Rahul Sankrityayan’s Tibet Story

An excerpt from the book 'Mystics and Sceptics : In Search of Himalayan Masters', edited by Namita Gokhale.

From studying Brahmanical canons and classical Vedantic learning to Arya Samaj, Buddhism and Marxism, Indian scholar Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963) was the quintessential sceptic and seeker. He turned ‘onism’ – the angst and frustration of being stuck in one body that inhabits only one place at a time – on its head by constantly moving from place to place and from one area of knowledge to another, haunted by the road not taken, by places not mapped, by ideas that remained unexplored. He rationalized his obsessive urge to travel in a treatise for footloose wanderers titled Ghumakkad Shastra, (loosely translated as Wanderer’s Scriptures).

In his memoir, Sankrityayan traces the genesis of his constant need to move to an Urdu couplet that caught his imagination in primary school:

Sair kar duniya ki gafil, zindagani phir kahan
Zindagi gar kuchh rahi to naujavani phir kahan
(Wander the world, oh thoughtless one, how long will life last?
Even if life remains, how long will youth last?)

Sankrityayan journeyed through Europe, Japan, China, Korea, Manchuria, Iran, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Russia, crossing Siberia on the Trans-Siberian railway, and of course the Himalaya.

However, none of these voyages rivalled the combined experience of his four trips to Tibet, the forbidden land, closed to outsiders in the 1920s. It is a story of exceptional strength, resilience and determination. In his travelogues, he confesses that it was difficult to think of another journey as demanding and singular as these.

Mystics and Sceptics : In Search of Himalayan Masters
Ed. Namita Gokhale
HarperCollins India (January 2023)

The trips were not random. Sankrityayan was at that point living the Gandhian dream, immersed in the impassioned tumult of the freedom movement. During this time he was imprisoned in 1922 and then again in 1924. While he was incarcerated, he read a smuggled copy of Leon Trotsky’s Bolshevism and World Peace, composed verses in Brajbhasha, worked on the Sanskrit translation of the Quran, learnt trigonometry and wrote his first novel, Baisvin Sadi. His tryst with Buddhism also began during his jail term. He taught himself Pali and managed to read the entire Pali text of Majjhim Nikaya, the Buddha’s middle-length discourses.

Sankrityayan’s interest in Buddhism deepened as he travelled to Ladakh in 1926. He met Ras-Pa, a lama at the Hemis monastery, and spent time studying Buddhist texts at the Rizong monastery. He also attempted to travel to western Tibet, taking a route traversed by nomads that was considered dangerous and vulnerable to crime, with only a young Tibetan dog as his companion. The dog died midway, leaving him completely distraught. His memoir takes on a ruminative, poetic tone in the eight Sanskrit shlokas he wrote as an elegy to his companion.

Spurred by the desire to study the Pali Tripitakas under the guidance of renowned scholars, Sankrityayan joined vidyalankar Parivena, a renowned Buddhist monastic school in Sri Lanka in 1927, where he finally found what he had been searching for:

When I came upon the Buddha’s exhortation: ‘do not believe by deference to some book or tradition or to your elders; always decide upon belief by your own examination, and then stand firm’, my heart suddenly exclaimed: here is the man whose faith in truth remain implacable, who understood independent intellect within humankind. And when, in the Majjhim Nikaya, I read ‘the precepts of Dhamma that I have given to you are like a ferry boat…’, I realized that what I had been searching for in all my wanderings had now been found.

Sankrityayan translated the Digha Nikaya and Majjhim Nikaya into Hindi, deepened his engagement with epigraphy and archaeology, and taught himself German and French to follow the work of eminent European Indologists and scholars such as Sylvan Levi, Aurel Stein, Rudolf Otto and Sergei Oldenburg. He dropped his original name, Ram Udar Das, and embraced the Buddhist name of Rahul Sankrityayan. He was conferred the title of Tripitakacharya, a rare honour, but his search was far from over. In a poignant essay on her father, Jaya Sankrityayan observed that the commentaries on original Sanskrit works that were lost when the universities of Odantapurui,vikramshila and Nalanda were ravaged,piqued his interest. He was also aware that European expeditions to Central Asia and Tibet at the turn of the century had led to the rediscovery of some of the precious text.

