Ācārya S R Ramaswamy: The Informed Witness of Two and a Half Eras

Ācārya S R Ramaswamy: The Informed Witness of Two and a Half Eras

Quoting his own words from his extraordinary profile of the modern ṛṣi D V Gundappa (DVG), perhaps the best way to ensconce Ācārya S R Ramaswamy’s legacy in the severely constricting medium of text is to begin by expressing one’s difficulty in the endeavour. Where does one even begin? The true legacy of Dr. S R Ramaswamy lies in the realm of dignified, elevating, and humbling experience—in that order—on the part of any person who has the fortune of meeting him.

Contemporary Cultural Colossus

Dr. S R Ramaswamy is every bit a contemporary cultural colossus who has no wants and little needs but has spent an entire lifetime giving others that most precious gift of all: uninterrupted insight drawn from an ocean of self-study, the company of giants, and a distilled experience of both. He did not merely stand on the shoulders of these giants of his time; he shaped his spiritual, intellectual, and ethical physique from the exercises of their life.

Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh has authored (in Kannada) the best and the most comprehensive tribute to Dr. S R Ramaswamy bearing the apt title, Dr. S R Ramaswamy: A Delightful Wonder of a Life of Incessant Literature and Service. That essay in itself is a model for writing illuminative tributes.

To the undoubted fact that Dr. S R Ramaswamy is the worthiest successor of DVG’s legacy, we can add this: this succession doesn’t merely stop at the literary and public service realms but reaches levels far more profound. Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh gives a glimpse of it:

Dr. Ramaswamy’s labour was not that of a mere assistant who transcribes and sends written material to print. For every piece of writing, he intuitively understood the writer’s innate intent and helped him at the level of supplying the appropriate intellectual assistance and emotional support. It was a true labour of love.

Even as DVG was dictating his pieces, Dr. S R Ramaswamy would complete the rest of the sentence before DVG uttered it. This talent was a gift from the divine especially when we consider the additional fact that Dr. S R Ramaswamy would anticipate the sentence structure and word choice and usage before DVG could say them. When someone who once visited DVG as he was dictating something to Dr. Ramaswamy pointed this out, DVG uttered an appreciative expletive and ended with, “What shall I do? He’s like this!” Dr. S R Ramaswamy was in his early twenties when DVG made this remark.

For all his staggering range of learning, erudition, scholarship, literary and public service, Dr. S R Ramaswamy has studiously stayed aloof, reminding us of Ācārya M Hiriyanna’s note on Anāsakta-karma. Or to say this in a different fashion, Dr. Ramaswamy heeded Thomas Gray’s note of not letting “ambition mock his useful toil.” Therefore, he continues to inspire us, in the words of Emerson, as that “great son this country knows not yet, or at least in part.”

The Education of a Multifaceted Polyglot

The recent volume titled, The Evolution of the Mahabharata is but a small drop in the vast ocean of Dr. Ramaswamy’s multifaceted, multidisciplinary repertoire that includes journalistic opinion pieces, columns, and commentary, writings on Vedānta and the Bhagavad-gītā, Sanskrit, history, economics, environment and ecology, public policy, music, dance, painting, literature, and institution building. Perhaps a lesser-known facet of Dr. S R Ramaswamy is the fact that he was a fine photographer. As also the fact that at one point in his life, he ran a Gośālā. Oh and I forgot to mention that he is also a dilettante numismatist and possesses a rare collection of coins dating back to nearly two centuries.

Dr. S R Ramaswamy is one of the pioneers of what is now widely known as environmentalism. However, his involvement in this sphere was rooted in consonance with values of sanātanadharma and stemmed from a feeling of care in an earthy sense unlike the five-star activism of the Leftists, who have hijacked such genuine efforts and politicized them. Although Dr. Ramaswamy is justly critical of such cynical manoeuvres, he hasn’t regretted the fact that his early labours in this area have been wasted. This inward attitude of hope amid all-round decline is a great source of strength and inspiration for those who come in contact with him.

His regret is confined to such realms of the spirit as his inability to personally meet the towering scholars and such other luminaries of his time. Which is how he educated himself. At the feet of the Masters. And showed us one of the timeless methods of learning. Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked Henry David Thoreau why he quit Harvard, because after all, the university taught all branches of knowledge. Thoreau’s reply:  “Yes, all the branches and none of the roots.” Dr. S R Ramaswamy cannot boast of high-sounding academic degrees but even an offhand glance at his body of writing shows that they exude the all-encompassing air of Veda-vyāsa, exhibit the steely pen of Swami Vivekananda, and breathe the serene compassion of Maharṣi Vālmīki. Nowhere is this quality more visible than in his continuation of that hoary literary tradition set by DVG in his Jñāpaka-citra-śāle volumes: of recording the lives and legacies of eminent contemporaries. Ācārya S R Ramaswamy’s triad of Dīvaṭikègaḻu (Lamps), Dīptimantaru (Luminaries), and Dīptaśṛṅgagaḻu (Summits of Illumination) is the finest specimen of this continuity. Like the Jñāpaka-citra-śāle volumes, this triad possesses that signal quality of all enduring literature: it makes the reader want to revisit the writing for both joy and education.

