A Freethinking Cultural Nationalist: Rahul Sankrityayan’s Narrated Self in the Context of His Age


Alaka Chudal

  • Betreuung: Martin Gaenszle

This thesis has as its subject a luminary of 20th-century India, Mahāpaṇdit Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963), whose complex personality, in spite of wide-ranging studies of him, still remains a conundrum. It reconsiders Sankrityayan’s whole life during the important period of historical transformation taking place in India during his lifetime, during which the transformations he himself underwent figured as a counterpoint to developments within the Indian independence movement and later forms of nationalism as they emerged.

The study attempts to establish that there was a thread running through all the mutable forms of Sankrityayan’s identity, namely his nationalist consciousness.

Though Sankrityayan sought and formed successive links to various popular religious and political currents, he was never successful in becoming in the long run a comfortable member of any of them. Born into an orthodox Brahman family, Sankrityayan lived variously the life of a sadhu, an Arya Samajist, a Buddhist monk, a lay Buddhist, a secularist, a wanderer, a political activist, a progressive writer, and a scholar who eventually embraced Marxist socialism. Each of the organizations he was affiliated to found individual views of his unacceptable, and vice versa, and this spurred him onward in search of an ever elusive emotional-intellectual home he could call his own. All his writings point, however, to the fact that if such a home existed, the greatest claim to being it in fact lay with the Indian nation itself, as embodied in its past glory and, Sankrityayan felt, its impending revival. The main features of the place and time in which Sankrityayan lived validate them as constituting the age of nationalism in India. Sankrityayan himself, as a nationalist in the sense defined in this study, fit that mould in a way, but what set him apart from the conventional nationalist was his realization that his country’s greatness, in the same way as a person’s, depended upon its being able to reinvent itself on the basis of its own heritage; what was called for was exploring the whole gamut of cultural activity the nation had to offer and fructifying it, when necessary, with seeds of change from beyond its borders. In other words, principled mutability was the need of the hour.

As a freethinker, Sankrityayan was at odds with just about everyone over important issues relating to what form the Indian nation of his time should take. The cultural artefacts that underpinned Sankrityayan’s imagined nation were first and foremost the Hindi language together with other key elements, both tangible and intangible, of Indian culture and the Indian civilization, including the glories of its history, the distinctive sentiments of its people, its cuisine and dress. This made of him, rather than simply a nationalist, a freethinking cultural nationalist. With his own unique sense of what nationalism entailed, he saw his life’s work as being to search out what both he as a person and India as a nation needed in order to claim a dignified place for themselves in the world. And searching meant being ever on the move.

This study focuses the bulk of its attention on Sankrityayan’s affiliation to the Arya Samaj, his contributions to Buddhist studies (including his research in Tibet), his efforts to enrich Hindi literature and support the movement to raise Hindi to the status of India’s national language, and his adaptation of Marxism to the Indian context − in other words, a whole life’s work, in which each of the elements fructifies the others. A separate concern of this study is to delineate how Rahul Sankrityayan made his influence felt beyond India’s borders, in neighbouring Nepal.