Sanskrit and its Burdens – For Those who did not get it

2 Dec

There has been much discussion around this post. Some praised it, many vilified it.

Oops, sorry, did I use a long word like vilify. It means – made a villian (like in the movies) out of it. Said that it was ignorant, that I had not read enough and did not know much about the language. This is untrue, but the point here is not to show whether I know more or less than them. (There will always be some who know more, some who know less).

The point here is not to defend the piece.

The point here is to show how a certain style of writing works to generate debate. And to point out to places in the piece where there are opportunities to build a strong response that will build support for your cause. Think of it as a workshop in advocacy. A part of one – at least.

Before I start, let me state that Sanskrit is a language that deserves revival. It has enriched me in various ways. But whether I (or even you, the reader) love or hate the language is not relevant, (though an upsurge of emotional connect is clearly important). What is important is how one presents a case in support of the language. Less noise, more reason.

Let us begin: (Comments in italics)

Is the debate really about the Sanskrit language or is it about something that goes deeper? Why is there such insistence, even a furor on teaching a language that has lived it’s time, served its purpose and given way to others that were more robust and relevant?

this is a call to all thinking folk to put on their thinking hats and note down reasons for the reasons for the upsurge of demand/support for the language, for the reasons why it still has relevance, for the reasons for its decline (beyond, even if including blaming ‘outsiders’), the reasons why other languages grew, why Sanskrit did not grow – indeed it’s usage declined. The decline of Sanskrit is a matter of fact, easily verified by a simple count of people who speak it as a first, second or even third language. The call for a revival of Sanskrit is in itself an acknowledgement of the fact that it has decline. Those (of us) who respect the language and want to see more investment in it must first honestly face up to the reasons for the decline without being defensive – this is the first step to recovery. We must know the ailment to cure it. Solutions later, first a documentation of the reasons (and there is much research on this – some rigourous, some biased, some rhetoric presented as research) that needs colllation. The first question- Why did Sanskrit not capture the hearts of the general population?)

Sanskrit is a language of the past, the very same that is glorified. India, the bird of gold that was captured by marauders, her golden wings clipped. India can only regain those past glories when it recreates all that existed before the ‘outsiders’ came. Sanskrit, it is believed, was the language of those glorious times. Bring back Sanskrit, and we will be able to unlock the secrets of our ancestors, the code that made us great. Sorry folks, there is no magic key in this quest, this is not a play or a video game.

The past is always glorified, memory is flawed. History has often been written by the victor, often more hagiography than history. We see that in daily life too, when, for example, people casually say – it was much better in the old days. Often not – there were problems then such as diseases that killed and are curable now – that do indicate that each era has its own issues. The past of India is being glorified but us – and why not? Who else will do it if Indians do not glorify themselves and remind themselves of the good that is a part of the heritage. The risk here is that one can do this too fast, or too loudly and then one loses the battle. Do this well – first establish the facts, then tout them. Do not just say we were great – bring more proof than just hearsay from a few anecdotes retold. There is more to glory than anecdotes, and surely there is enough to find in India if researched well and presented properly. (More on research, presenting, timing later on). There is a movement that seeks to recreate that India of one’s received – unverified- memory. And the call to more Sanskrit is a part of that attempt. But one cannot go back to the past. One can build anew, but one cannot time travel. Bringing back Sanskrit will not bring back the glory. Glory, growth and success are not that simple. Much more work will need to be done. Does Sanskrit have a role in making India great? Maybe it does. Very likely it does. Where is the case for that? Much of what is bandied about in the current debate is rhetoric, and very popular rhetoric. But rhetoric is not reason. If one thinks that Sanskrit is the magic key to accessing and replicating the glorious position India used to occupy in the world, then the question here is: How will Sanskrit unlock the potential of the country? How will Sanskrit restore India to glory? (some parts of the answer are obvious – such as acknowlegement of past achievements – that is a good start, but needs more)

It is true that Sanskrit is a language with rich traditions in literature, drama, philosophy and possibly even the sciences. It is, as every great language, a doorway into a culture and much learning.

