Out of my mind: Fast forward to the past

There is a romantic idea that once all Indians spoke Sanskrit and India was a land of milk and honey.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published: November 23, 2014 2:45 am
Students and parents at a counselling session at Kendriya Vidyalaya in Dhaula Kuan on Saturday. (Source: Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal) Students and parents at a counselling session at Kendriya Vidyalaya in Dhaula Kuan on Saturday. (Source: Express photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Dean Rusk, who was Secretary of State to John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, once said, “The optimists in Washington are learning Russian. The pessimists are learning Chinese.” Then, Russia was the good enemy and China the bad one. The recent decision to replace German with Sanskrit reflects that in India, the forward-looking, development-oriented people want to learn German. But the obscurantists want the country to go back to its ancient roots and learn Sanskrit.

There is a romantic idea that once all Indians spoke Sanskrit and India was a land of milk and honey. This is myth. Sanskrit was an elite language spoken by the Brahmins, which is why Buddha and Mahavira preached their gospels in Pali and Ardhamagadhi. Whatever the situation then, Sanskrit is today a dead language which is spoken rather badly by a few. How often have we all heard Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam murdered by bad pronunciation. Sanskrit is and was, throughout history, an elite language which only Brahmins were privileged to learn. Had it not been for Macaulay, much despised though he is by the new rulers, a Vaishya like Shyamji Krishna Varma would have never been allowed to learn Sanskrit. Nor would Babasaheb Ambedkar have been able to study and hold his head high. Or even Prime Minister Narendra Modi for that matter.

Yet there is this cultural militancy  which insists that Sanskrit be taught instead of German. Who can tell these people that many of our Sanskrit texts were retrieved from oblivion by foreign, especially German, scholars. On the one hand, the PM wants India to be aspirational, technologically savvy and future oriented. Here we have a fast dash back to past.

This is the BJP’s schizophrenia, and if allowed to blossom, it will destroy Modi’s plan to unite India behind an inclusive developmental programme. Sanskrit is not liked even by all Hindus, let alone the rest of India. Tamil is as old as Sanskrit and spoken by many more people in daily life. Why not teach Tamil in all schools?

Sanskrit is useless for daily conversation and unsuitable for modern technological terminology, though no doubt someone will introduce tortuous neologisms.

Learning a modern language such as German, French, Japanese or Mandarin makes sense. Imposing Sanskrit on schools is a vast waste of resources. After all, every classic work in Sanskrit is well translated in every Indian language.

Having waited for a long time to gain hegemony, the Hindu nationalists are impatient to impose their cultural programme on the rest of the country. Their vision is obsessed with the past, which they glorify. They want to believe that all good and great things were already known in the Vedas or the epics. This is a sign of an inferiority complex, which in turn leads to boastful claims. If true, that would condemn India’s ancient culture as having stagnated for centuries once the Vedas and epics were written. They would like to argue that the Pythagoras Theorem was first discovered in Vedic times. Fair enough, but so what? India’s glory in mathematics is much greater than just the one theorem. The important point is not who invented one theorem, but where are the mathematicians to do new work?

Why are the best Indian  mathematicians, those who win the Field medal, all abroad?

But they have a majority in the Lok Sabha and so are entitled to ruin the country in their own way as the previous hegemonic party did. What is amusing is that if they had actually read Swami Vivekananda, whom they swear by, they would discover a very robust scepticism about the glories of ancient culture. Read his lecture on the Bhagavad Gita and see for yourself his doubts about the authorship of the Gita, the very historicity of Krishna and the firm disbelief that Arjuna was ever a real person. Vivekananda says that Adi Shankaracharya possibly wrote the Gita himself and inserted it into the Mahabharata!

The only consolation is that I know no other way of making students hate a subject than have it badly taught in school. Once they leave the education system, the youth will do the right thing and pick up a useful language which will help them in their career.

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