Category Archives: Rahula Sankrityayana

The scholar …the drifter

Rahula Sankrityayana (1893 – 1963)

In my article on Tibetan Buddhism, which I posted quite sometime back, I made a brief reference to the efforts of Mahapandita Rahula Sankrityayana in bringing back from Tibet, precious books and ancient manuscripts that were no longer available in India. In that context, I wrote a few lines about the scholar and his life. One of the readers exclaimed “Wow..! He seems to have been quite a cool guy: a one-time Arya Samaji turned Tibet-travelling, Scripture-collecting, travelogue writing, Soviet-loving former Brahmin turned Buddhist founder of the Communist Party of Bihar.” And said” You have been too short on him. Why don’t you write more about him?”  I am not sure if the Mahapandita ever regarded himself a cool-guy. I wonder, despite his scholarship, whether the term cool-guy meant anything to him; his time was much before the slang entered into books. Even in case he was wise to the term, I suspect, he could not have cared less.

I had no opportunity to meet the Mahapandita. I did, of course, send him a few letters. He replied in Hindi to my letters in English. That was during 1960 – 61, my hard times, the years of great stress and total confusion. He was, at that time, teaching in Vidyalankara Pirivena, a Buddhist Institution in Sri Lanka. He advised me to dig into Pali texts if I have to understand the Buddha and his teachings. I later came to know that soon after that he returned to India; and died of caner, in the year 1963, at Darjeeling. I could not pursue Pali studies. I had other priorities; I had to earn a living. That took me to the wilderness called Bombay. (Please see my earlier years in Bombay and  Dorabjee )

I was initially attracted to Rahula Sankrityayana through his books on travel, especially his fascinating experiences in that land of mystery, Tibet. The other book of his that I liked was “Volga to Ganga” a literary adventure spread over 22 short stories. It attempts to reconstruct early human history from pre-Vedic times to the then modern India (1944). It focuses on various stages in the civilizations that flourished in the regions between the basins of the two great rivers the Volga in Russia and the Ganga in India.The remarkable thing about the book was the way it presented history as a series of stories of imaginary characters. That was very fascinating. During those days I regarded the books of Will Durant and Sankrityayana, among a few others, as   self-learning tools since my formal education  had snapped at that stage.

He was born as Kedarnath Pande in an orthodox Brahmin family in a small village in Azamgarh district of Eastern Uttar Pradesh. He lost his mother Kulawanti at a very early age; and, his father Govardhan Pande, with the aid of the boy’s grandmotherbrought him up .His basic education was in Urdu and Sanskrit at the village school. But that did not last long. Restless by nature, he ran away from home at the age of nine, to ‘take a look at the world”. He survived by doing odd jobs and serving the groups of wandering mendicants, sadhus. Some say he learnt Devi Upasana during this period. After staying with the sadhus for nearly a year, he returned home for a brief period and then again left for Varanasi to study Sanskrit under a Vaishnav pundit, Baba Ram-udar Das. He also taught himself some Indian languages and English. He learned photography as well.

He again left Varanasi on a long pilgrimage of South India. On return, he settled down at the Arya Samaj, Lahore and pursued Vedic studies. He was at that time in his twenties; and his writing career started here. He wrote for Sanskrit and Hindi periodicals. The massacre at Jillianwallah Baugh (1919) shook him rudely; and he decided to plunge into the national movement. He was imprisoned for three years, during 1925-27. It was while he was serving his term in the prison, Kedarnath got acquainted with the Buddha and his teachings. It had a profound impact on him.  He, later in his life, wrote “I had given my heart and mind to Arya Samaj. But, I had to take them back when I discovered the Buddha”.

Soon after his release from prison he travelled to Sri Lanka (1928) and got admitted to the renowned Buddhist monastic college, Vidyalankara Pirivena. He learnt Pali and Sinhalese languages; and studied the Buddhist texts – the Tipitakas – in the original. He assumed the name Rahula (after the Buddha’s son) Sankrityayana (the assimilator).

