Jadunath Sarkar's Attachment to Sanskrit Literature and his Encyclopaedic Memory

In this episode, G.S. Sardesai narrates Jadunath Sarkar's abiding love for Sanskrit literature and provides real-life anecdotes of his encyclopaedic memory and sweep of history.
Jadunath Sarkar's Attachment to Sanskrit Literature and his Encyclopaedic Memory

In this series

Jadunath Sarkar's Attachment to Sanskrit Literature and his Encyclopaedic Memory
Jadunath Sarkar as I Know Him: A Heartfelt Portrait of the Great Acharya by his Close Friend, G.S. Sardesai
Jadunath Sarkar's Attachment to Sanskrit Literature and his Encyclopaedic Memory
Journeys with Knowledge: G.S. Sardesai's Notes from Travels with Jadunath Sarkar

THOUGH JADUNATH HAS MASTERED several modern Indian and foreign languages, particularly French and Portuguese, none stands nearer to his heart than the treasures of Sanskrit literature. He withdraws himself occasionally from the fatigue of the Mughal Akhbarat into the company of Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti giving a loose rein to his mind and memory either to sail with the Cloud Messenger (Meghadutam) to Alaka, or ramble with disconsolate Ramachandra moistening with a lover’s tears the banks of the mourning Malini and her forest-girt grottos echoing with the sweet memories of his exile; or occasionally to the waterfall of Maha-Kosi in the company of gods to solicit Parvati of her father as the bride of Shiva madly in love with her in Kumarasambhavam.

During one of our historical tours, we were going round the ruins of Vijayanagar when the frieze of stone carvings in the hall of the Sahasra Rama-Swami temple arrested our attention. I asked Jadunath what some of those figures could be. He paused for a while and began citing from Raghuvamsam without any effort those verses that describe Parasurama’s challenge to Rama on his way to Mithila and his discomfiture by Rama. He then explained to me that the artist who engraved this scene must have had in his mind this description of Kalidasa to feed his imagination and guide his chisel. Jadunath's critical skill and command of Sanskrit helped me in recovering the readings of a badly mutilated copy of some 250 sheets of a manuscript of Paramananda’s Siva-bharatam photographed for me. I despaired of the hopeless job, but Jadunath would not. He spent a month on reading those sheets and bringing out some kind of order out of chaos.

Jadunath Sarkar's Attachment to Sanskrit Literature and his Encyclopaedic Memory
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Jadunath's Memory and Encyclopaedic Learning

One morning in April 1949 at Kamshet when we both were engaged in our usual literary work oblivious of the march-past of a year of the Indian Calendar and the dawn of the New Year’s Day of another, a party of boys of the Kamshet Residential School accompanied by their Headmaster greeted us with their New Year’s compliments and asked for our blessings and a message for the Hindu New Year. While I was hesitating what appropriate words I should write for them, Jadunath quietly pulled out a piece of paper, and wrote on it in his own hand a line from the Heliodorus pillar inscription at Bhilsa (cir. 130 B.C.) which means that the best religion consists in carrying into practice self-restraint, self-sacrifice and right thinking. What more fitting message from Ancient India could a venerable Guru give to Modern India than these words of Paramabhagavata Heliodorus, a Greek ambassador from Taxila to the Court of Vidisa!

The Headmaster and his boys and I myself no less, were highly struck by the powerful memory and the depth of Jadunath’s learning even beyond his sphere of specialization. This is what in Sanskrit is called Upasthita Vidya or knowledge at one’s beck and call as opposed to Pustakastha Vidya or knowledge within the lock-up of books and manuscripts, which fails at the hour of need (Karya-kale samutpanne) like money kept in another’s custody.

Memory is the first gift of a genius in any field of statecraft or letters, whether they are illiterates like Akbar and Shivaji, Haider Ali or Ranjit; or highly erudite men like Macaulay and Mill, Shankaracharya or Sayana. Sir Jadunath’s memory is a natural gift from childhood it seems, not only retentive but also selective. Those who like me had the privilege of knowing Jadunath at close quarters with a rare opportunity to have a peep into the treasure-vault of his mind, always guarded by the triple gates of brass of forbidding reserve and calculated silence— will bear me out that his memory is not a lumber-room but a neatly arranged chamber of pigeon-holes of information which his disciplined mind and discriminating brain sift and preserve with thoroughness and foresight. He is equally at home with East and West from ages past and present in the field of polite literature and fine arts, which are so accurately caught in the reflection of his mind. But Jadunath is not a believer in magic or- anything super-human in him. His only answer is that there is nothing extraordinary in his achievements, which are nothing but the reward of his hard labour and harder thinking on the affairs of man.

An Example

I cannot resist here the temptation of describing only one of the many surprises Jadunath gave me in his relaxing mood. One evening when I happened to be his guest at Darjeeling, his daughter and daughter-in-law went to see a picture showing Queen Victoria and her ministers in it. I accompanied the ladies, but Sir Jadunath did not venture out in the cold of a raw and rainy night as he was then suffering from cold. We returned at midnight and slept. Early morning next day we sat round a small fire for taking tea and watching the boiling pot. Jadunath asked his daughter what she thought of the picture. The historian’s daughter scenting criticism politely submitted that the picture was about something of Queen Victoria and her ministers which was not historically true. At this the historian began surveying the whole reign of Queen Victoria in a nutshell. He presented us with so vivid a word portrait of the Queen and her ministers, Melbourne, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone and others with a few but sure human touches that the shadows of the dead seemed to pass in procession before us. An hour glided by unnoticed and it was the most valuable treat I ever had had in English history. Geography not only of India but of the world is one of the strongest plates in the armour of this knight of the Muses.

Jadunath Sarkar's Attachment to Sanskrit Literature and his Encyclopaedic Memory
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What one cannot extract from Jadunath in a serious lecture or formal address flows lucidly from his talks when he is in an easy relaxing mood. I have only a few days perhaps to remember many a pleasant random talk with Jadunath in the cool evenings in the verandah of our house in the sleepy hollow of Kamshet. It gave me very great pleasure to recite to him abhangs of Marathi poet-saints knowing full well that he would cap them with similar passages or parallels from the gems of English literature or from his favourites, Rabindranath and Kalidasa, saying smilingly “the time of the wise passes in wooing poetry.”

To be continued

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