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Dedicated To The Elusive Travelogger: Sankrityayan – A Man Ahead Of His Times And Ours

Sankrityayan - A Man Ahead of His Times, An Elusive Travelogger

After attending a lecture on Sankrityayan, two friends debated about the lecture. Each of them insisted that their understanding was correct. To settle their dispute, they decided to speak to the ghost of Sankrityayan for a judgment.

The first friend said that Sankrityayan loved Buddhism, the ghost said, “You are correct!” The person was overjoyed. Casting a winner’s glance at his friend, he left the room.

The second friend was upset and started to share his perspective with the ghost. He said that Sankrityayan detested what religion had become and was a committed Communist.

After he finished, the ghost looked at him and said, “You are correct, too.” Hearing this, the second person brightened up and went away.

A third person who was observing this was greatly puzzled. He said to the ghost, “I am confused, Sir! Their positions regarding the issue are completely opposite. They can’t be, both right? How are they both correct?”

The ghost looked into the eyes of the third person and smiled, “You are also correct!”
My good people let me introduce you to Sankrityayan — a forgotten travelogger, who was complicated and simple, at the same time.

For a man who started out as a Vaishnav Sadhu, became an Arya Samaji, and then a Buddhist Bhikku, it was a huge disappointment to learn that he ended up as a hard-core communist. I felt depressed and angry.

How can a person who was so well-traveled, that too to Russia during the heights of Stalin’s genocidal purges still believe in Communism! How could you Sankrityayan?

Rahul Sankrit-Ya-Yan – Who is this man? Why is he so awesome?

Let me begin with the noteworthy actions of this man.

This hardcore communist was removed from the communist party of India for being a patriotic Indian and a truthful follower of Marx. What did he do? He opposed Urdu being proposed as the national language instead of Hindi & Indianizing Islam (my Tamil Poralis might hate him for this, not to worry, he had the capacity to outrage almost everyone from left-wing terrorists to a Buddhist monastery head, to his grandfather, as we shall see)

And you will also realize there is a lot to love about him. He was a polymath and a polyglot, who was also a polygamist.

His life was full, interesting, twisted, and complicated, as the Mahabharata — lots of greys with multiple parvas or chapters. Apart from being discussed in a few books in a few states in north India, Sankrityayan is unknown and largely forgotten. He traveled, learned, taught, and married his way around large parts of the world.

Never formally educated in a college. Father of travelogue literature in a pre-independent India, in a pre-internet era.

How did I miss him? How come there are no movies made on him? Is it because intellectuals & academics decided to make him boring and complicated? As per an intellectual (who I won’t quote), in his own words, who seems to understand Sankrityayan:

“Sankrityayan understood journey in a very broad sense, it as much encompassed in the feat of traveling through the entire expanse of South East Asia and Tibet on foot as it covered the massive shift in worldview that took from pre-modern subaltern religiosity, through modern revivalism to socialism with scientific pretensions”

Quite a mouthful, right?

The problem is how academics have made Sankrityayan inaccessible with a complicated and boring persona. Boring as hell. They make him look like a pompous communist. He was not. He strove to write in the simplest language possible and conduct himself in a simplistic manner. His books were very easy to translate, and a couple of them became best-sellers across India.

Join me as we explore his lengthy life, albeit in brevity because that’s my style of narration.

Volga to Ganga: A fictional historical novel starting from 10,000 BC to 1947. A narrative that is more authentic than the content that qualifies as history these days. This is a fictional account of 250 generations of humans which tracks the progression from hunter-gatherers of 10000 BC to 1947 to Mr. Gandhi.

In this book, he has touched all the sacred cows — incest, lust, murder, eating horses, and the cows of course. Translated into Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and English, the book is available for free, if you know where to search. Do mail me if you need help.

Sankrityayan’s life has become a small-time cottage industry in academia. Last heard there were 26 Ph.D. dissertations on his life and his literary works. This in spite of Sankrityayan writing a massive 6 volume autobiography and overseeing a biography as well.

So, who wrote along with him? Out of the 6 volumes, the 6th part was written by Dr. Kamala, his third wife, based on his letters and diaries. What was the reason for Dr. Kamala to write the last few chapters of Sankrityayan’s life?

It was related to diabetes, memory and his devoted wife – keep scrolling to know the connection.

Early Parva: He was given the name of Kedarnath Pandey when he was born. Brought up by his grandparents in eastern UP, Sankrityayan had a comfortable life. He grew up listening to mythology and real-life stories of his grandfather who was a policeman, posted in South India.

