On the Run

In colonial India, news of the Russian Revolution was widely censored by British authorities. Newspaper reports were allowed to run for no more than two or three sentences. Yet these snippets drew the attention of Rahul Sankrityayan, a young Vaishnava sadhu who had become disenchanted with the cloistered world of Hindu asceticism. The 24-year-old Brahmin had already fled from two different Hindu monasteries and turned down an offer to become the future mahant (chief priest) at the famous Uttaradhi Math. By 1917, he was drifting closer to the Arya Samaj, a Hindu reform movement that rejected the ritualistic trappings of the religion for a primordial Vedic identity. It was at one of Samaj’s newspaper offices that Sankrityayan began to pore over the scattered news fragments, piecing together a narrative of the events transpiring in distant Russia. Thus began a series of tumultuous changes in Sankrityayan’s own life, thrusting him into the nationalist fold of the Congress Party before remaking him as a Buddhist monk and communist peasant leader, whose intellectual and political activity took him as far as Tibet and Iran, the Soviet Union and Sri Lanka.

Rahul Sankrityayan (born Kedarnath Pandey) came from a family of farmers in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Rejecting both his child marriage and his family’s attempt to prime him for a career in colonial administration, he left home at an early age – motivated by a desire to study the Vedanta, one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. He spent the next years wandering the subcontinent as an ascetic, adopting a number of different aliases. In 1919, when nationwide protests erupted against the Rowlatt Act – a piece of imperial legislation that allowed for non-jury trials – Sankrityayan was living in the Arya Samaj stronghold of Lahore. A general strike swept the city, and the young Hindu reformist was impressed by the strength of anticolonial resistance. Otherwise living in segregated quarters, Hindus and Muslims came together in the streets, chanting political slogans and drinking from the same glasses (a common taboo at the time). Although he was still entranced by the spectre of Bolshevism, the Communist Party of India had not yet been formed, and the non-cooperation movement was gaining ground. Sankrityayan chose to quit the Arya Samaj and join the Congress.

Over the following three years, his work as a grassroots political organizer saw him arrested and jailed twice. In prison he read Trotsky’s Bolshevism and World Peace, his first encounter with Marxism. Having come into contact with Buddhists in Bihar, he began studying The Majjhima Nikaya, a Theravada Buddhist scripture, as well as the Avesta. Sankrityayan taught himself French, and even wrote a utopian work of science fiction, Baisvi Sadi (Twenty-Second Century), an idiosyncratic blend of Gandhian nationalism, inchoate Buddhism and homespun communism. By the time he was released, the Congress Party was in turmoil. Gandhi’s decision to suspend the non-cooperation movement in response to protestors setting fire to a police station in Chauri Chaura had caused a series of defections. Although Sankrityayan did not join the breakaway Swaraj Party, he became increasingly disenchanted with Gandhian politics. In 1928, he retreated from activism and went to teach Sanskrit at Vidyalankar Parivena, one of the largest Buddhist monastic colleges in Sri Lanka, where he studied the Pali language, extended his engagement with epigraphy and archaeology, and became a dedicated reader of the Tripiṭaka. When Rudolf Otto, the German scholar of theology and comparative religion, met Sankrityayan at the Parivena, he was shocked to learn that the latter had never received a formal education.

After a year of teaching he undertook the first of four journeys to Tibet in hope of recovering a trove of ancient Buddhist palm-leaf manuscripts inscribed in Sanskrit. Denied a travel visa, Sankrityayan disguised himself as a Tibetan monk and made his way to Kathmandu, where he befriended the Drukpa Lama and moved in with his disciples. Under tight colonial surveillance, Sankrityayan quietly set about learning the Tibetan language before striding across the Himalayas on foot and arriving safely in Lhasa. His visit coincided with an upsurge in tensions between Nepal and Tibet that spilled over into violent clashes. With war likely to break out at any moment, Sankrityayan searched for the ancient manuscripts and began to compile the first Tibetan–Sanskrit dictionary. On the verge of pennilessness, he was eventually forced to cut short his sojourn and walk back across the Himalayas along with twenty-two pack mules, each of them carrying manuscripts, paintings, and other ancient artefacts he had acquired during his short stay. On his return to Sri Lanka in 1930, he renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism – adopting, for the first time, the name Rahul Sankrityayan.

