The Shameful Neglect of Sanskrit…
Yesterday, I mentioned how the language has been consistently disregarded and sometimes blatantly discriminated against by the powers that be – and promised to share some examples. Below are some instances of the step-motherly treatment towards Sanskrit.
The first, from Andhra Pradesh (courtesy Dr T H Chowdary) where the Urdu Academy’s grant stands at Rs. 14.0 cr. (a continuous increase over the last five years) as against a paltry Rs 5 Lakhs for the Sanskrit Academy.
Second, an excerpt from a Washington Post article on Summer Camps Revive India’s Ancient Sanskrit by Rama Lakshmi which mentions how the central government cut funding for a Sanskrit teaching programme citing:
“The Sanskrit project was initiated by the previous government. They had their own priorities. The project was so-so. How many people really speak Sanskrit in India?” said Ramjanam Sharma, head of languages at NCERT, a government body that designs school curriculums. Defending the decision to cut the funding, he said it was not appropriate for schools to teach children how to converse in Sanskrit. “We cannot replicate the teaching methods of traditional religious schools in our mainstream schools.”
This even though Sanskrit is one one of the 22 Scheduled (official) languages in India. Such discriminatory treatment is not rare or limited. As Varnam wrote in his post, back in 2008, Sanskrit: a synonym for Communalism:
Now the name of a language has become a synonym for communal politics. In fact this attempt to brand Sanskrit as a non-secular entity happened once before, believe it or not – by the Central Board of Secondary Education. It was an attempt to pull the rug off India’s cultural heritage and history by branding an entire language as not-secular. At that time the Central Board of Secondary Education decided not to offer Sanskrit as an elective because
1. If they offered Sanskrit, they would have to offer Arabic and Persian since they were also classical languages. If Sanskrit alone was offered ignoring Arabic and Persian, then it would not be secular education, so went the reasoning.
2. If they offered Sanskrit, they would also have to offer other languages like French and German and even Lepcha.
The Supreme Court in a landmark verdict rejected the accusation that teaching Sanskrit was against secularism. To make that judgment, the Court first defined secularism as neither pro-God or anti-God, but the ability to treat devout, agnostic and atheist alike and to be neutral in religious matters. To be a secular person you don’t have to reject your religious beliefs; you could deeply religious as well as secular. To illustrate the case, the Court cited two Indians – Mahatma Gandhi and Swami Vivekananda – to “dispel the impression that if a person is devout Hindu or devout Muslim he ceases to be secular.”
Regarding the language, the Court wrote that Sanskrit was the language in which Indian minds expressed the noblest ideas. It was also the language in which our culture, which includes the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, the teachings of Sankaracharya to Vallabhacharya and classics of Kalidasa to Banabhatta were expressed. Without understanding Sanskrit, the Court wrote, you cannot understand Indian philosophy on which our culture is based..
There were two other reasons (a) Sanskrit is in the Eighth Schedule, while French, German, Arabic, Persian and Lepcha are not and (b) Article 351 of the Indian Constitution.
Now Seema Chisthi is taking us two decades back, once again to imply that Sanskrit = Communal, thus giving a language such a narrow definition that it would disconnect an ancient nation from its rich cultural heritage. Soon Sanskrit speakers, students of history, and Indian philosophy will be branded communal and the volunteers of Samskrita Bharati will be compared to Mohammed Afzal.
Lets watch to see if our eminent journalists, defenders of secularism and guardians of enlightenment pick this up.
Related Link: The Supreme Court verdict on Sanskrit
Instances of neglect are more numerous, such as this mention of manuscripts being eaten by worms or how officials of the Sanskrit Academy & Research Institute in Hyderabad had to rent out the premises to take care of maintenance costs. These excerpts below paint an even more dismal picture (from “Sanskrit: Classic tale of Neglect” by Ananya Vajpeyi; emphasis added)
…In early 2010, author Gurcharan Das told me that he was disturbed about having to go to American universities to study or refresh his Sanskrit in preparation for writing his latest book.