This paragraph supports Sanskrit and summarises very briefly all the good that has been spoken about in recent discussions and books. Actually not just recent – the greatness of Sanskrit has been acknowledged by many over the centuries. Since these have been said often, and there are others who say it better than I do, I have not repeated those. Of course we know of the structure of the language, the perfection of the grammar, the stimulus to memory and other capacities of the brain, the ability of the language to allow us to code and write poetry, the witty aphorisms, the tight dense packets of knowledge that have survived the centuries – this is the highest of the high. It needs no endorsement, it is up there.

There can be many gains from learning the language.

The gains from learning the language are also documented. These need no repetition either. What they do need is testing and proof. Proof created with rigor, related with calm confidence, able to withstand questioning by anybody without descending in to a shrill cacophony of the defensive hordes. The language deserves dignity, give it the place it deserves.

As all of us from the financial sector know – gains can really be unlocked only when the secondary market in anything gains depth – that means when there are enough people who trade and exchange in it to create richness in interactions. Once this is started off, it is possible to star discovering more value. The same applies to the language – the more people speak it, the more we will be able to uncover and share.

This is a call to encourage usage of the language. The more the language is used, the more value we will be able to unlock. The number of interactions in Sanskrit needs to increase before we even begin to understand how much value we can create. Till we have this, we may not actually be able to achieve the theoretical possible gains that were listed in response to the questions above. The real gains are going to be understood as they are unlocked – and we must make sure we track and understand these. (It may turn out that we were mistaken and there are no gains at all-this is a risk we take in reviving  language. But this is a risk we may have to take, and the choice is open to us) The ‘secondary market’ refers to those who are not scholars or experts and are daily practioners. Users of the language. The real potential gets unlocked when we have more of these.

More than that, we may be able to build on the body of knowledge.

One of the strongest arguments in favour of investing in Sanskrit is the body of knowledge that has not been accessed fully yet. It is said that we may never be able to access all there is to know. That is possible – there is much depth and density (and everyone here, even the greatest scholar will admit to knowing little – so don’t come attacking me saying – what do you know?) The ability to access even a part of the knowledge is valuable. Once there is a community who can exchange knowledge and engage in robust debate based on the language then we begin to reach the land of building on knowledge. This is where gains begin. (This paragraph is a call to start the thinking process about the knowledge and the various areas where one could start building on it first)

(The next paragraph is phrased like a challenge, but again it is a call to think through all sides of an argument. If we are to build a robust case for (or against-why would anyone be against!) investing in Sanskrit, we must ask ourselves more questions and have solid reasoning to hand)

Can this not be done in other languages? Languages that are in use today? Languages that are global and offer mobility and an ever greater exchange of knowledge? Can we not unlock our greatness though grand debates and inventions in say Hindi, Urdu, Tamil or Telegu or indeed the many written and unwritten languages that inhabit our land? Is the language of the santhals that has no script not equally a repository of knowledge of the medicinal benefits of the trees of the forest? Is the literature in Kannada not rich enough to trigger grand debates about society and people? Why does Sanskrit have such a hold on those who aspire to the glories of the past?

Anyone who is serious about supporting Sanskrit must be able to provide a reasonable answer to the question: What is it that Sanskrit will do that cannot be done in other languages? There has been much literature on this, and by asking this question, one obviously refers to that literature without necessarily having to mention it. It is a call to those who know more in depth about that literature to consolidate those arguments and present them. A call, not a challenge. It would serve the cause of promotion of that language well to have a well presented answer to this question. The last question – again – if answered well- strengthens the case for supporting Sanskrit. Explain it, expound on it, build an argument that says that modern languages cannot connect with past skills, attitudes, processes – keys to success – in the way that Sanskrit can… this sentence is a clue built in that tells you one way to think and answer the question built into the paragraph: What can Sanskrit do that others cannot. (Tell, list, share).

Sanskrit has not always been accessible to all people. It was the language of privilege, indeed of discrimination. Only certain people could learn it and access the knowledge it contained. Sanskrit was the language of an elite erudite club. There was a time when the egalitarian protest movements saw Sanskrit representing the wrongs done to them. In a strange twisted way, once the language has lost its power to drive discrimination, it is now accessible to all – and the demands are to make it compulsory for all. Privilege and access are never handed out that easily – either the calls to make Sanskrit compulsory are an acknowledgement that it does not wield that power any more, or the calls hide the fact that it will obfuscate the debate on real access to power via other learning in schools.