The travelogue of European scholar Alexandra David-Néel, who sneaked into Tibet in the 1920s, inspired him, as did Ekai Kawaguchi’s seminal 1909 book, Three Years in Tibet. The discovery of texts taken away and airbrushed from public consciousness, Sankrityayan felt, was vital for understanding the Indian-Buddhist heritage. He also longed to visit the ruins of the oldest mahavihara in Samye, Tibet, to pay homage to the relics of the renowned Nalanda scholar Santarakshita who, together with masters such as Dignaga and Dharmakirti, formed the Buddhist triumvirate. It was Santarakshita who had ordained the first seven Tibetan monks and strengthened the roots of Buddhism across the Himalaya.

The journey to Tibet, an idea that had been brewing in his mind for years finally took shape in 1929. As someone who was a recognized face of democratic dissent, Sankrityayan knew that he was a marked man and would have to travel incognito. It was not easy for him to enter Nepal, leave alone Tibet. He juggled the subtleties and oddities of assuming different religious personas, entering the Kathmandu valley disguised as a sadhu during the Shivratri celebrations in spring. Once there, he remained largely underground in the attic of a house near the Mahabaudha stupa, clothed in a threadbare chhupa (Tibetan gown). Sankrityayan’s travel diaries, Tibbat mein Sava Vars and Yatra ke Panne, with their essayistic detours, describe his ordeal. Even though he wore a Tibetan dress and remained unshaven and bedraggled, he was petrified of being recognized as a plainsman.

He used Henderson’s Tibetan manual to familiarize himself with the language and weighed his options carefully.The best bet seemed to be to use his rather tenuous contact with Dukpa Lama to get to Tibet as a member of his large entourage of monks. When this did not work, he took the help of Dharmaman Sahu, a wealthy Newar trader who had a home and office in Lhasa, and his friend Dasharatan Sahu, to put in place a credible and workable travel itinerary.

Sankrityayan tried to hoodwink the Nepal border police by pretending to be a mystic from Kinnaur. His initial journey was fraught with danger. He had to move cautiously, masquerading as a beggar before potential marauders and predators. A fortuitous meeting with Lobsang Sherab, a taciturn lama he had befriended in Bodh Gaya, radically altered the situation. The lama helped him get an authentic permit to cross into Tibet. They travelled together for three months, navigating the ragged terrain, crossing the icy water of the Kosi river, often taking rest in flea- infested stables, sustaining themselves on a frugal diet of sattu and tea. They reached the important milestones of Narthang, Tashi Lhumpo Gumba and Shigarche, crossing the Jarala Pass and reaching extremely remote areas such as Nagache largely on foot. Their journey ended on 19 July when they spotted the wondrous golden roof of the Dzong fortress of Potala.

One of Sankrityayan’s immediate tasks was to reveal his presence to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and seek his permission to study in the ancient gumbas of Sera and Drepung, where thousands of monks lived in dormitories made for Buddhist devotees from across the world. He spent months in Lhasa, trekking to nearby monasteries, often through frigid darkness. The city spread itself open to him. He absorbed the magic that nested in the quotidian details of its social fabric and enjoyed the fine aesthetic sense embedded deep in the country’s DNA. His presence no longer sparked a flurry of speculation. Through his connections, he was able to source prodigious amounts of rare texts and Thangka paintings. Most of these texts were hand-lettered Tibetan manuscripts or printed woodblocks. A few were written with gold and silver powder. In addition to the spiritual canon, there were texts on philosophy, history, art, astronomy, medicine and other subjects.. He also travelled to Samye, a two-day journey from Lhasa, to keep his date with the remains of the Himalayan master Santarakshita. When Sankrityayan began his return journey to Kalimpong, he had to hire twenty-two mules to ferry manuscripts, paintings, and rare antiquities acquired during his stay.

Sankrityayan’s second voyage to Tibet in 1934 was preceded by his ordainment as a bhikkhu in 1930. This, along with his fame as a scholar of the Tripitakas, the holy canon of the Theravada school of Buddhism, carried considerable weight with Tibetan monks, who unlocked the vaults of their monasteries. He threw all his time, energy and passion into his search for original palm-leaf manuscripts. His command over the languages used in the Buddhist canon helped in the quick assessment of their importance. These manuscripts had been taken from India to Tibet in the seventh century and from the ninth to thirteenth centuries. A serious study of these texts had the potential to not only open up new dimensions of Buddhist religion and philosophy, but also the Brahmanical and Jain traditions.