After a stay of about three years, he left Sri Lanka and joined Dr. Rajendra Prasad (who later became the first president of the Indian Republic) in social constructive activities. He also became the president of the Azamgarh unit of the Indian National congress.

Bitten by the travel bug, he quickly left for the forbidden land of Tibet. The India – Tibet border, during the British Raj, was virtually sealed; and it was extremely difficult to enter Tibet from India. Sankrityayana, there fore, took a circuitous and a very hazardous route to Tibet, which was hardly travelled. He entered Tibet through Kashmir. Ladakh and Kargil and travelled on foot in company of petty thieves, smugglers and small merchants desperate for trade and some profit.

While in Tibet he travelled extensively, in company of a Tibetan monk, Gendun Choephel, searching for copies of ancient Sanskrit texts that were destroyed in India centuries earlier but had survived in remote monasteries in Tibet. Gendun Choephel was Rahula’s translator as well as his mediator for Tibetan culture. They visited many monasteries and discussed with many Lamas. Some say, he even got secret initiations. Sankrityayana’s main purpose was to collect and bring back to India the ancient Sanskrit texts or their translations that were no longer available in India. For Rahula, historical research was a part of his political fight; for him researching history was the key to the present. He did succeed in this to a certain extent.  It is said that he returned to India after fifteen month’s stay in Tibet with  twenty-two mules loaded with Sanskrit manuscripts and Thanka paintings from Tibetan monasteries.

Incidentally, his friend and guide Gendun Choephel was no less a colorful person. He too lived an interesting and an adventurous life. Gendun Choephel visited India and was thoroughly taken up by the turbulence of the freedom movement. It is said, in India he experienced the most creative phase of his life. He travelled across the country as a Buddhist pilgrim, lived in the crowded city of Calcutta, saw the ocean, visited brothels and libraries, wrote his first newspaper articles and translated the Kamasutra in to Tibetan, enriching it with notes based on his experiences. Gendun Choephel returned to Tibet in 1946. Rahula’s leftist ideology obviously seemed to have rubbed off on him. He got associated with the Tibetan Revolutionary Party and designed its logo: a sickle crossed by a sword. The Tibetan Revolutionary Party’s goal was to overthrow the tyrannical regime in Lhasa. He began to write the political history of Tibet but this attempt was abruptly stopped by his arrest. He was accused of insurrection and thrown in jail for three years. In 1949 he was freed. But his heart was broken and he drowned his desperation in alcohol. Soon afterwards, in 1951, the Chinese army overran the Tibetan troops in eastern Tibet.  Shortly after the occupation of Lhasa by the Chinese army, Gendun Choephel died. His, often quoted, famous last words were “Now we are fucked.”

During his last years, Gendun Choephel became a role model for many young Tibetans in Chinese-occupied Tibet and also for those in exile in India. A film titled “Angry Monk – Reflections on Tibet”” based on Gendun Choephel’s life was made, in 2006, by Luc Schaedier, a filmmaker from Zurich.

Please check:

On his return, Rahula Sankrityayana  with the help of his friend Kasi Prasad Jayaswal, the reputed Indologist, he arranged and classified the manuscripts; and also identified some of the manuscripts the originals of which were lost. Most of the books and manuscripts he brought back from Tibet had been lost in India but preserved in Tibet. What he had brought back was a literary treasure. All his later writings revolved around this collection, in one way or the other.

He settled down in Patna for a while researching into the Sanskrit and Tibetan manuscripts he brought back from Tibet. He even toyed with the idea of setting up a Buddhist University in Nalanda. [His dream was fulfilled years later when his disciple Dr. Jagdish Kashyap founded the Nava-Nalanda Maha Vihara, during 1970.]

While working on the Buddhist manuscripts in Patna, he was asked by the Mahabodhi Society, Calcutta to go to England to spread the message of the Buddha. Sankrityayana accompanied by Ananda Kausalayana, a Buddhist monk and scholar, left for Europe and England during the year 1932.They travelled together in Europe for nearly one year.

