The Wonder that is Sanskrit|Sep 3, 2006 11:52 AM| by:

To Speak or Not to Speak?

“If you have to adopt a language, why not adopt the world’s greatest language?” (1)

A striking suggestion in favour of Sanskrit which unfortunately went unheeded. Ironically, there were those at the time, amongst the decision-makers, the builders of Modern India who shared this view, but lacked the foresight, lacked the courage. The vernaculars had set deep into the machinery of each community. English had taken precedence over the entire world. Our people wanted to be part of that world and part of their own community. The rift on the basis of caste and religion, language and land had already begun. The people conceded to two – their own tongue and the international binder.

And so ignored, our language of the gods already in the shadows was now relegated to the annals of history, to the vestiges of the past, the treasure chest firmly closed, the padlock inserted. But by grace and fortune, the key remained unturned. The key, which could have shrouded the luminescence of Sanskrit into musty darkness, forgot to do its job and left the chest unguarded, open to those who were curious enough to walk up and dip their hands into the gems, every once in a while.

Some of these gems proved more precious than one had imagined. Our adventurous souls, instead of pocketing them in silence, did the unexpected. They exposed them to the world; they shone the spotlight and the world saw, the glitter of these priceless stones. And that’s how, in bits and pieces, India restored some of her history, gave to herself some memories to ponder on, drew pictures that depicted the cultures of yore, let out fragrances of the pressed flowers, and made some of her children, a heart here, a soul there, swell with pride.

The others disparaged their histories and coldly asserted, ‘Sanskrit is a dead language’.

Dead? If Sanskrit is dead, so must India be dead. If Sanskrit is dead, then we have to put our beautiful poetry and their creators into a single grave. We have to bury Magha and Kalidasa, Vyasa and Valmiki; we have to throw in Bana, Jonaraja, Panini, Kalhana, Bhavabhuti, Jayadeva and dozens of others. We have to stop telling our children stories of Bhima and Duryodhana, Rama and Sita. We have to stop believing in the gospel of Truth shared by Krishna in the ‘Gita’; we have to shun the sounds of worship as the priest chants into the night. We have to throw into the grave our lofty ideal of satyamev jayate (truth alone triumphs). How can a language, as living as this be dead?

“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 civilization. You have been chasing the shadow and never stopped 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.” (2)

This language is ours and flows through our blood and our soil. It has woven us the most intricate and delicate embroideries of its varied literature, which has no religion, no caste, no creed. By using it in temples, it does not become Hindu. Ayurveda is an ancient system of medicine, whose texts have been inscribed in Sanskrit does that make it a Hindu form of treatment? The ‘Natyashastra’ is an actor’s bible, a dancer’s guide. It is in Sanskrit. Does it mean a non-Hindu cannot gain from its immense wealth of knowledge?

Innumerable non-Hindus over the ages have used this language as a means of communication and expression, not to mention research and further academic exploration.

The country has been subjected to the unqualified and incompetent judgement from those who were entirely alien to the way she breathed and bore her children. It is little wonder then that these ill-equipped doctors prescribed the worst remedies for her festering wounds and what could have beautifully healed, leaving not even the hint of a scar, instead became a deep blemish that spread through her entire body. The politically motivated of pre-independence and the politically motivated of independent India are two extremes that share a different motive but have struck the same result. Division. Localization. Disharmony. Segregation. Hostility. All playing a tug of war with Sanskrit.

True, Sanskrit is difficult, but no more than any other language. Besides, is it not a slap on the face of one’s conscience that we have to run away from something merely because it is ‘difficult’? Instead, a solution can always be found and something of such immense value, saved from becoming a member of the extinct species… “it must get rid of the curse of the heavy pedantic style contracted by it in its decline, with the lumbering impossible compounds and the overweight of hair-splitting erudition.”(Sri Aurobindo)

Ironically, when a foreign letter of commendation eulogises about the goodness of our literature, extolling in a particular case that “there is no poetical representation of womanhood or of more beautiful a life in the whole of Greek antiquity that might reach the ‘Shakuntala’ even from a distance”(3) or that the ‘Gita’ “is the only true philosophical poem which we can find in all the literature known to us,”(4) then a miraculous turn of events takes place in our psyche and suddenly we begin to laud our previously ignored language as something unique in the world of literature, divine in origin and priceless in content! Even such hypocrisy sometimes works to our benefit, for it stalls us in the act of turning the key.

