Here is an example of a critique written by Sastri and what is noteworthy is that instead of it becoming merely reactionary, it offers a wonderful commentary on Indian culture.
The German philosopher-historian Oswald Spengler wrote a two-part tome titled Der Untergang des Abendlandes (literally, ‘The Downfall of the Occident’), which was translated into English in 1926 as ‘The Decline of the West’ and it sold a hundred thousand copies. In his work, Sprengler tries to formulate certain general laws of cultural history based on what he thinks is the ultimate fundamental reality underlying every phase of cultural development. Sastri deals specifically with Sprengler’s views of Indian cultural development and tears him into shreds.
Sastri starts the essay with a brilliant passage –
“The prime characteristic of modern western thought is the perception of the fact that Western Culture has been tried and found wanting. Mingled with this sense of disappointment can also be found a wistful longing for some great new inspiration to enliven the life of to-day and hold forth a hope for the morrow. This wave of pessimism passed all over Europe as a result of the inability of the conventional standards of spirituality to cope successfully with the new order of things after a most disastrous world-war.”
Sprengler asserts that as contrasted with the Egyptian, the Indian ‘forgot everything’ as symbolised by burning of the dead and the absence of an art of portraiture. Sastri writes –
“But it must not be forgotten that ancestor-worship which is enjoined on every Hindu is a more subtle form of expressing the transcendental nature of Consciousness than the crude Egyptian method of mummification and of resorting to granite or basalt for the preservation of mere flesh.”
Upon a superficial observation of Indian culture, Spengler opines that it passes through a dreamy existence with no awareness of the world around. In response, Sastri says –
“What is impossible for the western man to understand is that there can be an intense individual existence, which, however rigidly it might appear to the outward eye, conform to the system of the World-as-Nature, might at the same time be independent of it.
“The Advaita doctrine... places before the world a conception of real democracy in a World of truth. The singularism of Śaṃkara admits of no weakness and is the most logical and rational conclusion that can be arrived at from the facts of consciousness as apprehended by the Indian soul.”
And further, he goes on to write –
“The personality and the individuality of each Self was assured to the Indian not by self-aggrandisement but by self-effacement. Society is but a means to an end-the end being the development of the real Self.
“Buddhism was not the perfect and final expression of the Indian soul as Spengler believes. It found no permanent place in the land of its birth as such, though when modified by Tantraism, Vaishnavism etc., it necessarily influenced the spiritual life of the country. It is but an early landmark in the spiritual evolution of the Indian soul, the culmination of which was the Advaita doctrine. It is nearer to the truth to say that the Non-dualism of Śaṃkara with its relentless logic formed the crown and the summit of Indian thought...
“The history of Indian Cultural development is thus one of spiritual growth primarily and acquires profound significance only when viewed from the point of India’s distinctive contribution to the world.”
Alluding to the period from the 10th century CE when the impact of the barbaric Islamic invasions began to be felt in the Indian life and society, Sastri writes that it was the period when the spiritual creative force dwindles, peaks and pines. Ethical and ritualistic dogmas loom large; the caste-system acquires rigidity; disproportionate attention is bestowed on dry philosophical discussions – often degenerating into mere quibbling; the memory for Feeling becomes a memory for Forms; and finally a pessimistic notion of Karma spreads over the whole continent, destroying all feelings of hope and strength, killing all ideas of Beauty, Truth and Freedom.
And Sastri wrote this when he was twenty-four!
Sastri never feared criticism because his findings and claims were based on solid evidence. Right from his high school days, he was sharp to identify errors in arguments and fearlessly took on even his teachers. For instance, when he was at the Wesleyan Collegiate School preparing for his University of Mysore entrance examination a second time, a missionary by name Rev. Brunt, who taught English would often ridicule Hinduism and Hindu gods. Sastri argued with him tooth and nail, boldly giving rock-solid evidence.
Sastri criticized the formidable Fr. Henry Heras and others who made the baseless claim that the Indus script was related to ancient Tamil.
When he was working as a tutor in the Maharaja’s College, Sastri wrote an article titled ‘Is Mysore Maharaja a True Sovereign?,’ which invited the ire of Dewan Mirza Ismail, who warned him of dire consequences if he didn’t retract his article. Needless to say, Sastri stood his ground firmly.
Sastri wrote a scathing critique of K A Nilakanta Sastri’s [Muddled] History of South India pointing out the many lacunae it had.
His papers on Basavanna, Pallava Mahendra-varma, Purandara-dasa, and others created huge controversy. It is not that he has not been disproved by later historians with regard to some of his claims but the number of things he got right is phenomenal!
And remarkable was his calmness in the wake of fiasco. He would simply say, For whatever I have claimed, I have all the evidence ready. If you have evidence to support your theory, please put them forward and we shall discuss! And anyone who spoke at a lower level than that, Sastri would simply ignore him. “Is it my job to reply to every shout or call that is heard on the street?” was a famous retort of the great historian.
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.
 The essay was published in The New Era in March 1929. See Śrīkaṇṭhayāna, Vol. 1