Professor Nilkanth Gurtoo

“Professor Nilkanth Gurtoo is no more” :

An Apparent Warning to Kashmiri Pandits

Mrinal Kaul

December 22, 2008

Yet another towering Kashmirian Sanskritist passes away and the Kashmiris are orphaned of their Sanskrit heritage perhaps for the last time. The death of every Kashmirian Sanskrit scholar is perhaps a warning in itself to the Kashmiri Pandits of losing their heritage of which they are unhesitatingly boastful, but are unimaginably ignorant of, and yet they call themselves ‘Saivites’. This scrutinizes the irony of history of civilizations that people belonging to a particular civilization display their unperturbed desire to learn about it when it is already dead, but when a civilization is surviving, no one ever would be bothered to record it authentically. This, in particular, has been a major problem with Indian historiography. I can only hope to record its present survival by studying it analytically.

In past couple of decades Kashmir has lost the remaining towering Sanskrit pandits, who were also the ambassadors of Sanskrit learning in Kashmir, like Pandit Raghunath Kukiloo, Prof Balajinnath Pandit, Pandit Dinanath Yaksh only to name a few and their obituaries were evident warnings for ‘Kashmiris’ that should have made them take their “glorious past” rather seriously. Professor Gurtoo is no more and a few second generation Sanskrit pandits (I cannot count more than three of them) who at least know something about Saivism and Sanskrit treatises are in the waiting list. I am attempting this life sketch of Prof Nilkanth Gurtoo not only to inform the world about this unsung hero, but also to produce it as a warning for all those Kashmiris who would not think that these traditional pedagogical systems should be saved in India, but rather should be lived for. Kashmir,  as it used to be a hub of Persian and Sanskrit studies in India half a century back, is today notorious worldwide for its terrorist activities. Today, the Kashmiris know neither Persian nor Sanskrit and are ashamed of talking to their children in Kashmiri. Needless to say that unfortunately this is what is happening with most of the Indian languages.

I have noticed a strong desire among some Kashmiris to learn about their past, but I always developed differences with them owing to my distinct academic approach and their irrationally stern preconceived bias for research oriented academic study of Saivism. Contrary to that I have also come across some so called 'overnight experts' in “Kashmir Saivism” who are misusing this system for gaining popularity among common masses. All I can say is 'Good luck to them'. Nobody ever showed a faithful wish to learn, but everyone was pretending to “know” and I could always sense the unwanted ego working in the background. Here I must also mention that one has to treat academic study separately from spirituality that is always misunderstood by common masses in case of Sanskrit studies or Saivism in particular. Prof Gurtoo was one such great academician with a flair for research orientation in both these fields. Kashmiris in general are happy being in their orthodox well and never want to come out of it. To them, my historical approach to Kashmirian studies makes me an ‘unwelcome intruder’ in the subject. At least that is what they have made me feel all these years since when I began studying Saivism. They would call me a “child” when their orthodox theories are criticized by my rational approach. Well, this irony will continue to survive as far as I am lungful of air, but my sole purpose of introducing the life of Professor Nilkanth Gurtoo is just this that they should come out of their well and develop the sensitivity and patience to learn Saivism rather academically. I think this is what was the pursuit of Prof Gurtoo’s life and this is what we should learn from his death. I am writing this because I think he was the last ‘Kashmiri’ who knew Saivism to such a depth.

Early Life and Academic Career

I do not know how many Kashmiris would know Professor Nilkanth Gurtoo whom I regarded the last traditional Sanskrit pandit of Kashmir. He passed away on 18 December 2008 in New Delhi. 

With him the Kashmirian tradition of Sanskrit scholarship comes to an end. He was born on 2 January, 1925 in Srinagar (Kashmir) and was a son of Pandit Tarachand Gurtoo. He was initiated into Sanskrit studies by Pandit Maheshwar Nath Nehru. Pandit Jankinath Dhar (Vanaprastha) of Arya Samaj taught him the Astadhyayi of Panini. Later, he learned advanced texts of Sanskrit grammar and linguistics with Pandit Lalkak Langoo and Pandit Sarvadananda Handoo of Dharmarth Council taught him several texts of Sanskrit literature. He also qualified the traditional degrees of Prajna, Visharada and Shastri in Sanskrit from Government Sanskrit College in Srinagar that was affiliated to the undivided University of Punjab in Lahore. After qualifying for Prabhakar degree he went ahead and earned a B.A. in Sanskrit. This allowed him to have a solid foundation and develope deep groundings in Sanskrit language and literature.

Professor Gurtoo initially worked in Government Sanskrit School of Tral village in Kashmir as a Sanskrit teacher. While teaching there he also earned a M.A. in Sanskrit. Thereafter, in 1955 he was appointed as Head-pandit in the Jammu & Kashmir Research and Publication Department of Government of Jammu & Kashmir. Later, while teaching in the Government Souer College in his capacity as a lecturer of Sanskrit, he also obtained a degree of M.A. in Hindi. Since 1958 till the time of his retirement he taught in Amar Singh College under the University of Kashmir in Srinagar (Kashmir).

