The Versatile Sardar -K. M. Panikker

published on December 10, 2006

                                              By M. P. Ajithkumar

(Lecturer in History, Sanathana Dharma College, Alappuzha)


                       One who moves in with the lights of the present,

                             falling in with own ethics, and fights unafraid

                             in the life’s battles, He attains tranquility.


                   This is indeed his life’s philosophy that Sardar K. M. Panikker the versatile genius had introduced through his thought provoking lines of his beautiful poem Chinthatharangini (the river of thoughts). A genius with command over a wide spectrum of subjects ranging from literature to administration, which he embellished in the most accomplished manner, Panikker was a rare Indian who carved a niche for himself among the international community of scholarship, a fete few Indians could achieve.


     He was born on 13 May 1894 into the aristocratic Chalayil family of Kavalam at Kuttanad, the place popularized as ‘Kottonora’ by the anonymous author of the Roman travelogue, Periplus of the Eritrean Sea. This sleepy village, far famed as the rice bowl of Kerala, developed a cosmopolitan culture with its surrounding lakes and lagoons offering much to the weary and studious travelers hailing from far of lands. Certainly, it was in those modern times the hub of international commercial and cultural contacts and it is no surprise, if it had given birth to such an internationally reputed genius as Sardar Kavalam Madhava Panikker.


   Initiated into the three R’s at the very young age of four, Madhavan, as he was fondly called, quickly swallowed algebra and the Malayalam literature, Srikrishnacharitham manipravalam. He underwent prodigious schooling at Maharaja’s School, Thiruvananthapuram, the school at Anaprampal near Thalavady (Alappuzha District) and CMS School at kottayam. Later, having had his Matriculation passed from St. Paul’s High School, Madras, Madhavan took to his higher education at Madras Christian College. And quiet shortly he left for London where he embarked on with higher education at Christ Church, Oxford.


     He was good at English education and a promising student of History, his twin merits that helped him scale unimaginable heights both in life as well as his academic career. But he was not so much mad after these faculties as to forget his native land and mother tongue. In fact the new experiences he gathered from his London life coloured his imaginations and enriched his academic excellence so much so that he could write brilliantly about Oxford, its scholastic accomplishments and many a burning question of the time in the leading Malayalam publications like Bhashaposhini, Kairali, Mangalodayam, etc. Like the ‘Savyasachi’ who darted with both hands he handled very sublime and beautiful Malayalam, both prose and poetry, with as much ease as he wrote English. His Bhupasandesham, Sandhyatharam, Haidernaikker, Amruthalahari, Swathanthryasamaram, Rasikarasayanam (translation of Omar Khayam’s Rubayyath), Pankiparinayam etc., still remain the gems of Malayalam literature. 

     His maiden writing in English was the article on freedom movement in Hungary carried by the Indian Review of Madras published by G. Natesan. And the writer in Panikker received further exposure when he was selected first by Dr. Sir. C. P. Ramaswami Iyer in the essay competition conducted in English for the Indian students in foreign countries by T. K. Swaminathan, the Editor of Colonial Review. The publication of this essay headlined ‘Introduction to the Problems of Greater India’ (1916) with a foreword by Sir. C. P, proved a great impetus for Panikker to write more. And with his brilliant write-ups, which appeared in Modern Review, Hindusthan Review, Indian Review, Common wheel, etc., getting the attention of academics and intellectuals he started scaling further heights.


    History and philosophy he juggled with utmost ease. In fact like all the great visionaries Panikker too looked to history as the passage to Philosophy. History has a meaning, a sense, and an idea behind, a message to be imparted to humanity, a message that would help it in its long onward march to cultural progress. He much loved the spiritual values upheld by his motherland, India and her Oriental neighbours and equally tiraded against the western vested interest, which by exploiting the Asiatic countries tried to feather its nests. With extraordinary ability he exposed before the intellectual community the devilish means the Occidental forces followed in their exploitation of the Orient. Though he top-ranked in gaining command over English language and a good mastery in occidental literature, unlike the many Indian scholars in English language and literature Panikker was not a mere parrot of the western culture. This is well reflected in almost all his writings, which are proud of the ancient heritage his motherland nourished down the millennia and they are enough to fan the flames of patriotism and love of Indian culture and heritage in any student on with his studies in history. Not only that he criticized the western distortions in Indian history written in conformity with the European colonial requirements but he darted aptly strong and piercing replies too to many of the historical confusions such distortions have brought about. His A Survey of Indian History bristles with many such replies, which cut from under the feet, many misconceptions created by the European Indologists.  A book any student of Indian history and culture should compulsorily read, it is one of the classics of history.  It strongly comes out against the European tendency to disintegrate the Indian society by creating dissentions in Indian minds. While the end of all kinds of studies is to create coherence of thought and action out of de-coherence, leading towards the ultimate unity of all, the method the Europeans followed in writing Indian history was aimed at creating de-coherence and disintegration. And the Europeans applied this de-cohering method in almost all the contexts of Indian history as a means to falsely expose how divided the Indians were in the past in ideology and culture. It would be interesting to take notice of how the Sardar responds in such contexts of British writings on Indian history. For instance he brings to notice the deliberate attempt and evil design behind the European writers’ depicting Emperor Asoka as the Constantine of Buddhism and the fallacy of looking at Indian history through European spectacles. Let us look at how Panikker deals with this travesty of truth in Indian history:


