The Sanskrit Controversy

Some sixty to forty years ago, the Jan Sangh, precursor of the BJP, was 100% in favour of the replacement of English with a native language. Because the Constituent Assembly had opted (by a single vote) for Hindi rather than Sanskrit as the “link language”, it became a pro-Hindi party, but in their hearts many party members favoured Sanskrit. Both languages are deemed to be promoted now that the BJP is securely in power. Hindi is more freely used in the administration and in the communication between different services or levels of government, though without formally changing the relevant laws. As for Sanskrit, “several of its new cabinet ministers chose to take their oath of office in Sanskrit”, and the language has been celebrated in the schools during a “Sanskrit week”. This special week was reason for a BBC article by Sanjoy Majumder: “Why is Sanskrit so controversial?” (BBC News Asia, 12 August 2014).

Sanskrit and its place in Hindutva

First off, let us be clear about the exact place of Sanskrit. The article says that “many Indian languages, including Hindi, originate from Sanskrit”, and most Indians would agree. Yet, this is not exactly true, and stems from the Aryan Invasion Theory. It holds that the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans invaded India through the Northwest, and later their language differentiated into the present Indo-Aryan languages as they populated most of India’s interior. But in fact, Vedic Sanskrit was only one of the dialects forming a continuum spanning much of the Indus and Ganga basins. Even Classical Sanskrit as codified by Panini is not a straight evolute of Vedic Sanskrit, and has elements from other dialects. Hindi, Bengali, Oriya etc. are daughters of the different dialects closely related to, but different from, Vedic Sanskrit. Anyway, we can agree that Sanskrit represents an older stage of the language group to which Hindi belongs.

Hindi and other vernaculars contains four categories of words: identifiable foreign loans; deshi or native words not obviously related to Sanskrit; tadbhava words or evolutes recognizably related to Sanskrit words; and tatsama or quotation words, literally adopted from Sanskrit. The latter category is mostly common to all Indian languages, including those not cognate to Sanskrit, because they have all been amply influenced by Sanskrit. It embodies the unifying “national” role of Sanskrit, one of the reasons why the government promotes it.

Ideological problems

However, observes Majumder, “India’s new government focus on Sanskrit has sparked a fresh debate over the role language plays in the lives of the country’s religious and linguistic minorities”.

For the pro side, a school principal is quoted as saying: “It’s our mother language, the root of all our languages. All our classical literature, our epic texts like the Ramayana and Mahabharata were written in Sanskrit. All over the world people try to preserve their traditions. Why not in India?” A student adds: “If you know Sanskrit, you can easily understand many Indian languages such as Hindi, Bengali and Marathi.”

On the opposite side, invoking the non-Hindus, an MP for the Tamil-chauvinist party DMK, Mrs. Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, makes the anti case: “Sanskrit is a very Hindu language, it is not used by Christians or Muslims. So why do you want to impose it on everyone? We want an inclusive India, a secular India, an India that belongs to everybody.”

In this case she uses the non-Hindus for an opposition to Sanskrit which she would have anyway, even without the very existence of Christians and Muslims. Many (though not all) native speakers of Tamil, which is unrelated to Sanskrit, oppose Sanskrit because they see it as the language of the invaders. While the Aryan Invasion Theory, which traces Sanskrit to Central Asia, is being challenged, it is at least universally accepted that Sanskrit penetrated Tamil Nadu from the outside, viz. from North India. Historically, Sanskrit was the language of the region around the Yamuna-Saraswati area, including the present capital Delhi. But in large parts of India, Sanskrit was indeed a historical newcomer, even if this happened thousands of years ago. However, it was never a threat to the native languages and has not prevented the genesis of a vast Tamil literature since more than two thousand years ago. Indeed, the first Tamil grammar was calqued on the Sanskrit model, and ideas otherwise vehiculated by the Sanskrit medium were present in the oldest Tamil works too.

Still, Kanimozhi has a point when she refers to Christians and Muslims, because these groups too routinely object to any form of revival of Sanskrit: “many there see the promotion of the language as a move by Hindu nationalist groups to impose their culture on religious and linguistic minorities.” Christians and Muslims have their own scriptural languages. Moreover, they fear that through Sanskrit, Pagan ideas are insinuated into their souls and thus the language threatens the purity of their faith.

But the article admits that “this is an argument that is heavily contested. ‘People have a misunderstanding that it is the language of the Hindus’, says Markandaya Katju, a retired Supreme Court Judge. ‘Ninety-five per cent of Sanskrit literature has nothing to do with religion.’”

