Exemplars of Indian Wisdom from Karnataka: Keynote Address

This article is part 1 of 6 in the series Exemplars of Indian Wisdom from Karnataka
Note: This is the transcript of the Keynote Address delivered at the beginning of the lecture series titled Exemplars of Indian Wisdom from Karnataka, which was jointly organized by Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs and Prekshaa Pratishtana.
 
I offer my heartiest greetings to all who are present here and also to hundreds of friends who are with us online. Considering the general environment that prevails today, it will be no exaggeration to say that this eight-day event being organized by Prekshaa Pratishtana and Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs is indeed a rara avis.

               My part has been mentioned as the Keynote Address. That expression is too ambitious for what I am in a position to deliver. I can do little more than wish the event success. Perhaps the expression ‘key-note’ has been lifted from the vocabulary of musicology. If I am permitted to extend the metaphor, I may say my pitch is this side of B-flat (Harmonium kari èraḍu) and may not even approach C-minor in the scale.

               Let me attempt to briefly contextualize this event as I see it.

               Why has an exercise like this event-series become necessary? The need to sustain and nourish intellectual vigour is too important and complex to be banished to the pedagogic-academic realm or rare-to-find, moth-eaten books. The ultimate goal of human life is knowledge and knowledge alone. Human races which single-mindedly pursued mere physical enjoyment of the world as the summum bonum have decayed and vanished, while cultures rooted in knowledge have survived despite vicissitudes. As Swami Vivekananda said, “the spider [now] weaves its web where the Caesars ruled.” In our own day, Britain which ruled over us so arrogantly is now a mere relic. There is no need to elaborate this aspect of the history of civilizations, as all of you, I am sure, are familiar with it.

               The same history also tells us that, perhaps as a law of nature, barbarity always does everything in its power to suppress the nobler instincts and pursuits of man. Human history is non-linear.

               When we glance back at history, we come across some periods of many-sided splendour, some periods of ascendance or decline of regimes, some periods of resistance to oppression, some periods of exploratory brilliance, some periods of rediscovery of the cultural ethos to serve as reference-points for reconstruction and reinvigoration, some periods of nostalgic harking-back, some periods of endeavour to find the golden mean between a staid past and an unclear future, and so on. What constitutes history is the chronicling and analysis of such social and intellectual churning and ferment at different points of time.

               While historiographers do recognize that history in order to be comprehensive has to cover all aspects of life, what has happened in practice is that political vicissitudes, wars, conquests and re-configurations of geographical and administrative patterns have dominated the narratives of so-called history. This is ironical, since most of the life of most people takes place outside the political realm. Consideration of the infinitely larger and more vibrant aspects of the life of the common people is relegated to the domain of ‘humanities.’ Because of this skewed scenario, those interested in visualizing the life-rooted features of society are obliged to resort to literature beyond formal history.

               In fact, it is the broadening of intellectual horizons which came to be called renaissance in Europe between fourteenth and sixteen centuries ce, and in India between eighteenth and twentieth centuries ce. Much of that salvaging process was the handiwork of inspired individuals.

               Incidentally, even the politics-dominated ‘mainstream’ history, having been largely the handiwork of Euro-centric minds, has had to be recast subsequently by Westerners themselves such as William Dalrymple, Nicholas Dirks, et al, and also by numerous Indian scholars from Dharampal to Priyamvada Gopal most recently – so much so that rejoinders to the empire’s apologists have already become faded and passe. That these correctives are yet to percolate into the minds of common people and into textbooks is another story. In the meantime, that yawning gap can only be bridged by initiatives like Prekshaa Pratishtana.

               One is reminded of the ringing words of Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, who played a crucial role in instilling self-confidence in our countrymen at a critical period in our recent history: “Neglect not in the glare of Western light the priceless treasures which are your inheritance.” The zeal triggered by such invocation by the likes of Sir Asutosh inspired and led the country’s intellectual sojourn in the ensuing decades, not to mention the momentum it provided to the freedom enterprise.

               However, the last couple of centuries have on the whole been a bad period for India as far as the higher reaches of knowledge are concerned. To cut a long story short: three major factors may be said to have caused the inexorable decline: (a) a negative historical hangover, (b) the post–Industrial Revolution reordering of human priorities and (c) the imperialist colonial onslaught.

               (a) Historical Hangover: After the Gupta period, something seems to have happened to our society, which sapped its vibrancy, resulting in a freezing of its creative energy. There were doubtless a couple of periods of awakened self-reassertion, but the overall picture is one of comparative languor and lassitude. From such a condition, our society is yet to fully de-freeze itself. This enfeeblement is most palpable in the society’s supine acceptance of mindless changes imposed on it in varied fields. We seem to have still a long way to go before we fully ‘de-freeze’ ourselves.

               (b) Reordering: While self-inspired and thought-through reordering of aspirations may be acceptable, mechanical acquiescence to reordering forcefully enforced from outside is ungainly and should be guarded against.

               (c) Colonial Onslaught: The original order of the British Government vis-à-vis India authorizing domination had prescribed non-interference in internal affairs, but this condition was soon abrogated by the Company functionaries who progressively gained total control over the subcontinent. The Company eventually collapsed under its own over-weight and rampant corruption, necessitating direct rule by the Crown in mid-nineteenth century. There is hardly any need to recall that sordid part of recent history. What is relevant for our present context is that the alien domination had immeasurable repercussions on the tenor of native people’s life. Educational and other policies of the British dealt a severe blow to indigenous institutions which had zealously supported culture, scholarship, altruism, accommodativeness and non-aggressiveness. The worst effect of Western education was a break in the continuity of the rich two-millennia-old traditional scholarship. This was an irremediable loss.

