Prof M Hiriyanna occupies the highest echelons in the history of Indian philosophy and aesthetics as a scholar who thoroughly and intimately grasped every dimension of sanātana-samskriti and expressed it in language that was both succinct and profound.
Making ancient wisdom accessible to the lay reader
Hiriyanna’s grounding in Indian culture and his mastery of the art of scholastic expression put him in a perfect position to make the teachings of India’s ancient seers accessible to modern readers.
His writings are at once comprehensive and concise. He was famous for having never written a useless word.
Hiriyanna was born on 7 May 1871 in Mysore in a traditional family. He learnt Sanskrit under the tutelage of Vidvān Periswamy Tirumalacharya and obtained an M.A. from the Madras Christian College.
Hiriyanna, a minimalist in word and deed
In his professional career, he worked at the Mysore Oriental Library and rose to the rank of Professor at Maharaja’s College, Mysore. From his earliest days, he was a wholesome minimalist, constantly trying to remove everything that was superfluous — in his life and his words.
He was punctual, orderly, courteous, and prompt in responding to letters, and silently helped many. A kind deed was not to be trumpeted about.
Also read: The many faces of the poet KV Tirumalesh
A master of both Sanskrit and English
He was so well-versed in both Sanskrit and English languages that if he hadn’t become a professor of Sanskrit, he could have easily been a professor of English. He had an abiding interest in music, mathematics, and painting. Among his several inimitable traits was his tendency to revisit and revise concepts.
At the end of every academic year, he would revise his teaching notes to ensure that he was being unambiguous and intelligible; similarly, he would mentally revisit all concepts he had learned, contemplate upon them, and hone his understanding with further study and research.
A philosopher outside the ivory tower
His student, N Sivarama Sastry, the co-editor of the Prof. M Hiriyanna Commemoration Volume writes — “He was a philosopher in the true Indian tradition, to whom philosophy was not only true thinking but also right living.”
DV Gundappa, a doyen of Kannada literature, notes — “When it came to philosophy, Hiriyanna valued personal experience far more than bookish learning. He backed everything he wrote with solid evidence. If he did not have evidence, he simply would not write.”
The final word on Indian philosophy, arts, and aesthetics
The finest samples of Hiriyanna’s writings can be found in his numerous academic papers and essays collected in multiple anthologies.
The Mission of Philosophy, The Quest after Perfection, Popular Essays in Indian Philosophy, Art Experience, and The Indian Conception of Values are works nonpareil — they contain the final word on Indian philosophy, arts, and aesthetics.
Hiriyanna, in all his writings, made a clear distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ — the latter, which is an end in itself, is more important than the former, which is merely a means to an end. He also emphasised the importance of content over form.
Vedanta, Advaita and Satya, Shiva, Sundara
Thus, he has established through his works that Vedānta is the culmination of Indian philosophy and Advaita is the fulfilment of Vedānta. The direct experience that Advaita speaks about is a value, whereas, all other schools of philosophy stop at stating facts at various realms or, in most cases, end up being systems of belief.
His support for Advaita was thoroughly rational — he was never carried away by the emotional fervour for the school. He views the pursuit of the three cardinal values — Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, i.e., Satya, Shiva, and Sundara — as the best form of training for an individual; it can help both his material and spiritual lives.
In his works, he has shown that both the process and the ideal of Vedānta has practical value for everyday life. He, thus, calls Vedānta as the ‘art of right living’ more than ‘a system of philosophy’.
While most philosophers may ignore the details in their urge to philosophise concepts and data scientists tend to lose the bigger picture, Hiriyanna paid attention to concepts both at the micro and the macro scale — his holistic vision aided by a thorough study of the original texts and bolstered by his experiential wisdom make his writings indispensable.
Hiriyanna, the proponent of the Indic theories of rasa and dhvani
Hiriyanna was amongst the first scholars to write about art as a value in explicit terms. He showed that all discussions on Indian aesthetics culminated in the experience of Rasa, i.e., aesthetic Joy, gained through the realisation of dhvani, i.e., suggestion. He explains the nature of art experience in the light of the concept of jīvanmukti, which forms the core of Advaita-vedānta.
While discussing the ultimate purpose of art, Hiriyanna does not forget to provide it with an ethical framework – he says that art shouldn’t have a moral aim, but it most certainly must have a moral view.
This single statement suffices, if understood well, the futility and inadequacy of ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ art. Hiriyanna goes to the extent of suggesting that art might as well replace religion in the modern day.
Hiriyanna composed his towering essays when many original works of shāstra had not found print and were still in the form of handwritten manuscripts. He diligently perused through the original works with his astute eye and objective vision, bolstered by experiential wisdom. He also critically edited and translated many original works of Vedānta and made them accessible to the lay and the learned alike.
A body of work filled with experiential wisdom & quotable quotes
Many of his statements are proverbial and are quotable quotes for all occasions. For instance, he says — “The purpose of education is not to inform minds, but to form them,” and “Philosophy is common sense rationalised.”
In today’s world of information overload, where the old is constantly replaced by the new, Hiriyanna’s immortal words should serve as the guiding light; speaking about the classical Indian approach, he says, “…when a new stage of progress is reached, the old is not discarded but is consciously incorporated in the new. It is this critical conservatism which marks Indian civilisation, as a whole, that explains its stability and constitutes its special strength.”
Hiriyanna’s works are must reads for every Indian and student of Indian culture. The vision embedded in the works clarifies concepts at various levels — the material, emotional, and spiritual.
Hiriyanna’s works are the embellishment of every library and every heart. True to his name, Hiriyanna (‘older brother’ in Kannada) stands tall as a peerless scholar in the annals of Indian philosophy and aesthetics.
Also read: The ‘Golgotha‘ of Rashtrakavi Govinda Pai
The Best of Hiriyanna (2018), WISE Words and Prekshaa Pratishtana
The Mission of Philosophy, The Quest after Perfection, Popular Essays in Indian Philosophy, Art Experience, and The Indian Conception of Values – Published by the Prekshaa Pratishtana
The Outlines of Indian Philosophy and The Essentials of Indian Philosophy, MLBD
A talk on the complete works of Hiriyanna
Practical Vedanta in the works of M Hiriyanna
The conception of the three cardinal values in the works of M Hiriyanna
(Arjun Bharadwaj is a writer, translator, and researcher with a deep interest in classical literature, arts, and philosophy. He is an engineer by training and is well-versed in Sanskrit (Masters), Kannada, English, German (ZMP), and Greek. Arjun works as a contributing editor of Prekshaa and is currently studying the comparative aesthetics of classical Greek and Indian arts. He has (co-)written and translated many books and authored over 50 research articles related to literature, arts, and philosophy.
Arjun enjoys composing poems, plays the Carnatic flute, and is also a visiting faculty at many universities and educational institutions. Arjun has taught courses and conducted workshops on the Nāṭyashāstra, Arthashāstra, Kalātattva, Purāṇas, Sanskrit literature, Epics, Indian sciences and also on temple art, architecture, and iconography.)