Sanskrit as a National Language: Making the case
Yesterday, I shared with you some thoughts on why learning Sanskrit (& Devanagari) may actually have very significant benefits and why it should be part of the school curriculum. I concluded that part with a promise to look into the case for making Sanskrit India’s National Language. Thankfully, I did not have to struggle much on this. A few months back, I stumbled on an excellent and well-researched article on precisely this topic.
This was a paper by Prof Makarand Paranajpe, Professor of English at JNU and a prolific author. Below, some excerpts from his well-referenced paper titled, “The Case for Sanskrit as India’s National Language” (CAUTION: Long Post):
I had first heard from my friends in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, that the Mother wanted Sanskrit to be made the national language of India. Indeed, Sanskrit is taught from childhood not only in the ashram schools, but also at Auroville, the community that the Mother founded.
..When asked by a disciple on what basis she had said that Sanskrit should be the national language of India, the Mother replied, “I said Sanskrit because Sri Aurobindo had told me so.”3 Actually, Sri Aurobindo’s views on Sanskrit were well thought out and forcefully formulated. For instance, in his “Preface on a National Education” (November 1920), he said:
A language, Sanskrit or another, should be acquired by whatever method is most natural, efficient and stimulating to the mind and we need not cling there to any past or present manner of teaching: but the vital question is how we are to learn and make use of Sanskrit and the indigenous languages so as to get to the heart and intimate sense of our own culture and establish a vivid continuity between the still living power of our past and the yet uncreated power of our future, and how we are to learn and use English or any other foreign tongue so as to know helpfully the life, ideas and culture of other countries and establish our right relations with the world around us. This is the aim and principle of a true national education, not, certainly, to ignore modern truth and knowledge, but to take our foundation on our own being, our own mind, our own spirit..
..When I first heard of these views, I found them commendable but was doubtful of their practicality. To me, it seemed that to make Sanskrit the national language would require more than just an administrative will. First of all, to get any Government to make such a policy decision would be next to impossible, with all sorts of obstacles and political pressures put up by various interest groups. There would be opposition probably from Tamil-wallas and Urdu-wallas, but most of all from the “secular” Hindu ruling elite, who would see this as some sort of ploy by the Hindutva lobby. Even if an order to this effect were promulgated, it would be so difficult to implement all over the country. That is why I had then thought of the idea of making Sanskrit India’s national language as noble but impractical. However, during the Sanskrit week held last year at JNU’s Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, it suddenly occurred to me that we need not think of a “national” language in narrow or restricted terms, but in the broadest and most effective way.
..The key to unlocking the difficult question of whether Sanskrit should be India’s national language or not is in clarity over the meaning of the word “national.”..To my mind, a national language, in the Indian context, need not mean the official language. Indeed, such a distinction is implicit in the Constitution of India itself. Clearly, the aim is not to make Sanskrit the official language of India, that is, the language of the Government, of the judiciary, of business, politics, and public affairs. In monolingual countries, official and national languages may be identical, but this is not the case in India. In India we not only have several languages, but also need certain languages to play special roles. Both Hindi and English are such languages, as the Constitution clearly recognizes. By national language, in the present context, is meant a language that is the source of our identity, a language that unites us, a language that links us with our past, a language that is the repository of our sacred texts, a language in which so much knowledge and learning from the past is stored. In one word, “national,” here means a heritage language. Once the confusion over the word “national” is removed, the argument in favour of Sanskrit can be articulated more forcefully.
..The idea of making Sanskrit not only India’s national language, but also India’s official language can be traced back to none other that India’s first law minister and the Dalit leader, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. ..in September 1949, the then law minister, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, moved an amendment to substitute Hindi with Sanskrit so as to make Sanskrit the official language of India. Not only were there prominent politicians and public figures from Tamil Nadu among the signatories, but also a Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed, from West Bengal, a member of the Muslim League. ..In the end, though Hindi emerged as the “winner” of the official languages sweepstakes, it was not only in the Devanagari script, but also a Hindi which the Constitution itself declared would use Sanskrit as the main source of enrichment and increasing vocabulary.
..Nehru was reported on the 13th of February 1949 in The Hindu as declaring: If I was asked what is the greatest treasure which India possesses and what is her finest heritage, I would answer unhesitatingly—it is the Sanskrit language and literature..This is a magnificent inheritance, and so long as this endures and influences the life of our people, so long the basic genius of India will continue.
