SCHOLAR FOR LIFE

Pro­fes­sor who taught San­skrit to HRH Princess Sirind­horn still keeps in touch with his royal stu­dent and re­calls fond mem­o­ries of their time to­gether.

Bangkok Post - - ASIA FOCUS - By Na­reerat Wiriyapong

Princess’s San­skrit teacher rem­i­nisces

Imet Prof Dr Satya Vrat Shas­tri on the evening of Sept 26 for an in­ter­view at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity in Bangkok. A day ear­lier, the renowned San­skrit scholar had had lunch with Her Royal High­ness Princess Maha Chakri Sirind­horn, when he re­minded his former San­skrit stu­dent about his birth­day on Sept 29.

“I told her I will be com­plet­ing 87 years on the 28th. On the 29th, I will be en­ter­ing my 88th year,” he tells Asia Fo­cus. “The princess is now 63. I taught her when she was very young. Time flies. Al­most 40 years have passed.”

Nearly one year ear­lier, when the princess’s fa­ther — His Majesty King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej — passed away on Oct 13, 2016, Prof Shas­tri wrote a San­skrit poem and sent it to the princess by email, which he uses to stay in touch with her.

“We were very sad for the pass­ing of His Majesty, the fa­ther of all Thais. (He was a) very lov­ing and car­ing per­son,” says Prof Shas­tri.

The long con­nec­tion be­tween the San­skrit scholar and Princess Sirind­horn dates back to 1977 when Prof Shas­tri was en­gaged to teach her the San­skrit lan­guage at the re­quest of the Thai gov­ern­ment. At that time, the young princess had grad­u­ated with a Bach­e­lor of Arts de­gree from Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity and wanted to pur­sue San­skrit stud­ies at the grad­u­ate level.

“She ex­pressed her de­sire and the gov­ern­ment of Thai­land made the re­quest to the gov­ern­ment of In­dia through the ICCR (In­dian Coun­cil for Cul­tural Re­la­tions),” Prof Shas­tri ex­plains. “I was ap­pointed as a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor of the In­dian Stud­ies in the Depart­ment of East­ern lan­guages at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity.”

When he learned about the ap­point­ment, Prof Shas­tri had just fin­ished at­tend­ing the World San­skrit Con­fer­ence in Turin, Italy.

“I had planned af­ter at­tend­ing the con­fer­ence to visit some nearby coun­tries to de­liver lec­tures and in­ter­act with some of the schol­ars. I was in Ber­lin. I was pro­ceed­ing to­ward the hall to de­liver a lec­ture. While I was pass­ing through the pas­sage (to reach the au­di­to­rium), a gen­tle­man ap­proached me and he said, ‘Pro­fes­sor, there’s a telex for you,’ and handed it di­rectly to me.

“I didn’t open the en­ve­lope that con­tained the let­ter. I folded it and put it in my pocket. I went to the au­di­to­rium to de­liver the lec­ture. While I was com­ing back to the in­sti­tute from the au­di­to­rium, I thought of the telex. My wife was with me. I told her that some­body had come and handed me a telex. She was a lit­tle be­hind me and she looked over my shoul­der with cu­rios­ity to see what the mes­sage con­tained.”

The mes­sage from the gov­ern­ment of In­dia was con­cise: “Your name suggested for vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor­ship of In­dian stud­ies in Bangkok. Con­vey con­sent im­me­di­ately.” He was to come to Bangkok to teach San­skrit to one very spe­cial stu­dent.

“I sat think­ing se­ri­ously be­cause it was an im­por­tant de­ci­sion for me,” he re­calls. “It would be the very first time for me to be away from In­dia to take up an as­sign­ment that would last a lit­tle over two years. Nor­mally for a very im­por­tant de­ci­sion, I would con­sult my fa­ther and other mem­bers of the fam­ily. But I couldn’t con­sult him at the time as fast means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion were not avail­able like nowa­days, such as email or tele­phone for us to get in touch. The fastest means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion was telex.

“If any gov­ern­ment wants any­thing, then it’s al­most an or­der for the cit­i­zen to obey, so I had to obey this re­quest. So I went the em­bassy of In­dia (in Ger­many) to meet the am­bas­sador. I still re­mem­ber his name … and I told him to con­vey my con­sent.”

Prof Shas­tri comes from the only fam­ily in In­dia where both fa­ther and the son are re­cip­i­ents of the Pres­i­dent of In­dia Cer­tifi­cate of Hon­our. The re­cip­i­ent of 102 na­tional and in­ter­na­tional honours and awards, the scholar is cur­rently an hon­orary pro­fes­sor at the Spe­cial Cen­tre for San­skrit Stud­ies at Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity in New Delhi.

