KV Seshadrinatha Sastrigal, 85, is a traditionalist, for whom tradition refers to customs and ceremonials by means of which the past speaks to the present. Traditions, for this scholar, relate allegiance to authority, storing up as they do the sedimented wisdom of earlier generations. But what makes Sastrigal different from a whole clutch of scholars in Sanskirt, Vedas and Sastras is his contemporary and radical perspective.
Sastrigal understands that Sanskrit, the language through which, for thousands of years, ancient traditions and knowledge were passed on from generation to generation, has been marginalised, diluted and reduced to a pitiable state. Yet, he refuses to believe that the language can be erased.
In an effort to establish, develop, propagate and bring out the need for retention of Indian culture through the ancient texts, he formed a Trust, Veda Samrakshana Nyasa, in 1984, while he was in Chennai. Now, he has formed a new team for developing this idea in Kerala. Sasthrigal has established a Veda Padasala in Kalady, Ernakulam district, where around 24 students are studying Yajur Veda and Sanskrit. In addition, many others visit him to seek wisdom in this ancient language and the texts of knowledge. Sastrigal was honoured with the ‘Mahamahopadhyaya’ title by the Government of India, the first scholar to receive this title after Independence.
Macaulay, whom we call the father of our modern Indian education system, in his historical speech in the British Parliament, clearly indicated that the ancient system of Indian education needed to be dismantled. This, he considered, was the backbone of the country, its spiritual and cultural heritage. And he achieved the goal of eliminating Sanskrit from being an essential part of the Indian education system.
“That is history. So many foreign powers came to our land and brought with them their languages. But Sanskrit was not attacked. When the Muslim rulers came to India, Sanskrit was allowed to flourish, the beliefs were not touched. But everything changed when the British came. English was injected into every Indian brain; Sanskrit was pushed out of our thinking, our intellect. Along with the language they uprooted out culture and threw it away,” says Sastrigal, a renowned Vedic, Sanskrit and Ayurveda scholar and former Principal of Madras Sanskrit College.
Sastrigal refuses to believe that Sanskrit is a ‘dead language’. “Unfortunately, many consider it to be a Hindu language and, therefore, not inclusive. Ninety-five per cent of Sanskrit literature has nothing to do with religion. You cannot kill this language, it is alive, the Vedas too.”
Learning of Sanskrit
There was a time in the past, says Sastrigal, when everyone, irrespective of caste and religion, studied Sanskrit. “Even girls studied the subject; I can point out so many instances recorded in our texts about this. Plays were written in Sanskrit and were they only for the Brahmins? No, because if there were no people to understand and appreciate these plays, they would not have been written and staged.”
Sastrigal also exhorts us to look at what happened towards the end of British rule and post-Independence in our country. The truth is that British scholars started learning Sanskrit, translated the ancient scriptures and documents into English even while they started a propaganda claiming that Sanskrit was a dying language. “At the same time through efforts of scholars like Max Mueller, Sanskrit was being introduced in almost all universities in Europe.”
Born in Kuzhalmandam, Palakkad, on June 20, 1934, Sasthrigal was a Vedic student at Nurani Vedasastra Patasala from 1944-1954. “Like so many landowning communities, my family was also forced to migrate following the enforcement of the land reforms act that abolished the tenancy system. We moved to Madras [Chennai] where I continued my studies and where I still live.” Sastrigal completed his graduation (Sahitya Shiromani) in 1959, winning the Presidency gold medal. He went on to complete Sahithya Vidwan course, passed the Vedanta Shiromani, Ayurveda Shiromani and Ayurveda Vidwan courses. He then did his research in Chithrameemamsa Vakyasudha under Dr V Raghavan, delving into the depths of Malsyapurana. For a while he was an Ayurveda medical practitioner, taught at the Venkitaramana Ayurveda College, Chennai, and was Principal of Madras Sanskrit College for 10 years.
“My association with Dr Raghavan opened new doors and helped changed my outlook towards these subjects. When I came first to Madras Presidency for Shiromani, he was pleasantly surprised. At that time I used to work for him at his house. He told me to join the university and begin my research. It was he who instilled in me that interest. He was a hard task master, made us work a lot but we enjoyed working. I was with him for nearly 10 years.”
Talking about his research subject, Malsyapurana, Sastrigal says that it was not just on the Puranas but more on the theory of evolution. “My only complaint is that people today ignore and discard the Vedas and Sastras even before trying to understand them. Can’t they at least listen, read and understand them before coming to a conclusion?”
A lot of scholars seek Sastrigal’s advice on Sanskrit, the Vedas, Ayurveda and even astrology, but though he swears by Ayurveda he considers astrology as a subject with no known source. “Ayurveda is an ancient system of medicine. It is a general philosophy of health and wellness. It talks about proper diet, exercise, sleep, hygiene, and, of course, the use of herbal preparations. Like most traditional medicine systems, Ayurveda was developed and refined over thousands of years, through observation and experience. The term itself means the science of life. But astrology is not a truth. There is no specific mention of astrology in the Vedas, only astronomy is mentioned. For me, astrology does not exist.”
It is important to understand, says Sastrigal, though the practices of astrology and astronomy have common roots, there is an important distinction. “Astronomy is the study of the universe and its contents outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Astronomers examine the positions, motions, and properties of celestial objects. I do that. Astrology attempts to study how those positions, motions, and properties affect people and events.”
Veda Samrakshana Nyasa in Kalady has ventured into many projects with the advice and leadership of Sastrigal. A website ( www.vedanyasa.com ) has been created that offers information about Indian culture and traditions, the Vedas and Dharma Sasthras. Digitalisation of various ancient books and treatises on Ayurveda, astronomy, Vedas, etc., which will be made available free of cost to any user, publication of vernacular versions of these works, training and counseling sessions on lifestyle, food habits etc are some of the other projects that the organisation has on its anvil.
“Sanskrit is the greatest language in the world. And if it is taken away from the life of the masses of this country, a light would be gone. The distinctive features of a rich culture will be lost. I have very little time left. My efforts are to educate the present generation not only on the Shodhasa Samskaras (Hindu traditions) but also the Dharmasastras, which can help them mould their life free from all sorrows, pains, difficulties and given them peace of mind,” says Sastrigal.