[Advaita-l] Some food for thought: Who's Afraid of Sanskrit

Abhishek RK rkabhi at gmail.com
Mon Nov 28 05:33:32 CST 2005

Who's Afraid of Sanskrit


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
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
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 millenium 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 prefrential
treatment to a Hindu goddess, there could have been a demand for including
in the ceremony verses in praise of the knowlege 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 excells 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 Schopenhaur, Max
Muller, Blavatsky , Whitman and the like. Inspite of the Orientalsits,
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,
Ethnomusocologists 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 autogenerative 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 maintainance of cultural
identity have little knowledge of civilisational 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 anthropolgy, 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 prakrits, 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 anglophils 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 anglophils who may
doubt this even after Edward Said's work, one may remind them of T.S.
Eliot's dictum that ancient text have to be studied and translated not only
by each culture but by each generation of a culture. So what
great-grand-father Max Meuller did for Europeans needs to be done by Indians
for themselves today.

In a combative contrast to the Socialsit, 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 cumpulsory 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 curricullum 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 diciplines. Theatre, music, poetry, medicine, yogasanas, aromatics,
architecture, dance, philosophical concepts, etc., can be imbibed at school
in a easy familiar way as so much them still survive culturally. What needs
to terminated is the artificial gap created between the lived culture and
the pedagogic role-model of global yuppyism. These measure require sustained
efforts and careful planning and 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.

Indian Express, Edit Page , 20.11.98

bhava Sankara deSika me saraNam

sadASiva samArambham SankaracArya madhymam
asmadAcArya paryantam vande guru paramparam

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