Remembering Rahula Sankrityayana

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Keynote Address to the national workshop on the Life and Works of Mahapandita Rahula Sankrityayana. On 20 February, 2019, held under the auspices of Prof. K. Satchidananda Murty Centre for Studies in Afro-Asian Philosophies, Acharya Nagarjuna University, Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.

It is a pleasure to speak about Rahula Sankrityayana (1893 –1963) to an audience consisting mainly of Andhra Pradesh, more partic; hularly of Guntur. You all know that Rahula was not just a scholar, a mahapanditae was an activist. He attended the All India Kisan Sabha Conference at Bezawada (now renamed Vijayawada) on 14-15 March 1944. There was a cultural meet, dance and theatre from 10 pm on both days. All delegates expected the cultural troupe from Bengal to steal the show. They thought that the rural people of Andhra were advanced enough to wave the flag, shouts slogans and muster strong in mammoth rallies. However, they lagged far behind Bengal in matters of culture. The performance of the Andhra troupe overwhelmed all. Muzaffar Ahmad and Gopal Haldar, two leading members of the Bengal delegation, frankly admitted, ‘They [the Andhra artistes] possess the unfathomable stream (the people) which is the mother of all arts. These workers of Andhra did not go to the people with their arts, rather they have absorbed their arts from the people. We in Bengal go to the masses with the middle-class pre-judgments of arts and cannot learn their culture properly.’ This is what Rahula reports in his autobiography, Meri Jivanyatra (Bangla translation, Kolkata: Rahula Sankrityayana Janmashatbarsha Kamiti, vol. 3, 1994, p.121).

You all know about Rahula’s unending quest, first as a traditional Vaishnava, then his conversion to an Arya Samaji, then a Buddhist monk and layman and finally a communist. He remained a communist to the last day of his life, whether he was a member of the Communist Party of India or not. He was one of those who belonged, in Marx’s words, to the Party ‘in the broad historical sense’ (Marx to Freiligrath, 29 February, 1860, Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 41, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985, 87). I would highlight only a few aspects of his life and works, for the area is so vast that it cannot be encompassed within one essay or lecture.


Rahula Sankrityayana is not a name to be forgotten. Not only the Hindi-speaking people but all those who had read his works in translation, whether in English or in modern Indian languages, cannot but remember him in gratitude. A prolific writer on at least a dozen subjects meant for scholars and laymen alike, Rahula led a strange life. Although he had learnt (or rather, taught himself) no fewer than a dozen languages. He used to write almost exclusively in his mother tongue. As he often said, it was necessary to write on new subjects as much as possible in Hindi in order to enrich the language. R.S. Sharma said, ‘. . . Rahulji strongly felt that no cultural progress could be made unless people were educated through the medium of their mother tongue. Certainly he could write in English and some other foreign languages but he successfully resisted the temptation to be recognised internationally at the cost of being unknown to the common people in India (‘Mahapandita Rahula Sankrityayana: A Tribute,’ reprinted in Psyche and Society (Kolkata), vol. 18, no. 2, December 2018, 48).  Besides, being an author in his own right, Rahula was also a translator from Sanskrit and Pali into Hindi. His selection of Sanskrit poetry, Samskrita Kavyadhara (1955) is a bilingual edition, is less known than his other translations. However, it is worth remembering because of the fact that it offers a representative selection of Sanskrit through the ages. His Hindi translations of two  canonical works of the Tipitaka, the Digha Nikaya (The Long Discourses) and the Majjhima Nikaya (The Middle-length Discourses) with indices and all, have been, and I hope, are still, useful to the students with little  or no Pali at all. His studies in the eighty four Siddhas first appeared in the Bhagalpur-based Hindi journal, Ganga (January 1933, later included in his Puratattva-Nibandhavali, Ilahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1958). It was first translated into English and from English into by Madame L. Morin and Madame Sylvan Levi and appeared in the premier journal of oriental studies, Journal Asiatique, Tome ccxxv [225]. mdccccxxxiv [1934], Octobre-Decembre 1934, 195-208 and 209-230. The essay was entitled ‘Reserches Bauddhiques. Par le Bhiksu Rahula Sankrityayana (de Benares) I. Les Origines du Mahayana. II. L’origine du Vajrayana et les 84 siddhas’. It is a masterly guide to the scholars of Siddha literature. In the course of this research, Rahula came to know about Sarahapada and his like, particularly those who criticized all non-Buddhist religious communities and other groups. Instead of translating those verses into modern Hindi, he opted for old Hindi! Those verses have been translated into several Indian and European languages. The latest English translation has come out in 2004 (Tantric Treasures, introduced, translated and annotated by Roger R. Jackson, Oxford: Oxford University Press).

