The Wonder that is Sanskrit|Mar 17, 2006 2:07 PM| by:

Some Doubts, Some Questions

Is Sanskrit a Hindu Language?

It would be good at this stage to look at some of the objections that have been raised against Sanskrit becoming the national language of India. One argument, which is often used nowadays, is that Sanskrit is predominantly a Hindu language – and with India being a multi-religious country, how is it possible for the Muslims and the Christians to accept Sanskrit?

This argument has no basis, as a language cannot be Hindu. Just because the Ganga or the Himalayas are worshipped by Hindus, it does not make them ‘Hindu’. Even though the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan it does not become a ‘Muslim’ monument, and similarly Urdu is not a Muslim language simply because many Muslims use it.

All these are the heritage and the pride of the whole of India. We must also realise that all literature in Sanskrit can by no means be considered purely religious or sectarian in character. There is in Sanskrit a considerable amount of technical, scientific and secular literature. Works on polity like the Arthashastra of Kautalya or on architecture like the Manasara, the Samarangana-sutradhara and the Aparajitapriccha, as also many other treatises relating to the Kalas, can certainly not be characterised as religious. We must not forget, in this context, the pure literature embodied in the various types of Sanskrit drama and poetry.

It must be further pointed out that the large mass of literature in Sanskrit was not produced by any particular community. Several instances can be quoted of non-Brahmin and non-Hindu authors who have made significant contributions to Sanskrit literature. It is definitely misleading to assume that Sanskrit represents only the religious literature of the Hindus.

This aspect of Sanskrit not being exclusively religious, was appreciated even by some of the Muslim rulers of India, who patronised Sanskrit literature, and, in some cases (as in Bengal and Gujarat), had their epigraphic records inscribed in Sanskrit. It was the scientific and secular aspect of Sanskrit literature that made the Arabs welcome Indian scholars to Baghdad to discourse on sciences like medicine and astronomy, and to translate books in these subjects into Arabic. The Ayurveda system of medicine, until recently, was the truly national Indian system, which was practised everywhere, and access to this was through Sanskrit books, which even Muslim practitioners of the Ayurveda in Bengal studied.

Or we can take the case of Kashmir. A large majority of people there are converts to Islam. But the language of Kashmir was the language of Loka Prakash for centuries, including the Moghul period. This book was written in Sanskrit and had been current in the society from the 5th Century B.C. up to the 16th Century A.D. for more than 2000 years. Of course during the time when the rule of Islam was established in Kashmir, a few words of Arabic and Persian entered into Loka Prakash but its language remained the same, namely Sanskrit.

Even in modern times there have been Muslim scholars and lovers of Sanskrit. It is significant that when the bill on the National Language of India was being discussed in the Constituent Assembly, soon after independence, it was a Muslim, Shri Najiruddin Ahmed, who proposed that the national language of India should be Sanskrit. He asked rhetorically, “If you have to adopt a language, why should you not have the world’s greatest language?” He also quoted Dr. Shaidullah, Professor of Dhaka University and a great Sanskrit scholar, as saying, “Sanskrit is the language of every man, to whatever race he may belong.”

Is Sanskrit a Dead and Difficult Language?

Whenever there is a demand for Sanskrit as the national language it is met with the opposition: ‘How can a dead language be the national language of a country?’

In the words of Professor Lakshmikanta Maitra, “I know it will be said that it is a dead language. But dead to whom? Dead to you, because you have become dead to all sense of grandeur. You have become dead to all that is great and rich in your own culture and civilisation. You have been chasing the shadow and never tried to grasp the substance which is contained in your great literature. If Sanskrit is dead, may I say that Sanskrit is ruling us from her grave. Nobody can get away from Sanskrit in India.”

“To call Sanskrit dead is only to utter a cheap slogan. Even Sangam Tamil is dead, even Tulasi’s Hindi is dead; Sanskrit is not so dead as even these. It can be denied only by one who makes bold to deny the roots of a tree, the ether that pervades us on every side, or our inner being, merely because these are not visible to the eyes. When the great philologists and scholars of computational linguistics wholeheartedly accept Sanskrit as the best and most scientific language of the world, on what basis can one say that Sanskrit is a dead language? One should always remember that a natural language never dies. It is the artificially created language that dies. Sanskrit being a natural language, there is no question of its death. It is alive in the heart and mind of the people of India.” As Professor Sampurnananda has said, ‘Sanskrit is not merely alive, it is also a medicine to make the dead alive.’

