Commemorating Rishi DVG: The Forest-Flower Whose Fragrance Teaches us the Dharma and Yoga of Life
Notes On Culture

Commemorating Rishi DVG: The Forest-Flower Whose Fragrance Teaches us the Dharma and Yoga of Life

A tribute to Sri D.V. Gundappa or DVG on his 133rd birthday

Sandeep Balakrishna

Sandeep Balakrishna

This day marks the 133rd birthday of the contemporary Rishi, D.V. Gundappa or DVG as he is widely and fondly known in Karnataka and among the Kannada-speaking diaspora spread across the globe. DVG continues to occupy the exalted prestige as a torch-bearing philosopher, statesman, journalist, litterateur, visionary, nationalist, and cultural chronicler of the century of Bharatavarsha’s modern Renaissance.

However, beginning roughly after the dark decades of the 1970s up to the present time, DVG became mostly renowned and revered for his magnum opus, Mankutimmana Kagga (Foggy Fool’s Farrago, with no apologies to Shashi Tharoor) a collection of philosophical verses, regarded as the Bhagavad Gita in Kannada.

During his lifetime (1887-1975), DVG untiringly worked in various realms of public life and culture: chiefly in journalism, politics, policy, statesmanship, Dharma, philosophy, literature, education, economics, and social reform. His entire corpus of writing exceeds 12000 pages and is a valuable primary source for understanding the numerous ideas, movements, debates, philosophical and cultural currents, people…in short, the history of India itself as it unfolded during that period. A sharper critic, a clearer intellect, a finely-honed mind, a more compassionate worker, an all-encompassing visionary, and a profounder Karma Yogi is hard to find when we survey the history of that century.

DVG was the epitome of values rooted in the highest traditions of Dharma, which he expounded in theory with a simplicity, clarity and ease that is truly breathtaking. But more importantly, he applied these traditions in practice to all endeavours that he undertook in his life, characterized by Sri Vidyaranya’s famed verse, “Jnanina caritum shakyam samyak raajyaadi laukikam.”

DVG identified himself primarily as a journalist and a student of literature with abiding faith in ancient Indian philosophy from which he drew inspiration throughout his life. His frenetically active and enormously productive years in public life were set in the pre-Independence era, which was characterised by rapid and sweeping changes and challenges in political, social and religious life. His responses to these changes, which manifested themselves in writing, speeches, institutional and on-ground work, were firmly rooted in Vedantic philosophy, which sought to integrate diversity in various realms. Even if one ventured to couch DVG’s entire legacy in less than a sentence, it is this: he was a Philosopher-Nationalist-Statesman of the modern Indian Renaissance.

The Philosophical Outlook of DVG

In his own words, DVG defined the word Tattva (loosely translated as “philosophy” or “tenet”) as “That which is itself.” The revelation of this Tattva at the level of experience maybe called the Brahmanubhava or “all-encompassing universal spiritual experience.” From this definition, it follows that there is no facet of life that is not under the purview of this experience. This conception and understanding is completely contrary to today’s constricting view that the word “experience” merely means one’s own individual, subjective experience purely in the realm of sociology and anthropology and various theories about human beings.

More than seven decades ago, DVG anticipated, rebutted and warned against such restrictive views by showing the exact place of subjective worldly experiences and analyses flowing therefrom. His view admits subjectivity and worldly differences or separateness but only at the level of worldly transaction because these are inevitable. And at times, are necessary evils one must endure and tide over. And, after showing their limitations, DVG provides several hints and guidelines on transcending these differences and attaining philosophical equanimity in this world of differences. Among these guidelines, he advocated the performance of Lokasangraha (or doing good for the larger interest without expectation of reward) and adopting a Yogic conduct in one’s life. The following verse from his classic Mankutimmana Kagga captures the essence and spirit of this Lokasangraha.