While in England, the celebrated Indologist Theodor Stcherbatsky was greatly impressed by the scholarship ofSankrityayana and invited him to Russia. He stayed in Russia for more than ten years, until 1948. Sankrityayana did not have formal education and degrees; yet, in consideration of his learning and scholarship, he was appointed professor of Indology (1937-8) at the University of Leningrad.At the University , he taught Indology ,Sanskrit and Bengali. He published about ten books in Bengali while he was there.

He became a member of the communist party around 1938.By about this time he gave up his monastic status.

There at the University, he came in contact with a Mongolian scholar Lola (Ellena Narvertovna Kozerovskaya). She could speak French, English, and Russian and write in Sanskrit. She helped him in his work on Tibetan- Sanskrit dictionary. They got married and had a son, Igor. This was Sankrityayana’s second marriage. He   was married when very young; but nothing much is mentioned of his child-wife or what became of her.

He travelled to Tibet again, in 1944, for an extended stay of three years. He also visited India to participate in the peasant’s movement. He was now a full-fledged member of the communist party. He wrote books and pamphlets on communist ideology.” It was easier” he later wrote” for a student of Buddhist philosophy to understand Marxist philosophy.”

Despite such bonhomie, the communist party found it hard to tolerate his radical views and behaviour. He was promptly expelled from the communist party and USSR, after about a decade of his life as a communist. His Russian wife and son were not allowed to accompany Rahul to India. Stalin was then in control of the Soviet Union.

On his return to India, he resumed his Buddhist work. He again took to travel and visited Sri Lanka (where he taught Sanskrit), Japan, Korea, China, and Manchuria. He saw a fire temple in Baku and discovered an inscription in Devanagri script. From there he went to Tehran, Shiraz and Baluchistan and finally returned to India. It is said that during his lifetime he visited Tibet three times.

Sankrityayana  was a multilingual linguist, well versed in several languages and dialects, including Hindi, Sanskrit, Pali, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Tamil, Kannada, Tibetan, Sinhalese, French and Russian. He was also an Indologist, a Marxist theoretician, and a creative writer.

As regards his physical appearance, it is said Rahula was a very handsome person, standing over six feet tall with wide forehead, broad shoulders and chest. He had a pleasant and a winsome disposition.

He started writing during his twenties and had written around 150 books and dissertations covering a variety of subjects. Apart from travelogues he wrote extensively on a verity of subjects such as sociology, history, philosophy, Buddhism, Tibet logy, lexicography, grammar, textual editing, folklore, science, drama, and politics, He also produced two huge dictionaries, one Tibetan – Sanskrit; and the other Russian – Sanskrit. He also prepared a glossary of Hindi terms for administrative use. He also collected and wrote about the ecstatic songs (Doha) in Apabramsha dialect spoken by the eccentric Siddha saints of Bihar and Bengal. In honour of him, Patna Museum, Patna, has a special section, where a number of rare manuscripts, paintings and other items collected by him are displayed.[many however fear that Sankrithyayana’s manuscripts are allowed to be stolen from India.

[Please check]

The publication of Rahula Sankrityayana’s two-volume History of Central Asia in 1956-57 in Hindi was a benchmark in historical writing in India. The book however appears rather incomplete; because he could not finish it in the way he wanted. Rahula wished to document the transition in Central Asia from tsarist exploitation to the socialist epoch, giving a clear picture of the economic, cultural and educational achievements of the Soviet period. He envisaged that as the ‘most important’ part of the book. But he was not allowed to visit the region and collect field data. Because , the Central Committee of the CPSU considered his visits to Central Asian Regions of USSR was ‘inadvisable’. Rahula was bitterly upset with the decision. With the permission to visit central Asia being denied ,  he was unable to collect further materials he needed: the planned three-volume history was  reduced to two volumes. He later  wrote that if there was any major fault of the Soviet administration it was  the extent of suspicion which had reached its highest point .

