The self-taught musicologist, reviewer, art critic and prolific collector of rare music records, V.A.K. Ranga Rao once memorably declared his barely-concealed contempt for “big degree-holders with acronyms prefixed and suffixed to their names” in his typical acerbic style. Such degrees, in his informed jurisprudence of criticism, arm a person with errors. His job was that of a washerman, a Dhobi who takes the works of such degree-holding scholars, pounds them on the stone, washes them, dries them in the sun, irons and returns the clothes to the owner.
In other words, V.A.K. Ranga Rao was expounding the approach, method and robustness of the scholarship of our ancients using this rather graphic real-life illustration.
In fact, till the mad, blind rush for acquiring and treating a PhD as a marker of omniscience became an epidemic, this quality of scholarship was regarded as definitive. In his Jnapakachitrashale and other writings, DVG beautifully delineates the unparalleled glory of this traditional scholarship reflected in action. Lamentably, today, even traditional Sanskrit and Vedic scholarship has largely fallen prey to this acronym-hunting viral strain. It is akin to trading unalloyed gold for plated tin.
Āsthāna vidvān, “Brahmasri” H.P. Venkata Rao belonged to this class of traditional scholars. Like thousands of such scholars, he too, would have lived and died unnoticed and in obscurity but for the Jayachamarajendra Vedaratnamatala volumes. Similarly, his life and career typifies these thousands of traditional scholars in that they were the generational victims of an “educational” phenomenon where Sanskrit and Vedic vidvāns were reduced to becoming pathetic clerks serving the plunder-apparatus set up by the colonial British. The heart aches and emotion overtakes us when we read the rather detailed accounts of the cruelty these upholders of Sanatana culture had to undergo: it was a suffering more heartless than physical torture precisely because it didn’t hurt the body but vacuumed the spirit.
H.P. Venkata Rao underwent the traditional Pathashala training and distinguished himself as a ghanapāṭi of eminence in both the Rg and Yajur Vedas. However, this education didn’t fetch him a livelihood. And so, he was reduced to passing the British-mandated Intermediate and Sub-Overseer examination in the English language. He also sat for and passed the Revenue Higher Secondary examination and took a job as a Revenue Inspector and Sub-Overseer, i.e., basically supervising tax collection on behalf of the British Government.
However, each day spent in Government service only heightened his melancholy. Eventually, his Vedic Samskara triumphed and he quit the job that was keeping him away from his cherished Veda.
Vidvān H.P. Venkata Rao opted for the hard life amidst adverse circumstances. He started life afresh and began copying in elegant handwriting, our sacred literature from old manuscripts written on palm leaves on to paper. It was a highly intensive and demanding task that called for multifaceted expertise. A thorough knowledge of the Devanagari, “Old” Kannada and Telugu scripts apart from having a solid command over these languages were the minimum mandatory qualifications. He rendered some of the texts into English as well. Unlike photocopying which faithfully spits out both junk and value, this work had to not only be beautiful, but valuable and error-free. Even a misspelling meant that he had to rewrite the entire sentence or page afresh. In this sacred journey, H.P. Venkata Rao copied lakhs of Granthas in letters that resembled pearls. One Grantha was thirty-two letters set to the Anushtup metre. His fees? Just Four Rupees for one thousand Granthas. Although this sum was not bad for that era, given the demanding qualification for and the sheer ardour involved in the job, it was practically dirt-cheap. We can’t help noticing the sad irony: a formidable ghanapāṭi being reduced to a mere copyist notwithstanding the fact that he regarded it as a devout calling. The same comment is applicable to that other towering Vidvān Motaganahalli Subrahmanya Sastri—his contemporary who worked in the Granthamala endeavour—who was paid Two Rupees for translating one thousand Slokas.
Those who have seen Vidvān Venkata Rao’s alluring handwriting have written glowing testimonies about how its beauty surpassed that of even printed texts. These copies were preserved at the Mysore Oriental Library. I am not sure if they are still there or if they’ve been swept away by secular-minded Hindus.
Sri Siddhalinga Swami’s fortuitous acquaintance with Vidvān Venkata Rao was the precise moment that crystallized the landmark Vedaratnamala volumes. On the Swami’s recommendation, Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar appointed H.P. Venkata Rao as general editor for the volumes at a rather generous remuneration.
As we have seen earlier, this was part of the formation of the team styled Vēdavimarśana vidvanmaṇḍali or Committee of Vedic Scholars. H.P. Venkata Rao’s immediate deputy was the other Vedic colossus, Vidvān G.N. Chakravarthy. The Vyakarana (Grammar) Vidvān “Brahmasri” Lakshmanacharya was in charge of the grammatical expositional nuances of the Rg Veda Samhita. In all, the initial core team comprised nine scholars, the cream of the cream. It was a phenomenal mix of the topmost scholarship required to translate the Rg Veda Samhita into Kannada and English. Scholars of this core team included the following: “Brahmasri-s” G. Vishnumurti Bhatta, H. Gangadhara Sastri, Srinivasa Sastri, Hittavalli Bilirangaa Jois, Hittavalli Devara Bhatta, Venkataramanachar, S. Ranganathan, Puttur Anantakrishnamachar, and S. Sitarama Sastri.
Apart from this core team, scores of unnamed scholars assiduously worked to make the sacred initiative a completed reality. In true Sanatana spirit, they requested to remain anonymous.
The next and final episode of this series will narrate the full story of the actual process of what is known as project execution in contemporary parlance.
To be continued
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