ಇರುವ ಕೆಲಸವ ಮಾಡು ಕಿರಿದೆನದೆ ಮನವಿಟ್ಟು ।

ದೊರೆತುದ ಹಸಾದವೆಂದುಣ್ಣು ಗೊಣಗಿಡದೆ ।।

ಧರಿಸು ಲೋಕದ ಭರವ ಪರಮಾರ್ಥವನು ಬಿಡದೆ ।

ಹೊರಡು ಕರೆ ಬರಲಳದೆ ಮಂಕುತಿಮ್ಮ ।।

Work with all your mind without deeming the work insignificant

Eat whatever you get as God's bounty, without complaint

Wear the garb of a mortal, abandoning not the spiritual

When the Final Call sounds, depart without tears – Mankuthimma

DVG understood that worldly differences of superiority and inferiority need not and cannot be completely destroyed. In his memorable words: “we do not want the destruction of differences but the wisdom on how to manage and minimise them.” This wisdom awakens within us a consciousness of values and the gradation of values as Sadhana (Instrumental values) and Atyantika (Absolute values), and helps us develop compassion for the value systems of others.

This is fully consonant with the timeless Indian conception of Dharma of which DVG was one of the foremost advocates. His original coinage of terms like Jeevanadharma and Adhidharma as symbolizing a global ethic of synthesis and cosmic compromise informed and underscored his work in public life. This outlook also enabled him to regard as unifying ingredients, the disparate elements of (1) Matter and Spirit (2) East and West (3) English and Sanskrit (4) Politics and Technology (5) Language and Culture.

Evolution of a Philosopher-Statesman

This worldview of DVG was formed, shaped, and sculpted early in his life by the traditional training he received under eminent scholars and teachers of the time. His native Mulabagilu (near Kolar) was an ample repository of such scholars and had an atmosphere that encouraged the pursuit of lifelong learning and was rooted in traditional Indian culture.

Likewise, during his early years in Bangalore, one such traditional teacher who left a deep impact on him was Mahamahopadhyaya Hanagal Virupaksha Sastri under whose tutelage he learnt Vedanta. In an account honeyed with moving veneration, DVG has expressed his reverence towards this Guru in a dedicated profile in the Jnapaka Chitrashaale (Art Gallery of Memories) volumes.

Exceptional Literary Contributions

DVG’s literary works embrace the vicissitudes of the world, human life, experience, and emotions. One of his favourite words was Jivana (life), and his writings show how making our life elegant inside out is the only gratitude that we can offer to Ishwara.

Indeed, instead of blindly rejecting the notion of God, DVG recognized this notion as an essential value necessary to maintain harmony and a sense of ethics in the larger society. Thus, in most of his writings, he approached the subject in the form of both Sandeha Sukta (Agnosticism or Skepticism) and Shraddha Sukta (Faith or Devotion).

These writings also resonate with a silent undertone of inner inquiry, and effectively use routine instances, easy but vivid metaphors, and symbols drawn from everyday life. One can glean copious examples of the inner spirit that animates these works, examples of which include his epic classic Mankutimmana Kagga, its companion of sorts, Marulamuniyana Kagga, several volumes of his Jnapakachitra Shaale, Jeevana Dharma Yoga, and Baligondu Nambike. DVG himself says that many of his poems are contemplative works.

This spirit of philosophical contemplation and inner inquiry finds expression in the tone of humility whose imprint his entire literary corpus bears. In a 1923 letter to his close friend, he writes in a tenor that is simultaneously blunt and modest:

How could I fall into the error of making a missionary of myself? It is only people wanting in modesty that conceive great ideas of themselves and their so called missions here.

The same attitude is expressed by the last line of a verse in his Mankutimmana Kagga, which exhorts us to “stitch our lips together” and work for the good of the world without being proud or arrogant or showing off our work.

DVG’s philosophy of life was not to impose one’s problems upon the world and indeed, his long, grand life in itself is an illustrious instance—he never lost enthusiasm for life, never wavered in his unstinted optimism amidst his countless financial, health and other hardships. It evokes within us Emerson’s famous quote that an easy life teaches us nothing.

When translated into the literary realm, this enthusiasm reflected itself in the form of “a certain grace and serenity,” to quote from DVG’s letter to Acharya J.B. Kriplani on the “highest use of literature.” For DVG, fine arts, including literature, was not a luxury but an essential component of a robust, refined, and living society. In all these spheres of activity, DVG did not go where the path led but instead to where there was no path and left a trail. His conquest of the uncharted territory was a realization of the high ideals he had set before himself.

