Who’s Afraid of Sanskrit?

Bharat Gupt


The author is an associate professor of English, University of Delhi, theatre theorist and cultural analyst. This article was published in The Indian Express, 20 November 1998 and is reproduced with Dr. Bharat Gupt’s permission.


Nearly two thousand years ago, a poet commented on the Indian scene, “Intellectuals are engaged in envious quarrels, rulers are intoxicated by arrogance, the people are burdened with lack of education and so Good Speech is weak and emaciated.” It is not difficult to imagine that there have been repeated moments of darkness in our history. The morning of the Education Ministers’ Conference was not the first, or else the lines of Bhartrihari would not have seemed so contemporary. The ancient poet could make do with the word subhashitam or “good speech” as it was then an accepted synonym of “learning,” “knowledge,” vani, vak, or even Sarasvati. There obtained then enough poetic taste to personify or deify speech, music or wealth. Long after Bhartrihari, even the Muslim poets sighed for God as the beloved and for a millennium Turkish, Mongol, Taimurite, Afghan and Irani rulers (including Aurangzeb for most of his life and early rule) enthralled themselves by patronising court musicians singing songs in praises of Saraswati, naad or shabda.

But this was well before the nineteenth century when Enlightenment came to us and much before we were bitten by the bug of secularist iconoclasm. In the conference, if it had been a matter of objection to preferential treatment to a Hindu goddess, there could have been a demand for including in the ceremony verses in praise of the knowledge or the Word from the Bible, the Koran or the Granth Sahib. But the disease is deeper. It has taken the form of turning away from one’s own heritage and disregarding spiritual and ethical commitments that ancient and medieval vehicles of all religions and cultures symbolised. Practically speaking, secularism now means wallowing in easy consumerism of the day. Hence the disruptive and not additive protest.

India alone excels in belittling its classical heritage as it has unfortunately codified it as its “Hindu past". This classification began in the colonial period when non-European cultures were primarily seen in religious denominations as non-Christian coloured races further divided into two broad categories, primitives or static cultures. Within the western world these approaches were countered first by Orientalists and later by Modernists, both opponents of Newtonian rationalism. But while the Orientalist contributed to the discovery of the East by the West, they also succeeded in creating a somnambulist reassurance in the minds of many Indians who never tire of revelling in praises of India by Schopenhauer, Max Muller, Blavatsky, Whitman and the like. In spite of the Orientalists, administrators like Macaulay forged for India an education system which had little or marginal place, not only for Sanskrit literature, but for all the traditional arts and sciences like music, poetry, dance, theatre and painting, Ayurveda, Rasayan, Jyotisha, metrics, etc.

This dichotomy continued well into the semi-century of independence and flourishes strong as ever. Even now, on one side we have the Indologists (using a collective noun for South Asian experts, Asian Anthropologists, Ethnomusicologists etc.), white, brown, black and yellow, native and foreign, with unquestioned faith in the growth of native culture, and on the other hand we have the socialists, rationalists, scientificists, pluralists and globalists equally assured of its auto-built resilience and auto-generative capacity. But neither side thinks that a formal educative system should have any role to play in the formation of culture. For them, as for Macaulay, culture can be extra-curricular. Indeed, it could be so for the colonisers who did not require culture for babu-work. But that it can continue to be so for our future legislators, jurists, administrators, academics and scientists, is indeed a soft headed mystic belief that cultural values and behaviour are auto-generative and need no instruction.

The problem of giving Sanskrit its due place in Indian education, is therefore, not just a matter of giving concession to a particular language. It is the task of using five thousand years of all the textual wealth produced in this subcontinent. And all who believe that these texts, the bulk being in Sanskrit, are not required for maintenance of cultural identity have little knowledge of civilizational rise and decline in history. Regarding classical heritage and Sanskrit, in particular, there are many misconceptions.

For instance, it is necessary to get rid of the notion (for some a phobia, for others a faith) that Sanskrit is the language of Hindus for promotion of Hinduism. This myopia of regarding the sacred text as the only and paramount literature of a language is a syndrome extant among the colonised only. The European Christians created a great Renaissance from heathen Greek and Latin texts which led them eventually to establish cultural equations with many other ancient languages and develop modern philology. Even now all western universities have departments of classical studies which provide crucial inputs to anthropology, philology and culture departments. Modern philosophical and scientific terms are still coined out of these two languages. But in India it is presumed that the study of Sanskrit, far from generating a utility for its texts along with those of Prakrit, Persian and Arabic, will only result in their devaluation. So much for looking at history with religious spectacles only.

Indifference to Sanskrit and other classical languages is nurtured in no small measure by the bias of Indian anglophiles who live under the illusion that availability of ancient texts in English translations is sufficient for an understanding of ancient ways of thought and feeling. For them there is no greater waste of time than polyglossia. They admire Orientalists but forget that the Orientalist enterprise was not to inform the Indian readers but to interpret a colonised culture for proselytisation and governance. They also forget that no culture can do things for another culture; one has to seek meaning in one’s own past oneself. For those anglophiles who may doubt this even after Edward Said’s work, one may remind them of T. S. Eliot’s dictum that ancient texts have to be studied and translated not only by each culture but by each generation of a culture. So what great-grand-father Max Mueller did for Europeans needs to be done by Indians for themselves today.

In a combative contrast to the Socialist, Secularist and Anglophilic berating of Sanskrit, there is the Hindutva dream that Sanskrit can be taught like a work-out at the gymnasium. It is presumed that if pupils are subjected to its rote for five to seven years at school, the language shall be widely understood and read and even spoken in a couple of generations. There could be no surer way of doubling its pitiful state by making it a target of aversion of the common man who still holds the language in distant respect. Mere compulsory teaching may bring jobs to thousands of half-baked Sanskrit teachers (who for a job will pledge allegiance not only to a parivar but to any political employer whether of this dynasty, that parivar, or the nth front) but will not connect Sanskrit to contemporary life.

Enhancing present day utility of ancient and medieval texts should be the aim of bringing them into the curriculum at all levels from school to college. It means revision of curriculum and expansion of resources for inter-disciplinary participation. Instead of compulsion there should be a wide choice for the young to familiarise themselves with traditional arts and disciplines. Theatre, music, poetry, medicine, yogasanas, aromatics, architecture, dance, philosophical concepts, etc. can be imbibed at school in a easy familiar way as so much of them still survive culturally. What needs to be terminated is the artificial gap created between the lived culture and the pedagogic role-model of global yuppyism. These measures require sustained efforts and careful planning but they can make classical learning and Sanskrit worthwhile rather than an object of pious obeisance. They can make it a useful passport for a sizable modern educated class to travel through many ages of Indian history and check things for themselves, having neither a glorified perspective of the past nor a contemptuous disregard for the artistic excellences and sustaining wisdom of the pre-technocratic times.

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