January 24, 2020
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Utterances of a Nation

The BJP plans to coopt prevailing Sanskrit scholarship in the service of its revivalist agenda

Utterances of a Nation
Chamu Krishna Shastry is a missionary. Intent, intense and unequivocal about his professed creed, he has set into motion an enterprise with an encyclopaedic sweep. Shastry waxes eloquent on the virtues of Sanskrit and why it should become India's lingua franca. "Culture and language complement each other. If we lose a language, we'll lose the culture as also the knowledge embedded in the language. Sanskrit is our language and we can't afford to lose it," he expounds with the aplomb of a Jesuit.

The 43-year-old rss pracharak and Kannadiga scholar has been spearheading a grassroots "speak Sanskrit" movement under the aegis of Sanskrit Bharati, an outfit committed to the revival of the ancient language. Shastry has devised a method that enables one to speak the language without worrying too much about its intimidating grammar. He claims that since 1981 his approach has helped over 25 lakh people to become conversant with Sanskrit. He talks about two experiments, in two Karnataka villages, Mattur and Hosahalli. "If the Jews could revive Hebrew and make it Israel's official language, why can't we do the same for Sanskrit?" he argues.

Shastry is not the lone one to adopt the mantle of a crusading apostle for Sanskrit. Pandit Sadanand Dikshit, a scholar from the Kendriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, Tirupati, runs a similar campaign called the Lok Bhasha Prachar Samiti in Puri, Orissa.

Prima facie their efforts are noble—some would say naive, given that Sanskrit in its classical sense existed only as an exclusive preserve of the learned, never as an item of mass currency. But it's in the note of alacrity and urgency with which such efforts are being espoused and patronised, with eyes firmly set on its attendant emotive baggage, that is cause for worry.

There's an inbuilt subtlety here, for political projects often come encased in declarations of good intent. To illustrate, look no further than Union hrd minister Murli Manohar Joshi. "Sanskrit and the study of its literature would be a great help in bringing about a renaissance of values in our modern strife-ridden society," says Sanskrit's chief patron in government.

The symbolic value Sanskrit is laden with—a hoary language associated with a mythic and pristine 'golden age' and its scriptural basis—is ideal fodder for the bjp's dream project of shaping a 'Hindu rashtra'. The intimate relationship between power and knowledge has never been more fully revealed than here.

To be sure, granting that Sanskrit is part of India's classical inheritance, a yawning gap exists in genuine scholarship. Affirms George Cardona, professor of Indian grammatical theory at the University of Pennsylvania: "It's a magical language. It should be a joy to study it." But given the contentious fashion in which the bjp professes to fill the void—tied in neatly with its revivalist zeal—it's probably time to start separating the wheat of knowledge from the chaff of ideological motivation. Says Ranganatha Mishra, former Supreme Court chief justice and Central Sanskrit Board chairman: "Sanskrit today is enjoying an attention it long deserved, but unfortunately the scholars of the language are being clubbed together with those who are exploiting it for political gains. It is, I'm afraid, a wedge that cuts both ways."

That notwithstanding, the bjp regime has unleashed an avalanche of Sanskrit 'popularisation' programmes via its knowledge systems. A new ugc course in astrology and Vedic rituals, an isro project on ancient Indian astronomy, the recently opened Sanskrit Study Cell at iit, Delhi—these go along with the creation of a string of new Sanskrit departments and universities.The handsome boost the languishing language and its practitioners have received—its annual budget having gone up by seven times in the past five years—should have been worthy of praise, but for the zealous overdrive that marks it.

The controversial ncert proposal to make Sanskrit compulsory in schools from class 3 to 10 bears out this intent. Lamenting the deteriorating quality of techniques of imparting it, an overhaul is suggested—by teaching Sanskrit in Sanskrit, instead of the in-vogue grammar-translation method, so that students are "able to understand properly and utilise the wealth of knowledge, both spiritual and scientific, contained in Sanskrit literature for human welfare".

