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Dr S. Srikanta Sastri as a historian by B. Sheikh Ali (1973)

Dr B. Sheikh Ali
Dr. B. Sheikh Ali

Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri ranks among those very few renowned scholars of our country who have studied history all their life, and who believe in history as saints believe in God. It is their firm conviction that without adequate knowledge of history men and society would simply be lost on the unchartered sea of time. He believes that history is not the special preserve of professional historians, but the bread and salt of every single person with an active will. It is a stir, a force and a vibration of life in the reflective spirit which formulates clear and definite principles about the course of human progress. Few scholars of our country have viewed history in this light and it is a matter of pride that, Dr. Srikanta has built his entire structure of historical studies which are very extensive indeed in their scope, very exhaustive in treatment and profound in depth. There has been a radical change in recent years as to the proper approach to history and quite revolutionary in thought is Dr. Sastri who feels that the function of history is neither to love the past, nor to disregard the past, but to master the past with a view to making it the key in understanding the present.

Sources of Karnataka History, Vol I (1940)
Sources of Karnataka History, Vol I (1940)

Dr. Sastri applied these canons to his most favourite field of historical research namely Karnataka History. In the scientific study of the history of this region, he forms a vital link with other great pioneers such as Fleet, Elliot, Rice, Bhandarkar and Narasimhachar who revealed how much Karnataka has contributed to the main stream of Indian culture. In a way Dr. Sastri surpassed them all as he did not confine himself to a narrow field of specialization, but touched almost every throbbing vein of Karnataka life, its arts and letters, philosophy and religion, history and culture, administration and politics, society and way of life and so on. The contribution of the earlier scholars had been the collection, elucidation and edition of the numerous lithic records, but no one had attempted a systematic study of literary sources, excepting perhaps Narasimhachar, and their full utilization in order to reconstruct the rich heritage of this land. It was Dr. Sastri who in his Sources of Karnataka History brought under one volume material, widely scattered, not only in Kannada, but also in Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit, Greek, Chinese, Persian and Marathi languages. He arranged them in all chronological order, so that scholars interested in the study of Karnataka history and culture may easily dip into this veritable mine of information.

"Proto - Indic Religion" by Dr S. Srikanta Sastri
"Proto - Indic Religion" by Dr S. Srikanta Sastri

Collection of the material and its proper elucidation and edition happen to be only one of the numerous achievements of Dr. Sastri. His unit of study in history is community or society or people and not individual or lithic records or literary sources.  Society is the atom which constitutes the structure of history and this society will have limitless activity in several walks of life in case it wants to make progress.  Dr. Sastri has examined in depth all such activities and more so of man’s mind, man’s intelligence and man’s knowledge of his growth into orderly society or culture as relating to India in general and Karnataka in particular. This is the sum and substance of his most valuable contribution on Proto-Indic Religion. It is certainly a difficult field to deal with and none other than a great scholar with fullness of knowledge and profundity of thought could venture into it. Although Comte had cried from the house top that the evolution of intellectual life was the basic of history and that the deeds of great statesmen and emperors, warriors and generals would touch only the fringe of history, we paid no heed to his cry and did not realize that society was more important and more fundamental than the state. Toynbee drew our attention to the fact that really great periods of man are not those about which we read so much in history, as the rise and fall of great empires or even the accomplishment of great architecture or sculpture. On the other hand, history achieves greatness when depression and disintegration occur, which give rise to the mighty religions that satisfy the real need of man. Prince Siddhartha became the Buddha when he left his hearth and home, wife and child, pomp and pleasure and retired to a jungle. Islam was the product of a society that had fallen to the stage of an unprecedented ignorance and folly. To Toynbee great periods of man would not be when empires were built, but when great religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity rose and spread. Only in these periods, man begins to think of his relationship with the outside world, the whole universe, nature and fellowmen. Man becomes aware of himself and the search for purpose will start. The meaning of life is sought, and at some stage, he begins to ask whether he is unravelling his purpose through history. At this stage, history really contributes to the promotion of human understanding.