He probably took after his grandfather with his love for travel. He was sent to a local madrasa to learn Urdu. Coming from a well to do family of zamindars, he could have easily afforded a college education and the much-desired Sarkari Naukri.

Sankrityayan’s grandfather had a yearly preventive maintenance schedule mapped out for Sankrityayan.

Cholera and calming an angry Goddess: While Urdu classes were on, a Cholera epidemic happened. It was known that if Goddess Durga could be appeased, she would restore normalcy, and Sankrityayan’s uncle was to perform the rituals as he was a Sanskrit scholar.

And Sankrityayan was right there to help his uncle, and this is when he fell in love with Sankrit. Eventually, he became one of his students in his pathshala.

The Wandering Monk: Cat with multiple names and identities. Between 1907 to 1920 Sankrityayan shows us a glimpse of his future. He runs away from home at the age of 14 for spilling ghee. At least that is what he claims in his autobiography. The next escape was within 2 years. Why would anyone want to run away from their house?

Horrible parents? Poverty? This was not the case in Sankrityayan’s case. Most probably it was the child marriage at the age of 11 that he was forced into.

The suffocation of being stuck in a dream of what his family wanted him to do. The stories that were fed by his grandfather about the world. In short, we will never know.

Over the course of a few months, he gets introduced to Baba Paramahamsa and his disciple Harikarandas. As he visits them often, his interest in the Vedanta piques. He becomes a regular in this ashram with one singular aim — to travel and learn.

During this year, he journeys all over the western Himalayan states when he is encouraged by Harikarandas. Please remember, this was pre-independent India with no transport, AirBnB, or Google Maps to guide you. The urge to travel would have to be absolute.

Love of languages, English & becoming a Sadhu twice: On becoming a Sadhu, Sankrityayan focused on Sanskrit and English at Benares — the center of learning. It seems he grasped a decent knowledge of English in three days and helped a Mahant of a Vaishnava sect translate an official letter from English to Hindi.

The Mahant or the chief was impressed enough to groom him as his successor. With a place to live, basic needs met and an agreeable boss, he shifted to the Mahant’s ashram. Here he was given a new name, Sadhu Ramudar Das.

The cozy life of an ashram head wasn’t what the new Sadhu wanted, and he once again ran away from the ashram to South India.

He reached Madras (now Chennai), where he lived as a sadhu in a free inn. He traveled on foot to Tirumalai where he stayed in an Uttararthi-matham and began to learn Tamil at a famous Vaishnavite center.

Legend has it that this Vaishnavite saint was an incarnation of Lord Vishnu’s disciple. This saint is one among the 12 Vaishnavite saints called Azhwars.

Looking at his skills and devotion, the head of the mutt was impressed, and wanted him to be his successor, and renames Sadhu Ramudar Das to Damodarachari. With a singular aim to study, he welcomed the change of names happily as it helped him continue his journey surrounded by knowledge.

They also say that during his travels in South India he discovered the worldly weapon of information — the newspaper and picked up the habit of reading The Hindu newspaper and started acquiring a point of view on national politics.

Those were the days when even “The Hindu” newspaper had a principled and logical stand for the country.

At the end of 1914, his thirst for learning took him to a pathashala in Ayodhya. As per Sankrityayan “I felt suffocated with the small pond atmosphere compared to the world where a lot was happening”, he used to say as he cluelessly described his next travel destination.

In his confusion, he wrote a letter to his uncle and was visited by his father to escort him back home to lead a normal family life. Since his teenage days, he had not stepped back into his house.

We are not even sure of what he was called now. This time at home was spent reading newspapers and awakening the national spirit. Arya Samaj had a huge influence and he started attending their lectures.

Arya Samaj was started by Swami Dayanand Saraswati to counter evangelism and superstitious practices, which brought about an organized platform to reboot Hinduism of its bugs.

The organization started schools, simplified rituals, and focused on widow remarriage. So much so, this organization was feared by the unwelcomed Brits.

The founder of Arya Samaj – Swami Dayanand met a painful and noble end when he was assassinated by a royal cook and a courtesan of the Jodhpur Maharaja. He offended the Maharaja by suggesting the King leave the courtesan and follow a dharmic life.

But he still managed to forgive the cook before his death. This must have been a strong influence on many young men.

Arya Samaj offered the opportunity to earn and learn. He trained to deliver lectures for Arya Samaj and by this time he was a zealot.

During his training, he learned Arabic and the theology of multiple religions. I am highlighting the language because of the difficulty. Learning new languages is the highest form of craftsmanship if you ask me.

