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.
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.
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.”
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”