Acharya M Hiriyanna: The Joyous Radiance of Sanatana Erudition and Scholarship

A profile and humble tribute to Acharya Mysore Hiriyanna, one of the pristine scholars of Sanatana philosophy and aesthetics
Acharya M Hiriyanna: The Joyous Radiance of Sanatana Erudition and Scholarship

This essay is an exercise in conscious arrogance because it dares to tread in the path enlightened by a galaxy of giants including but not limited to D.V. Gundappa, Dr. V. Raghavan, Prof K. Krishnamurthy, Shri A.R. Krishna Sastri, T.N. Sreekantaiah (Ti.Nam.Sri), and in our own time, Acharya S.R. Ramaswamy and Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh.

On the other hand, this essay is also a modest attempt at a tribute to this great contemporary sage of Indian philosophy out of a feeling of devotion and reverence, emotions which need no qualification.

Arguably, the best profile of Acharya M. Hiriyanna has flowed from the flawless pen of D.V. Gundappa in his Jnapakachitrashale volumes. DVG not only had the fortune of personally interacting with Acharya Hiriyanna but in his characteristic fashion, captured the finest, truest and sweetest essence of this scholar-philosopher in the fashion, style and beauty that only he had mastered. And Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh continued the same legacy in his brilliant and aptly-titled work, Aardrajyothi (Soft Luminance), a Kannada biography of Acharya Hiriyanna.

Any mention of Acharya M. Hiriyanna’s glorious legacy will be incomplete and unjust if it examines only some or a few facets. His contribution and bequest is akin to Sanatana Dharma: a unified whole, indivisible and all-encompassing. Acharya Hiriyanna remains one of those rare scholars whose life, work, scholarship and personality are akin to the light reflected by a prism no matter from which perspective you look at it. One perspective is that of the legions of his students who not only trod in his path but reserved nothing but unalloyed reverence towards this great Acharya. Of the countless tributes he earned, here are just two.


The first is by his direct disciple, the renowned Kannada poet Sri P.T. Narasimhacharya (Pu.Ti.Na), who provides a very reverential picture of his Guru.

Guru Hiriyanna was a Sthitaprajna in every sense of the term. He exhibited the quality of an Abhijatapurusha—one who gives his gifts in such a way that none except the donor knows it; in whom fortune does not breed arrogance; and who is intensely devoted to learning. To me, Guru Hiriyanna is an ideal Indian, rooted in his own culture; he did not allow western thought and culture to destroy his identity as an Indian.

The second is by another equally brilliant student, N. Shivarama Sastry who paints an evocative portrait of his Guru.

By nature modest…he withdrew into himself so completely that he lived a life to which he gave his all, but from which he would himself ask for nothing. Devoted almost entirely to his studies and shunning publicity, he lived a life of seclusion in a strange world of spiritual hush and always spoke in a soft, subdued voice as if noise would break the charm of it. He worked always…silently and alone…He did not seek recognition and felt embarrassed when it came.

Indeed, Acharya M. Hiriyanna remained the same sthitaprajna when he began his career as a humble, unrecognized librarian at the Mysore Oriental Library and when he was handpicked as a Sanskrit lecturer by the extraordinary administrative genius and educator, H.V. Nanjundaiah, the first vice chancellor of the Mysore University. As librarian, he collected, curated, and compiled 1358 rare and ancient Kannada and Sanskrit manuscripts and 1653 printed works. As lecturer, he rubbed shoulders with titans such as Radhakumud Mookerji and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan.

Method of Scholarship and Preparation

The third tribute is by the selfsame contemporary Rishi, DVG in his inimitable, intimate and insightful profile of M. Hiriyanna in the aforementioned Jnapaka Chitrashale volumes. It is also my personal favourite. It is less of a written work than a fabulous showcase of the deep learning, wide range of scholarship and the Himalayan dignity of M. Hiriyanna. Indeed, it is impossible to resist recounting a tidbit from DVG’s profile.

When DVG expressed his doubt regarding the precise meaning of the Sanskrit word, nīlalohita, Acharya Hiriyanna invited him home and showed him the notes he had made regarding the meaning, usage, contexts, and expressions of just this one word. The notes filled three student notebooks. Yet, Acharya Hiriyanna was careful to not pronounce a “final judgement” on its exact meaning but merely told DVG that, “we can think and contemplate further.” It shouldn’t be forgotten that when this incident occurred, the Acharya had already earned worldwide renown in the scholarly circles of Sanskrit and what is known as Indology.

