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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    hayatlives
    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
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      IndianWellWisher
      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.
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        IndianWellWisher
        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?...
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          Raj
          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.
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            Raj
            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.
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              Raj
              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.
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                Raj
                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.
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                  Raj
                  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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                    Raj
                    Nov 23, 2014 at 2:12 pm
                    Since Sanskrit is not taught in recent centuries, doesn't mean we don't need it.Our culture and all our thoughts everything is coming from this...get out of your ignorance please
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                      Raj
                      Nov 23, 2014 at 2:16 pm
                      agreed.. this article has no intelligent argument in it...came out of hate biased and perverted mind.
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                        Raj
                        Nov 23, 2014 at 2:36 pm
                        its all about learning our mother of all Indian Language. Every Indian language including Tamil ( I am from Tamilnadu) has 30-50% sanskrit words init. Denying our past doesn't make us strong. Author has little knowledge on this subject to share his mind.. poor article.
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                          Raj
                          Nov 23, 2014 at 2:17 pm
                          its wrong to oppose anything just because RSS support this. Its a good move will benefit students to know and cherish our past.
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                            Raj
                            Nov 23, 2014 at 2:09 pm
                            when you say this is a brillant article.. any one can understand your state of mind
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                              Raj
                              Nov 23, 2014 at 5:43 am
                              No country can grow confident by denying its past. Sanskrit is used 30-50% in all our major languages even today. Even in Tamil, 30% words were Sanskrit based, thou new words are being invented to replace.( I am tamilan too).Sanskrit and its ethos has huge influence in our day to day life, thou most of us dont use it. Most of the Indian Languages and south eastern countries like Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Combodia and Indonesia have Sanskrit based script and Language as well.Its looks offensive 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 dont have respect for our past.Finally, I think its a good decision which will make our student to cherish our past and bring all of us as one nation.Thanks,
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                                Abhijit Basu
                                Nov 23, 2014 at 10:49 am
                                To my mind, Lord Desai makes a few valid points, but as is his wont, makes a few other sweeping comments that may be debatable, to say the least.Of course, the introduction of Sanskrit at the cost of German smacks of a kind of cultural nationalism which can only raise hackles of all free-thinkers. It's also true that we owe a lot to German Indologists for rediscovering our Sanskritic heritage in the 19th century. But to contend that non-Brahmins were allowed to study Sanskrit, courtesy only Macaulay, is stretching truth too far. In fact, Vyasa is revered because he composed the Mahabharata, the 'Fifth Veda', to be heard and studied by all, including Shoodras and women.It's true that Sanskrit always was a language of the elite, but there were sociological and other reasons for such cl limitation. For one thing, the kind of ultimate linguistic purification achieved by Panini's Grammar (hailed by AL Basham as the greatest intellectual wonder of the ancient world), could not be expected to be mastered by the unlettered mes. That's why, even in Kalidasa's plays, Sanskrit is spoken only by the kings and nobles, while the common folk and even the untutored ladies speak only Prakrit. For another, the 'Marxist' historian DD Kosambi makes the point that Canakya’s Arthashastra, by the very nature of its contents (including even a section on alchemy and poisons), could not possibly have been a public textbook on politics and economy. Quite clearly, it was intended only for the governing upper cles.But what I find even more steeped in fallacy is Meghnad Desai's contemptuous dismissal of Sanskrit as a useless and dead language. Indeed, one should denounce the present order's misplaced 'crusade' to make ridiculous claims about Indian heritage all the more, because it invites the Desai kind of ill-informed dismissals. I am giving below an extract of two eminent Westerners' views (which should not be dismissed on presumed Hindu rightist bias), on the relevance of Sanskrit in today's computer and academic applications:I. Here is a citation from a famous paper by Rick Briggs, NASA's Artificial Intelligence expert, and a rare linguist, well-versed in both Sanskrit and modern machine language. Briggs's 'semantic net' model, showing equivalence of normal Sanskrit with tailored English used as Computer language is quite an eye-opener. Here is the quote from Briggs:It is interesting to speculate as to why the Indians found it worthwhile to pursue studies into unambiguous coding of natural language into semantic elements. It is tempting to think of them as computer scientists without the hardware, but a possible explanation is that a search for clear, unambiguous understanding is inherent in the human being. Let us not forget that among the great accomplishments of the Indian thinkers were the invention of zero, and of the binary number system a thousand years before the West re-invented them. Their analysis of language casts doubt on the humanistic distinction between natural and artificial intelligence, and may throw light on how research in AI may finally solve the natural language understanding and machine translation problems.II. Then again, here are a few extracts from an article by Rutger Kortenhorst, Sanskrit teacher in John Scottus School in Dublin, Ireland:--- Sanskrit stands out above all other languages for its beauty of sound, precision in pronunciation and reliability as well as thoroughness in every aspect of its structure.--- The precision of Sanskrit stems from the unparalleled detail on how the actual sounds of the alphabet are structured and defined. The sounds have a particular place in the mouth, nose and throat that can be defined and will never change. This is why in Sanskrit the letters are called the 'Indestructibles'[aksharáni]. Sanskrit is the only language that has consciously laid out its sounds from first principles. --- The qualities of Sanskrit will become the qualities of your child- that is the mind and heart of your child will become beautiful, precise and reliable. ..... What Sanskrit teaches us that there is a language that is ordered, following laws unfailingly and as they are applied your child gets uplifted, not only when they grow up, but as they are saying it!--- Now go to a language where everything is following rules. Where nothing is left to chance from the humble origin of a letter to the most sophisticated philosophical idea. How will that child meet the world? Surely with confidence, clarity and the ability to express itself?--- Sanskrit and computers are a perfect fit. The precision play of Sanskrit with computer tools will awaken the capacity in human beings to utilize their innate higher mental faculty with a momentum that would inevitably transform the mind.
