Swami Dayanand Saraswati, whose death anniversary falls this week (October 30, 1883), deserves attention from all Indians. If Mahatma Gandhi is “Father of the Nation”, Swamiji has been called “The Grandfather of the Nation” by no less than a Speaker of our Parliament 1; President Radhakrishnan termed him the “Maker of Modern India”; Swami Vivekananda was inclined to place him alongside Kabir, Nanak and Chaitanya for ensuring Hindus weren’t wiped out in their own homeland 2. A man as towering as Adi Sankaracharya himself 3; he is credited to have laid the real foundation of modern independent India 4; who went farther than “Brahmo Samaj and even Ramakrishna Mission,” as per se Romain Rolland 5. To Sri Aurobindo, he’s been “A Soldier of Light” to the land we call Bharat or India 6.
A piece is hardly enough to encompass a man who needs a shelf-full of books to do justice to him. He believed in ancient Vedas and not Vedanta; was a Hindu without Hinduism. He wanted the living beings of this land to return to roots of Vedas and side-step Upanishads, Puranas, Idolatry and was critical of Brahmins for not disseminating Vedas’ profundity to masses. Such a man can’t be expected to be reverential to Islam or Christianity and he wasn’t. In no way, it implied religious intolerance—rather he wanted the entire humanity to drink from this fountain of eternal wisdom called Vedas. The greatest of all Sanskrit scholars, Swamiji chose to reach out to masses in their own language of Hindi with his magnum opus, Satyarth Prakash (The Light of Truth).
So reams could be written and hours be spent in marvelling how a young boy ran away from his home at 14, never to return or see his family again, spending a quarter of a century as a wandering ascetic, and devoting his entire celibate life in uplifting widows, untouchables and orphans and regenerating the Hindu society. He was the first to give call for Swaraj in 1876, “India for Indians,” which was later taken up by Lokmanya Tilak and a good half-century later by Gandhi-Nehru. To this day, the presence of Arya Samaj in our neighbourhood remind us of him; as do scores of DAV Schools and Colleges which dot most towns and cities of India. Not to forget the admirable Gurukul Kangri in Haridwar.
It is one of history’s painful irony that two men who lit the light of India’s renaissance, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Mahatma Gandhi, now stand at cross-purpose, even hostile to each other’s philosophy, in the annals of time. Both were born in the state of Kathiawar in Gujarat; the year 1869 which saw the birth of Mahatma Gandhi was also a seminal year in Swamiji’s life when he won over hundreds of learned Pundits in a historic debate in the holy city of Kashi, Banares.
First, it’s no help if we pigeon-hole these two giants in social, religious or political boxes. Those who try to run down Arya Samaj for its unswerving loyalty to Vedas, are worth being reminded that a few of the greatest Indians in freedom struggle like Lala Lajpat Rai, Bhagat Singh, Veer Savarkar, Madanlal Dhingra and Ram Prasad Bismal were shaped by Arya Samaj philosophy. Men like Swami Shraddhanand and Bhai Parmanand were martyred and Swami Dayanand himself was poisoned.
In 1912, a special committee under the chairmanship of Nehru, surveyed all the jails of the country and reported that 70% of its inmates were Arya Samajis. In 1931, that figure rose to 80%. The great historian K.M. Pannikar credited 80% of all freedom-fighters as being inspired by Arya Samaj.
This fervour wasn’t limited to India. In England, Shyamji Krishna Varma began India Home Rule Society in 1905. Another organization with similar aim and objective, namely Ghadar Party was floated in United States by Har Dayal. Sohan Lal Pathak breathed revolutionary fire from Burma in 1915 7.
This all flowed from Swami Dayanand’s philosophy of overturning the alien rule. He recognized the influence of education in regeneration of the Hindu race. The clarion call emanated from DAV College of Lahore and the Gurukul Kangri and between 1886-1918, the Arya Samaj ran over 500 educational institutions throughout India. Long before Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Swamiji had said: “It should be made a penal offence to keep a child at home after that (5-8 years) age.”
All these institutions included the idea of Swadeshi in their curriculum. He mobilized Rajas and Maharajas in this regard. Under his influence, the Maharaja of Jodhpur and all his officials began using hand-spun and hand-woven clothes. All adopted Khadi produced in Marwar. All of these were independent of any governmental assistance. Significantly, military training was made compulsory. One of his critic Valentine Chirol said: “…the whole drift of Dayananda’s teachings is far less to reform Hinduism than to range it into active resistance to the alien influence which threatened, in his opinion, to denationalize it 8.”
