Kosambi visited, among other places, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Photo: Courtesy Dr Meera Kosambi/Permanent Black
A popular visual metaphor of Indian wisdom is that of a sage meditating in splendid solitude, in a forest or on a mountain, far removed from the messy world we live in. Yet there is also a tradition of wise men travelling through the real world in search of knowledge.
The first Shankaracharya left what is now Kerala to eventually set up monasteries in four different parts of the country. Guru Nanak not only travelled through India but also reached distant places such as Baghdad and Mecca. Swami Vivekananda wandered through India for almost five years as an impoverished monk.
What is true of religious teachers is also true of scholars. The usual image in our minds is of someone sitting for long hours in a library. But then there is a special category of peripatetic pundits who have travelled to learn. The two greatest examples modern India has seen are Dharmanand Kosambi and Rahul Sankrityayan.
Kosambi had told his astonishing story in Nivedan, his Marathi autobiography that has recently been translated into English by Meera Kosambi, his granddaughter. He left Goa as a young man in 1899, with little money but with a burning desire to learn more about Buddhism, and to spread its message in Goa and Maharashtra. He was at the forefront of the Buddhist revival in India in the early 20th century.
Kosambi’s travels took him to places such as Pune, Gwalior, Varanasi, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. He learnt Hindi, Sanskrit, Pali and English on the way. With barely a school education, he ended up teaching at Harvard University and the Leningrad Academy of Sciences.
Kosambi eventually ended his life by starvation in 1947, at M.K. Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra. Gandhi had said that his ashram had been sanctified by the presence of Kosambi.
Sankrityayan, born Kedarnath Pandey, left his home in Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, in 1910, with little more than a primary school education. His travels took him to places such as Varanasi, Ladakh, Nepal, Ceylon, Tibet, Japan and Korea.
He visited the erstwhile Soviet Union twice, and, like Kosambi, taught for some time at Leningrad. Besides his native Hindi, he gained mastery over several other languages such as Sanskrit, Pali, Urdu, Tibetan, Persian, French and Russian.
His political journey was fascinating as well. Sankrityayan began as a Vaishnav monk, and then became an Arya Samajist, a Buddhist, a peasant leader and finally, a Communist. He spent his final years in the hills near Mussoorie. His literary masterpiece was Volga Se Ganga, a sweeping narrative of human progress over two millennia, 6000 BC to 1922 AD, told in 19 stories. I have the Marathi translation in my library, though the English translation by Victor Kiernan has, unfortunately, been out of print for many years now.
Their burning passion for knowledge united Kosambi and Sankrityayan; so did the difficulties they endured at a time when travel often meant walking great distances. The humane message of the Buddha also unites their unrelated lives. But reading about their journeys and work tells us a lot else.
First, they wrote in Indian languages and have perhaps paid a price for this by being forgotten by the exclusively English-speaking elite of today.
Second, these were two towering intellectuals who barely had a decent school education but ended up teaching in prestigious academic institutions. I cannot but wonder whether they would have been able to do so today, when universities have become closed shops that shoo away anybody who does not have impressive certificates. It is hard to believe that either Kosambi or Sankrityayan would have been invited to teach at a contemporary Indian university.
Third, they often travelled with barely enough money to eat, yet were supported along the way by strangers who respected men of knowledge.
In her introduction to Nivedan, Meera Kosambi points out: “So it was that a young and needy Marathi-speaking Brahmin student—who was also intelligent, hard-working and courteous—could find shelter and warm hospitality in many places far from home. In a way this was an extension of the pan-Indian ethos of honouring holy men and learning in general, without regard to caste and ethnic background; and it was not only Maharashtrians who helped Dharmanand.”
Finally, the journeys of these two men also show that there was an essential cultural unity in India far before there was a formal political union. It is often tempting to reach the glum conclusion that there is nothing in India but warring groups; the very lives of Kosambi and Sankrityayan, perhaps more than even the lives of more famous political leaders, reveal that there is a common cultural heritage binding India together over the centuries.
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint—Live Mint