Journalism is the other sphere in which Dr. Ramaswamy continued the noble tradition and legacy set by Sri D.V. Gundappa. Beginning his journalistic career as a young assistant editor at the W.Q. Judge Press in the late 1950s, Dr. Ramaswamy graced the portals of the Kannada monthly, Sudha from 1972 – 1979. Then, from 1980 till date, he serves as the Honorary Editor-in-Chief of another Kannada monthly, Utthana, in which he unfailingly writes commentaries on current affairs, reviews of good literature, translations, and special features on such topics as The Bhagavad Gita, the philosophy of Yoga, and so on. And like D.V.G, a distinctive mark of Dr. Ramaswamy’s journalistic corpus is their innate power to elevate the reader from the mundane and the mediocre to the pristine and the enduring. He adorns the rather dry subject of politics and policy with an originality that bestows a literary and philosophical quality to it.    

Illustrious Lineage

Dr. S R Ramaswamy hails from an illustrious and unbroken lineage of extraordinary scholars, poets, and pundits of the Motaganahalli family. This lineage also gave Sadhus and Veda-Vidwans in service of this country. The outstanding scholar of history and Indian culture, Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri was the son of Ācārya S R Ramaswamy’s father’s elder brother. In this sense, Dr. S R Ramaswamy was born wealthy and increased his family fortune. This is also the reason why he showed a natural inclination to seek the company of scholars and Vidwans of similar stature. The astonishing fact is that he maintained friendships and regular correspondence with such giants as Shripad Damodar Satwalekar who were more than forty years his senior. His mellifluous profiles of some of these colossuses like Rallapalli Anantakrishna Sarma, Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri, Magadi Lakshminarasimha Sastri, and DVG are eminent and lasting testimonies to this fact.

Dr. S R Ramaswamy took inspiration from the selfsame Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri and attained a high degree of proficiency in German, French, Spanish and Italian. Dr. Ramaswamy is a polyglot and can be regarded as what once used to be popular as the Ideal Renaissance Man. Apart from these foreign languages, he is also proficient in Telugu (his mother tongue), Sanskrit, Kannada, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, and Gujarati.

A Goldmine of Anecdotes

The best of Dr. S R Ramaswamy, however, pullulates itself in informal conversations akin to a squall of insights, observations, history, and sidelights. All from his prodigious memory. On any given subject. And persons. Those who have had the fortune of knowing him, this is an inexhaustible treasure-chest that includes an anecdote of a long-forgotten and long-deceased Punjab Chief Minister’s reprimand of an inept IAS officer who threatened him by invoking Indira Gandhi’s name.

On a humorous note, if clothes make a man, nacreous anecdotes make  S R Ramaswamy. While this undoubtedly owes to the wide universe of his long and distinguished experience in public life and service, in him it becomes an ennobling quality because of his inherent attitude of detachment. Like the familiar drop of water on a lotus that appears like a pearl to the poet’s eyes. This quality enabled Dr. S R Ramaswamy to have a high regard for the intellectual abilities of true-blue Marxists like Nikhil Chakravarthy and Raj Thapar (brother of Romila Thapar) with whom he maintained literary correspondence for many years.

Once during a casual conversation, the topic of bringing back the Mackenzie Manuscripts from London to India came up; his immediate response was: “Not necessary. They’ll be preserved for at least another century if they’re there!” Then he went on to suggest ancillary historical literature to the Mackenzie Manuscripts. That then is the other quality in Dr. S R Ramaswamy. A random discussion on any topic—trivial or serious—will elicit a list of suggestions of the best book(s) on it. This was how I heard of the existence of a superb work named The Age of Entanglement, a scholarly study of the vicissitudes of the discipline of Indology between India and Germany.

The other facet of this quality is his keen interest in the latest developments, researches, books, and writings in a variety of fields. As recent as the past week when he fished out a copy of William Dalrymple’s latest book, The Anarchy, a history of the British East India Company. Dr. Ramaswamy pointed to several new source materials that Dalrymple had used in the work and said serious writers and historians must inculcate his sense of writing discipline regardless of ideological leanings. Among other things, it is this which gives his monthly columns in Utthāna a distinct flavour.

Grooming the Next Generation

S R Ramaswamy is also a quiet groomer of generations. Nowhere is this more evident than in the staggering number of writers, authors, scholars, and artists that he has groomed in his unique manner of encouragement. It is the hush of the ages of wisdom whispered into the ears of those who care to listen to that silence. Translated in real life, if he finds out that someone is doing valuable work in any area concerning the Indian national interest, its culture, history, art, and so forth, he will take the initiative, unasked, to supply the required material. If you as much as casually mention that you’re looking for a book, old article, or archive, it’ll arrive at your doorstep: a neatly-wrapped pleasant surprise with a handwritten note which he would have signed. In several cases, the person concerned won’t even know that S R Ramaswamy is the benefactor behind this unasked literary largesse.  

