T S Venkannayya (Part 7)

Satkāvya and Adhyātma

Among the readers, those who have seen a Nāgarakaṭṭe of the yesteryears might recognise the twin serpents sculpted in stone there. The sculpture depicts two serpents, intertwined like a braid, facing each other, and affectionately staring at each other. Similar to those two serpents, there were two abiding interests that occupied Venkannayya’s inner life. One was satkāvya [good literature] and the other was adhyātma [philosophical enquiry into the Self]. These two would always be face to face and influence each other.

Venkannayya would recite this poem at least once or twice a day –

arivèṃ rāgada puttidòṃdumarivèṃ
nīrguḻḻè-pāṃgèṃdida-

sthiramèṃduṃ sadasadvivekamanide
pāḻgèyvudèṃduṃ vasuṃ-

dharèyòḻkāṇadirpare paḻigidiṃ-
tīdāḍòḍaṃ bhaktiyiṃ

guruśuśrūṣèyòḻiṃtuṭe kaḻèyè
tāruṇyaṃ madānaṃdadaṃ

(Anantanarayana Shastri’s translation of a verse[1] from Nāgānanda)

[I know the origin of attachments
I know they are ephemeral like water bubbles
Who in the world doesn’t know
  it will destroy the wisdom
  that discerns reality (good) from illusion (bad)
And yet, it will bring me joy
  if I spend my youth
  devotedly serving my elders!]

Venkannayya, in his last days, became more and more introspective. When his final affliction became more pronounced, his right hand would move uncontrollably from the region of his heart almost like he was offering flowers to the almighty during daily worship.

If one were to describe the speciality of Venkannayya’s inner life in a single word, it would be – jīvannonati, the exaltation of life. And to achieve this, the only two ways that he knew were: the maturity of rasa in literature and compassion in worldly life. Aesthetic experience and the resulting joy must ripen life; exposure to the world should cleanse the impurities of selfishness and purify life. Maturity of the mind leading to Self-inquiry; the development of the essence of oneself by engaging with the world.

He was not one who negated entertainment in literature; [his expectation was that] it must be rich in emotions and nourished by rasa. However, those two should lead to self-purification. It is the same with worldly interaction. It should identify and underscore the weaknesses of life and help us remedy them. Thus, the twofold objective is life-enquiry and life-exaltation.

In all of Venkannayya’s endeavours, the pursuit of self-elevation was fundamental.

An ancient saying goes thus –

rāja-dvāre śmaśāne ca
yas-tiṣṭhati sa bāndhavaḥ

When difficult times befall a man, or when he’s being dragged to prison, or when he is engulfed by the sorrow of separation (from his beloved), one who stands by him, without ever letting go of his hand, is a true friend.

Venkannayya was such a friend to me. When the lamp of my house was doused[2], the one who stood by me was Venkannayya. For fifteen days before that, Venkannayya would always be at my side except for the hours he had to teach at the college. That night, the people who went to the crematorium on my behalf were: 1. Rama Shastri, my father’s friend and our purohita, 2. Bellave Venkatanaranappa, 3. Venkannayya, and 4. Angadi Krishnappa. None of my relatives were able to join. By the time these four people went to the crematorium, had all the rituals completed, and returned, it was past midnight.

Rama Shastri said, “From the day she was born and all through her childhood, I have lifted her in my arms, played with her, made her laugh, and derived joy. And then, as a purohita, it was I who officiated her wedding, and derived great joy. After that, when she became a mother, it was I who performed the jātakarma and other rituals, bringing me greater joy. Now, the same hands officiated her last rites, thus ending her story.” Saying so, he wept inconsolably.

One of those assembled there said, “This is not rare in the world; there are so many such instances.”

Venkatanaranappa was angry with destiny. With consternation he cried, “Why should it have happened so?” Not a word escaped from Venkannayya’s lips. He just sat still.

Four or five months passed. One evening, in the western face of the Hanumantaraya hillock, perched on a bench-shaped crevice, Venkannayya and I were watching the sunset. On several occasions, we had sat there and enjoyed reading a variety of kāvyas. That evening, I asked Venkannayya a question. “Should we turn our heart into a crematory and burn the roots of attachments and aversions? Or should we uproot all the remnants of the destroyed and the defiled, and plant new saplings there? Virakti, complete detachment or Sarasate, joyful participation – which is the right way?”

Venkannayya thought for a while and said, “Let’s come back to this topic another time.”

The days went by, and three or four months passed. Venkannayya had to suffer the same ordeal as me. Therefore I didn’t have the heart to bring up my earlier question again.

After a few weeks, Venkannayya posed the same question to me. By that time, I had arrived at a conclusion in my mind. I told Venkannayya, “Each one should find within himself—as applicable to him—the answer to this question. Each person’s deha-dharma [physiological nature] is unique. It’s the same with manodharma [state of mind], family circumstances, duties and responsibilities as well – they are all unique. In this matter, one cannot decide for another.”

Venkannayya would spend long stretches in complete silence. After he was transferred to Mysore, the opportunities for us to interact also reduced. Whenever we met, I felt the presence of a curtain between us. But this was my view. Even though he was affectionate with me like his old self, there seemed to be a degree of hesitation in his speech.

One day, I went to his house to address this; I brought up this topic. As usual, he offered me snacks and refreshments. After that, I begged of him, “You must not hesitate or have any reservations when it comes to me. Your nature is to be joyful. Be yourself. If you are so, I too will be happy.”

After this, I got the feeling that he was slowly returning to his earlier state of mind.

Demise

After that, fate did not grant him many days. He breathed his last on 24th February 1939. He had undergone great hardships in his life. It is only after he became a professor that he found job security and saw an improvement in his financial situation. By that time, his difficulties also had increased. In our country, if anyone from an ordinary middle-class background comes up in life, there will be ten others who will be ready to pull him down. Venkannayya had experienced such ways of the world. He had prepared himself mentally for such eventualities. The high principles embodied by Śeṣācala Sādhu were firmly rooted in his mind. The divine conduct of Sītā and Rāma as well as the words of the Bhagavad-gītā were enmeshed with his life. During his last days, he was lost in the thoughts of the Supreme, often forgetting everything else. I’m told that his hand was positioned like he was offering flowers during daily worship of the divine.

To be concluded.

This is the seventh part of an eight-part English translation of Chapters 23 and 24 of D V Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashaale – Vol. 3 – Sahityopasakaru.

Footnotes

[1] rāgasyāspadam-ity-avaimi na hi me dhvaṃsīti na pratyayaḥ
kṛtyākṛtya-vicāraṇāsu vimukhaṃ ko vā na vetti kṣitau

evaṃ nindyam-apīdam-indriya-vaśaṃ prītyai bhaved-yauvanaṃ
bhaktyā yāti yadīttham-eva pitarau śuśrūṣamāṇasya me

(From Act I of the play)

[2] A reference to the death of the author’s wife.

Author(s)

About:

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.

Translator(s)

About:

Hari is a writer, translator, violinist, and designer with a deep interest in Vedanta, education pedagogy design, literature, and films. He has (co-)written more than fifteen books, mostly related to Indian culture and philosophy. He works in an advisory capacity with Abhinava Dance Company, Lakshminarayana Global Centre for Excellence, Pramiti, and Samvit Research Foundation.

About:

Srishan Thirumalai is an Electronics Engineer who holds a senior position in the IT industry. He is passionate about Indian classical music and literature.

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