Padma Bhushan Rahul Sankrityayan: A little known, self-taught genius

Rahul Sankrityayan and some of his books

The polyglot scholar is considered to be the father of the genre of travelogue in Hindi as he wrote several accounts of various colourful travels

“I know only one Rahul and he is a very delightful and learned scholar who is a Buddhist monk and knows any number of out-of-the-way languages.”
—Jawaharlal Nehru

Rahul Sankrityayan’s birth as well as death anniversaries have just passed us by. Born on April 9, 1893, to a peasant family of high-caste Brahmins in village Pandaha in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, he died on April 14, 1963. While he is still remembered as a great scholar—he was universally called Mahapandit—and people do talk about him being a polyglot who knew nearly 30 languages, it is also a fact that not many people now possess much knowledge about his life or work. A recent initiative of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts has tried to rectify this situation by organising a three-day international seminar (March 14-16, 2018) on him titled ‘Rahul Sankrityayan: Mahapandit in the Land of Snow’, following it up by a nearly month-long exhibition of antiquities that he brought from Tibet and elsewhere to India, and a large number of his photographs.

The exhibition concluded on April 15, 2018, just a day after his 55th death anniversary. These events have naturally generated an interest in him and he is in some way back in the contemporary intellectual discourse. One can have some idea about the general amnesia about him from the fact that while he was invited twice to teach at the Leningrad University in Russia (then Soviet Union) and once at the Vidyalankar University in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), no Indian university has set up even a Chair to honour his memory. Similarly, while he was alive, no Indian university ever invited him to deliver even a lecture, leave alone to teach, simply because he did not possess any degree and had formal education up to only the middle school level.

The name that Rahul’s parents gave him was Kedar Nath Pande. When he was a little over five years old, he was admitted to a madarsa where he was initiated into Urdu and Arabic languages. At the tender age of 11, he was married to a girl, who was a year older than him. He never spent any time with her and, later in his life, felt weighed down by tremendous guilt on this account. Like great travellers such as Marco Polo, Rahul too travelled all over India including Kashmir and Ladakh and also in Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China, Soviet Union, Central Asia, Iran and many other countries. He fled from home for the first time at the age of nine and continued to do so later too. As he frequently changed places, “change” became the leitmotif of his political and intellectual life also as he journeyed through various philosophical and political beliefs.

Rahul went to Tibet four times and, to avoid the British police and intelligence, opted for the most difficult route that was usually avoided by travellers. He stayed in Tibetan monasteries and realised that most of the Buddhist religious and philosophical texts existed only in Tibetan translation and only 249 were in original Sanskrit. So, he learnt Tibetan and mastered it to the extent that much later he prepared a primer of Tibetan in Sanskrit and also a Tibetan-Hindi dictionary

When he was not even in his teens, a Mahant of a wealthy monastery at Parsa in Saran district of Bihar spotted his talent and decided to groom him as his successor. Kedar Pande’s initiation ceremony took place and he was given the name of Sadhu Ram Udar Das. Thus began his study of Sanskrit and Hindu scriptures. However, after a few years, he became terribly bored with the regimented life of a monastery as he had learnt whatever was available there and his thirst for more and more knowledge could not be quenched. In July 1913, he fled the monastery and travelled without a ticket to Madras (now Chennai) by train via Hajipur, Asansol, Kharagpur and Puri. He extensively travelled in the South, learnt Tamil and also became familiar with national politics.

Soon, he got attracted towards Arya Samaj and took admission in Arya Musafir Vidyalaya at Agra and studied Sanskrit, scriptures of various religions and Indian history. He also received instruction in advanced learning in Arabic from Maulavi Mahesh Prasad. At this time, he used to write only in Sanskrit and all his letters, even his diaries, from this period are in Sanskrit. Later, he wrote almost exclusively in Hindi while learning nearly 30 languages and acquiring the ability to speak, read and write reasonably well in nearly a dozen, including German, French, Pali, Tibetan, English, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Tamil and Russian.

When Mahatma Gandhi gave a call to observe April 6, 1919, as the “national humiliation day” to protest against the Rowlatt Act, Sadhu Ram Udar Das was in Lahore. He was greatly enthused and joined the Congress movement. Later, he was elected an office-bearer of the District Congress Committee in Chhapra, Bihar, where he led many struggles of peasants and workers. He was first arrested for six months and later for two years for his participation in the anti-British freedom movement. During his incarceration, he was drawn towards Buddhism and later acquired international fame as a great scholar of Buddhist philosophy and religion. He went to Ceylon to teach Sanskrit and study Pali and Buddhist philosophy. It was here that he embraced Buddhism, became a monk and got a new name Rahul Sankrityayan that remained with him until his last breath, although he had become a communist by giving up Buddhism in favour of Marxism.

Rahul Sankrityayan was honoured with a Padma Bhushan during his lifetime by the government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1993, the Indian government issued a postage stamp to commemorate his birth centenary

Rahul went to Tibet four times and, to avoid the British police and intelligence, opted for the most difficult route that was usually avoided by travellers. He stayed in Tibetan monasteries and realised that most of the Buddhist religious and philosophical texts existed only in Tibetan translation and only 249 were in original Sanskrit. So, he learnt Tibetan and mastered it to the extent that much later he prepared a primer of Tibetan in Sanskrit and also a Tibetan-Hindi dictionary. He brought thousands of palm leaf manuscripts belonging to the ancient and early medieval periods on the back of 22 mules and handed them over in Patna to Kashi Prasad Jayaswal, who was a well known Indologist and historian, besides being a famous barrister. He edited great Buddhist philosopher Dharmakirti’s Pramanvarttikam and wrote an erudite commentary on it. He also wrote several books on Buddhism, Buddhist philosophy and philosophy in general in Hindi. They include books like Buddhacharya, Bauddh Darshan and Darshan-Digdarshan.

Rahul Sankrityayan is considered to be the father of the genre of travelogue in Hindi as he wrote several accounts of various colourful travels. He also wrote novels in Hindi portraying ancient Indian society while his book Volga Se Ganga, a collection of short stories, was based on his Marxist understanding of how human society had evolved from 6000 BC up to 1942, the year when Mahatma Gandhi launched his Quit India movement. This proved to be his most popular book and was translated in many languages including Urdu, Sindhi, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Odiya, Bengali, Assamese, Nepali, Burmese, English and Russian.

His extensive travels in Russia and Central Asia convinced him that Indian history could not be understood properly and fully without having deep knowledge of Central Asian history. Therefore, he wrote a monumental two-volume Madhya Asia Ka Itihaas (History of Central Asia) that appeared in 1956-1957. Sahitya Akademi lost no time in recognising this path-breaking work and bestowed its prestigious award on it in 1958. Rahul Sankrityayan was honoured with a Padma Bhushan during his lifetime by the government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1993, the Indian government issued a postage stamp to commemorate his birth centenary.

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