The story of my Sanskrit

Sanskrit must be taken back from the clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes and a variety of other wrong-headed characters on the right, whose colossal ambition to control India’s vast intellectual legacy is only matched by their abysmal ignorance of what it means and how it works

Updated - August 31, 2016 12:51 pm IST

Published - August 16, 2014 12:47 am IST

An >article in this paper on July 30 revealed that Dina Nath Batra, head of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, had formed a “Non-Governmental Education Commission” (NGEC) to recommend ways to “Indianise” education. I had encountered Mr. Batra’s notions about education during a campaign I was involved with in February and March this year, to keep the American scholar Wendy Doniger’s books about Hindus and Hinduism in print. His litigious threats had forced Penguin India to withdraw and destroy a volume by Prof. Doniger, and this was even before the national election installed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the ruling party in Delhi.

Ever since Mr. Narendra Modi’s government has come to power, Mr. Batra has become more active, zealous and confrontational in stating his views about Indian history, Hindu religion, and what ought to qualify as appropriate content in schoolbooks and syllabi not only in his native Gujarat but in educational institutions all over the country. He is backed up by a vast governmental machinery, by the fact that Mr. Modi himself has penned prefatory materials to his various books, and of course by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which he has been a member and an ideologue for over several decades.

Anything but ordinary It’s unclear what the status or authority of Mr. Batra’s proposed NGEC is to be, but I was struck by the mention of one of my former teachers as a potential member of this commission. Seeing the name of Prof. Kapil Kapoor took me back to my days as an M.A. student in English and Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Prof. Kapoor first introduced me and my classmates to traditions of literature, language philosophy, literary analysis, poetics, semiotics, grammar and aesthetics in Sanskrit. Many of us went on to write doctoral dissertations about these subjects, deviating from British, American and postcolonial literature, and the European literary and critical theory that constituted the bulk of our coursework.

Prof. Kapoor ended up becoming dean and rector, and later, during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, setting up the Centre for Sanskrit Studies at JNU. He and I lost touch, partly because I went away overseas and partly because of our political disagreements that were becoming increasingly apparent. But encounters with other scholars like the philosopher Arindam Chakrabarti, the Panini expert George Cardona, and the Sanskritist, and eventually my doctoral supervisor, Sheldon Pollock made me decide to pursue more seriously the path that I had glimpsed in Prof. Kapoor’s classroom: I took up the study of Sanskrit for real.

One of the reasons this did not seem outlandish to me was because my father is a poet and writer in Hindi, and I had been exposed to Indian literary and intellectual traditions at home from a very young age. Along the way I had studied Romance languages as well, so that adding Sanskrit to the repertoire did not feel at all counter-intuitive. At Oxford, I wrote an M.Phil thesis about how the study of Sanskrit had shaped the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics in Europe. But after that, when I entered the South Asian Languages and Civilizations doctoral program at the University of Chicago, I did not properly realise what I had signed up for.

Learning philology and Indology at Chicago was intensely challenging, yet also proportionately gratifying. We had the best scholars of South Asian studies in the world for our teachers. Along with a small group of classmates, most of whom are professors now in America’s top universities, I spent hundreds if not thousands of hours at the Regenstein Library, painstakingly unpacking sutras , verses, commentaries and arguments in a range of Sanskrit texts, increasingly difficult as we moved to more advanced levels.

Encountering prejudice It’s hard to describe the peculiar pain and pleasure of this language, so strict are its formal rules, so complex the ideas it allows one to formulate, express and analyse. Sanskrit enables thought at a level distinct from ordinary thinking in the languages of everyday life. This is not to say that one cannot have a perfectly ordinary conversation in spoken Sanskrit: one can, of course, and in Sanskrit pedagogical environments, this is normal. But most of the vast literature available in this amazing language is specialised, technical and anything but ordinary. D. Venkat Rao estimates that some 30 million texts in various forms exist in Sanskrit at this time, the largest textual corpus of any extant human language.