Sandeep Balakrishna

DVG’s range of literary output is remarkable by any standards in terms of quality, scope, genre, and quantity. There was almost no genre he left untouched: biography, poetry, drama, translations, and journalism. His literary corpus is a rare blend of philosophy, intellect, and emotion and provides fodder for both inner and higher education.

For instance, his evocative poem honouring India’s foremost scientist, J.C. Bose came at a time when his contemporary litterateurs mostly wrote on patriotic, religious, and nature-based themes. His Padams, Geyaas and original expositions on literary criticism are eminent subjects for study by serious students of literature and philosophy.

His translations and adaptations of great works of world literature—for example, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Omar Khayyam—showed his commitment to bring to the Indian people the best of world literature. Also, when some of his contemporaries translated British literature into Kannada and other Indian languages, DVG disrupted this trend by translating English works written by former colonies of England—for example, selected poems of Walt Whitman and writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Journalism as an Attainable Ideal and National Service

His six decade-long career as a journalist too, is outstanding in its own right. DVG regarded journalism not merely as a public good or the fourth estate of democracy but as a higher calling. His views on and his conception of journalism are encapsulated in a largely overlooked work named Vrittapatrike (Newspaper). Although he looks up to certain pioneers and outstanding journalists of the West such as W.T. Stead, he outraces and stands far taller than them. His conception of journalism is highly original and worthy of emulation. He elevated journalism to the standard of an integral philosophy of life, and did not blindly imitate Western views. It is not an exaggeration to claim that DVG’s journalism was uniquely Indian both in form, content, structure and substance. His editorials, columns, book reviews, essays, anecdotes, short histories, profiles, long forms, and critiques in the Karnataka and The Indian Review of Reviews are a collector’s delight and highly recommended reading for serious journalists and editors.

I highly recommend the interested reader to buy the compilations of his selected essays in the recently published Selected Writings of D.V. Gundappa in two volumes available at the Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs, Bangalore. We owe a debt of gratitude to the compilers, the venerable Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy and the young scholar, B.N. Shashikiran.

Distinguished Service to the Indian Freedom Movement

DVG’s integral view also characterises his distinguished service to the Indian freedom movement and public life. He became the conscience of the literary, social, cultural, and political endeavours of his time by immersing himself in person in these domains.

More importantly, DVG’s public service was not mere armchair theorising. He became one with all sections of the society. His range of interactions, friendships and relationships included tonga drivers, masons, doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, musicians, dancers, devadasis, engineers, swamis, wandering sadhus, social reformers, pamphleteers, educationists, institution builders, scholars, litterateurs, students, journalists, freedom fighters, elected representatives, and Diwans. Every minute facet of society, profession, endeavor, and calling had value for him

The other distinctive marker is the manner in which DVG’s writings reveal a wise amalgam of theory and practice; or more accurately, a beautiful and harmonious marriage between the two. As an example, we can consider the preface to the second edition (1973) of his landmark work, Rajya Shastra (Political Philosophy), where avers that

it is yet to be known how the Communist ideology actually works in Russia. Set aside Government announcements; it is but natural that they [will be] in favour of the Government. But if we need to believe that they are honest, the evidence needs to come from elsewhere. Let the Communist ideology be as it is; under Communist rule, are commodities available in the markets in Russia? [If so], what are the prices? An ordinary clerk, schoolteacher, other people from the middle class, how do they carry on their daily life? What do they do during festivals and holidays? Is the food they eat tasty? We require this sort of investigation.

Small wonder then, that he stood in the biting-cold night of Bangalore to distribute blankets and other items of relief to victims of epidemics like the plague. Or the fact that he became the Purohit who officiated widow remarriages in an era that prohibited it.

This same lofty impulse led him to work hard to contribute to various institutions of lasting value like the Kannada Sahitya Parishad (which later sullied its name thanks to crass politics and pervasive corruption). It also led him to found the iconic Gokhale Institute of Public Affairs (GIPA), Bangalore which is a continuing testimony to his life’s ideals and work.

