(1893 – 1963)
He was born Kedarnath Pande in 1893. He died as an internationally acclaimed scholar, writer and traveler known as Rahul Samkrityayan. He lived for 70 years, out of which 45 years he spent away from home, travelling incessantly to countries far and near and wrote almost continuously. And he spent three years in prisons too, for fighting for his country’s freedom from colonial slavery. He was born a Hindu, in a conservative Brahmin family. But he converted first into Buddhism, later to Communism, founded the Communist Party of Bihar, and got dismissed from the party after a couple of years, wrote more than 150 books, edited journals, taught philosophy in universities, married thrice, and won one of India’s highest civilian awards. What did he write and what did he teach? He was a polyglot who had command over Hindi, English, Russian, French, Persian, Sinhalese, Tibetan, Kannada, Pali, Tamil, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu…! His writings included novels, short stories, travelogues, biographies, essays, politics, philosophy, sociology, folklore, history, lexicography…! A genius of multi-faceted faculties, Rahul traveled across countries and continents, through the great centers of religious and political faiths, and to the horizons of knowledge.
Rahul (Kedarnath) was the eldest child of Govardhan Pande and Kulvanti Devi (of Asamghar, Uttar Pradesh). The father, a farmer, and the mother died when Rahul and his four brothers and a sister were nowhere in life. It was the grandmother who looked after the children. Those were the days of the customary child marriage and he got married as per the custom. But he had never seen his bride, mainly because he did not know what the marriage means, and then because he did not remain at home for long. Little Kedar was able to receive only the primary schooling formally, though later in life he learned many languages all by himself, and became even a professor in universities, though not in India. But as a boy of just 9 he left home and the school for Varanasi. He returned home after sometime only to vanish again, in search of a job. For some time he worked as a helper for a tobacconist.
Marriages, Life and Death
Kedar had to get married very early, as a child, as was the tradition in Brahmin families of those times. Ram Dulari Devi was his bride, but these two children new nothing about their marriage or life. He forgot all about this childhood event. Later in life, when he was teaching Buddhism at Leningrad University in the erstwhile Soviet Russia, Kedar alias Rahul made friends with a Mongolian scholar Lola who spoke not only Russian, but French and English as well as writing in Sanskrit. They worked together in their project for the compiling of a Tibetan-Sanskrit dictionary. They got married in culmination of their relationship and a son was born out of this marriage. But when his Russian assignment was over, he traveled alone back to India. He married a third time, later, and his bride this time was a Nepali scholar, Dr. Kamala, and they had two kids, a boy and a girl. Rahul fell ill while under a teaching assignment at the University of Sri Lanka. He was a diabetic. He had memory loss. His blood pressure ran high. And a stroke struck him. The great traveler and author of wonderful books breathed his last in Darjeeling in 1963.
Hinduism, Nationalism and Buddhism in his life
When he was 17 he followed a group of sannyasins for a trekking tour of the Himalayas, the traditional seat of the Hindu Gods. He was overwhelmed by the first sight of the mighty Himalayas. On returning, he began learning Sanskrit in order to study the great texts of Hinduism, by joining the Mutt of a religious scholar, and changed his name as Babaram Ram Udar Das. Soon he was designated as the heir apparent to the chief of the Mutt. But he was not happy with the luxurious and lavish life led by the inmates of the Mutt and he left it. His next station was Agra, at 22, where he came into contact with Arya Samaj and started learning Arabic, Persian theology, Indian History, as well as renewing his passion for Sanskrit which he mastered with academic distinction. He also studied the Bible and Quran. He made reading newspapers a habit and became well-versed with the happenings around the world, especially the Soviet Revolution.
In the meanwhile he became uneasy with the ways of the Vedic order, and was slowly being attracted towards Buddhism. He studied the principles of Buddhism and visited important centers of the religion. In Nepal and Tibet he spoke at length with the Buddhist lamas, sannyasins and other scholars. But he could not resist the power of the non-cooperation movement; and he jumped into politics, became the leader of the Congress Party in his district and got himself imprisoned for six months. His political activism led him to prison again for two years, but making use of this time he learned astronomy and mathematics and wrote a book on ‘22nd Century’. Once released from prison, he continued with his activism.
Though he took part in the Congress-led agitations against the British, he could not digest what was being shaped up as ‘Gandhism’. In 1927 Kedar Pande alias Babram Ram Udar Das traveled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with help of a Buddhist outfit in Calcutta and studied Buddhist texts and lore. During the one year he stayed in Ceylon, he mastered the Buddhist literature and after two years he changed his names to assume the now famous Buddhist name of his – Rahul Samkrityayan.
In 1934, 1936 and 1938 he visited Tibet, coming to understand that several Buddhist texts were available in Tibetan and Chinese languages. So he traveled from Ceylon to Tibet in the guise of a Hindu pilgrim via Nepal and walked all the distance to escape from watchful eyes of the minions of law. He spent almost a year there in Tibet and returned to India carrying more than 1600 manuscript books and many invaluable artworks and other valuables. This load was transported on the backs of some 20 mules! It took him almost 6 weeks to undertake this adventurous trip back to India through which he went back to Ceylon. It was in Ceylon he completed his famous biography of Buddha. The books he carried from Tibet was contributed to Bihar Research Society and the paintings and other artworks were given to the Patna Museum.
He traveled through Burma, Malaya, Siam, Japan, Korea, Manchuria, Soviet Union, Iran and other countries on the way and reached India in 1936. It was this journey which resulted in the great work ‘Darshan, Digdarshan’. Again he went to Soviet Russia to teach in the university in Leningrad. This gave birth to another book, the History of Central Asia. Soon another book came out from his pen – the Soviet Land. He visited the Soviet Union several times and became a propagator of socialism. The last time he visited Russia was in 1962 for the treatment of his illness. He had already become a member of the Communist Part of India and gave leadership to the formation of Communist Party in Bihar. His political activities landed him in jail for 29 months. It was in this period that he wrote his master piece, From Volga to Ganga’ and several other works. On his release, he assumed the editorship of a communist weekly and later joined the editorial board of Lok Yuddha, the mouth piece of the Communist Party. His work station this time was Bombay.
Rahul returned to Leningrad to see his wife and son in 1944, and was assigned to teach Sanskrit at the University there. He returned to India in the same month of the independence of India, and was elected the president of the Hindi Literary Conference. But his presidential address became controversial. The communist party thought his speech contained anti-Muslim ideas and asked Rahul to correct it. He refused to do so and so he was expelled from the Party. He was taken back after eight years and an apology from his side.
His autobiography runs to more than 2800 pages in five volumes. All his works would come to about 50,000 printed pages. He was decorated with several honorary doctorates, the Central Sahitya Academy Award in 1961, and Padmabhushan in 1962.