FOND MEM­O­RIES

Even at his ad­vanced age, Prof Shas­tri’s mem­ory re­mains sharp as he re­mem­bers the ex­act date he ar­rived in Bangkok to be a San­skrit teacher to the young Thai princess. “It was Oct 7, 1977 that I set foot on Thai soil,” he re­calls. “It was half past one in the morn­ing when my flight landed as it had been slightly de­layed. At the time, we couldn’t get out of the air­port un­til 5 in the morn­ing.”

The San­skrit class for the princess was con­ducted at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity. Prof Shas­tri re­calls those days with a smile on his face.

“At the time, a hall was con­verted into a teach­ing room with a se­cu­rity guard wait­ing out­side. What­ever I taught, it was recorded for the princess to lis­ten to my lec­tures at the palace.”

All Thais are fa­mil­iar with the in­tel­li­gence of Princess Sirind­horn and her devo­tion to learn­ing, es­pe­cially when it comes to lit­er­a­ture and the arts. Prof Shas­tri con­firms that from his own ex­pe­ri­ence of teach­ing her for two years and the per­sonal con­nec­tion they still main­tain to­day.

“The princess is very in­tel­li­gent and very tal­ented,” he says, adding that her San­skrit stud­ies were in­ter­rupted from time to time when she needed to per­form of­fi­cial du­ties, es­pe­cially when royal visi­tors came to the coun­try.

“That was the year the Shah of Iran was vis­it­ing Bangkok with his two daugh­ters. The princess had to re­ceive them, look af­ter them and spend time with them,” re­calls Prof Shas­tri. “That’s the pro­to­col. In such cir­cum­stances, she had to miss the class. The class was just recorded as the les­son con­tin­ued. The princess lis­tened to that record­ing.

“Nat­u­rally, there would be some dif­fi­cul­ties for her to fully com­pre­hend the words I was speaking and dif­fer­ences in pro­nun­ci­a­tion. She caught up on her les­sons by lis­ten­ing to the record­ings but still there were points she needed to clar­ify.”

On the ex­am­i­na­tion day, the princess came to the depart­ment at 8am and asked her pro­fes­sor to clar­ify all the doubts and points she wanted to raise. Their en­counter con­tin­ued for four hours.

“The ex­am­i­na­tion ques­tions were sent by me. In the evening, I re­ceived the answers. I was pleas­antly sur­prised to see that 80-90% of what I had ex­plained, she had put down in her an­swer script. Her power of re­ten­tion was sim­ply un­be­liev­able,” he says. “I had spent a long time ex­plain­ing things to her but I couldn’t imag­ine that any­body [could re­tain all the in­for­ma­tion] for four hours con­tin­u­ously as I was teach­ing but she went on lis­ten­ing; nor­mally things would be mixed up.”

In 1986, Princess Sirind­horn went to In­dia and spent 18 days vis­it­ing many places in dif­fer­ent states. She made a spe­cific re­quest to the gov­ern­ment of In­dia for Prof Shas­tri to ac­com­pany her.

“I was with her all 18 days,” he says with a smile. “I was in­cluded in the Thai del­e­ga­tion. Nor­mally, the only peo­ple who can be in­cluded in a for­eign del­e­ga­tion are the am­bas­sador and his wife, not or­di­nary peo­ple, but the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs de­cided to pro­ceed with the re­quest to Prime Min­is­ter Ra­jiv Gandhi.

“On the one hand, we had in­vited her. On the other hand, we hadn’t ex­pected her wish. It was made clear by the PM of In­dia and I was in­cluded in the del­e­ga­tion. She recorded her mem­o­ries of that visit for a book that was pub­lished af­ter her visit with many pic­tures.”

One in­ci­dent that the princess her­self men­tioned at one of the sem­i­nars held in Bangkok was about her San­skrit teacher.

“We were at Sri­na­gar, in Jammu and Kash­mir, where we spent a night at a ho­tel overlooking Dal Lake,” Prof Shas­tri re­calls. “I got up 2 o’clock in the morn­ing. I’d been try­ing hard to sleep but I couldn’t so I re­alised I should utilise this time to write some­thing when my sleep was dis­turbed, so I started writ­ing.

“To let the fresh air in, I left the door half-opened and the light was com­ing out of the room. I was writ­ing to ab­sorb my thoughts. Around the same time, the princess also got up and she was sur­prised to see light com­ing from my room. With cu­rios­ity, she looked into the room and I was there. She asked, ‘What are you do­ing?’ I said, ‘I’m writ­ing.’ She said, ‘What are you writ­ing?’ I said, ‘I’m writ­ing a poem’. ‘A poem at this hour?’ she asked.

