His knowledge of Sanskrit and history bring to light new perspectives.
Dr. S. Sankaranarayanan was an epigraphist with the Archaeological Survey of India for 21 years, director of the Oriental Research Institute, Tirupati, for 10 years, former Honorary Director, Adyar Library, and a recipient of the Presidential award for Sanskrit (1994).
Now 88, he greets me with “Mangalaanibhavantu.” As he talks on various subjects, one wonders why he didn’t make it to the top in government service. “I did not know how to move with officialdom,” he says. He is frank, perhaps a further disqualification.
After traditional learning in a Veda Pata Sala, Sankaranarayanan studied tarkka in the Ponnambala Pillai Sanskrit school, Chidambaram. One of the papers in Sironmani was Comparative Philology, and Sankaranarayanan’s professor advised him to study English, of which Sankaranarayanan’s knowledge was nil. So he taught himself English, and was enchanted by the language.
After his Matriculation and Inter exams, in which he scored high marks in English, he applied to Annamalai University, and was allotted History. “I wanted English major. But Vice Chancellor, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer said that with my background in Sanskrit, if I did history, I could be a good researcher.”
After completion of the course, Sankaranarayanan joined ASI. Dr. D.C. Sircar, who interviewed him, was to say in later years, “I appointed a diamond.”
When Sankaranarayanan was posted in Mysore, he did his Ph.D in Karnatak University, Dharwad.
Just as Sir C.P. had predicted, Sankaranarayanan’s background in Sanskrit and his strong footing in history, enabled him to look at history from new angles. He says that his theories in some cases are only inferential, but, as he points out, a lot of history is inferential.
Sankaranarayanan says that all Indian scripts are the progeny of Brahmi. Although the Vedas and Vedanga texts were learnt orally, there must have been a script in existence. How could works such as Panini’s Astahdyayi and Yaska’s Nirukta have been possible without a tradition of writing long before their time? He points to a passage in the Aitareya Aranyaka, which says that students should not learn the Vedas by writing in ink, or scratching on clay tablets or leaves, or by engraving on stones. If there had been no script, why should there be an injunction against writing?
Amarasimha in his thesaurus refers to Panini’s bhasha as Bharati Bhasha - a language having a pan-Indian presence, and labels Brahmi as a synonym for this language - Brahmi tu Bharati Bhasha. Brahmi, according to Sankaranarayanan, must once have been the name of Sanskrit and the script later took on this name.
Sankaranarayanan edited the earliest Sanskrit inscription in South India. This is from a pillar in Guntupalli, in West Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh. It is significant, because it belongs to the time of Salankayana King Nandivarman II (the last quarter of the 4th century A.D.), when Sanskrit replaced Prakrit once and for all in epigraphs in South India in general.
Sankaranarayanan says that Sankara’s biggest achievement was was that he established Vedanta as a separate Sastra, independent of Mimamsa.
Sankaranarayanan believes that a careful study of Sankara’s works indicates that he must have lived before 500 A.D. He also cites a copper plate inscription from Sanjeli, Gujarat, dating to about 506 A.D., in defence of his theory, although other epigraphists have interpreted the inscription differently. The inscription says King Bhuta granted two villages to an institution called ‘Bhagavatpaadaayana’- that is, the temple of one Bhagavatpaada. The inscription says that the villages given as an agrahara, were reclassified and redesignated as ‘parivraajakabhojya’, and the use of this expression is important, for ‘parivraajakabhojya’ means land given to a Brahmin ascetic of the Paramahamsa order. Sankaranarayanan says the Brahmin ascetic referred to here must have been Adi Sankara.
Women and sacrifices
Another inscription with regard to which Sankaranarayanan differs from the editors, relates to a widowed Queen Nagamnika, who, according to a first century B.C. inscription, performed Vedic sacrifices. The editors felt something must have been missing in the epigraph, for it was unthinkable that a woman would have been allowed to perform sacrifices. But Sankaranarayanan says there were some Mimamsa schools that allowed women to perform sacrifices. The Vedic injunction is ‘svarga kaamo yajeta’- he who desires heaven should perform sacrifices. Now svarga kaamah is masculine gender, and so it was concluded that only men could perform sacrifices. But the school of Badarayana argued that this was not the right interpretation, for there is also an injunction – saranaagato rakshitavyah- he who has taken refuge must be protected. Does this mean a woman who seeks refuge must be turned away? Nagamnika might have followed the Badarayana school, says Sankaranarayanan.
Sarabasvaamin, the author of the Mimamsa Bhasya, made caustic remarks about men, who intoxicated with love for their wives, allowed them to perform sacrifices. Why would he make such an observation, if women did not perform sacrifices? Interestingly, Sarabasvaamin and Nagamnika were not far apart in time. Nagamnika, according to the inscription, performed 15 Vedic sacrifices, including Asvamedha and Rajasuya.
Talking about the date of the Kurukshetra war, Sankaranarayanan says that if one tries to reconcile all possible evidence, one is inclined to conclude that there was not one war, but two! He rejects the suggestion that the war may have been totally fictional. He admits that what we have is a highly embroidered account, but the core of the story must be true. But if there had been two wars, why would all accounts talk of only one? “If you did not have a proper account of the two World wars, but the memory of the wars was kept alive through stories, then would you not get confused and think of the two wars as one? That’s what must have happened in the case of the Kurukshetra war.” He argues that one war took place in the 25th century B.C. and the other in 10th century B.C.
As for Sanskrit education, he says the new found dislike of Sanskrit is purely political. Is it not possible to have regard for both Sanskrit and Tamil, he asks. In this context, he says that the Vaishnava commentator, Periavachan Pillai, through his Manipravala commentary, did a great service.
Sankaranarayanan has an unusual interpretation of the Ahalya episode in the Ramayana. He says later literature did a grave injustice to the Vedic God Indra, by portraying him as a villain. Halya means cultivable land. When the rains fail, the land is Ahalya- uncultivated. Indra is the god of rain. Will not the land delight when it rains? So must we see Ahalya’s delight in Indra, for when it rains, she once again becomes cultivable, he explains. But what is Rama’s role then? “He restored agriculture to the land.”
Dr. Sankaranarayanan is currently working on a book titled ‘Sri Sankara and his bhashya in a historical perspective’. He has already typed 1,000 pages and has more to do.
- Paramacharya gave Sankaranarayanan the title ‘Vedasastra Ratnakara.’
- Sankaranarayanan has brought out critical editions of Bhojarajacaritra, Abhinavagupta’s Gitartha Sangraha, two commentaries on Tarkkasangraha and Deepikaaprakaasa, with his own tippanis, to name just a few of his published works.