One cannot deny that Sanskrit has not been accessible to all people. Even schooling/learning was not accessible to all people. It is rare that there is 100% access to any learning for all people in any country! Sanskrit, in particular has been cast as the language of discrimination. There are places in India where there is proof to the contrary – many professions used Sanskrit – and I am glad that this article has brought forth many in defense with evidence to state this. The intent of the article was to provoke more documentation, better evidence. Let it not be limited to mere conversation – let there be consolidated documentation (and I know of some pockets where this is being done). At the same time, Sanskrit was clearly not available to all in the middle ages. This was to the detriment of the language since local dialects took hold, incorporating much of Sanskrit to evolve. Ease, Access and Evolution have remained markers of languages that grow, and if one wants Sanskrit to grow, then there has to be a case that shows that this is possible. Once the question is framed, it may actually be quite easy to show the case. Any thing that stands to say that these are difficult, mark out the points where work will need to be done and resources allocated. It is true, is it not that Sanskrit was attacked by many for not being egalitarian? Whether they were right or not isn’t being discussed in this sentence – responses to the previous sentence will prove it or not. Here one acknowledges that Sanskrit carries the baggage of privilege, that this protest has been a part of the history of the language.

Has Sanskrit lost it’s power? That is what many will argue as it offers neither access to a king’s purse, nor any special prestige. The opposite case can also be made – knowledge of Sanskrit may not offer monetary power anymore, but it does allow one to earn a respectable income. At the same time one does not see the clamour to learn Sanskrit as one does for English, since English (mistakenly or not) is percieved to be the language that gives access to better employment, and even social status. Why fight what we see around us all the time – it is a fact, right or wrong. We may not like it and may put in our bit to change it, but Sanskrit used to offer more than it does now. It was powerful, it is not powerful now. To those who would like to see Sanskrit regain some of its traction, it is important to understand what carries power now – is it another language, or a set of skiils, or certain competencies. If Sanskrit is to regain its position – if- then it must be able to serve the needs of the people and bring value to them. Power is one kind of value, there are others too. Making it compulsory – hmm – that is another blog post entirely.

The investments of other countries in education tell us of what they consider as sources of power for the next generation. Countries are investing in creativity and collaboration. They are investing in those skills that will be able to understand the future regardless of the structures of the past so that they can build solutions for future needs and growth. Sanskrit, with its many virtues, has not been taught as a language that fosters either of the two. It can, but that is a long, hard, costly journey for a nation.

This is a paragraph that offers constructive suggestions (and of course surface level – this was not a paid project, if paid, there would be a process, detail and rigour that an article cannot achieve) that tell those who support Sanskrit to look for the things that other countries are investing in so that they can retain or gain a superior positioning in the world. If the objective of accessing Sanskrit (assumption, obviously – the word ‘if’ should tip you off) is to be able to regain India’s glorious position on the world stage, it is useful to know what one’s compatriots or competitors are up to. This is a call to study the investments of the others and ensure that they are built in to the investments into Sanskrit. Other countries are investing in specific goals that ensure that they are able to climb up the value chain and retain wage premiums and achieve higher national growth rates (as an example). Does the study of Sanskrit build future value add into its plans? If not, why not? It is possible. Sanskrit, as it is currently taught is focused on rote learning and replication of prior learning, especially at junior levels. The virtues of this approach have been enunciated above/called for above. Now, this is a call for a different approach to Sanskrit – one in which the access to knowledge has forward facing goals. This means a completely different approach to its curriculum, pedagogy, distribution systems, access networks and lifelong learning support systems. This year’s Field Medalist has spoken of how Sanskrit and music helped him access solutions in advanced maths – this is an excellent example of how it can be done. Not a mass solution, but an example of a possible approach. However, this is costly, needs experts in language and learning who are able to break away from their past traditions and bring an approach that will be seen as radical and disruptive by many. This, done well, could energise the language. This, done to mass scale – it is a whole other question.

To take a purely utilitarian view is to doubt the value of Sanskrit from a systemic perspective. How can it make sense to divert resources away from building global skills? It is not just German or any other modern language. The resources can be better used to teach skills of global citizenship, employability, entrepreneurship – so many priorities that urgently claim that space that is being carved out from Sanskrit. Would our students not be better off if they learnt how to transact in the real world comes the counter. What is it about Sanskrit that seems so important that trumps this urgent cry?

