Whose Sanskrit is it anyway?

Print edition : August 28, 2020

A class in session at The Madras Sanskrit College, Chennai. In endeavouring to resurrect Sanskrit in a selective manner in the present, it becomes emblematic of a political culture that has clear designs on the present and the future. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

By homogenising India’s past under the arch umbrella of Sanskrit, the plurality of Indian culture and the knowledge systems and cultural expressions produced in other languages will be effectively erased from view for a political agenda that seeks to appropriate not just the present but the past too.

One major aspect of the Narendra Modi government’s National Educational Policy, which has raised quite a few eyebrows, is its rather strident emphasis on Sanskrit. The policy states that along with the other “classical languages”, the importance of which “cannot be overlooked”, Sanskrit “will be offered at all levels of school and higher education as an important, enriching option for students, including as an option in the three-language formula”. It rationalises the decision on the basis that Sanskrit “possesses a classical literature that is greater in volume than that of Latin and Greek put together, containing vast treasures of mathematics, philosophy, grammar, music, politics, medicine, architecture, metallurgy, drama, poetry, storytelling, and more (known as ‘Sanskrit Knowledge Systems’), written by people of various religions as well as non-religious people, and by people from all walks of life and a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds over thousands of years.”

Now, what is wrong with learning a language that has such a long, hoary tradition and is a rich repository of some of the greatest treasures of human thought and expression, some may ask in all innocence. They may add that it is the language from which most Indian languages have either descended or drawn profusely at various crucial points of their development. Some others may venture to say, without being quite sure of their sources or the full veracity of their claim (Whatsapp being the culprit at large), that quite a few Western languages owe their origin to Sanskrit, if not directly, at least indirectly.

There is nothing wrong with learning Sanskrit or any language for that matter. Languages are windows to cultures, histories and ways of life. Learning a new language opens a whole new world of experience and expression, which otherwise one will never get to know. Languages also initiate one into new ways of thinking and new perspectives arising from the particular life environment in which they developed. Languages thus open up the world for us, showing us its infinite variety and plurality. Coming to Sanskrit specifically, as one who grew up in an environment that was to a great extent suffused with Sanskrit, in the form of poetry and performance, and as one whose ears have been attuned from infancy to the rhythmic, musical cadences of recited slokas, I would hardly be averse to the idea of learning it. Further, although it is the English language that puts food on my plate, as a theatre student whose major area of research is Sanskrit theatre and performance, particularly its Kerala variety, Kutiyattam, I would be the last person to deny its richness or its knowledge value.

However, when it makes its appearance in a national policy on education in the manner in which it has, as a language to be “mainstreamed and prioritised” at all levels of school and higher education, then the question assumes very different dimensions. We are no longer then in the realm of personal interests or individual choice or even the simple matter of learning or teaching a language. On the contrary, we are in the thick of a political agenda that seeks to appropriate and lay its stamp on not just the present but the past, too.

Picture of the past

What is the picture of the past that this policy presents us with? It says, “The rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought has been a guiding light for this Policy. The pursuit of knowledge (Jnan), wisdom (Pragyaa), and truth (Satya) was always considered in Indian thought and philosophy as the highest human goal. The aim of education in ancient India was not just the acquisition of knowledge as preparation for life in this world, or life beyond schooling, but for the complete realisation and liberation of the self.” Sanskrit then appears not just as a language but as the very lingua franca of this venerable past. However, even a cursory look will make it evident that this is at best a fabricated past, a past attributed with an imposed homogeneity that is far from the truth. On the one hand, in depicting the past in such glorious terms, this discourse effectively effaces from view the deeply riven social divisions and conflicts that characterised Indian society. It attributes to that past a false homogeneity wherein the divisions and differences of caste and community are glossed over and ignored. Any reasonably informed student of history will be able to tell you that this celebrated heritage was the prerogative of a select few and that the great majority was forcibly excluded from the so-called Sanskrit knowledge systems. In addition, in thus homogenising India’s past under the arch umbrella of Sanskrit, the immense plurality of Indian culture and the knowledge systems and cultural expressions produced by other communities and in other languages are effectively erased from view.

There also seems to be a complete lack of understanding that vast segments of the Indian population do not see this past in a favourable light, given that their forefathers were subjected to the most inhuman and horrendous structures of exclusion and oppression as a result of the Sanskrit knowledge systems that this policy document looks up to. Their real response to this “classical tradition” would probably be best exemplified by B. R. Ambedkar’s burning of the Manusmriti. That Sanskrit was part and parcel of, indeed the medium that provided the discursive rationale for, the structural institution of graded inequality, in the form of the social philosophy of chaturvarna (the system of four varnas), that condemned more than half of the population as untouchables or outcasts seems to have been forgotten or missed by the keen eyes of the policy drafters. That this is not an inadvertent omission is clear in the epithets heaped on “Bharat” and its illustrious heritage.

Obviously, for the policymakers, Sanskrit is not merely a language or a set of knowledge systems; it is emblematic of a way of viewing the past, of understanding it in partial terms. More importantly, in endeavouring to resurrect it in a selective manner in the present, it becomes emblematic also of a political culture that has clear designs on the present and the future. The British political theorist Roger Griffin’s concept of “palingenetic ultranationalism” assumes tremendous significance here. It is an extreme, quite often violent, form of nationalism that bases itself upon a promised return to a “golden age” in the country’s history, and the rebirth or recreation of a society that is supposed to have existed earlier. Such a selectively represented, often fabricated, past thus becomes a guidebook to a better tomorrow and the template of a social order in the making.

The focus on Sanskrit then turns out to be far from innocent, and deeply rooted in the very ideology that spurs the right-wing forces that have laid siege to the political sphere of the country. It is also part of a large package that has the brand “Hindutva” writ large on it and includes yoga, astrology, irrational beliefs and veneration of ‘godmen’. More than anything else, it is the grounding rationale for a particular kind of political power that is fascist, dictatorial and exclusionary, and if permitted to take its natural course it will result in the loss of freedom and lives of millions of people. Acceptance of it can only be at the peril of the democratic, multicultural fabric of the country. So, my answer to the question in the title? Sorry, no, this is not my Sanskrit. Mine is more in the tradition of the iconoclastic Bhasa, the questioning protocols of the Lokayata, the biting sarcasm of the Chakyars, and the subversive subtexts of the Mahabharata because that is what I understand my India to be—critical, plural and irreverent.

Mundoli Narayanan is Professor of English at the University of Calicut. His major area of research is theatre and performance, particularly Kutiyattam, the Sanskrit theatre of Kerala.

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