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Mahapandit Rahul Sankrityayan: An Atheist Monk

Born Kedarnath Pandey, during the ‘high noon of the Raj’, he came to be referred to as ‘Mahapandit’ during his lifetime. This was an epithet fondly bestowed upon him by Brahmins in recognition of his peerless command over the Sanskrit language and extant ancient Indian religious literature. It is indeed ironic that this Brahmin, who on one occasion swore to speak and write in nothing except Sanskrit for a year, later in his life came to be recognized as a rigorous, moral and, at times, rabid critic of the Brahminical world view. He is also called the ‘Father of Hindi travel literature’. To call him so doesn’t do adequate justice to the remarkable life he led. Without doubt he deserves this title; no Hindi author either before his time or after him managed to perfect the art of writing travel literature like him. However, a limitation of this title is that it doesn’t convey the meaning of the world ‘travel’, as it was understood by Sankrityayan. To this Vaishnava monk turned Arya Samaji turned Buddhist monk turned atheist socialist militant, a journey didn’t just mean physically moving oneself from one location to the other. Rahul Sankrityayan understood journey in a very broad sense—it as much encompassed the feat of travelling through the entire expanse of South Asia and Tibet on foot as it covered the massive shift in worldview that took him from pre-modern subaltern religiosity, through modernist revivalism to socialism with scientific pretensions. Rahul Sankrityayan never ceased travelling: neither physically nor philosophically. Very early on in his life, young Kedarnath adopted Bazinda’s shayari as his life’s guiding motto:


Sair kar duniya ki gafil, yeh zindagani phir kahan

zindagani gar rahi to, naujawani phir kaha…

(Sankrityayan 1945:56)


Later in his life, as a wizened old man he would devote a full-length text to his wanderlust and name it Ghumakkar Shastra (The Science of Wanderlust).


Kedarnath’s family lived in a village called Pandaha, in Ghazipur district of Eastern Uttar Pradesh (erstwhile United Provinces). They were well-to-do enough to send him to school. A small ancestral zamindari meant that in all likelihood they could have afforded a college education as well and a stable clerical career in the sprawling Raj bureaucracy was in the offing—exactly the sort of life that a temperament of turbulent nature is likely to rebel against. Kedarnath fled home for the first time at the age of 13. This was followed by a series of attempts by the family to bring him back, but he fled each time; finally swearing that he wouldn’t set foot in the village for next 30 years(Sankrityayan 1945:108).


Kedarnath had grown up listening to the tales of saintly souls who could vanish into thin air. His journeys took him to the little-explored regions of the vast Himalayas that yogis made their abode. However, despite his zeal Kedarnath was unable to find anyone capable of teaching him the art of becoming an apparition. Later in his life, Sankrityayan emphasized this failed search as an important chapter of his formative years. As he refers to it himself, his ‘juvenile obsession’ with magic and divinity came to an end with his taking a vow of severe asceticism and his subsequent attempt at committing suicide upon his failure to get a darshan of God (Sankrityayan 1945:204). Subsequently, whenever forced to choose between reason and faith, Kedarnath would always throw his weight behind the former. Unlike what some biographers have concluded, Sankrityayan’s rationality wasn’t derived from Enlightenment modernity. He describes at length in his autobiography how his own life experiences and the lessons derived from them gradually pushed him in the direction of reason and empiricism. If any other overpowering obsession could claim to match his lust for travel, it was the unceasing zeal to acquire knowledge. By the time he became a seasoned itinerant Vaishnava monk, he had acquired almost complete command over ancient Sanskrit and Brahminical literature. The young monk drew people's gaze for his proud demeanour and self-assurance in his knowledge and intelligence. He had spent years at various centres of Brahminical-Sanskritic learning around the subcontinent, gradually educating himself.