So far the approach has been to ask purely utilitarian questions. This is not enough. To take a purely utilitarian view is to to doubt the value of the language. All the answers above put together may not be able to overcome the questions in this paragraph. But one knows – and this is why one seeds the question that there is much here that is beyond mere utility. If one is to take a purely utilitarian approach one has to answer the question about the use of scarce teaching resources. (Again the clues are in the paragraph itself – the global skills can be imparted in any language including Sanskrit if the pedagogy is good). Students can be taught to transact in the real world with or without Sanskrit – it is now a call to those who want to build the language to build the case for resource utilisation.

The last line here refers to the urgent vs. important matrix that is taught as part of every basic decision making class. This is one of the simpler models in decision making, one that many use everyday to resolve both quotidian (everyday) or complex situations. The languages that are in use today will have many arguments in their favour. They are more accessible (duh, obviously), and immediate. The importance of Sanskrit beyond the immediate needs of the present are again understood by many but not articulated in ways that build a case for the language. This is another question, a call to the supporters of the language to add to their arsenal.

The call for teaching Sanskrit compulsorily in schools may not just be about the language and its literature. It is about a country that has grown rapidly, and one with a very young population. This call is a reflection of our fear of rootlessness. Sanskrit is seen as the one language that can bind India’s diversity, its future to its past. It is a quest to seek validation from history, to seek credibility by association with something that may even have been the cradle of knowledge for much of humanity. It is a quest to seek another Idea of India, an identity that can make us whole.

Taking a step back here, one pauses to ask again – is this really about the language? Is this what we are really debating in the country? We have said earlier that it is about (assumption declared) reclaiming past glory. But could it be something more? Something else? Till we know the real reasons for doing something it is impossible to create a program designed for success. We must know what void we are filling. What is the real need? Where is the pain, the gap? What do we want the language to do for us as a people? One possibility is the need for roots – a very human need. This is one language that has been with us for centuries, often connecting us to our ancestors via ritual prayers, at other times connecting us to our mores via shlokas that guide us in daily action. This is one language that gives us a sense of stability in times that seem to be changing very fast. India is a growing nation – it is young, vibrant, energetic, and ready to rush ahead into rapid growth. For anyone who has grown up fast, we know it can get scary and one needs an anchor. Sanskrit can provide that anchor – it can give us a base on which the young India grows its own new identity. The new idea of India. Can it? It depends on how we work it – will it be inclusive? Accepted? Modernised? Useful? This gives rise to a whole set of questions that must be answered before one lays one’s faith in it. A call for more answers – Can Sanskrit fill the gap and provide a sense of one’s roots to a fast paced, high growth, modern India?

But cradles can only show us where we came from, they do not always define where we will go – and Sanskrit can only do so much in this journey of nationhood. To burden a language with so much expectation in the face of all the baggage of our attitudes, behaviours, complexes and structures is to be unrealistic. Sanskrit is a language that deserves better – a support system, a rigourous approach to research and dissemination and a community that loves and cares for it’s growth. Not a diktat that reduces it to a compulsion. Sanskrit need not be the overburdened mother that carries the flag of past glories with the travails of everyday existence, struggling to hold its head high. Let Sanskrit be accessed and taught differently so that it becomes the language of choice, discovery, personal growth and dare I say it – laughter. Let it be not the language of everyday burdens but the language that elevates us above all.

A language is only just that. It is not a religion, a culture, a caste, a creed. It may carry all of these and more. It may have baggage from the past. But a language, however ancient, mature and well designed, is just a language. It has been useful in the past, it has done much to build India – but that does not mean that it can continue to do so without investment. It can only do so much, the rest is up to us. It is unfair to burden the language with the expectation of improving India when it’s people have grown in so many different ways. The language will need so much love and care, investment, resources, support that at this stage it really should not be burdened with high expectations. At this stage it needs to modernise, to align with today’s reality. It needs to be nurtured back to health and active life first before one can expect it represent the glory of India. To that end it must be taught differently – with engagement, enjoyment and choice. As I said above – let it the learning of the language be about choice, discovery, personal growth and laughter.

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