In downtown Worli, it is common to hear the strange greeting of ‘Assalamu-Alaykum, Guruji’ whenever an 80-year-old Muslim man steps out of his modest home.He is none other than renowned Sanskrit scholar Pandit Gulam Dastagir, who over six decades has impressed the Shankaracharyas, late prime minister Indira Gandhi, RSS leaders and Islamic scholars, all with equal elan.
Armed with a deep knowledge of both Islam and Sanskrit, Pandit Dastagir can speak with authority on any religious topic — and earn their unabashed admiration.
Born in Chikhali village in Solapur district, Pandit Dastagir completed his schooling before joining a government Sanskrit institution.
"I was the only Muslim student in a class of around four dozen Brahmins. My Brahmin Guruji developed a special liking for me and encouraged me. I acquired my entire Sanskrit knowledge of the scriptures, Vedas and other texts there," Pandit Dastagir told IANS.
Around mid-1950s, he shifted to Mumbai and joined the Maratha Mandir Sansthan’s Marathi-medium Worli High School as a Sanskrit teacher for all classes.
Two decades later, to comply with professional requirements, he appeared directly for a Master’s degree in Sanskrit from Mysore University.
After the Emergency, when the Janata Party ruled India, Pandit Dastagir was suddenly targeted. "They suspected I was a namesake Muslim propagating the RSS and Jana Sangh ideology through Sanskrit. It was only after a long investigation that they were proved wrong," the man chuckled.
When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she summoned him and was surprised to discover that Pandit Dastagir was actually a ‘Syedvanshi’, or belonging to a clan considered the direct descendents of Prophet Mohammed.
"She met me several times and appreciated my knowledge and love for Sanskrit. In 1982, she told the education ministry to appoint me as a ‘Rashtriya Sanskrit Pracharak’," Pandit Dastagir said.
When baffled officials asked Gandhi how should his duties be classified, she reportedly shot back: "He will teach us what needs to be done. Let him function independently."
For two years, he toured India extensively and propagated Sanskrit in government and private institutions. He quit the post after Gandhi’s assassination in 1984.
"I acquired MA in Sanskrit only in 1987 when I was around 50 years old although I was proficient in the language long before."
Since his retirement, Pandit Dastagir lectures on the similarities between Islam and Hinduism with reference to various aspects of one of the world’s oldest and richest languages, Sanskrit.
"Sanskrit is not only for Brahmins. But this perception made the masses reluctant to study it. I create awareness about Sanskrit all over India among different castes and religions," he said.
Pandit Dastagir explained that Hinduism does not recognize ‘conversions’ or the caste system. "The current craze for ‘conversions’ has no basis in Hindu scriptures. It is not recognized. At best, you can change a person’s name, not his soul from the religion of his/her birth," he said.
An old darling of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Pandit Dastagir credits the group with giving him full encouragement to pursue his vocation without having to change his religion.
He feels the RSS was not against any religion. "But if anybody threatens Hinduism, they will hit back, irrespective of the opponent’s religious beliefs," Pandit Dastagir said.
He has also never encountered objections from fellow Muslims over his passion for Sanskrit. "Comparative study of different religions makes you more reasonable. I am not a fanatic, just an ordinary Muslim."
His love for Sanskrit has not made him lose Islamic identity. He prays daily at the mosque. "I have built up a huge library of thousands of books on Sanskrit and Islam which I study and propagate," Pandit Dastagir said.
He laments that there are many other Muslim Sanskrit scholars in the country but financial constraints prevent them from propagating the ancient Indian language.
Pandit Dastagir’s wife Vahida is a supporting housewife. Their son Badiujjama is a Sanskrit scholar but runs a shop, elder daughter Gyasunissa Shaikh runs a Sanskrit research centre in Solapur, and their other daughter Kamrunnisa Patil never pursued her father’s passion.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org