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An Elegy to Sanskrit Pride
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Reju George Mathew

reju george latestWhen external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj declares that Sanskrit has to be promoted to purify the minds and sanctify the world, one wonders what this ‘purity’ means and what the ‘impure minds’ will have to endure in our nation if they do not conform.

The pride or alleged pride that one has about Sanskrit in India has always troubled me for years. Initially, it was because of curiosity about the unknown language and its politics; now, it has become a disgust towards the respect it demands. This has forced me to put down a few ideas on Sanskrit pride, as celebrated by the right wing groups in India.

When the 2014 Jnanpith award winner, Bhalchandra Nemade, demands that English be banned from the Indian education system and banishes V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie from any consideration of literary merit, he takes pride in Sanskrit. While discussions on Indian English writing might take us to questions of postcolonialism, the attempts to celebrate Sanskrit, especially in the manner that it happened recently in the Kendriya Vidyalayas where it replaced German, needs to be scrutinised at a deeper level.

* Sanskrit was not the language of the lower castes or even most of the upper castes, except the Brahmins. So, when there is any campaign or plea that asks you to be proud of something that you never owned, it becomes ridiculous.

* Sanskrit is a symbol of oppression for those people who had their ancestors tortured for using the language. Vedic texts and chants in Sanskrit were prohibited to the lower castes and if one happened to use it, her/his tongue was severed or molten lead was poured into the person’s ears for hearing the language. So, one would actually want her/his mother tongue (NOT the regional language, but mother tongue, which may not even have a script) to be introduced into the education system.

* Sanskrit as an ancient language does hold much water as we also had Pali, which has been deliberately forgotten, probably for its Buddhist connections. Nobody seems worried about Pali texts or language. If it is just the age of the language and not its practical use that matters, Pali might have an upper hand.

* Why is it that Sanskrit is being forcefully fed into the public education system when the elite castes have probably shifted to more profitable ones? Kanch Ilaiah, while speaking for English education, argued that in the ancient times Sanskrit was a language of power and the lower castes were kept away from it by all means. Now, English is emerging as an international language and the same elite castes and classes are asking for only vernacular medium in public education so that the lower castes will not prosper. I would like to extend the same argument to the Sanskrit question in Kendriya Vidyalayas as well.

When the elite castes and classes of our society send their children to international schools with Cambridge syllabus and two or three foreign languages, it does open up a lot of opportunities for their children. But, we want the national education policy to shift to Sanskrit etc so that the lower strata of the society will not have these opportunities.

* By learning Sanskrit, can you read the ancient Indian texts? Maybe you can. You can read the Hindu holy scriptures and understand the caste system in a better way, like what Dr. B.R. Ambedkar did. And what happens if you learn German instead in KVs? You might get better job and education opportunities abroad. Remember the almost-free-education policy in Germany. Also, it is interesting the way we are dealing with Sanskrit, as an instrument of nationalist propaganda, akin to what Hitler did with German.

* When a nation tries to create/force nationalism amongst its citizens, certain symbols are essential for this purpose. Sanskrit has become one of those symbols. And these symbols would definitely need substantial ‘others’ to fight against. I fear that many of the minor languages and even languages like Urdu and Arabic (especially due to the religious othering involved) would suffer in due course.

* For the many castes and tribes who were kept away from Sanskrit, this force feeding of the same is not going to be an enjoyable experience. When I’m being fed Sanskrit, I am also being asked to forget my food, my culture and my memories as they are inferior. I am told that there is no pride in my beef or my Pali. There is no pride in my minor religions or my Buddhism.

Fall into the nationalist framework or perish! They would define your life, your tastes and your nationalism. They will have you read their national books…



Reju George Mathew is Assistant Professor at Department of English, Christ University, Bangalore.

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