The Genres of History and Biography (Part 3)

Two Sides

The important aspects of a biography may be divided into two categories: i. external aspects and ii. inner nature.

By external episodes, I mean details such as – the date of birth of the protagonist of the biography, place of birth, his family, lineage, ancestors, places of education, examinations that he passed, the (professional) positions that he earned, his income, travels, speeches he gave, his writings, awards and citations received, and so forth. These aspects are like the photograph of a person in that it helps one to instantly recognize some of the physical aspects of the individual.

Far more important is his inner life, the construction of his inner world. Who were the people he regarded with immense affection? Who were his intimate friends? What were typically his topics of discussion? What was his favourite pastime – was it music, literature, topics in philosophy, study of mathematics or other sciences, empty chit-chat? Which was his favourite treatise? In matters of traditional practices, how did he adhere to them in his daily life? What was his stance in public issues, what was his political leaning? How much of a difference was there between his publicly held beliefs and opinions versus what he practiced in private and the manner in which he conducted his life? These are the subtle aspects corresponding to the inner world that we must learn upon reading a biography.

I’ve said earlier that the fundamental driving force of the main characteristics of the life of a country and the important celebrations and programmes are those notable men and women, who truly deserve a biography to be written. The people who, by their thoughts and opinions or by their noble character and spotless conduct, influence the common folk to a certain extent, they become the ideal subject of a biography – having said this, it becomes clear that their inner wealth was the reason for the growth and development of the nation. Thus, the engaging account of a leader of men, an able ruler, or a pioneer who establishes a new tradition becomes an integral part of the history of the land. If we comprehend the inner world of these great leaders, the subtle intricacies of several external aspects of the lives of the common folk become evident.

In this manner, when we understand the subtle nuances working behind the external facets of the lives of the common folk, we attain competence to estimate the good and bad qualities as well as the strengths and weakness of the laity under the present circumstances. From this understanding, we can visualize how we want our future to be and decisively form a strategy to get there. Thus, the story of an individual (i.e. biography) is a part of the story of a land (i.e. history). It gives the mental preparation to people, which is a prerequisite for the improvement of people’s lives.

History is an account of previous experiences. History of a land comprises the collective experiences of the people of that land. Biography consists of the experiences of a single person.

Words such as caritram[1], caritam[2], cāritra[3] (or cāritrya), carya[4], ācaraṇa[5], and ācāra[6] are all derived from the same word-root. Their basic meaning is ‘conduct’ or ‘behaviour.’

A certain type of conduct arises due to a set of reasons and it earns a certain set of outcomes. Those reasons, those types of behaviour, and those resultant outcomes are all captured in the word ‘experience.’ A narrative that strings together such experiences is technically called history.

History: Examination of Experiences

A deep study of history is an essential intellectual preparation for undertaking any activity of social importance. In this matter, we must broaden the horizon of our people’s understanding and convince them [of the value of history]. The reason being that a lot of people in our country still harbour the notion that history is some sort of purāṇa[7]; or a cry to the skies[8]; or some tale that has a “...listen, O king” or “...this is what happened, O emperor!”[9] appended at the end; or some Brahmāṇḍa-purāṇa![10] Even today, it is common to see college students holding such inappropriate views [on history.] The study of history implies a blind memorization of a few dates, learning by heart a list of names – this is their understanding. They think that the learning of history doesn’t require any sort of original thinking, for it is some platitude that has transpired in the past.

Such a view—even in the least—is not good. Dates and names are not history. The knob that is fixed to the door is not the door. The door knob is a small convenience that helps us use the door. Such is the case with dates, names. It’s just a landmark that reminds us about a great event. An indicator is not the object itself. The object is far bigger than the indication.

It can be said that the primary reason for the blunders committed in our country’s public affairs is the unfamiliarity with history. The back-story of a problem (or question) is history. How was this problem born, how did our ancestors deal with this problem, what was the thought process behind their actions, what were the reasons for the failure of their actions – the examination of such experiences is history. What was the mistake done in the past – this becomes evident to us when we deeply examine history. What sort of precaution is necessary to avoid repeating that mistake now, what new strategy should we employ such that the dangers seen in the past don’t affect us now? – this is the sort of awareness and learning that we gain from a deep examination of history; this is the benefit we get.

