History & Culture

The First Tamil Ph.D

P.S. Subrahmanya Sastri.  

Dr. P.S. Subrahmanya Sastri, born on July 29, 1890, was a Sanskrit scholar, who also acquired mastery over Tamil language and literature. He was the first to translate ‘Tolkappiyam’ into English and also the Mahabhashya. This year turns out to be the 125th birth anniversary this prolific writer.

Sastri did his S.S.L.C. at National High School, F.A. at St. Joseph’s College and B.A. Mathematics at SPG (later Bishop Heber’s) College – all in Tiruchi. He started his professional career as a Mathematics assistant at the Central High School (now Srinivasa Rao Higher Secondary School), Tiruvaiyaru, and National High School, Tiruchi.

He studied Sanskrit under Nilakanta Sastri, a specialist in grammar and philosophy. He also learnt Nyaya (logic) and Alankara Sastra (Poetics and Literary Criticism) from Prof. S. Kuppuswami Sastri of the Madras Presidency College and Mimamsa (Linguistics) from Chinnaswami Sastri of the Benares Hindu University. A graduate in M.A. (Sanskrit), Sastri also passed L.T. through Teachers’ Training College at Saidapet, Chennai.

He was appointed Professor of Oriental Studies at SPG College, Tiruchi, by Fr. Gardiner in 1917 and served his alma mater till 1926. He then became the Asst. Editor, Tamil Lexicon, University of Madras, in which capacity he served till 1932 and editor of the Lexicon for a month. He was principal, Rajah’s College, Thiruvaiyaru, (1932-1942) and Head of the Department of Sanskrit at the Annamalai University (1942–47).

While teaching Sanskrit, Prof. Sastri had to teach Tamil also. This paved the way for his in-depth study in both the languages, specifically grammar. Prof. Kuppuswami Sastri also taught him the Comparative Philology of Indo Aryan languages. All these inspired him to take up a systematic study of Tamil literature and grammar.

With deep knowledge in Sanskrit and Tamil and a strong footing in Comparative Philology, Prof. Sastri submitted his Ph.D. thesis, ‘History of Grammatical Theories in Tamil and their relation to grammatical literature in Sanskrit’ in 1930 at the Madras University. His was the first Ph.D. degree in Tamil awarded by the University of Madras.

Being an indefatigable researcher, Prof. Sastri worked on the Tolkappiyam, which he later translated into English. The translation of ‘Ezhuthu’ and ‘Poruladhikaram’ were published by the Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute, while the ‘Solladhikaram part’ was published by Annamalai University.

Prof. Sastri’s text on Tolkappiyam in Roman transliteration and English translation received encomiums from linguists across the world.

At Thiruvaiyaru when he took over as the principal of the College, he taught both Sanskrit and Tamil. He trained several students who distinguished themselves later in different fields.

Dr. Sastri’s tenure as the Professor and Head of the Sanskrit Department at Annamalai University was one of the most dynamic periods of his professional life. He revived the defunct Sanskrit Honours course. His class lectures in Sanskrit or English used to be interspersed with parallels from Tamil literature. It is because of this, Mr. Thomas T. Burrow, a Sanskrit scholar from England (later Boden Professor of Sanskrit at the Oxford University and the joint author of the epoch making Dravidian Etymological Dictionary), took keen interest in attending his Sanskrit classes at Annamalai University.

During his tenure at Annamalai University, Prof. Sastri published two volumes of lectures on Patanjali’s Mahabhashya, the Thonivilakku, a Tamil translation of Dhvanyaloka (a Sanskrit rhetorical text), History of Sanskrit literature and Sanskrit Language (2 books) in Tamil and Historical Tamil Reader in English.

On his retirement, he returned to Thiruvaiyaru to complete the translation of the Mahabhashya into English (in 14 volumes running to about 4,000 pages) on the advice of the Mahaperiyava of Kanchi. He finished his translation in 1953.

Under each sutra just before taking up the bhashya, Dr. Sastri had pointed out the topics that would be dealt with in the great commentary. Then giving the original in the Devanagari script, he translated each passage of the text. With a view to elucidating the obscure points, he often added notes mostly based on Kaiyata’s Pradipa and Nagesabhatta’s Udyote. Footnotes are also given offering further explanation and showing variance in readings. The index of words is a welcome addition.

The remaining eight volumes which could not be published during his life time, were in the safe custody of his youngest son Prof. P.S. Krishnan. These have been handed over to the Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute by him and the family of Dr. Sastri.

With the untiring efforts of Dr. P.N. Natarajan, grandson of Dr. Sastri and the contribution of Dr. Sastri’s family members volumes 7-13 are being published by the Institute till date.

The last volume, along with the reprint of the first six, will be released in the near future, thereby making Prof. Sastri’s dream come true. Incidentally, the first six volumes will be reprinted by the Institute with the munificence of a donor.

Dr. Sastri had several ‘firsts’ to his credit: the first to be awarded a Ph.D. degree in Tamil, the first to attempt a historical grammar in Tamil, write a philological work in Tamil, work on comparative literature, translate the entire Tolkappiyam and Patanjali’s Mahabhasya into English.

Dr. Sastri was a recipient of several titles. ‘Vidyaratna’ (Benares); Vidyanidhi (Kerala); Vidyabhushana (Karntaka); Mahamahimopadhyaya (Allahabad) and Vani-Triveni-Prayaga from the Periyava of Kanchi Mutt. In the fifth title, the Mahaswami implied that Sanskrit and Tamil represented the rivers Ganga and Yamuna and English represented Antarvahini Saraswathi since his proficiency in English was hidden in his works.

Dr. Sastri was a voracious reader, versatile writer and an erudite scholar. Apart from his mastery over Sanskrit, Tamil and English, he also studied German, French, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Sastri, who was known for his simplicity, taught Tirukkural to a manual scavenger during his retired life at Tiruvaiyaru.

Dr. Sastri was extremely kind to his students that sometimes he would pay their course and examination fee. He had studied the Rg, Yajur and Sama Vedas and taught them to many students. He had also published about 40 books besides his contribution of research articles in journals. Dr. Sastri passed away on May 20, 1978, at Tiruvaiyaru.

(The writer is Director, The Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute, Chennai.)

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 11:00:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/dr-ps-subrahmanya-sastri-a-sanskrit-and-tamil-scholar-whose-125th-birth-anniversary-was-on-july-29-2015/article7456140.ece

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