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He was born as Kedarnath Pandey on 9 April 1893 in Pandaha village, Azamgarh district, in a Bhumihar Brahmin family in Eastern Uttar Pradesh . He received formal schooling at a local primary school, though he later studied and mastered numerous languages independently, as well as the art of photography.

In his initial days he was a keen follower of Arya Samaj of Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Buddhism came to him and changed his life.He lost faith in God’s existence but still retained faith in reincarnation. Later he moved towards Marxist Socialism and rejected the concepts of reincarnation and afterlife also. The two volumes of Darshan-Digdarshan, the collected history of World’s Philosophy give an indication of his philosophy when we find the second volume much dedicated to Dharmakirti’s Pramana Vartika. This he discovered in Tibetan translation from Tibet.

His travels took him to different parts of India including Ladakh, Kinnaur, and Kashmir. He also travelled to several other countries including Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Iran, China, and the former Soviet Union. He spent several years in the “Parsa Gadh” village in the Saran District in Bihar. The village’s entry gate is named “Rahul Gate”. While travelling, he mostly used surface transport, and he went to certain countries clandestinely; he entered Tibet as a Buddhist monk. He made several trips to Tibet and brought valuable paintings and Pali and Sanskrit manuscripts back to India. Most of these formed a part of the libraries of Vikramshila and Nalanda Universities. These objects had been taken to Tibet by fleeing Buddhist monks during the twelfth and subsequent centuries when the invading Muslim armies had destroyed universities in India. Some accounts state that Rahul Sankrityayan employed twenty-two mules to bring these materials from Tibet to India. Patna Museum, Patna, has a special section of these materials in his honour, where a number of these and other items have been displayed.

Although he had little formal education, in view of his knowledge and command over the subject, University of Leningrad appointed him Professor of Indology in 1937–38 and again in 1947–48.

Many of Rahul’s personal collections including the ones he gathered from his multiple trips to Tibet were distributed across to multiple Universities and Museums. Patna Museum has an extensive collection of Buddhist scrolls which he assimilated through his journeys across Tibet.Many of these are rare gems of Indian scriptures translated into Tibetan.

Rahul was married when very young and never came to know anything of his child-wife,Santoshi.Probably he saw her only once in his 40s as per his autobiography:Meri Jivan Yatra. During his stay in Soviet Russia a second time, accepting an invitation for teaching Buddhism at Leningrad University, he came in contact with a Mongolian scholar Lola (Ellena Narvertovna Kozerovskaya). She could speak French, English, and Russian and write Sanskrit. She helped him in working on Tibetan- Sanskrit dictionary. Their attachment ended in marriage and birth of son Igor. Mother and son were not allowed to accompany Rahul to India after completion of his assignment. It was Stalin’s Russia.

Late in life, he married Dr. Kamala, an Indian Nepali lady and had a daughter (Jaya) and a son (Jeta).Jeta is now a professor at North Bengal University in the field of Economics and Jaya lives now at Dehradun as per sources.

Rahul accepted a teaching job at a Sri Lankan University, where he fell seriously ill. Diabetes, high blood pressure and a mild stroke struck him. Most tragic happening was the loss of memory. He breathed his last in Darjeeling in 1963 .

His last residence at Darjeeling was at 21 Kacheri Road: Rahul Nivas.