On 10 June 2023, Print.in published a critique of a book titled, The Ten Heads of Ravana by Kancha Ilaiah. One of the co-authors of the book is Rajiv Malhotra.
The book in question, Ten Heads of Ravana: A Critique of Hinduphobic Scholars, is a collection of penetrating analyses by various scholars on anti-Hindu mindset entrenched in the academia.
Dr.Ilaiah, a retired professor, is now the Director of the Centre For The Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MANUU). He is one of the academics critiqued in the book for his writings on Hinduism.
Leaving aside the usual anti-Hindu rhetoric and ad hominem attacks, his core arguments in the Print piece boil down to three statements:
Brahmins restricted the study of Sanskrit and did not allow the 'Shudras, Dalits and Adivasis' to study the language.
Brahmins themselves do not write in Sanskrit. For example, Yuval Noah Harari wrote his famous Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind, originally in Hebrew and later translated into other languages. But Brahmins do not do that. Sanskrit was never anyone's mother language - not even Brahmins.
Sanskrit literature only focussed on Brahmins and Kings and their wars while completely ignoring those masses involved in 'the entire systems of food production, gathering, and animal grazing'.
Let us look into these three allegations one by one.
Studying Sanskrit was not restricted only to Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Like in most pre-modern societies, and even modern societies, in pre-modern India, the affluent classes, which consisted of many jatis, had better access to high literature. This is not peculiar to India but to all human cultures.
Yet, if a study is to be made of the vertical spread of literacy in society, then India fared better compared to most others. Compared to the spread of Latin and Greek among the pre-modern working castes of the West, Sanskrit knowledge was comparatively far more widespread among the Shudra jatis or working castes of India.
This can be attested from very ancient periods to late medieval or even early colonial period.
Mullaipattu of the Sangham age, composed 1,800 years ago, has a tangential reference to mahouts training elephants in Sanskrit, though the mahouts were not 'high-cultured'.
Anyone who reads Iramavatharam, a Tamil rendering of Valmiki Ramayana by Kamban, would understand that Kamban knows thoroughly not only Valmiki Ramayana but also the Upanishads. Kamban lived 700 years ago.
In the medieval and late medieval periods, there were many instances of the poets and seers of the third and fourth varnas having learnt Sanskrit and Tamil in institutions.
For example, Saint Paranjothi Munivar, who belonged to the fourth varna, was taught Sanskrit and Tamil as his father ran a school where both were taught. In the late 19th century, in colonial Madras, it had been observed that the Valluvar-the priest-Gurus of the Pariah community, wore the sacred thread and recited Sanskrit Mantras.
The reason for this near-democratic spread of Sanskrit in the Indian population may be that the varna system was more a horizontal matrix than a vertical pyramid, though it was indeed a hierarchy. Its dictates placed a high spiritual premium on high learning and simple living for a householder Pandit. This was more strenuous than the vow of poverty in Christian monasteries, where non-household monks could always practice simulated poverty.
This reduced the gulf between high learning and economic poverty, primarily in Brahmins, and had cascading effects on other communities. Brahmin varna itself had been more a social space into which other communities could enter and leave.
Sanskrit is indeed not the mother tongue of any particular Indian community, including the jatis that today continue in the Brahmin varna. But it is the common heritage of all Indians with contributions from all communities and geographical regions.
From Panini of the north-western part of the larger Indian land mass to Patanjali, closely associated with southern India, to Aryabhatta, who, according to mathematician C.K.Raju, probably belonged to the marginalised section of the society to Gautilya, Navdvipa logicians of Bengal to mathematical treatise writers of Kerala - Sanskrit belongs to us all.
Absorbing varied linguistic elements and cross-fertilising the diverse linguistic matrix of India, Sanskrit has acted as a unique guardian and nurturer of linguistic diversity in India.
It has become the symbol of unity in diversity.
In this respect, Sanskrit is a language and collective property at once.
David Shulman illustrates this with an example: Sanskrit kāvya of Śrīharṣa, 'Naiṣadhīya-charita' the romance of Nala-Damayanthi shows the scene of kings from various regions speaking different languages assembled for Swayamvara; they use Sanskrit as the common language of communication. Shulman writes:
They also speak a divine language, pāṭai = bhāṣā, perhaps more beautiful than others, but certainly functional in specific pragmatic contexts. In any case, Sanskrit here is very much a language in its own right. ... So, while clearly the suitors were reduced to speaking to one another in Sanskrit, there is also a suggestion that “Sanskrit” is a potential property of all speech.
The same quality is also extended to Tamil in the translation made by Ativīrarāma Pāṇṭiyaṉ, a Pandya chieftain who ruled Thenkasi - now a small temple town in the deep south.
