Sanskrit deserves more than slogans

Making Sanskrit compulsory does not give us even a glimpse into the immensity of the language’s grammar or its soaring poetry and philosophy

Updated - December 16, 2014 03:09 pm IST

Published - December 15, 2014 01:29 am IST

Philologist William Jones famously described it as “more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.” Layered and complex, Sanskrit is one of our richest legacies. With its perfect grammar, its capacity for poetry, its synonyms and metaphors, it’s a linguist’s and philologist’s delight. Wanting to return to Sanskrit some of its status is not just commendable but crucial, but as always we are not interested in the big picture. We don’t want solutions that need hard work or academic rigour, just trite and superficial truisms. The idea to make Sanskrit mandatory in schools or to declare the Bhagavad Gita the “national scripture” is along the same lines. It’s important to at least get the premise right before we declare that Sanskrit is “the language of our country. Everything was written in Sanskrit thousands of years ago ...” as Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal declared at last month’s World Hindu Congress, when he said ominously that many things would soon be made compulsory in India.

First of all, consider that Sanskrit was never the language of our masses. It’s always been the medium of instruction, the classical and liturgical language in which grammar, science, religion and philosophy were written. The word Sanskrit comes from sanskrita or refined. The everyday language of people was Prakrit from prakriti for natural or common. In fact, several scholars consider that Sanskrit originated not so much as a disparate language but as a superior and polished version of speech ( samskrita vak or polished speech). It coexisted with local dialects and these vocabularies intermingled extensively — Hindi, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Telugu, Malayalam all sharing etymological roots.

Language of liturgy Also, Sanskrit was actually divisive and sowed some of the first seeds of segregation in Indian society. Because it was complex and highly evolved, its knowledge began to mark speakers as belonging to the wealthy and educated classes. From there it was a short step to Sanskrit being taught only to upper castes and then only to Brahmins and priests. If Sanskrit got marginalised, it was not so much because foreign languages wiped it out, but because it chose to confine itself to a narrower and narrower space until it was soon exclusively the language of liturgy alone, learnt only by priests, who grew into an esoteric cabal.

Real renewal of the language happens not in shrill sloganeering but in funding top-notch libraries and in sponsoring research chairs and encouraging the study of Indology

The Bhakti movement was born as a reaction to the priestly class’s appropriation of language and religion. Poet-saints such as Kabir and Tulsidas dumped not just the ritualism and caste system of extant Hinduism, but also Sanskrit, its language. An extraordinary body of prose and poetry in the vernacular mushroomed in this era — Kabir wrote his dohe in Braj Bhasha, Tulsidas in Braj and Awadhi, Tukaram and Namdev in Marathi, Nanak in Gurmukhi. In fact, even the much earlier Mauryan era edicts of Ashoka are in Prakrit.

Sanskrit in school Studying in a Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) school, we had Sanskrit till Class 8. A bit of an ear for linguistics and you recognised half the words because Sanskrit shares cognates with almost every Indo-European language. Then you learnt by rote the declensions of various common shabdas . You spouted these, did some basic translation and verb matching, and were pretty much guaranteed at least 90 per cent in exams. If Sanskrit is made mandatory, that’s what students will largely experience. Nothing traumatic or difficult but nothing very meaningful either. The point I am making is this: what we were taught did not give us even a glimpse into the immensity of the language’s grammar or its soaring poetry and philosophy.

We Indians love symbolic gestures, and that’s what “making Sanskrit mandatory” is about. It’s another bronze statue, another slogan — the ‘Don’t Horn’ on the back of a truck — that won’t achieve anything real. Students will mug up shabdas for exams and still learn German in private. But, in that narrow sense, Sanskrit is already available from institutes such as Samskrita Bharati, which conduct classes and award diplomas for anyone who cares to look.

We don’t need that sort of shallow familiarity because without social currency, a language cannot survive anyway. It’s more important to preserve Sanskrit academically rather than colloquially.

The same groups that are so quick to ban texts at universities would do well to do something proactive instead, such as demand the inclusion of translated Sanskrit poetry and drama into syllabi. I have friends with fancy degrees in Comparative Literature or Philosophy who would be hard-pressed to identify Bhavabhuti but can spout “Odysseus.” We have Indian publishers who produce handcrafted, collector’s editions of Sophocles’ works — why not something similar for “Mricchakatika”?

In fact, if knowledge and learning were not as Eurocentric as it is today, any self-respecting university would intuitively include Sanskrit texts, as they do Greek, in the canon of world literature. Not only is Panini’s “Ashtadhyayi” the world’s earliest work in linguistics and phonetics (and the foundation for most modern linguistics), there is no grammar as detailed or logical. We need Indologists pushing for these quiet, back-end but ultimately significant changes.

A practical approach

Real renewal happens not in shrill sloganeering but here — in funding top-notch translations, textbooks and libraries; in sponsoring research chairs that produce more Sanskritists in India than abroad; in high-paid professorships that encourage the study of Indology rather than English Literature. How about pushing for short courses at prestigious universities worldwide where students can earn extra credits?

Most important, it means divorcing the religious from the linguistic, so that Sanskrit is deconstructed and studied for its intrinsic value rather than as ritual.

We must stop pretending that a perfect Indian culture, preserved in amber, is waiting to be resuscitated intact, with dhoti-clad denizens chattering away in Sanskrit and milking cows. That’s as much a chimera as Gandhiji’s vision of charkha-spinning villagers breeding silkworms. If we want Sanskrit appreciated, let’s get practical for a change.

This article earlier cited Panini's 'Patanjali'. The reference was to Panini's 'Ashtadhyayi'. The error is regretted.

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