The Extra Mile Covered

Professor Nilkanth Gurtoo was not only confined to teaching in academic institutions, but he covered that extra mile and went ahead to learn about the Kashmirian Saiva schools from his teachers like Professor Balajinnath Pandit and Swami Lakshman Joo. It was the former who introduced him to Saiva exegesis and taught him the Isvarapratyabhija-vimarsini of Abhinavagupta along with Bhaskara's commentary and the Paratrisika-vivarana. When I read these texts with him, I was simply amazed to note his in-depth understanding of such tedious texts and I appreciated his sincerity with which he explained it to me. Pandit Balajinnath was not only his teacher but also a very close associate with whom he worked on several projects. The remarkable work both of them did together was the compilation of the Kashmira-saiva-darsana-brhat-kosa that was published in two volumes from the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan in Jammu. I must also mention that both of them had worked closely together with a team of leading Sanskritists for almost thirty years to make this 'Encyclopedia of Kashmir Saivism'. This book will survive as a monumental reference work on the Saiva schools of Kashmir.

Prof Gurtoo also learnt some texts of Kashmirian Trika and Spanda schools with the well known savant Swami Lakshman Joo during the sixties, seventies and eighties of the last century. In his famous Sunday classes Lakshman Joo several times used to offer Prof Gurtoo to teach his students the various Sanskrit texts. Besides learning many other texts with him, Professor Gurtoo also studied the Paratrisikavivarana with him from 1981-82 that he later translated into Hindi while Jaidev Singh translated it into English.

Professor Gurtoo was not only an original Saiva thinker, but also a pioneering critic and a prolific writer with a deep insight into the subject of his choice. His writings are a testimony to this fact. He also had a deep understanding of several other important schools of Indian philosophy. In his works, he clearly reflects his knowledge of major Kashmirian schools of Buddhism and Saiva dualists. His mind was pregnant with remarkable understanding of Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga schools. He had very passionately studied the theories of Indian aestheticians and rhetoricians. Even though he mainly dealt with Abhinavagupta throughout his life, but with his matchless knowledge of diverse schools of Indian thought he was always trying to look for his fitting place in the broader domain of Indian philosophy. I think what makes him distinct is his right understanding of the Tantric systems of Kashmir and their place in the socio-political milieu of early medieval Kashmir. He indeed was a man of distinct academic calibre and authentic achievements.

His Editions and Translations

Professor Nilkanth Gurtoo prepared several editions and translations of many difficult texts belonging to Kashmirian Trika domain of Saivism. Many of his works remained unpublished because of want of resources. He also received criticism for some of his publications because of the conspiracy initiated by some of his colleagues and the so called religious organizations because of which his motivation to write further was crippled. This was very usual among Kashmiris at that point of time and perhaps still continues to be. Instead of offering him some support he was always troubled with uninvited impediments from various nefarious people (or bodies) who do not need a mention here. Nonetheless, maintaining his calm nature and ardent desire he still worked harder and produced some remarkable books while he was old and keeping unhealthy. Here is a list of his publications;

1. Paratrisikavivarana with Hindi translation and commentary, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi. (1985).

2. Spandakarika with Kallata's vrtti translated into Hindi with commentary, Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi. (1981).

3. Harsesvaramahatmayam translated into English with detailed annotations, Penma Publishers, Delhi. (2000).

4. Parmarthasara with Hindi translation of Yogaraja's commentary with an elaborate introduction, Penman Publishers, Delhi. (2004).

5. Sambapancasika with Ksemaraja's commentary translated into Hindi, Penman Publishers, Delhi. (2002)

6. Sivastotravali of Utpaladeva with Ksemaraja's commentary and Hindi translation by Swami Lakshman Joo. Edited by Nilkanth Gurtoo, Ishwar Ashram Trust, Srinagar (Kashmir).

7. Parapravesika of Ksemaraja explaned into Kashmiri and edited by Makhanlal Kukiloo, Ishwar Ashram Trust, Srinagar, Kashmir. (1996).

8. Amareshwaramahatmayam translated into Hindi with Pandit Dinanath Yaksha, Srinagar, Kashmir. (?).

9. Rajatarangini of Jonaraja translated into Hindi (only a part of it). (Unpublished).

10. Pratyabhijnahrdayam of Ksemaraja translated into Hindi with elaborated notes and annotations with the help of Professor Balajinnath Pandit and Swami Lakshman Joo. (Unpublished).

11. Kashmira-saiva-darsana-brhat-kosa (in two volumes) edited jointly with Prof Yashpal Khajuriya and Prof Balajinnath Pandit. Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, Jammu (J&K). (2001-2005).

12. Vatuanathasutras with an exposition in English by Lakshman Joo. Edited by Prof. N.K. Gurtoo and Prof M.L. Kukiloo, Ishwar Ashram Trust, Srinagar. (1996).


It was strange enough to find out, while I was writing this piece, that Professor Gurtoo never received any honour, neither from the State of Jammu & Kashmir nor from the Government of India for his noteworthy service to Indology in general and Saiva studies in particular. Today, his publications are a part of every leading library in the world and scholars engaged in research in Saivism are making full use of them, but the author remained uncared for and never received any encouragement from any side. Besides publishing many books and papers, he was always busy teaching the Saiva texts to a numberless students. He was available to one and all including academic students and religious devotees. I think this it is my moral responsibility not to let his academic pursuit go waste. In his passing away Kashmiri pandits should learn that there is a dying need of time that we try and make sincere efforts to learn about Saivism but rather academically and try to know about facts rather than displaying our ignorance cultivated from untrusted sources to the specialists in the subject. For this pursuit a full time study of Sanskrit language and allied disciplines is the basic requirement. My life is one such tribute to my reverend teacher and I salute him in fervent gratitude.

(Mrinal Kaul is a Sanskrit scholar from the University of Oxford, UK)


Nilkanth Gurtoo

Nilkanth Gurtoo