The Sad State Of Sanskrit Scholarship In India

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Grant money meant for Sanskrit scholarship is siphoned off by institutes fudging the number of students on their rolls. This is the sad state of Sanskrit learning in India.

The editor of Rajasthan Patrika, Gulab Kothari, made this remark during my visit to Jaipur: “Ten thousand have learnt Sanskrit through the gītā-śikṣaṇa workshops—good— but this is not of importance. Let it churn out ten bright scholars— now that’s real success! Focus your energies on producing scholars.” He was, of course, only echoing Hitopadeśa’s ancient words:

वरमेको गुणी पुत्रो निर्गुणैश्च शतैरपि |

एकश्चन्द्रस्तमो हन्ति न च ताराः सहस्त्रशः ||

Better one virtuous son, than a hundred fools!

One moon banishes darkness, but not a thousand stars.

Circumstances now demand we contemplate on what Sanskrit needs: Quality or Quantity? They say that in democracy, there is strength in numbers. Perhaps the census can tell us something about the quantities involved:

1971— 2212

1981— 6106

1991— 49,736

2001— 14,135

It is obvious that the numbers are very erratic. If you compare them with other languages, Sanskrit pales into insignificance— less than 0.01% of the population! The fact is—Sanskrit lives through goodwill, not numbers. And for how long will this sustain?

In the past ten or twenty years, many new Sanskrit universities have been established. And to obtain grants from the University Grants Commission, they need to show enrolment. It is difficult to obtain students for bachelor’s and master’s courses in śāstras. Universities also have to show minimum enrolment in diploma courses. Besides these, there are about 5000 pāṭhaśālas in the country, which survive on assistance from the government.

In the absence of students, how can they protect their existence? By fudging the numbers, of course. There are a hundred students in the register, but only ten in the class. And when officials from the ministry visit, students are “borrowed” from the nearby school, or the inspector’s palms are greased. What alternative do they have? Else, the institution will be shut. And who dares shoulder the herculean task of creating students by kindling interest in society? If there is no sufficient enrolment, faculty cannot be appointed; and if appointed, they are only contractual. For various departments to function, students are required. Sāhitya (Literature) and Vyākaraṇa (Grammar) get enrolments, but other disciplines founder. And journalists keep questioning— “Are the numbers rising or falling?” The importance of numbers cannot be disputed.

Recently, a Sanskrit university conducted its annual examination, with a staggering 1,95,000 candidates! This was a 25% increase over the previous year’s number. However, do not be hoodwinked into believing that Sanskrit is on the rise. The same university has an affiliated college, which operates from a room that can seat five. But five thousand students study in that college! There is not the slightest exaggeration here— I write with full evidence at hand. When officials inspected various examination centers, of eighteen randomly chosen candidates, eleven were not able to name their university!

They had never set foot in the university before and had arrived for the examination through the machinations of touts and fake degree rackets. I have heard that this is how it works— Rs. 2000 for the answer key, which the candidate can copy onto his answer booklet. If Rs. 5000 is paid; the candidate is freed of the effort of filling the booklet himself. And Rs. 10,000 can hire a Sanskrit scholar to write the exam for you. Thus, the “market” sells many services. The day there is a clamp down on this racket, 60% of Sanskrit pāṭhaśālās will have to close. It deeply pains Sanskrit teachers to see that even if textbooks are laid open, and the answer is pointed out, students still look dumbfounded. But when teachers stop teaching and spend the year performing pūjas and ceremonies to supplement their income, what more can they expect?

Do not think that this is only the fate of a few obscure institutions. Hear this tale of a doctoral student from the Sanskrit department of a prestigious university. Upon submitting his thesis, he expressed his need for Rs. 10,000 to arrange for his defence. When asked why, he said that it was to pay for the airfare and accommodation of the two external examiners (a professor and the vice-chancellor of a university)! Of course, the examiners would also be reimbursed separately by the University. These are not stray occurrences— they are more rule than the exception.

Once, speaking to a former student of Sanskrit, I enquired “What do you do do for a living?” “I write theses,” came the reply. Seeing me perplexed, he explained that he produces theses for Ph.D. candidates! Though the prices vary diversely, he charges between Rs. 5000 and Rs. 10000 per thesis, depending on the size and complexity of the subject. When money and ethics clash, it is most often money that wins. People shed all scruples for money. When institutions (both formal and informal) put their energies into lining their pockets through unscrupulous methods, is there any surprise that quality takes a hit?

Broaching the topic of schools— the Sanskrit fraternity itself promotes Sanskrit as a “scoring subject!” Sanskrit is taught by teachers of other subjects; Examinations are held for twenty or fifty marks; Students clear examinations by using study guides; in the wake of all this, what Sanskrit can we expect students to know really? But to retain the Sanskrit department in the university, numbers are essential! This status quo is over fifty years old— and many teachers in the system are its former students. When such is the state of teachers, the less said about students, the better. And everybody knows the state of those who acquire degrees in Sanskrit by studying through other languages.

In these dire circumstances, it is imperative for us to introspect deeply and tackle the problem at the root. Quality must be given serious consideration, and corrective measures must be taken. Teaching standards and textbooks must be upgraded. Methods of evaluation must be revisited. The administration must be improved. Above all, our outlook must change.

When the focus shifts to quality, there might even be a decline in numbers. But that should be no cause for alarm. Without quality, how can Sanskrit flourish? Without quality, it’s downhill all the way. We shall put up with a temporary decline in numbers— but we shall not forsake quality. “Quality or Quantity?” is a non-question. The only acceptable policy is “Quality with Quantity.” Quality now demands our attention. Let us throw off this torpor, rise to the challenge, and uplift Sanskrit and ourselves.

The above is a translated excerpt from Chamu Krishna Shastry’s book sāvadhānāḥ syāma. Translation by Suhas Mahesh.