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Acharya M Hiriyanna: The Joyous Radiance of Sanatana Erudition and Scholarship

This was the Acharya’s method of both self-learning, scholarship and teaching. A razor-sharp focus on every single word, sentence, and passage. He would study all available literature, make elaborate, exhaustive notes, and contemplate on each word before opening his mouth in class or putting his pen to paper. It is this approach and practice that gives that rare and nearly inimitable quality to his writing: where others take an entire page or more, he takes just a sentence. While this extraordinary standard of thorough preparation remained unbroken throughout his formal teaching life, it was not restricted to it. Quite the contrary.

As an Acharya in the true Guru-Shishya tradition, M. Hiriyanna was readily available to his students at all times. To those genuine students who sought his guidance, he would invite them home at a specific time—given his meticulousness as a strict but calm disciplinarian—and would be ready to offer his guidance with the same level of preparation. He was that Guru who would be at his gate waiting for the student to arrive. If the student was late, he would forever lose the pleasure and insights that would flow from that informal class.

Quest for Perfection

Acharya M. Hiriyanna’s approach to and sadhana of lifelong learning and scholarship can be described by borrowing the title of one of his own masterly books: A Quest for Perfection. It was an inner calling. A prime reason for his fine-grained thoroughness was to arrive at yathartha—the True State of Meaning or Being. Which is a dynamic process of filtering out the filth, the extraneous, the unnecessary, the prejudice, and every other distraction. Akin to the famous sculptor who said that he merely chipped off the unnecessary portions of the rock so that the sculpture revealed itself in all its beauty.

Ideal Guru

Acharya M. Hiriyanna was the ideal teacher or Guru or Acharya in the truest sense of the word. He was the scholar’s scholar and the preceptor’s preceptor, producing at least two generations of scholars and teachers such as T.N. Sreekantaiah, Yaamunacharya (who was also the teacher of Dr. S L Bhyrappa), N. Shivarama Sastri, A.R. Krishna Sastri, P.T. Narasimhacharya, and G. Hanumantha Rao among others. He also guided that other blazing scholar and expert on Indian Aesthetics, the prolific Dr. V. Raghavan. These scholars were the real-life examples of Acharya M Hiriyanna’s immortal line that the “true aim of Indian education is not to inform the mind but to form it.”

Acharya M Hiriyanna’s teaching knew no retirement age. On a more profound plane, M. Hiriyanna as a preceptor and Acharya reveals to all of us living in the present time a glaring virtue; glaring because it is largely absent—the virtue of Vyaktiprabhava or the transformative force of personal conduct of a teacher. N. Shivarama Sastri observes in the foregoing tribute to his Guru how M. Hiriyanna’s students knew more about him than his own relatives did. It is for this reason also that he was widely revered as the Sage of the Maharaja College, Mysore. No student or seeker of knowledge who came to him returned with an empty stomach. They returned with a fuller intellect and an enriched inner life.

To earn this kind of preeminence is no small feat when we consider the fact that Acharya M. Hiriyanna lived in the prime of the era of the Modern Indian Renaissance (roughly the century between the mid 19th – mid 20th century), which was populated by such colossuses as P.V Kane, Balagangadhara Tilak, R.G. Bhandarkar, Ganganath Jha, V.S. Sukhthankar, S. Kuppuswami Sastri, and traditional Pandits like Kunigal Ramasastri, Hanagal Virupaksha Sastri, Bellamkonda Ramaraya Kavi, etc.

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Acharya M Hiriyanna: The Joyous Radiance of Sanatana Erudition and Scholarship

A Model of Sanatana Erudition

At the present time, Acharya M. Hiriyanna is perhaps one of the most brilliant models and guides available to us to study and learn about the erudition, art, and craft of how we can reinvigorate and preserve the continuity between the best ideals and traditions of Sanatana Bharatavarsha and respond to ideas informed by the onslaught of Western ideas, trends and fashions. Indeed, few scholars and thinkers of his era had the ability and equipment to make Sanatana wisdom and philosophy ever-relevant, in a timeless sense, to any age with such economy of words, lucidity of thought and such grace in expression.

For example, when he writes that “Vedanta is the art of right living more than a system of philosophy,” we are left speechless at the simple, truthful profundity of this statement. We also intuitively grasp the truth that it takes a lifetime of dedicated penance to arrive at such simple acuity. In fact, an honest study of Acharya M Hiriyanna’s body of work is a great education in and by itself as to how to think and write clearly, patiently, and truthfully.

Strictly compared to some of his more prolific peers, Acharya M. Hiriyanna’s body of writing is not much but it is qualitatively substantial and offers highly original insights into some fundamental areas such as Vedanta, Aesthetics, and the Sanatana Value System. His perennial classics include The Essentials of Indian Philosophy, Outlines of Indian Philosophy, The Quest for Perfection and Art Experience. Apart from their lasting value, these works are a treasure-chest of quotable quotes on various aspects of Indian philosophy and Aesthetics.

