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Living outside heritage - Who's afraid of Sanskrit? - The Indian Express

Bharat Gupta ()
November 20, 1998

Title: Living outside heritage - Who's afraid of Sanskrit?
Author: Bharat Gupta
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: November 20, 1998

Nearly two thousand years ago, a poet commented on the Indian
scene: "Intellectuals are engaged in envious quarrels, rulers
are intoxicated by arrogance, the people are burdened with lack
of education and so Good Speech is weak and emaciated." It is not
difficult to imagine that, there have been repeated moments of
darkness in our history. The morning of the Education Ministers'
Conference was not the first, or else the lines of Bhartrihari
would not have seemed so contemporary. The ancient poet could
make do with word subhashitam or "good speech" as it was then an
accepted synonym of "learning", "knowledge", vani, vak or even
Saraswati. There obtained then enough poetic taste to personify
or deify speech, music or wealth. Long after Bhartrihari, even
the Muslim poets sighed for God.

But this was well before the nineteenth century when
Enlightenment came to us and much before we were bitten by the
bug of secularist-iconoclasm. In the conference, if it had been
a matter of objection to preferential treatment to a Hindu
goddess, there could have been a demand for including in the
ceremony verses in praise of the knowledge or the Word from the
Bible, the Koran or the Granth Sahib. But the disease is deeper.
It has taken the form of turning away from one's own heritage and
disregarding spiritual and ethical commitments that ancient and
medieval vehicles of all religions and cultures symbolised.

India alone excels in belittling its classical heritage as it has
unfortunately codified it as its "Hindu past". This
classification began in the colonial period when non-European
cultures were primarily seen in religious denominations as non-
Christian coloured races further divided into two broad
categories, primitive and static cultures. Within the western
world these approaches were countered first by orientalists and
later by modernists. both opponents of Newtonian rationalism. The
orientalist contributed to the discovery of the East by the West.
In spite of the orientalisits, administrators like Macaulay
forged for India an education system which had little or marginal
place, not only for Sanskrit literature, but for all the
traditional arts and sciences.

This dichotomy continued well into the semi-century of
independence and flourishes strong as ever. Even now, on one side
we have the Indologists with unquestioned faith in the growth of
native culture, and on the other hand we have the socialists,
rationalists, scientificists, pluralists and globalists equally
assured of its auto-built resilience and auto-generative
capacity. But neither side thinks that a formal educative system
should have any role to play in the formation of culture. For
them, as for Macaulay, culture can be extra-curricular.

The problem of giving Sanskrit its due place in Indian education
is, therefore, not just a matter of giving concession to a
particular language. It is the task of using five thousand years
of all the textual wealth produced in this subcontinent. And all
who believe that these texts, the bulk being in Sanskrit. are
riot required for maintenance of cultural identity have little
knowledge of civilisational rise and decline in history.
Regarding classical heritage and Sanskrit, in particular, there
are many misconceptions.

For instance, it is necessary to get rid of the notion (for some
a phobia, for others a faith) that Sanskrit is the language of
Hindus for promotion of Hinduism. The European Christians created
a great Renaissance from heathen Greek and Latin texts which led
them eventually to establish cultural equations with many other
ancient languages and develop modern philology. But in India it
is presumed that the study of Sanskrit, far from generating a
utility for its texts along with those of Prakrits, Persian and
Arabic, will only result in their devaluation. So much for
looking at history with religious spectacles only.

Indifference to Sanskrit and other classical languages is
nurtured in no small measure by the bias of Indian Anglophiles
who live under the illusion that availability of ancient texts in
English translations is sufficient for an understanding of
ancient ways of thought and feeling. They admire orientalists but
forget that the orientalist enterprise was not to inform the
Indian readers but to interpret a colonised culture for
proselytising and governance. They also forget that no culture
can do things for another culture; one has to seek meaning in
one's own past oneself. For those anglophiles who may doubt this
even after Edward Said's work on orientalism, one may remind them
of T.S. Eliot's dictum that ancient texts have to he studied and
translated not only by each culture but by each generation of a
culture. So what Max Mueller did for Europeans needs to be done
by Indians for themselves today.

In a combative contrast to the secular berating of Sanskrit,
there is the Hindutva dream that Sanskrit can be taught like a
work-out at the gymnasium. It is presumed that if pupils are
subjected to its role for five to seven years at school, the
language shall be widely understood and read and even spoken in a
couple of generations. There could be no surer way of doubling
its pitiful state by making it a target of aversion ofthe common
man who still holds the language in distant respect.

Enhancing contemporary utility of ancient and medieval texts
should be the aim of bringing them into the curriculum at all
levels from school to college. It means revision of curriculum
and expansion of resources for interdisciplinary participation.
Instead of compulsion there should be a wide choice for the young
to familiarise themselves with traditional arts and disciplines.
What needs to terminated is the artificial gap created between
the lived culture and the pedagogic role-model of global
yuppyism. These measures require sustained efforts and careful
planning and they can make classical learning arid Sanskrit
worthwhile rather than an object of pious obeisance. They can
make it a useful passport for a sizable modem educated class to
travel through many ages of Indian history and check things for

(The writer is an associate professor of English at Delhi

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