The politicization of the language on communal grounds only reflects the leanings of politicians. And the repulsion to Sanskrit is a phenomenon that owes much to short-sighted pro-Sanskrit champions who care little about the actual problems facing Sanskrit studies in the country.
The Sanskrit debate is back, and our civil society isn’t getting enough of flashing its diplomas in subaltern studies.
To begin with, there are two major arguments against the implementation of Sanskrit in schools. The first one is a racial argument. According to it, white Aryans invaded India. The aboriginals were all black. The Aryans were Sanskrit speakers and not only imposed Sanskrit on the aboriginals but also drove them down south. This view gained coin back in the 19th century and continues to dominate the psyche of Indians thanks to our—to quote sociologist Dipankar Gupta—“westoxicated” academicians and middle class.
The theory of racial invasion has been severely critiqued and has been mostly given up in mainstream academia. The contributions of Dr B.R Ambedkar in breaking this theory are commendable. Anyone in doubt must read his work Who Were the Shudras? to understand the untenable nature of the racial invasion theory.
This however does not mean that the invasion theory is terminated in its entirety. It has its stock of variants which are invoked to ignite communal and ethnic issues as and when required.
The second argument against Sanskrit, the Brahamnical Sanskrit theory, is one such variant, still alive and doing well. It goes way back to the 19th century and has been nicely preserved in the early Marxist Indian historiographies of D.D. Kosambi and R.S. Sharma, though their invasion theory has been sidelined. The theory that Sanskrit language represents Brahmanic hegemony and therefore is the medium of subjugation of the ancient subalterns (who are only remotely connected to the present ones: see Ambedkar’s Who Were the Shudras?) is based on the following gross observations in the Sanskrit texts, especially Sanskrit plays.
Prakrit was the language of the masses. Only upper caste men are depicted as conversing in Sanskrit. Women and lower castes regardless of their gender are depicted as conversing in Prakrit. Other than these observations, our anti-Sanskrit champions sight the prohibitions sighted in the law books like that of Manu to conclude that Sanskrit belongs to the upper castes. Well, these arguments overlook the some telling exceptions.
The Brahmana court jester depicted in Sanskrit plays invariably converses in Prakrit. Merchants and courtiers are also made to speak in Prakrit. Parivrajikas or female ascetic nuns are seen speaking in Sanskrit along with courtesans and at times queens. Children, regardless of their gender, are depicted as Prakrit speakers. The languages of the characters of the plays are decided by the characterisation, ethnicity and vocation of the protagonists, phonetic peculiarities of the audience, situations in the plays, not on caste hierarchies.
Both Sanskrit and Prakrit used in the kāvyas are of standardised form, thereby not letting one have literary privilege over the other. The fact that the kāvyas included dramas that were to be enacted on various occasions, and thus must have been accessible to a wide audience of various castes and classes, goes against the idea that Sanskrit was reserved for the upper castes. The various female and lower castes depicted as speaking in Prakrit are usually in conversation with the Sanskrit speakers. From this we can also infer that though a character is speaking in Parkrit, he/she is understands Sanskrit fully so as to be active participants in the conversations. Finally, most of the actors were usually from the so-called lower castes. This suggests that they knew how to at least converse in both the languages with ease.
In her book Imagining The Urban: Sanskrit and the City In Early India, Delhi University professor Shonaleeka Kaul refers to American Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock’s thesis, in which he argues in favour of the universal nature of Sanskrit and designates it as cosmopolitan, and also states that its linguistic affiliations were genuinely trans-regional and trans-ethnic, like its sphere of cultivation and circulation. Thus the Brahmnaic Sanskrit theory is also untenable.
The Dharmashastric texts forbid the recitation of the sacred texts by the lower castes. So restriction to it is applicable only to the religious texts. Sanskrit is not a religious language and not at all a language reserved for mainstream Hinduism. Plays, poetry, medical, astronomical and other treatises are available to substantiate this point. Sanskrit literature would also include works by the sects which disagreed with Hindu practices like the Buddhists. Asvaghosa’s Budhhacharita and Saundarananda are testimony to this. Many argue that Buddhism represented the subalterns. That might be true. However, the use of Sanskrit in a sect which represents subalterns refutes allegations about the elitist nature of Sanskrit.
Yet another argument against Sanskrit learning, which is closely associated with the above theories, is that there are languages which represent the subalterns and these do not have any connection with Sanskrit.
