Dialogue  April-June, 2012, Volume 13 No. 4

V.S. Agrawal: Scholar

Devendra Swarup

In the field of Indology Dr. Vasudev Sharan Agrawal (7 August 1904-27 July 1966) represents a rare breed of scholarship. At the age of sixteen he started the study of the Sanskrit language from a traditional Acharya. He could not only read and write but also speak Sanskrit very fluently. Naturally, this command over the Sanskrit language gave him the key to unlock the literary sources of Indian history and culture right from the Vedic Samhitas upto the latest editions of the Pauranic texts and other literary works. Agrawal was born and brought up in a small village Kheda in the then Meerut Distt. of Western U.P. He had thoroughly identified himself with the rural folk culture and was able to see a linguistic and cultural continuity between the Vedic texts and the folk traditions. Being rooted in the soil of the land, Dr. Agrawal was inspired to start a Janapadiya Folk Culture Movement in 1940s with the help of literary stalwarts like Devendra Satyarthi and Banarasi Das Chaturvedi etc. He was able to trace the orgin of many Vedic words in the local dialects.

With his simultaneous grounding in the local rural culture and the literary tradition of Sanskrit, Agrawal spent four years (1923-1927) in the Banaras Hindu University, under the inspiring environment radiating from the benign personality of Mahamana Madan Mohan Malaviya. Having completed his Intermediate and Graduation from B.H.U., Agrawal shifted to Lucknow for his post-graduation in Ancient Indian History and Culture, under the guidance of the doyen of Indian historians – Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji. While a student of M.A. Agrawal wrote a dissertation on the topic "India as known to Manu". Those very days he wrote an article in Hindi on a Vedic theme Advaitvad and got it published in Madhuri a celebrated Hindi monthly of those days. Per chance this article caught the attention of Pandit Mahavir Prasad Dwivedi one of the greatest literary figures in the world of Hindi literature. Under the impression that such a profound article must have been written by some elderly scholar of long standing, Pt. Dwivedi sent an humble congratulatory letter and salutations to Agrawal but was surprised to find that the article had been written by a college student only.

Dr. Radha Kumud Mookerji was also much impressed by the scholarly potentials of Vasudev Sharan Agrawal. He insisted that Vasudev should work for his Ph.D. research on Indian civilisation as gleaned from the aphorisms in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. Nobody could imagine at that time that a complete and all round civilisational picture would emerge out of the short and terse grammatical aphorisms comprising the Ashtadhyayi. But Vasudeva Sharan Agrawal in deference to his revered teacher accepted the challenge and worked for twelve long years on the Paninian aphorisms which produced a path-breaking research work published under the title "India as known to Panini" This work earned him Ph.D. in the year 1941. He continued to elaborate on it and was awarded D.Litt in the year 1946. In book form it was published in 1953 and its Hindi translation, done by the author himself got published in subsequent year.

It opened a new line of research and made an impact an the Sanskrit knowing world every where. It is said that scholars like Bata Krishna Ghosh, who following the German scholar J. Jolly used to place the Kautilya’s Arthasastra in the with 4th Century A.D., after perusing Vasudevas Sharan Agrawals’s thesis got convinced that Kautilya in point of chronology was very close to Panini, and could not be placed later than 4th Century B.C. At one stroke a chronological shift of 800 years!

Having earned mastery over Sanskrit, English and Hindi languages, circumstances made Vasudeva Sharan Agrawal to earn experience and insight into the modern disciplines of Iconography, Epigraphy, Palaeography and Archaeology which are deemed to be essential for a critical evaluation of the historical data and for the reconstruction of the past. Vasudeva Sharan Agrawal worked as Curator of Mathura Museum for ten years (1931-1941), of Lucknow Museum for six years (1941-1946), and head of Central Asian Antiquities Deptt. in the newly founded National Museum at Delhi with Sir Mortimer Wheeler as its first Director. This long experience in three premier Museums gave Agrawal a god-sent opportunity to study and reinterpret India’s rich sculptural and epigraphic heritage. It goes to the credit of Vasudeva Sharan Agarwal that he not only rearranged, classified and catalogued the exhibits in these museums but also reinterpreted them in the light of his vast knowledge of India’s own art tradition lying scattered in the vast Sanskrit literature. There is a long list of his publications in English and Hindi on Museology and Indian Art. To name a few:

