Vīrakesari Sitarama Shastri: childhood, education, politics - Part 2

Childhood and Education

During his childhood he lost eyesight in one of his eyes while playing gilli-daṇḍa[1]. By 1947 he lost eyesight in the other eye too. Thus all his main works were dictated and written by a scribe. His writing skills and his memory were extraordinary.

He hailed from a traditional, erudite household. (Birth: 4th November 1893 in Nanjangud, Mysore. Death: 7th January 1971 in Bangalore). Sri. Nageshwara Jois was his father.

Originally from the Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh, his ancestors migrated to Mysore around three to four centuries ago. One of his ancestors during that era, Dinakara Bhattacharya had his education in Bengal. The Mysore kingdom was famous for extending its patronage to scholars. Thus hundreds of families from Andhra Pradesh had migrated and had settled in various parts of Mysore. Another reason for such migration was the barbaric and unbearable rule of Islamic kingdoms.

Sitarama Jois, father of Nageshwara Jois, had served the army of Maharashtra during the Pindari War.

Though he was born ‘Sitarama Jois,’ he became ‘Sitarama Shastri’ owing to his maternal uncles, i.e. brothers of his mother Parvatamma. The three brothers (Yajneshwara Shastri, Srikantha Shastri, and Krishna Shastri) were all eminent personalities. Srikantha Shastri was the chief officer in the Śṛṅgeri Maṭha; Krishna Shastri was the dharmādhikarī during the reign of Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV. As Sitarama Jois grew under their patronage, they saw fit to call him Shastri and therefore that surname stuck.

Nageshwara Jois who lived in Maddur took up paurohitya[2] as his profession but was a scholar par excellence. He had learnt the Vedas and other śāstras under the tutelage of the distinguished Rajeshwara Shastri and other reputed scholars in Kashi. In addition to great scholarship, Nageshwara Jois was also an extempore poet.

Both on his maternal and paternal sides, Sitarama Shastri’s family members were famous for their scholarship.

Sitarama Shastri’s father passed away when he was just a year old. After that Parvatamma left Maddur with her two sons and went to Sringeri to reside in Srikantha Shastri’s house. Sitarama Shastri’s elder brother Lakshminarayana Jois was a young boy of ten.

Sitarama Shastri completed his education in a traditional setting in Sringeri. The doctor’s advice after he lost his eyesight in one of his eyes - that studying in English medium would result in blindness in the other eye too - also contributed to the decision of undergoing a traditional education. Even as a boy he was capable of composing poetry in Sanskrit. By the time he turned nineteen, he had already completed vidvat (proficiency level) in tarka (logic) and had studied Sanskrit literature including the major dramas. Such achievements at such a young age evoked wonder even during those days. The Swamiji of Śṛṅgeri-maṭha, Śrī Candraśekhara-bhāratī, during his pūrvāśrama (pre-monastic life), was Sitarama Shastri’s classmate.

Incisive logic, extraordinary memory – these brought fame to Shastri right from his childhood. Śrī Nṛsimha-bhāratī swamiji would call for Shastri when he was young and make him sit nearby. There would always be some scholars in attendance. Swamiji or one of the scholars would recite a verse. Shastri would immediately identify it and tell the name of the work along with the chapter or canto in which it appears. Sometimes, for fun, if the Swamiji or the scholars composed a verse impromptu and recited it, Shastri would laugh and declare without hesitation that the recited verse wasn’t present in any known work.

His memory was remarkable. Thousands of verses and quotes from the Vedas, the Upaniṣads, the Itihāsas, and so forth were on the tip of his tongue. After being blinded, he would make someone read the new works, newspapers, etc. Once the information passed through his ears it would stay in his mind as though it was inscribed on stone.

Such inexhaustible capability was what made him competent to dictate thousands of pages of literature. A few students from the Chamarajendra Sanskrit School, Bangalore or from elsewhere visited him and served as scribes while he dictated the content non-stop.

He led his life for around four decades depending on his writing prowess.

Even quantitatively speaking, the creative ability of Shastri was extraordinary. His novel on Shivaji spans around eight-hundred pages. So does Daulat. He wrote five novels exclusively on the Vijayanagar Empire.

Introduction to politics

During his stay in Śṛṅgeri, Lokmanya Tilak, the prominent freedom fighter came to seek the blessings of the swamiji. He also brought Bapu Saheb along with him. He was the adopted son of the feisty queen of Jhansi, Smt Lakshmi Bai, whom she would carry on her back during the first war of Indian independence. They stayed for three days, during which Sitarama Shastri was inspired by them to such an extent that his original ambition of becoming a scholar like his maternal uncles subsided and he decided that he would instead become a patriot and serve the country. He also met his political mentor Venkataramana Sarasvati (Sarasvati was an honorific title) who was a head of the chemistry department and later the principal of The National College, Rajahmundry. The revolutionary and anti-government activities of Venkataramana resulted in an arrest warrant issued against him by the British government. To avoid arrest Venkataramana had become incognito and stayed with Sitarama shastri. He later became the head of the śaṅkara-maṭha in Puri as Bharati Krishna Tirtha. Under his tutelage Sitarama Shastri honed his political acumen and also learnt English.

An incident

One day the police officer, in charge of Śṛṅgeri, visited Sitarama Shastri and expressed his desire to converse with him in private regarding a top secret operation. He said he had received orders from the central government to catch a fugitive who they believed was residing in Śṛṅgeri and he sought Shastri help. He showed him the letter. Shastri read the letter which spanned around eight pages and understood everything at once. He informed the officer that his english wasn’t good enough to understand the contents of the letter, instead he would take the officer to his friend who was competent enough. The officer refused saying that the letter was confidential, but Shastri persuaded him relentlessly and finally he agreed. He brought him to Venkataramana and handed over the letter to him. Venkataramana read the letter which was full of unsubstantiated allegations against him and explained the letter word by word to the officer. Shastri was surprised to see how calm and unflustered Venkataramana was while doing so. After the letter was explained in detail, Shastri finally revealed to the police officer that Venkataramana was indeed the person who has been mentioned in the letter and assured the officer that his activities would never hinder the government in any way!

The current article is an English adaptation of the Kannada original which has appeared in the Dīvaṭikegaḻu, authored by Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy. Some parts have been adapted from the booklet titled - 'Virakesari' Sitarama Sastri - published as part of the series Mulukanadu Mahaniyaru. Thanks to Sri Hari Ravikumar for his edits.

Footnotes

[1]A traditional game of India.

[2]Paurohitya is the occupation of a purohita, which primarily includes officiating at various rituals.

Author(s)

About:

Nadoja Dr. S R Ramaswamy is a renowned journalist, writer, art critic, environmentalist, and social activist. He has authored over fifty books and thousands of articles. He was a close associate of stalwarts like D. V. Gundappa, Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sharma, V Sitaramaiah, and others. He is currently the honorary Editor-in-Chief of Utthana and served as the Honorary Secretary of the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs for many years.

Translator(s)

About:

Raghavendra G S is currently pursuing a PhD in Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Science. He is a keen student of classical literature in Sanskrit and Kannada. He is one of the contributing editors of Prekshaa.

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