Here Sanskrit is not just a language but also a national linguistic vision that unites, conserves and nurtures linguistic diversity without destroying it. The creativity that Sanskrit generates is thus not limited to the linguistic boundary of Sanskrit as a language but extends and interpenetrates all Indic languages.
So why no Yuval Noah Harari in Sanskrit?
Here, ironically, Dr Ilaiah is batting for a strong Hindu nation.
Hebrew was on the verge of extinction. It was rescued because of the strong Jewish national identity of the State of Israel. Israel made special efforts to make Hebrew a medium of instruction for all sciences and arts.
Had the first governments post-independence taken a leaf out of Ben Gurion's Israel, we would have had a Hindu (not necessarily a Brahmin) Yuval Noah Harari writing in Sanskrit. Perhaps the Indian Government should take Kancha Ilaiah seriously and make Sanskrit a medium of instruction for all sciences and arts.
Even so, in present times, Sanskrit is still creative throughout all Indian languages.
That said, treatises have been written in Sanskrit right into the very twentieth century. Here we shall see two seers who showed the creative power of Sanskrit in the 20th century.
Sri Narayana Guru was taught Sanskrit by his uncle, who ran a traditional school that taught Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam. It should be remembered here that the Ezhava community was highly disadvantaged by the cruel and inhuman discriminations imposed by the so-called upper castes of Kerala - a condition Swami Vivekananda compared to a lunatic asylum.
Yet, Ezhavas had Pandits in Sanskrit who could teach children Sanskrit, Malayalam, and Tamil.
Sri Narayana Guru wrote both devotional hymns and spiritual-philosophical works in Sanskrit. These compositions combine deep mystical wisdom and wonderful musical quality.
Similar to Adi Sankara, who wrote both the Bhakti-filled Bhaja Govindam and also the wisdom-filled Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Maha Acharya Sri Narayana Guru wrote highly devotional verses on Ganesha, Bhadrakali, Devi, Skanda-Muruga etc.
He also wrote Darshana Mala, which, through Sanskrit verses, explained his entire non-dualist Advaitic system. His Vedanta Sutras is a work of wisdom in crisp 24 aphorisms. According to Muni Narayana Prasad 'this one work raises (Sri Narayana Guru) to the status of a Sutrakara equal to Badarayana.'
In other words, here we have an instance of what learning Sanskrit in the right spirit can do to one's self and intellect and how it can help the emancipation of the masses.
Kavyakanda Vasishta Ganapathi Muni
The first (and perhaps the only) talk delivered in Sanskrit at the All India Congress Session was at Belgaum in 1924. Delivered in pure Sanskrit, the speaker, fragile in frame and with penetrating eyes, condemned casteism and untouchability. The speaker was Vasishta Ganapathi Muni - better known as Kavyakanda Ganapathi Muni.
Based on Vedic texts, he demolished the arguments of the orthodoxy who supported untouchability as part of religion.
He wrote a voluminous treatise in Sanskrit covering almost all subjects - from Parliamentary democracy to astronomy. He proved authoritatively that there was no place for caste discrimination and untouchability in Vedic Hinduism. His deep knowledge of Sanskrit made him reject all forms of discrimination.
On 25 February 1927 at Hyderabad, he answered questions on various social issues:
The problem of Brahmins and non-Brahmins can be solved by giving the right to study Vedas to all. If certain Smritis say Shudras are barred from access to the Vedas they should be considered as temporary injunctions. When such things are written on the basis of jealousy they are not to be taken as the standard. Smritis which go against the Vedas need not be taken as standards. The Sutras which are written denying access to the Vedas are hatred oriented.
The Sanskrit works of both these seers, one so-called 'non-Brahmin' and the other Brahmin, show that the creative capacity of Sanskrit transcends man-made barriers.
That we are not using this great potential in independent India is our fault.
Sanskrit Education will lead to Social Emancipation
On the reverse side it also shows that the lack of Sanskrit knowledge as an organic part of daily life leads to distorted perceptions of the self-identity and history.