        1. Handbook to the Sculptures in the Curzon Museum of Archaeology, Mathura (1939),
        2. Mathura Museum Catalogue (4 Parts)
        3. A Guide to Provincial Museum, Lucknow
        4. Gupta Art (1947),
        5. Exhibition of Indian Art, A Catalogue (1948)
        6. Indian Miniatures, An Album (1961) Deptt. of Archaeology, Delhi.
        7. Sarnath (Guide) (1956) Deptt. of Archaeology
        8. Studies in Indian Art (1965)
        9. Masterpieces of Mathura Sculptures (1965)
        10. Indian Art (Part I) 1965.
        11. Evolution of the Hindu Temple and other essays (1966)
        12. Chakradhvaja or the Wheel Flame of India (1966)
              And many more in English as well as Hindi.

In 1951, he resigned his job in Archaeological Survey of India and joined new founded college of Indology in B.H.U. and spent rest of him 15 years in academics.

Instead of blindly following the beaten path prepared by the Western Scholarship in the field of our art–history, Dr. Vasudeva Sharan Agrawal interpreted the ancient sculptures and other art-objects in the light of his vast erudition of the indigenous Sanskirt, Prakrit and Pali sources.

But more than his contribution in the field of Museuology and Art-history he was interested in the subject of Vedic Studies which he loved to call Veda-Vidya. Looking at his lifelong interest in this subject, it appears that it was his destiny which drove him to this difficult field of knowledge and perhaps, it was his own intuition which gave him a rare insight into Vedic interpretation. As described above, his first essay on Advaitwad was written while he was still a student in Lucknow University in 1928. About that time he started contributing rich articles to a renowned Hindi journal "Hindi Vishwa Bharati." edited by Pt. Krishna Vallabha Dwivedi and published from Lucknow. The first compilation of his articles on Vedic Studies was published from Agra in the year 1937 under the title "Urujyoti". Inspired by destiny Vasudev Sharan Agrawal happened to meet late Pt. Madhusudan Ojha (1866-1939), who had visited Mathura during his stay there as curator of the Museum. After a long discussion with Pt. Ojha, Vasudeva Sharan found that Ojha’s approach to Vedas was very much in tune with his own intuitional approach.

Quite non-conversant with the Western Vedic scholarship and their writings in English language, Pt. Ojha delved deep into the original Sanskrit sources as Samhitas, the Brahmanas Upanisads and Puranas to reach the real meanings of the Vedic texts. His own studies convinced him that the Vedic texts dealt with the science of Cosmogony (Srishti-Vidya). Pt. Ojha had devoted almost fifty years of his life and produced more than hundred fifty texts in Sanskrit poetry as the symbolic language used in the Vedic literature to describe the phenomenon of Evolution and Involution of the visible cosmos. Only a small part of these writings have been published so far. Vasudeva Sharan Agrawal edited and published three of the books – Brahma –Siddhanta, Rajovada and Brahma-Vinaya from Varanasi and contributed long introductions to each of them. Rejecting the Western approach to Vedic interpretation, Vasudeva Sharan wrote in his introduction to Brahma-Siddhanta (1961 from Banaras Hindu University):

