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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 50 December 9, 2023

M M. Haraprasad Shastri – pioneer of Modern Indology | Jayanta Kumar Ghosal

Saturday 9 December 2023


The father figure in the field of modern Oriental research in India, Mahamahopadhaya (MM) Haraprasad Shastri (1853-1931) belonged to one of the ancient Bengali Bramhin Pandit families. His original name was Sarat Chandra. His father Ramkamal Lalratna and mother Chandramani Devi used to live in Naihati in West Bengal where the great Bengali literateur Bankim Chandra Chatterjee lived. His elder brother Nanda Kumar was a close friend of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Later Haraprasad also became very dear to both Vidyasagar and Bankim.

Though born in a family of traditional Pundits, he mastered both English and Sanskrit at a very early age. Exceptionally brilliant Haraprasad received tutelage from Vidyasagar and as a close associate of Bankim joined his literary circle. Haraprasad studied F.A from Sanskrit College School. He got his B.A. and M.A. degrees with distinction from the University of Calcutta. Bankim Chandra inducted him in his literary circle of ‘Bangadarshan, the leading literary journal of that time of which Bankim himself was the editor and young Haraprasad was a frequenter . Haraprasad contributed regularly in ‘Bangadarshan’.Many of his famous articles on various topics appeared there .

He was a versatile genius and did considerable works in various fields of studies like literature, history, archaeology, epigraphy, Buddhist studies, Philosophy. The literary acumen and scholarship of Haraprasad soon attracted the personalities like Ramesh Chandra Dutta and Raja Rajendralal Mitra, Haraprasad associated himself with their research projects. He imbibed a modern outlook, obtained sound training in modern methodology of humanistic studies. At that time many oriental scholars accomplished in different branches of traditional knowledge, more or less pedantic by nature which had no relevance to modern Indian reality. Haraprasad rose above this limitation. His association with the towering personalities helped him acquiring the historical concept which is the very essence of Indological studies.

The idea of history had undergone remarkable changes since the close of the 19th century. In the past, historians were primarily interested in the story of Kings and rulers and their activities. They used to follow the descriptive method. Later it was realised that history can never be a mere narration of events. History must concern itself with the actions and reactions not only of the kings and rulers but also of the toiling people – the milieu. Because a country or a state or society in its economic, political and cultural aspects – ultimately the product of man – who is an integrated whole. So the study of history is the study of thoughts and ideas of man, as they originate, develop and move through different phases of action and reaction.

This is possible (1) through relevant evidence including archaeological findings, inscription, literary documents and (2) their critical analysis, interpretation and the past reconstructed out of them. Our history, prior to the appearance of Rajendralal Mitra and some of his contemporaries, was far from this ideal. As a result we got some stories, written by some foreigners and even the distortion of them by colonial historians. These stalwarts practically changed the direction of studying history.

Haraprasad began collecting old manuscripts of Sanskrit, Bengali and Hindi from India and Nepal. In this course he discovered ‘Caryapada’ from Nepal, the very first evidence of Bengali Language and literature. Haraprasad Shastri’s discovery of ‘Caryapada’, which are actually Buddhist mysterious songs, has opened up new dimensions on ancient Bengali society before the coming of Islam. Buddhism played a very important role in Bengal and put resistance against Bramhnical orthodoxy. In the tenth century Bengal the Buddhist literatures were genuinely the literature of protest. Haraprasad unmasked the truth behind them and thus played the role of a pioneer in writing social history of Bengal.

In 1886 at the instance of Rajendra Lal Mitra, the first Indian President of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta Haraprasad was involved in Cataloguing the old and rare manuscripts of India and then edited and published them for the benefit of future generation. In this way the beginning of his chequered career of Indological research was marked.

Man in society was of prime interest for Haraprasad. His discovery of immense materials and endeavours to explore the patterns of society existing in different phases of Indian society drew the attraction of the educated people of the country and the world. Even to explore the social reality of a particular period, he often took into account the entire range of human activity, from production process to philosophical attitude towards life.

Haraprasad will be remembered for long because in an age when Puranas alone was regarded as the source of historical materials, he showed an out-of the way attitude in Indological studies, which threw new light upon many obscurantist ideas prevailing in the name of history of our country with a scientific outlook.

In these days Haraprasad’s findings will definitely help us fighting the obsolete and absurd ideas spread by the present ruling clique of India.

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