Sir Paul Dukes and M. Philippe Lavastine
Interview with His Holiness
The following is an account by Dr. T.M.P. Mahadevan, University Professor of Philosophy, of the interview which Sir Paul Dukes and M. Philippe Lavastine had with His Holiness Sri Jagadguru Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam on Wednesday, February 26, 1958.
A British Knight and a French savant had an interview with His Holiness Sri Sankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam on Wednesday, February 26. The time fixed for the interview was 9 p.m. Sir Paul Dukes arrived at His Holiness’ camp at Theogarayanagar at 8.30 p.m. He was conducted to the place of the interview, which was an open space, beneath a row of palms. There was a stack of hay in the centre of which was placed a wooden plank which was to serve as the seat for His Holiness. Struck by this, for him an unusual situation, Sir Paul remarked that this was a romantic setting for the new experience he was looking forward to. Presently, the Frenchman, M Philippe Lavastine, arrived escorted by a few Indian friends. He seemed evidently moved at the prospect of meeting a great scholar saint.
It was a little past nine. Our attention was drawn to the direction from where a mild torchlight flashed. His Holiness was coming slowly, with those unselfconscious steps which are uniquely his. About half a dozen devotees who were following him stepped back as His Holiness sat on the wooden plank, asking the group that was waiting for him to sit down, by a graceful gesture. The two guests sat at a short distance from His Holiness, with the interpreter in between. The stage was set for the interview.
Sir Paul Dukes was the first to be introduced, as the author of two books whose titles are: “The Unending Quest”, and “Yoga for the Western World”. His Holiness asked Sir Paul as to what he meant by “the unending quest”. The Englishman said that in his own case, the quest had not ended yet. In the case of the average Westerner, he added, it is thought that the quest ends once a particular Church was accepted. Sir Paul’s view was that this was not so.
Explaining the meaning of the expression “unending quest”, His Holiness observed:
“If the quest is external, there would be no end to it. It would be like the quest after the horizon – a hallucination. If the quest is inward, then it would end with the discovery of the true Self. In a sense, even this latter quest may be said to be unending in that, its object is infinite”.
The Frenchman was now introduced as one interested in the study of our temples and the puranas, in connection with his researches into the institution of kingship. M..Lavastine himself explained what his central problem was. In ancient times, the temporal and the spiritual were united in the institution of kingship. There was no division of the secular from the sacred. Probably, most of the ills of the modern world are traceable to this division which now obtains. The French scholar thought that a study of the history of the South Indian temples would throw light on the question of the relation between temporal power and spirituality.
His Holiness enquired if M. Lavastine had heard of the saying, Raajaa dharmasya kaaranam - <Sanskrit> (The king is responsible for dharma). As His Holiness was giving an illuminating explanation of this saying, the two visitors were observed moving close to him, with their attention fixed on every word of his. Although His Holiness was speaking in Tamil, he used a profusion of English words to help the interpreter in his task, and also the visitors in their understanding of him. Not accustomed to squat, the Western visitors were assuming all sorts of awkward postures. The interpreter touched the knees of the Frenchman, in order to indicate that he should fold his legs. Observing this, His Holiness told the interpreter that there was no need for this restraint. It was difficult for the average Westerner to squat. The way in which the visitors sat did not matter. They were like children in this respect. Why restrain them? How gracious of His Holiness to have made this observation! Is this not a true sign of a Mahatma?
Explaining the Sanskrit saying, His Holiness said: “It is natural that man should seek to satisfy his wants like hunger, thirst and a place to rest. There are duties which an individual has towards himself, the social group, and the nation. Ordinarily the performance of these duties remains on the level of satisfying the creaturely wants. But there is a way of performing these duties which will elevate everyone concerned spiritually. That is dharma. And it is the duty of the king or the state to see that the citizens are provided with every opportunity for spiritual growth and progress. That is the meaning of the saying, Raja dharmasya kaaranam.”
The Frenchman said that he wanted to study Sanskrit in the traditional Indian way, directly from a teacher, without the aid of books. His Holiness expressed his appreciation of this wish, and remarked: “Even in India, that tradition has all but disappeared. The old way was not to confuse the ability to read and write with scholarship. Even the greatest scholars did not know how to read and write.“ Here, one of the visitors cited the instance of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa who could not even sign his name properly in Bengali. His Holiness continued: “I am referring to even secular scholars. Writing was the special art of a small class of people called kanakkars. They were good calligraphers. But the rest of the people, for the most part, were not literate. Eminent mathematicians, astronomers, physicians, Vedic scholars – these could not read and write. Learning was imparted orally and was imbibed by rote. The method has its own excellences, and could be revived with profit, within certain limits.”
Would His Holiness favor the revival of all that is old and ancient, asked Sir Paul Dukes. His Holiness replied that what was good and of value was worthy of revival. There was no need for any propaganda. This is not to be done that way. If a few people would set an example in their personal lives, this would catch on; and a time may come when the West also would emulate. And, when there is recognition from the West, our people may wake up and see something grand in their own past.
One last request, said Sir Paul. What would be the message from His Holiness that could be carried to the West? His Holiness remained silent for a considerable length of time. He was in-drawn, with eyes half-closed, and lost in contemplation. At the end of that period, he spoke in slow, measured tones:
“In all that you do, let love be the sole motive. Any deed must be with reference to another: Action implies the acted-upon as much as the agent. Let action be out of love. I am not here referring to the Gandhian gospel of ahimsa. There may be situations which demand violent action. Punishment, for instance, may be necessary. Even wars may have to be waged. But whatever be the nature of the action, the agent must act out of love. Passions such as desire and hatred, anger and malice must be totally eschewed. If love becomes the guiding principle of all deeds, then most of the ills of the world will vanish.”
“This you may carry with you as the message of the sages and saints of India,” His Holiness added.
Thus ended a memorable interview with one who is the embodiment of all that is most noble and sublime in the spiritual culture of India. Enjoying the aroma of the virtues of gentleness and courtesy, one could see the light of wisdom beaming from those enchanting eyes, as one listened to words which were true, and at the same time, pleasing.