"The edifice of our present day Vedic research has been quite magnificently raised during the last century and a half. Roth, Ludwig, Kaegi, Pischel, Geldner, Oldenberg, Bergaigne, Remaund, Henry, Max Mueller, Macdonell, Keith, Lehmann, Whitney, Bloomfield and a host of other scholars from the West have grappled with the Vedic hymns and their traditional exegetic literature as preserved in the Brahmanas, and the Upanisads, the ritualistic texts and the ancient commentaries. What has been the outcome of this all? Some high sounding theories propped up by Comparative Religion, Comparative Philology or Cultural history. These have barely touched the real problem of Vedic interpretation which in fact appertains in the upholding of the mysteries of Vedic metaphysics and cosmic symbolism. At best the labours of these savants have only done some superficial scratching about the meaning of words. They have failed to reach the depths of esoteric meanings or to build up any consistent system of metaphysical interpretation." Further Agrawal wrote, "It is apparent to anyone that philological research alone is insufficient to the understanding of the Vedic texts. These have to be interpreted with the resources of the fundamental doctrine as set forth in the Brahmanical literature." (ibid p.v)

Paying tributes to the scholarship and approach of Pt. Madhusudan Ojha Dr. Agrawal wrote in the introduction of Rajovada (1964, BHU) "Doyen of Vedic scholarship and Founder of a school of Vedic interpretations which, although modern so far as its rationalistic approach is concerned, is essentially traditional, since it wholeheartedly accepts the cannons of Vedic exegesis as propounded in the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanisads and the Puranas".

Dr. Agrawal took it upon himself to further the unfulfilled mission of Pt. Ojha in two ways – one, to propagate Pt. Ojha’s scholarship and secondly, to contribute himself to the literature of Vedic interpretation. He introduced Pt. Motilal Sharma, chief disciple of late Pt. Ojha to Rashtrapati Dr. Rajendra Prasad and organized his lectures in the Rashtrapati Bhawan, presided over by Dr. Prasad himself. Similarly, he delivered two lectures, one on Veda-Vidya and the other on Purana Vidya in the Raj Bhawan of Maharashtra Govt. in the year 1958. In his two letters dated 17 September and 21, October 1958 addressed to late Sri Prakash, the then Governor of Maharashtra, Dr. Agrawal wrote that the work of Vedic interpretation initiated by late Dr. Ojha happens to be the greatest effort in that direction and it is to draw attention to this work that he had agreed to deliver two lectures at Bombay on your invitation. In one of these letters Dr. Agrawal had listed many of the questions on Vedic studies working in his mind. In a letter written about one month before his sad demise on 27 July 1966 to Pt. Banarasi Das Chaturvedi a well known literary figure, Dr. Agrawal wrote, "Since 1920’s my mind was drawn to the Vedic literature but during the last seven years it is fully engrossed with Vedic studies." And if we look at his writings during these seven years his contribution to Vedic studies is really astounding. In 1953 he published a collection of his articles in Hindi under the title "KalpaVriksha". In 1962 he brought out his work in English, "Sparks from the Vedic Fire", wherein he tried to explain the symbolism present behind many Vedic words and terminology. Before that in 1960 he had started a school of Vedic studies in the B.H.U. and as its Director was organizing summer camps during vacations in which learned Vedic-Scholars were invited to present their views before young Vedic Scholars.

The Preface to "Sparks from the Vedic Fire", says: "The thought of the Rigveda is cast in the mould of symbols. The symbolical approach is thus the "open sesame" to Vedic exegesis. It opens a new door and puts us in possession of an unprecedented richness of meanings. It was in fact the ancient traditional approach embodied in the Brahmanas." In 1963 he published a commentary on the famous Nasadiya Sukta. (Rigveda X. 129) and the same year he published his commentary on the "Asya Vamiya Sukta (Rigveda. I. 164. 1.50), which brought him much applaud from the Sanskrit knowing world. His lectures delivered in the summer vedic camp of 1960 were published under the title "Vedic Lectures".

Vasudeva Sharan’s scholarship was not confined to the ancient Vedic literature only. He delved into the whole range of Sanskrit and Prakrit literature and found a continuity of thought and symbolism in this vast literature. In 1950 he started his studies in the Mahabharata and over a period of 15 years produced his three part commentary on its 24000 slokas under the title "Bharata Savitri" consisting of more than 800 pages were published. In 1964 he published a commentary on Bhagvad Gita under the title Gita Navaneet" and simultaneously contributed a series of articles on "Upanisads" in the reputed Hindi weekly "Hindustan". It is interesting to note that its Gujarati translation was soon after published in Gujarat, with the title "Upanisad Navaneet" while the original Hindi text is still awaiting publication.