Young Kedarnath’s wanderlust didn’t let him be anywhere for more than three years; his love for learning inevitably made him choose a new centre of learning as his next destination. By the time the Vaishnava sanyasi reached his mid-20s, he had already traversed almost the entire length of the subcontinent and the Himalayas on foot. His peregrinations had even taken him to the Mansarovar Lake and Kailash. Diligent in maintaining a diary, Kedarnath was proving to be a keen observer of cultures and people. His travels were already beginning to open his eyes to the arbitrary bases of values and moral systems. Sankrityayan’s freethinking personality quite obviously owed a lot to the sense of perspective that extensive travelling gave him. His daily jottings in his diary unambiguously point to the gradual coming into being of a fiercely independent spirit that refused to accept anything unless it passed his parameters of reason and wisdom based on prior experience. It seems only logical that by now his attention was drawn to the Arya Samaj movement—a proto-nationalist, revivalist movement. As is the wont of many modernist revivalist movements, Arya Samaj was challenging orthodoxy in the name of orthodoxy. Seemingly Janus-faced, its one face fixed its sight upon ancient religion which it marked as being pure, and its other face sought to recast tradition in keeping with the scales proffered by the new Western concepts of Enlightenment and Reason. The colonial assault upon South Asian institutions and customs was to be countered by taking the battle into their own terrain. Wisdom would be carefully culled out from South Asia’s extant tradition to prove to the West that ‘original’ South Asian institutions and customs were more rational that those of the West, and that the current state of degeneration was a result of later corruption. However, the truth about this Janus-faced monster was that its eyes directed upon the ancient past looked only for the sort of evidence that would provide fuel to its overall thrust towards building a unique South Asian modernity. And more insidiously, their intellectual edifice was based upon conceding to the Western challenge that existing South Asian customs were irrational and a result of Sanatanis’ fall from their ancient state of grace. Their initial dalliance with freethinking and rationality attracted the young Vaishnava saint. Soon he became a full-time Arya Samaji activist, gripped by the fervour to prove that Sanatan Dharma was the most rational and scientific religion in the world, that it was the most ancient one and that other religions were based on irrationalities. The young militant threw himself wholeheartedly to his newly acquired cause and spent a great deal of time learning Arabic and Persian to counter the Muslim challenge, or poring over the Bible to identify chinks in the missionaries’ armour. Around this time, he acquired some degree of fame by excelling in public debates with some noted missionaries and clerics of the time. For the time being, he dreamed of travelling to the rest of the world to convert people to the ‘true religion’. Ancient Buddhist monks who had travelled to the Far East to proselytize were a source of inspiration.


But Arya Samaj being what it was, couldn’t have tolerated freethinking beyond a point. It did challenge certain customs like child marriage which seemed particularly retrograde for the spirit of the time, but soon the movement began to split between the conservative faction and a radical tendency. Sankrityayan belonged to the latter tendency. Before long, Sankrityayan had begun to feel stifled once again.


It was Sankritayan’s relentless search for a truly rational philosophy that made him eventually turn to Buddhism. Once he became convinced that Buddhism was worth engaging with, Sankrityayan became a Buddhist monk and resided in Sri Lanka for several years to study Pali and ancient Buddhism. Still dissatisfied that his study was incomplete he decided to slip into Tibet which 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. Sankrityayan returned convinced that Buddha was the great rationalist and liberator of the ancient times. He was by now equally convinced that Buddha ought to be emulated but Buddhism the religion had degenerated into what he referred to as ‘mumbo-jumbo and irrational trivialities’.


Before we explore his foray into the Buddhist philosophy, it is pertinent here to critique a particular tendency among Sankrityayan’s biographers to paint him as a cultural nationalist. These biographers identify national regeneration as the primary motor that drove Sankrityayan to seek various kinds of extant cultural resources which he perceived to be most suitable for the purpose. Besides being instrumentalist, this strand of thinking also misunderstands the basic trajectory of his life’s unfolding. Alaka Chudal, for instance, would argue that he remained a cultural nationalist all his life; further, though he remained unbound, the outer limit of his peregrinations was bound by his ardent love for everything Indian. And hence, when he became an Arya Samaji he retained some of his Vaishnava leanings, later when he became a Buddhist monk, a part of the Arya Samaji in him lived on, and finally when he embraced dialectical materialism, he interpreted it through his unique Indian lenses within which Vaishnavism, Arya Samaj and Buddhism all cast their distinct tints. This strand of interpretation suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic motivation that animated him. He was first and foremost a rationalist and a freethinker. Born in India, and not being a part of the Anglophile elite, the only resources available to him to exercise his faculties upon were indigenous. But he refused to be hidebound by any of them and ruthlessly critiqued them all. These interpretations miss that fact that when he finally transitioned to dialectical materialism, Sankrityayan declared unambiguously that having examined all strands of philosophy, he had reached the conclusion that the true science for the modern era was dialectical materialism. If he held on to certain extant ideas and cherished the local culture, it was firmly in consonance, at least to his understanding, with the tenets of dialectical materialism as he understood them—the fact that any genuinely universal idea must grip the particular. Alaka Chudal’s recent book is titled Rahul Sankrityayan: A Freethinking Cultural Nationalist. The problem with this approach reflects in the very title of the volume: A true freethinker couldn’t possibly be a cultural nationalist, as either category would appear like linguistic constructs to him. To cast him as a freethinker, within a broader intellectual field bound within a nationalistic sentiment actually presents the picture of a figure that would be better described as a ‘rebel’—as someone who challenges the powers that be from within the ideological coordinates presumed by them.  Sankrityayan, however, didn’t allow any ideological field to prescribe the range within which his thoughts could wander. Very late in his life, as a convinced dialectical materialist, he averred that though temporarily convinced about its validity and applicability, he wouldn’t be averse to giving it up if he were convinced that it wasn’t rational.