Sankrityayan deepened his political commitment on two short visits to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, first as a tourist and then as a professor of Sanskrit at Leningrad University. During his second visit, he married the Mongolian scholar Ellena Kozerovskaya. They worked together on Sankrityayan’s Tibetan–Sanskrit dictionary and had a son, Igor. Still captivated by the romance of the Russian Revolution, Sankrityayan did not realize he had arrived in a different Leningrad. He declared Stalin’s regime a utopian society and dismissed criticism of the purges as ‘anti-Soviet conspiracies’. Sankrityayan even remarked that his own presence in the country – as a foreigner and Buddhist – should have been legitimate cause for suspicion among the Soviet authorities (who were disappearing numerous Indologists and communists of Indian origin at the time). When the university refused to extend his teaching contract, he flirted with the idea of joining the armed communist movements in China or Spain. But instead he returned home and signed up with the outlawed Communist Party of India – traveling extensively in the Bihar countryside to organize peasant struggles and survey experiments in cooperative farming. After months of being tailed by secret police, Sankrityayan, now the president of All India Kisan Sabha (the CPI’s peasant front), was finally arrested in 1940, in a brutal nationwide crackdown on communists orchestrated in collusion with the Congress Party.

The Kashi Pandit Sabha, an organization of Brahmin scholars based in Banaras, gave Sankrityayan the famous title Mahapandit, ‘the great scholar’. Yet this was not entirely suited to his temperament. Sankrityayan was of course a polyglot and a polymath: during his lifetime he learned 33 languages – including Arabic, Russian, German, and Tamil – and wrote 140 books, including biographies, social histories, studies of Buddhist philosophy, travelogues, religious polemics, dictionaries, plays, novels, and an autobiography that spans six thick volumes. Yet little in this bustling oeuvre could be considered ‘scholarship’ in the strictest sense. Sankrityayan spurned specialization for the bricolage that he had honed at the Samaj newspaper office: improvising his texts out of heterogeneous sources and traditions. Drifting through monasteries, prisons and political parties, he thought and worked on the go (and often on the run). His various transitions – from Hindu to Buddhist to Communist – were not always clear-cut. While studying the Russian Revolution, Sankrityayan was simultaneously becoming a zealous Arya Samaji, planning to travel to China and Japan on proselytizing missions. Long after he abandoned Hinduism, he was still publicly wearing the garb of a sadhu (if only to avail of free food and lodging at religious institutions). In 1922 he struck an isolated figure at his first Congress meeting, arriving barefoot and shaven-headed, wearing the customary Vaishnava robes and holding a kamandal in his hand.

Earlier this year, the first complete English translation of Sankrityayan’s literary magnum opus, Volga se Ganga Tak (From Volga to Ganga) was published by LeftWord. Translations of the book are already available in Czech, Chinese, Russian, Polish, and numerous Indian languages. The new edition builds on a previous translation by the British Marxist historian V.G. Kiernan from 1946. Like many of Sankrityayan’s works, Volga – a fictional history of the migration of Aryans from the higher reaches of Volga to the Indo-Gangetic plans – was composed in jail. The epic spans 8,000 years of human history, beginning in 6000 BCE, the ancient age of matrilineal clans, and concluding in 1942 CE, the high noon of the Indian nationalist struggle. The subject matter is forbidding enough on its own terms. But Sankrityayan had the audacity to write it in the midst of a raging nationalist struggle while locked up for political sedition. He prepared for the project over the course of several months, during which time he delivered a daily lecture series on Indian philosophy for his fellow inmates and went on hunger strike to demand better provisions for reading and writing. Once he finally set to work, Sankrityayan completed the manuscript in just 20 days during the summer of 1942. The book was published the following year and was excoriated by the Hindu right, earning Sankrtiyayan the title of Nagnavadi Vedanindak (‘the nudist critic of Vedas’).  

Despite its millennia-spanning scope, Volga is not an intimidating read. Its longue durée narrative has the rhythm of an extended anecdote. It unfolds as a series of twenty interlinked vignettes and stories, each tracking the shifting fortunes of ordinary people at different historical junctures: the incestuous activities of ancient matriarchal clans; the fear of civilizational collapse prompted by agricultural progress; women’s everyday resistance to impositions on their sexual freedom; the fateful encounter between Aryans and Asurs amid the rise of the caste system. The many twists and transitions in Volga add up to an affective history of class struggle.

The novel’s everyday protagonists are interleaved with a panoply of Great Men: Ashvaghosha, the ancient Buddhist philosopher, poet and dramatist, is depicted dreaming of an anti-Brahmanical revolution in philosophy; Baba Nooruddin, the Sufi saint, repurposes a ruined Buddhist monastery into a khanqah, to the chagrin of orthodox Mullahs and Brahmins; and Mangal Singh, a fictitious Hindu king, befriends Marx and Engels in London. Although Sankrityayan’s text is deeply indebted to Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, it does not accept the theory of socialist ‘stages’. Its civilizational arc is flickering and non-linear, demonstrating how millennia-old contradictions have taken on new forms during the nationalist struggle.

