We can’t afford to lose the battle for Sanskrit

The opposition to Sanskrit is a robust industry in India which is kept afloat by parochial politicians and ‘secular’ academics who have got it into their heads that the language symbolises age-old discriminations (caste-based), dominance of a particular class of people (the Brahmins and the other upper castes), and an invasion by ‘outsiders’ (the ‘Aryans’) into the country’s native (Dravidian) civilisation and culture. Ridiculous as all these may sound today in view of fresh research and findings, the narrative remains popular among the so-called Left-liberals and the regionalists — and to such an extent that even a mere idea meekly forwarded or attempted to more effectively promote the language is instantly seized upon for censure as an insidious attempt. In recent years, these quarters have broadened the scope to include a ‘Right-wing agenda’ in fostering Sanskrit.

The general purpose behind these efforts is to negate the contribution and value of Sanskrit in the country’s civilisational and cultural moorings. That prominent sections of academics and politicians should be taking such pains to discredit a language that has already been punished over the decades since independence when it should have shone even more brightly with freedom from foreign yoke, demonstrates two paradoxical aspects. The first is that these people are not prepared to take the slightest chance of Sanskrit making a comeback. The second is that, knowing well that the language is far from dead despite the most valiant efforts attempted to kill it, they are eager to stifle it further. And yet, despite the malicious methods, Sanskrit is showing no sign of going away anywhere. More importantly, the country’s civilisational and cultural linkage with Sanskrit cannot be broken.

There are of course those who do not share the dubious agenda of demeaning the language but still believe that Sanskrit has outlived its purpose and that it enjoys little relevance in present times. They further hold that any attempt to promote it in vigorous ways is a mere waste of time and effort. They are quick to point to its ‘dead’ status given that it not a widely spoken language anymore — even those who are conversant often resort to other Indian languages or English in daily communication. Besides, the few Sanskrit publications that remain in the country are facing an existential crisis, from lack of both funding and readership.

In a very limited sense, Sanskrit may be considered dead, but how can a language that forms the very core of our cultural history, and which remains to this day an intrinsic part of the religious and spiritual faith, including the many rituals associated with it ,of an overwhelming majority of Indians, be called ‘dead’?

It would be interesting to note that the questions which are being asked today to challenge the relevance of Sanskrit, were raised even nearly one-and-a-half centuries ago — and most effectively addressed by a foreigner at that. That a non-Indian should have taken it upon himself to meet the critics head on, or at the very least answer the sceptics of Sanskrit, even as at that time many educated and learned Indians insulated themselves from the task as it ran the risk of harming their ‘universalist/modern’ image, speaks volumes of the manner in which a section of Indians has sought to deny its own cultural heritage. It was sad that it happened, and it’s sad that the phenomenon exists today.

The 19th foreigner who did for Sanskrit what no other person during his time perhaps did — and few could emulate him even later on — is Friedrich Max Muller. A German-born philologist and Orientalist, Muller was one of the earliest founders of Indian studies in the Western academic arena. An Indologist of international repute and an Indophile of the highest commitment, he played a stellar role in opening up for the Western audience a new India rich in culture, language and literature. He was painfully aware of the distortions that had crept into the popular narratives that the West read and believed in, about native Indians and their beliefs, and took herculean steps to correct them. He spoke not just from a position of academic strength but also from personal experience. His academic discourses covered broadly everything Indian, from the ‘character’ of Hindus to the Vedas and after-Vedas to the ancient Indian languages.

A good deal of his observations and academic insights can be had in a series of lectures he delivered to aspiring British civil services candidates who would serve in India. They were meant to educate and inform the West-educated and Western narrative-inspired aspirants about the real India that had a scintillating civilisational history and still retained a great deal of the best human practices. The speeches were compiled and published by an American publishing house, Funk & Wagnalls, Publishers, based in New York, sometimes towards the end of the 19th century, and the book was titled, India: What Can It Teach Us? It contained seven lectures in all — each one a gem that illuminated the Indian ethos and demolished prejudices and distorted perceptions. These lectures were neatly sorted out under the following heads in the order they appear in the book: What Can India Teach Us?; Truthful Character of the Hindus; Human Interest of Sanskrit Literature; Objections; The Lessons of the Vedas; Vedic Deities; Veda and Vedanta. As is obvious, Muller covered a broad canvas, addressing nearly every one of the issues that dogged a full understanding of Indian culture. In the context at hand, Muller’s chapter on Sanskrit literature is of immediate importance. Justice can be done to the German scholar if he is quoted extensively in the further course of this article.

Before he set out to discuss Sanskrit in the third chapter, Muller had dealt with two other prejudices in the preceding pages. The first was that “India is and always must be a strange country to us, and that those who have to live there will find themselves stranded, and far away from that living stream of thoughts and interests which carries us along in England and in other countries of Europe”. The second prejudice which he mentioned, and which must have existed in the minds of aspiring British civil servants, was the belief that “the people of India with whom the young civil servants will have to pass the best years of their life are a race so depraved morally, and more particularly so devoid of any regard for truth, that they must always remain strangers to us, and that any real fellowship or friendship with them is quite out the question”. Having confronted these biases in the most decisive manner, Muller turns his attention towards the importance of Sanskrit and its sway over Indian minds. What he observed then is as relevant today, because the same biases have been kept alive still by vested interests.