DVG’s perception and practice of public life and politics was guided by the philosophy of Vedanta, Bhagavad Gita, and by the person of Maharshi Vidyaranya the spiritual inspiration behind the establishment of the Vijayanagara Empire as well as the political-philosophers of ancient Greece. He also drank deep from Gopala Krishna Gokhale’s dictum that “public life must be spiritualized.” A memorable verse that he penned also encapsulates his view of politics and public life:

ರಾಮಣೀಯಕವೆಂದು ಬಿಸುಸುಯ್ಯಲದು ಕವಿತೆ

ಭೂಮಿಗದನೆಟುಕಿಸುವೆನೆಂಬೆಸಕ ರಾಷ್ಟ್ರಕತೆ ||

Who sighs for beauty is a poet;

Who strives for it is a statesman

When one surveys DVG’s writings on politics, it evokes within us a picture of the Maharanya, the spiritual forest of the Vedic ethos. This ethos led a fecund parade of inspiration in DVG’s veins and guided his tireless endeavours in the area. His other classic, Rajyanga Tattvagalu (Principles of Statecraft) begins with the invocation from the Taittirya Brahmana of the Yajur Veda (the portion dealing with the Ashwamedha Yaga), which he fittingly titles as the “National Anthem of the Rishis.”

This Vedic conception of Rashtra (loosely translated as “nation” or “country”) as something that by itself is an ongoing Ashwamedha Yaga is quite profound and evokes a textured tapestry of dynamism, energy, activity, and purpose. This spirit is captured in the concluding verse

Let us be bestowed with auspiciousness, safety, security, and abundance. Through this Yagna, may the citizens be blessed with unity and peace.

In this manner, there is an indivisible relationship between Rashtra and Ashwamedha Yagna, one inextricable from the other.

It is therefore unsurprising that DVG uplifts political philosophy, statecraft, statesmanship, and public life in general to the standard of a Darshana (loosely translated as philosophy) in the finest traditions of Sri Krishna, Kautilya, and Vidyaranya, which holds Dharma as both the pulse and the spirit that guides politics and public life: in institutions as well as people.

Cornerstone of DVG’s Convictions

In general, DVG’s ideals, convictions and his life-work were based on the following mutually complementary elements found in every society and nation’s life:

1. Art and Literature

2. Politics and Government

3. Science, Technology and Economics

4. Philosophy and Life

This view is in contrast with the contemporary perception that regards these elements in isolation, if not as mutually hostile. And DVG was endowed with this holistic and philosophical view precisely for four reasons:

1. His vast erudition spanning several disciplines of study, drawn both from deeply-rooted Indian and Western traditions.

2. The life experiences he sought by immersing himself with people and institutions.

3. His humility and compassion that acted as a sponge from which he absorbed lessons and which in turn yielded the insights that he has given us so generously.

4. His deep-rooted learning and conviction in Vedanta.

It’s thus clear that Gokhale’s dictum of “public life must be spiritualised” found its fruition and practical application in the life and work of DVG. DVG did not favour emotional exhortations, loud proclamations, overnight change, and violent appeals to revolution. His views on any issue impacting national life were characterized by a rare depth and breadth of contemplation after taking into account all facets of the issue at hand, and informed by a high degree of refinement marked by complete selflessness.

Rubbing Shoulders with Giants

In his own time, DVG’s conduct, erudition and integrity were recognised by eminent people drawn from all walks of life. At least three Diwans of the Mysore Princely State—including Sir M. Vishveshwarayya and Sir Mirza Ismail—actively sought his advice on important matters. It was DVG who arranged the first ever visit of Mahatma Gandhi to Bangalore in 1915. It was Mahatma Gandhi who inaugurated the Gokhale Institue of Public Affairs.

“Right Honourable” V.S. Srinivasa Sastri regularly consulted him on various issues and problems related to politics, administration, the Round Table Conference and Responsible Government. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar too, sought his advice on caste and social reform. Almost the entire galaxy of his contemporary Kannada literary stalwarts like A.R. Krishna Sastri, T.S. Venkannayya, Panje Mangeshwara Rao, Devudu Narasimha Sastri, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, K.V. Puttappa, B.M. Srikantaiah, and others held him in high esteem.