To be an official language it is not necessary that the language should be the language of the masses. Today we have English as an official language of India and we have fought for it. It is the language of only the intelligentsia, and has been accepted in the Constitution as the official language of the Union. In that way Sanskrit has always been the language of the intelligentsia in India. Sir William Jones carried out extensive researches in 1786 and came to the conclusion that for a long time Sanskrit was the language of administration for courts and used for other official purposes. The University Education Commission presided over by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, later the President of India, came to the conclusion that “Sanskrit was all the time the lingua-franca of the world of learning in India, and this position it has held all the time in India.”

There are thousands of Sanskrit institutions in India and abroad engaged in research on Sanskrit and in its propagation. Almost all universities in India have departments of Sanskrit. There are special Sanskrit universities, colleges and schools where Sanskrit is taught through Sanskrit only. Most of the high schools in India offer Sanskrit as an optional subject. Every year hundreds of research theses are prepared by Sanskrit scholars. Sanskrit magazines and journals are being published by many institutions, and number over a thousand at present. Thousands of people use this language as their mother tongue. News in Sanskrit is broadcast by All India Radio and by Delhi Doordarshan and has many listeners.

There are some villages like Matur in Shimoga district in Karnataka where several people from all walks of life communicate in Sanskrit only. A number of original writings in Sanskrit are created every year. The Sanskrit scholars of this country are tirelessly engaged in bringing out original works in Sanskrit in every field. Every year many prestigious awards are given to outstanding scholars in the field of research, translations and original writings in Sanskrit. How then can one say that Sanskrit is dead?

Hebrew appeared to be a dead language for a long time in Israel. It was mainly the language of study and prayer. The people of Israel realized its value and made efforts to revive it. And due to their deep love and interest, it successfully became their national language in a short time. Now Hebrew is a language of the day-to-day life of the people of Israel. This should be our spirit as regards Sanskrit. Sri Aurobindo warns that “…it will not be a good day for India when the ancient tongue ceases entirely to be written or spoken.”

As for the difficulty of learning, this is not something peculiar to Sanskrit. “To decry it as difficult is to practice a vibhiIaka [scare-crow] before the young and unthinking. There is no language whose learning is easy. People in Tamil Nadu know how difficult it is to learn Hindi. To them Sanskrit is much easier. If they can learn the broken syllables of Hindi, why can they not, with less labour, learn the fuller, and more perfect Sanskrit itself! There is an illuminating passage in Tagore’s Reminiscences, where the poet records the reactions to his teaching Bengali to Scot girls, and says with reference to the erratic nature of English pronunciation, that the difficulties of one language are the same as those of another and that habit blinds one to those of his own. In a recent address Professor S.K. Belvelkar pointed out that considering the success that a totally foreign language like English, with all its tricks of pronunciation, had in India, it should be very easy for Sanskrit to succeed.”

Furthermore, Sanskrit itself provides us many clues and possibilities of simplification, which can make it very easily a language of daily use and mass communication. It is not necessary to enter into the details of this work here, but there is already a vast amount of literature available on this subject. It is therefore both strange and sad to see the lack of understanding about the importance and value of Sanskrit in India itself, and the lack of interest in its study and learning. When Prof. Sheldon Pollock of the University of Chicago was asked why one should study Sanskrit, he replied, “It is indicative of the appalling quality of the public discourse on Sanskrit in India today that you even ask this question.” And Prof. Richard Gombrich who holds the Boden Chair at Oxford says, “The reasons for studying Sanskrit today are the same as they ever were: that the vast array of Sanskrit texts preserves for us a valuable part of the cultural heritage of mankind, including much beautiful literature and many interesting, even fascinating, ideas.”
(Compiled from the book “The Wonder that is Sanskrit” authored by Sampad and Vijay)