Sanskrit and it’s Burdens

2 Dec

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?

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.

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. There can be many gains from learning the language. 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. More than that, we may be able to build on the body of knowledge.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
More from Times of India Blogs

This was published in the Times of India blogs on December 1, 2014

(Since this post has received so much of a reaction from many who don’t seem to have read it carefully (one even gets my surname wrong while having the cheek to call me wrong, I am going to put up a version of this that explains it in letters of two or three syllables)


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