Examples: About two and a half thousand years ago, Greece was the model for the European people in wisdom and scholarship. It is widely accepted that Greece is the origin for all European literature, art, and culture. It was a country with city-states. The city-state of Athens was an example of a democracy. The city-state of Sparta was famous for its discipline and rigorous adherence to principles. How did these city-states rise to such glory; in the course of time, how did they decline; when the mutual competition between the city-states of Greece reached an extreme level and there arose a fear of an attack from the Persian Empire and other kingdoms, how did these city-states unite and create a federation; how did that federation crumble – these questions don’t belong solely to the ancient past. They are not resolved even now. They are questions that have taken different forms and avatars even in our time.

After Greece, the Roman Empire grew and became famous. The arrogance of Rome spread across many parts of the European continent. It is said that the jurisprudence and trade laws of much of the European peoples originated and spread from the Roman Empire. How did such a powerful and well-nourished empire weaken? Who was the cause? Citizens or emperors? If a weakness crept in the people, what was the reason for that?

Such questions may be raised even in the context of Germany. Two hundred years back, it was a small, ordinary kingdom. From there, it gained strength and became a huge kingdom during the reign of the fourth Kaiser[11] [Emperor]. How did that happen? After achieving great popularity and having carried out its affairs for a while, it subsequently weakened. More recently [c. 1945], having become emaciated and divided into two countries, once again it is embarking on several adventures in a bid to raise its head and yet is unable to move forward. For a time, Germany was famous for being the best in science. They are brilliant people, known for their extreme perseverance. Even so, how did misfortune go chasing after them?

Let’s take the example of England. Four hundred years ago, it was a small, insignificant island. In course of time, it built an empire that spread across the world. It earned the name ‘the empire on which the sun never sets.’ After decades of such development and expansion, once again it has become an ordinary country. What’s the secret behind this?

What is the benefit we get from a deep study of history? It is wisdom that results from a knowledge of the various reasons for the growth, development, and decline of the myriad qualities of body, mind, and intellect of peoples – gentleness, purity, magnanimity, narrow-minded pettiness, desire for indulgence, arrogance, haughtiness, vanity, jealousy as well as insight into how people suffered, developed, strengthened, weakened, arose, and fell. Through an examination of experiences, we develop a refined wisdom that helps us discern the appropriate from the imprudent, thus becoming a bright hand-lamp for our journey forward.

To be continued…

This is the third part of a five-part English translation of the introductory essay of D V Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashaale – Vol. 1 – Sahiti Sajjana Sarvajanikaru. DVG wrote this series in the early 1950s. Thanks to Arjun Bharadwaj for his thorough review and astute suggestions.



[1] ಚರಿತ್ರಮ್ = behaviour, habit, conduct, practice, deeds, performance, history, life, biography, account, nature.

[2] ಚರಿತಮ್ = doings, history, activities.

[3] ಚಾರಿತ್ರ (ಚಾರಿತ್ರ್ಯ) = good conduct, good behaviour, noble character, reputation, uprightness, chastity, disposition, temperament.

[4] ಚರ್ಯ = to be practised, moving, behaviour, conduct, performance of rites, observance.

[5] ಆಚರಣ = doing, performing, following, observing, conduct.

[6] ಆಚಾರ = good conduct, good behaviour, manner of performing, manner of conducting oneself, established custom, traditional usage, age-old practice, customary law, precept.

[7] Purāṇa (literally ‘old episode’) is a genre of ancient literature in India that is typically fantastical in nature and deals with stories of deities, seers, and emperors.

[8] The original has ‘ākāśa ragaḻe,’ which basically means a meaningless utterance spoken to the wind.

[9] Many verses in traditional works of Kannada (e.g. Karnāṭa-bhārata- kathāmañjarī of Kumāravyāsa) end with such phrases (‘rāya keḻenda,’ ‘bhūpa keḻenda,’ etc.)

[10] Brahmāṇḍa-purāṇa is one of the eighteen Mahāpurāṇas; however, in this context it’s possibly used as a general word to mean ‘an immense, ancient work of mythical tales.’

[11] A reference to Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859–1941).



Devanahalli Venkataramanayya Gundappa (1887-1975) was a great visionary and polymath. He was a journalist, poet, art connoisseur, philosopher, political analyst, institution builder, social commentator, social worker, and activist.



Hari is an author, translator, editor, designer, and violinist with a deep interest in philosophy, education pedagogy, literature, and films. He has (co-)written/translated and (co-)edited some forty books, mostly related to Indian culture.

