How Left Bastion JNU Plans To Be At The Forefront Of Indic Renaissance Through Its New Sanskrit School

How Left Bastion JNU Plans To Be At The Forefront Of Indic Renaissance Through Its New Sanskrit School

by Arihant Pawariya - Oct 28, 2018 10:39 AM +05:30 IST
How Left Bastion JNU Plans To Be At The Forefront Of Indic Renaissance Through Its New Sanskrit SchoolJawaharlal Nehru University
  • JNU has upgraded its Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies into a full-fledged independent School of Sanskrit and Indic Studies.

    Now they could have inter and multidisciplinary courses on Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Vedic culture, yoga philosophy, and many more subjects under one roof.

    The move was predictably met with criticism, but JNU seems steadfast in heralding an Indic renaissance, perhaps to the surprise of many.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) wants to be at the forefront of heralding an Indic renaissance. Yes, you heard that right.

Hitherto absent from public imagination, thanks to leftist malcontent, JNU got catapulted into the national discourse three years ago when some leftist students indulged in a disgraceful display of anti-nationalism by raising slogans vowing to break India and celebrating the martyrdom of a dead terrorist who had attacked the heart of Indian democracy—the Parliament of India.

However, things are changing, thanks to some initiatives taken in the last couple of years. They include reforms in faculty appointments to break the stranglehold of the communist cabal, mandating 75 per cent compulsory attendance to divert students’ minds from toxic campus politics to academics, and injecting a much-needed dose of fresh air in the form of more rewarding engineering and management courses. They have evidently begun to shake the foundations of the ‘Lal Salaam’ consensus and riled up the high priests of the failed and imported ideologies that currently infect the impressionable youth there.

Much of the change is to the credit of Professor Jagadesh Kumar, who assumed the role of vice chancellor of the university in 2016, though his leftist critics cite the reforms to decry him and demand his ouster.

In a significant move in December last year, the JNU administration decided to upgrade its Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies into a full-fledged independent School of Sanskrit and Indic Studies (SSIS). Notably, a university has under its wings a number of schools with which many centres and special centres of learning are attached. So, a school can have its departments, courses, and centres, and can expand according to its needs. This was the argument that clinched the case for an upgrade from a special centre to a school. The faculty members backing the move argued that under a separate, independent head, they could have inter and multidisciplinary courses on Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Vedic culture, yoga philosophy, and many more subjects under one roof. Also, they could award degrees for all courses Indic in the future rather than opening more centres.

Not surprisingly, this was met with much wailing from the usual suspects. The largely leftist JNU teachers' association (JNUTA) slammed the move saying the proposal was “not exposed to wider consultations” and that “the move is driven by ideological motives”. They argued that Sanskrit could be part of a school for Indian languages, but a certain ideology “believes Sanskrit is more than a language, it is a philosophy”.

Anyway, the school became functional within weeks.

The insiders who played a key role in establishing the school told Swarajya on the condition of anonymity that the intention was to have so broad a term, which “Indic” is, to hinder vested interests with ulterior ideological motives from infiltrating any area of research related to Indian culture and history. It would also end the need to create separate centres for areas such as Pali and Prakrit, which could get a lot of funding on their own from foreign players and are potential fields of research where India’s caste and religious fault lines could be exploited using dubious scholarship.

India has as many as 17 universities and 200 departments dealing in Sanskrit studies, but they have failed to attract talent or make a mark as centres of excellence. What the JNU’s new school aims to achieve is to become an elite institute where the best minds can come and study millennia of rich cultural heritage of India, focusing on 18 prasthanas and 64 kalas.

“JNU can provide excellent leadership. Our goal is develop this school into a model for other universities across the country to emulate,” Dean of SSIS, Professor Girish Nath Jha told Swarajya. Jha did his master’s in linguistics and earned a PhD in Machine Translation from JNU and went on to do another master’s in linguistics from the University of Illinois. After a brief stint as a software engineer in the United States (US), Jha returned to India. A high-ranking Andhra government official connected to International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad suggested Jha to join the institution but he picked his alma mater’s Special Center for Sanskrit Studies which he joined as assistant professor of Computational Linguistics in 2002 and hasn’t looked back ever since.

Here’s what the new school is offering, at a glance: Certificate of Proficiency (CoP) courses in Sanskrit, Pali, Sanskrit Computational Linguistics, Yoga Philosophy, and Vedic Culture; Master’s degree with specialisation in Veda, Sahitya, Darsana, Computational Linguistics, Sanskrit Linguistics, Social Thought, Indian Aesthetics & Poetics, Pali, Prakrit, and Vedic Studies. It also offers MPhil and PhD degrees with a specialisation in Agamic Systems, Sanskrit Literature, Indian Philosophical Systems, Indian Discourse Analysis, Navya Nyaya Language & Methodology, Indian and Western Logical Systems, Indian Socio-Political Thought, and Epics, among others.

