The Unalloyed Erudition M. Hiriyanna: Writing to Elevate Himself

Then there was a matter related to Sanskrit Grammar. I had employed a certain diction in one of my writings. Actually, it was a re-edit of what I had written earlier. When Hiriyanna read it, he said, “we can justify your diction using a grammatical rule. But from the perspective of idiom, it appears that it is improper. We can accept your earlier usage. One may rethink this.”

Equally, to determine the meaning of a random poem that I’d written, his response was similar: “One may think and decide.”

He never imposed his opinion on anybody at any time. His attitude was to suggest the path of further inquiry and then allow the other person to come to a conclusion.

Writing to Attain Tranquillity

I’ve mentioned earlier that Hiriyanna was supremely upright. This integrity was his natural trait. His writing was never with an aim to secure any sort of gain in return. There’s a school among our ancient Indian aestheticians that avers that a litterateur writes with a specific purpose in mind. This purpose could be to obtain wealth, fame or both. There might have been a few such litterateurs after the time of Kalidasa, and this could’ve been the consequence of a tradition that held that kings had to give patronage to pundits and poets.

Equally, there is a significant number of writers who have written with no such pre-set expectations. There have been those who have written for their own joy, or to unload the burden of their heart. We can add Hiriyanna to this category. He often used to cite this verse, found in the beginning of Sureshwaracharya’s [i] “Naishkarmyasiddhi:”

न ख्याति  लाभपूजार्थम् ग्रन्थोस्माभिरुदीर्यते |

स्वभोधपरिशुद्ध्यर्थं  ब्रह्मविन्निकशाश्मसु ||

Na khyaatilaabhapoojaartham granthosmaabhirudeeryate |
Swabodhaparishuddhyartham Brahmavinnikashasmasu ||

In this verse, स्वभोधपरिशुद्ध्यर्थं (Swabodhaparishuddhyartham) is the most important word. Literally it translates to “to examine for one’s own self, the exactitude of what one has learnt by one’s own effort.” The essence of this verse lies in asking to oneself questions such as, “have I learnt the subject thoroughly? Am I sure that there are no errors, drawbacks, or blunders in my comprehension? It is to test all this that I’ve set out to write.”     

It is only when we sit down to write that the exact extent of the accuracy of our comprehension of a topic is put to scrutiny. There’s a proverb in Hindustani: “sau bakna, ek likhna,” meaning “one can talk a hundred things but one must write only one thing.” Thus, if one must convey knowledge concisely, as preparatory steps, one needs to think a thousand times, resolve a thousand doubts, and only then arrive at a decision. This method results in decisive comprehension. And, to write for attaining mental limpidity, for reinforcing faith in one’s own discernment, for refining one’s intellect—this is the true import of स्वबोधपरिशुद्धि (Swabodhaparishuddhi).

This was Hiriyanna’s method.

About two or three months after his “Outlines of Indian Philosophy” was published, I had an opportunity to meet a renowned scholar of philosophy. He had undertaken an extensive and diligent study of Vedanta. He also had attained mastery in Western philosophy. In the course of our conversation, I asked him: “did you get a chance to have a look at Hiriyanna’s book?”

He: “Aha! I’d seen it at the manuscript stage, much, much before it was printed. His writing is conclusive—if I were to write just one book in his method, it’d take me twelve to fifteen years!”

Patience

Hiriyanna’s writing was marked by composure. He would proceed to the next only after dwelling on every sentence and word. And then he would revisit, review, and re-edit. I have seen his corrections firsthand.

His “Indian Conception of Values” had not yet been published back then. Although the book [manuscript] was complete, he was in no hurry to send it to the press. “I need to review it again. I need to refine it still,” was his refrain. His discipline: the corpus maybe frugal but it must be decisive.  

And his other self-imposed rule: every essay, exposition, or argument must be backed up by evidence. Else it shouldn’t be written. Equally, the inessential mustn’t be written. This was his path: it shouldn’t be without proof; it shouldn’t be repetitive.   

When one reads his independent essays and critical reviews, it’s not hard to discern the generosity of his outlook, his compassion for other writers, the simplicity of his prose, and the transparency of his philosophical purpose.

Boundary of his Field

The volume of Hiriyanna’s writing was meagre. But it was worth its weight in gold in keeping with his conviction that quality was more important than bulk. The reason why everything he touched turned to gold, I think, was because of the boundary he had imposed upon himself. He had in a way, taken ownership of a few chosen areas.  

The first was kavya or poetry, which directly related to his profession. He was thoroughly well-versed in the prerequisites it demanded: Sanskrit and English literature. Then he had attained mastery in philosophy, the Six[ii] Schools, their methodology of inquiry, premises and inferences. Among these, he had penetrated the philosophical depths of the Advaita and Vishishtadvaita sects. He had also thoroughly studied the texts of Western philosophy that had parallels with Vedanta.

Despite all this learning, there was neither any trace of truculence nor ostentation of erudition in his writing and conversation. He only spoke what the situation warranted.  

Philosophy and some amount of Aesthetics—he never ventured into any topic beyond these two. But he was also learned in several other subjects including Mathematics and Music. Yet, because they were unconnected to him, he remained aloof to the extent that it appeared as if he was completely unacquainted with these subjects. And so, by strictly restricting his scope of activity, the labours in his chosen fields became fruitful. Although the expanse was small, the depth was immense.

I think it’s best that our writers and (public) speakers keep in mind the merit of limiting the number of fields of one’s labours. From the perspective of literature, I think this is extremely necessary. Instead of trying to place a ladder to ascend to the polymath’s throne, it is far more rewarding to earn honest expertise in one or two fields.  

Hiriyanna was a truly lofty soul. Recalling his memory is both delightful and auspicious.

Concluded

Footntes

[i] Sureshwaracharya was one of the four direct disciples of Adi Shankara. He was entrusted with and became the first pontiff of the Sringeri Shankara Mutt.

[ii] The Six Schools (or Shad-darshana) of Indian Philosophy include Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta.

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:

Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.