By the advent of Mahatama Gandhi in India in 1915, Arya Samaj had become big enough a threat for the British government to ban any of its followers from entering the “precincts of its regimental barracks.” No Arya Samaji was to be enlisted in the army. Swamiji had long gone by then, having been poisoned in 1883 by communal forces but Arya Samaj brooked no stopping.
Gandhi was an early recipient of Arya Samaj’s largesse when he received funds for his struggle against apartheid in South Africa and wrote a personal letter of thanks to its head, Mahatma Munshi Ram. Thereafter students of Phoenix Ashram came to India and stayed several months in the Gurukul. Gandhi himself paid a visit to Gurukul when he arrived on his first visit in 1915. It was here that Mahatma Munshi Ram called Gandhi a Mahatma, a title that Gandhi unsparingly used thereafter in public life. Two years later, Mahatma Munshi Ram took sanyas as “Swami Shraddhanand Saraswati” in 1917.
When Gandhi was praised for his Satyagraha in South Africa, he was quick to respond: “I am worthy of teaching anybody but I yearn to learn myself from anyone who is servant of his country.” He had marvelled at Swami Dayanand Saraswati and his body of work in a mere 11 years. On meeting Swami Shraddhanand in India, Gandhi described him as having a stature as tall as a mountain 9.
In the spirit of those times, Swami Shradanand soon joined Congress, moved by Gandhi’s call that “dharmic aims alone can transform the political field, (leading to pure and true amelioration of India 10 .” Alongside, he infused a new life in Hindu Sangathan, known these days as Hindu Maha Sabha.
No sooner had Swami Shradanand joined Congress, he began seeing the futility of his decision. Ironically, his biggest heart-ache came on the matter of Untouchability. Swami Shraddanand was convinced that seven crores of Indians can’t be allowed to stay out of freedom struggle only because they were Untouchables. He feared they were ready pickings for Christian missionaries. Despite Gandhi’s avowed stance against Untouchability, he received no support from Congress on the matter. His proposals were rejected by Congress in its 1920 Calcutta session. Swamiji was aghast to see Gandhi was more into his non-violent, non-cooperation creed and completely immersed in making the Khilafat Movement a success 11.
Gandhi was completely taken in by his mission to forge a Hindu-Muslim unity. Gandhi’s support to Khilafat Movement, a movement to restore Ottoman Sultan and Caliphate in faraway Turkey—in order to gain Muslim support—and the subsequent Moplah riots in which thousands of Hindus were butchered and about which the apostle of non-violence never offered any criticism, stung Swami Shradhanand. He also found to his dismay that Gandhi was forming committee on various issues and then taking arbitrary decisions. He lamented: “I thought it would be a misfortune if Mahatmaji would be obliged to sever his connection with the oldest political movement (Arya Samaj) in India.”
Gandhi meanwhile had begun to distance himself from Arya Samaj. A flashpoint must have come in 1923 when Swami Shradanand became the president of the Bhartiya Hindu Shuddhi Sabha, created with an aim of reconverting Muslims, specifically Malkana Rajputs in the western United Province. For Arya Samaj has always believed that most minorities of India, whether Muslim or Christian or any other minority, were converts out of Hindu fold. And this it expressly aimed to stop, fearing for such continuance would play havoc for Hindu’s existence in the future.
Soon enough, Gandhi began criticizing Arya Samaj in no uncertain terms. On May 29, 1925, Gandhi wrote in Young India: “Swami Shraddhanandji…his speeches are often irritating…he inherits the traditions of the Arya Samaj 12.”
Gandhi didn’t spare even Swami Dayanand and his magnum opus, Satyarth Prakash. “I have profound respect for Dayanand Saraswatiji…But he made his Hinduism narrow. I have read Satyarth Prakash, the Arya Samaj Bible. It’s a disappointing book from a reformer so great.”
In our times, Arya Samaj is losing its steam primarily for it doesn’t have leaders of stature of Swami Dayanand Saraswati and a few others. Its offices and compounds are now turning into “baraat ghars.” A great movement is dying out. The educational institutions, fashioned by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, though are doing fine.
Angoorlata Deka, the newly elected BJP MLA from Batadroba constituency in Assam, has made front-page headlines with her oath in Sanskrit language. The newspapers are shocked at her audacity for don’t we all have given up the language as dead?
