I am Sanskrit

My tragedy is I have to fear my supporters more than my attackers.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:December 8, 2014 12:30 am
I did not lack support in independent India. There are dozens of university departments whose cumulative achievement has been to convince everyone that I am truly dead. I did not lack support in independent India. There are dozens of university departments whose cumulative achievement has been to convince everyone that I am truly dead.

I am Sanskrit: the language of the gods. But like gods, I am now more an object over which “ignorant armies clash by night”. I carry a heavy load. I am burdened with every sin. For some, I am everything that was wrong with India. I am exclusion, obscurantism, esotericism and dead knowledge. I am burdened, by others, with the weight of redemption. I am the source of all unity and insight, all knowledge and eternal light. But for both sides, I am more an icon than an object of understanding: for one, an icon for blanket indictment, for another, an icon for obscure yearnings.

They fight over my origins. Some say I was the language of invaders, imperiously subordinating everything around it. Others cite me as the example of a whole civilisation that spread across Asia, without the force of arms. They fight over my death. Some autopsies pronounced me dead by the 18th century. They say I died of internal corrosion: a slow insidious loss of faith in the knowledge systems I represented. It was an easy fate for a language that refused to be the language of the masses. Some say I was the victim of political murder: the great empires killed me, dismantling the structures that sustained me. But in all fairness, this has to be said: I somehow felt safer under the patronage of the Mughals, or even the British, than I do at the hands of my benevolent defenders in democratic India. Some refuse to pronounce me dead. I have been put on life support. Whether this will revive me or prolong my agony, I don’t know.

Some think I am still living, though I have assumed more ghostly forms. They argue that the vernaculars did not displace me. Rather, the inner life of most vernaculars builds on my legacy. Even when they transcend me, they cannot escape my imprint. Even in opposition, I am an aesthetic reference. I don’t live as a language. I live as philology. But anyone who understands these matters will understand that philology should not be underestimated. I don’t live as philosophy. I live as liturgy. And this liturgy, even if not fully understood, defines the faith of millions. The abstract idea of India fears me. But I still remain the hidden meaning of every nook and corner of the geography of India. Not just ancient, but even India’s medieval and modern past is not fully accessible without me. I remain the substratum beneath all controversies over the past. I am the ghost that refuses to go away.

Some fear me as the source of all social faultlines. I was the marker of caste and the oppression that came with it. I am feared as the symbol of division. Sanskrit is a code for merely Hindu, at the exclusion of all else. Some say I can be a point of connection: I was an instrument of caste but can also be the source of its subversion. And did not poor Dara Shikoh think that I could illuminate the meaning of the Quran?

True, some ignorant progressives have denied all that I can offer. But my tragedy is that I have to fear my supporters more than my attackers. If there is a big idea running, in different forms, through my texts, it is this: the gradual displacement of the “I”, full of ahamkara (egoism), by the realisation of a deeper self. Yet, my political supporters wield me as an instrument of collective narcissism, a shrill assertion of pride. My priestly custodians, spread over the centuries in temples and maths, often with huge endowments, suffocated me in orthodoxy. They limited my reach. Contrary to what my opponents believed, I was not fixed in eternal verities. I was used for innovation: from the mathematics of the Namboodiris to the brilliant innovations in logic in places now long forgotten, like Nabadwip. But somehow, the image and social association with orthodoxy persisted, no doubt helped by the institutions supposed to nurture me.

I did not lack support in independent India. There are dozens of university departments whose cumulative achievement has been to convince everyone that I am truly dead. Their scholarship and engagement with new forms of knowledge was killed by a deadening mediocrity. I was taught for three years and in most schools in ways that did not enhance linguistic competence or open up the doors of knowledge. Many of my supporters, with their small hearts and conspiratorial minds, would rather blame others than introspect. For them, I am a weapon to cut open wounds, not a source of knowledge.

If I am dead, do I want a rebirth? If I am a ghostly shadow, do I want to become visible again? I am not sure. I would feel so out of place in this India. William Jones said I am a language of precision. What will I do in a culture that has lost the art of fine distinctions? I am the language of logic and form. What will I do in a culture where public argument is nothing but the flouting of logic? I am a language where the purpose of language is language itself. What will I do in a culture where everything is instrumental? I am the language of refined eroticism. What will I do in a culture where my supporters would unleash the tides of repression? I am the classic language of double meanings. What will I do in a culture where people cannot even hold one meaning in their head? I am the language of the classic pun. What will I do in a culture that is humourless? I am the language of itihasa. What will I do in a culture where all history is merely politics by other means? I am the language of refined aestheticism. What will I do in a culture where aesthetics is confined to museums or kitsch? The meaning of my name, they say, is perfection. What will I do in a culture where excellence is seen as an instrument of domination? I am the language of the gods. What will I do in a world where gods have been banished by godmen? I am the language of liberation, the gateway to being itself. What will I do in a culture that seeks bondage and refuses self-knowledge?

Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, “Tradition is the living thought of the dead, traditionalism is the dead thought of the living.” Now that I am caught between -isms, I doubt myself. I have become more a reflection of the dead thought of the living than the living thought of the dead.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’ 

express@expressindia.com

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    Sridhar Sridhar
    Jan 14, 2015 at 11:18 am
    Sanskrit is a language for the refined people. It is not meant for those who are just worried about a career or a job. It is a language that helps us get in touch with our past and present heritage. It is shameful that if we have to read our holy scriptures like Bhagwath Geetha or Epics like Ramayana or Mahabharatha, we have to read an English translation.Sanskrit is so refined and scientific that 2 2 is always 4. When it is not, such exceptions are also well spelt out. I will refer the readers to this video in which Dean Brown a nuclear physicist says what I am saying:s:www.youtube/watch?...One of the great grammarians of the time, Panini (who lived in what is nowKhyber-Pakhtunwa area of stan) wrote one of the greatest works on grammar "Ashtadhyayi" (or a book with 8 chapters) that has not been surped.More recently, Sanskrit was found to be a user friendly language for computers.Rick Briggs a computer analyst felt (in the 80s) that it is ideally suited for Artificial Intelligence.There is an American Insute of Sanskrit in New York. This was started by anAmerican Vyas Houston who learnt it from a Guru in Benaras. He teaches it in theform of chanting. He calls Sanskrit the source of Yoga, Meditation and Mantras.I had the privilege of spending sometime in an Ashram retreat on the outskirtsof New Jersey (I live in USA). It was founded by an Indian doctor (Brahmananda)who also had a deep knowledge of Sanskrit, yoga, mediation. All these are taughtthere. There are 2 full time white American teachers (both women) who teach Sanskritto all those who care to learn. One of them is from Germany and she joined theashram in the 60s at the age of 17 or 18. She is fluent in that language. Itwas a pleasure to sit for a few cles with these two fine human beings.So, America seems to have found love for this language just as it has for Yoga.Americans have been instrumental in getting Indians take interest in Yoga all overagain. Until this happened, most Indians preferred to do PT drills in school(many rich Indians going to expensive schools still do PT drills and look downupon Yoga). That is what they learnt from their British colonial masters whofelt Yoga was not a worthy pursuit. Scientific study of Yoga has shown in thepast several decades that it is not only a good form of stress relaxation, but it is also good for the heart. So, no need to do all those stupid exercises at the Gymn or run on a tread mill. All these stress your joints but yoga is just the opposite.It is just possible that when Americans come to India and teach the Indiansabout the good things that Sanskrit has to offer, Indians will then getinterested. Indians always seem to listen to the white race which they havedecided at a subconscious level is superior to them (if you want proof, justlook at the way Bolywood actors ape the West and the craze for being "fair andlovely"). Most Indians today lack the self respect and intelligence to be ableto grasp the greatness of Sanskrit on their own.
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      SMK
      Jan 10, 2015 at 8:11 am
      Righty said. If anyone want to learn sanskrit and other sastras should move to villages where brahmins are living and study their daily routines and know how they are living in speaking sanskrit and more...
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        SMK
        Jan 10, 2015 at 8:20 am
        The above author doesnt understand what @Panini has said.He said it is still living and will live for countless generations.and for "Sanskrut is a beautiful language which needs to become relevant in current times by being more open"I would like to tell u that sanskrit is not a restricted language anyone can learn it if u have a aim and should not study from unversities or something like that but from people who are practiding it for daily recitals of their lives and living in remote villages and shuold learn from them.
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          Xander X
          Dec 9, 2014 at 1:32 am
          I would learn the language, Try Samskrita Bharati. They run an excellent program in Bangalore and have beginner level youtube videos to get you warmed up. Try Chinmaya Mission's Samskrita distance courses, they go a bit deeper and require more time and rigorous study.I understand Mr.Mehta's point of view on the language. Here are my two bits. Those who have access and want to learn, should learn. Universities, specially, in the languages and humanities section are pretty pathetic. Search and find the course online and start. I go to a nearby temple to clarify my doubts from the priests.The mahants and priests also realize that Samskrita needs to be mainstreamed and do help people willing to learn. This SC/ST and Bhraman divide is slowly dying. If Samskrita is picked up by many we can create a critical m to carry it through.Learn the language and stop complaining my friends and do it when you have the time. Without well nourished roots, the tree cannot survive. Do your bit.
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            acn0211
            Dec 8, 2014 at 9:52 pm
            Let us wait for 5 years......And, observe the tangible results :-1. Will anybody carry out any practical transaction in Sanskrit 2. Will the PM or HRD minister speak even 5 sentence in public in Sanskrit 3. Will any coding or application be usefully developed in Sanskrit 4. How many citizens would benefit by way of employment from SanskritThat will be real achievement of banning GERMAN & making Sanskrit compulsory !
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              Observer
              Dec 8, 2014 at 5:30 pm
