A Role For Sanskrit

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 17 January 2021

Over the past few years I have travelled extensively in India. One year ago, I also started learning Sanskrit. One of the outcomes of these two experiences is this post about a possible role for Sanskrit in India.

Sanskrit manuscript, Library of Congress, USA

My travels and the experience of learning Sanskrit have made me rethink some of my older ideas about languages in India, leading to this post.

My Sanskrit Learning & Travels in India

I had studied Sanskrit in the middle school in Delhi for 3 years, more than 50 years ago. At that time, learning Sanskrit and to some extent, being good in Hindi, were already perceived as social markers of being backwards, while English-speaking was seen as superior.

I was a science student in the school, so my opportunities for learning about Indian history and ancient literature were limited. While I had travelled the world, my knowledge of India, apart from the big metropolitan cities, was limited to some rural communities, especially in Karnataka, which I had visited extensively for my work. After living abroad for 3 decades, in 2014, I had shifted to India for a couple of years and while living in Guwahati, I had travelled widely in the north-east. Since then, I have been exploring different states of India, travelling mostly by ordinary buses and trains. One of my favourite recent travels by buses was in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Another favourite journey was following the east coast down from Chennai to Kanyakumari and then up along the west coast to Mangalore and Goa.

These travels have been accompanied with reading about its history and culture. Finally, in 2019, I signed for a distance Sanskrit learning course, which is still going on. My teacher Y. N. Rao is an octogenarian retired official, who has been teaching Sanskrit for many years. With my increasing skills in Sanskrit, slowly I am trying to get acquainted with Indian literary traditions.

I think that education system in India actively excludes or at least makes it extra hard for young persons coming from less privileged classes from pursuing higher education and progress. At the same time, it affects India's development negatively because so many persons cannot contribute to its progress. This is also due, at least in parts, to a lack of a national language in India.

A National Language for India?

If India has a national language, it will have to ensure that all Indian students learn it. By not having a national language, there is an informal language situation, so that students coming from the Government and municipal schools study in local languages and then they find that for higher education, especially in technical fields, they need to know English. Lack of clarity regarding the national language has meant that the education systems set-up during the colonial rule continue to lay down the norms today, 74 years after independence.

Having a national language would require a huge amount of preparation in terms of having our constitution, our laws, our different working systems, all translated into that language. All the different kinds of university courses, books, scientific journals, academic journals, higher education courses, and all the different Government eco-systems will have to be available in that language. It would require at least a couple of decades of preparatory work to ensure good quality teachers and translators for the national language for the whole country.

Such a massive change can not be made overnight and would require planning, resource allocations, monitoring systems and intermediate mileposts to see if the states are ready for it. So the key question would be, is it worth spending so many resources and making such a big effort in having a national language?

Now, let me explain why I feel how this change is important for India.

English as a National Language?

India is a federal country and at present we have more than 20 official state languages while we do not have a national language. Most work of the national Government, including our constitution and higher judiciary systems is done in English. Most of the higher education, especially in technical fields ranging from anthropology, law and history to sciences, engineering and medicine, is only available in English.

While we lack a national language, we have 2 national communication languages - English and Hindi. If you wish to travel in India, ideally you should know both of these. In most hotels, restaurants and taxis, you can manage with English. If you wish to travel in local buses or autos or buying fish or vegetables in markets, usually you need the local language; however, if you don't know the local language, it is much more likely to be able to make yourself understood in Hindi than in English, even in states like Kerala and Tamilnadu. This may also be due to the presence of migrant labour from the north and the north-east in most tourist places.

For example, I have been travelling widely in Kerala. Most of the nuns and priests running English medium schools all over India are from this State. Yet, try talking to ordinary Keralites in markets and villages, it is not easy to find people speaking good English. Even in a metropolitan city like Kochi, none of the public buses have sign-boards in English. People and organisations dealing with tourists speak English but if you start talking to ordinary persons, its limits become evident. However, being good in English is almost a prerequisite if you want a good job any where in India.

Many would ask - even without a national language, India is managing fine so why do we need it? To answer this question, we need to look at the quality of learning among higher education students who are taught in English. For example, you might take a look at some of the PhD thesis deposited at the Shodhganga archives over the past one decade. Most of the English thesis use a stilted imprecise language and their argumentations about the chosen subjects are frequently weak. Persons who cannot express themselves properly, how are they going to do a quality research in any field?

For an India that sees its destiny as becoming a more developed nation, this means wasting the creative and intellectual powers of millions of our young people by penalising them for their lack of English skills. The 2011 Indian Census showed English was the primary language of about 0.25 million persons, the second language of 83 million, and the third language of another 46 million persons. Thus, it is spoken by around 129 million persons, around 10-12% of the population. Many of them, while they can speak and understand it, do not have enough skills to write an university-level essay in it.

Hindi as India's National Language?

