I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility. (John Ruskin)
References to “great men” or “great thinkers” seem to be distributed quite liberally these days, and the attributes of greatness appear to have been diminished in an age of celebrity. Whilst I have been fortunate to meet many eminent scholars, writers and teachers during the course of my career, I have met very few to whom I might assign a title of greatness. However, I was greatly saddened during my recent visit to Bangalore to hear of the death of an individual who I first met in 2000 and was fortunate enough to spend time with on several subsequent occasions who certainly justified the much overused sobriquet “great man.”
Professor Krishna Nath, who was born in 1934 passed away a couple of weeks ago whilst staying with friends at the Valley School in Bangalore. Born into a family of freedom fighters who opposed British rule in India, Krishna Nath continued a heritage of dissent and protest throughout his life, often adopting the cause of Dalit and Tribal peoples who were oppressed and denied basic human rights. As a Satyagrahi he went to prison on thirteen occasions having taken non-violent action on behalf of people who had been subjected to demeaning actions by various authorities. By organising the occupation of Hindu temples by members of the disgracefully labelled “untouchable” castes, thus challenging the authority of a conservative and extreme leadership of that faith, he placed himself in direct opposition to powerful forces and paid the price with periods of incarceration. His actions attracted a number of critics and bitter opponents, but also won great respect from more liberally minded Indians and a wide range of politicians and intellectuals.
As a young man, Krishna Nath was politically active with the Samajwadi movement, campaigning on issues of social justice and equality, and deeply opposed to the dynastic politics of Congress and the inward looking approach of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Having seen the dawning of Indian independence in 1947, like many other idealists at the time, he quickly became disillusioned by the inability of successive Indian governments to provide greater stability and opportunity in the lives of the country’s poorer people.
It was not only for his work as a social activist that Krishna Nath was held in high esteem. Having spent much of his life studying the culture and traditions of the peoples of the Himalaya regions, he was regarded as one of the leading authorities in this area, and wrote a number of scholarly works that have informed an understanding of the region and its people. The World Buddhist Conference recently honoured him for his contribution towards Buddhist thought and culture. Sadly, very little of this work has been translated into English, though it is to be hoped that a suitable scholar might be found to undertake work that would be invaluable to those who would wish to understand more of the culture and history of this little known region. Perhaps the University of Varanasi, with which he was associated over many years may take on the responsibility of ensuring that his seminal work reaches a broader audience.
I was fortunate enough to engage in conversation with Krishna Nath on a few occasions when my visits to the verdant lands of the Valley School near Bangalore coincided with his. Listening to his profound thoughts on Gandhism, the state of Indian politics, the plight of Tibetan Buddhists and Buddhism, or on many aspects of Himalayan art, music or languages, one was soon aware of being in the presence of a true intellectual who had made an immense contribution to the life of his country. Amongst all of this, his apparent simplicity and humility stood out as a characteristic of a man who was more interested in his listener than in hearing his own voice.
Amongst all his intellectual prowess, there was a very natural and often humorous side to Krishna Nath. I recall for example crossing a busy road in Bangalore with him on one occasion. By this time he was not terribly nimble on his feet and clearly did not enjoy the chaos of the traffic. Standing between hooting cars, lorries, motorcycles and auto rickshaws (not to mention an assortment of cattle) in the middle of the highway, Krishnaji turned to me and said:-
“Richard my friend, I always feel close to God when I am crossing the roads in Bangalore!”
I knew exactly what he meant and was grateful when we reached our destination in one piece.
On another occasion, leaving the dining hall at the Valley school, I was unable to locate my sandals that had been left outside the door prior to entry. Just as I was about to accuse the local monkey population of yet another theft, I heard Krishna Nath exclaiming that his feet had most certainly swollen as his sandals felt extremely tight! Gazing at his predicament I was soon able to solve the problem by locating his footwear and relieving him of my own.
I could have wished to have spent more time with a man who was a great scholar, and a tireless fighter of injustice and oppression. Listening to him speak I was acutely aware that every word he used was carefully measured and his statements weighed and considered before he proffered an opinion. His life was an example and an inspiration to all who came into contact with him. The Dalai Lama, and numerous Asian intellectuals considered Krishna Nath to be a friend and sound counsellor, and many have good cause to be thankful for his tireless campaigning on their behalf. The memories of the few occasions when I was able to sit and listen to him, are ones that I treasure, and I count myself fortunate to have known him.
Many of the recordings made of Krishna Nath Speaking are not available in English, despite the fact that he spoke the language fluently. This brief recording is one of the few to have English sub-titles and provides only limited insight into his great intellect