Understandably, everyone has their eyes on the school. A few months ago, Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock stoked a minor controversy when he said in an interview to the Indian Express, “With a three-year Sanskrit degree, the only job you’ll get is making havans, and I think JNU is training pujaris these days.” Though his central argument was that a liberal arts college should impart skills that empower one “besides enriching your life”, he asked, “Why do you want to live if you don’t understand the beauty around you? That’s one reason to learn Sanskrit – to enhance your capacity to read the classics of your tradition and also to enhance your capacity to think.” However, his critics took him to task for his disparaging comment on Sanskrit’s lack of utility in the job market.

Jha is unapologetic about having courses in JNU to train pujaris. “What’s wrong in starting such job-oriented courses? There are thousands of temples across the country and demand for well-learned, knowledgeable Hindu priests is increasing not just in India but in all other countries wherever a vibrant and affluent Hindu expat population is present. There are dharmaguru posts in Indian armed forces for priests. People in metros are finding it really hard to search for a priest who specialises in certain rituals and worship methods they want to conduct pujas in. There could be apps in the future for this. How can we ignore such a huge potential?” he asks, and goes on to remark, “This is the ground reality that those who mock JNU’s PG Diploma course in Karmakand don’t understand. Nowadays, in the absence of proper training, all sorts of discrepancies have crept in. If we don’t correct those, who will?”

Similarly, courses such as PG Diploma courses in Kalpa Vedanga, Vaastu Shastra (both approved by the SSIS coordination committee; yet to be proposed to JNU academic council) and Religious Tourism, MA course in Yoga, and a BSc course in Ayurveda are expected to churn out graduates to meet the demand in these specialisations. By all means, this demand is increasing with the proliferation of yoga centres, both here and abroad, Ayurvedic practitioners, tour guides at religious historical sites, Vaastu expert requirements at companies in the construction business, and so on.

Interestingly, there is something that could—or ideally, should—warm the hearts of advocates of the “annihilation of caste”. Since JNU will follow the Government of India’s reservation policy in seat allocation in all these courses, all caste barriers to becoming a priest or pandit will melt away.

And Karmakand is only a fraction of the immense opportunities that lie ahead for graduates in Sanskrit or other Indian languages, says Jha. They are being hired by e-commerce firms, tech companies making mobile applications, e-learning platforms, the media, social media platforms, e-governance—you name it. The sheer size of India’s population, most of which doesn’t understand English, is helping create demand for quality professionals; whether they are startups or multinational companies, investment in tech and talent is increasing each year to cater to the unreached masses in the countryside. India’s youth and its expanding middle class are also yearning for honest and genuine scholarship into its history and heritage. Convergence of several factors—rising prosperity, billion-size market, commercial interests, and a strengthening of a sense of civilisational rootedness—is providing students interested in pursuing courses related to Indic Studies unprecedented possibilities.

It’s no wonder, then, that the alumni of JNU’s Indic Studies programme have gone on to work with Google, Microsoft, and other industry leaders. Esha Banerjee, an M.Phil graduate from JNU, who is currently working in Google, told Swarajya that she got to work with Jha on Microsoft Machine Translation system for English-Urdu and annotation tasks from eZDI, Ahmedabad. These were industry collaborations that Jha managed to procure, she said. Banerjee went on to work on the Indian Languages Corpora Initiative (ILCIa) funded by the Human Resource Ministry, which she said helped her gain a lot of insights into Natural Language Processing (NLP) corpus development.

Notably, Jha’s research and years of work in the field of linguistics coupled with his knowledge of technology have landed him many consulting jobs with top tech giants such as Microsoft, where he assisted with machine translation for Indian languages. He was also their consultant for their project on handwriting recognition for Devanagari as well as their Parts of Speech tagging project for Indic languages. If you use an Indian-language keyboard on Swiftkey, the most popular keyboard application on android devices, you may have to thank Jha as he was instrumental in helping them develop predictive keyboards for minor Indian languages.

But, perhaps, the most exciting and most impactful project, in this writer’s opinion, was his collaboration in 2011 with the Linguistic Data Consortium at the University of Pennsylvania, where he helped develop a computer software that could identify languages spoken by people by picking only a few spoken words. Perhaps it was a national security project commissioned by the US immigration to flag immigrants by their countries on the basis of their accents, said Jha. One can’t help imagine the implications of such an important programme for India, where immigrant influx is considerably less. For instance, India can make a database of accents and languages spoken in various regions of Pakistan and flag a potential troublemaker by the region he hails from whenever he passes through security checks at airports or metros.