               It is indeed remarkable that notwithstanding a combination of such adverse circumstances, a small part of traditional learning did manage to survive fragmentarily, chiefly due to individual initiatives and a few seats of learning, though these were few and far between.

               There had been such depressing periods in the past too. But the society galvanized itself again as soon as a favourable milieu appeared on the horizon. Amidst tribulations the deep spiritual moorings remained intact. Most other races succumbed to external aggression, but India did not. After an interregnum it always woke up as from a slumber.

               The vitality of time-honoured institutions and clarity of vision—not to mention mind-boggling peaks of individual achievement—have ensured repeated resurgence and reassertion. Several times in the past two millennia, it has been demonstrated that an abiding loyalty to certain timeless values and to the deepest truths of life is the fount of the Indian mind’s strength. Even during dark periods of subjugation, there was no dearth of great individuals who were reliable representatives of the best traditions of the country and of the luminous spirit of India. These individuals and their splendid achievements served as reminders of the society’s inexhaustible capacity for survival.

               The twentieth century’s crop of such resilient spirits, while firmly anchored in tradition, did not remain aloof from the best intellectual tools that the modern age could offer, and succeeded in developing an eclectic and synthetic genius. Thus, they have been the true makers of modern India: outstanding representatives of imperishable values enriched with the best strains from the Occident.

               Three generations have elapsed since those decades of pioneering struggle. When we are on the threshold of the seventy-fifth year of Independence, there is need to help the present young generation to familiarize themselves with the different stages of national renaissance; in any case it is yet to reach a fecund stage. Political independence is but the beginning of resurgence, and considerable distance remains to be traversed before the nation can realize its optimal potential. Authentic and rigorous presentation of history alone can pave the way for such a journey. I assume this is the rationale behind the manner in which the present event has been visualized.

               A sine qua non of self-rediscovery is keeping alive the memory of the treasures bequeathed by forerunners, to serve as a springboard for resumption and continuance. We have a moral obligation not only to preserve but also carry forward the knowledge-tradition in yet unexplored directions, create models and ensure succession. A first and inevitable step in this journey is to sensitize the present young generation to the memorable contribution of our predecessors in various fields—contribution made amidst immense travails and against all odds—the sole reward being inner satisfaction.

               Prekshaa Pratishtana deserves the gratitude of society for the present unique initiative in the direction of such a self-recovery through this ambitious eight-day marathon of events. Partly by considerations of viability and practicability, Prekshaa Pratishtana has set out to introduce fourteen intellectual giants who made outstanding contribution to major fields during the twentieth century. Among these, M Hiriyanna passed away as far back as in 1950, while R Sathyanarayana left us as recently as last year, 2020. They were all many-sided scholars, but each specializing in a couple of areas in the main. The disciplines they enriched through their lifelong and single-minded dedication are indeed wide-ranging: philosophy, aesthetics, grammar, literature, exegesis, ancient and modern history, culture, music, political-science education, art and architecture, archaeology and epigraphy, Prakrit and Jainism, comparative literature, textual criticism – to name only the major areas. They were all first-rate researchers and also popular expositors, and they firmly believed that fruits of scholarship should necessarily also illuminate the mental environs of laymen. In this backdrop, the target audience of the presentations being made here comprises both scholars and the interested general public.

               It is needless to mention that while all the savants covered in the presentations scheduled in the present series hailed from Karnataka, the legacy left by them is global in reach and amplitude.

               I am personally happy beyond words to be witness to this event-series which I consider historic. The last time this hall hosted a comparable event was over half a century ago. In the 1960s the late Dr D V Gundappa had organized a similar event-series with a view to revisiting the contributions of Western luminaries in the fields of humanism, evolution of political science, etc., ranging from Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Mill, Kant, Dante, Rosseau, Prof. A V Dicey and others, right up to Reinhold Niebuhr, Judge Holmes, et al. Eminent scholars, professors and judges addressed us. In the series Prof. A N Moorthy Rao gave us a beautiful talk on the political thoughts of Shakespeare. The series, spread over a year, drew unprecedented appreciation. I am happy to report that my colleague B N Shashi Kiran is presently engaged in tracing and compiling summaries or transcripts of those memorable presentations.

               That series was followed by a two-week training course for public workers wherein experts spoke on various aspects of governance, administrative structures, the legislative process, public finance, role of opposition, role of the whip and such other topics.

               Having been a witness to such exciting bygone days, I am extremely happy to see the efforts of Prekshaa Pratishtana in invigorating the intellects of the present generation in various ways including preparation and publications of far-reaching importance, many of which have drawn much praise within the country and also from USA and Europe.

               My best wishes to all of you and to all the participants in this exciting enterprise.

               Let me close with a benedictory verse:

हरे दयालो भव मे शरण्यो

धर्मस्य वृद्धिं जगतः कुरुष्व।

खलस्य नाशं सुविपर्ययं च

सतां प्रवृद्धिं सदनुग्रहस्त्वम्॥

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Author(s)

About:

Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy is a renowned journalist, writer, art critic, environmentalist, and social activist. He has authored over fifty books and thousands of articles. He was a close associate of stalwarts like D. V. Gundappa, Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sharma, V Sitaramaiah, and others. He is currently the honorary Editor-in-Chief of Utthana and served as the Honorary Secretary of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs for many years.

Prekshaa Publications

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