Our ignorance deserves a reality check. Sanskrit is one of the 22 languages listed in a Schedule to the Constitution. It’s the official language in the state of Uttarakhand. Since 1967, Sahitya Akademi has been giving award for literary works in Sanskrit. It’s true of adult as well as kids’ literature.
In all, there are 15 Sanskrit universities, thousands of Sanskrit colleges. Features films are being made in Sanskrit, the ones on Adi Shankaracharya, Bhagavad Gita and Mudrarakshasa (a film on great emperor Chandragupta Maurya) instantly come to mind.
An animated film in Sanskrit, “Punyakoti” is scheduled for release in 2016. There are more than 75 dailies, weeklies and monthlies in Sanskrit. We have television news in Sanskrit. No less than our Prime Minister tweets in Sanskrit. In Karnataka, two villages of Mattur and Hosahalli has everyone speaking in Sanskrit to this date.
All the 125 major languages and 1500 minor languages of the country can trace its origin on Sanskrit. It’s not just India alone, Nepal’s motto is a pick from Valmiki’s Ramayana. There’s Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the word Angkor meaning “City” in Sanskrit.
Initially, Sanskrit wasn’t known by its present name. It was called Bhasha. This was a fact at least till the 6th century BCE. It was essentially a spoken language. When rendered into writing, various different scripts were used. The use of Devanagari is of a recent vintage. In its grammar, letters and words freely merge to form compound letters and compound words. Two of these principals are called sandhi and samasa.
The greatest proponent of Sanskrit language was poet Kalidasa. His classics, such as Malavikagnimitram (the love story between King Agnimitra and Malavika), Abhijnanashakuntalam (the famous Shaknutala story) and Meghadutam (Cloud as messenger) haven’t lost its lustre till this day.
It’s a fallacy to believe that Sanskrit was only spoken by Kshatriyas and Brahmans in ancient times. Instances abound where commoners were known to use the language. In the Rig Veda, 21 out of 407 rishis were women. There was no gender bias in the use of the language.
Since 2003, India has a National Mission for Manuscripts (Namami). Its task is to list, digitize, publish and translate manuscripts at least 75 years old. As of now, Namami has a listing/digitization of three million—the anticipated stock of manuscripts in India is 35 milion. There are at least 60,000 manuscripts in Europe and another 1,50,000 elsewhere in South Asia. Ninety-five percent of these manuscripts have never been listed, collated or translated. To give you an idea of the enormity of the task: Since the advent of printing only an estimated 130 million books have been published in all languages of the world.
We don’t know the treasure waiting to be rediscovered. Take the instance of Arthashastra for instance. The classic on political economy and governance was written by Kautilya (350-275 BCE). But it was rediscovered by R. Shamasastry in 1904, published in 1909 and translated into English in 1915. We don’t know how many Arthashastra we have lost in all these centuries.
Same is true of many variations of scripts of Sanskrit. The sharada script, popular in Kashmir at one time in history, is completely lost. Same is true of Paishachi language and a very famous work in this script, Brihatkatha. Both are lost to us. Many Buddhist and Jain texts were written in Sanskrit too. And lest we forget, Ayurveda, the treatises on medicine, the work of Charaka (2nd century CE), no longer survives.
And here is the surprise of all surprises: “A Companion to Sanskrit Literature,” authored by Sures Chandra Banerji, has an entire chapter on the contribution of Muslims to Sanskrit. This volume traverses 3000 years of Sanskrit literature.
Naheed Abidi was bestowed with Padma Shri in 2014 for her contributions to Sanskrit literature. Her first book in 2008 titled “Sanskrit Sahitya Mein Rahim” is an account of the Sanskrit leanings of renowned poet Abdul Rahim Khan-e-Khana. Another bookof hers, “Sirr-e-Akbar” is a hindi translation of 50 Upanishads, earlier translated by the Mughal prince, Dara Shikoh into Persian. Naheed has published a Hindi translation of Vedanta, translated into Persian by Dara Shikoh and also the Sufi texts by the prince.
There is no denying the crisis though. The last Census in 2011 still don’t tell us how many speak Sanskrit in our country. The Census of 2001 had put the number to 14,135. There is an initiative from the government for the long-term vision and roadmap for the development of Sanskrit. Angoorlata’s act of oath has brought the Sanskrit language into popular mainstream and we ought to be grateful to her.
(The background of this article is largely based on Dr. Bibek Debroy’s speech in Paris on the occasion of International Mother Tongue Day, organized by UNESCO on March 3, 2016).