“‘That is our pro­fes­sor. Writ­ing a poem at 2 o’clock,’ she told the au­di­ence,” notes Prof Shas­tri, laugh­ing.

“As the visit came to an end, I told her In­dia is a big coun­try. You may not be able to visit some of the places, par­tic­u­larly Puri in Orissa where I spent some time as vice-chan­cel­lor and pres­i­dent of the univer­sity.

As our con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues, my cu­rios­ity prompts me to ask Prof Shas­tri why Princess Sirind­horn be­came in­ter­ested in the San­skrit lan­guage in the first place.

“I have never asked why she was in­ter­ested in San­skrit. I had no need to ask. Her grand­mother, the Princess Mother, knew San­skrit and she liked it very much. She had gone to Switzer­land and met a San­skrit scholar and started to learn San­skrit from him. So the in­ter­est is in­her­ited.”

LIV­ING LEG­END

Prof Shas­tri has the distinc­tion of hav­ing been a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at six uni­ver­si­ties on three con­ti­nents in­clud­ing Sil­pakorn Univer­sity in Bangkok and North­east Bud­dhist Univer­sity in Nong Khai; Karl Erhard Univer­sity in Tub­in­gen, Ger­many; Catholic Univer­sity in Leu­ven, Bel­gium, and the Univer­sity of Al­berta in Ed­mon­ton, Canada. With four hon­orary doc­tor­ate de­grees from abroad, he has writ­ten many books that have been trans­lated into dif­fer­ent lan­guages.

When he was a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity, he helped set up the San­skrit teach­ing pro­gramme at Sil­pakorn Univer­sity, and that re­sulted in the es­tab­lish­ment of the first San­skrit Teach­ing Cen­ter in South­east Asia.

“I come from a fam­ily of San­skrit,” he ex­plains. “My fa­ther was great scholar of San­skrit. He was the one who in­tro­duced me to the lan­guage very early in my life when I was barely 12 years old. My first San­skrit poem was pub­lished in a very pres­ti­gious San­skrit mag­a­zine. That was 1942.”

San­skrit, he says, has a his­tory that dates back thou­sands of years and it has in­flu­enced not only the lan­guages of In­dia but also those in South­east Asia. “This is the kind of in­flu­ence it has had, be­cause for the en­tire South­east Asia re­gion, words are drawn from San­skrit even at present.”

He ad­mits that the num­ber of San­skrit speak­ers in In­dia is small but the very fact is that it is still spo­ken shows that the lan­guage is still im­por­tant in the so­cial and cul­tural life of the peo­ple. “San­skrit is still rel­e­vant to mod­ern life. With­out the knowl­edge of San­skrit, one can­not un­der­stand mod­ern In­dian lan­guages.”

There are 15 San­skrit uni­ver­si­ties in the world, mainly in In­dia and Nepal, and the lan­guage is still taught in many uni­ver­si­ties in Europe, North Amer­ica and Asian coun­tries in­clud­ing China and Ja­pan. China, in par­tic­u­lar, has shown strong in­ter­est in San­skrit.

Though ad­vanced in age, with a walk­ing stick al­ways by his side, the scholar has vowed to con­tinue work­ing. Among his on­go­ing projects is a deeper in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the Ra­mayana story in South­east Asia, where he has been vis­it­ing tem­ples and shrines in the re­gion to take pho­to­graphs and col­lect art­works. Apart from Thai­land, other coun­tries that have adapted the Ra­mayana epic and ap­plied lo­cal touches in­clude Cam­bo­dia, Myan­mar, Laos and In­done­sia.

“San­skrit and the Ra­mayana are the things I want to pre­serve for the next gen­er­a­tion,” he says.

Even at home, Prof Shas­tri’s daily rou­tine is still dom­i­nated by work. Ev­ery day, he con­tin­ues to re­ceive nu­mer­ous in­quires by email from all over the world, from schol­ars ask­ing for his opinion, to re­view their work or clar­ify fine points of schol­ar­ship.

“That’s how life goes on,” he says. “For some­one 87 years old, my life is still very ac­tive but at the same time it’s very sat­is­fy­ing.

“God might have sent me with a mis­sion. I have taken up the work, the mis­sion, which is to be use­ful to so­ci­ety. So­ci­ety has given me so much, you know? Now it’s time for me to pay back.”

When asked when he plans to stop work­ing, Prof Shas­tri says: “I have never thought about it. I don’t think I have to do that. I will con­tinue my work to the last mo­ment … con­tinue to write new thoughts and ideas and be ac­tive men­tally even if I’m not ac­tive phys­i­cally as I am now.”

God might have sent me with a mis­sion. I have taken up the work, the mis­sion, which is to be use­ful to so­ci­ety. So­ci­ety has given me so much, you know? Now it’s time for me to pay back”

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