Shyamaji Krishna Varma was born on 4 October 1857 in Mandvi (in the Kutch province of modern day Gujarat). His mother died when he was only 11 years old, after which he was raised by his grandmother. After finishing school he moved to Mumbai for further education. It was here that the seminal event of his life occurred; he came to the notice of Svami Dayanand Sarasvati who had founded the first Arya Samaj in Mumbai in 1875.
Varma spoke Sanskrit so well that he impressed Dayanand (the greatest scholar of Sanskrit India has produced in recent millennia) immensely. Varma’s brilliance as a young student of Sanskrit led to his becoming a disciple of Dayanand, who recognised such enormous potential in Varma that – despite his many other commitments – he took to, personally, tutoring Varma so as to optimise his knowledge of the intricacies of the grammar of Vedic Sanskrit. Varma was soon competent to lecture on Vedic philosophy and religion, so much so that in 1877, a public speaking tour brought him to national prominence as well as to the attention of Monier Williams, an Oxford professor of Sanskrit who offered Shyamaji a job as his assistant.
As India’s first ardent nationalist under British rule, Dayanand had not only led Varma to the Vedas but also imbued in him the spirit of Nationalism necessary to build an independence movement brick by brick. He therefore encouraged the young Shyamji to travel to the United Kingdom for higher studies and to subsequently further the cause of independence of India. In truth, Dayanand fervently desired that the Vedic Dharma would spread to the West and saw Varma as an ideal messenger to propagate that cause.
With the help of a recommendation of Williams, Shyamji arrived in England to join Balliol College Oxford on 25 April 1879. He returned to India in 1885 to start practice as a lawyer. After a short stay in Mumbai he settled in Ajmer, the ex-headquarters of his mentor Dayanand who by then had tragically had died in 1883, and continued his practice at the British Court in Ajmer. He went on to act as a minister in a number of Indian princely states in India.
]Due to tensions in his relationship with the colonial Crown authority, he was dismissed from such a position at Junagadh and chose to return to England in 1897; this bitter experience having shaken his faith in British Rule. One of the effects of the British ruling India was that Indians started to move to Britain, primarily to seek further education. Unfortunately, however, many such Indian students encountered racism when seeking living accommodation in England. This is where Varma stamped an important mark on Indian history, because it was he who founded India House, a building in London he had bought as his home in 1900 which, in 1905, started a new life as a hostel for Indian students, based at 65 Cromwell Avenue, Highgate.
Krishna Varma was a great admirer of the work of Herbert Spencer, and his dictum that “Resistance to aggression is not simply justified, but imperative” [a Vedic dictum first defined thousands of years earlier by Lord Krishna in the Geeta]. Thus was born his plan for India House to become the locus for incubating an Indian revolutionary movement in Europe; it rapidly developed as an organised meeting point for radical nationalists among Indian students in England at that time and as one of the most prominent centres for Indian nationalism outside India. Famous people to have later contact with this organisation were Gandhi, Lenin and Lala Lajpat Rai. Later in 1905, he founded a periodical, the Indian Sociologist , and a society, the Indian Home Rule Society both intended to inspire sympathisers in the UK to lobby for political and social freedom as well as religious reform. Later still that year, at the United Congress of Democrats held in London, Shyamji spoke as a delegate of the India Home Rule Society. His resolution on India’s future received a standing ovation from the entire conference. Important to note is that he avoided the Indian National Congress , but instead kept in contact with various liberals, nationalists, social democrats and Irish Republicans.
Inevitably, such activities aroused the concern of the British government: Shyamji was disbarred from the Inner Temple and removed from its membership list on 30 April 1909 for writing anti-British articles in the Indian Sociologist. Most of the British press were critical of Shyamji and carried outrageous allegations, against him and his newspaper, which he defended them boldly. The Times referred to him as the “Notorious Krishnavarma“. His movements were so closely watched by British Secret Services that he decided to shift his headquarters to Paris, leaving India House in charge of Vir Sarvakar.
It was in 1907 that Shyamji left Britain secretly, to evade arrest by the British government, and moved to Paris. The British government’s attempts to extradite him from France failed, it is said, because he gained the support of many top French politicians. Shyamji’s work in Paris helped gain support from people in other European countries, including Russia, for Indian Independence. In 1914, as a result of France and Britain signing the Entente Cordiale, Varma thought it safest to move to Geneva. For the best part of the next decade he continued to devote himself energetically to the mission of agitating for India’s independence.
It is probably appropriate to conclude that he is one of India’s unsung heroes in terms of his place in the history written about its struggle for independence, that is – so far – history has been unkind to him in not according him with the credit he merits for his contribution to India becoming free. This is partially mitigated by a new town in his native state of Kutch being named, in the 1970s, Shyamji Krishna Varmanagar in his memory; later he was similarly honoured by the University of Kutch being renamed after him.
Shyamji Krishan Varma died in 1930 at the age of 73. News of his death was suppressed by the British government in India. Nevertheless tributes were paid to him in Lahore by Bhagat Singh and other inmates who were in jail at the time whilst undergoing a long and drawn out trial. It was not until 22 August 2003 that his ashes reached India, when they were handed over to the then Chief Minister of Gujarat State, Narendra Modi by the Ville de Genève and the Swiss government – 55 years after India had become independent. A memorial called Kranti Tirth dedicated to his memory was built and inaugurated in 2010 near his birth-place in Gujarat, Mandvi. This museum houses his ashes, as well as a full scale replica of India House and galleries dedicated to other activists of the Indian independence movement.
Can it be, uncharitably, suggested that Varma failed to deliver the outcomes expected of him by Svami Dayanand? It is a fact that before he died he wrote at least one anxious letter to Varma in England, inquiring about the progress he was making in propagating the Vedic Dharma. With hindsight, it would be fair to say that Dayanand’s dream was that Varma would – after Dayanand’s death – make the same type of impact in the West, would go on to make in successfully spotlighting Hinduism in the West.
Similarly, is it fair to lament that Varma, in his later life, became closer to the philosophy of Herbert Spencer than that of Dayanand? If so, in mitigation, it must also be recognised that Dayanand’s dream was unrealisable in the context of when and where Varma lived after leaving India; being estranged from India in the era before air travel must have severely compromised his connections with the Arya Samaj movement.
In that light, it sadly must be conceded that Varma did not measure up to Vivekanand’s overall greatness, despite having the intellect and education to potentially do so. As we know, Vivekanand failed in facilitating the conversion to Hinduism of large western populations; a result that is entirely understandable when considering flaws in the ideology of neo-Vedantism such as advaita, polytheism and idol worship. Persevering with in this speculative, and pathetic, lament leads one to next ask whether the Arya Samaj’s history would have been different if Varma had remained in India for his entire life? If so, perhaps the Vedic Dharma would have put down stronger roots in India – roots it seems that are less vigorous today than Dayanand hoped for?