Pioneering Study of the Princely States

Another pioneering contribution of DVG is his extensive and in-depth study of the problem of integrating the Princely States into the Indian Union. When it was first published, it was widely discussed at the highest echelons of the then political leadership of India. It is perhaps the most original study of this critical problem, distinguished by an accurate grasp and sense of history, local customs and traditions, and actual ground realities. Without exaggeration, in hindsight, one can say that today, it is a fit subject for several academic theses. DVG himself, in a few writings post-Independence, alludes to this problem tangentially, lamenting the direction Indian politics took after 1947.

His study of the Princely States is a significant milestone and an expression of his conception of Bharatavarsha whose spirit is animated by a sense of timelessness. This spirit is best brought out in DVG’s poem, Swatantrabharata Stava (A Hymn on India’s Independence), written on the very night that Bharata attained Swarajya: “let nobody who is not a warrior or nationalist be born in this noble land,” is one of the refrains therein. It completely resonates DVG’s spirit, which in turn, harks back to the aforementioned Vedic conception of nationalism and patriotism.

Indeed, DVG’s conception of a State in the sense of a “Rajya” or “Rashtra” can be gleaned throughout most of his writings in different genres. This is what he writes in the classic, Rajya Shastra:

A Rajya like a family, is a Dharmakshetra. Just as how a family is an instrument for tempering one’s ego and expanding one’s inner self, a Rajya is a similar instrument. In a manner akin to the attachment one feels for one’s family, attachment to one’s Desha equally provides an opportunity for ripening one’s heart.

Likewise, one can discern the same attitude, which acts like a Sthaibhava (constant feeling or emotion) even in his other acclaimed commentary on the Bhagavad Gita appropriately titled Jeevanadharma Yoga, where he says:

I make my living as a journalist. I camp every day in the market amid noise. Temples and Mathas are far from me...My contact with public life emerged as a result of being glued to journalism. As my experience grew in that field, the relationship between politics and the questions of Dharma gradually began to become clearer to me…eventually, the inevitability of Dharmic literature for the welfare and progress of the nation became even clearer…sans the wisdom to discern Dharma and Adharma, what kind of politics would emerge?...If there is strength and vigour in our ancient works and ideals, it will certainly come back to us on its own in time.

Overall Legacy

Tragically…or more accurately, owing to how far down the abyss we have reached, D.V. Gundappa, the philosopher-nationalist-statesman still awaits the recognition that is his due. Even in Karnataka, DVG’s legacy and eminence is largely restricted to Mankutimmana Kagga, as we noted earlier. An old proverb says that the best way to marginalize a courageous and stellar personality is to anoint him as a saint thereby excluding the whole body of his work from deeper study and concentration. The illusory halo of Bhakti, no matter how exalted, blinds even the genuine seeker to the true philosophical resplendence that lies right behind the zone of the halo. The consequence has been predictable: in the memorable words of the other stalwart, Dr. S.R. Ramaswamy, over the last three decades, “Kagga has become a cottage industry” by itself, much of it filled with nonsensical and ill-informed tropes that does justice neither to Kagga nor DVG himself.

It is essential—and I daresay, mandatory—to read DVG in entirety for a fuller, deeper and more truthful understanding and appreciation of his real contribution and legacy. Living as we do in vastly watered-down times, reading DVG in full is not only important but necessary if not for any other reason than this: he wrote the eyewitness history of a crucial century of India and for the most part, these works continue to languish for want of its deservedly wider, national readership.

This apart, a study of DVG’s life and legacy will provide inspiration for younger generations to understand and pursue the spirit and perennial ideals that bind this ancient land together. In other words, it will show the “gigantic” in this giant.

For serious academicians and scholars, DVG’s volumes will open up new vistas for research and offer a treasure-trove of primary source material to understand and explore various facets and dimensions of the modern Indian Renaissance.

There is no better way to celebrate DVG’s birthday than by embarking anew upon or resuming the studious journey of reading him. An honest person will somehow find an honest way of making a living and merely stop at that by either enduring the drudgery of life or cursing it or drowning in mindless entertainment or consumerism. The fortunate few who discover DVG will instantly find readymade implements and tools to sculpt an enriching life.

धर्मस्य तत्वं निहितं गुहायां

महाजनो येन गतः स पन्थाः ||

The essence of Dharma, truly, is a very subtle secret

The only recourse is to walk in the footsteps of wise men ||

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