Mahāmahopādhyāya Vidvān N. Ranganatha Sharma (1916-2014), who lived amongst us until recently was known for his thoroughness in traditional knowledge and clarity in understanding of śāstras. He made tremendous contribution in passing on knowledge and awakening of values in the society. Our country has only had a handful of men who paid back the ṛṣi-ṛṇa that was upon them – they paid back in large quantities and great quality – and among them, Ranganatha Sharma stands supreme. His life-long dedication to study and teaching, writing and lecturing is something rare and unique. Sharma was one of the rare exceptions in the community of traditional scholars who had developed a habit of constantly engaging themselves in scholarly writing. He was a scholar not merely of Sanskrit but also of Haḻagannaḍa and Hosagannaḍa. He enriched the Kannada literary world by delivering lectures, writing commentaries and translating originals into the common man’s language. His service to the literary field is unmatched.
Constant ārādhana of Sarasvatī
Acquiring mastery over the śāstras is not easy at all. It takes decades to master one branch of learning. Though tormented with several obstacles and disturbances, Ranganatha Sharma developed expertise in vyākaraṇa-śāstra (grammar) and alaṅkāra-śāstra (literary aesthetics). In addition, out of his own interest, he pursed the vedānta-darśana and mastered the complex subject. He developed great insights into subtle aspects of the lore. He did not stop with acquiring knowledge. It was because of his concern for the society and his passion for spreading knowledge he had acquired that he constantly wrote translations and commentaries in Kannada on several classical texts.
There are not many who have served Sarasvatī to this extent in India. Just as the quantity of his writings are of great magnitude, so are their quality – extraordinary. Along with his regular studies, he spent time in contemplation and introspection for deeper understanding of the subjects. He composed several original and independent works such as ‘Taittariyopaniṣad-pravacana’ and ‘Māṇḍūkya-pravacana’ even in his nineties, when old age had cast its spell of physical weakness over him. His intellectual feats even at that ripe old age are something astounding. It had been several years since his visual and auditory reflexes had weakened. After his age of eight five, it was only the eye of his intellect that was wide open and ever alert. At such a stage of his life, he took the help of people who could read out works for him and could write down his thoughts. Isn’t it a wonder that he explored complex works at such an advanced age and composed profound works, even with all his faculties left with very little agility?
Sharma not only passed on traditional knowledge that he had assimilated as a scholar to people of his generation but also provided a lot of clarity in the concepts that were unclear at different phases in the traditional evolution of knowledge systems. Along with an adherence to the śāstras, he had an analytical bent of mind that was conducive for research. There are only a few who have recognised the fact that some concepts need clearer presentation and elaboration than what already exists. Several traditional concepts that appear to be simple at the outset, when examined with a keener eye reveal themselves to be complex anthills that need to be set right. For example: One of the questions that he once took up for a detailed exploration is as follows – “Anna (food), which is said to be jaḍa (inanimate), results in life which is filled with cetana (animate - life) – how does this happen?”
This dedication to work did not cease even until a few days before his passing away. His eyes, ears and limbs – all organs had weakened. Even at that stage, he had not paused his intellectual activity and deep thinking. The topic he explored in those days: “How did the varṇas (letters of an alphabet) come into existence at the very beginning before everything else was born? How does a word and its meaning come into existence? Once a language comes into existence, how does it evolve? How do the different versions of a language come into existence?” We do get some information from the śāstras about these aspects. However, the more fundamental question is – how does a particular word (‘śabda’) or a group of letters (‘akṣara-saṃyojana’) get the potential to express a certain meaning? This was the question that Sharma was trying to find an answer for. Nowhere in the available works on linguistics (‘bhāṣā-śāstra’) do we find a satisfactory answer to this question. This topic is related to the state before the birth and growth of grammar and the science of languages. He had put his thoughts together and had got the assistance of someone who could write it down. However, his research came to an end mid-way. He often said “if there is no convincing answer that emerges out, we will need to resort to the vedic saying – ‘mahādevo martyām āviveśa”
Childhood, Study and Teaching
Ranganatha Sharma was born in 1916, on the vaiśākha-śuddha-pañcamī – the day of Śaṅkara Jayantī. The tale of the difficulties that he underwent during his student-hood is heart wrenching. The kind of neglect and contempt displayed by a few of his close relatives is unimaginable. His body, which was delicate by birth, ended up becoming the abode of all kinds of diseases. He had to spend his younger days and youth in torturous physical and emotional conditions. Acquiring knowledge – the aim of his life, had to take place under such adverse set of circumstances. Sharma never lost his internal calm – he focused on his studies and achieved his goal – this, in itself, is an extraordinary feat.
Back in those days, i.e., about ninety years ago, poor students who had come from other places had to depend on vārānna. However, that arrangement was not always sufficient or satisfactory. On several occasions, Sharma just ate whatever he could lay his hands on. He would not even find a piece of the leaf of the ‘muttuga’ tree (flame of the forest) off which he could to eat such scavenged food and would end up eating spreading the food over the floor. As though this wasn’t sufficient, a severe skin disease and acute diarrhoea invaded his body.
Once, he was sick with severe fever and there were no medical facilities available. Thinking that he will never recover, he wrote a letter to his family to let them know of his condition. However, the person who was supposed to be his guardian hardly cared to even inform his family members about this.
Sharma had experienced this kind of severe neglect too.
What is superlative in his personality is the fact that Sharma never got his heart embittered even when he was faced with such difficult circumstances. At his ripe old age, even while speaking to his close circle of friends, about those terrible events of his life, which could have easily demotivated anyone, Sharma always had a smile on his face. Sometimes he would say - ‘what’s so special about all that! There would have been innumerable people who would have suffered like us.’
Back then, though the cost of text books was not so high, it was hard for Sharma to afford them. He wrote down several texts for his studies.
He experienced great deal of difficulties at every stage in his studenthood. Even when he recollected the instances where he was treated with immense disdain by the people around him, he did so without the slightest feeling of bitterness. Instead, he always maintained – ‘We should not consider all of these as out of ordinary. Life is just so.’ He had a lot of stability with this feeling in his mind.
Though he had faced tremendous difficulties during his youth, in his middle age, he lent out a generous helping hand to students and relatives who were in need and at most times, he helped them beyond his capacity.
One should not sit complaining about the state of the world and instead should do the tasks at hand with as much dedication as possible – this will make life tolerable and liveable: Sharma seems to have got this ideal impregnated in his mind from the youngest of his days.
To be continued...
The current article is an English adaptation of the Kannada original which has appeared in the Dīptaśṛṅgagalu, authored by Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy. Thanks to Sri Hari Ravikumar for his edits. Full form of the article is a part of 'A Tapestry of Pen Portraits' published by Prekshaa Pratishtana in December 2020.
 The feeling of indebtedness that an individual has for the past masters, especially towards those who have realised immortal concepts for the first time.
 a practise where a student got his daily meal at a different household each day of the week.