After the Constitution, the next and perhaps most important document to examine would be the Report of the Sanskrit Commission set up by the Government of India in 1956..One of the most remarkable chapters in the Sanskrit Commission Report is “Sanskrit and the Aspirations of Independent India”9 in which a defence and justification of Sanskrit is offered. The authors point to the role of Sanskrit in the national awakening of India, especially in Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s song,Vande Mataram, which became the “Rashtra Gayatri.” This song is entirely in Sanskrit except for a few sentences in Bangla10.
Though English contributed to the growth of political consciousness in India, only an Indian language could help create political unity. This language would have been Sanskrit, but in 1921 Mahatma Gandhi accepted Hindi or Hindustani with the Devanagari script..
The Commission also refers to the adoption of the Upanishadic dictum “Satyamevajayate” as the national motto of India, the Sanskritized “Jana Gana Mana” as the national anthem, the motto of the Lok Sabha “Dhamachakraprvartnaya,” of All India Radio (Akashvani), “Bahujan hitaya bahujana sukhaya,” of the Life Insurance Corporation, “Yogaksemamvahamyaham.” The practice of using Shri and Shrimati instead of Mr. and Mrs, and so on, also show how important Sanskrit is in our national life..The Commission considers Sanskrit to be “in the broad sense of the term.. from classical Sanskrit to the medieval Prakrits.
..If we think of all the literature available in this linguistic system, it would be a vast treasury useful not only to India, but to the whole world: from the Vedas, the Vedangas, the Epics, the Kavya literature, drama, science, philosophy, aesthetics, indeed the endless knowledge in nearly all branches of human endeavour available in Sanskrit makes it a unique repository, the world’s heritage language. In fact, Sanskrit is conducive to all the four purusharthas or cardinal aims of life, Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha, with its vast repositories of knowledge and guidance in each of these realms.
Sanskrit is also the “great unifying force” in India, knitting a vast subcontinent from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Saurashtra to Kamarupa. Pointing out how the Chinese system of writing and modern Hebrew served to unify the newly formed nations of China and Israel respectively, the Commission asked why Sanskrit could not be expected to play a similar role in India. It was only Sanskrit that could play the role of unifying India: “This great inheritance of Sanskrit is the golden link joining up all the various provincial languages and literatures and cultures, and it should not be allowed to be neglected and to go waste.”
The Commission next turned its attention to the role that Sanskrit had played and can play in the “Formation of Character.” Not just information, Sanskrit could also influence the formation of the mind..Even the sound of the language is special: “Sanskrit is a language which through its sonority and mellifluousness, has the power to lift us up above ourselves — the message of Sanskrit read or chanted is that of sursum corda — “lift up your hearts” — and this forms one of its most subtle aesthetic and dynamic values.”
..The third instance I wish to examine is the landmark Judgment of 4th October 1994 of the Supreme Court on Sanskrit. This shows how all was not well or smooth sailing for the teaching of Sanskrit as a part of the Indian school curriculum. The attack against Sanskrit went as far as an appeal against teaching it in the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) on the grounds that it was against secularism. It needed a Judgment of the Supreme Court of India to refute the absurd proposition that it was not against secularism to teach Sanskrit in our schools.
..The next notable instance of the state’s addressing the issue of Sanskrit is the setting up of the National Mission for Manuscripts by the NDA Government in 2003. The decline of Sanskrit in India was a direct consequence of colonial rule. The position of Sanskrit as India’s pre-eminent intellectual language was dislodged by English as a direct consequence of imperial policy. It might have been expected therefore that sufficient resources and attention would be devoted to the study and revival of Sanskrit in independent India. However, B. Bhattacharya in his book Sanskrit Culture in a Changing World writes that at the time of writing the book there were at least one million manuscripts in public and private libraries in India and abroad. 95% of these manuscripts are languishing unread and untranslated.
..The National Mission for Manuscripts was launched in February 2003 by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, to save this most valuable but less visible of our cultural inheritances.
..Interestingly, the mission statement does not use the word Sanskrit anywhere. But since the majority of the rarest of Indian manuscripts are in Sanskrit, it is assumed that the work will concentrate on Sanskrit. However, the fact that this is nowhere openly stated shows, once again, the ambivalence of our “secular” culture towards our identity and heritage. Interestingly, contrary to what is popularly thought, the Government recognized Sanskrit as a classical language only as recently as 27th October 2005. Tamil, in fact, had been recognized as a classical language before Sanskrit.
In this final section of the paper, I offer some arguments in favour of Sanskrit as India’s national language…It is erroneous to regard the support of language by a state as mere patronage. In the case of Sanskrit, it will be wise for the state and its machinery to invest in Sanskrit. This investment will be matched or supported by private enterprise too.
Together, Sanskrit and sanskriti, which is the culture of India, will be strengthened. We have to begin to understand why such an investment in Sanskrit will not only be profitable, but is necessary.