However, this shouldn’t lead us to believe that Sankrityayan was a ‘Renaissance man’ of sorts, who could transcend the discursive limitations of his thoughts through sheer willpower. Rather, the origin of his freethinking subjectivity should be sought in Madhyamika Buddhism that had a profound influence upon him during his years as a Buddhist monk. Sankrityayan was recast through his engagement with Buddhist sunyatawad that denied essence behind the phenomena. The ‘self’ itself is understood by Nagarjuna’s anatmawad as lacking any cognizing ‘master entity’. Phenomena, and so also the human body, are seen as constituted out of a series of events that are linguistic-conceptual in nature. Positing the lack of a ‘master self’ or ‘organizing center’ deconstructs the thinking that roots an individual in his context—culture, nation, etc. (Sankrityayan 1947:12). At the same time, because the phenomena in the world too are constituted out of events that are linguistic-conceptual in nature, it even becomes possible to escape the discursive force field of narratives like the nation and history. From this vantage point, all ideological state apparatuses become contingent and transitory. Thus it is apparent that Sankrityayan derived his freethinking attitude from Buddhism. But by dint of being interpreted in the wake of the colonial epistemic challenge, Buddhism dialectically acquired the character of a transit route for Sankrityayan to enter the colonial public sphere as a rational subject, albeit wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk. His deconstructivist rationalism made him reject both nationalism and nativism.


While such a deconstructive gaze could easily slip into a hermit’s stance of peaceful detachment, in Sankrityayan’s Buddhism this doesn’t happen. This is so because while the contingent nature of linguistically constituted categories does make them appear arbitrary (and hence transient) at a cognitive level, however, his interpretation of Madhyamika also maintains that despite this, these conceptual categories do not lose their practical efficacy at the phenomenal level, i.e., in the lived-experienced world. Meaning, in effect, that one might think the concept of nation to be contingent and arbitrary, but if one was to break its laws, that could still land the offender in jail. This tendentious, albeit not unique, rendering of Madhyamika Buddhism allowed Sankrityayan to combine an ardent activist zeal to transform the world with a cool rejection of the permanence of all ‘linguistically derived’ meta-narratives like the nation, organized religions, culture, etc. Going forward, after his conversion to Buddhism, his wanderlust transformed into a complementary intellectual wanderlust. He constantly felt the need to keep challenging his own beliefs and pushing their limits.


By now his interest in politics had increased manifold, and he had begun to align his intellectual forays with his political vision for the nation in the making. He plunged into the Kisan Sabha movement, convinced that zamindari oppression and the feudal worldview were legitimized by the caste order and eventually by the Brahminical world order. Buddhism appealed to him on several counts. It was atheistic, rational (the philosophy) and liberating. Another tendentious ancient Buddhist trope lapped up by Sankrityayan’s activist inclination was the stricture that true religion ought to be ehipashyik (this worldly). He was jailed and detained several times for his radical beliefs and for organizing anti-British and anti-zamindari movements. By now his stature as a radical political activist had grown significantly. Sankrityayan became one the founder members of the Bihar Kisan Sabha, and later the All India Kisan Sabha. These Kisan Sabhas were nominally allied to the Congress party but they retained a great deal of autonomy of action and will. Frequently at loggerheads with the Congress leadership, which was often accused by the sabha activists of compromising with the ‘feudal landed gentry’, Sankrityayan’s relationship with it kept fluctuating.


