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Sanskrit In 7 Days

What we need is the opposite of a supremacist language policy
Illustration by Saahil

A Kalashnikov cannot shoot itself. But you can use English to denounce English, turning the muzzle back on itself. You can do that in Sanskrit too, or Tamil, or any other. It would not constitute suicide. The structure of language allows such a reflexive act—it’s a slippery, superior form of technology at this level, not a being with a soul. In an imaginary world (or in a university department), it would be possible to separate a real, neutral care for languages—their material and abstract beauty—from other considerations and to tend to them in peace. But in the world most people inhabit, we live with complications. People tend to feel they “belong” to languages, like Chief Seattle belonged to his land. It’s one step away to yours and mine, to borders and fences, to trespassing, invasions and imperial dominions.

To have schools all over India celebrate a ‘Sanskrit Week’ by decree—that couldn’t have been passed off as an innocuous, joyful thing in the best of times. It becomes doubly dicey at this juncture. The fiat comes from the ‘autonomous’ CBSE, a thin veil. The chain of causation, everyone knows, goes back to the party in power—and how it casts everything in an idiom of Reconquest troubles the waters by definition. Moreover, this is an India of competing identity politics—by default angry, bristling, quick to take offence. The onus of offering resistance has again fallen on Tamil Nadu, a state defined by its long history of language politics. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it’s just Tamil that feels it as an imposition. Or even other identifiable sectors of dissent. The overwhelming majority of the Indian population stands outside the pale on this: acquiescence won’t change the nature of that fact.

Just as with land, with languages too it’s possible to dream of a future defined by free movement, of shared literacy, an idea of commons. It’s true, Sanskrit is the coded key not just to liturgy and religious philosophy but to endless vaults of neutral, secular knowledge—atheist doctrines, works on logic, grammar, aesthetics, musicology, what not. It’s also true that today the literacy in ancient languages required to cultivate a modern scholarship is just not there. But citing that need in the present context is a bad ruse. This ‘circular’ politics ties up more with another heritage. Sanskrit must turn the muzzle back for a spot of self-examination. It must traverse its whole history of being a tool of power. Like all hieratic languages, it kept the common folk outside the gates. But it went much beyond that. Not only was access to Sanskrit literacy restricted by dharmic law, for the non-savarnas—that is, the vast majority of Indians—it encoded the most evolved form of social apartheid ever known. For them, Sanskrit evokes not the image of a classical abhisarika nayika tiptoeing through a moonlit night but the harsh sounds of Manusmriti.

Yes, you don’t abolish German because Mein Kampf was written in it—language itself is neutral. But as a carrier of a politics of control, Sanskrit has had no parallel. The way to save it from the morgue is to depoliticise it, to emancipate it from agendas, to bring it into a post-Brahminical world. Which is why, “who’s doing it” is half the trouble here. Making schoolchildren all over India chant slokas through play is imitative of missionary techniques. It also rekindles the other taproot. Linguist Franson D. Manjali has written that the whole colonial elevation of Sanskrit, beginning with William Jones, was tied to Europe’s “Aryan” racial-supremacist project—India formed a necessary part of its imaginative grid. Alas, India is still trapped in that mental space. Even the “philanthropist approach” of Dalits learning the Vedas (which the RSS backs) faces venomous opposition.

The Dravidianists, with their purified Centamizh, can often be cut from the same cloth. In both ‘coloniser’ and ‘resister’, one sees the same resort to a heightened relation between language and land (Modern Tamil Nadu, indeed, is named for the language, not the other way around). To manoeuvre a language policy through these parallel zionisms is tricky. Flying paper planes into an imagined Amar Chitra Katha past, despite the BJP’s skills at it, can’t be the best way.

There are good linguistic grounds to say this. One, Sanskrit is patently not “the mother of all languages”: three of the four Indian language groups are outside its genepool. Even its earliest Rigvedic idioms bear traces of the reciprocal exchange within which Sanskrit itself evolved. It has influenced, and been influenced by, Munda and Dravidian. Its ‘family’ was forged precisely in that interface, in that teeming Indian ecology. (Languages like Marathi or Bangla, say, aren’t “corruptions” of Sanskrit, but degrees of “convergences”). Two, we already have an undeclared bilingualism in much of the ‘Hindi belt’, and an education system that teaches you to hate your home language everywhere. Three, a hidden paradox: the very idea of a simplified, conversational Sanskrit. This is a Vedic costume fantasy: its proponents thrill to a false, shallow idea of Indians speaking in Sanskrit! The only folks who need bother about such a return to a pure origin are the good people of Swat valley. Most Brahmins who have ever lived have not spoken Sanskrit as their mother tongue.

Here’s an idea. Instead of a ‘week’ that recalls Aryan gods (in Brahmin avatar) disposing of Asura kings, why not have a rotating festival… a Tamil week in Jaipur, a Munda week in Nagpur, a Khasi week in Katwaria Sarai, a Maithili week in Thane? Cities have ‘sister’ cities. Why not tongues?

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A shorter, edited version of this appears in print

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AUTHORS: Sunil Menon
PLACES: Tamil Nadu
SECTION: Society
SUBSECTION: Opinion
OUTLOOK: 04 August, 2014
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