Prekshaa Publications

Indian Perspective of Truth and Beauty in Homer’s Epics is a unique work on the comparative study of the Greek Epics Iliad and Odyssey with the Indian Epics – Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata. Homer, who laid the foundations for the classical tradition of the West, occupies a stature similar to that occupied by the seer-poets Vālmīki and Vyāsa, who are synonymous with the Indian culture. The author...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the sixth volume of reminiscences character sketches of prominent public figures, liberals, and social workers. These remarkable personages hailing from different corners of South India are from a period that spans from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. Written in Kannada in the 1970s, these memoirs go...

An Introduction to Hinduism based on Primary Sources

Authors: Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh, Hari Ravikumar

What is the philosophical basis for Sanātana-dharma, the ancient Indian way of life? What makes it the most inclusive and natural of all religio-philosophical systems in the world?

The Essential Sanātana-dharma serves as a handbook for anyone who wishes to grasp the...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fifth volume, episodes from the lives of traditional savants responsible for upholding the Vedic culture. These memorable characters lived a life of opulence amidst poverty— theirs  was the wealth of the soul, far beyond money and gold. These vidvāns hailed from different corners of the erstwhile Mysore Kingdom and lived in...

Padma Bhushan Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam represents the quintessence of Sage Bharata’s art and Bhārata, the country that gave birth to the peerless seer of the Nāṭya-veda. Padma’s erudition in various streams of Indic knowledge, mastery over many classical arts, deep understanding of the nuances of Indian culture, creative genius, and sublime vision bolstered by the vedāntic and nationalistic...

Bhārata has been a land of plenty in many ways. We have had a timeless tradition of the twofold principle of Brāhma (spirit of wisdom) and Kṣāttra (spirit of valour) nourishing and protecting this sacred land. The Hindu civilisation, rooted in Sanātana-dharma, has constantly been enriched by brāhma and safeguarded by kṣāttra.
The renowned Sanskrit poet and scholar, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R...

ಛಂದೋವಿವೇಕವು ವರ್ಣವೃತ್ತ, ಮಾತ್ರಾಜಾತಿ ಮತ್ತು ಕರ್ಷಣಜಾತಿ ಎಂದು ವಿಭಕ್ತವಾದ ಎಲ್ಲ ಬಗೆಯ ಛಂದಸ್ಸುಗಳನ್ನೂ ವಿವೇಚಿಸುವ ಪ್ರಬಂಧಗಳ ಸಂಕಲನ. ಲೇಖಕರ ದೀರ್ಘಕಾಲಿಕ ಆಲೋಚನೆಯ ಸಾರವನ್ನು ಒಳಗೊಂಡ ಈ ಹೊತ್ತಗೆ ಪ್ರಧಾನವಾಗಿ ಛಂದಸ್ಸಿನ ಸೌಂದರ್ಯವನ್ನು ಲಕ್ಷಿಸುತ್ತದೆ. ತೌಲನಿಕ ವಿಶ್ಲೇಷಣೆ ಮತ್ತು ಅಂತಃಶಾಸ್ತ್ರೀಯ ಅಧ್ಯಯನಗಳ ತೆಕ್ಕೆಗೆ ಬರುವ ಬರೆಹಗಳೂ ಇಲ್ಲಿವೆ. ಶಾಸ್ತ್ರಕಾರನಿಗಲ್ಲದೆ ಸಿದ್ಧಹಸ್ತನಾದ ಕವಿಗೆ ಮಾತ್ರ ಸ್ಫುರಿಸಬಲ್ಲ ಎಷ್ಟೋ ಹೊಳಹುಗಳು ಕೃತಿಯ ಮೌಲಿಕತೆಯನ್ನು ಹೆಚ್ಚಿಸಿವೆ. ಈ...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the fourth volume, some character sketches of the Dewans of Mysore preceded by an account of the political framework of the State before Independence and followed by a review of the political conditions of the State after 1940. These remarkable leaders of Mysore lived in a period that spans from the mid-nineteenth century to the...

Bharatiya Kavya-mimamseya Hinnele is a monograph on Indian Aesthetics by Mahamahopadhyaya N. Ranganatha Sharma. The book discusses the history and significance of concepts pivotal to Indian literary theory. It is equally useful to the learned and the laity.

Sahitya-samhite is a collection of literary essays in Kannada. The book discusses aestheticians such as Ananda-vardhana and Rajashekhara; Sanskrit scholars such as Mena Ramakrishna Bhat, Sridhar Bhaskar Varnekar and K S Arjunwadkar; and Kannada litterateurs such as DVG, S L Bhyrappa and S R Ramaswamy. It has a foreword by Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh.

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhānī Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective to every discussion. These essays deal with the philosophy, history, aesthetics, and practice of...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...