AT THE MINIMUM, TWO GENERATIONS of Indians have not heard V.S. Srinivasa Sastri’s name. However, for about three full decades, he was a household name at least in urban India and in the educated circles, was an object of reverence. In political circles, both in the (original) Indian National Congress and the British Government, his word carried the authority of a command. He carried on the work of the freedom struggle in what can truly be called a polished manner. A tireless worker in service of Bharata-Mata, a polymath, and endowed with Himalayan erudition and deep empathy, he was a genuine statesman who elevated politics to the standard of art. An oblique measure of his prowess can be gauged from this quote from a letter that Mohandas Gandhi wrote to him:
The title “Right Honourable” that the colonial British awarded him was in recognition of his innate virtue, fair play, and transparency despite what his critics said about his partiality to the foreign ruler.
He actually taught the English language to the British. It led Thomas Smart to call him a “silver-tongued orator.”
Srinivasa Sastri’s younger contemporary, an equally iconic legend, DVG has written perhaps the best biography of V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, his long-time companion, mentor and well-wisher. An English translation of this work is available at Prekshaa Journal as a series. Start with Part One.
Srinivasa Sastri was also a prolific writer and orator churning out hundreds of speeches and essays on an extraordinary range of topics including but not limited to politics, literature, education, English grammar, Hindu society, international relations, and his most favourite topic: Srimad Ramayana. He wrote in all the acclaimed and popular newspapers and magazines and journals of his time.
The following are excerpts from an essay titled Books that Influenced Me written just a few months before his demise. Its value is both educational and inspirational, and provides a good model for those interested in honing their skills of expression. It can and should be prescribed for students who wish to learn the fine art of writing lucid prose in English.
I am not a man of one book or a few select books. That is to say, there are no favourite bonks to which I go again and again for inspiration or leisure. Even the Ramayana I do not read daily. I have read quite a lot in my time, though my taste is not so comprehensive or indiscriminate as that of many whom l know. For instance, my old friend Professor K B Ramanathan who found the day too short for his reading, was omnivorous. From him I took many tips. One of them it is interesting to recall. Of railway novels and detective fiction, he was no lover. Whatever the original noise the book made, he would say, “let us wait for a year and see if it maintains its vogue.” I have known many persons to whom the reading of these books is like smoking or chewing, a habit that gains hold over them and must be indulged without pause. Like our nitya karma its interruption brings unhappiness, while its performance ceases to be a lively enjoyment. Never fond of them, I have now come to look upon them as a tempting sin and grudge them even an hour of my time. From boyhood, books have been to me more than a learned interest or purveyors of useful knowledge. When they are of some real merit, I have consciously let them govern my conduct and clarify my notions of right and wrong. In a sense it is true every book makes you wiser and imperceptibly affects your sense of life’s values. But I often took agood book more seriously. I would close it while in the act of reading and attempt to digest its lessons and send the new thoughts coursing round my mental frame and assimilate them to be part of my inner being. In my boyish immaturity, I remember Edgeworth’s Moral Tales and Popular Tales helped my growth in this way. From Smiles’ books Self-Help and Character I somehow turned away by instinct. Though I could not formulate the grounds of my repugnance, I fancy their tautology and pompous preaching repelled me. At a certain age, even a child wishes to eat with its own fingers and not out of the maternal spoon.
A book’s influence takes many shapes. In some cases it dazzles you by sheer skill of presentation. Your admiration is roused and your fancy tickled, but no lasting benefits seem to accrue. Take De Quincey for example. His pages are a lure, but I cannot testify that they add real profit to the mind or enhance one’s power of expression. At the other end are treasures of literature which affect you profoundly, but whose influence on your attitude to life or your conduct it is difficult to trace precisely. I would place in this category the great plays of Shakespeare and moving orations like those of Burke. Who can escape the instruction of Scott’s novels or the edification of George Eliot’s? Wordsworth, Tennyson and Browning go deeper down in your nature and shape it to finer issues. I have felt the spell of these and other writers and should be much the poorer if by any chance I lost what they have given me. But I understand my business today is to mention the books that, above all others, have made me what I am, furnished my mind with its best material, directed my habits and modes of thought, and informed my spirit with its characteristic aims and ideals. Such sources of mental and moral inspiration can be but few, and I should find it no easy task to define exactly or evaluate what they have done for me. I trust my readers would bring their own particular experience from its intimate recesses to understand and judge mine. Their charity and their indulgence to a fellow-traveller in the jungle of life I take for granted.