Hindi is spoken or at least understood in large parts of north and central India. However having it as a national language would give an advantage to those persons and millions of Indians living in the 5 southern states do not agree with it.

Sanskrit as India's National Language

If having English as a national language is too difficult while Hindi is not acceptable, what other options are there? I feel that Sanskrit can be an option for the national language of India. There are 3 main reasons for this:

(1) Sanskrit is already familiar to most Indians: Almost all the Indian languages have some links with Sanskrit. In terms of grammar and vocabulary it is more familiar to us and it might be easier for us to learn.

I would not like to minimise the difficulties of learning Sanskrit - it will always be an additional language skill to learn, but hopefully it will be easier than learning English.

(2) Learning Sanskrit can help in the inclusion of marginalised groups: In spite of many efforts to fight against the ill-effects of caste-related discrimination on the most marginalised groups, a large number of persons, especially in small towns and villages, continue to face huge challenges. Not just among Hindus, even converted Christian, Muslim and Sikh groups have been reported to face discriminations.

The affirmative laws such as reservations in education systems have had some positive impact but they also underline and institutionalise the caste origins of persons. Lack of English skills is another social marker of persons from marginalised groups and plays a role in their discrimination.

Fighting against the caste-related discriminations in India is a complex subject. However, I feel that because in many parts of India, the "lower" castes were forbidden to study Sanskrit, by making it our national language and universalising its learning in schools would give a strong social message against caste-based discriminations in rural communities and small towns.

(3) Sanskrit can unite India and Indians: This is probably my weakest argument - Sanskrit is seen as the language of Brahmins. Having it as a national language can be seen as forcing persons of other religions into a Hindu, Jain or Buddhist way of thinking. However, it might also be a way to de-link the language from the religions. This role of language can be reinforced by promoting the translation of other sacred books like the Bible and the Quran in to Sanskrit, to give a message that all religions are as much a part of India as anyone else.

Building National Identities in a Globalised World

Over the past few centuries, starting with steam engines, industrialisation and more recently with the IT revolution, we are increasingly living in a globalised world.

However, as China becomes a dominant world power while the reigning powers of US and the western Europe look for new equilibriums, we are no longer sure of the future directions of the globalisation. Whatever direction globalisation might take in future, as the development of vaccines to fight the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, it is difficult that we can ever go back to a non-globalised world.

While we are increasingly a part of the globalised world, at the same time, we also have a resurgence of local cultures across the world. Network based technologies including the social media are giving powerful instruments to local communities and cultures to reaffirm themselves. Apps like WhatsApp, TikTok, YouTube, FaceBook, Telegram and Twitter help build local communities outside the boundaries of geographical communities. The specific Apps might change but the overall direction of change will be difficult to reverse.

In India it means that languages which were perceived to be weakening because of onslaught of English and Hindi, such as Bhojpuri, Maithili and Avadhi, today have vibrant eco-systems on different platforms helped by the diffusion of smartphones. Not just these major languages which are spoken by millions of persons, but even their numerous local variations today have their own icons followed by thousands of followers. My knowledge about different variations of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada is limited, but I can imagine that they must have also found expressions on social media after decades of decline. This is also an opportunity for safeguarding and strengthening hundreds of languages spoken by different tribal groups across India, which have been lagging behind in the reaffirmation of their identities due to poverty and exclusion from mainstreams.

In this environment of local cultural affirmations, which are going to increase even more in the coming decades, the role of a national language becomes even more important to ensure that India and Indians can play an active role in the new technologies of tomorrow. While English can help us in reaching out to the globalised world, Sanskrit can ensure that all the different groups of Indians, whatever be their religions, castes and social backgrounds, are included in this journey towards progress and prosperity.

Sanskrit in Schools

As a first step, I think that India should promote teaching of 3 languages (Sanskrit, English and the State language) to all school students at least from 6th to 8th standards. I also feel that all the other subjects such as maths, science and history, should be taught in the mother-tongue at least till the 8th standard.

We do not have enough good quality English teachers for teaching in all Governmental schools and the number of good Sanskrit teachers is even less. Thus, such a policy would require preparation along with a road-map.

Conclusions

India needs a national debate about the role and importance of a national language, which can ensure participation and inclusion to as many persons as possible, irrespective of their religions, castes and social backgrounds. While English can be the medium to reach out to the world, Sanskrit may be a better choice to ensure that excluded and marginalised groups can also play an active role in India's development.

Sanskrit manuscript, National Museum, Delhi, India

While we become a part of the globalised world, social media and technological progress are helping us to safeguard our local identities. As we look to the future, Sanskrit can play a role as India's national language, provided that such a transition is planned well in advance, and is accompanied by planning, road-maps and resources. For example, the Government can decide that Sanskrit will be our national language by 2050 - this will give us 30 years to prepare for the change.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
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Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com