It is in this context that Dr. Sastri’s important study on Proto-Indic Religion is to be examined. He has dived deep into all archaeological data, the vedic texts and the Puranas to reconstruct ramification of Indic Religion. Religion is actually a point at which the adherents are in touch with the infinitude of the Divine through the intermediary of an accumulating tradition. Perhaps no other religion is as rich in this accumulation of tradition as Hinduism and Dr. Sastri has made a thorough analysis of these traditions, each of which is so full of significance. The composition of society, the observance of religions, medical, astrological and magical rites, the various postures of the figurines, the role of the different classes of citizens, such as guardians, merchants, artisans, farmers, fisher folk, sailors, leather makers and the entire gamut of socio-economic structure are treated in their correct perspective on the basis of the original records. In other words, in this work, he has made a serious effort to understand the essence and soul of history which lies in analysing fully the character of both great and small men involved in the drama, their motives, successes and failures. There has been too much emphasis until now on important events, leaving small issues completely unattended. When history is being written, we are invited to look at it as a painting hung in a gallery without being too curious about what might have happened in the studio they came from. Many of the side issues are completely ruled out, because great events and personalities lay very heavy on our heads. The story begins to be organic, only when we plough through the smaller people and simple folk. Dr. Sastri has attempted to reconstruct the inner life of this strata of society, its economic, social and cultural development and the growth of ideas which are more congenial in promoting harmony in the vedic period than the study of higher ups in the government and their military and political problems. He does not believe in the dictum that history is mere past politics. Polybius and Thucydides in the ancient period and Green, Freeman and Seeley in the modern period think that the use of studying history was instruction in the art of politics, but Dr. Sastri does not subscribe to this view. On the other hand, he thinks that the modern man with his modernization and industrialization would not be able to achieve his destiny unless he gains an awareness of himself. History is not only the conserving, the remembering and the understanding of what has happened, but also the completing of what had happened. Since in man history is consciously lived, the completing of what has happened is also the attempt to carry it to what he calls perfection. Men of less incisive outlook of history would not see a pattern of absorbing interest in the petty details of Vedic and Puranic literature, but Dr. Sastri would perceive in them the development of a complex society which enables us to see the toil of centuries and the work of the multitudes of human beings trying to pass on to us a better life than they found it. History to him is the science of man in time, a study of change in humanity and a method of explaining the present with reference to the past. This is what he has attempted to do in his very scholarly papers on “Tantric Hieroglyphics.”[1] Here he says that Proto-Indic Religion had vital links with the Atharvan phase of the Vedic religion. Without going into the details of his researches it can safely be asserted that the present can never be understood without a clear and perfect understanding of the past.

In 1929 Dr. Sastri wrote a paper on Oswald Spengler’s views on Indian Culture. Spengler of Germany is supposed to be one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century on the science of culture. He examined history in the light of eternity and not in terms of a man’s life or even of a nation’s life. He dealt with a profound subject called “Culture” which is defined as that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of the society. He made a revolutionary impact on modern thought by his cyclical theory, which covered the behaviour of man from the dawn of history to the present day. According to him all great cultures go through the appointed course of youth, maturity and decline and each culture has its own form, idea, passion, life and death. It produces its own civilization, which is the last inevitable stage of its existence, characterized by decline, decay and disintegration. This is true of all cultures including Indian culture.   If this theory were to be accepted in its entirety, Indian culture would no longer be a living force; it would be a thing of the past which was either dead or in the process of dying.  