Why doesn’t Jha help India, too, on a project like this? “I would love to work on such a project for India. But no one has asked me yet,” he says.

The role of skill-oriented courses and projects in their success cannot be overstated. Students get to have hands-on training of sorts in research and development at the SSIS’ Computational Linguistics research and development initiative that was launched in 2002 under the aegis of Jha. Research scholars have developed various useful tools and resources that are not only helpful for their juniors but are also being sought by private companies for their business use for a fee that goes into fuelling further research, establishing a virtuous loop.

The tools developed by students include a multilingual text-searchable online Amarakosha, the Sanskrit thesaurus where users can build a unicode database and do text analysis. Language experts with access can also edit and make entries. Every word has up to 50 synonyms with category, gender, number information, and detailed glosses. Other resources include searchable databases of the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vedas, Ayurveda, Upanishad, Ramayana, and other ancient texts. The SSIS is currently developing a Sanskrit-Hindi Translation (SaHiT) tool. Scholars have also developed a host of language-processing tools too, of which, perhaps, the most important is Indian Language Transliterator, where one can convert a script in one Indian language to another, like, say, Devanagari to Tamil.

Along these lines, the SSIS is executing its Sharada project. Sharada, used in Kashmir a millennia ago, is today an almost extinct script. JNU has been conducting workshops to train scores of students in reading and writing the script. Now, it is working on building a keyboard for it because the students who have learnt it don’t have the way to use it online. “There are almost 5,000 Sanskrit manuscripts written in Sharada script that we aren’t able to read. Through our software, we can transliterate it into any another Indian language script. This way we will be able to reclaim an important part of our heritage. We are sure it will give us crucial insights of that era,” Jha told Swarajya.

Currently, the SSIS is in final stages of planning to carry out the documentation of local knowledge systems in medicine and other fields in villages around Delhi. It has enlisted some of its brightest students for the same. The school has proposed a project for documentation of 18 languages of the North-East and building keyboards for them to the special center for North-East studies. It will be followed by documentation of the North-East’s folklores.

There are 200-250 students on the school’s rolls. After the upgrade from the special centre, it has increased class intake for many courses. It is in the process to start BSc in Ayurveda biology, MA in Yoga, and BA in Sanskrit courses. Patanjali has even offered to give internships to JNU students, Jha said. Presently, there are 15 faculties and the school plans to take the number to 50 in the next 10 years. The school hopes that Subhash Kak and Rajiv Malhotra would also assist its students now that they have been appointed as visiting professors at the JNU’s School of Engineering and School of Media Studies respectively.

“In the future, we intend to have multimedia labs where we record lectures of retired eminent professors who are experts in their field. We will offer these online and monetise as well, so that both the institution as well as the lecturers may benefit financially. This will help us create a profitable and self-sustaining ecosystem,” Jha said.

The SSIS has made extensive plans for its future expansion. To meet the fast-increasing requirements of the school, Prof. Jha has submitted a proposal for a new seven-storey building to the engineering department of JNU for a preliminary assessment. Meanwhile the school is applying for external grants. Funding has already been secured for a new Ayurveda garden. If Prof. Jha’s tentative plan is accepted, the current building, which was constructed in 2000-01 in the form of a beautiful swastika structure, will exclusively be dedicated to housing a top-of-the-class digital manuscript library, where their preservation, storage, and analysis will be done. The new premises will have all the classrooms, auditorium, and various labs for the school, such as Ayurveda Biology, speech labs for teaching languages, labs for computational linguistics courses, phonetics, etc. For the funding, JNU VC Prof. Jagadesh Kumar, with Prof. Jha’s assistance, has written to as many as 300 wealthy donors. “We have consciously taken this route of asking for money from private individuals because once you put your money into something, then you also demand accountability and quality standards,” Jha told Swarajya.

The SSIS doesn’t want to limit itself to brick-and-mortar classes only. Rather, it plans to democratise the learning by offering online courses. Anyone, anywhere across the world can now be a JNU graduate by registering online for the Indic courses if they meet the academic eligibility criteria. The school has already started an MA e-learning course in Sanskrit, for which any graduate in any degree from a recognised university can apply for without taking an entrance examination and complete the course at their pace. Online courses such as MA in Sanskrit, Certificates in Computational Linguistics and Pali have been approved by JNU’s academic council. “We are making efforts to start these from the next session in 2019. . The facility will be extended for other areas as well,” Prof Jha said.

Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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