[In that context Rahula Sankrityayana had addressed some letter to Stalin. Please check ]

He wrote his diaries in Sanskrit. But his passion was Hindi. He wrote almost all his books in Hindi. He wrote forcefully, elegantly and charmingly. His prose was magnificent. He strove hard for the cause of Hindi. He was for several years actively associated with All India Hindi Sahithya Sammelan. He was a major figure in the field of Hindi literature. One of the reasons for his expulsion from the communist party was perhaps his strong emotional attachment to Hindi.

The well known historian Kashi Prasad Jaiswal wrote, “A perusal of his remarkable works does not only make dead history return to life and comprehension of Indian history easy, but it also helps unravel many a historical knots. The great compiler and interpreter of his limitless data, which from their unbounded range in quantity make their handling extremely difficult, deserves unqualified gratitude of the reading public. The world of Hindi may take this achievement for a piece of pride, for no language either in the east or west has produced such a work.”

Explaining his association with Buddhism, Sankrityayana said he was attracted to the personality and the teaching of the Buddha and was impressed by the Buddha’s advice to the Kalamas: “Do not accept my words only because they come from me. Reflect on them and accept them only in case you find them acceptable.” Later, Sankrityayana, in turn, advised his students “Do not accept scripture or tradition. Accept only what you learn with your own mind and agree with that.”

His favorite line from the Buddha was: “I’ve used ideas as boats to cross the river with, not to carry them around upon my head.” It was this attitude that made him embrace Arya Samaja, Buddhism, Theravada, Mahayana, monasticism, communism, and lay life in turn. He was ready to accept change; he refused to be tied sown to a fixed idea or ideal.

He was convinced that Buddhism, far from being different from or antagonistic to, Hindu ideas and ideals, was in fact a part and an extension of Hindu way of thinking. It was very much a voice from within the Hindu fold. Sankrityayana argued that his conversion to Buddhism was for him, not a change from one religion to another, but just a change in emphasis on certain things.

He explained, the Buddha himself said what he taught was the Veda and Upanishad (esa vedopanisado).The principles were there; but the method of reaching those principles was what the Buddha discovered. This was the original contribution of the Buddha to human weal and welfare.

He quoted in his support the great Mimamsaka Kumarila Bhatta (c.620 AD) “The Buddhist denominations and other faiths are all derived from the Upanishads. And inasmuch as they advocate the withdrawal of one’s excessive attachment to objects of sense-pleasure, they are all authentic and praiseworthy.”

For some reason, Sankrityayana did not seem to think highly of Yoga or meditation. He called them “indulgence of old men.” That, coming from a former monk truly queered the pitch among the orthodox Buddhists.

He was not free from controversies in other areas too. He was accused of using history as a vehicle to carry his Marxist ideologies. For instance, the Gupta era is regarded the golden age; a very prosperous era during which the arts, literature,   culture and economy in general flourished. But Sankritiyayana tried to project it as an age tyranny and oppression. He seemed to argue that “suppression was the foundation of economic progress in history. How could an Empire be prosperous unless its common people are exploited? ”. In a way, he was the forerunner of historians like Romilla Thapar, RS Sharma and a few others.

Late in life, Sankrityayana married for the third time. He married Dr. Kamala, a Nepali lady of Indian origin. They had a daughter (Jaya) and a son (Jeta).

He accepted a teaching job at Vidyalankara Pirivena, in Sri Lanka, (which eventually emerged in to the University of Kelaniya in 1978), where he fell seriously ill. Memory loss, diabetes, high blood pressure and a mild stroke struck him. Rahula Sankrityayana (1893-1963) the stormy petrel of Indian intellectual world, one of the most widely traveled scholars, who spent forty-five years of his life on travel and away from home, searching for India’s soul and a meaning to his existence; died in Darjeeling, in 1963.




Posted by on September 11, 2012 in Rahula Sankrityayana


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