Oswald Spengler
Oswald Spengler

No one had challenged this view so far as Indian culture was concerned until Dr. Sastri wrote a brilliant article in New Era in 1929. Dr. Sastri vehemently upheld the view that Indian culture was the dynamic energy which had never ceased to generate at any period of time the same dynamism though in more or less degree of intensity. At all stages of existence, India has been able to produce either a beautiful piece of art in stone or paint a thrilling picture on canvas or build an exciting system of philosophy that explains the ultimate reality or cosmic consciousness. It is true that the galaxy of brilliant stars in philosophy, science, literature, art, painting, which India produced all belong to the ancient period prior to 1200 A.D. Great names in philosophy such as Asvaghosha, Vatsayana, Sankara, Ramanuja all belong to the period prior to 1200 A.D. Great scientists such as Aryabhatta, Bramhagupta, Sridhara and Bhaskara; great philologists such as Panini, Patanjali, Bhartrihari and Vamana; great dramatists like Vishakhadatta, Bhasa, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuti, all are concentrated in an earlier period. But this does not mean that the later period is all barren in either religious fervour or literary renaissance. The poets of Bhakti movement belong to all ages. Sarvajna was a poet of democracy; like Robert Burns, who swore by his dictum “man is a man for all that”. Allama Prabhu, Nijaguna Sivayogi, Akka Mahadevi, Purandaradasa, Kanakadasa and a host of others were all “God-intoxicated” souls, whose purity of heart, sincerity of soul, abandonment of formalities and equality for all, brought about a radical change in Karnataka. Likewise, the Mughal period in the north witnessed both a harmonization and a revival in religion. Several literary, philosophical, legal and theological works were written during this period. The Mughals erected buildings of supreme beauty such as the Red Fort, Moti Masjid and the Taj Mahal. Even in modern period, men like Tagore, Arvind Ghosh and Gandhiji are brilliant luminaries whose lustre would illumine the world canvas, making India still a centre of living culture. Therefore, Spengler’s Theory is completely exploded, thanks to Dr. Sastri who had the courage and conviction to raise his lonely voice against such a mighty mind of the Western world.

Coming to the treatment of history at Dr. Sastri’s hand, we are happy to observe that he did not reduce history to rhetoric by the use of picturesque details in the narration of details. His purpose is not to enhance the effect, but to explain the phenomena. If history is regarded as an art, accuracy will be lost and history would become a branch of literature. History should have as its basis the strictest objectivity and dedication to truth. Truth and objectivity could be achieved by two ways, first, through a negative approach to eradicate errors, half-truths and exaggerations which result from an insufficient acquaintance with facts, a prejudiced outlook or intense nationalism. Secondly, through a positive approach to repair omission, to reintegrate events or personalities into general framework of history. Judged by these two points of negative and positive approach, Dr. Sastri can easily be rated as a scientific historian, the fundamental basis of whose writings is characterized by historical objectivity and truth.

Dr. Sastri luckily chose a field of study which was relatively free from possible historical prejudices. Our ancient history is not subject to those controversies which rock the head of our medieval and modern historians because our earlier history does not suffer from national, patriotic, racial or linguistic prejudices. National and patriotic prejudices could become a grave danger especially when purely for political purposes we glorify a particular period at the expense of some other really valuable period. Dr. Sastri never became a victim of any such error as all periods of Indian history are equally worthy of attention to him.  

Secondly, he was not a prisoner in the hands of any set school of thought or theory or philosophy with the result that he did not view history through any coloured glasses. Bury regards Hegel, Comte and Marx as having constructed iron beds into which they forced living victims. But Dr. Sastri never suffers from any such inhibition. His mind is free, his data is his guide and truth is his destiny. Historical writing is not an easy task. Its path is strewn with rough pebbles and prickly thorns which none but the most determined, patient and the painstaking pilgrims could cross. Any man could make history, but only great men can write history. It took only a few moments to finish Socrates, Jesus, Gandhiji and Kennedy, but it would take very long time and better brains to analyse the motives behind those measures.