Asoka is spoken of as a Buddhist emperor and his reign as a kind of Buddhist period in Indian history. The distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism in India was purely sectarian and never more than the difference between Saivism and Vaishnavism. The exclusiveness of religious doctrines is a Semitic conception, which was unknown to India for a long time. The Buddha himself was looked upon in his lifetime and afterwards as a Hindu saint and avatar and his followers were but another sect in the great Aryan tradition. Asoka was a Buddhist in the same way Harsha was a Buddhist, or Kumarapala was a Jain. But in the view of the people of the day, he was a Hindu monarch following one of the recognized sects. His own inscriptions bear ample witness to this fact. While his doctrines follow the middle path, his gifts are to the Brahmins, Sramanas (Buddhist priests) and others equally. [It is also to be noticed that the Madhyamikamarga or the middle path the Buddha prescribed for his followers was nothing new to Indian tradition. Vairagya that lies between Kama and Krodha had already been with the Indian thought. Sri Krishna in the Githa had already dealt with the reactionary chain of vishayasanga, Kama, Krodha, sammoha, smruthivibhrama and the ultimate destruction at length.] His own name of adoption is Devanam Priya, the beloved of the gods. Which gods? Surely the gods of the Aryan religion. Buddhism had no gods of its own. The idea that Asoka was a kind of Buddhist Constantine declaring himself against paganism is a complete misreading of Indian conditions through the eyes of the Christian Europe. Asoka was essentially a Hindu, as indeed was the founder of the sect to which he belonged. (A Survey of Indian History, Asia Publishing House, Mumbai, 1977, pp. 33-34)


    Panikker sharply reacted to the witch-dance of the religious fundamentalism and fanaticism also that rocked India down the centuries. The fanatical powers, which through torturing the Hindus tried to build up the Islamic Empires in India did not get an easy go from Panikker’s sharp criticisms. And definitely it was the fanatical Aurangzeb who was much vilified and pooh-poohed by Panikker. Though Aurangzeb entrusted the moist eminent of his officers to “watch that son of a dog (Sivaji)” and spent most of his life to fight down the rising Hindu nationalism under Sivaji, it all ended in vain and he died a defeated man. Thus Sardar Panikker satirically comments it:


     He [Aurangzeb] died a defeated man, but he died for an ideal – the unification of India. He was in fact the martyr for India’s unity, but the unity he desired to establish and for which he ruined his great inheritance was not the unity of a national state… but of an Islamic state – the rule of a conquering minority over India. It is that ideal which lies buried under the mausoleum at Aurangabad”. (A Survey of Indian History, p. 181)


      Panikker was morally committed to expose the fanatical approach of the alien forces against other cultural nationalisms also of the Orient. It is interesting to note that the European Church with all its operations falling wide off the real teachings of Jesus Christ was the hallmark of the colonial and imperialist interests of the European powers and it was up to any extent ready to prostitute the ideals of the great Nazarene if that would help it exploit and destroy the cradles of ancient civilization for the enrichment of the West. And it had, as it is now also, an army of Mephistopheleses and Luciphers to execute its bloody warrant, the missionaries. All Oriental cultures like India, China and Japan suffered a lot owing to these ones of whom Francis Xavier proved the most notorious. He was sworn to uproot the Oriental cultures by torpedoing their socio-economic stability and bring them under the European domination. For this he and his coterie were prepared to adopt any devilish means. Thus Panikker says:


   In 1543 Goa was made a Bishopric with authority extending over the entire Far East. Special instructions were issued to the Portuguese Viceroy to root out the infidels. Hindu temples in Goa were destroyed and their property distributed to religious orders (like the Franciscans) in 1540. (Asia and Western Dominance, Somayya Publications, Mumbai, 1999, p. 280)   


He further writes:


The Portuguese came to India with a Cross in the one hand and a sword in the other. King Joao 111 (1557-1578) was particularly anxious about the spread of Christianity and wrote to the Viceroy Joao de Castro demanding that all power of the Portuguese should be directed to this purpose. “The great concernment which lies upon Christian princes to look to matters of Faith and to employ their forces for its preservation makes me advise you how sensible I am that not only in many parts of India under our subjection but in our city of Goa, idols are worshipped, places in which our Faith may be more reasonably expected to flourish; and being well informed with how much liberty they celebrated heathenish festivals WE command you to discover by diligent officers all the idols and to demolish and break them up in pieces where they are found, proclaiming severe punishments against anyone who shall dare to work, cast, make in sculpture, engrave, paint or bring to light any figure of an idol in metal, brass, wood, plaster or any other matter, or bring them from other places; and against who publicly or privately celebrated any of their sports, keep by them any heathenish frankincense or assist and hide the Brahmins, the sworn enemies of the Christian profession- –.It is our pleasure that you punish them with the severity of the Law without admitting any appeal or dispensation in the least”. (K M Panikker, Malabar and the Portuguese, Voice of India, New Delhi, 1977. See blurb)                                          



   Panikker’s statement that these missionaries were iconoclasts number one is testified to by their own writings. Let us look at how Francis Xavier found himself ecstatic at the images of the Hindu gods being broken to pebbles. Xavier writes:


        Following the baptism, the new Christians return to their homes and come back with their wives and families to be in their turn also prepared for baptism. After all have been baptized, I order that everywhere the temples of the false gods be pulled down and all idols be broken. I know not how to describe in words the joy I feel before this spectacle of pulling down and destroying the Idols by the very people who formerly worshipped them. (Letter dated 8 February 1545.  See H. J. Colridge, Life and Letters of Francis Xavier, London, 1861, Vol. I, p. 10)

    Panikker amply exposes what these missionaries did in China for mass conversion. Here too they followed the path of double-dealings, bad manners and treachery. Their fanaticism had crossed all limits of human standards in their bid to westernize China and her traditions. Thus he writes:


  On the site of the temple in Tientsin, which was also an imperial palace, the French, without any legal title, erected a Roman Catholic Cathedral in 1869…At Tienstin was also established an orphanage by a Catholic Sisterhood. These sisters arranged for the payment of a sum for every child brought to the orphanage, that is in plain words established a kind of purchase system encouraging the less scrupulous Chinese middlemen to kidnap children. (Asia and Western Dominance, p. 138)


    Their technique to create dissention within the countries wedded to lofty national cultures by exploiting the seeming differences among the national communities constitutes the stories of craft and cunningness. Ricci, the Italian Jesuit who reached the Chinese capital, Peking was crafty enough to saw the seeds of dissention in Chinese society. Thus writes Panikker:


  Early in his Chinese studies Ricci had detected the conflict between Buddhism and Confucianism. Realizing that the greatest obstacle to Christianity was Buddhism, he sided with Confucians and attacked the Buddhists. He quoted from the Confucian texts in support of the Christian doctrines and tried to show that Confucian doctrines did not conflict with Christianity. (Asia and Western Dominance. P. 283)


      India’s case was far more deplorable than that of China and Japan. While other Asiatic nations responded with strong revenge to the fanatical aggression of the Christian missionaries Indian response in this regard was fraught with meekness and submission. This crass laxity and indifference the Hindus have been showing to such destructive forces down the centuries finally helped the alien forces to uproot the very culture of Hindustan, Panikker would often point out. Differences and disagreements based on castes and communities added to this national handicap, which deterred the national communities from getting united. Panikker was of the firm opinion that it was this social inequality with no spiritual or scriptural imprimatur behind that left ground for the alien forces to dig deep crevasses and destroy our nation and its culture. And through out his writings on Indian history and culture Panikker strove to drive home to the Indians the coherence and strength of their culture. Indeed Panikker was one among a few who were concerned of the vicious problems that have been putting India and its Hindu society at crossroads.


   Yet another masterpiece of Panikker that is highly vocal on the cultural heritage of India is his Studies in Indian History, which elaborately analyses India’s cultural expansion and the East-West cultural contact in ancient times. This work, which could rightly be hailed one of the classics of history and philosophy, is noted for its lofty visionary character. The success of life in ancient India depended on how its people balanced the different walks of both their spiritual and material pursuits, and this aspect is clearly, lucidly and highly philosophically explained by Panikker in one of the essays of this book. This essay titled ‘An Introduction to Vatsyayana’ is one of a few ennobling emendations or interpretations ever written for the sutra of Vatsyayana and ancient India’s balanced approach to eroticism setting it against the wider canvas of the life’s entirety. A doyen in the world of history writings, he proved a prolific writer. And all his works like Hindu Society at Crossroads, Sri Harsha of Kanauj, India and China, India and Indian Ocean, In Two Chinas, History of Kerala, Malabar and the Dutch, Malabar and the Portuguese, to quote a few, are the ripe fruits of historical knowledge. His valuable contributions to Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan’s History and Culture of the Indian People are by all means the reflections of a mighty soul on the versatility of India’s history and culture.


   Having scaled unfathomable heights in the world of knowledge, Panikker was crowned with many recognitions and acceptance, which few could match

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