Society

A forgotten genius

A book by Rahul Sankrityayan  

Rahul Sankrityayan’s birth as well as death anniversaries have just passed us by. Born on April 9, 1893 as Kedar Pandey in a village in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, he breathed his last on April 14, 1963. However, we do not hear even a faint murmur about him among present-day historians, philosophers, writers or political workers although he had made seminal contributions to their fields. Such is the amnesia that has gripped the Hindi world that it does not remember those who devoted their entire lives to serve the cause of Hindi. Rahul Sankrityayan, who was universally called Mahapandit (great scholar) as he knew nearly 30 languages and could speak, read and write with great facility more than a dozen of them including English, French, German, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Pali, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Tamil and Russian, almost always wrote in Hindi. And, causing much worry to his admirers like well-known historian and Indologist Kashi Prasad Jayaswal who feared that, like Shankaracharya, he too would soon get burnt out, Rahul wrote prolifically. By the time he died at the age of 70, he had already penned nearly 140 books, some of which are considered classics even to this day. This was when the last 18 months of his life were completely unproductive, as he had suffered near-total loss of memory and could barely speak.

When Rahul’s monumental two-volume “Madhya Asia Ka Itihas” (History of Central Asia) appeared in 1956-1957, it immediately fetched him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1958. Although widely known for his knowledge of Indian history, epigaphy and archaeology, he chose to write on Central Asia as there was no book on the subject in Hindi. During his extensive travels in Russia and Central Asia, he had realised that one could not understand India’s history without understanding the vital links it had with Central Asia. Later, he also prepared a Tibetan-Hindi dictionary for the Akademi. Unfortunately, only one volume of this important work could see the light of day.

Selected Essays

Selected Essays  

Kedar Pandey could receive formal education only up to the middle school level. While he was in his teens, he was spotted by a mahant of a wealthy math in Chhapra district of Bihar who decided to make him his successor. He was initiated into the sect as Ram Udar Das Sadhu and received education in Sanskrit and Hindu scriptures. He started travelling through and length and breadth of the country and reached Madras (now Chennai) where he lived as a sadhu in the free inn. He travelled on foot to Tirumalai where he stayed in an Uttararthi-matham and began to learn Tamil. He went to Punnamalai, Pachchaperumal, Tirumishi and Tinnanur and visited almost all the religious places in the South as a sadhu. It was during these travels that he picked up the habit of reading the national newspaper The Hindu and acquired an understanding of national politics from it.

Extensive study

He gradually started questioning his ritualistic life and became attracted towards the Arya Samaj. In January 1915, he got himself admitted to Arya Musafir Vidyalaya in Agra where education was imparted in Sanskrit, Arabic and the teachings of Swami Dayanand Saraswati. As Ram Udar Das was highly proficient in Sanskrit, he concentrated on Arabic, which was taught by Maulvi Mahesh Prasad. Later, he turned into a Buddhist monk, went to Sri Lanka, learnt Pali and made a deep study of the Buddhist texts. Here, he took the name Rahul Sankrityayan and was known for the rest of his life by this name although he later gave up Buddhism in favour of Marxism.

He extensively travelled through Kashmir, Ladakh and Nepal and visited Tibet four times. It was due to his Herculean efforts that thousands of palm leaf manuscripts of Buddhist philosophy that were considered to be lost could be discovered. He brought them on the backs of 22 mules and handed over to K. P. Jayaswal. He edited and wrote erudite commentaries on a few of them. He wrote a grammar and primer of Tibetan in Sanskrit and made a pioneering contribution in preserving and reconstructing the philosophical works of Buddhist logicians like Dharmakirti, Asang and Subandhu. His travels prompted him to write travelogues and he is considered to be the father of this genre in Hindi.

Rahul Sankrityayan spent three years in jail on account of his anti-British political activities. He joined the communist party while it was still facing a ban. While no Indian university ever thought it fit to invite him to teach – why, because he did not have any formal degree! – he was invited twice by the Leningrad University and once by the Vidyalankar University in Sri Lanka. No Indian university has created even a chair to honour his memory.

His book “Volga Se Ganga” (From Volga to Ganga) continues to remain a very popular collection of stories that offers a panoramic view of the way human society has evolved from 6000 B.C. to 1942, the year Mahatma Gandhi issued the “Quit India” call. This book was translated into Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali and many other Indian and foreign languages. He wrote biographies of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Akbar and valiantly fought communalism of all hues. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in his lifetime and the Indian government issued a postage stamp to commemorate his birth centenary in 1993.

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 6:50:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/a-forgotten-genius/article18162862.ece

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