For example, while most know about the discriminatory verses in Manu Smriti, not many know about the following verses:
Whether a person is a Brahmin well-versed in Vedas or a marginalised person in the society (dog-eater) one should take and have from him for he (who has been initiated into Saiva Dharma) should be considered as Myself (Siva).Sivadharma 1.36
Or consider this:
Those who have been initiated by this very procedure, O Beautiful Faced One, Brahmins, Kṣatriyas, Vaiśyas, Śūdras, and others likewise, O Dear One, All of these have the same dharma—they have been enjoined in the dharma of Śiva. ... They are remembered in the smṛtis as having only one caste: that of Bhairava, imperishable and pure. ... Should a man mention the prior caste of a Putraka, Sādhaka, Or of a Samayin, he would require expiation, O Goddess. He burns in hell for three of Rudra’s days, five of Keśava’s days, And a fortnight of Brahmā’s days. Therefore, one must not discriminate, if he wishes to obtain the supreme goal.Sri Svacchanda Tantra : 4.539–545
Both are from Sanskrit texts. They are more central to Hindu Dharma than the selective, outdated and out-of-context Smriti verses.
We find both these expressed in Bhakti literature in southern India. Appar (7th century) states that whom a society considers outcaste, he, if he is a Siva Bhakta, is verily a God worthy of worship.
In Sri Vaishnava tradition, anyone who insults a fellow Vaishnava on account of jati is considered a sinner and 'insulting by jati is defined as inquiring one's jati.
Great architects of Sanskrit tradition like Abhinavagupta had written commentaries reinforcing the non-centrality of jati and varna to spirituality.
They all point to one cardinal principle of Sanatana Dharma - that varna if and when birth-based, is only for social convenience and not a permanent attribute. Humanity does not have distinctions.
In fact this also means that in universal terms, social stratification, social aristocracy and social exclusions are not central to spiritual life. And by rejecting even the notion of jatis very mention as a sin, Hindu Dharma emphasized on spiritual democracy.
In fact the Bhakti movement that flourished in regional languages, which ushered in both social emancipation and renaissance of regional literature, has at its heart the Darshana of these Sanskritic Sutras.
Unfortunately, because of the lack of widespread Indic scholarship, because of the lack of support from the State and domination of colonial social views, even the study of these dimensions get locked into 'Brahminical' versus 'non-Brahminical' binary fallacy.
However when the power of narrative through the knowledge of Sanskrit was taken from Indians and relegated to the ivory towers of Western academia, Hindu Dharma got essentialised with birth-based discriminations. All narratives and discourses were built around it.
So now Hindus have to reclaim their hold on Sanskrit and hence the battle for regaining Sanskrit is waged. Use of English in the battle is to be understood in this context.
'Sanskrit literature cared only for Brahmana-Kshatriyas and ignores agrarian, artisanal, and animal economy perspective '
This is one of the most ridiculous allegations made by the learned professor.
Sita Ram Goel precisely brought out this symptom exhibited here by Kancha Ilaiah:
An intellectual inclination to compare Hindu ideals and institutions from the past not with their contemporaneous ideals and institutions in the West but with what the West has achieved in its recent history-the 19th and the 20th Centuries;
Kancha Ilaiah states that Sanskrit literature is more preoccupied with kings, Brahmins, Yajnas, wars, and romance.
Let us take one of the most widespread Sanskrit works - The Srimad Bhagavatam. Its central account is the life of Sri Krishna. And what is that life? It is the life of cattle grazing community lads. That life is made romantic and admirable.
The details are there. How they take their cattle for grazing, play, and care for the animals. Srimad Bhagavatam is sung and recited throughout India. It has created ecological awareness. In the Chipko movement of Himalayan communities, the very Sanskrit Srimad Bhagavata Purana recital played an important role in uniting the people to protect the resources.
The community of artisans, which includes metal smiths, sculptors and builders, are raised to the level of supreme knowledge. Their work is equivalent in classical view to that of Vedas. They themselves were called 'Viswa Brahmana' and have the community name 'Asari', which relates to the word Acharya. They have community scholars with Sanskrit knowledge, and their treatises are in Sanskrit.
Sanskrit again is also abundant with texts that contain knowledge of medicine, herbal science and agricultural science. Vrikshayurveda of Surapala had been known only through its mentions. It was the effort of agricultural scientist Dr. Yeshwant Laxman Nene that the text has been made available to a larger public. The manuscript was lying in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
There was also the Vrikshayurveda of Parasara and Kashyapiyakrishisukti. The last one was translated into English in 1985 by G Wojtilla and was published in Hungary.
Neglecting Sanskrit as both language and culture, Darshana and Sadhana, in India would lead to a loss of knowledge systems - from agriculture to psychology.
In conclusion, we ask: who wants Sanskrit dead?
The answer is simple - those who are working for theo-colonialism. The Indological establishment mostly (not all, there are significant exceptions) wants Sanskrit dead. They want to reduce it to either a museum piece or a linguistic fossil.
On the other hand, those who want to re-infuse Sanskrit with more energy want to provide the world with an alternative paradigm for dealing with deep linguistic diversity.
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