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’ 


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  1. 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.
    1. S
      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...
      1. S
        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.
        1. X
          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.
          1. a
            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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