2. Faith in Ancient Traditions
Seasoned by Critical Analysis
It has been thirty years since Venkannayya left for his heavenly abode. Even so, that sorrow is still fresh in my heart. The sadness of bereavement is not unfamiliar to me. But I feel that the wound caused by Venkannayya’s demise will never heal. What could be the reason for this unusual depression?
If I set out to give reasons for love and sorrow, it would be a grave injustice to heart. Love can’t be measured. Searching for its reason is to limit it. Attributing such causality merely amounts to defining boundaries of love. Love is not such a limited thing.
vyatiṣajati padārthān āntaraḥ ko’pi hetuḥ।
na khalu bahir-upādhīn prītayaḥ saṃśrayante॥
[For uniting objects, the cause is internal.
Love doesn’t seek refuge in external attributes.]
Although this holds true at the level of philosophy, I feel that I must express the specific reason for my sorrow, to the extent that I can perceive it. The loss from Venkannayya’s death is not merely personal. It is a great bereavement from the point of view of public welfare. Primary among the noble undertakings of today are: the renaissance of Kannada literature and infusing newness into the public life all over India. There aren’t many souls like Venkannayya who can do justice to both these activities.
That being the case, what is the special competence that Venkannayya possessed? If one has to express this in a succinct manner, it is the faith in our ancient tradition seasoned by a critical analysis. On the surface, Faith and Critical Analysis appear to be at loggerheads.
To say that a certain individual is free from disease and possesses a strong body seems to be opposed to saying that he is on medication and diet. Why would one who is healthy need medicines of any sort? If one is on medication, then doesn’t it follow that he is unwell? This is how logic proceeds. If a person is constantly mindful about his food and activities, he remains healthy. In such a state of health, there is a combination of strong nutrition on the one hand and mindfulness on the other. So also are Faith and Critical Analysis.
B M Sri – Venkannayya
In order to better comprehend this special quality of Venkannayya, we can compare him with two of his friends. The first is B M Srikantayya, who was his teacher and colleague. Srikantayya was more well-read as compared to Venkannayya. His scholarship was more expansive. His insights into ancient literature were profound. Similarly, his exposure to and love for modern literature were both immense. Thus, although from the point of view of scholarship we have to accept that Srikantayya was more erudite, from the perspective of what is relevant to us today, in my opinion, Venkannayya’s temperament is far more conducive. Srikantayya was not one who had rejected traditional practices. It is true that he retained certain amount affection towards them. However, due to some reasons, he harboured a little bitterness towards traditional practices. Due to a few personal experiences, he had grown tired of tradition. Therefore, because of this slight bitterness, I often feel that Srikantayya’s insights into ancient literature and traditions were coloured [by his prejudice]. Indeed, his vision was profound but I felt it was a little clouded.
It appears that Venkannayya’s insights were far more pellucid. Venkannayya was not a man of blind faith. He was a thinker. He had a subtle and impartial method of reasoning. Even so, he was never one to jump to conclusions with regard to ancient literature or traditional practices. If his intellect couldn’t comprehend the meaning of a something, he did not brush it aside as meaningless; instead he had the attitude of researching it further and carrying out deeper deliberations on the topic.
Venkannayya – Krishna Shastri
Let us now take a look at another friend: A R Krishna Shastri. He was a friend and colleague of Venkannayya who never left his side. Both were partners in literary and other endeavours. Even so, it appears to me that Shastri’s faith in the ancient literature and traditional practices was not prepared for critical examination as opposed to Venkannayya. Shastri was intense and passionate. He expressed his opinions quickly and firmly. The tendency for provisional or tentative opinions was much higher in the case of Venkannayya as compared to Shastri. For instance, let’s take an instructive line in the Gītā. Shastri’s mind would at once accept it wholeheartedly. Venkannayya’s mind, however, would run in this manner: Are there other lines related to this verse? What are the meanings given in the commentaries? Let us examine carefully.
Venkannayya placed his faith in ancient pramāṇas [source, authority]. He would summarise [the learning] in a manner suited for the current context. Thus, it was Venkannayya’s natural tendency to try and reconcile between the ancient and the modern.
Like many others, Venkannayya too accepted that much was to be done in the area of Kannada literature. The literature of those times was composed keeping in mind the people of that era. Only a few of those had an intrinsic emotional quality that made them timeless classics. A significant number of the ancient literary works don’t have this intrinsic quality. There is still a great need for Kannada literature of the kind that will cater to our daily lives and prove useful to today’s world; and of the kind that will match the best in English and world literature. To explore paths for creating such literary innovations, Venkannayya had more energy and enthusiasm as compared to anyone else I know. I’m not saying that there weren’t better scholars and more talented individuals than him. But for our purpose, what is required is not only erudition or talent. That is a special kind of temperament, whose highlight is the process of innovation without forsaking tradition. This can’t be further explained in words. Modern innovation should be a natural development, which is rooted in time-tested traditions. The tree is old but the bud is new. This was the sort of development that Venkannayya liked.
Venkannayya’s outlook towards society or social structure was similar to his view of literature. In our ancient tradition and customs, a significant portion of our rituals prescribed by the sacred texts have become outdated; over the course of time they have lost meaning and have remained as blind practices. If one deeply studied the texts and discarded all the slag [of blind beliefs], there’s a great chance that the essence [of the wisdom] that remains will shine forth brilliantly. Therefore, a rigorous study of social customs and their refinement [relevant to a given era] is essential. However, it is not advisable for us to meddle with ancient works impetuously. This is a task that must be undertaken with great mindfulness and deep understanding of all the layers of meaning. Venkannayya believed that without understanding the wisdom of the ancients from the fundamentals, if we meddle with traditional customs and established norms, it would prove to be dangerous to both the society and dharma. Newness must come but it should be a result of deep deliberation – this was his outlook.
Thus, the contribution to both literature and society by a competent, impartial, and magnanimous thinker like Venkannayya is extremely important. Our country is waiting for such a phenomenon.
As a speaker in the special lecture series that was a part of the [Kannaḍa Sāhitya] Pariṣat’s Literary Fest in 1935, Venkannayya had shared many of these opinions in great detail.
This is the eight and final part of the English translation of Chapters 23 and 24 of D V Gundappa’s Jnapakachitrashaale – Vol. 3 – Sahityopasakaru. Thanks to Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh for his valuable feedback.
 Prof. M Hiriyanna calls this ‘critical conservatism.’ In his famed essay The Value of Sanskrit Learning and Culture, he writes, “...when a new stage of progress is reached, the old is not discarded but is consciously incorporated in the new. It is this critical conservatism which marks Indian civilisation, as a whole, that explains its stability and constitutes its special strength.”
 Just like the body needs nutrition, the mind needs faith; while nutrition is important, vigilance is necessary to avoid over-eating or eating the wrong kinds of food – at the mental level, this is role played by being objective and critical in analysis.