In the early 1940, when the Western world was at the acme of its materialistic success, Sastri wrote these visionary words – “In the history of the world, it is only Hinduism that gave not only to India but also to all her neighbours an organic conception of society based upon economic as well as spiritual needs. It is the very antithesis of ‘the principle of accumulation based on inequality’ which is a vital part of the Western order of society. It recognized frankly the hard fact that perfect equality in all spheres is impossible of attainment. Therefore it attempted to mitigate the evil consequences of great disparity by aiming at only the essentials. It reconciled the antagonism between rights and obligations, so that the individual by asserting his ‘inherent’ right might not break up social solidarity, nor could society impose such obligations as to cripple the spirit of individualism. Liberty and law were synthesized to achieve spiritual freedom.”
In addition to Sastri’s writings published in reputed academic journals, hundreds of his essays were published in the magazines and newspapers read by the laity. During the period 1955–66, in the Prajāvāṇi newspaper alone, more than seventy of his essays were published, including twenty-five book reviews. Sastri wrote about topics as varied as the art of mime, the culinary arts, Carnatic music, Gauṇḍalī dance, literature of Kannada-Sanskrit-Telugu-English, religion, national politics, education pedagogy, and philosophy.
Sastri followed a strict rule for his study: I must read the primary sources for my research in their original languages. And so he learnt not only Indian languages like Pali, Tamil, and Ardha-māgadhī but also foreign languages like Chinese, Japanese, French, German, Greek, and Latin as well as ancient languages like Hittite, Assyrian, Egyptian, Sumerian, etc.
Sastri had a holistic comprehension of history owing to his deep study in various fields such as: archaeology, epigraphy, Vedic and classical Sanskrit literature (also the literature of Kannada and Telugu), architecture, sculpture, astrology, astronomy, iconography, ancient scripts, prehistory, Jaina and Bauddha literature, philology, ethnology, education pedagogy, national and international politics, geo-politics, music, dance, cuisine, social life, law, governance, religion and philosophy.
Srikanta Sastri – the Pioneer
As we embark on understanding Sastri as a pioneering historian, it will be useful to start by examining his take on history.
Sastri believed that a nation can ignore its history only at peril to itself. History for him was but an extension of culture. His focus was the life of the people rather than dry political chronicling. He believed that history showed the evolution of humans and cultural development of society, not just wars and dates and figures. Sastri says, “A philosophy of history is essential for a historian. Weltanschauung—a world outlook must be developed by the true historian.”
In an essay on Kalhaṇa’s Rājataraṅgiṇī, Sastri defends the tradition of history in India. He writes, “The Puranic historian may be said to have been essentially a culture historian, dealing with vast vistas of time and space...
“The art of historiography of what is these days regarded as the Western conception was not, however, unknown to India. Kalhaṇa’s historical method, for example, comes very close to it.”
The twelfth century historian Kalhaṇa’s attitude towards a scientific history is amply clear from his writings. He mentions his sources and offers caution about their chronology. He separates fact from fiction and dismisses legendary accounts. Kalhaṇa says that the conscientious historian should carefully weight all the available evidence like a judge, reject spurious or self-contradictory material and formulate the conclusions.
Sastri writes that not only was Kalhaṇa devoted to his motherland, he personally visited all historical and sacred places – even his casual references to places are topologically quite accurate. Kalhaṇa was an independent thinker and often his sympathy lay with the common people who were oppressed by unjust kings. Kalhaṇa boldly criticizes greedy and cruel kings of the past and also pays glowing tributes to kings like Lalitāditya and Avantivarman. He also writes a beautiful account of the Queen Didda who rose from humble beginnings and distinguished herself in war and administration.
Sastri had a profound sense of philosophy and a deep understanding of basic human nature and it is in this backdrop that he understood history. Not only did he have this fundamental perspective to look at history, he also developed intimacy with so many allied fields that gave him a holistic vision. Naturally, he evolved his own methodology to study history – there was hardly a historian before him who possessed such detailed knowledge on such a variety of subjects. In the words of S R Ramaswamy, “Sastri brought out the cultural dimensions of history and the historical dimensions of culture. Under all circumstances he held on to ಇತಿಹಾಸಪ್ರಜ್ಞೆ [history-consciousness] and ವಸ್ತುನಿಷ್ಠೆ [objectivity and intellectual integrity].”
Let us now take the example of a short article Sastri wrote for the Mysore Dasara Exhibition Souvenir in 1961 on Takṣaśilā, one of the oldest universities in the world.
He starts off the essay with a succinct exposition on education –
“The ancient system of education from the Vedic times had as its main goal the development of personality in all its aspects, secular as well as spiritual. It was considered to be a Samskara—a process of refinement. According to the ancient conception, the inherited and acquired characteristics of an individual had to be properly disciplined and canalised so as to serve the four ends of Man, or purusharthas...
“Education therefore meant a proper conditioning of the body and the mind of the individual. To ‘educe’ or bring out the inherent potentiality and help the individual to adjust himself to the changing condition, the educational system aimed at the transformation of the individual even from the mother's womb by proper Samskara or ceremonies.”
Sastri goes on to say that in the age of the later Vedic literature, there were Forest Universities associated with the descendants of the ṛṣis. Epic poems like the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata give descriptions of āśramas under a kulapati. In the Naimiṣa Forest University, Śaunaka was the Principal or kulapati under whom there were ten thousand pupils studying in eight different departments, named after the deities. The common hall for prayer and religious ceremonies was named Agnisthāna. The department of Vedic study was the Brahmasthāna. The Viṣṇusthāna taught the art of governance and economics. The departments named after Mahendra and Kārttikeya were concerned with military matters. The Vaivasvatasthāna taught law and jurisprudence. Medicine, Botany, Chemistry and other sciences were taught in the Somasthāna and the Garuḍasthāna was devoted to transport and communications.
Speaking about the students in Takṣaśilā, Sastri writes –
“The students could choose any subject and were not debarred from sacred subjects on the score of caste. Princes were treated in the same way as poorest student and kings made it a principle to send the princes away from their own country, to learn like an ordinary student.”
A famous example is that of Prince Prasenajit from the formidable Empire of Kosala who studied with Bandhulamalla, a common man from the Malla-gaṇa, a tiny Republic.
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.
 Geopolitics of India and Greater India
 Śrīkaṇṭhayāna, Vol. 1
 Śrīkaṇṭhayāna, Vol. 1