A word of qualification is necessary before I begin an account of the sources from which flow the main elements of my build. Guidance to others is foreign to my purpose. I do not venture to suggest that you should drink from the fountains where I slaked my thirst. My amrita may be your poison. Like theories and modes, books change from age to age, and for the nutriment of the mind it is idle to expect our children to resort to the same foods that we ate. I have often expressed wonder that the school books now in fashion differ so vastly from the ones on which we were brought up. The curricula of Universities are modified so slightly from year to year that we hardly notice, the change, but within a generation they accumulate formidably and make a revolution. Both in substance and in manner, the education of today differs from mine to such an extent that I marvel at the continuity that seems to bind in one whole the process by which the generations link themselves together. Is it a fact that the seminal books of the world are but a few and that in one form or in another they alone have been the firm rock on which in differing periods of history differing philosophies, differing moralities, and differing sciences have been erected? Sometimes I think Yes and sometimes No. Books for a time and books for all time—are there really two such classes?
The Iliad and the Ramayana can never die, so say our idealists. The Vedas, we swear, had no beginning and will have no end. Grand conceptions these, which it were vandalism to examine historically or appraise scientifically. To how few of the world’s population of nearly two thousand million do they mean anything? In our own homes they have long ceased to be a direct means of enlightenment, and where they are, exist only in translations, in unconnected fragments which hide more than they reveal. If then I name a few authors who have taught me the essence of what I know and believe, I do not pretend even for a moment that you cannot find other or better guides to the world’s wisdom.
Knowledge of scientific truths, though it shifts from time to time, is foundational. All other knowledge rests on it and is fortified by it. The most authoritarian of our Vedic preceptors put observation and experience above the word. Every one of uswho has been to school will recall the wonders which dawned upon him in the science classes, destroying right and left many fondly cherished superstitions. When I was first introduced to science books, I grasped, with a sureness which astonishes me as I recall it, the scientific spirit, that is the spirit of scientific inquiry which doubts and questions and shrinks from generalising beyond the ascertained facts. Tyndall’s Lectures opened my eyes first to the true methods of science. Another book of those early days which a permanent turn to my thought was a Collection of T H Huxley’s writings and speeches containing a marvellous exposition of Man’s Place in Nature. Harder food followed in a few years from the same source. Few people will remember now that the English Men of Letters series includes a volume on Hume from the pen of Huxley.
Hume’s life is dismissed in a brief chapter and the rest of the book is a gripping exposition of philosophy. It was a pity I had not learned at college the elements of metaphysics and I would go so far as to say that liberal education is defective without an analysis of the workings of the human mind. As I applied my untutored mind to the doctrines under examination, I remember the slowness of my progress, and the despair that often crushed me. But I had intellectual pride and a firm belief that perseverance can conquer mountains. So I used to take the volume, repair to a corner free from disturbance, cop the sentences again and again read before and after, and to my good luck, experience those thrills of joy which attend mental conquests, and which, whether at that moment or in retrospect, transcend all human pleasure. My progress was necessarily interrupted and uncertain. In the end, however, by dint of hard reflection and meditation, I mastered the book, and the gain to my knowledge and power of consecutive thought was incalculable.
Several years later, Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics added a concluding chapter to this aspect of my education. Written in his most mature and attractive style, it seems to supply a corrective to his original teachings but, properly studied, it is only a supplement thereto. From the purely literary point of view, it is a masterpiece which I would commend to my younger readers.
To category belong Herbert Spencer's Sociology and John Stuart Mill’s Subjection of Women, On Liberty, and Three Essays on Natural Religion. I have not freshened up my memory for the occasion. The impressions now recorded are those left on my mind when I last read them. It would obviously be inappropriate to ascribe past preferences to present feelings. Spencer overwhelmed me by the wealth of material on any point gathered from all departments of human interest, and the touch of emotion that here and there warmed the treatment of his subject. Mill struck me as more economical and selective in the use of words and perhaps not so copious of illustration. Recapture of my wonderment is not possible. All I can now recall is that I was journeying in a region of captivating ideas, at the same time subtle and precise, imponderable and well-defined. To the extent that I am exact in thought and lucid in its presentation, and that my management of a topic is just, comprehensive and helpful to the reader, I owe the virtues to the influence of these mighty teachers.