To understand the case for Sanskrit, I shall first rehearse arguments already prevalent…In an impressive book called The Wonder That is Sanskrit (2002) the authors Sampad and Vijay devote a chapter to “Sanskrit as the national language of India,”..I have identified at least seven arguments in favour of Sanskrit as a national language of India in this book:
- Only a language that is native to a country, that is, a language that has taken birth and developed in a particular country, can be the national language of that country.
- The national language of a culture must be a language that is the repository of the best, highest, and noblest aspirations of that culture. This language, for India, is Sanskrit.
- …only a non-regional language can be a national language. “Sanskrit is alone non-regional. No province or state or people can claim it as its own.”
- Sanskrit has been since ancient times the link language of the whole subcontinent. Therefore Sanskrit has been a binding force throughout the history of India. Again, like English, Sanskrit is India’s link language, but unlike English it is both native to India and co-extensive with the entire civilizational trajectory of the subcontinent.
- ..in contradistinction to English, Sanskrit is the “mother” of most Indian tongues. All these including Tamil have a large percentage of words derived from Sanskrit. Sanskrit through the well known processes of Tatsam (words borrowed as they are from Sanskrit) and Tadbhava (words derived from Sanskrit but modified), it is estimated that almost 70% of the words of most modern Indian languages are from Sanskrit…That is why it is possible for people in India from different parts of India to understand each other even if they speak different languages. After all, there is a common vocabulary not to speak of a great deal of similarities in syntax. Unlike what more recent ideologically informed arguments, influenced by proponents of Dravidianism have claimed, even Tamil shows a very close relationship with Sanskrit.
- Sanskrit is capable of changing with the times, especially in its capacity to produce an infinite variety of new words.
- Sanskrit as a source of unity and pride is a major reason to make it India’s national language. This reason, it would seem, subsumes all the others
The next chapter of The Wonder That is Sanskrit also tries to refute some charges against Sanskrit, especially the charge that Sanskrit is a Hindu language and that it is a dead and difficult language.
In a more intensely polemical and well-documented defence of Sanskrit, Rajiv Malhotra (in) his essay entitled “Geopolitics and Sanskrit Phobia”..argues that:
1. Sanskrit is more than a language. Like all languages, its structures and categories contain a built-in framework for representing specific worldviews. Sanskriti is the name of the culture and civilization that embodies this framework. One may say that Sanskriti is the term for what has recently become known as Indic Civilization, a civilization that goes well beyond the borders of modern India to encompass South Asia and much of Southeast Asia. At one time, it included much of Asia.
2. Interactions among different regions of Asia helped to develop and exchange this pan-Asian Sanskriti. Numerous examples involving India, Southeast Asia and China are given.
3. Sanskrit started to decline after the West Asian invasions of the Indian subcontinent. This had a devastating impact on Sanskriti, as many world-famous centres of learning were destroyed, and no single major university was built for many centuries by the conquerors.
4. Besides Asia, Sanskrit and Sanskriti influenced Europe’s modernity, and Sanskrit Studies became a large-scale formal activity in most European universities. These influences shaped many intellectual disciplines that are (falsely) classified as “Western.” But the “discovery” of Sanskrit by Europe also had the negative influence of fuelling European racism since the 19th century.
5. Meanwhile, in colonial India, the education system was de-Sanskritized and replaced by an English based education. This served to train clerks and low level employees to administer the Empire, and to start the process of self-denigration among Indians, a trend that continues today. Many prominent Indians achieved fame and success as middlemen serving the Empire, and Gandhi’s famous 1908 monograph, “Hind Swaraj,” discusses this phenomenon.
6. After India’s independence, there was a broad based Nehruvian love affair with Sanskrit as an important nation-building vehicle. However, successive generations of Indian intellectuals have replaced this with what this paper terms “Sanskrit Phobia,” i.e. a body of beliefs now widely disseminated according to which Sanskrit and Sanskriti are blamed for all sorts of social, economic and political problems facing India’s underprivileged classes. This section illustrates such phobia among prominent Western Indologists and among trendy Indians involved in South Asian Studies who learn about Sanskrit and Sanskriti according to Western frameworks and biases.
Sadly, “secular” prejudice against Sanskrit has resulted in precious little being done to actively encourage and promote the study of Sanskrit in schools and academic institutions. Indeed, the language and its rich heritage has been blatantly disregarded with treatment bordering on animosity by successive governments. In Part III, I will share some shocking examples of the government’s stance on Sanskrit.
Read Part I here: A Compendium on National Language, Indian Unity & संस्कृत – Part I and the concluding part here