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The ‘most enlightened Indian’ and a polymath unrivalled

The records of the work of our great men past are monuments in themselves, says Sunitha Madhavan, as she traces the life and times of a many-splendoured man called Calamur Viravalli Runganatha Sastri

Calamur Viravalli Runganatha Sastri was born on February 15, 1820, at Calamur Village in  North Arcot District. With his thorough grounding in Vedic lore from his father Anantharama Sastri, he became an erudite Sanskrit scholar. Financial distress drove the family to Chittoor, the district headquarters. The father took an Ijara (contract as per Islamic finance) under the government. Unable to pay the lease amount, he landed in civil jail.

Runganatha’s grandfather’s annual ceremony was nearing.  Seeing his mother wailing, the 16-year-old-boy made an epoch-making decision that changed the course of his future. He went to the collector’s office, requested the release of his father for a day, offering to take his place in jail. Stunned, the collector let off both the father and son on the condition that they return after the ceremony. The pithrus, (spirits of departed ancestors according to Hindu philosophy) pleased, must have blessed young Runganatha. The rest of his story is history.

The peculiar circumstances convinced the collector of the grit and genius in the young boy. Runganathan’s English education commenced. Casamajor, district judge, took paternal interest and sent him to Madras for study under J. Kerr, headmaster of Bishop Corrie’s School. Kerr was highly appreciative of the ‘mental powers’ of his new student. Later, on his return to England, Kerr published his book titled, Domestic Life of the Natives of India, in which he wrote that he and his prodigious pupil read together (Adam) Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Paley’s Natural Theology.

After a couple of years of learning under Kerr, Runganatha Sastri was admitted into the High School of the Madras University in 1840, the year of its foundation. E. B. Powell at once recognised the remarkable ability of his new pupil and induced Runganatha to teach the lower class. Rajah Sir T. Madhava Rao was then his student. In 1842, Runganatha presented himself as a candidate for the Proficient degree. He was the only one who passed with high honours.

As the First Proficient of Presidency College, Runganatha received a first class Proficient Certificate, and was given the coveted First Proficient Ring. Made of solid gold with emerald in the centre, the ring is preserved by the family. In those days, the accomplished were presented one by one to the governor. Lord Elphinstone then Madras Governor, slipped the ring with the name of the recipient engraved, ‘C. Runganatha Sastry, First Proficient’, on his finger as a recognition of great merit.

Casamajor by this time (1839) was transferred to Madras as a judge of the Supreme Court. At his request, Runganathan’s study in higher mathematics continued under Powell. This was to equip him gain a footing in the proposed engineering college that was to come up in Madras. The versatile student’s fund of knowledge increased in geometric progression. His flair for languages made him competent in sixteen Indian languages! Already distinguished in English Language and Literature, at Madras Runganatha began the study of European languages, becoming deeply versed in French, German, Italian, Greek and Latin. He emerged a polymath unrivalled.

George Norton, then president of the University Committee, as well as Powell, recommended Runganatha Sastri for the prestigious post of a teacher in the engineering college. Unfortunately, the Madras Government dropped all plans and the college never materialised. Runganathan got a calling – he returned to Chittoor to take care of his ailing father. There, on July 1st, 1844, he joined the Subordinate Judge’s Court as English writer on a payment of Rs 70. His leisure time was profitably used to learn more of the Indian vernaculars besides Persian, Urdu, and Arabic. Nearly the whole of the records in the court were translated by him alone. When his father died, he wished to leave Chittoor.

Back in Madras, in May 1846, in open competition for the post of head interpreter in the Supreme Court, Rnganatha stood first. He got appointed after being examined in Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Canarese, Hindustani and Persian. The fluency of his interpretations won him the admiration of the judges. One day, when a French interpreter was required, Runganathan offered his services. The presiding judge, Gambier, was wonderstruck at the “remarkable ease and accuracy with which he could speak French and German”. It was mentioned in the Madras Mail of 6th July 1881 that carried Sastri’s obituary. His home library had a collection of 3,000 books and manuscripts. He, in fact, died with a book in hand.

