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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  1. H
    Nov 23, 2014 at 10:50 am
    great article, quite honestly very brave of the author to say this in these times. Be ready to be troll lynched by the sanghi chaddis. Kudos for a great article
  2. I
    Nov 23, 2014 at 8:27 pm
    Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat the mistakes. Learn what the British did and how untrue this british sucker's write up is. See Dharampal's The Beautiful Tree on internet.
  3. I
    Nov 23, 2014 at 8:25 pm
    You are right. Dharampal's work on pre-British state of India, especially the one on education, The Beautiful Tree has extensive references to travelogues of Europeans. Education was not denied and the composition of potion reflected in the schools too. 2/3rd of the kings in India were from the so called Backward cles. Post independence they were all backward.:books.google/books?...
  4. R
    Nov 23, 2014 at 2:19 pm
    Arthur seems daily new paper reader commenting about important issue. No real research is done to support his argument. Useless piece of opinion.
  5. R
    Nov 23, 2014 at 2:20 pm
    I agree, this may not be included in grade calculations. It should be encouraged to study. provide employment opportunities.
  6. R
    Nov 23, 2014 at 2:33 pm
    I agree.. Mr.Desai just throwing pieces of incoherent info in the article to justify his biased mind.
  7. R
    Nov 23, 2014 at 1:34 pm
    It looks like a cheap article, born out of pure hate and bias, of course without any intelligentsia in it.
  8. R
    Nov 23, 2014 at 1:38 pm
    No country can grow confident by denying its past. Sanskrit is used 30-50% in all our country major languages even today. Even in Tamil, 30% words were Sanskrit based, thou new words are being invented to replace them.( I am from Tamilnadu too).Sanskrit and its ethos it brings to has huge influence in our day to day life, thou most of us don't use it. Most of the Indian Languages and south eastern countries like Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia have Sanskrit based script and Language as well.Its looks offensive when you say its useless language for many. I think you have different idea about India and how to grow as a confident nation or civilization, but doesn't mean you can p on such arrogant comments..Even in USA they appreciate our culture and languages. Its unfortunate we don't have respect for our past.Finally, I think its a good decision which will benefit our student to cherish our past and bring all of us as one nation.Thanks,
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