Meanwhile he continued his education. He had already been making some money on the side with his travel journalism, now he also tried his hands at translating fiction, writing fiction and contributing scholarly articles to research journals. Sankrityayan had a way with languages. Though it is often claimed that he could read and write 16 languages, it is rather difficult to ascertain this claim. However, one could safely say that he produced literature in at least seven of them and he could read and write with ease in at least 10. Sankrityayan had always been philosophically inclined, and his new-found love for Buddhism gave further fillip to this passion. He kept educating himself and by now, he had begun become intellectually inclined towards dialectical materialism. Sankritayayan himself notes in his autobiography how striking he found the similarities between Buddha’s religion and dialectical materialism. Within some years of his Buddhist monkhood, Sankrityayan had begun to question Buddhism the religion, though he retained his admiration for Buddha (whom he referred to as ‘Mahamanav’) all his life (Sankrityayan 1998:108). By the time he reached his 40s, he had taken a decisive turn towards dialectical materialism, and the result was what is in all likelihood the first work of science fiction in South Asia, titled Baiswi Sadi. Though in his autobiography he admits that at the time of writing this volume his knowledge of dialectical materialism was still rather rudimentary, this work of science fiction gives interesting insights not just into the immanent unresolved contradictions in the evolution of his own thought but also lays bare the outer limits of his nominally deconstructivist Buddhist leanings. The tone of the text is unmistakably productivist. An underlying technocractic logic subsumes the utopian communist future that Sankrityayan quite obviously paints as the desirable and even inevitable end for humankind. Nature is stripped of all its religious and magical qualities and treated purely as a resource, upon which equally instrumentalized men and women, who are signified as bare repositories of latent labour power, exert their labours. Further, all humans and animals are deprived of their cultural and ethnic markings, and they exist as nothing but bearers of latent labour power and are almost passive consumers of the products of a world organized as a giant socialized automaton. This early productivist leaning also explains the tone of loathing in his critique of the Gandhian experiment to establish a more personal relationship with nature. His essay ‘Kya Ab Piche Laut Sakte Hain’, clearly goes to show that even this Buddhist freethinker and iconoclast of gods and religions couldn’t resist the subtle seductions of post-Enlightenment productivist discourse (Sankrityayan 1971:24). Quite apparently, the search for the nature of a ‘Being’ entrapped within modernist productivism never became a worthy preoccupation for Sankrityayan. Later in his life, as a professor of Indology in Russia at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, he did revise his views somewhat, reaching the conclusion that socialist reconstruction ought not to whitewash the uniqueness of a nation’s cultural past. Sensing an obvious contradiction between his utopian image of a society consisting of individuals stripped of all their cultural-historical markings and his new-found love for indigenous culture, he came up with the ruse of a latent people’s culture. Without going into the polemical minefield of the debate around the alleged existence of a people’s culture, we would rest our case here by merely observing that Sankrityayan himself could never quite resolve the obvious contradiction between the kind of workers’ future he envisaged and his advocacy of the preservation of indigenous cultural traditions. This confusion eventually led to his expulsion from the undivided CPI (Communist Party of India) for his vehement insistence that Hindi ought to be adopted as the national and official language of post-Independent India.


Having briefly mapped the limits of Sankrityayan’s intellectual wanderlust, we may now take a look into the sort of subjectivity that informed his constant need to be on the move physically. A very major section of his autobiography, Meri Jeevan Yatra, is an ode to his days as a ghumakkar (itinerant).