The prejudice against Sanskrit, in Muller’s words, was as follows: “…that the literature of India, and more especially the classical Sanskrit literature, whatever may be its interest to the scholar and the antiquarian, has little to teach us which we cannot learn better from other sources, and that all events it is of little practical use to young civilians”. The author trashed this argument and said, “Yet such is the marvellous continuity between the past and the present in India, that in spite of repeated social convulsions, religious reforms, and foreign invasions, Sanskrit may be said to be still the only language that is spoken over the whole extent of that vast country.” He added, “Even at the present moment, after a century of English rule and English teaching, I believe that Sanskrit is more widely understood in India than Latin was in Europe at the time of Dante.” What do we make of this observation? It’s obvious on looking back that, what the British rule failed to do to Sanskrit, the Left-liberals in post-independent India have nearly achieved by sidelining the language through its misuse for petty political reasons.

Muller then commented on a fact that many quarters are in denial today. He stated, “But even if Sanskrit were more a dead language than it really is, all the living languages of India, both Aryan and Dravidian, draw their very life and soul from Sanskrit.” Juxtapose this with the anti-Sanskrit mood whipped by regional leaders in south India who do Dravidian politics, and the game is exposed. Indeed, as the author pointed out, the scope and breadth of this language is beyond what is generally appreciated. He said, “If the Vedas, such as we now have them, were composed about 1500 b.c., and if it is a fact that considerable world continue to be written in Sanskrit even now, we have before us a stream of literal activity extending over three thousand four hundred years. With the exception of China there is nothing like this is the whole world.”

Those today who see no merit in the language or its contribution to Indian thought and philosophy, and who view it as a devious means to impose a particular form of hegemony and ideology, must pay more attention to Muller’s remarks back in the 1890s: “The true history of the world must always be the history of the few; and as we measure the Himalaya by the height of Mount Everest, we must take the true measure of India from the poets of Veda, the sages of the Upanishads, the founders of the Vedanta and Sankhya philosophies, and the authors of the oldest law books…” Needles to add, all of this rested on the use of Sanskrit.

Muller was not done with his deep appreciation of Sanskrit’s contribution to the Indian way of life. Indeed, he extended Sanskrit’s merit to the entire human race: “That literature opens to us a chapter in what has been called the Education of the Human Race, to which we can find no parallel anywhere else. whoever cares for the historical growth of our language, that is, of our thoughts; whoever cares for the first intelligible development of religion and mythology; whoever cares for the first foundation of what in later times we call the sciences of astronomy, metronomy, grammar and etymology; whoever cares for the informations of philosophical thought, for the first attempts at regulating family life, village life, and state life… must in future pay the same attention to the literature of the Vedic period as to the literature of Greece and Rome and Germany.”

These are indeed profound observations — and have been lost in the present times, just as Muller’s belief that the Vedic period gave us literature which was not narrow but all-encompassing. He wrote, “I maintain that to everybody who cares for himself, for his ancestors, for his history, or for his intellectual development, a study of Vedic literature (read Sanskrit) is indispensable; and that, as an element of liberal education it is far more important and far more improving than the reigns of Babylonian and Persian kings.” Thus, over and over again, the renowned German academic emphasises the importance — nay, criticality — of Sanskrit in understanding and appreciating the composite Indian culture.

Muller’s following comment is especially interesting and even prescient given the readiness of many Indian scholars in today’s era to embrace the largely West-driven view of Sanskrit’s role in shaping Indian social norms and reduce the nation’s ancient literature to a level of irrelevance: “It is curious to observe the reluctance with which these facts are accepted, particularly by those to whom they ought to be most welcome, I mean the students of anthropology. Instead of devoting all their energy to the study of these documents, which have come upon us like a miracle, they seem only bent on inventing excuses why they need not be studied.”

And finally, as if addressing those who had contempt for the wisdom that ancient Sanskrit literature contained and were inclined to endorse Thomas Macaulay’s petty observation that one shelf of a good European library was worth the whole literature of India and Arabia, Muller had this piece of advice (and it ought to be taken by present-day sceptics as well): “We must simply keep our preconceived notions of what people call primitive humanity in abeyance for a time, and if we find that people three thousand years ago were familiar with ideas that seem novel and nineteenth-century like to us, well, we must somewhat modify our conceptions of the primitive stage, and remember that things hid from the wise and prudent have sometimes been revealed to babes.”

Muller was merely seeking to initiate newcomers into the possibilities and history of the ancient Indian language and literature and the dramatic impact on Indian cultural itself. He had sought to dispel misconceptions, largely premised on ignorance and less on deviousness. Today, however, there is a new challenge to Sanskrit and its connect with Indian civilisation, and it comes from those within the country and abroad who suffer from a different set of biases and a few of the ones similar to the ones Muller had flagged. They are academically sound and globally well connected, and thus have an audience which provides them the heft to proceed with their agenda. Fortunately, there has of late been a vigorous attempt by a section of academics here and abroad — both Indian and foreign — to counter the propagandists. The battle for Sanskrit (taking off from the title of a recent book authored by academic Rajiv Malhotra) — and its predominant role in shaping Indian culture — has begun in right earnest. Muller would have approved.

(The writer is Visiting Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. Views are personal)