Furthering his path breaking research of Panini, Dr. Agrawal brought out cultural studies on Harsha Charita and Kadambari by Bana Bhatta of seventh Century A.D.; on Meghaduta of Kalidasa, an Padmavata of Malik Jayasi an Awadhi poetry work of 14th century and Kirtilata of Maithili poet Vidyapati.

Dr. Agrawal’s interest in Vedic interpretation brought him to the vast but neglected Purana –literature. He got convinced that Puranas were originally meant to convey Vedic symbolism in a mythological form to the masses. In fact the Puranas represent the ancient Vedic thought tradition for mass education made interesting through story telling method. He started working on the Puranas seriously. He actively participated in the founding of All-India Kashiraj Trust in Ramanagar Fort under the patronage of Kashi Naresh. This Trust devoted itself to Pauranic Studies and started a half yearly Bulletin "Puranam" in the year 1959. Its earlier issues are replete with the scholarly articles contributed by Dr. Vasudeva Sharan Agrawal who was placed on its Editorial Board. Dr. Agrawal published many independent works on Puranas such as "Markandeya Purana: Ek Adhyayan (Hindi), Matsya Purana: A study (English), Vamana Purana: A study, Devi-Mahatmya (1963), Solar Symbolism of the Boar (1963), Shiv Mahadev: the Great God (1966).

Besides these serious studies Dr. Agrawal was a regular contributor to many popular periodicals like Aryamitra, Kalpana, Kalyan, Kadambani, Janapada, Jivan Sahitya, Tripathga, Dharmayug, Naya Samaj, Nagari Pracharini Patrika, Parishad Patrika, Prajna, Brija-Bharati, Bharati monthly, Madhuri, Saptahika Hindustan and many-many others. One is surprised to see the sweep and speed of Dr. Agrawal’s literary contribution. It is difficult to believe that Dr. Agrawal with his frail body, suffering with the hereditary disease of diabetes and having practically lost his eye-sight in his last days was able to produce more than 3000 articles which still await publication in book form and more than eighty books in English and Hindi reflecting his great scholarship and full of original insight. He never pretended to be an Ivory Tower intellectual. As a freedom fighter since 1921 he was deeply involved with the present and future of India. He was a missionary-scholar deeply committed to the unity and moral fibre of the nation and wrote every word in furtherance of this mission. Sitting on the high pinnacles of scholarship, he was equally working for mass awakening. On one hand he presided over the ancient history section of the Indian History Congress in 1949 Cuttack session; the Guwahati session (1964) of the All India Oriental Conference; the annual session of the Numismatic Society, All India Museum conference etc; and on the other hand he started in 1940 a Janapada movement focusing on the grass-root folk culture. He could see and trace a continuity in the local dialects and the terse Vedic-Sanskrit. In a letter to Banarasi Das Chaturvedi, Dr. Agrawal wrote that "my mind is full of so many compartments of knowledge and my mind is continuously roaming from one compartment to another."

In his last phase, due to failing sight, Dr. Agrawal used to dictate articles and books, simultaneously to many script writers. This writer had personal experience of his scholarship in October 1963, when as a Research student of Lucknow University he sought an interview with Prof. Agrawal at his residence in B.H.U. The then editor of Panchajanya weekly had requested him to remind Prof. Agrawal of his promised article for the coming special number of the weekly. On reminding him, Prof. Agrawal immediately asked me to jot down his extempore dictation, which I did readily. Back at Lucknow, when I tried to prepare a fair copy of the same, I was surprised to note that it was a very well argued and linguistic presentation replete with Sanskrit quotations, and so well organised that not a word was required to be changed or shifted.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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