All this, however, pales into insignificance in comparison to the large number of manuscripts he brought from Tibet. He visited the land of snow several times and photographed many pages that were not to be brought or to be lent. Unfortunately, Rahula’s skill as a scholar was far superior to his skill as a photographer. The same was the case with Giuseppe Tucci, the Italian Indologist, who had ventured to Tibet with the same object in view. Not all the photos could be properly developed. One remembers D.D. Kosambi’s frustrated efforts to secure a legible copy of the Subhasita-ratna-kosha, a rare manuscript not available in India at all (see Kosambi-Gokhale’s edition of this work published in the Harvard Oriental Series, vol. 42, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press 1957, xiii-xv). It may be noted that Kosambi refers to Rahula’s edition and Hindi translation of the Long Discourses (jointly with Jagadish Kashyap) and The Middle-length Discourses in his Myth and Reality (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1962, ix-x).    

Rahula’s most popular work has been From Volga to Ganga (Volga se Ganga,1944) which, I presume, has been translated into almost all modern Indian languages as also in Burmese, English, Nepalese, and Russian. In addition to telling stories of different periods of history, it has also given instructions to the readers in philosophy and sociology. His travelogues, not just of Tibet, but of different parts of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) are still found in the hands of the lovers of travel literature. In his personal life, too, Rahula was also known to be ever restless and indefatigable worker whether in reading and writing or in organising peasants’ struggles and trade unions. Nepal was his second home which he cherished throughout his life. Dr Alaka Atreya Chudal has produced some studies on Rahula’s life and works. She also traced the course of Rahula’s association with Nepal over the decades, right from the time when he was a Buddhist layman.

And yet Rahula was intensely patriotic at heart. When he was in the former Soviet Union he came to know of the imminent transfer of power from the British Raj. He felt an intense desire to be on the Indian soil when such an epoch-making event would take place. So he left his wife and son on 5 July 1947. Unfortunately the ship did not reach Bombay (now Mumbai) before 17 August, two days after the declaration of independence.

Peculiarly enough, he did not remain in Delhi or Patna or Lucknow, but started travelling to meet his old friends and acquaintances. He was found in Cuttack (Odisha), staying at the house of Justice Harihara Mahapatra. He joined others to witness the performance of an Odiya play, Raktamati (Sanguine Soil). Kalicharan Pattanayak reports all this in his book, Kumbharachakra (The Potter’s Wheel), Cuttack: Cuttack Student Store, 1975, 312).

I have mentioned only a few events in Rahula’s life. In fact, his life was so eventful that it is impossible to do justice to all of them. No two persons, I am afraid, would agree which are more significant than others. So, let me conclude with one question: Why is Rahula worthy to be remembered? Here, too, the answer will vary from person to person, depending on his or her propensities. I can only tell you my personal view and that too in relation to my debt to Rahula.


Right from Shankaracharya’s and Jayadeva’s hymns to the Ten Incarnations, dasha-avataras, we Indians, born in non-Buddhist families, were taught that the Buddha was indeed an incarnation of Vishnu; his only quarrel with Hinduism was the custom of animal sacrifice. Otherwise, he was all Hindu. Thus, the Buddha was made to appear as the embodiment of  non-injury (ahimsa), more particularly of compassion, karuna. How this was to be reconciled to the violent actions of other avataras was left unanswered (think of the man-lion, the Rama with his axe which was supposed to have annihilated the warrior class, not once or twice but twenty one times, and finally the tenth incarnation, Kalki, riding a horse with a naked sword in his hand). Whatever that may be, by representing the Buddha as merely a kind-hearted person, the intellectual side of the man was consciously kept out of sight. And yet, as D.D. Kosambi pointed out, the Buddha had provided ‘a startlingly modern view of political economy. To have propounded it at a time of Vedic yajna to a society that had just begun to conquer the primeval jungle was an intellectual achievement of the highest order’ (The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in Historical Outline, Delhi: Vikas, 1965/1972, 113. Emphasis added.).