In a semi-satirical style, Sankrityayan’s Ghumakkar Shastra enlists most of the major religious preachers and social reformers within the ranks of ghumakkar. Jesus, Muhammad, Shankaracharya and, of course, Buddha are all cited as epitomes of a life of ghumakkari (Sankrityayan 2004:10). By dint of their unattached and carefree demeanour,  ghumakkars are  less likely to be selfish and power hungry. Their lifelong wanderlust keeps their curiosity alive, which makes them more likely to become society’s thought leaders. Two aspects of this metaphor of an ascetic monk are notable: first, its legitimacy is derived directly from the enduring trope of a selfless celibate who serves society. The legacy of this figure has remained strong, to the extent that even today it carries a lot of currency in Indian politics. Second, the iconography of its exemplars cuts across all spatial and temporal boundaries. The itinerant inhabits a liminal space, wherein all ethic-national identities dissolve. In Ghumakkar Shastra, Sankrityayan nostalgically recalls an evening, when monks (including a sufi) shared a chillum and the little food they had without enquiring into each other’s caste. The life of a ghumakkar dissolves human boundaries—first-hand experience of strange customs and people braces them to celebrate diversity, while the shared reality of a precarious hand-to-mouth existence makes them come face to face with the universality of human suffering. An itinerant has endless compassion and love for suffering humankind. Sankrityayan is, however, very categorical in spelling out that all of this applies only to true practitioners. And, moreover, it is very easy to tell the charlatans apart from their conduct. A true practitioner cannot but be iconoclastic to an extent, scoffing at given irrational traditions, fired by the zeal to contribute something genuine, and seething with discontent against the rampant oppression and exploitation of humans by humans. His itinerant, carefree and selfless lifestyle constitute a unique subjectivity for him, which abhors any sort of hobnobbing with the powers that be, which seek to secure the oppressive status quo.


In his monumental contribution to the genre of historical fiction, Volga Se Ganga, one of the characters rues the fact that his tribe has taken to settled agriculture. Through him, Sankrityayan’s voice engages the reader in a long discourse about how humans weren’t meant to settle down. Bondage takes the spice out of life (Sankrityayan 2005:57). Ennui sets in and casts a cloud of gloom over everything in our lives that we could have cherished. Only parting makes us truly aware of the true worth of being with someone, of loving someone. An itinerant is a tremendously loving and caring person. Animated by the Buddhistic-Communistic feeling of 'Bahujana Hitaya' (for the wellbeing of as many people as possible) and 'Bahujana Sukhaya' (for the happiness of as many people as possible), he roams the world at large, spreading happiness and fellow feeling, sharing, caring, learning and making the cause of every oppressed being his own. This figure of a militant-atheist-socialist monk is very different from the image of a professional revolutionary that Lenin had conceptualized and embodied. Sankrityayan’s vanguard is deeply embedded in the culture and consciousness of the masses. He is fascinated with nature and spends most of his time close to it. This ascetic monk is a natural leader of the masses as he represents all the ideals of a hermit hero in the popular consciousness. Further, his leadership seems to emanate from subalterns’ traditional moral economy, rather than from the realm of modern politics. In contrast, the Leninist organic intellectual or the professional revolutionary presumes a liberal political framework, which the socialist discourse seeks to undermine from within. This variance from the Leninist orthodoxy that Sankrityayan professes to adhere to underlines the contradiction that we noted above. His own relationship to nature and to people and their culture is as Gandhian as it could be. However, when talking about larger social institutions he is invariably in the grips of productivism.


Sankrityayan’s protagonists lead subaltern uprisings, but his utopia is technocratic-modernist. He was initiated into a life of iconoclasm by ancient Buddhism, but his deployment of it in the colonial public sphere gave it a form that was distinctly modern. He swore by dialectical materialism and yet his politics frequently employed metaphors derived from pre-modern traditions. His deconstructivist zeal took him beyond nation and religion but didn’t allow him to transcend the invisible ideological coordinates dictated by post-Enlightenment productivist discourse. Sankrityayan wasn’t a nationalist, but he didn’t scoff at tradition. And most significantly, to him being embedded in tradition wasn’t the same as believing in the idea of a modern nation state. It is extremely difficult to pigeonhole Sankrityayan into any readymade ideological category.


Sankrityayan spent the last three years of life in a state of unresponsive mental illness. When compared to the spectacular and eventful life that he had, his departure was relatively low-key. He wouldn’t have cared though, as he spent his life preaching that one ought to attach very little significance to one’s life. An atheist couldn’t possibly care much about his legacy as he wouldn’t be around to see how history judged him. So long as he lived, he treated his life like an instrument dedicated to causes he cared about and deemed to be worthy.





Sankrityayan, Rahul. 1945. Meri Jivan Yatra, vol.1. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal.


———. 1947. Bauddha Darśana. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal.


———. 1971. Tumhāri Kshaya. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal.


———. 1998. Mahamanav Buddha. Lucknow: Bhartiya Bauddha Samiti​.


———. 2004. Ghumakkaḍ Shastra. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal​.


———. 2005. Volgā Se Gaṃgā. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal.