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’