The tools needed are different for each language. The grammar and syntax need unlearning as much as learning. Reading left to right, right to left, same symbols, different phonetics, must have required great aptitude.

The motivation and the focus to learn and travel without the internet, YouTube videos or reviews is hard to comprehend. He was self-taught and self-motivated. The period between 1907 to 1920s was all about being a thirsty traveler, searching for the next fountain to drink from.

As we get to know and extol more about him, you must know that he, like all of us, had his own dark side. He lacked attachments to beings. Once he left home, he never had the urge to go back, even after hearing about his grandfather’s death.

He was married at a young age and his child bride gets just a small, unassuming mention in his autobiography. Good thing he never pretended to be anything but his true self — completely self-involved and detached.

A Bhikku walks into Russia & and a communist comes out: 1920’s to 1930s: At this point, Sankrityayan was still not Sankrityayan. He was either Damodarachari or Kedarnath. He was a Sadhu minus the rigidity. Sankrityayan was working with peasants for their rights.

Making provocative speeches, getting arrested, getting released was becoming habitual. While in jail he managed to learn French and Avesta. He also wrote his first book “Bayisvi sadi” or 22nd Century.

It was a relentless search for a rational philosophy that made him eventually turn to Buddhism. Once he became convinced that Buddhism was worth engaging with, he became a Buddhist monk and resided in Sri Lanka for several years to study Pali and ancient Buddhism.

While in Sri Lanka he mastered the Buddhist text Tripitaka and was made a Tripitakacharya which is kind of a big deal in the Buddhist world. Still dissatisfied that his study was incomplete, he decided to slip into Tibet.

Why slip? Because it was illegal in those days. What followed was an adventurous journey into the sleepy kingdom.

He spent several years there, learning Tibetan and studying rare ancient Buddhist texts, and carried back manuscripts, paintings, books, and art to India. These recoveries could very well have saved Tibetan Buddhism from Chinese occupation and destruction.

Over a period of 10 years starting from 1928 he visited Tibet 4 times and each of these trips are marvels of project management, negotiation, brand building, focus, and long-term thinking.

If you remember your general knowledge from the early ’90s, the answer to the question “the forbidden city” was Lhasa in Tibet. And every GK exam hating kid was supposed to know this. Entering Tibet is by itself a Netflix worthy 3-season series.

Started as Kedarnath Pandey, listening to stories in his granny’s lap a few decades back, covering a few thousand kilometers on foot, traveling a few dozen countries, changing his name a few times, his religion twice – he finally becomes a Buddhist monk and there came the final name change. Now enters Sankrityayan. A man convinced of the power of the printed word and simplicity of language.

Weren’t most of our grandparents who genuinely wanted to change society, communists, till the current lot spoiled that? My entire maternal grandfathers’ family were converts of communism.

They gave up their possessions and wealth, few of them, even their lives for the cause of communism. The genuine aspiration was for equality where the state would be a benevolent brother than a malevolent ruler.

Russia was Sankrityayan’s karma Bhoomi and he visited the country in 1935 for just a fortnight. He was in Moscow and wanted to meet Theodor Stcherbatsky, an Indologist who was an expert in Buddhism. Unfortunately, Stcherbatsky was in Leningrad and couldn’t meet him.

Why is this important? Who is this Indologist? Stcherbatsky plays an important role in Sankrityayan’s life in the future. And what is Indology? Well, it’s a genuine attempt by early white men to study us Asians to understand and rule us better.

And in today’s world, it is for the current generation of Indians to look down upon our past or over glorify it as per each person’s requirement.

The second visit to Russia in 1937, was on an invitation by Stcherbatsky (see I told you he is important) to teach Sanskrit at the University of Leningrad. He stayed here for less than a year.

Within two months of being in Russia, he met a young Russian Lady Ellena who was the secretary of the Indo-Tibetan department. She was fluent in a few languages herself and was learning Sanskrit from Sankrityayan.

Sankrityayan was learning Russian from Ellena or Lola as he refers to her in his autobiography. Both fell in love and got married in December 1937.

After being a Vaishnavite monk twice and a Buddhist Bhikku once, this marriage at the age of 44 was one of the greatest intellectual pivots of all times (FOR ME, for me only).

A person who was steeped in Buddhism, becoming a monk, and then a householder in just two months is the kind of intellectual gymnastics that amazes me.

The best analogy I would give is Nehru. The moment we attained independence he replaced the British and became them – digressing but the analogy came naturally!