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                                  acidtest
                                  Nov 24, 2014 at 12:31 pm
                                  U r a bullter meghnad
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                                    Amit Bhattacharya
                                    Nov 23, 2014 at 1:22 pm
                                    Lord Desai, like many other people is just beating about the bush. Sanskrit has not been made compulsory, it remains optional. Nor can German be made compulsory,it cannot be a third language either. Only an Indian language can become a third language, from the Schedule 8. Let any body learn German, or French, Spanish as an optional 4th language. What's the big deal?Amit BhattcharyaPune
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                                      Guest
                                      Nov 23, 2014 at 7:11 pm
                                      Does "Lord" Maghnad Desai know anything, literally anything, at all to comment on anything related to India? :/1. Ministry didn't remove German from the curriculum altogether.. it was only prevented from being a compulsory language in India's centrally funded schools - decision indeed in accordance with our original consutional provision of Three-language formula. The MoU that was signed to make German as the third language was unconsutional! However, I'd have very much preferred, had they made it clear that the changes will take effect only starting a new academic year.2. Minister has maintained that German will be continued to be taught as an international language, just like Spanish or Mandarin. But only as an additional language! Not in the framework the Three-language formula that requires Hindi, English and one of 22 prescribed Indian languages.3. True, Mahavira and Buddha preached in Ardhamagadhi and Pali. However even then, Sanskrit remained one of the scholarly languages of Jainism and Buddhism, if not the most predominant one. And I can verify this since I was raised a Jain, who has turned atheist by now.4. Sanskrit was NOT always taught only to brahmins. It was a common language way before any birth-dependent cl division entered the then Indian social structure. How easily do we forget that there existed a time so ancient that cl wasn't defined by birth, but by karma, in India?5. About scientists: More funding - more research. Meghnad Desai forgets that India still doesn't offer ries high enough for brilliant minds to stick around in the country. However, how easy for him to ignore that likes of IMSc, IISc, TIFR, IIUCAA and ISRO of India are still world-cl research centres.And is a mathematician's measure of success dependent what kind of awards (even if that's a Fields medal) he/she gets? How about Satyendra Nath Bose and Jagdish Chandra Bose who never got a Nobel whereas their successors got one? Is their work any less important just because they didn't get the most prestigious of the prizes?6. And I agree that BJP and RSS go over the top to stretch the glories of India's ancient history. But counter to that isn't by being overly pessimistic of their every single decision. Firstly, teaching Sanskrit under Three-language formula in schools is consutional and beneficial for gaining cultural appreciation of India. Sanskrit is a beautiful language which shares so much with most, if not all, of languages in India. Maybe it's out of the contemporary use, but so is the study of theology, history, geography, archeology. Cultural studies give intangible benefits, not economical. A professor should've known this.
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                                        Guest
                                        Nov 23, 2014 at 7:12 pm
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                                          A.Rajaraman
                                          Nov 23, 2014 at 4:35 pm
                                          Sri Desai is really out of his mind here. He lost the context why German is removed. The three language formula was devised and approved by parliament for national integration. Hence German cannot be third language. It has been clarified that German can be learnt as aextra byy interested students. If Sanskrit is dead so is German as far as utility is concerned. We should rather learn Chinese. As for Sanskrit being not suitable for technology, he is totally wrong as ìt has been found to be the most scientific language and most suitable for computer software. In fact in some British school Sanskrit is compulsory due to its use in better mind control and pronounciation control. Desaiji please research before writing.
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                                            Ananth
                                            Nov 24, 2014 at 7:14 pm
                                            Meghnad Desai's arguments against Sanskrit are too flimsy and almost laughable. I don't understand the terminology of "modern" and "ancient" languages. Do languages that existed before the advent of the new ones have to necessarily die? Are new languages always better? Do languages come with an expiry date? As for his argument of there being no new Indian mathematicians, it only proves the importance Sanskrit had on original Indian thought. When you start thinking in terms of a foreign language, you lose originality. Indians would never have come up with the concept of "zero" had we always been steeped in the western way of thought.This line really makes one question Meghnad Desai's sanity "After all, every clic work in Sanskrit is well translated in every Indian language". Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Sanskrit knows how infinitely more enjoyable Kalidasa's word-plays or any of the other millions of brilliant Sanskrit works are in their original language. Unfortunately it does look like Meghnad Desai lacks even this cursory knowledge or he wouldn't have come up with this laughable piece. Seriously, what makes Desai the expert on Sanskrit or its relevance?
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