Speaking of Sanskrit

Reports of its death are greatly exaggerated

Written by Bibek Debroy | Published:February 18, 2016 12:49 am

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How many people in India speak Sanskrit? Strictly speaking, we don’t know and that’s not because relevant tables for Census 2011 aren’t yet ready. We don’t know because we don’t ask. The census primarily asks a question about “mother tongue”. Pre-Independence, in Census 1891, “parent tongue” was also used. But it’s mother tongue now. The number of people who reported Sanskrit as their mother tongue in censuses was 2,212 in 1971, 6,106 in 1981, 49,736 in 1991 and 14,135 in 2001. Sanskrit is not a non-Scheduled language. It’s one of the languages in the Eighth Schedule and is also an official language in Uttarakhand. There are people who would probably like to proclaim it a dead language.

“Dead” is an imprecise term, in the context of languages. But languages do become extinct, when there are no surviving speakers, and globalisation and language shifts have encouraged the pace of death. Will we proclaim the death of Sanskrit according to “mother tongue”? With the 1971 to the 2001 numbers I have cited, any statistician worth his/ her salt will sense there’s something exceedingly wrong with those figures, though it’s conceivably possible 35,000 Sanskrit speakers sought linguistic asylum in Germany, or wherever the language is encouraged. By the way, in 2001, roughly half of those 14,135 with Sanskrit as their mother tongue were in Uttar Pradesh, which seems fair enough. However, there was one such strange individual in Arunachal Pradesh and another one in Meghalaya. More importantly, we will get data on Sanskrit-speaking abilities of Indians not from “mother tongue” but from “other languages known”. The data we collect on that is even more unsatisfactory. For Census 2001, look at the household schedule and check question No 11. You can list a maximum of two languages and no more. I believe P.V. Narasimha Rao himself spoke seven Indian languages (including “mother tongue”) and six foreign ones. I wonder which two he picked.

Forget villages like Mattur or Hosahalli in Karnataka, where everyone speaks Sanskrit. Think of someone who is urban and has a graduate degree, without Hindi being the mother tongue. If s/he knows Sanskrit, the language basket will probably be mother tongue, English, Hindi and Sanskrit. The probability of Sanskrit not showing up on census schedules is extremely high. That’s the reason I said we don’t know how many people speak Sanskrit. Therefore, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports about the death of Sanskrit are greatly exaggerated.

No doubt there are people who wish Sanskrit to die — because they don’t perceive it to possess value. There’s an infamous quote from Macaulay’s “Minute upon Indian Education”: “I have never found one among them (learned men) who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. In fairness to Macaulay, that quote is plucked out of context. The context was public funding and a trade-off between Sanskrit/ Arabic and English-teaching. There isn’t necessarily a trade-off, not then and not now.

Most people will probably be aware of Kautilya’s Arthashastra, dated to the 2nd or 3th century CE. I wonder how many people know the manuscript disappeared. R. Shamasastry rediscovered it in 1904. It was published in 1909 and translated into English in 1915. Had Shamasastry not known Sanskrit, he wouldn’t have known that manuscript’s worth. There’s a National Mission for Manuscripts (Namami), set up in 2003. This has a gargantuan task of listing, digitising, publishing and translating manuscripts — a manuscript defined as a text more than 75 years old. This manuscript wealth isn’t necessarily in public hands. Hence, surveys are used to estimate what’s in private collections. As of now, Namami has a listing/ digitisation of three million and the estimated stock of manuscripts in India is 35 million. There are at least 60,000 manuscripts in Europe and another 1,50,000 elsewhere in South Asia.

Ninety-five per cent of these manuscripts have never been listed, collated and translated. Therefore, we don’t know what is in them.

Macaulay could at least blame other learned men. In this day and age, everyone is a bit of an empiricist. Note that two-thirds of these manuscripts are in Sanskrit. But there are other languages too — Arabic and Pali are two examples. Even if the language was Sanskrit, there are instances where we no longer have people who can read scripts in which that Sanskrit language was written down. Note that knowledge transmission in Sanskrit was rarely in written form. Writing is of recent vintage. Most transmission of knowledge was oral, and as the gurukul systems and the guru-shishya tradition collapsed, that knowledge has been irretrievably lost. In a loose sense, this has happened with many branches (shakhas) of sacred texts (shastras), Vedas and Vedangas included.

It’s a strange empiricist’s argument to hold that Sanskrit has no value to offer without even knowing what 95 per cent of those manuscripts (forget the lost oral transmission) contain. In a relatively better situation, someone like Manjul Bhargava will come along and remind us of the sulba sutras. In a relatively inferior situation, we will have to depend on a Sanskrit-speaker from Germany or the US to translate what a specific text contains. Sanskrit isn’t quite dead yet. But if it isn’t encouraged and energised, it may well be headed in that direction. How we do it is a subsequent question. First, let’s acknowledge that a problem exists. In Sanskrit, namami means “I bow down”. That store of knowledge deserves at least this bit of humility.


The writer is member, Niti Aayog. Views are personal

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