While Sankrityayan continued to remain a Buddhist, he was no longer a robed monk. The Buddhist caterpillar was a communist butterfly.

After a few months in Russia, he comes back to India due to visa issues, leaving his wife behind. It was at this time that Stalin’s mass-murdering purges had Russia in a monstrous mess. Was this a real reason for him to leave his beloved behind. Nope. This abandonment has and will be a constant throughout his life.

The large part of 1938 to 1945 was involved in politics, getting jailed, working on grassroots peasant movements, writing great books, more politics, and the life of a householder. The books were simple, easy to read, and talked about travels in different countries.

This was a time when the taboo of traveling outside the country was at an ebb. Indians had been traded as slaves, went as traders, and as warriors in World war I & II. There was a thirst to know what was happening outside the country.

Hindi literature at that time didn’t focus on travel writing, till Sankrityayan made it popular. It was called Ghummakkad Shastra. Readable books in simple language of his travels to China, Tibet, Europe & Russia. Some of them are “One & a half years in Tibet”, “My Europe Yatra”, “Yatra Ke Panne” etc.

He again visited Russia in 1945, a third time on the invitation of the Russian government as a professor at Leningrad University. This was his first experience as a householder at the age of 52 with his wife Ellena and his son Igor.

Oh yeah, he learned he was a father when he was in jail around 1938. Also, the Indology professor Stcherbatsky has christened the godfather to his son Igor.

During this period as a professor of Indology in Russia, he worked on recording books in Sanskrit and Prakrit which are available till date. The next time he would come with all his memory wiped clean.

The visa issue cropped up again which resulted in him leaving Russia and his family having to stay behind. Was there something he could have done about this situation? He could probably have returned. He didn’t. He chose to stay in India and continue his work.

Making a legacy by splitting CPI: While he continued to travel, write and be active in politics from CPI (communist party of India), this was the time that CPI showed its true colors. His speech at the 35th conference of the Organization of Bombay on 27th Dec 1947 was criticized because he spoke against accepting Urdu t as the national language and script.

Thank you Mahapandit. This was against the Communist Party of India’s policy. He was asked to retract the statement which only made him louder in demanding for Hindi and Devanagari scripts to be made the national language and script. He was expelled.

It was at this time that he discovered that he was suffering from diabetes. A small but important detail, that will come to haunt us.

Insulin: The family maker

At this time, he was 57 and his health begins to deteriorate and with that his travel and activities slowly reduced. He set up his base in Mussoorie and had a group of assistants working for him.

Among whom was his secretary — Kumari Kamala Pariyar, who administered his daily insulin. With familiarity came fondness and both he and Kamala married soon after and they had two children together. Diabetes played cupid in a strange way.

Data on cloud and the last entry: 8th Dec 1961: “Today we are leaving home at 5 AM. By the afternoon we will reach the airport. I am leaving the diary here. Will be visiting a friend in Calcutta with his family”

These were his last words. For a man who introduced travel literature and social fiction to India, these banal words were to be his last.

Three days later he woke up at midnight with his memory gone. He was never able to write again.

There were 6 volumes of Sankrityayan’s autobiography/biography. Readers wanted closure and were requesting his wife to give them one. Kamala edited, wrote, and published “Meri Jeevan Yatra” on her husband’s birth centennial.

There is an anecdote of a visitor to Sankrityayan’s house. This was when Sankrityayan had lost his memory and was in poor health. He said, “Sankrityayan was seen fondly holding on to his biography as he lay on the bed.

All his thoughts recorded onto a cloud called books. Available forever”. The significance of Dr. Kamala (not Mrs. Sankrityayan you see) who wrote the final chapter of his life is poignant.

The end came in April 1963.

Coming to some takeaways I noted

  • Diabetes is a silent killer. Creeps up on you slowly. Take care of yourself if you are suffering from it.
  • If you love something, you (a decent percentage of you) will find a way towards it

    His was a life well-lived. A life of learning is a life well-lived. I too have had the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of India without having to get married at a young age. I stayed at clean places, paid for by my parents.I traveled with books that were available at every railway station which slowly progressed to a 3G network covering every square inch. Still, I was a passenger in my travels. I saw but didn’t observe, I spoke but did not register. I was not curious; I just went along the ride. I didn’t learn.I let everything slide off me. I had people who could have guided me if I asked questions. I had parents who would have loved to provide me with the tools that I needed. Neither I asked nor cared. I wish I did. Or at least I hope to start doing that now. Be more aware. Be present. Do things that I love.Why did Sankrityayan travel? Why did he do what he did is a question that scholars continue to ask and try to answer and fail to convey. “One important point regarding travel literature or the travel narrative is the writer’s conscious construction of the self as the protagonist within that construct”

    He traveled because he wanted to. He wrote because he felt like. Plus, there is a 6-volume biography. What more is needed! Not the above for sure. Not what these academics want you to read.If you love something, you (a decent percentage of you) will find a way. (the way in this context is to do what you love) until there is a clear disadvantage. Which again is YOU.His love of learning was natural. His bag of tools that he had accumulated over a few decades was all self-paced with minimal guidance or instructors.