A question could well be asked at this stage whether Dr. Sastri is completely free from a philosophy of his own so far as history is concerned. Although he agrees with Ranke that one should not inflict one’s own views on readers but allow them to draw their own conclusions, there is a limit to the observance of this principle, and no one could possibly escape from some sort of philosophy of his own. Good history is not merely addition of details, interpretation of facts, and explanation of processes and conditions, but also philosophizing the ideas so that we may get at the essence and spirit of history by pressing the facts to yield historical juice. Turgot and Condorcet developed the idea of progress, a conception which heralded the dawn of true history bringing unity and synthesis to history. Likewise, several other profound thinkers have advanced their own theories, such as Idealism by Hegel, Positivism by Comte, Unity of Spirit by Croce, Cyclical view by Spengler, Challenge and Response by Toynbee and Configuration of cultures by Kroeber. Dr. Sastri has not hit the world with any such well-defined system of philosophy, but one cannot help but perceive profound philosophical trends in his writings. He subscribes to the idea of progress which promotes the conception of the unity of history. He has looked beyond government to people, beyond laws to traditions and beyond religion to folklore and the arts. He has touched every intellectual, moral, material and emotional aspect of Indian life and society. He has come to the firm conclusion that our ancient past offers a set pattern, a set design or a style, the basis of which was moral or spiritual force. The driving energy of all actions in this country was the inner urge to know the higher reality. Man was always in contact with nature, the highest as well as the lowest manifestation of which prompted him every time to reflect beyond the apparent occurrences, to the dominant factors behind those happenings. India produced a set of patterns that prompted man to convert potential ability into creative energy that results in the orderly productivity of high-class philosophy, sculpture, literature and music. This view presupposes that every historical phenomenon has antecedents which in turn have antecedents and that every effect becomes a cause for the subsequent effect. It is the search for such antecedents that prompted Dr. Sastri to explore more and more like Niebuhr into our antiquity and find in it a rhythm, a design and a set philosophy. A thorough examination of the interaction between the individuals and environment led Dr. Sastri to spot the origin of our culture. All historical events possess individuality or uniqueness and hence they cannot be reduced to any uniformity. Dr. Sastri is very much aware of this phenomena (phenomenon) and therefore he cast a very wide net to catch culture patterns of all degrees of consciousness and complexity. He has dealt with the simplest patterns explicit in dress, diet, work, salutation and handicraft and also on the highest form of culture pattern as explicit in literature, arts, religion and philosophy. In short, Dr. Sastri perceives a single master key to our culture and that key is primarily ethical. He has not rejected the idea of God in revealing himself in history and he does not equate energy or progress as substitutes for God. He is in favour of pluralistic interpretation, depending upon the discovery of new data. Historical research is such a complex phenomenon that no rigidity, no finality could ever be possible. He is not dogmatic. The subject he chose, the material he dealt with and the phenomena he tried to analyse were such that any final verdict was not possible, and that it was likely to change every time a new data or new factors appeared on the scene. However, Dr. Sastri believes that evolution itself is a movement towards the desirable goal of goodness, piety and righteousness, which could all be summed up in that encyclopaedic term “Dharma”.

Lastly what is most appealing about Dr. Sastri is his modest humility. Such great scholarship sits so lightly on him. His childlike simplicity, purity of heart, and nobility of soul have never forsaken him at any conscious minute of his life. He appears to have faithfully followed what St. Augustine said long ago, “Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being little.  Modest humility is beauty’s crown.”  His devotion to duty led him to the cultivation of all his faculties to the best of his ability. His thirst for knowledge, his spirit of enquiry, seriousness of purpose and ceaseless pursuit of his goal enabled him to accomplish herculean tasks. He is such a painstaking scholar that he is a miracle of genius, because he has been a miracle of labour.  In scores and scores of his research papers we find his abilities crystallised through that labour of love which could be the passion of any missionary. He believes in the dictum that obedience to duty at all costs and risks is the very essence of the highest civilized life, and that duty is one of Godhead’s most benignant of the graces. Even at times when his physical faculties were not very much co-operative, he has remained such a devoted crusader in the path of extending the horizon of historical knowledge that hardly any moment of his life was kept free from some useful activity. As his mind became more enlightened, his interests and responsibilities became more varied too. He was led constantly into new channels of historical research with the result that there is hardly any field in Karnataka History which he has not touched. India in general and Karnataka in particular have to make up a good deal of lost time in the discipline of history. But for Dr. Sastri we would have been poorer still. We wish him long life and good health so that a precious gem that has so long shed such lustre will continue to enrich the realm of history.

-        Dr. B. Sheikh Ali (1973)

  • [1] QJMS, April 1960, Vol. LI, pp. 11-25; July 1960, Vol. LI, pp. 90-3.

  • Appeared as one of the articles in the Dr S. Srikanta Sastri Felicitation Volume "Srikanthika" (1973).

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1 Comment

Mar 24

History and Dr. Srikanta Shastri says it all.

He is our Tata(Grandfather) and all of us are blessed to have been influenced y such doyens in our family.

Sanath Kumar aka Mohana

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