Above all, Runganatha Sastri’s mastery of Sanskrit texts was such that not a single intricate point of Hindu Law was decided without his opinion being taken. Sir Christopher Rawlinson was his greatest admirer. In 1859, when Sir Charles Trevelyan arrived as Governor of Madras, Sir Christopher introduced Runganatha Sastri to him as the most enlightened Indian in Madras.  In April of that year, a vacancy on Small Cause Court Bench arose. Runganatha Sastri applied himself to the study of law and was the first Indian to fill the highest judicial office then open to an Indian. His scholarship was the talk of the day.

Besides his extensive intellectual attainments, Runganatha devoted great attention to physical exercises. He was a prominent athlete and horseman. His son C.V. Sundaram Sastri was an equally accomplished leading vakil (lawyer), equestrian and a superb artist. At the second All India Congress session held in December in 1927 in Calcutta, Sir Madhava Rao wanted his speech to be read out by C.V. Sundaram Sastri whose diction was perfect.

From 1846, recognition came to Runganatha Sastri from all quarters. He was one of the governors of the Madras University and was one of its first fellows under the Act of 1857. His medal was displayed during the centenary celebrations in 1957. In the Senate his counsel was highly valued as could be discerned from the testimony of George Norton: “I have every expectation that he will apply his powerful mind and untiring efforts for the  amelioration of the conditions and prospects of his fellow country-men, who are already deeply indebted to him for his past labours as one of the governors of the Madras University.” 

Runganatha Sastri was a social reformer who advocated female education. In this he won the support of Dadhabai Naoroji. Sastri was a trustee of Pachaiyappa’s Charities from 1865 to the date of his sudden death on July 5th, 1881. In January 1877, the intellectual was invited for the Imperial Assemblage in Delhi, and was presented a medal and a certificate of honour by Viceroy Lord Lytton. 

When he retired in February 1880, for his distinguished services, Runganatha was made a non-official member of the Madras Legislative Council. In July that year, he was offered by Sir Salar Jung the post of private secretary, on a salary of Rs 2,500, which he declined.  Sastri desired to spend time educating his grandchildren. Though the time spent was hardly for a year, since he died the following year (of heatstroke in Madras after returning from a cold Bangalore) his grandsons lived up to his dream. They were later Justices Sir C. V. Kumaraswamy Sastri and Diwan Bahadur C. V. Viswanatha Sastri. On becoming judges, they handed over their case files to their sister’s (Seethammal) husband. He was Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer.

Runganatha Sastri’s grandson [through his daughter Meenakshi Ammal] was Prof. C. Chandrasekharan, the extraordinary scholar and linguist, who was awarded a gold propeller pen by His Excellency Sir Grant Duff, governor of Madras. He was made the first principal of the Maharaja College of Vizianagaram by Maharaja Ananda Gajapathi. Mention may be made of two great grandsons, V. N. Viswanatha Rao, collector of Tinnevelly  and Krishna Bharathi Thirthar of Vedic Maths. The latter became the pontiff of Puri Sankara Peetam.

The statue of E. B. Powell, the first principal in Presidency College was put up in 1882, owing to the initiative taken by Runganatha, his own contribution being Rs 1,000. But he did not live to see it installed. Runganatha Sastri munificently rewarded other scholars and Sanskrit  pandits and made his Calamur House in Tondiarpet, North Chennai, their  home as well. His affluent wife Lakshmi Ammal was from Virinchipuram. Sastriyar with his grandsons never missed joining the Vedaparayanam during the annual Brahmotsavam festival of the ancient temple at the place.

That Runganatha Sastri held learned discussions with Muslim scholars in Persian and Arabic is known from Sir Ahmed Hussain’s letter to Sir C. V. Kumaraswami Sastri, dated 3rd Jauary 1924.

(The writer is the great, great, great granddaughter of C. V. Runganatha Sastri.)