What Rahula succeeded in doing was to place before his readers another Buddha, a Buddha unknown to all but a few. This Buddha was an original thinker who spoke of the Four Noble Truths, of  the Eight- Fold Way, and last but not least, of the Doctrine of Discontinuous Continuity or the Concatenation of Cause and Effect (paticca-samuppada in Pali, pratitya-samutpada in Sanskrit). No doubt, European scholars had also waxed eloquent particularly on the concept of the causality latent in the last. T.W. Rhys Davids’s remarks still ring in the ears of the reader:
It is only in the Buddhist Nikayas that we come up against the actual effort itself of the human mind to get at a more scientific view of the world order, – an effort which is marked with the freshness and vigour of a new fetch of intellectual expansion, and the importance and gravity of which is affirmed with the utmost emphasis, both in the earliest records and in the orthodox literature of ten centuries later. (Introduction to the Maha-nidana-suttanta, Dialogues of the Buddha, Part II,Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910, 48).

What Rahul did more was to make this doctrine central to the teachings of the Buddha and expound it in an extremely lucid manner in his works. At the same time, he opposed the views of Dr S. Radhakrishnan who tried his best to make the Buddha appear as a good Hindu and his ideas perfectly compatible with the Hindu view of life. On the other hand, Rahula in his explication of the Buddhist philosophy emphasized the difference rather than the agreement between the two (Bauddha Darshana, Ilahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1977, 48). In fact, I would like to see these works translated into all Indian languages, as also in English. Rahula never underplayed the Buddha’s atheism. The verse he liked most in Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarttika, runs as follows:
Accepting the authority of the Veda and someone as the creator, the desire of getting merit through the holy dip, the vanity of casteism and torturing the body to redeem the sins – these are the five characteristics of stupidity. (Quoted in Rahul Sankrityayan, ‘Buddhist Dialectics’, in: Buddhism: The Marxist Approach, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1978, 8)

Rahula’s attitude towards Communism vis-à-vis Buddhism was also radically different from Babasaheb Ambedkar’s. When Ambekar decided to become a Buddhist, he left all his earlier beliefs behind. With Rahula, the case was not so. As he boldly declared, even after becoming a Marxist he had not given up his claim to be a disciple (chela) of the Buddha (Vaijnanik Bhautikvad, Ilahabad: Adhunik Pustak Bhavan, 1974, 44) . He found so much in common between the views of the Buddha and those of Marx, despite many points of difference between them that he could carry on the heritage of both with perfect ease. This is not equating the Buddha with Marx, nor thinking in terms of synthesis. He was highlighting those aspects of the Buddha’s teachings that could be of help and use even today.

As to the relevance of Rahula’s thoughts in India today, I would like to draw your attention to an article, Bharatiya Jibanmein Buddhivad (Rationalism in Indian life), included in his Puratattva-Nivandhavali, anda small book – practically a collection of short essays – entitled Dimagi Gulami (The Slavery of the Brain, 1956). They powerfully expound the basics of rationalism, criticises Gandhism and pleads for freethinking. I hope this essay and the book have been translated into Telugu. If not, someone must do it now, at this very moment, when the forces of regression, irrationalism, obscurantism and communalism are threatening to overshadow the positive heritage of India. I would like to see these works translated into all Indian languages, as also in English.  

Secondly, what can Rahula teach us, the writers, in India today? His style, I would like to assert, should be our model, for it is worth emulating for all who aim at communicating to their readers rather than impressing them with their learning. Rahula avoided writing very long sentences; he preferred to employ, as a rule, common, everyday words and expressions that would be readily understandable even to those who had no opportunity to receive what is called ‘higher education’. Yet he never diluted the contents or resorted to oversimplification. This is true not only of his Hindi works but also his Sanskrit writings, even the Introductions to the texts of Dharmakirti and others he edited. The short essays written during the 2500th birth anniversary of the Buddha, later collected into Mahamanava Buddha (1956), is a classic example of Rahula’s style at its best. Those who write with a specific view, namely, to change the world, must adopt this style of writing and consciously eschew deliberate obfuscation or, to put it simply, learn to write Plain English or Telugu, Bangla or Hindi, or whichever language they write in. 

For all these reasons I believe that by remembering Rahula we can both enrich ourselves and, at the same time, continue the struggle against the forces of reaction in order to achieve peace and progress, the two goals he never lost sight of in his life.

Thank you all.

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya, Fellow, Pavlov Institute, 98 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Kolkata 700007

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Apr 7, 2019

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

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