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The use and abuse of Sanskrit

Cultural homogenisation through centrestaging Sanskrit will rob Indian culture of its plurality.

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Sanskrit has bequeathed to us wonderful literary treasures.

Both print and electronic media have reported in recent weeks a number of conferences on Sanskrit language and culture. Promoting the study of Sanskrit language and texts are laudable efforts. Sanskrit has bequeathed to us wonderful literary treasures. However, the principal agenda of these conferences is not always the promotion of Sanskrit but establishing other perspectives of a problematic kind.

One persistently hears the persistent and shrill claim that Sanskrit and Sanskritic culture are the very bedrock of traditional, unadulterated and pristine Indian culture, which has been prevalent from time immemorial, but which needs an urgent cleansing to be rid of mostly western polluting influences. This premise assumes that Sanskrit and Sanskrit culture are the single entry point of studying Indian culture, past and present. The attempt is to revive the lost glory of Sanskrit and return to that pristine past. This revivalist project is factually inaccurate and conceptually flawed, as the principal motive is to claim, present and impose a homogenised view of Indian history and culture and erode its universally celebrated plural and syncretic elements.

No less worrying and problematic are the utterances, emanating from these conferences regarding the antiquity and authorship of the Vedic literature, projected as the root of everything Indian. An unbroken continuum of the Vedic past is thus constructed and given the stamp of legitimacy almost like a cultural brand-name. The next step is to pronounce India as the original homeland of the Indo-Aryan speakers, who are erroneously and deliberately labeled as “the Aryans”.

The use of “Aryan” as a biological label is palpably wrong. It is a language label. Max Mueller in his monumental studies of the Vedas in mid-19th century cautioned against confusing language labels with racial identities as was being done with “the Aryans”. The term Aryan, occurs in a late 6th century BCE inscription in Iran, and in the Rabatak inscription (from Afghanistan) of Kanishka I (late first/early second century) as a language, not as an ethnic group. Aryasatya, a foundational concept in Buddhism, refers to the four noble truths. In the seventh century, Banabhatta, in his celebrated Harshacharita, branded Pushyamitra Sunga, the Brahmin senapati of the Mauryas, as an anarya, because he treacherously murdered his master, the last Maurya ruler, Brihadratha. Here, anarya for Banabhatta is an ignoble person. The deliberately erroneous use of Arya in an ethnic sense does not stand the scrutiny of historical evidence.

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No less erroneous is the insistent claim that the original habitat of the speakers of Indo-Aryan, and, presumably, its ancestral language of Indo-European, was in the subcontinent. The problem becomes serious when some Sanskritists project this argument by merely citing Rigvedic hymns. Little attention is paid to the multiple studies on Indo-European and Indo-Aryan linguistics and on the language of the Rigveda and that of the Avesta being cognates, which suggests a shared common habitat of Indo-Iranian speakers before the bifurcation of the Avestan and Vedic languages.

This has been consistently ignored by the India-as-the-home proponents. They continue to critique the notion of an “Aryan invasion” of India, a long discarded position since it was propounded by Mortimer Wheeler, a colonialist scholar. The persistent abuse hurled at Romila Thapar for upholding the “Aryan Invasion” theory only shows how poorly equipped her critics are, since she demonstrated the inapplicability of the “Aryan invasion” theory way back in 1969!

The emerging image is the Indo-Aryan speakers reached the subcontinent by a series of small scale migrations. In view of the well established findings that both the Austro-Asiatic and Dravidian families of languages have greater antiquity than the Indo-European/Indo-Aryan, it has been thought for long that some linguistic elements were borrowed by the speakers of Indo-Aryan from Dravidian speakers.

The same process seems to hold true for the presence of Mundari words in the Rigveda. Such hybridity speaks volumes for the lively nature of the said speech and the interactions among diverse linguistic groups. Language, like physical types, is never pure or pristine and thrives on hybridity, a point effectively driven home by the role played by Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit in subsequent centuries.

Sanskrit, great as the language is, has always been an elite language meant for ritual, sacerdotal use, and courtly discourse. Cultural homogenisation through centrestaging Sanskrit will lead to an infructuous understanding of Indian culture, bereft of its plurality. The popularity of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, is due more to the wide appeal of the stories of the two epics also available in vernacular literatures, as few were educated enough to read and appreciate the Sanskrit of the epics. As we justly celebrate the marvels of Sanskrit culture, let us not overlook the country’s equally rich vernacular and folk cultures. One can justly celebrate Indian civilization because it
is a civilization upholding and championing cultural pluralities.

The writer is professor of Ancient Indian History, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU