English Writings of D V Gundappa - 5

This article is part 5 of 12 in the series English Writings of D V Gundappa

DVG’s assessment of the social milieu in South India before the fourteenth century ce requires mention:

The atmosphere was then one of unsophisticated faith. No alien civilization had invaded the land to disturb the old social order. No new economic developments had come about to unsettle the people’s adherence to traditional modes and ideals of living. Even Buddhism had attacked only dogma and ritual, and not the ethical and social sides of varna-ashrama-dharma. And since its philosophical pretensions had been exploded and its humanitarian spirit had been assimilated, there arose no new religion to sow fresh doubts in men’s minds as to the soundness of the older faith. The only danger to be apprehended was want of knowledge; and it was enough if the Mutts could ensure a plentiful supply of authoritative knowledge through men trained in their forest seminaries. There were devoted Hindu kings in those times to attend to the rest for the proper preservation of the dharma. (p. 152; emphasis added)

               His observation on the extent of the influence of Buddhism is particularly insightful. This ancillary remark goes a long way in correcting our knowledge of the past.  

               He arrived at the following conclusion after narrating the extraordinary attainments of Śaṅkarācārya and Vidyāraṇya: 

They were both reformers. They were wide-awake to the new forces and circumstances of their respective ages. They did not affect to despise the social factors that were newly rising into view in their day or try to belittle their strength and importance. They readily recognized the realities of the situation as they found it and willingly came forward to supply the living wants of the Hindu world.

               The fundamental truth is that society is a living organism, that it should adjust itself to the changes in its environment from time to time if it is to grow, that though dharma is one and continuous like a river, its practical manifestations are many and varied in shape and size like the waves. (p. 156)

               Institutions, in Emerson’s wonderful phrase, are the ‘lengthened shadows of man.’ Because DVG knew this full well, he advocated the need to amplify an individual’s force of personality. However, acknowledging the power of institutions as a social glue, he founded and worked for several of them all through his life. He worshipped people who were institutions by themselves; his prose acquired a rare resplendence in speaking of them. The following extracts from his tributes to Dadabhai Naoroji and Surendranath Banerjee are fine examples:

Not erudition, not brilliance of speech, not dash and deftness in polemical sword-play, not shrewdness of eye for crises in popular psychology which, by proper poses, could be made to yield an ample return of enthusiastic applause, — not the compelling force of the intellect nor the piercing appeal of the emotions — was the seat of Dadabhai’s peculiar greatness. By sublimity of character alone was it given him to attain a sovereign position in the hearts of his countrymen. By the transcendental authority which belongs to a life lived in natural fidelity to the soul did he secure the instinctive allegiance of our hearts. Judgment stands dumb in the vicinity of such ethical magnificence. We surrender our all there, forgetful of our little selves, in all-absorbing raptures of gratefulness and of reverential joy. (pp. 170–71)

               What a romance of dauntless bravery, what a thrill of inspiring eloquence, what splendid tales of manful suffering and smiling fortitude crowded into our mind at the mere mention of that name! [Surendranath Banerjee] … When such a one departs, we feel as though one of the great elemental forces of nature has ceased to be. Dear that he was, dearer to us becomes the memory of his life. (pp. 174–75)

               Modern Kannada encountered various teething troubles in the early decades of the twentieth century. DVG followed its progress from close quarters – both as littérateur and connoisseur. One Prof. Subba Rao had commented that Kannada works modelled after traditional poetry were tiresomely ornate. “Their descriptions are stereotyped; their style is turgid; their sentiment affected and sloppy; and their message trite, and ostentatious at that,” he had said. DVG knew where this came from. He traced the problem to its source and showed the way ahead:

The medieval literary malady which blunted the writer’s sense of the distinction between the artistic and the artificial in Samskrit, could not but affect its foster-child also; and hence the abundance of works in Kannada whose only distinction is in their bombast, their puns and their cheap and easy moralizings … It is important to note, however briefly, the cause of this decadence. It is explained simply by the epoch of general decadence in our national history. There was in the land no new intellectual and social ferment, – no influx of new knowledge and no impact of new ideas. The current of the nation’s life having become stagnant and sterile, it could supply no inspiration and no sustenance to poetry. Literature, the “mirror of life,” had nothing but dreary theological controversies and the stock tales of a bygone age to engage its services. Thus, lacking a higher inspiration, the writer had to make up for it by developing a skill for verbal juggleries and pomposities of various kinds. And this degeneracy of the poet’s faculty was naturally followed by a degeneracy of the reader’s taste; so that a literary renaissance to-day would require not only writers whose minds have been nurtured and quickened by the new enlightenment, but also readers whose faculties of appreciation are purged of their medieval corruptions. (p. 180)