But most of the languages which are being claimed as languages of the subalterns, like Tamil and Prakrit, have standardised and canonised versions. This by itself reveals the existence of hierarchies among the speakers of these languages. Therefore, the allegations that Sanskrit is subjected to must be shared by these as well. There is no language then whatsoever which does not represent social hierarchies. Even languages like Santhali represent gender and generation divisions. Moreover, tenets of Sanskrit are found in languages of all parts of the country, ranging from the North East (Assam) to the South (Tamil and Malayalam). The obvious question that arises is whether the strong tenets of the supposed subaltern languages are found all over the country or not.
So we are in a position to conclude that Sanskrit is not as “problemtic” a language as suggested by our self-serving politicians and politically inclined academicians. Introduction of Sanskrit as a language to be learnt should not face such unwarranted opposition. And if such opposition is not unwarranted, then all languages must be banned. Following such arguments, we must stop talking.
Strangely, we find most of the anti-Sanskrit pro-subaltern champions mumbling in English. Is that not a language that represents subordination or domination? Wasn’t it introduced by force? So should we renounce it? Not at all. Language has politics, but that politics is defined by who speaks in it. After all, Gandhi and Ambedkar wrote and spoke at length in the same language that was spoken by Lord Curzon and Lord Dalhousie.
Well, then does it mean that our pro-Sanskrit champions are correct in their assertions? Their arguments are acceptable only to the extent that Sanskrit is a rich language and is one of the main sources to understand our past and present culture. Other than this, repulsion to Sanskrit is a phenomenon that owes much to these very same champions.
The desire to learn Sanskrit needs to be kindled among the young. This has to be done by positive nurturing, not by imposing it in place of a European language that a child has been learning and is keenly interested in (regardless of the politics behind such interest). Doing so would only make the child repelled by Sanskrit.
There is no proper planning involved in the measures adopted to promote Sanskrit among the young. The sudden and compulsory introduction of the language does not pre-suppose that children are humans, but treats them as objects under manufacture. There should be no problem with Sanskrit as far as it is introduced as an option to choose from at the school level. However, it should not be imposed at any cost, as this can only lead to its destruction in the long run. This is only a glimpse of the lack of planning and administration in the Sanskrit world.
Most of the colleges offering an Honours degree in Sanskrit try to promote the language through any measure possible. This overlooks quality and leads to fatal implications for both students and faculty. The cut-off for taking up Sanskrit in graduation is compromised so much that it has become a lucrative option for securing a random degree by uninterested and academically disinclined students. A look at the list of students who fail in the first year finals in most of the universities makes this point clear.
The syllabus designed for Sanskrit Honours mostly aims to ensure its survival and therefore does not subscribe to general academic standards. A university which accepts students from gurukuls (who have studied Sanskrit since childhood), those who have studied Sanskrit till higher secondary, those who have studied it till secondary, those who studied it only till eighth standard and those who have never studied it, all in one honours degree programme, reveals a lot about the superficial and arbitrary nature of the syllabus and the credentials of the planners.
The gurukul student doesn’t learn anything new and leaves cursing, while the novice and the eighth standard Sanskrit scholar graduates from the university pondering over three years of mumbo jumbo and truths behind a certificate that claims a first division. The quality of teachers coming out of such a system can well be imagined.
Even at the research level, in most of the Sanskrit departments, socio-political and economic implications of the texts being studied are not taken into account. Understanding the texts through academically accepted theoretical frameworks is hardly ever undertaken. Rather, a mystical and theological approach is engaged with. The quality of students produced by the Sanskrit departments, given their arbitrary nature and lack of planning to build aptitude, is not compatible with mainstream academics nor are they of any use outside pure academics. Thus the saviours of Sanskrit are equally responsible for its doom.
The politics around this language is completely unwarranted. A culturally rich language must be learnt and allowed to grow. The politicization of the language on communal grounds only brings forward the leanings of the politicians. Sanskrit is innocent and nobody should have a problem with its introduction in schools. But we must be careful about how we introduce it. Imposition only creates rebellion. Unwarranted imposition would lead to unwarranted rebellion. Furthermore, for the promotion of Sanskrit, its introduction in schools is not enough. There is an urgent need to revise the entire structure of Sanskrit studies in colleges and universities. Until that is done, Sanskrit will continue to be a “subaltern discipline” in relation to mainstream academics.
Though the career options for Sanskrit students are in plenty, it is finally quality that would determine access to jobs. Till the Sanskrit field does not come to terms with mainstream academic standards and market forces, the departments will continue to produce sub-standard scholars vying for the limited jobs in pure academics.