Among the greatest minds in Indian philosophy and Sanskrit literary traditions was Prof. G.N. Chakravarthy. This scholar, who constantly renewed his understanding of the ancient knowledge systems to tackle the problems of the present, passed away last Friday

For as long as he lived, Prof. G.N. Chakravarthy was subject to apathy of most. Brahmins said, “He is spoilt by the influence of Western thought”. Rationalists accused him of being “a revivalist of the ancient, Vaidika tradition; an irrational, conservative Brahmin”. The innate, profound dimensions of his understanding, the brilliance of his philosophy remained like the fruit concealed beneath a cluster of leaves to the unapprised. Like this Sanskrit scholar and thinker always said in response: “I’m not spoilt by the influence of Western thought, though I must concede that the study of Rigveda has spoilt me. Within the community I’m the odd man out, the one who does not believe in class, caste and order. I’m an advocate of the overall well being of the community.”

Entry point

Today there is a greater need for us to understand Prof. Chakravarthy. At this juncture, when we are invaded by modernity, globalization, and neo-imperialism, we suffer from all forms of amnesia. In these complex times, one sees the urgency to understand Chakravarthy from a cultural and historical context. Both in the pre-Independence and post-Independence periods, ideological existence was important; traditional Sanskrit scholarship was being evaluated from the premise of modern progressive thought. Similarly, Indian systems of knowledge were being analysed in the light of science and Western thought. Wedged in such meanings and perceptions, there was also a search for the fundamental truth of human existence. And among the scholars who were engaged in such new reflections, Prof. Chakravarthy was in the forefront.

The late culture critic D.R. Nagaraj said: “Kannada culture has taken shape from the amalgamation and conflicts of the Vaidika and non-Vaidika streams. The strength and beauty of Kannada culture is the result of the intermingling of the best of Vaidika and non-Vaidika studies. However, today, one doesn’t get to see the best of Vaidika system in the Kannada culture-language. The blind Hindu communal politics will not extend the Vaidika sensibilities. Not even the sensibilities of Kannada.”

Though Prof. Chakravarthy was immersed in the conventional study of the Vedas right from his childhood, his young mind was always inclined towards the texts of the Indian philosophical system, which transcended the boundaries of traditionalism. It was scholars like Prof. M. Hiriyanna, and teacher C.R. Narasimha Shastry who instilled in him an interest in the Indian philosophical texts and the vedas. He was an authority on the Rigveda and was constantly engaged in research and analysis. Due to such an involved engagement with the Rigveda, he was able to perceive the spiritual intent of the texts, which inspired him to scale greater heights of accomplishment.

Inspired by Western thought, many thinkers dismissed the ‘spiritual’ and ‘metaphysical’ as a discourse that has no basis in the political and historical and is therefore unscientific offering no scope for discussion.

However, Prof. Chakravarthy, unravelling the entire text of the Rigveda, contended that the arguments and theoretical issues raised by these thinkers were embedded in the Vaidika tradition itself.

Though Prof. Chakravarthy understood the Rigveda in the backdrop of the theory of “Universal Harmony”, his argument of it used images, symbols and metaphors, thereby bringing to fore its multiple dimensions. Based on the West’s man-centric approach of experience, tangibility and historicity, G.N. Chakravarthy used Vyasa’s epic “Mahabharata” – which is history personified – to expound his own philosophical position that was in total opposition to this. While the West scoffed at the Indian approach of seeking solutions for individual and civilizational issues in the spiritual realm, dogmatic Oriental scholars who nurture a standpoint that is as one-sided as this, seek all answers in the transcendental and mystical, refusing to see its historical basis in the material world. It was for these reasons, that towards the end of his life, he was interested in studying Buddhism and its relationship with the Vaidika tradition.

Chakravarthy, from his philosophical framework, rejects both these positions at once. Indian thinkers blame the attitude of the Western thinkers as one that rests in the material world; completely stripped of philosophical dimensions. In opposition to this, the Western thinkers conclude that Indian philosophical viewpoint gives no importance to worldly life and preaches only modes of departure. In reality, these are not only narrow readings of each other’s systems, but also inappropriate and imperfect. To understand the infinite universe, a human civilization that has nurtured itself on the notion of plurality, as well as history that is not to be seen as linear, G.N. Chakravarthy used sage Vyasa’s epic poem, the “Mahabharata” as a rich source.

Indian history is not modern, it’s like the river which has its origins in the mysterious silence of the cosmos; the past is intertwined with the present. Using history to illustrate such a notion of continuity, he maintains how the ancient always gains contemporariness through the present. And hence, for those scholars who wish to see history in a very insular sense and also to those scholars who rely heavily on the material world, the “Mahabharatha” , serves as the perfect example.

Many answers

The “Bhagavadgeethe” for Chakravarthy, is a text that has answers for an individual seeking the metaphysical, even as his fate rests with the community. It leads man – trapped as he is in the firestorm of everyday life – and doesn’t fail him. For him, Gandhiji was the perfect example of such incessant spiritual dynamism even in the face of the mind numbing worldly difficulties.

Though Chakravarthy’s journey began with the study of the Vedas, it didn’t end there: like the contours of the flowing river, it assumed many shapes and dimensions, constantly expanding itself. Among his works are “Ruksamhita Saara”, “Vedadalli Vishwa Samarasya Sandesha”, “Itihaasa Pradeepa”, “The problem of evil in Mahabharatha”, “Philosophy of History in the Mahabharatha” and others. At the age of 94, he put out an advanced volume of the Sankrit-Kannada dictionary. He is the recipient of several awards including the Karnataka Rajyotsava Award.

Prof. Chakravarthy through his thoughts, has left us with the strength to encounter the lurking dangers of communalism and globalisation, as a bid to save our identities.

(Translated from Kannada by Deepa Ganesh)