               Let us not therefore be impatient in the case of Kannada; and let us not grudge the sympathy and even the indulgence that is due to one who is just showing the first signs of recovery from chronic anaemia and who naturally needs time and nourishment and exercise to gain in flesh and muscle. (p. 182)

               John Morley (1838–1923) was a major source of inspiration to DVG. On Compromise, his well-known treatise, was a beacon to the proponents of Liberalism in India. DVG delivered a lecture on it at Central College, Bangalore, on 19 February 1926. Parts of the lecture can be considered as standalone outpourings on tradition and modernity, convention and rationality, stability and change, transition from the past to future. Common citizens and policymakers will all do well to pay heed:

The shastri must give free play to his reasoning faculty; the reformer must develop a healthy historical sense. The traditionalist must send his imagination and his thought forwards; the modernist must send his imagination and thought backwards – if I may say so. The first should be able to feel for the future; the second to understand the past. In other words, they must both learn the secret of compromise. (pp. 189–90)

               It should hold its opinions firmly, though tentatively. It should not yield easily, nor should it close its doors obstinately to new argument. It should have strength, but not stiffness. It should be elastic, but not flaccid. It should absorb new material, but must select it. Such is the characteristic of a truly rational mind. It does not elevate every passing thought to the height of a conviction. It arranges its possessions in several grades, — as impressions, notions, ideas, opinions, beliefs, conclusions, and so forth, — and is scrupulous about promoting them from one grade to another … Neither dogmatic and cocksure, nor pusillanimous and feeble-voiced, neither exposed to every passing gust of wind nor impervious to the purifying rays of sunlight — like a well-ventilated and yet well-sheltered house — is the mind of the provisionalist. (pp. 199–200)

               While one must be frank in expressing what one honestly conceives to be right or true, one must also be scrupulous not to violate the accepted rules of social propriety and good feeling. (p. 200)

               The forces of change, if not related to order, may lead to chaos; while the forces of order, if not adopted to change, may end in stagnation. The predominant weakness of the advocates of change or reform is impatience. The predominant weakness of the upholders of the established order is fear. The former is fanaticism, the latter pessimism. (p. 202)

               Owing to the complexities of human nature and owing to the obscurities of large parts of our problems, action either in political or in social reform is bound to be a long and slow series of only second-best achievements. (p. 212)

               There is nothing like milk-white and jet-black in the colour scheme of our hearts and souls. They are all of mixed tints, and the difference between one and another is simply a question of proportions. (p. 216)

               These extracts eloquently attest DVG’s objectivity, keen understanding of human nature, and non-extremist stance.

               DVG delivered a lecture on The Dynamics of Society under the auspices of the Civil and Social Progress Association, Bangalore, on 28 March 1927. He sought to explain the reasons for the decadence, preservation, and progress of human societies. Speaking of the contemporary relevance of our śāstras, he stated:

Not that the shastras are fundamentally incapable of supplying guidance for to-day. On the other hand, they are wonderfully long-visioned and all-comprehensive in their essentials. Only, we must learn to regard their spirit as more important than their letter. We must discover what is implicit in them and re-interpret them, paying more attention to their nodal precepts than to their subsidiary and formalistic requirements. (p. 241)

               This is in consonance with the views of colossuses such as Nāgeśa-bhaṭṭa and M Hiriyanna.

               His observations on the static and dynamic elements of society are as pragmatic as they are perceptive:

Tradition, scripture, convention, law, – these represent the static elements in every human society. Reason, criticism, experiment, research, – these represent its dynamic elements. A society that does not want either to stagnate and die of inanition, or else to head for anarchy and dissolution, but is anxious to maintain steady and sure-footed progress towards greater health and strength, should take care to keep both these sets of elements alive and constantly operative. They are respectively the brake and the motor-engine to the car of society, both kinds of apparatus being equally indispensable for its safe journey. (p. 261)

               DVG’s idea of reform sparkles with a timeless appeal. People who clamour for change should memorize these words:

Reform should not be simply a kind of aberration from the normal paths of the community. It should be the result of a generally undertaken revision of attitudes and ideals. It should be a process that will sooner or later come to be accepted by the entire bulk of the community. (pp. 262–63)

               Laws of social life should be like the arms of a living man – fixed and yet flexible, free to move, but within limits. (pp. 263–64)

*                            *                            *

Nāḍoja S R Ramaswamy introduced me to the nuances of editing and provided incredible insights into the personality and works of D V Gundappa. Śatāvadhānī R Ganesh breathes life into all my activities. Sandeep Balakrishna patiently polished my prose and offered valuable suggestions to shore up the observations in this essay. I owe an immense debt of gratitude to all of them.

To be continued.



Shashi Kiran B N holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master's degree in Sanskrit. His interests include Indian aesthetics, Hindu scriptures, Sanskrit and Kannada literature and philosophy.

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