    There were no dummy’s guide on “how to write non-fiction” or on “being a successful podcaster”. He loved it and expressed it without the fluff. And he carried no baggage and no pre-disposed ideas of places and people that would have limited him.

  • Doing one thing: Do it little, do it long
    His foray into Tibet is a case study in project management, and I will share the learning from his Tibet chapter in a steroid shot.

Intent: While studying in Sri Lanka he realized that an extreme form of Buddhism was being practiced in Tibet. A lot of literature in India that was destroyed in Nalanda must have been preserved in Tibet.

Approach: The problem was Indians had misused the hospitality of Tibetans and were not trusted by the Tibetans. The only way left was to go through Nepal as a Nepalese. Through complicated arrangements and a lot of “jugaad”, he managed to convince a Tibetan Lama and a Nepali businessman to take him to Tibet.

Scope: There was none initially. He was only focused on getting his hands on as many Sanskrit texts on Buddhism from Tibet. Nothing more. The scope slowly expanded to 10 yrs. the worth of journeys to Tibet & preserving invaluable history.

This project at the initial stage started off in a secret manner. It was Tibet and a forbidden kingdom. High up in the mountains, difficult to access and highly orthodox. It ended in the last leg being conducted on the invitation of the Tibetan & Indian governments. That was awesome.

How it progressed

1st visit of 1928: Study, collate, and collect Buddhist texts in Sanskrit.

What happened: The first travel was under extremely difficult conditions on foot for the most part and in disguise. He lived in Lhasa for a good 14 months — studying, restoring, and translating ancient Buddhist texts, while avoiding any contact with the outside world.

The assumption was a lot of the material would be in Sanskrit. Unfortunately, out of 10,000, only 250 were in Sanskrit and the rest were available only in Tibetan. He learned Tibetan in his stay in the most complicated manner possible. Though he wanted to stay more, finances didn’t allow him to continue. So, he managed to procure every available material that he could get his hands on and brought them back with him.

All these precious palm leaf manuscripts were brought back on foot and carried on 22 mules. “Most of the manuscripts he collected were hand-lettered manuscripts or had been printed using carved wood-blocks.

A few were written with gold and silver powder. In addition to the scriptural canon, there were histories and texts on metallurgy, medicine, tantra, art astrology, herbology, and technical subjects,”

2nd visit: The more he traveled and got in touch with scholars from other countries, the more his perspective changed. The focus was on the collection of artifacts, photography, and collation of paintings and manuscripts that could be brought back to India.

3rd Visit: Clearer aim, broad perspective & better experience with networking: Search for one specific Sanskrit book called “Pramanavarttika” which he succeeded in doing.

4th visit: Restore lost Indian heritage of Buddhism from Tibet.

He visited Tibet four times during his lifetime from 1928 to 1938, collecting more ancient manuscripts, thangkas (intricate Tibetan Buddhist scroll paintings), and other artifacts, which are now stored in the Bihar Research Society in Patna.

He also went onto write scholarly treatises on these ancient Sanskrit manuscripts carved out on palm leaves, wrote their translations, and ensured their restoration.

He also prepared a Tibetan to Hindi dictionary which was no small feat! With all the access, some language dictionaries are still a WIP to this day.

However, the real value of his contribution to the preservation of ancient Buddhist culture comes with the knowledge of what happened to Tibet after the Chinese invasion in the 1950s.

We do know about the rampant destruction of Buddhist monasteries, books, manuscripts, and other artifacts, besides the slaughter of monks and scholars that took place at the time. Without Sankrityayan’ s contribution, we may have lost vast treasures of a rich culture.

Tibetan Buddhist culture certainly owes a huge debt to Sankrityayan. If he had started his journey to save Buddhist culture for coming generations, he would have had panic attacks and used a mule back to India. Small steps!

  • The final takeaway. Enjoy every process. The outcome no matter how significant or small doesn’t matter.

Featured Image Credits: Indie journal


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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