Half of my long years as a doctoral student were spent away from Chicago, in India. For my dissertation, I read a small body of late medieval Sanskrit dharmashastra works. These were texts of a legal and normative nature that were specifically about shudra-dharma : the rituals, duties and constraints associated with shudras, the social category that constitutes the fourth stratum of the orthodox brahminical fourfold varna-vyavastha , what we now normally designate as the “caste system.” I read with pandits and professors, at mathas , Sanskrit colleges, Oriental institutes and Sanskrit departments within regular universities, in places like Mysore, Bangalore and Pune. I even studied Kannada and Marathi to ease my passage.

Nothing in my experience or education up to that time had prepared me for the sheer wall of prejudice that blocked the access of someone like me to the particular aspects of the history, ideology and politics of Sanskrit that I was interested in. Here I was — female, a north Indian in south India, a student enrolled at a foreign university, a Hindi-speaker, and only tenuously and dubiously of a caste that pandits considered acceptable. My teachers and I struggled to communicate, but in the end, most things were lost in translation. A well-known Sanskrit professor in Maharashtra told me that only “perverted women” became scholars, a pronouncement that brought several months of our readings to an abrupt close one afternoon, and ensured I never again returned to meet him.

The caste hierarchy and sexism, the inequality and misogyny that the social worlds of Sanskrit engender and proliferate are shocking to a modern sensibility. For a decade, my teachers in India and abroad had taught, tended, scolded and moulded me like their own child. Now I was confronted with a shrinking community of Sanskrit scholars left in a few places in India. They felt embattled inside collapsing institutions that had no space for their learning, demeaned by democratic politics and secular public life that stigmatised their orthodox beliefs, threatened by gender equality that resisted the patriarchy inherent in their practices, and humiliated by their sheer marginality in the economy of new knowledge systems, communication technologies and political common sense. They were bitter and resentful, and the occasional interloper like me — that too someone with an obviously critical agenda — had to face the brunt of their frustration.

Another journey After about three years of fighting a losing battle, I decided to make what I could of the dharmashastra materials on my own. The dissertation got completed, and later, when I was writing my first book on an unrelated subject, I returned with joy and pleasure to the classics of Sanskrit literature, like Kalidasa’s long poem, the “ Meghaduta ,” sections of the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita. In the safe cocoon of another great American institution, this time Harvard University’s Widener Library, I could bracket for a few years the dark side of Sanskrit, its complicity with the power dynamics of caste and gender that make modern India the most confounding contradiction of on-paper political equality and lived social inequality.

But now that India is ruled by the Hindu nationalist government of Mr. Modi, with grandiose and historically baseless announcements being made all the time by the likes of Mr. Batra, it seems the time has come to deal with everything that is wrong with Sanskrit, yet again. A language is only a means to an end. Sanskrit is a powerful tool, but whether its uses are salutary or destructive depends on whose hands it happens to fall into. Its rigour and beauty are undeniable; so are its rigidity and elitism, in certain circumstances.

My former professor, Kapil Kapoor, was knowledgeable and passionate about Sanskrit, which is what made him such a memorable teacher. I cannot believe that he would endorse the ridiculous claims made by some Hindutva spokespersons that there were airplanes and cars in ancient India, and that the Vedic culture invented stem cell research. One of the things I remember about him most vividly was his earthy sense of humour. “If Panini was at Takshila,” he often joked, “that probably means he was a Punjabi, like me.” We would all laugh, transported for a moment to the vanished classrooms of remote antiquity, when one of the most astonishing works of systematic knowledge of all-time, Panini’s Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi , was probably composed somewhere on the plains of north-western Punjab.

It’s up to liberal, secular, egalitarian, enlightened and progressive sections of our society to preserve and protect this unique civilisational resource. Kapil Kapoor opened a window for his students, from where they could see a breathtaking vista of India’s past, filled with traditions of philosophy, religion and literature unparalleled in almost any other language. Scholarship like that of Sheldon Pollock and his colleagues helps us to understand the history, the power, the circulation and the importance of Sanskrit knowledge systems in the pre-modern world, not just in India but across Asia. We learn to really read texts, to carefully unpack their meaning in complex historical contexts of production and reception, rather than merely brandish them as false tokens of identity and imagined superiority in our own times.

Sanskrit must be taken back from the clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes and a variety of other wrong-headed characters on the right, whose colossal ambition to control India’s vast intellectual legacy is only matched by their abysmal ignorance of what it means and how it works.

(Ananya Vajpeyi is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, HUP, 2012. E-mail: )

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.