              Improvements????? You should read Arun Shourie's interview in the same paper, its been a lot of talk and not much action! And that is the observation of every neutral observer. They say its the tortoise pace of 'reform' which has been amazing, after all the tall talk!
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                Amlan Chatterjee
                Dec 10, 2014 at 2:07 pm
                Beautifully written! A world cl article.
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                  Amar
                  Dec 8, 2014 at 4:27 am
                  It has always been a great experience reading you. Your ability to remember minute details (for example: thought of Dara Shikoh and innovation in the mathematics of the Namboodiris to the brilliant innovations in logic in places now long forgotten, like Nabadwip) and present them in right perspective really amazes me. In that respect, you are Sanskrit except that the language has 'umed more ghostly forms'! Please keep enlightening us.
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                    Trashcan
                    Dec 8, 2014 at 10:50 am
                    I guess you are an avid reader of Clifieds since rest would be incomprehensible for you! Pratap's words must be a shock to your senses.
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                      A.Murali Krishna
                      Dec 8, 2014 at 6:06 am
                      Well conceived master piece from Mr. Mehta. It is the true state of this world's mind or is it true state of impoverished or soulless SOUL? Indians have to change their mindset about Sanskrit. Yes, we were ruled by foreign invaders. But now we are now ruled by our own people. Britisher's system suited their needs. We should not have followed it all. We must have adopted Sanskrit as national link language. Sanskrit gives energy to the body and soul, it is vibrant, it is simple, and Sanskrit is the mother of all Indian languages. What is not there in Sanskrit? Every Indian wakes up and the first act is to listen to the great suprabhatham or divine songs. The legendary carnatic singer, the great Bharat Ratna sung so many divine hymns in Sanskrit. Her proficiency in Sanskrit produced great songs in other languages also. The same state from where she had come, opposes Sanskrit. It is very unfortunate. In the life of nation 67 years is nothing. It is high time we change our language policy.
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                        Sid Harth
                        Dec 9, 2014 at 4:27 am
                        1This anxiety has a longer and rather melancholy history in independent In-dia, far antedating the rise of the BJP. Sanskrit was introduced into the EighthSchedule of the Consution of India (1949) as a recognized language of thenew State of India, ensuring it all the benefits accorded the other fourteen (nowseventeen) spoken languages listed. This status largely meant funding for San-skrit colleges and universities, and for a national organization to stimulate thestudy of the language. With few exceptions, however, the Sanskrit pedagogyand scholarship at these insutions have shown a precipitous decline from pre-Independence quality and standards, almost in inverse proportion to the amountof funding they receive. Sanskrit literature has fared no better. From the timeof its founding in 1955, the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters)has awarded prizes in Sanskrit literature as one of the twenty-two officially ac-knowledged literary languages. But the first five of these awards were given for3920010-4175/01/392– 426 $9.50 © 2001 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History*I am grateful to Allison Busch and Lawrence McCrea, both of the University of Chicago, for theircritical reading of this essay
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                          Sid Harth
                          Dec 9, 2014 at 4:30 am
                          2The misconception carries a number of additional lia-bilities. Some might argue that as a learned language of intellectual discourseand belles lettres, Sanskrit had never been exactly alive in the first place. Butthe usual distinction in play here between living and dead languages is morethan a little naive. It cannot accommodate the fact that all written languages arelearned and learnèd, and therefore in some sense frozen in time (“dead”); or,conversely, that such languages often are as supple and dynamically changing(“alive”) as so-called natural ones. Yet the umption that Sanskrit was neveralive has discouraged the attempt to grasp its later history; after all, what is borndead has no later history. As a result, there exist no good accounts or theoriza-tions of the end of the cultural order that for two millennia exerted a transre-gional influence across Asia—South, Southeast, Inner, and even East Asia—that was unparalleled until the rise of Americanism and global English. We haveno clear understanding of whether, and if so, when, Sanskrit culture ceased tomake history; whether, and if so, why, it proved incapable of preserving intothe present the creative vitality it displa in earlier epochs, and what this lossof effectivity might reveal about those factors within the wider world of soci-ety and polity that had kept it vital.
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                            Sid Harth
                            Dec 9, 2014 at 4:30 am
                            If better theories or histories or metaphors are unavailable for grasping thebroadWirkungsgeschichteof a cultural form like Sanskrit, this is all the morethe case in trying to distinguish among its consuent parts, and their effectsand histories. Consider the history of the Sanskrit knowledge-systems. The twocenturies before European colonialism decisively established itself in the sub-continent around 1750 consute one of the most innovative epochs of Sanskritsystematic thought (in language analysis, logic, hermeneutics, moral-legal phi-losophy, and the rest). Thinkers produced new formulations of old problems, inentirely new discursive idioms, in what were often new scholarly genres em-ploying often a new historicist framework; some even called themselves (or,