The biggest hindrance that now lies in its path is of unskilled tutors, for this breed of instructors can do more harm than gambled for. They can nip in the bud the growing affinity towards the language. They can paint a drab and dull, jaundiced sketch of all that is Sanskrit, instead of letting Sanskrit itself draw out its own colourful portrait. In order for Sanskrit to capture the hearts of the young and unprejudiced minds, it is imperative that the knowledge is imparted not by languid attitudes but by fiery enthusiasm.

The regional languages fare no better and are themselves slowly losing their hold upon the people. It seems as if a smattering is all that one needs to get by and hence a deeper probe is done away with. One can be Gujarati or Bengali and still not know any of its literature. This is because our schools no longer put emphasis on the mother tongue but instead on English, which, although necessary, at the end of the day is still a poor replacement for our culture.

We drink greedily from the fountain of European Literature. We can quote readily Homer and Virgil, Dante and Goethe. We produce plays by Shakespeare and Brecht. But who was Kamban and who was Chandidas? Why cannot we quote from our favourite poet of all times: Kalidasa? Poetry of Shelley and Keats stimulates the senses. But are Kabir’s dohas any less? Do the likes of Tiruvalluvar and Tukaram not give us enough food for thought? We prescribe to the religious teachings of our new-age gurus. Why not go a little deeper to the inspiration of the guru, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita?

The average Indian is all too familiar with the stories of the epics. They have been passed on ceaselessly over the centuries, from parent to child, by word and song. But it is only a few in a nation full of people that have taken the trouble to read the texts in the original language. It is no wonder then that one is faced with a blank repartee when the genius of the style is brought into the forefront of a debate. Television and regional interpretations have undoubtedly popularized the epics in ways that were unimaginable; for the reigning chaos of modern times, it is but a blessing to have the wisdom and knowledge, the subtle and bold suggestions of nobility of character and aspirations for the Divine reach out to the general populace. But unfortunately, while striving towards a wider wingspan, we have inadvertently cut short the flight to the heavens that one takes on reading the works in their original tongue. There is an essence, an innate potency, an immense power, a subtle magic that resides in the heart of the Sanskrit word, particularly one which has arrived with its baggage of Truth and Insight. This in most part is lost in the multilingual renditions of the epics.

“Its (Sanskrit’s) great power lies in bringing body, mind and spirit into harmonic alignment. Physically, its resonating power promotes healing. Mentally it awakens the natural brightness, agility and order of the mind. Spiritually, it facilitates an expansion of awareness, tranquillity and bliss…there is no other language which models life itself so perfectly as Sanskrit. No other language in fact even begins to approach the power which Sanskrit has to penetrate to the very heart of life.” (5)

To remedy this one drawback we could use these masterworks themselves as the agents and channels by which we can teach our children the ancient tongue. This would serve as the most convenient, most appropriate and most ideal solution to the present case of lacking enthusiasm for Sanskrit and the inevitable loss of beauty of the epic content. And if one argues that the epics speak the language of the Hindus, then answer this – what is Hindu about aspiring to be the perfect man? Rama is a universal figure, not restricted to any sect or creed and certainly not the exclusive right only of those who call themselves Hindus. If some choose to elevate him to the position of a God, if some choose to worship him, then that is their prerogative; the rest can merely aspire for the phenomenal qualities of our epic heroes.

To learn Sanskrit, one doesn’t have to dip into the mystic wells of the Vedas or commit to memory the endless permutations and combinations that the grammar offers. Just a taste, one that leaves not an evanescent flavour but one that lingers for all time to come. Sanskrit has the ability to do so, for, “Sanskrit is the language of every man to whatever race he may belong.” (6)

Without Sanskrit, India is without a past, without a culture, without a soul.
Without a soul, where would we be?

“…it will not be a good day for India when the ancient tongue ceases entirely to be written or spoken.”-Sri Aurobindo

  (This excerpt has been taken from the book, Of Past Dawns and Future Noons by Shonar)

    1. Shri Najiruddin Ahmed, ex Member of Parliament
    2. Professor Lakshmikanta Maitra
    3. Schiller
    4. Wilhelm von Humbolt
    5. Anonymous
    6. Dr. Shaidullah, Professor of Dhaka University