Mindful Observance of Learning is The Yardstick of Scholarship

Although several Western scholars have “studied” our culture well, they continue to remain ignorant about its various nuances on numerous occasions. We can cite plentiful examples for this beginning with William Jones (a multilingual scholar who for the first time translated a Sanskrit work—Kalidasa’s Shakuntala—into English about two hundred and thirty years ago[i]) up to the likes of Sheldon Pollock. Several really decorated scholars like Max Mueller, Monier Williams, Arthur Berriedale Keith, Weber, Rhys Davids, and A.K. Warder tumble by the wayside in the most fundamental aspects when their scholarship is set against a sharp touchstone. It would require an entire thesis to provide instances for all these. Thus, there’s no space for such elaboration here.

Such instances of omission and error have occurred on numerous occasions not merely due to ignorance but out of deliberate bias. More importantly, a combination of sectarian, racial, political, linguistic and cultural prejudices have led to the emergence of deliberately (or rather maliciously) distorted expositions and interpretations characterized. We need to carefully examine the merits or otherwise of all these in consonance with the fundamental precept of Bharata’s (philosophical and cultural) sensibilities rooted in universal experience. We must especially not be indifferent towards some insights and technicalities that we’ve obtained from Western scholars.

Given this, how right is it to assume that everything that Western scholars have written about our language and culture are objective excogitations from people who came here and studied these out of their own self-interest, and as pronouncements of the Enlightened, and wear it as a crown on our head?

But then there’s no dearth of scholars of our own country who have made our culture a casualty of distorted scholarship. They chiefly fall into two categories. The first holds religious and nationalistic zeal as paramount and upholds its respective faith and nationalism with no basis in either logic or experience. In the same manner, the other rejects the fundamental Indian (cultural) sensibility itself. There’s also a third category which criticizes and opposes the former two, claims that it’s solely endowed with objectivity and wisdom, and that it serves our culture in some other manner. For the most part, this category is just another face of the second. Given this, where’s the place for deliverance?

The main reason for such distortions or narrow interpretations is the fact that the respective scholars haven’t lived their chosen field of study. To make it clearer, our study must course throughout our mind, speech, and body. The erudition that’s required for attaining this state must be earned by those labouring in said disciplines.

When examined in this light, it won’t be incorrect to say that post-Independence scholars in Indological studies don’t possess the sort of spread and sweep of scholarship that pre-Independence scholars did. Notably, it wasn’t rare for scholars of that period to be multifaceted talents, multilingual experts, and multidisciplinary authorities. Although today there exist scholars who are talented, are skilled and multifarious expositors, and are well-exposed to several disciplines, there are very few, if any, who are deeply learned, insightful and penetrating scholars.

Dr. V. Raghavan. Image Courtesy: Google Image Search

Indeed, there stands a long line of hundreds of scholars of the previous generation such as Ananda K Coomaraswamy, S. Srikanta Sastri, M. Govinda Pai, Karlamangalam Srikantayya, Ambale Venkatasubbayya, Hazariprasad Dwivedi, Vasudevasharan Agarwal, Pandurang Vaman Kane, Gopinath Kaviraj, Baladeva Upadhyaya, Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, M. Hiriyanna, Kuppuswami Sastri, V.Raghavan, Sediyapu Krishna Bhatta, K. Krishnamurthy, U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, and so on. The manner in which these scholars had digested and could command at will their knowledge of innumerable Indian disciplines such as manuscriptology, palaeography, inscriptionology, grammar, philosophy, aesthetics, customs and traditions, religions and sects, and art forms is unparalleled.

But today, the fashion seems to be to blindly believe secondary sources—even here, not studying them carefully—and then to cross-pollinate newer and newer hypotheses and guesses churned out by Western universities (chiefly, America, England, France, and till recently, academic chairs in the erstwhile Soviet Bloc) merely for the sake of novelty in sophism, with respect to language, culture, society, psychology, politics, and art forms with philosophies and precepts of our country. The tragedy of our land is the fact that an over-enthusiastic circus of exposition has assumed centre stage today. Such immature and unlearned prefaces have become deluges mainly because the objective is to secure positions.

The pitiable phenomenon of the scholarly world of today’s India is the fact that the number of gallants who can read primary sources in depth in the native language and then realize the worth or otherwise of the values propounded therein by living a life of integrity is scarce. That doesn’t mean all is lost. We still have people like Prof. T.V. Venkatachala Sastry, Dr. Kapila Vatsyayana, Dr. R. Satyanarayana, Mahamahopadhyaya (the late) N. Ranganatha Sharma, Vidwan (the late) Sheshachala Sharma and (the late) Sri Sri Rangapriya Mahadesika amongst us.[ii] But the question is: who are their heirs?

The purpose of all this elaboration is this: we will never obtain the insights and subtleties of any culture unless we live them. The efforts that we expend in order to attain the said insights is the result of sustained practice, akin to Tapas. Ananda K Coomaraswamy had attained mastery in more than thirty languages. But in the list that he himself wrote on the matter, there was no mention of the Chinese language. On occasion, when his son Dr. Rama Coomaraswamy spotted him perusing a work in Chinese and asked him why he hadn’t included it in the list despite knowing it, Ananda Coomaraswamy said: “When I’m studying a work of a language, which requires me to rely more and more on the dictionary, I consider that I don’t know that language.” How many people have this kind of illuminating sensitivity arising from insight, nourished by expertise and scholarship?

In the Indian tradition, the word “Acharya” commands great respect. The derivation of this word is noteworthy:

AchinOti ca shAstrArThAn AcArE sThApayatyapi |
swayamAcaratE yasmAdAcAryastena cOcyatE ||

(Apastamba Dharmasutra: 1-2-6-13)

Accordingly, an “Acharya” is one who not only comprehensively consolidates the information and essence of a Shastra and assimilates it (within himself), but also establishes its structure and substance in the tradition. Not just that, he also harmonizes its eternal values in his own life.

When we consider this, it becomes evident as to the kind of people who we can regard as a standard. Therefore, the phenomenon of being swayed by the fiascos in our understanding will go away. I’m reminded of a poem in the chAtu style composed by one of the towering scholars of our time, (the late) Acharya Pullela Sriramachandrudu from Hyderabad:

kEtlAgapaMDitAh kecit pITikApaMDitAh parE|
kEcit paMDitAnAmagnAh sarvE saMskrutapaMDitAh ||

                                    —Sri RamachandralaghukAvyasaMgrah, Page 40

Some are but catalogue Pandits, some Foreword Pandits. Others are Pandits by name. Thus, all are Sanskrit Pandits.  

This is the fate of all branches of learning. There are several people who are inspired by some line in some book by some author and begin to philosophize eloquent as if they’ve understood the heart of that work. Given this, what’s the value of a scholarship that’s not put in practice?

Postscript: In this context, it is relevant to interrogate the scholarship of some Western scholars who unleashed a tempest with their wild and licentious theorizing about Lord Ganapati, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and others.

This is the translation of the author's original Kannada article titled "Jnanapurvaka anushtaanave vaidushyada oregallu" translated into English by Sandeep Balakrishna.


[i] This article was first published in 2002 in the Vijaya Karnataka daily.

[ii]  The scholars mentioned as (the late) were alive when the original Kannada essay of the author was published first in 2005 in book form.




Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.

Prekshaa Publications

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhāni 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...


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...