A pilot project is under way in about 100 cbse schools in the country. Students in many Delhi schools—Modern, St Columba's, Ramjas and Mother's International—are being taught Sanskrit in Sanskrit. The ncert would assess the project, make the necessary revisions and then move to "universalise it". But the apologists, despite their reformist tilt towards Sanskrit pedagogy, fall prey to a greater danger—that of trivialising and reducing to kitsch what they hope to resurrect. They propose that schools should organise debates, quizzes, drama competitions, song and essay contests, and even antakshari in Sanskrit. Raj Batra of Modern School, who helped devise the new syllabus, admits the basic idea is to instil values of our "sanskriti" through texts like the Upanishads. "If they also gain fluency, it'd be an added bonus."

The bjp has been trying to tap into this kind of scholarly sympathy for Sanskrit among the intelligentsia. Its aim being to vindicate the pre-eminence of the language—a claim that rests on a set of idealised notions. Like it being the mother of all languages, the most scientifically structured and most suitable for the modern computer era. The most fallacious part of the propaganda is the view that Sanskrit was always the language of the masses.

There is also controversial endorsement of such claims. A recent book by Bangalore-based computer scientist N.S. Rajaram and Bengal Vedic scholar Natwar Jha argues that the lineage of Vedic Sanskrit can be traced back to the Indus civilisation. Francois Gautier, South Asia correspondent of French daily Le Figaro, writes: "Let the scholars begin now to revive and modernise the Sanskrit language. It would be a sure sign of the dawning of the Indian Renaissance."

The attempt to foist Sanskrit on the nation, on the pretext of popularising it, has reignited the potentially explosive politics of language—simmering ever since Hindi as national language ran up against riots in Tamil Nadu in the '60s. The fear, well justified, therefore is that the attempt to turn Sanskrit into a revivalist symbol might similarly backfire, Says Mishra: "I hope the government takes a lesson from what happened to Hindi."

INDEED, even the Hindi that was popularised as the national language was a far cry from what was spoken by the masses. In a seminar, 'Bharatiya Ganatantra Mein Hindi—Dasha aur Disha', organised by the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in November '99, Hindi was the subject of general lamentation. Hindi writer Anirudh Deshpande, who attended the seminar, says: "The sanskritised and artificial-sounding Hindi imposed upon us through various government agencies doesn't enthuse Hindi supporters either."

The trouble is, it is often difficult for the laity to separate propaganda from serious peer-reviewed research.The failure, social scientist Gail Omvedt rued in a recent article, to "really challenge the priority asserted for Sanskrit has made it impossible to achieve an alternative understanding of history. It only shows that language remains subordinated to politics". But writer Deshpande's concern for developing a language that is rooted in the soil and is understood by the masses, so that true indigenous knowledge systems can evolve, is worthy of attention, particularly because he says this in the context of Hindustani's decline. This language—so designated before the artificial separation of Hindi and Urdu in the aftermath of the Partition—is in his opinion more of a living and vibrant entity than sanskritised Hindi and of course, closer home than English.

But what about Sanskrit? It did figure in the Constituent Assembly debate over the national language, but since it wasn't really a spoken language, it was ruled out. Hindi and English were together chosen as the official languages with a stipulation to phase out the latter in 15 years. That, as we all know, never happened. Now, with the bjp appropriating the plank of Sanskrit and trying to tout it as a probable national language, the chaos has been compounded.

Sociologist P. Anand writes in the Economic and Political Weekly: "There is no record of Sanskrit ever being a democratic language. The point is that there was a sanction against Sanskrit being acquired by the Dalit-Bahujans. Lack of access to it meant lack of space in what the 'varna-dharmic' forces upheld and celebrated as culture, knowledge, power." The newfound revivalists are resorting to fiat and sophistry with unabashed effectiveness. But herein, perhaps, lies Sanskrit's most tragic flaw.
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