his interest in temple architecture.
Sanskrit scholar Dr. Prabhakar Apte, whom this writer meets in Tirupati, is an authority on the Pancharatra agamas, and his first paper on the subject was presented before the Kanchi Paramacharya. Apte's translations of ‘Sattvata Samhita' and ‘Poushkara Samhita,' have been published by the Academy of Sanskrit Research, Melkote, and by the Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha, Tirupati, respectively.
Warming up to his subject, Apte says that available evidence suggests “a long history of a group of Vedic people who were devoted to Vishnu as the Supreme God.” The dharma propagated by Ramanujacharya is spoken of as a liberal tradition open to all, in the Bhishma Parva of ‘Mahabharata.' In the ‘Mahabharata,' we come across cognate terms such as Ekantin and Ekantidharma.
Ekantidharma of ‘Mahabharata' traces a tradition which focuses on Vishnu. Ekantin, Sattvata and Bhagavata were terms used for devotees of Vishnu. “Sattvata vidhi, which was significantly a path of idol worship, and the Ekantidharma, which was perhaps a path of meditation for yogins, later on influenced the Pancharatra,” says Apte. Gradually, as the agama dharma gained currency, the nigama dharma, that is the performance of yagnas, took a back seat.
Of Kashmiri origin
Apte says that even before the time of Yamunacharya, the Pancharatra agama must have come to South India. Yamunacharya refers to the Kashmiri origin of the tradition. A Kashmiri commentator called Utpala, refers to the Pancharatra tradition. Originally a Saivite, Utpala calls himself a Vaishnavite, highlighting an example of conversion to Vaishnavism. A Kashmiri version of a line from the ‘Bhagavad Gita' has the words ‘sattvata dharma gopta,' substituting the word ‘sattvata' for ‘sasvata,' which is what is found in the version prevalent elsewhere in India.
Philologist Otto Schrader, Director of the Adyar library, found a reference to snow in the ‘Jayakhya Samhita,' and so he too concluded that the Pancharatra agama was of Kashmiri origin.
The wide acceptability of sattvata dharma is seen through a Prakrit inscription (150 B.C.) in Brahmi characters on a pillar, which says the pillar (Garuda Dvaja) was erected by Heliodorus, a Greek, in honour of Lord Vasudeva. Heliodorus is described as a Bhagavata, indicating that he was a devotee of Vishnu. “This affords one of the earliest examples of conversion to Vaishnavism,” says Apte. “However, to Ramanuja goes the credit of spreading this sattvata dharma.”
Among the Pancharatra samhitas, the ‘Sattvata,' ‘Poushkara' and ‘Jayakhya' are described as Ratna Traya - the three gems. They date from the 2nd to the 5th century A.D.
In the ‘Paadma,' which is a commentary on the classical samhita ‘Jayakhya,' the ‘Kriya' section talks of art and architecture. Apte's interest in temple architecture was kindled by Yadugiri Yatiraja Sampathkumara Ramanuja Jeer of Melkote, who had a huge collection of works on the Agamas. A Marathi engineer studied these and wrote ‘Architecture in the Agamas,' a book that is now being published by the Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha. “The swami, whose knowledge was encyclopaedic, would take me to the temples and explain their architectural features. He showed me the pillars before the Thayar sannidhi in Melkote. Each pillar is of a different pattern. Perhaps, the stapathi had made these as specimens, so that later on sculptors could choose a design from among them.”
As Apte read more of the Agamas, his respect for the Viswakarma tradition increased. “Modern engineers must be banned from building temples,” he says. He also adds that till the 18th century, the Viswakarmas were involved in secular architecture too. To ignore their abundance of knowledge is to ignore a great tradition.
Interest in traditional architecture and ancient science led Apte to King Bhoja's (10th century A.D.) ‘Samarangana Sutradhara,' which he has translated into English. “In the ‘Yantra Adhyaya', Bhoja talks of hydraulics, mechanics and even aeronautics. Bhoja built the largest artificial lake in Asia - the Bhopal lake, and this is an example of sustainable technology. An old rhyme in Hindi says ‘Taal to taal Bhopal taal, aur sab hain talayyen-' only the Bhopal lake is a lake; all other lakes are mere ponds.”
Apte has the rare distinction of being made an Honorary Member of the Association of Architects and Engineers, and he has given lectures in the Motilal Nehru Regional College of Engineering, Allahabad, the Military College of Engineering, Pune, and ISRO, Bangalore.
He is disheartened by the lack of awareness about these old texts. During World War I, Otto Schrader was imprisoned, because he was a German. While in the Ahmednagar jail, Schrader wrote his ‘Introduction to Pancharatra.' “Most people know that Nehru's ‘Discovery of India' was written in the Ahmednagar jail, but how many know that Schrader's work was also written in the same jail?” asks Apte. Prasanna Kumar Acharya, whose work in seven volumes on Hindu architecture was published by the Oxford University Press did not get any honours.
Doesn't too much intellectual engagement with ancient texts dent one's faith? “Yes. That is why our Professor K.C. Varadachari said to us once, ‘I am old. The time for intellectual discussion is past. I want to move to the higher spiritual plane of faith.' So at some point logic must stop, yielding place to faith.”
But since Apte is still in the process of translating and analysing the Pancharatra samhitas, can one assume that he is still in the stage of intellectual involvement, and not in the stage of unquestioning faith? Apte laughs and says, “Someone has to do all this work. We must pass on our traditions for posterity.”
When the priest of the Ahobilam temple told Apte that he consulted Apte's books, Apte felt vindicated. When his translation of the ‘Sattvata Samhita' had got as far as the 15th chapter, a Polish student doing her Ph.D on Narasimha worship, came to Apte for help on the 17th chapter. Apte raced against time to complete the translation, and also that of a 200-year-old commentary on the ‘Sattvata Samhita' by Azhagiya Singa Bhattar, an archaka of Melkote.
Eleven volumes of the ‘Vaikhanasa Agama' have been edited by Dr. Lakshmi Narayana Bhatta and Dr. Hayavadana Puranik, at the Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha, and Apte has written the gist in English for each of the volumes. But sadly, the Agama kosa project suffers from a paucity of funds.
Apte has taken to heart the words of his mentor Dr. B.R. Sharma, an authority on the ‘Sama Veda.' Sharma used to say that a researcher should think of himself as ajara (without old age) and amara (without death). And indeed when Apte, who is in his late seventies, walks, there is a youthful spring in his step.
Apte says that there have been science-oriented Sanskrit scholars in the past, such as Alkondavalli Govindacharya, an engineer in Mysore, who built the Nanjangud bridge. But Govindacharya was also a Sanskrit scholar, and he wrote the first article in French on the ‘Pancharatra Agamas.' The article, ‘Etude du Pancharatra,' was published in 1870. “The need of the hour is for such Sanskrit-oriented scientists and technocrats, and science-oriented Sanskrit scholars, to study the intellectual treasures that this land has produced,” Apte emphasises.