…I recounted to Das my own disappointments and difficulties in trying to study Sanskrit in India. I told him about my misadventures at universities, libraries, archives and traditional schools in multiple states – Maharashtra, Karnataka, UP, Tamil Nadu and Bengal…Sheldon Pollock, Professor of Sanskrit at Columbia University, has pointed out that there is a crisis in the study of not only Sanskrit, but all the classical languages of India..these languages have arrived at a point from which it may no longer be possible to ensure their preservation into the future. By 2050, when India would have become the world’s most populous nation, it will also have severed ties with its extraordinary linguistic and literary inheritance.
…It is stunning that in a country with dozens of Sanskrit departments at all major state-level and national universities, a number of Sanskrit colleges dating from the colonial period, an entire network of matha, pathshala and vidyapeeth institutions…and innumerable texts stored in homes, libraries, archives and temples, we do not have the most basic infrastructure to read, preserve or create knowledge in or about Sanskrit. Neither the inertia from a prior era, nor new initiatives have kept Sanskrit going.
When we need sheer information, we still turn to data collected in the 19th century by the British, or later, in the Nehru administration. There is no up-to-date snapshot, no decadal all-India Sanskrit Report 1990, 2000 or 2010.
…It may seem perverse to worry about Sanskrit – a so-called “dead” language – when Indians are becoming less and less fluent in the living regional languages, most of which have numerically more or as many speakers as major European and Asian languages.
…But Sanskrit ..like it or not, one of a very small number of keys to our entire recorded history;without an ability to be functional in this language, without preserving its texts, its archives, and its material residues, we simply cannot know our own origins.
Wilfully destroying and forgetting the historical past, in the manner of Communist Russia and China in the 20th century, or distancing and censoring it in the manner of other new republics based on old cultures, like Turkey and Iran, is not the way forward for India.
…Not land, blood, race, religion or state – language itself is our essence. Without our words, we are nothing.
…We need to arrest the destruction of our classical languages and our humanities in general, but especially of Sanskrit, without further delay. If we expect to be a global leader in an age when communication is everything, we need to recognise, respect and foster the very source of our power for the past 3, 000 years: language.
Ironically, more work may be happening outside India to preserve this language and its heritage than in India (see e.g. “In China, a rediscovery of Sanskrit“). Unsurprisingly, the language continues to struggle to survive. The connected Vedic tradition is in a crisis too. From “Solar flares” – an article written in Dec ’03, read this excerpt:
UNESCO, DG …said among the 80 entries received from world over the chanting of vedas was considered an outstanding example of heritage and the form of cultural expressions
(but) ”Although the Vedas continue to play an important role in India, this ancient oral tradition now faces difficulties owing to current economic conditions and modernisation. Experts claim that four noted schools of Vedic recitation—in Orissa, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Kerala—may be in danger of closing down.”
The DoC study unravelled depressing statistics to corroborate this. It said that while only two of the Rig Veda’s 20 branches and 21 sub-branches, six of the Yajur Veda’s 101 branches, three of the Sama Veda’s 1,000 branches, and two of Atharva Veda’s nine branches existed today, four schools of Vedic chanting—Paippalada, Ranayaniya, Jaiminiya, and Maitrayani—were about to vanish. The study pointed out that while there were nearly 500 traditional Vedic pathshalas, there were only 300-odd teachers drilling fewer than 1,500 students. With Vedic traditions losing talent to other professions, the ilk of those deft at accurate chanting has shrivelled.
Hopefully this compendium has provoked you into thinking a little bit about our past, our heritage, national unity, the need for a truly “national” language and of course “Sanskrit”. If so, my (limited) purpose would have been served. It would of course, be even better if you could take the next step and start learning it yourself (if you don’t know it – or, like me, have forgotten what little you learnt at school) – or by teaching others if you are already conversant with the language. A good beginning could be something like this: “Practical Sanskrit”. Comment and thoughts on this post and the series, welcome, as always.
Campus Samskritam – a network of students, alumni and faculty of universities spread across the US, aimed to promote the learning and usage of spoken Sanskrit