Rahul Sankrityayan was a genius scholar and writer. He knew more than 30 languages but preferred to write in Hindi. He is called the ‘Father of Hindi Travelogue and Travel literature’. He made travelogues a ‘literature form’. He spent more than four decades in travelling. His travelogues presented authentic account of historical and cultural significance of the places. He later became Buddhist monk then was influenced by Marxist socialism.
During the British rule, he was jailed for three years for his participation in the Indian national movement. He joined the communist party at a time when it was banned. He had been called ‘Mahapandit’ or the Greatest Scholar. He was a polyglot and a polymath.
In 1958, he received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his book Madhya Asia Ka Itihaas. In 1963, Government of India honored him with one of the highest civilian award, the Padma Bhushan.
His Childhood and Early Life
Rahul Sankrityayan was born on 9 April 1893 in Pandaha village in the Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh in India. His real name was Kedarnath Pandey and he belonged to a traditional Brahmin family.
In his childhood, he could study up to the middle school. He did not let the lack of formal education hinder his progress. He further studied and mastered several languages out of his own interest, including photography.
During his teens, he was adopted by a mahant, and his name was changed to Ram Udar Das Sadhu. He studied Sanskrit scriptures while he stayed in a village in Chhapra district in Bihar.
In 1915, he joined the Arya Musafir Vidyalaya in Agra, where he learnt Arabic and works of Swami Dayanand Saraswati.
Later he became a Buddhist monk and studied Pali and Buddhist text at Sri Lanka. Here he adopted the moniker of Rahul Sankrityayan. He chose Rahul as it was the name of Mahatma Buddha’s son.
He later gave up Buddhism after being influenced by Marxist Socialism. He became an atheist and no longer believed in reincarnation and afterlife.
- He travelled throughout the country and stayed for long at Chennai and Tirumala. He learned Tamil.
- He visited Punnamalai, Pachchaperumal, Tirumishi, Tinnanur and many places in South India.
- He also travelled to many countries such as Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Iran, China, and the erstwhile Soviet Union.
- He travelled extensively to Kashmir, Kinnaur, Ladakh and Nepal.
- He visited Tibet four times, as a Buddhist monk and brought back many paintings and thousands of palm leaf manuscripts of Buddhist philosophy in Pali and Sanskrit.
- These belonged to the ancient libraries of Vikramshila and Nalanda Universities, which were destroyed by the Muslim invaders to India.
- The Buddhist monks, who escaped from these universities, brought back these articles to Tibet.
- Sankrityayan brought these manuscripts on the back of 22 mules.
- Many of these materials were given to Patna museum in Bihar, where these are displayed.
Some Interesting Facts about his Books
- Sankrityayan was a polyglot, which means one who knows several languages.
- He was an expert in many languages like Hindi, Sanskrit, Pali, Bhojpuri, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Tamil, Kannada, Tibetan, Sinhalese, French and Russian.
- He was also an Indologist as well as a creative writer.
- He has written more than 150 books on number of subjects like Sociology, History, Philosophy, Buddhism, Tibetology, Lexicography, Grammar, Textual Editing, Folklore, Science, Drama, and Politics. Several of his books lie unpublished.
- He wrote in five languages, namely Hindi, Sanskrit, Bhojpuri, Pali and Tibetan. He also translated books from other languages to Hindi.
- His most famous book is in Hindi, titled Volga Se Ganga, or From Volga to Ganga. It describes the migration of Aryans from the steppes of the Eurasia to the Volga river, their passage across the Hindukush and the Himalayas, and how they spread in the Indo-Gangetic plains of India. The book gives an account of the Aryans from 6000 BC to 1942. This book has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages.
- Rahul’s monumental two-volume, Madhya Asia Ka Itihas or History of Central Asia, was published in 1956-1957, which brought him the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1958. During his extensive travels in Russia and Central Asia, he realised the need of linking India’s history with that of the Central Asia.
- He was also a very progressive liberal. He has written biographies of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Akbar. He opposed valiantly, communalism of all hues.
His Career in Teaching
Despite the fact that he did not have any formal degree, he was well known for his books on history and respected as an Indologist.
He was appointed by the University of Leningrad as Professor of Indology, twice; first in 1937–38 and then again in 1947–48. Later he was appointed as Professor of Buddhism in the Vidyalankar University in Sri Lanka, where he worked till his death.
Rahul was married when he was a child according to their traditional custom. He hardly knew his child-bride Santoshi.
When he was in Russia, teaching at the Leningrad University, he married a scholar Ellena Narvertovna Kozerovskaya, fondly called Lola. They had a child Igor, but during those times his family was not allowed to leave Russia.
Later in India, he married Dr. Kamala, with whom he had a daughter, Jaya; and two sons Jeta and Jayant.
In 1963, while Rahul was teaching at the Sri Lankan University, he fell seriously ill due to a stroke. He was already having diabetes and high blood pressure. He also suffered a loss of memory. He was brought to Darjeeling where after some time he breathed his last on April 14, 1963.
Rahul Sankrityayan was a rare genius who did not let his lack of formal education come in his way to reach greater heights. He gained knowledge through self-study and extensive travelling. He learnt to speak and write in several languages. His life’s credo is reflected in one of his inspirational quote,
“Oh! ignorant, go and travel all over the world. You will not get this life again. Even if you live long, youth will never return.”
He did not receive his due in terms of recognition. However the Government of India did honor him with Sahitya Akademi and Padma Bhushan Awards; and issued a commemorative postage stamp on his birth centenary in 1993.
Written By: Raj Kumar Hansdah