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                              Sid Harth
                              Dec 9, 2014 at 4:28 am
                              Sanskrit is a dead language. Repeat after me, Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta....and I am Sid Harth
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                                Sid Harth
                                Dec 9, 2014 at 4:26 am
                                The Death of Sanskrit*SHELDON POLLOCKUniversity of Chicago“Toutes les civilisations sont mortelles” (Paul Valéry)In the age of Hindu ideny politics (Hindutva) inaugurated in the 1990s by theascendancy of the Indian People’s Party (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideo-logical auxiliary, the World Hindu Council (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), Indiancultural and religious nationalism has been promulgating ever more distortedimages of India’s past. Few things are as central to this revisionism as Sanskrit,the dominant culture language of precolonial southern Asia outside the Per-sianate order. Hindutva propaists have sought to show, for example, thatSanskrit was indigenous to India, and they purport to decipher Indus Valleyseals to prove its presence two millennia before it actually came into existence a farcical repeion of Romantic myths of primevality, Sanskrit is consid-ered—according to the characteristic hyperbole of the VHP—the source andsole preserver of world culture. The state’s anxiety both about Sanskrit’s rolein shaping the historical ideny of the Hindu nation and about its contempo-rary vitality has manifested itself in substantial new funding for Sanskrit edu-cation, and in the declaration of 1999 –2000 as the “Year of Sanskrit,” withplans for conversation camps, debate and essay compeions, drama festivals,and the like.
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                                  Sid Harth
                                  Dec 9, 2014 at 4:29 am
                                  works in English or Hindi on Sanskrit culture, while the first literary text hon-ored was a book of pattern poems (citrakāvya), an almost metaliterary genreentirely unintelligible without specialized training.Such disparities between political inputs and cultural outcomes could be de-tailed across the board. What it all demonstrates—the Sanskrit periodicals andjournals, feature films and daily newscasts on All-India Radio, school plays,prize poems, and the rest—may be too obvious to mention: that Sanskrit as acommunicative medium in contemporary India is completely denaturalized. Itscultivation consutes largely an exercise in nostalgia for those directly in-volved, and, for outsiders, a source of bemut that such communicationtakes place at all. Government feeding tubes and oxygen tanks may try to pre-serve the language in a state of quasi-animation, but most observers wouldagree that, in some crucial way, Sanskrit is dead.Although we often speak of languages as being dead, the metaphor is mis-leading, suggesting biologistic or evolutionary beliefs about cultural changethat are deeply flawed.
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                                    Beppe Esse
                                    Dec 9, 2014 at 10:35 am
                                    very good article… Beppe Sebaste
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                                      PK
                                      Dec 8, 2014 at 6:17 pm
                                      LOL. You just proved what Mr. Mehta said in the article. Sanskrut has become a weapon in political fights between liberals and conservatives. How can you just ume that a communist or a so-called secular does not care about Sanskrut? What has Sanskrut to do with liberalism / conservatism / secularism / pseudo secularism? You fell into the same trap man. LOLI don't know how Sanskrut became language of gods. But that is how its decline started. If its language of gods, then whose gods? If Hindu gods, then why bother learning if I am not Hindu? and if i don't believe in gods then why bother once again?Sanskrut is a beautiful language which needs to become relevant in current times by being more open and not by shoving down peoples' throats. By being open I mean understanding/accepting its limits and overcome them by experimenting with grammar and vocabulary. But all this is very unglamourous. So......back to using Sanskrut as a weapon. LOL
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                                        Parantap Bhatt
                                        Dec 8, 2014 at 12:29 pm
                                        Mr Panini I do believe that Sanskrit has been politicized and used as a tool to garner sympathy. This is wrong, Sanskrit should be promoted without a political agenda not by forcing it down the throats. Encouraging others to learn it, signifying the importance- historical, linguistic and scientific. Propagating how it can enhance our knowledge base immensely as we will be subjected to one of the most thoughtful yet varied philosophies of the world.P.S.- I do come from a Sanskrit background sir, maybe I'v miniscule knowledge still I believe sanskrit can be propagated in a different manner.
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                                          Parantap Bhatt
                                          Dec 8, 2014 at 8:13 am
                                          brilliant take on both sides of the coin.
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                                            Harry
                                            Dec 8, 2014 at 6:00 am
                                            I read until I reached this"But in all fairness, this has to be said: I somehow felt safer under the patronage of the Mughals"After which I decided it was time instead to teach a triangle had 4 edges to children; that would be more correct
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