An apt epithet for Prof. Srikanta Sastri would be satyānveṣī – ‘the seeker of truth,’ for all through his life, he worked against all odds to get to the truth, to declare it without hesitation, and uphold it despite trials and tribulations.
Srikanta Sastri – the Person
Soṇḍekoppa Srikanta Sastri was born on November 5th, 1904 at Nanjangud and was named no doubt after the presiding deity – Śrīkaṇṭheśvara. Both his parents hailed from illustrious families of Sanskrit and Telugu scholars, poets, and pundits.
From a young age, Sastri faced great physical and emotional hardship. He was inflicted with small pox and lost sight in one eye and became partially deaf in one ear. His mother died when he was a child and he was raised by his grandmother. His father’s economic condition, which was rather humble, improved after he became a Sub-registrar; but that was a transferrable job and every few years, the family would move from one town to another.
Despite all these travails, Srikanta Sastri grew up to a bright student, who was gifted with an exceptional memory and great physical fitness – he was fond of swimming and wrestling.
All through his life, he was riddled with some ailment or the other – he often got malarial fevers as a student and the excessive quinine intake resulted in permanent deafness in his left ear. He cleared the civil services exam but failed in the medical test. His first child died very young. Another child grew up to be a lad of seventeen and died of a heart condition. He suffered from high blood pressure. He was troubled by eczema that led to swelling. He also suffered a debilitating paralytic stroke. Similarly in his professional life, he faced several obstacles and was the victim of sabotage and intrigue. He was hardly compensated in terms of material wealth for his genius. In spite of all this, he remained unruffled and focussed on his study and work.
After completing his Intermediate in Bangalore, he wrote the entrance exam to the University of Mysore but failed – his eyesight had become poor and he was unable to even procure a pair of spectacles. After a year of preparation, he cleared the exam and went to Maharaja’s College, Mysore to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in the Arts in the year 1921.
When he was but a lad of seventeen, he presented a research paper about the History of Śivagaṅgā at the History Association of the Maharaja’s College. Around the same time, he presented a paper on dhvani at the Sanskrit Association and a paper on Kannaḍa Nāgānanda at the Karṇāṭaka Saṃgha.
Even a quick glance at the list of Sastri’s teachers and mentors will reveal that it comprised of a galaxy of savants, a veritable who’s who of the academic world in the early part of the 20th century in Mysore – Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma, A R Krishnasastri, M Hiriyanna, S V Ranganna, V L D’Souza, A Venkatasubbaiah, H V Nanjundaiah, R Shamasastry, B M Srikantayya, S V Krishnaswami Iyengar, H Krishna Rao, M H Krishna, Doddabele Narayanashastri, Motaganahalli Mahadevashastri et al.
Sastri completed his BA degree with a second class but something interesting followed. His Economics professor N S Subba Rao, who was also the Principal of the Maharaja’s College then, told him to take up Economics for his MA, for he showed great promise in Economics. His English professor J C Rollo (who went on to become the Principal of the college) told him that he must take up English Literature for his MA as he was good in English. His Kannada professor B Krishnappa told him that he should take Kannada Literature for his MA. A luminary no less than Prof. M Hiriyanna advised him to take Sanskrit for his MA. But Sastri was clear about what he wanted to study: MA History, under Prof. S V Venkateswara.
Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy writes that it was neither by chance nor merely for the sake of livelihood that Sastri took up the study of history. From a young age, Sastri dedicated his life to research in history. He was, first and foremost, a great admirer of the glorious past of Bharata, a staunch nationalist, and an ardent student of Indian culture. He realized early the greatness of the Indian culture and civilization – and how no other country in the world could boast of such hoary antiquity and philosophical depth in its ethos.
When we look at some of his early papers, we get a glimpse of this. Sastri wrote about the history of Śivagaṅgā, a town near Moṭagānahaḻḻi, his maternal village. One of his ancestors on his mother’s side—‘Abhinava Kālidāsa,’ who composed the Bhāgavata-campū—found patronage in the court of Devarāya II – and that seems to have motivated him to research Devarāya II and write a paper about him. In his paternal village of Soṇḍekoppa, he found a copperplate and a palm-leaf manuscript with details about a grant given by Kempe Gowda II to his ancestor Yajnambhatta. He read that and tried deciphering it. Even as a young boy, when his grandmother sang poems and songs composed by their ancestors, he would sit next to her and write down all those compositions.
The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland published in July 1926 an academic paper—titled ‘Conquests of Śīlāditya in the South’—that Sastri wrote while he was a final-year MA student. It was a one-page paper that came under the ‘Miscellaneous Communications’ section, in which Sastri connects a Sanskrit verse of Mayūra (Bāṇabhaṭṭa’s father-in-law) to the Gaddemane inscription in Kannada. At that time, Sastri was just twenty-one and it was perhaps the first-ever paper of an Indian student to appear in the prestigious journal.
It was around the same period that he wrote elaborate historical introductions to three major treatises composed by his mother’s uncle Moṭagānahaḻḻi Rāmaśeṣa-śāstrī – i. a multi-volume, detailed commentary on the Śrīmad-Bhāgavata-mahāpurāṇa in Kannada, ii. Karṇāṭaka Mudrā-rākṣasa Nāṭaka, and iii. Karṇāṭaka Mukundānanda-bhāṇa, a Kannada translation of Kāśīpati’s Sanskrit play.
By his very temperament Sastri was not given to public lectures, teaching large classes, or public appearances. He always preferred teaching interested students—preferably one-on-one or in small batches—and discussing complicated points of history or philosophy with the great savants of his time or deeply studying a topic that caught his attention, revelling in the company of the brilliant minds of the past.
This six-part essay is from a lecture on the great professor (delivered on 6 November 2021 at the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs) and was a part of a lecture series titled 'Exemplars of Indian Wisdom from Karnataka'.
To be continued…
1. A Votary of Truth – A documentary on Prof. S Srikanta Sastri
2. Ramaswamy, S R. A Tapestry of Pen-portraits. Bangalore: Prekshaa Pratishtana, 2020. ‘S Srikanta Sastri’ adapted into English by Hari Ravikumar, pp. 198–220
3. Śrīkaṇṭhayāna: The Collected Writings of Dr. S Śrīkaṇṭha Śāstrī. 2 Volumes. Eds. Sastry, T V Venkatachala and Narasimhamurthy, P N. Bangalore: Mythic Society, 2016
4. Śrīkaṇṭhikā – Dr. S Srikantha Sastri Felicitation Volume. Mysore: Geetha Book House, 1973 (on behalf of Dr. S Srikantha Sastri Felicitation Committee)
It is my pleasant duty to acknowledge the help and support of Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy, Shatavadhani Dr. R Ganesh, and Jayasimha K R. I have greatly benefited from the excellent website about Srikanta Sastri maintained by his family members (www.srikanta-sastri.org/). My thanks are also due, to the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs and Prekshaa Pratishtana.