In July 1942, communists were released en masse and the ban on CPI was repealed. This dramatic shift was prompted by the party’s unflinching support for British involvement in the ‘People’s War’ against Nazism. Following the party line, Sankrityayan, like other communists, paid little attention to the sudden militant turn in the Congress-led Quit India Movement. While millions laid siege to colonial police stations, public offices, telegraph networks and railway lines, the CPI remained focused on anti-fascism, even if it involved provisionally supporting British imperialism. Its consequent loss of popular support was compounded when the CPI failed to disentangle demands for self-determination from the ‘communal question’, endorsing the Muslim League’s resolution for a separate Islamic republic.

Although the CPI ultimately reversed these positions, a strain of reactionary Indian nationalism had gradually taken hold of Sankrityayan during the mid-40s. This was influenced by the CPI’s ‘Pakistan for Muslims’ line and by his ongoing communication with cultural organizations linked to Arya Samaj. Scandal erupted at the Akhil Bhartiya Hindi Sahitya Sammelan (All-India Hindi Literary Conference), held just months after partition. Having recently returned from his third visit to the Soviet Union, Sankrityayan declared that Hindi should be adopted as India’s ‘national language’ and that all religions, including Islam, should be ‘Indianized’. The audience were shocked that Sankrityayan’s anticolonial politics had curdled into popular Hindu nationalism. He was promptly expelled from the party. Back in the Soviet Union, Kozerovskaya was ordered to divorce Sankrityayan. When she refused, she was fired from Leningrad University, and the state put an end to the couple’s correspondence.

Three years later, the second part of Sankrityayan’s autobiography, Meri Jeevan Yatra, was published in Allahabad. Its epigraph, a paraphrase of Buddha, read: ‘I took thoughts as a raft to carry me across, not as a load to be carried on the head.’ Despite his political exile and marital breakdown, Sankrityayan’s proverbial raft had not yet foundered. After marrying Kamala Pariyar, his assistant at the time, he applied to join the CPI in 1955 and was readmitted. Repudiating his affinity with Hindu nationalism, he wrote a blistering polemic against Swami Karpatri Maharaj, a rightwing Hindu monk who was arrested for barring Dalits from the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple in Banaras. In a pamphlet titled Ramrajya aur Marxvad (Ramrajya and Marxism) – an inversion of Karpatri Maharaj’s 815-page tome, Marxvad aur Ramrajya – Sankrityayan attacked the symbiotic relationship between modern capitalism and hierarchies of caste and gender, as enshrined in the Brahmanical utopia of Ramrajya (the Kingdom of Rama). Holding out hope that Dalits and Bahujans might soon overthrow the Brahmanical supremacy in the Hindi heartland, Sankrityayan rejected the notion that religion was the opium of the masses. Instead, he suggested that in the subcontinent Buddhism was a historical forerunner of Marxism, and that Buddha should serve as our Hegel.

Throughout his meandering career, Sankrityayan’s instinct for improvisation was closely entwined with his impulse for ghummakari – ‘the practice of wandering’. With time, however, this impulse became difficult to sustain. In 1958, while traveling to Tibet, Sankrityayan – now burdened with diabetes and high blood pressure – suffered a debilitating stroke. Another followed in 1961, leaving him physically incapacitated. He was transported to the Soviet Union for medical treatment – but having lost most of his memory, he failed to communicate with Kozerovskaya and Igor. In 1963, Sankrityayan died shortly after receiving the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award.

It is tempting to suggest that the complete English translation of Volga will secure Sankrityayan’s place in the legacy of Indian communism. Yet the survival of this legacy is itself contested. The region where Sankrityayan spent long stretches of his life is now a wellspring of Hindutva. The ranks of far-right Hindu organizations have mushroomed. Hate speech, lynchings and pogroms suffuse everyday life in the region. Meanwhile, communists struggle to appear relevant. In this landscape, Sankrityayan has come to resemble one of the fabled relics he collected. His biography seems like a work of historical fiction – perhaps even the unwritten twenty-first story of his Volga – rather than a contemporary reality. And yet, this apparent distance between the author and his present-day readership could prove instructive. While studying his political trajectory, we are forced – like Sankrityayan in the newspaper offices – to reconstruct a revolutionary narrative which seems impossibly far away, but which may be closer than we think.

Read on: Francesca Orsini, ‘India in the Mirror of World Fiction’, NLR 13