Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Rahul Sankrityayan’s Tibet connect debunks false Chinese narrative

Mahapandita Rahul Sankritayan and Gedun Choepel
My article Rahul Sankrityayan’s Tibet connect debunks false Chinese narrative appeared in Firstpost

Sankrityayan’s four visits to Tibet are fascinating as they are a vibrant proof of the century-old linkages between India and Tibet—a fact denied by Communist China today—and a proof that Tibet is truly a child of Indian civilisation

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During the annual ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing, it was announced that China’s defence budget for 2024 would be $231.36 billion, an increase of 7.2 per cent from the previous year (about thrice the size of the Indian defence budget); it is a large increase, especially when one knows that official figures are only a fraction of the actual spending by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece The Global Times: “By 2027, the Chinese military will have the ability to effectively deal with threats brought by hegemonism and power politics in the western Pacific region, including issues relating to the Taiwan question and the South China Sea, as well as border tensions between China and India.”
It is clear that the increase in the Chinese budget is targeting not only Taiwan, the ‘rebel island’, but also India.
In these circumstances, it is necessary for Delhi to think ‘out of the box’.

One of the many alternatives is to supplement military preparedness with ‘Historical Warfare’; this would not cost much to the exchequer and would help refocus and motivate the defence forces on the border.
It would also put the boundary question in its proper historical perspective; for millennia, Northern India has been contiguous to Tibet, an independent nation till the end of the 1950s, not to China; the same is true for Eastern Turkestan (now called Xinjiang).
In this context, I recently became acquainted with the fascinating life of Mahapandita Rahul Sankrityayan, one of the greatest Indian scholars who wrote some 130 books.

He was a great wandering scholar, spending 45 years of his life away from home on Asian and Western roads.
Rahul Ji, as he was known by his followers, was born Kedarnath Pandey to an Orthodox Hindu Brahmin family in Pandha village of Azamgarh district in Uttar Pradesh on April 9, 1893. He was the eldest child of six siblings. Though he only received a formal education up to grade eight (in Urdu language in his village), Sankrityayan later mastered some 34 languages.
His maternal grandfather, Ram Sharan Pathak, an ex-soldier, with his innumerable tales of valour and adventure, planted the seed of love for travelling in him; already at the age of 9, he ran away from home ‘to see the world’ and only after having visited Calcutta and Varanasi did he return to complete his middle school.
One of his biographers wrote: “Sankrityayan’s life, work, and ideas were steeped in and spread through many cultures, disciplines, and geographies. Born in a Sanatani Brahmin family, he lived variously the life of a Vaishnava sadhu, an Arya Samaji polemicist, a Buddhist monk, an antiquarian and scholar of Buddhism, a political activist jailed for anti-colonial speeches (1920 and 1923–1925) and beaten up by the henchmen of landlords in a peasant movement in Bihar (1939), a self-professed communist, a progressive writer, a novelist, a historian, a biographer, a language activist, a linguist, lexicographer, and so forth.”

Sankrityayan indeed lived multiple lives in one, always ready to change his worldview while remaining profoundly human.
From 1914 till 1930, he lived as a Vaishnava sannyasi; in 1939, Rahul Ji converted to Buddhism; this did not stop him from participating in the freedom movement, and between the years 1936 and 1944, he was actively involved in the peasant movement. During this period, he spent 29 months in jail (1940–42) for being a member of the Communist Party of India.
When free, he extensively travelled to Sri Lanka, the Soviet Union, the Far East, Central Asia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Western Europe.
Sankrityayan’s four visits to Tibet are fascinating as they are a vibrant proof of the century-old linkages between India and Tibet (a fact denied by Communist China today) and a proof that Tibet is truly a child of Indian civilisation (as the Dalai Lama likes to put it).
It is important in the present tense context of Sino-Indian relations to not forget this.
During his trips to Tibet, this polymath managed to bring back to their land of origin some 1,619 valuable manuscripts and thankha paintings; he employed 16 mules to bring the precious loads to Bihar, where they are today kept in a special section of the Patna Museum.

