CITIES The spirit of Mysore celebrated quiet scholarship of individuals who were engaged in scholarly pursuits beyond institutional power and authority N. MANU CHAKRAVARTHY
To capture the spirit of Mysore, as it existed for a long time until notions of ‘progress’, ‘development’ ushered in by a centralising capitalist order that goes by the name of ‘Globalisation’ altered it, it is necessary to turn to the centres of learning that flourished in the city. If the common people of Mysore held on to their lives with great dignity and self-respect, in spite of their economic poverty, it was because they existed in a place that was not totally regulated by a predatory market system that erases what does not further its interests. Likewise de-centred spaces were available for those seeking knowledge without having to depend on Grants, Funding and other kinds of financial support either from the Government or private agencies. It is only during the last two decades that a general malaise has enveloped academic institutions in the form of doctoral and post-doctoral degrees that are made mandatory for those who wish to belong to these institutions. The mediocrity of the academic world of our times, with all and sundry being “qualified” to hold their positions in educational institutions is a contrast to the kind of extraordinary scholarship that one had a glimpse of in academics, even of the traditional kind. The story of Mysore as an area of profound learning is quite illuminating for our times.
There are some glorious examples to reveal what Mysore nourished intellectually. One might argue that there were indeed spots of mediocrity even then, which, of course, is a valid argument. But that does not take anything away from the fact that excellence that existed then did so without props and external aids. What is important is that there was an intellectual daring in scholars during those times that academics of our world, can never, ever, acquire. An outstanding example from the Mysore Sanskrit Pathashala comes to mind when one tries to capture the intellectual temper of old Mysore. I have heard from my father, a scholar who worked on the Rg Veda all his life, that a great scholar in the Pathashala who was known as an authority on the Vedas argued forcefully during a debate that the Lokayata tradition, the philosophical system of materialism that was strongly in opposition to the Idealist school – the Vedanta – was perhaps more valid in intellectual terms than the latter. The great Vedantic scholar was turning against his own intellectual position with enormous courage and conviction. His ideas were largely instrumental in prompting my father to turn to Buddhism to examine the philosophical divergences between the Vedanta and the Buddhist schools of thought without privileging the former as deeply “spiritual” and “transcendental”.
What is more interesting is that several Vedantins were enraged by the fierce and fearless argument of this Mahamahopadhyaya that they submitted a petition to the patron of the Pathasahala, the King of Mysore, that this scholar be removed from the institution for he caused considerable damage to the “purity” of the Indian philosophical system. The King dismissed the petition and asked these scholars to quit the Pathashala if they believed it was polluted by the radical views of an eminent scholar who was indispensable to the institution. There are accounts of how there were many traditional scholars who unhesitatingly interrogated their own philosophical systems and intellectual traditions. Within the traditional framework great questions were raised about the idea of God, the nature of spirituality and transcendence and the “truth” of the materiality of the world. There did prevail an atmosphere of open enquiry as regards intellectual positions and many recognise it as representative of the intellectual spirit of old Mysore.
A modern educational institution like the Maharaja’s College is another great symbol that old Mysoreans cherish even to this day. Great scholars in Sanskrit and Kannada internalised the best of the East and the West without ever being intimidated by the theoretical constructs of the latter. In fact, during those days when post-colonial theory was not even imagined, these scholars practised comparative studies and unhesitatingly questioned the world view of Western scholars and thinkers, especially their understanding of Indian society and culture. It was in this ambience that many challenged the orientalist discourses and narratives. All these happened much before post-colonial theorists (and Edward Said’s “Orientalism”) arrived on the intellectual horizon. Many of us — remember the open debates of traditional scholars on the puritanical attitudes of the West, the lack of proper understanding of the socio-cultural and religious traditions of India in celebrated Western scholars, and, more significantly, about the plurality of the Indian philosophical systems. One wonders how this intellectual daring that was, to a considerable degree at least, unmistakably present in Mysore evaporated in times such as ours when modern technology places ideas from all over the world at one’s doors. The manuscript and the book in physical forms engendered rich ideas in a city that was dismissed by those from the big metropolises as “dreamy, sleepy and backward”.
It would not do to talk about Mysore without referring to the quality of consciousness that an educational institution designed to meet the professional requirements of modern India contained in its framework. The National Institute of Engineering was founded to literally shape the basic structures of modern India by people who realised the importance of grooming competent professionals who were also idealists. In a way it was the vision of M. Visvesvaraiah that shaped the NIE that produced outstanding civil engineers many of whom joined government service and were responsible for building some truly magnificent structures that symbolise their dedication to the community. NIE produced first rate civil and mechanical engineers and is remembered for its intellectual excellence and social commitment. NIE is indeed representative of the essential spirit of old Mysore that did not belong to the competitive market system.
The Oriental Research Institute was another centre that negotiated between traditional scholarship and modern intellectual enquiries about the nature of traditional texts. The Oriental Research Institute did have scholars rooted in the traditional order who were open to those schemes of enquiry that were sceptical of the “universality” of what constituted the Indian philosophical tradition.
Mysore was not, in a major sense, a centre of power and authority as many research centres and institutions are today. The scholars of Mysore were not influential figures holding key positions in the academic world who could make or ruin careers of those who worked under them. In fact, they were individuals who were engaged in scholarly pursuits beyond institutional power and authority. The spirit of Mysore celebrated quiet scholarship – it was a contemplative and meditative practice. One only remembers the many scholars who worked silently for decades unmindful of lucrative careers as one witnesses the academic rat races of the present.