The foundations of my moral and spiritual nature were laid by a large number of books, of which I will select three for the depth and pervasiveness of their teaching. The Meditations of Marius Aurelius stirred me deeply by their utter sincerity and high-souled philanthropy. Curious ns it may seem, Tolstoy took me captive by his The Kingdom of God is within You. I remember how the revelation came on me with a rush. Much that I have read since in English and Sanskrit is fully on a level with it, but the way it carried the citadel of my heart is an abiding memory, which I would not lose for the world. Tess of the D'Urbervilles gave a vision, as bright as it was clear, of a problem that had long been vexing me, and for the first time in my experience, set the position of women in correct perspective. Hardy, I have no doubt, meant to startle a convention-ridden and heartless world to a consciousness of the essence of chastity by his sub-title "The Story of a Pure Woman." It is audacious, but he makes it out to be just and proper. The taint is inflicted on Tess while she is hardly aware of what is happening and, the sinister consequence following, she has to pay the severest penalty that is exacted of her sex. Society is no doubt heartless in such cases, but Hardy makes society almost fiendish in its persecution of poor Tess. The victim of a cruel wrong, her subsequent life of high purpose and good deeds does not avail her, and at the end disaster, black and utter disaster, overtakes her until it seems to the reader that Tragedy herself must be horrified. Our Ahalya, who is in a way suggested to our thoughts by the story of Tess, escapes lightly in comparison, though her sin was committed consciously for the rapture of it. If we reduced the Ramayana scale to human proportions, her penance cleansed her soon enough, and it needed only Rama’s touch to restore the unsullied charm, that Brahma had given her at birth. Hindu society has treated her with divine indulgence. She is placed first among the five good women whose names have only to be remembered once a day to rid us of our grossest sins. Only one of these, Mandodari has a perfectly white record. Sita had a whisper against her, however unjust. Draupadi had more husbands than one. The last one Tara, if she is the wife of Brihaspati, was unfaithful; if she is the Ramayana heroine, changed her husband three times. To say the least, this is a perplexing galaxy of good women. Yet I am persuaded that it is indicative of a highly tolerant and understanding attitude towards woman, which dates back to a very early period in our story. How time and custom have hardened our hearts today! We have forgotten the natural standards of the early time and become the slaves of false ideas utterly inconsistent with our nature human beings. The springs of character would be purified, conduct would be regulated justly, and life would happy all round, if the relations between men and women could be based on mutual forbearance and understanding as in olden times and forgiveness and tolerance were regarded as excellences not only in wives but equally in husbands.
Society is judged from several angles in Les Miserables. The story is one of the great epics of the world, the events and characters alike are cast in large moulds, and the sensitive reader is instructed, edified, scolded, exhorted, and by every possible means, shaped to be fit for a happier world than he now knows. Out of this vast storehouse of experience and history we carry away just so much wisdom as we are capable of. But there is no one, however exalted, however wise, however powerful, who can leave a study of this book without being summoned with the compelling majesty of supernatural law to the recognition of a more humane code of behaviour and a more altruistic sense of duty. If any one of my readers has not yet read this book, I bid him, with the authority that belongs to age and knowledge of the deeps and shoals of life, to get hold of a copy at once and benefit to the full by the treasures that its pages enshrine.
One immortal product of the human mind I have kept to the end. The Ramayana I hold to be almost without a rival in the world’s literature. Whether we judge by the grandeur of the theme, by the variety of characters portrayed, by the tone of its idealism, of by the appeal that it makes to the devout heart, it ranks, amongst the noblest monuments of poetic genius. To those who cannot read it in the original, I would unhesitatingly recommend resort to translations. Even through media the narrative shines with rich brilliance.
The sanctity of Rama’s word once given, abandoning his wife, Lakshmana, and even life itself was preferable to abandoning a promise. For Dharma, inexorable Dharma, came to him in diverse forms. His personal honour and the purity of the Ikshvaku race were inextricably mixed and no sacrifice was too great to preserve it. Twice when his queen’s name was called in question, he threw her to the wolves. Then Lakshmana’s life lay in forfeit when he left his post of duty under the cruel compulsion of circumstances. Vasistha had to intercede to get the penalty commuted into banishment. The immolations ordered by Rama were at first loudly protested against, but as the iron strength of his will became known, people submitted as to the decrees of blind fate. This is eloquent testimony not only to the sempiternal validity of the ideals that he enforced, but to the mighty ascendancy that he established over the hearts of those who came under his influence.
The author who conceived and delineated the character of Rama in such convincing detail as we have in the Ramayana is a supreme genius Poet, prophet or seer has seldom been presented to the mind of man so noble an apotheosis of duty.
The Dharma Dispatch is now available on Telegram! For original and insightful narratives on Indian Culture and History, subscribe to us on Telegram.