Well, that depends on how you define religion. There are Sanskrit treatises on mathematics or astronomy that could pass as “secular”, and the great majority does not deal in dogmas. Yet, in far more than 5% of the Sanskrit texts, and precisely in the most influential ones, the Hindu Gods are venerated, or are at least mentioned here and there. For Christians and Muslims, these are false Gods, demons impersonating the Divine and tempting the faithful into idolatry. There is no denying that most important ideas of Hinduism have been conveyed through Sanskrit. Then again, Christian pupils all through the Christian centuries have studied Latin and Greek, and Christian writers have dotted their poems and essays with references to the Greco-Roman Gods, without ceasing to be Christian. So, for Indian Christians Sanskrit could well be the classical language, and for the Muslims as well. It is a better integrator than decadent Bollywood.

Practical problems

Among the non-ideological arguments against Sanskrit, the article notices that only very few people treat it as a living language: “But Sanskrit is now spoken by less than 1% of Indians and is mostly used by Hindu priests during religious ceremonies. It’s one of the official languages in only one Indian state, Uttarakhand in the north, which is dotted with historical Hindu temple towns. According to the last census, 14,000 people described Sanskrit as their primary language (…) In schools, it is only offered as an optional language, with most students preferring to choose more relevant languages, including French, German and even Mandarin, which are seen as more appropriate in a globalised world.” And most problematically: “It is also often taught very badly.”

Latin is not spoken as a mother tongue by anyone in the West, yet a proper education above the technical level includes Latin. So as a school subject, the low presence of Sanskrit among mother tongues should not be a problem at all. If it were decided, overruling the Constituent Assembly’s choice, that Sanskrit become the pan-Indian language of administration, then of course it would entail a very great leap. Israel managed to make its citizens accept Hebrew as their first language, India will even have great difficulties in making its citizens accept and learn a common second language. But such a step is not on the cards at present. Merely as a school subject, Sanskrit should be a feasible proposition.

Merely as an optional subject, though, Sanskrit is not very popular with the pupils. It is deemed “not useful” in the rat race. This is parallel to the situation in the West, where the classics are also steadily losing ground. But there, Latin is so strongly identified with a good education that most intelligent pupils will sign up for the Latin class. In India, the same thing would happen if the tradition would be raised to its real value again. Instead, a whole culture has come up denigrating everything associated with traditional knowledge. Here is the real problem for Sanskrit-lovers. Meanwhile, getting serious about the three-languages formula would enable educational authorities to make the Sanskrit course, at least for a few years, obligatory.

Finally, a problem for Indian education in general of which Sanskrit classes also suffer, is indeed the low quality of teaching. Especially teachers paid by the state are permanently tempted to just cash their salaries and then underperform. India suffers from a lack of ambition. But this defective will to excellence affects other sections of society too. It even affects the voluntary teaching of Sanskrit, including the so-called “spoken Sanskrit” movement. Lovers of Sanskrit can indeed learn it as a living language. But whereas passive knowledge of the language at least deals with the real classical texts, this active knowledge of Sanskrit aims lower, and usually teaches a watered-down version of Sanskrit, devoid of its grammatical intricacies. What you effectively get is a kind of “hybrid Sanskrit”, a sort of Sanskritized Hindi. While understandable, it is symptomatic for a culture of sloppiness. Once the tradition conveyed through Sanskrit literature gets valued again, people will gladly make the effort of learning proper Sanskrit.

So many movements in history have first been conceived as revivals. Sanskrit has declined, but under new circumstances it may come up again, no matter how unlikely this may seem at present.

The usual hostility

The BBC would not be the BBC, would not be the captive of the secularists in its India reporting, if the article did not contain some hateful insinuations against Hinduism: “But reviving the ancient language, which is so closely linked to Hinduism and Hindu religious texts, has always been a pet project for the BJP, the right-wing party that leads the new Indian government. ‘Sanskrit and Indian culture are intertwined as most of the indigenous knowledge is available in this language’, says a government leaflet sent out ordering schools to observe Sanskrit week. But it is precisely this fusion that is stirring up a new controversy in a country where language politics has always been an emotive and sensitive issue. And while the government says it has no hidden agenda, there are some who wonder if the motive is to educate or to indoctrinate young minds.”

Remedying this hostility, this assumption of evil motives, is not a linguistic problem. For uprooting this anti-Hindu prejudice, a more fundamental change will be necessary.

koenraad_elstKoenraad Elst (°Leuven 1959) studied at the KU Leuven, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Benares Hindu University he began fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism, which he obtained magna cum laude in 1998. He regularly blogs at on issues pertaining to Hinduism today. The above article was reprinted by Hindu Human Rights from Koenraad Elst: Who Is a Hindu?, Delhi 2002.