Acharya M. Hiriyanna as an Antidote to Western Indology

Then, we have another sphere in which Acharya Hiriyanna not only becomes relevant, he urgently becomes inevitable—today more than ever before. This is in the domain known as Indology, Indic Studies and such other abhorrent terminology applied to a truly noble discipline, which should be called by its proper name: Darshana Sastra.

Today, this sphere resembles a political and ideological battlefield and not an academic discipline by any definition of the term. Over the last seven decades, it has largely been hijacked by Western political, imperialistic and bigoted ideologues and their Indian foot soldiers. Barring a handful, there is a near-vacuum of authentic and penetrating scholarship that can counter these ideologues in the garb of academics and offer an authoritative and genuine homegrown alternative rooted in truth and pure philosophy, not ideology.

When we contrast this dismal scenario with the calm, confident, and systematic manner in which Acharya M Hiriyanna debunked and demolished a prolonged queue of Western Indologists beginning with Max Mueller, we can only remain wistful today.

Indeed, Acharya Hiriyanna’s stoic but stinging rebuttal of Max Mueller’s arrogant claim that the “Hindu mind had no conception of beauty in nature” is a pioneering critique and a classic in its own right. To set the record straight, it should be said that what Max Mueller exhibited was not scholarship but imperial arrogance rooted in racism. Indeed, the glaring trait and lacuna of Western Indologists right from Max Mueller up to Diana Eck and Sheldon Pollock is this: a clinical coldness and an emotional opacity that admits no light because their approach to studying Indian traditions, culture, and philosophy is that of a zoologist who is trained in and skilled at cutting up and dissecting a living frog. Or it is the approach of a museum curator or an archeologist who digs up dead things.

In fact, Acharya M. Hiriyanna had himself warned of and predicted this danger in his own lifetime in his characteristic style more than eighty years ago:

Owing to the impact of hostile forces and the growing secularization of life, there is a great risk of the true Indian ideal being obscured and even lost.

Which is why he called for a “class of patriots” who would honestly, patiently, study and “interpret the past so as to throw light on the right manner in which Bharata’s reconstruction should proceed.”

At this distance in time, we can confidently say that Acharya Hiriyanna’s body of work and legacy are themselves fine models of how this reconstruction should proceed. Hiriyanna’s work is mandatory reading especially for (well-meaning, no doubt) people who seek to understand Indian philosophy through miracles, mysticism, and meaningless quest for dates and phenomena rather than a quest for perfection that Acharya M Hiriyanna has poignantly expounded upon. The model and the precept set by this Acharya, the training that he espouses is compulsory in the contemporary period if we wish to develop cultural self-confidence.

Once again, DVG sketches an outline of Acharya Hiriyanna’s early training that enabled him to emerge as a solid philosopher and unparalleled scholar to say the least.

Sri Hiriyanna learned Sanskrit in the traditional fashion…As a student at the Sadvidyashala [in Mysore], he mastered the Amarakosha and Dhatu lessons by memorizing them and passed out with high grades. It is only after this learning that he acquired English education. The strength of this traditional foundational mastery blazed forth in Sri Hiriyanna’s scholarship…It was a scholarship that went right to the roots and was endowed with high integrity.

Tragically, this kind of fundamental training and solid approach is largely lost today because it was deliberately ignored and shunned due to various reasons after independence, and in the last forty years or so, we continue to churn out all kinds of theories and indulge in pointless intellectual acrobatics in an otherwise noble and virtuous area of study. Further details on this point are irrelevant to this essay.

Finally, there’s an even profounder and fundamental reason why Acharya M. Hiriyanna is relevant not just in the contemporary period but in a timeless sense as I mentioned earlier: for the sheer optimism he inspires. We can quote his own words:

The procession that went forth in the age of the Mahabharata and later passed out of sight is now returning.

Written more than eighty years ago. This level of optimism infuses great strength, inspiration, and motivation for the lay person, the casual reader, the interested aficionado, the serious student and the accomplished scholar in equal measure.

It must be remembered that Acharya Mysore Hiriyanna produced his body of unparalleled and pioneering work in an India colonized by the British. I shall leave the rest unsaid.

|| महाजनो येन गतः स पन्थाः ||


To those who are interested to read and pursue Acharya M. Hiriyanna’s body of stellar work, the fine folks at Prekshaa Journal have published exquisitely bound volumes of his books and essays under the Mysore Hiriyanna Library series and The Best of Hiriyanna. You can visit Prekshaa Journal to buy them.

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