Sri Kapali Sastry (1886-1953) was a highly respected Vedic scholar and Sanskrit authority. Even after he became Sri Aurobindo’s disciple and entered the Ashram, he continued to write many commentaries and definitive works. The young Chinmoy had the immense good fortune to study under him in the Ashram school and the following anecdotes capture his love and respect for this great soul.
Chinmoy’s full-length play The Descent of the Blue, which was published serially in the Mother India from 1958 to 1962, contains the following scene depicting the momentous day in Kapali Sastry’s life when he was accepted by Sri Aurobindo as his disciple.
Act XI, Scene 3
(1923. Pondicherry. Sri Aurobindo’s residence.)
(Enter T.V. Kapali Sastri, an eminent Sanskrit scholar of South India.)
KAPALI: (Bowing his head to Sri Aurobindo) Sir, six years back when I first came to you I asked you about India’s possibilities and you gave me an inspiring answer, ‘not possibility but certainty.’ This time you are giving me another inspiring thing – your golden complexion. It is no longer deep-brown as before. In you, Yoga incarnate carries now its true complexion.
Now I have come, my mind made up once for all, to throw myself at your feet and upon your Grace for ever. Pray how should I proceed in the first step of your Yoga?
SRI AUROBINDO: My Yoga aims at transformation of the whole being, not excluding the physical.
KAPALI: How and where to begin?
SRI AUROBINDO: One has to bring the Divine Consciousness right down into the very cells.
KAPALI: Too difficult even to think of. But I cannot try the too-hard so soon. I repeat I throw myself at your feet and upon your Grace, now and for ever. Do with me as you please.
(Sri Aurobindo gives a gracious smile and a nodding assent. With a parting pranam Kapali leaves the Master’s presence, profoundly happy.)
An early photograph of Kapali Sastry.
Prabhakar was my first Sanskrit teacher. Then I got a promotion to South India’s great Sanskrit scholar Kapali Sastry. He was an authority, specially on the Rig Veda. Sri Aurobindo said such nice things about him.
This story happened in 1945. I had written some prayers in English. They came from the very depths of my heart. I was a seeker and I shall always remain an eternal seeker, so these prayers came from the seeker in me.
I liked this particular teacher very much. He was extremely kind to me and full of affection for me. I went to his house and showed him these prayers. They numbered about twenty. He liked them immensely. Then he said to me, “Who has written them?”
I said, “I wrote them.”
He asked, “Is it true?”
I replied, “Yes.”
He said, “Always we have to know who writes.”
I said again, “I wrote them.”
Then he said, “Chinmoy, you are just a young fellow. If somebody had told me that Mother had written these prayers, my faith in the Mother would have increased so much! I would have immediately touched her feet and offered her all my love, adoration and devotion because they are so beautiful, so soulful. But you are just a little kid, so I cannot do that. I know who you are. Instead of touching your feet, I can only bless you.”
He patted me on the shoulder and congratulated me because I wrote those prayers. I still have them in my Indian notebooks.
What a wonderful teacher! He was absolutely right. Always we have to know who has written the words or who has said the words. If a thief says, “Do not steal, do not tell lies,” are you going to listen to him? The very next moment he himself will go and steal and tell lies and everything. But if a saint says, “Do not steal,” then there is a force behind it. The force carries through the words. The same thing can be said by different people but you have to know the source.
This next story happened a few months later. In those days, in December, we used to have an annual cultural function at the Ashram. My Sanskrit teacher, Kapali Sastry, had translated Sri Aurobindo’s poem “Who” into Sanskrit. In English, the poem begins,
In the blue of the sky, in the green of the forest,
Whose is the Hand that has painted the glow?
I like this poem so much. Hundreds and hundreds of times I used to recite it – sometimes softly, sometimes forcefully.
Anyway, my teacher was teaching the class to recite the Sanskrit words in the South Indian style. Unfortunately, on that occasion I became the worst student because I did not like his way at all. He wanted me to join the group but I was not getting any joy, so I was not learning his way. I was making mistakes, perhaps deliberately, God alone knows.
This teacher had such affection for me, but I was not doing it the way it should be done. So he asked me to recite it for him in my own way. The way I recite poems, Bengali and Sanskrit, is pure Tagore style. He said, “It is useless.” Then he kicked me out of the group. Since I could not learn his way, he threw me out.
Mother used to watch the final rehearsal of each group. If she approved the performance, then only you could be in the programme. So my teacher took about twenty students to recite the poem in front of the Mother. Many Ashramites were also there listening and I was among the audience. I was in a very good consciousness, not at all jealous!
Mother listened to their recitation, but she did not like it at all. Still, she graciously gave him another chance. She said to this greatest scholar, “Next week you come back to me with your group. They need improvement.”
Then my poor teacher came up to me and said, “Chinmoy, I have failed. Now you do it in your own way. Since the Mother did not approve of my way, let us try yours.”
In the back of his mind, he never thought, even for a second, that Mother would be pleased with my style. So I said to him, “If you are not pleased with my way, why are you accepting it? If you yourself do not like it, it is useless for me to teach others.”
He said, “I am a little bit sad and embarrassed. But I really want you to try. Perhaps Mother will make a selection. She heard mine this week and she will hear yours next week. The best thing is to try your way.”
So I became the teacher and everybody learnt it in my way. My way was very simple. Sometimes there was a musical touch in it. He also made a few suggestions to improve it.
We went the following week to recite the poem in front of the Mother. O God, she liked it very much. Her comment was, “Very good!”
I was not in the group. I was seated in the front row. Then Mother had to ask me whether I recited or not. She asked me what I was doing in the audience. So I also joined the group and, in a week or two, at the cultural programme, we recited it exactly my way.
My poor teacher! He showed such magnanimity of heart. Not only was he the ocean of wisdom but he had such a large heart. He was sincerely happy that Mother like my version. This story shows his nobility.
Next to Kapali Sastry, we were like drops. He was the ocean of knowledge. He wrote a book in English that was all about the Mother. It was called Flame of White Light. He asked me to translate it into Bengali. In the Ashram, these great sadhaks did not request; they just compelled. The order came, “Do it for me.” The order came to me through M.P. Pandit, who was a very great literary figure in the Ashram. Sri Aurobindo was M.P. Pandit’s Guru but Kapali Sastry was his mentor.
So I translated the book into Bengali. The title was “Sada jyoti shikha”.
The booklet was printed at the Ashram. The original cover and the pages of Bengali text follow:1
In February 1986, I was visiting my family at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. One day I was near Sri Aurobindo’s Samadhi. All of a sudden, so many reminiscences of my Sanskrit teacher started flowing in my mind-river. I could not believe it. Later I learnt that it was his centenary year.
– End –
1 Colour plates have been omitted due to copyright restrictions.