Courage and Aversion to Nonsense

Indomitable courage is the other trait that must accompany anyone involved in such endeavours of cultural and national importance. The vast and ever-growing body of Dr. S R Ramaswamy’s writings is the clearest proof of this fact: about sixty books, hundreds of articles, commentaries, columns, and translations. Some examples include his work exploding the myth of an Aryan Invasion into India, the national caution he sounded in the book titled In the Woods of Globalisation, his fearless critiques of Christian conversions, and his blunt exposé of financial fraud and mismanagement of the Nalanda University. The other side of this coin is the fact that Dr. S R Ramaswamy has a healthy aversion for nonsense. If someone dares to attempt any mischief of this nature, he will, in terse words, ensure that the person will not repeat it not just with him but with anybody else.  

Oh, and when he is in the mood, he will reveal the closely-held secret of the brew of the tea he unfailingly serves to anyone who comes to meet him. I have tried to replicate it at home with disastrous results.

Or the fact that he patiently hunted for a specific brand and choice of fountain pen ink and after assiduous efforts, managed to procure it from Surat. 

Acharya S.R. Ramaswamy

But in our own time, Dr. S R Ramaswamy is also a repository of the cultural history of two and a half eras. For instance, when he traces the origins of say, the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs to a modest home near Netkallappa Circle and its subsequent growth to an institution of cultural (and national) eminence, one feels the urgent need to record and preserve it for posterity. This is not the dry history found in a typical book but one derived from a wealth of direct personal experience spanning several decades. Indeed, there is a great case to be made to bemoan the loss of what has been arrogantly dismissed as “oral history” and “legend” at the altar of undefined notions of objectivity. DVG characterizes this joyless method of history writing as follows:

There can be no question as to the scholarly industry and the judge-like carefulness in sifting and piecing together evidence, which have gone into [this work of history]. Has the picture any mark of a mind upon it,—a glint of the eye or a quiver of the lip? If a mere reader may hazard a remark, it looks as though the writers here belong to what used to be called the scientific, as distinguished from the literary school of historians. Historical writing is to the ‘scientific’ school “the mutual conversation…of scholars with one another” rather than “the means of spreading far and wide, throughout all the reading classes, a love and knowledge of history, an elevated and critical patriotism and certain qualities of mind and heart.” The antiquarian seems in our book to supersede the narrator… Fact is certainly sacred. But so much need not be made of the outward shape of a fact that its inward meaning escapes the average reader. [Emphasis added]

And so, when Dr. S R Ramaswamy gives some historical facts related to Swami Satchidanandendra Saraswati, D V Gundappa, or S K Ramachandra Rao, he breaks down recalling a fond and elevated period which will never return. This is history akin to a lush and breathtaking forest watered by genuine emotion, not the arid desert where nothing grows and upon which the rain of the eons mocks with the grandeur of disdain.

The first era was that of taking handwritten notes, writing in longhand, getting his hands dirty and bruised in the printing press, of walking long distances by foot. The intermediate era was the decline and death of the aforementioned giants and the near-total disappearance of every cultural memory they had preserved. The second era roughly began in 1991 and persists at the time of writing this. Its full consequences and impact is yet to be understood much less commented upon.

This brief survey of Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy’s extraordinary life, his single-minded Tapas (penance)in not one but multiple spheres of human activity, his devotion to the stalwarts of yore, and his continued propagation of this illustrious tradition to at least two generations eminently qualify him for that lofty epithet, Ācārya, whose etymology is as beautiful as his life epitomises it:

ācinoti ca śāstrārthamācāre sthāpayatyapi |
svayamācarate yasmādācāryastena cocyate || (Āpastamba Dharma Sūtra

An Ācārya is one who not only consolidates the knowledge and essence of a śāstra and assimilates it within himself, but he also establishes its structure and substance in the tradition. He also harmonizes its eternal values in his own life.

Ācārya S R Ramaswamy remains an informed but detached witness of these two and a half eras. To rewrite a famous verse[,

Large is his bounty, and his soul sincere,
He gives to Life all he has, selfless affection
Spread of Knowledge and Life-nourishing Insight,
A monk who wanders within himself.


The foregoing essay is the epilogue of the recent book titled, Evolution of the Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic compiled by Arjun Bharadwaj, Hari Ravikumar and Sandeep Balakrishna, published by Prekshaa Publications. The work contains translations of numerous essays on the Mahabharata authored by Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy in Kannada more than four decades ago. It is a work of unique and original scholarship by Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy on the Mahabharata and my opinion, it is a collectors’ item. It is available at the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, Bangalore (Google Map of the location appended below). Those who wish to order it online may please send an email with their contact details by clicking here.

Address and Directions to reach Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, Bangalore

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