First, Sankrityayan set about searching for the Sanskrit manuscript of Dharmakirti’s Pramanavarttika, considered the greatest Indian work on logic. He was aware that several European scholars were also interested in this rare manuscript. He managed to find only a fragmentary commentary on the text, but discovered forty volumes of other precious manuscripts. Sankrityayan used his Rolex camera to photograph them. He also copied many of them by hand, working at feverish pitch, sometimes for up to eighteen hours a day. Among the most poignant anecdotes in his travelogue Yatra Ke Panne is the recollection of a freezing winter day in Lhasa, when the ink in the inkwell froze, and another in Saskya when, while copying Asanga’s Yogacharbhumi, his hands and fingers were so chilled that a brazier had to be kept lit to keep them moving.

There was an occasional windfall, as he notes delightedly in his book, ‘Someone came all the way to Gyantse to sell a copy of the Pragyaparamita written in gold letters.’ The Dalai Lama also sent him several rare volumes carefully wrapped in yellow brocade covers.

Sankrityayan’s hunt for Pramanavarttika continued. He was told that Nepal’s royal priest, Mahapandita Hemraj, possessed a copy, so he returned to India via Nepal to see if could borrow it. He managed to obtain it but was heartbroken when he discovered that it had a few pages missing. During his third and fourth trips to Tibet in 1936 and 1938 respectively, time seemed short and urgent. His travelogue, reminiscent, evocative and sharply alive to social cadences and cultural nuances unspools slowly, illuminating several significant moments of his Himalayan sojourn. He continued to remain hostage to the past, spending hours and hours in a time warp, photographing and copying manuscripts found in the monasteries of Saskya, Ngor and Shalu. The caches of manuscripts he copied included important works of philosophers and masters such as Nagarjuna, Asanga, vasubandhu, Bhavya, Dharmakirti, Jnanasri, Ratnakar Sjanti, and Durvek Mishra. Finally, he managed to find the complete manuscript of the elusive Pramanavarttika.

Sankrityayan’s friendship with Gendum Choephel, one of the most outstanding scholars and poets of twentieth-century Tibet, was legion. They were both inveterate travellers and sceptics, hardwired for uncertainty and seeking out the unfamiliar. They met in 1934 in Lhasa during Sankrityayan’s second trip to Tibet. Choephel joined Sankrityayan’s search for commentaries on the Pramanavarttika, and shared his excitement in discovering many more original Sanskrit palm-leaf manuscripts of lost Buddhist texts. They travelled across Tibet to monastic centres in Saskya, Pyokhang, Ngor, Shalu, Riphug, Narthang, Tsang Thupten and Zalu. Their journey through central Tibet in 1934 and 1938 was an odyssey, with moments of pain, privation and companionship. Choephel was in India from 1938 to 1946, visiting different parts of the country, spending time in old libraries and brothels, writing and sketching. He read a good deal of classical Sanskrit text, translating them into the Tibetan, including the Kamasutra. He also found common cause with the politics of the Tibetan Revolutionary Party, founded by a fiery group of exiled Tibetans. His return to Lhasa was fraught with dramatic moments. Accused of insurrection, he was incarcerated and died shortly after the occupation of Lhasa by the Chinese army in 1950.

Much like his friend, Sankrityayan acquired a revolutionary fervour in the 1930s. He translated the Communist Manifesto, was for a while closely associated with the Congress Socialist Party, and in 1938, became a prominent face of the peasants’ movement and the Communist Party of Bihar. He was arrested in a crackdown on communists and spent two years in Hazaribagh jail and the Deoli Internment Camp. His monumental work Darshan-Digdarshan, a Marxist exposition on Greek, Islamic, European and Indian philosophy, was written during this period as was another masterpiece, Volga se Ganga Tak, stretching through 8,000 years of history.

Even though his politics was grounded in Marxism, he continued to be entranced by Buddhism and saw no contradiction between Marxism and the teachings of the Buddha. He kept travelling through the Himalaya and lived a major part of his last few years in Mussoorie and Darjeeling. His obsessive longing for Tibet had to be put on hold when he was completely debilitated after a couple of strokes. Tibetans continue to remember him as a man who in the words of K.P. Jayaswal, resembled the Buddha and, absorbed in scholarly pursuits, was universal in his outlook.