M. Harihara Sastry, renowned Sanskrit teacher and grammarian, brushed aside all kinds of barriers to raise the bar in the teaching of Sanskrit in Kerala. His centenary will be celebrated in Thiruvananthapuram from January 18 to 23.

It was the summer of 1978. Veteran Marxist leader K. Aniruddhan was contesting a by-election in the Thiruvananthapuram (East) Assembly constituency.

During his door-to-door visit to meet voters, he was taken aback when an elderly man at Karamana quizzed him: “Do you know the meaning of your name?” Before the candidate could venture to answer, the bare-bodied senior citizen replied: “It is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Ruddha.' The etymological progression in Malayalam will be ‘Ruddhan,' then ‘Ni-Ruddhan' and finally ‘A-Ni-Ruddhan,' meaning ‘the unobstructed or the undefeatable.”

Aniruddhan lived up to his name in that election and his unusual interlocutor was M.Harihara Sastry, renowned Sanskrit teacher and grammarian. Words and their meanings have been a magnificent obsession for Professor Sastry who celebrates his 100th birthday on January 23. In fact, the centenarian's stint as head of the Department of Grammar at the Government Sanskrit College, Thiruvananthapuram, in the Sixties has been hailed as the high noon of Sanskrit etymology in Kerala.

Instinct for teaching

His instinct for teaching was so strong that even after retirement from college in 1966, he took up an assignment at a school in Kollam on an honorary basis. Asked why he had volunteered to teach without remuneration, Prof. Sastry famously said: “Teaching is like breathing to me. I joined the school as I found no other way to teach children the rudiments of Sanskrit.”

Born at Kilimanoor, Prof. Sastry finished his education from Thiruvananthapuram and taught Malayalam initially at a school before joining Government service as a Sanskrit teacher in 1936. It was the legendary linguist K. Goda Varma who took the young Sastry under his wings. In 1945, he got upgraded as a lecturer at the Sanskrit college where he continued till retirement.

At the Sanskrit college, Prof. Sastry quickly earned a name as a dedicated teacher proficient in both Malayalam and Sanskrit. His extraordinary grasp of grammatical aphorisms made him popular on the campus. His unbounded enthusiasm would see him stretch even simple lessons for hours together and his students would listen in rapt attention.

“It was a delight to attend his classes. He had an extra-ordinary ability to make even difficult portions seem simple. Even the most dense of Panini's sutrams would be deconstructed by him so that the entire class understood its import,” says G. Gangadharan Nair, who studied under Prof. Sastry and later succeeded him in the faculty.

Stickler for rules

Highly regarded as a puritan and a stickler for the rules of language Prof. Sastry became a part of Kerala's vibrant literary landscape of those days. Though he was noted for his self-effacing conduct and winsome ways, he would not shy away from crossing swords with prominent litterateurs, if he spotted anything remiss in their works. Even Jnanpith award winner G. Sankara Kurup was at the receiving end of Prof. Sastry's criticism for one of his poems titled ‘Nimisham.'

Outside of academic circles too, wrong usage would raise his hackles. K. Maheswaran Nair, former Dean of Sanskrit studies of the University of Kerala, narrates an anecdote about Prof. Sastry's almost maniac exactitude. “He was attending a meeting at the University where my teachers, Dr. Gangadharan Nair and Karunakaran, both Sastry Sir's students, were present. Referring to the unique line-up, I said I am proud of my ‘guru parampara.' Prof Sastry quickly pounced on the usage and said that while successive disciples may be referred as ‘shishya parampara,' the proper term for the lineage of teachers was ‘guru poorva poorva.'”

After retirement, Prof. Sastry helped set up the school for monks at Sivagiri where Kerala's revolutionary saint Sree Narayana Guru had established a temple complex in 1912. Swami Prakasananda, President of the Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham Trust, recalls: “Prof Sastry joined us in the initial stages itself at the Brahma Vidya Gurukulam. He was its first Principal and was instrumental in drawing up a syllabus for the course of studies here.”

Conceptualised in 1924 by Sree Narayana Guru after an international religious conference at Aluva, the grand idea of an inter-religious study centre remained on paper till 1971. “The Guru had set aside a princely sum of Rs 5 lakh in 1924 itself for the project but it was not until 1971 that we could start the work. Through his creative inputs, Prof. Sastry helped us in the realisation of the Guru's dreams,” adds Swami Rithambharananda, the general secretary of the Trust.

Prof. Sastry's orthodox Tamil Brahmin background did not come in the way of his deep-rooted association with the Sree Narayana movement.

Muni Narayana Prasad, internationally-known preacher of Sree Narayana philosophy, says: “Prof. Sastry has written commentaries on all the Vedantic works of the Guru, including the likes of ‘Darsanamala.' His interpretations have helped us in understanding the philosophical depth of many of the Guru's writings.”

His involvement with Sivagiri and Sree Narayana Guru perhaps sprung from his Catholic outlook. He took into his fold students from all castes. In the rarefied world of Sanskrit education where caste was often a prime consideration, he was not one to differentiate anybody on the basis of birth or background.

The five-day festivities being planned by his students and admirers in Thiruvananthapuram from January 18 to 23 to celebrate his centenary will be a fitting tribute to Prof. Sastry's unique contribution in the field of Sanskrit education and inclusive world view.