In Tibet, Rahul Ji met his Tibetan ‘counterpart’, probably the greatest Tibetan scholar of the first part of the 20th century, Gendun Choepel. Rahul Ji called him ‘Geshe’ (‘Kalyanamitra’ in Sanskrit) or ‘Brother in the Dharma’. In Tibet, Geshe denoted a high degree of knowledge and was equivalent to a PhD in Buddhist studies.

The Mahapandita recounted: “My first meeting with Geshe took place in Lhasa. He was a disciple of Geshe Sherab, the most learned pandit of Drepung, the largest monastery in Tibet. Geshe Sherab was an authority on philosophy; thus, his disciple would also be a student of the same subject.”
However, Gedun was not only a student of philosophy; he was also a poet and had mastered traditional and modern Tibetan painting: “As a talented artist, he could live a comfortable life in Lhasa. However, Geshe never aspired to a comfortable life.”
Like Rahul Ji, Gedun was a wanderer, an adventurer, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, always wanting to acquire more knowledge.
Sankrityayan recalled: “[In 1934> I realised that his depth of classical learning combined with his artistic background would be invaluable to me in the search for ancient MSS [manuscripts>… On his part, he wanted to accompany me to India and see and learn more. We became friends from that time onwards.”
Thus started the search for the lost manuscripts of Nalanda and the other great viharas of Northern India; the two pandits wanted to rediscover the centuries-old linkage between India and Tibet.
They first visited the ancient monasteries north of Lhasa, then they went to Reting monastery, established in the 11th century: “Tibet has a scanty rainfall, and at the time of our arrival, richly painted thangkas had been hung out for an airing. Geshe’s heart leapt at the sight. They were of Indian workmanship, and it is also possible that they had been brought from India.” They copied them.
In his memoirs, Rahul Ji noted: “My Tibetan journeys were a combination of bitter-sweet experiences—the bitterness as extreme as the sweet. Sometimes, animals to carry us and our goods were as readily provided as a householder’s hospitality. Sometimes, though we ourselves were willing to walk, we could not hire porters, and it was difficult to get a yard of space to rest ourselves.”
His following visit to Tibet was a great success: “I saw many dozens of ancient Sanskrit MMS. I was able to photograph many of them and copy down many by hand.”
The day of May 25, 1936, was memorable: “We were informed by Dolma Phodrang [one of the temples in Sakya monastery> that they had received the key to Chakpe Lhakhang… I had very little expectation that I would find a Sanskrit manuscript there. After arriving, I turned to the left and found the first stockroom. The door and doorframe seemed centuries old. Who knows how many years of dust must have been collected? On one occasion, dust spread so profusely that the whole stockroom was blanketed as if in smoke.”
The Mahapandita continued his exploration: “We waited a little and then moved in. There was also enough dust on the floor to make footprints. We found hundreds of scriptures there, some wrapped in cloth, while others had been left uncovered. Among them, we found scriptures as old as seven and eight hundred years. These were the texts that had been written and read by great ancient Tibetan masters and scholars. They were precious jewels of Tibetan literature and history.” They had found the lost manuscripts.
Rahul Ji continued to explore the room: “I was searching for palm leaf manuscripts in Sanskrit. After browsing here and there, I found one which was not wrapped in cloth. One, two, three, four… I found twenty manuscripts in all. I opened one and began to look at it. I was overjoyed.”

This discovery symbolises the age-old relationship between Tibet and India.
Today, it is important to remember these ancient linkages (there are many others), which bear testimony to the deep connections between the people of India and Tibet.
If these connections could be revived in any way, it could completely change the perspective of the conflict with China and Beijing’s erroneous narrative for the border ‘dispute’. In the meantime, Beijing should be reminded that Tibet has been (and is still geographically) India’s northern neighbour.
And real heroes like Mahapandita or Geshe should not be forgotten; on the contrary, they should be honoured, and a young generation of historians should be encouraged to boldly follow in the footsteps of the wandering scholars

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