Sanskrit & the democracy of language

The claim to “save” Sanskrit is nothing but part of a manipulative conspiracy to limit and control languages under the canopy of Hindutva   
Image Courtesy: Soumyadip Sinha / The New Indian Express

Language is not just a medium to connect people. Language is closely intertwined with territorial identities, often exposing political schisms within society.

In the wake of attempts to polarise public-opinion, the current government has shown an inclination towards Sanskrit but the controversy around this language subsists around the suppression of the lower-castes. Despite the spellbinding and beautiful sounds of the character set, we cannot ignore the widespread prejudiced parameters, social stigmas, educational subjugation of lower-castes and some bigoted tendencies evident in the processes of appointment of Sanskrit teachers, professors or pandita (scholars) in temples.

Fundamentally, a language is meant to develop the freedom of expression and imagination, and provide a space for diverse thoughts. The snag of Sanskrit is not caused by the profound and flamboyant entity of the dialectal showground but through the discriminatory approaches of a particular sect.

Academics and historians have emphasised the primeval roots of Sanskrit with other ancient Indo-European languages. Apart from an enhanced vocabulary and mesmerising tenor it preserves a strong scientific and reflective grammatical pattern which matches with that of Persian structural arrangement. The initial Greek, Latin and Persian and the contemporary modern languages like English, Spanish, French & German, both have the imprints, traces and essence of Sanskrit. Hindi is not quite close enough in the match.

Today, in Hindi, English and south-Indian languages, we use many Sanskrit words on an everyday basis. For instance, the English words like ‘Mother’, ‘Father’, ‘Brother’, ‘Path’, ’Yoga’, ‘Mantra’ have been directly taken from the ‘Matra’, ‘Pitra’, ‘Bhrata’, ‘Patha’, ‘Yoga’ and ‘Mantra’, which also bear a similarity to the parallel terms in Hindi dictionary. Then what has led to the dismantling of the “divine” Sanskrit?

On August 31, 2023 PM Narendra Modi requested the Indian public to tweet in Sanskrit language to celebrate World Sanskrit Day. Does Sanskrit symbolise Hindutva? Does Modi really believe in the democracy of language? Do contemporary promotion techniques to boost Sanskrit really respect the ideas of equality and justice? Or is this just one more diversionary tactic to sow confusion and affect voting-behaviour?

Despite preserving its place among mother-languages, Sanskrit is nearly irrelevant in everyday life.

According to the prominent Urdu author and researcher Gopi Chand Narang, languages which exclude the impression of other pertinent languages and don’t change with the times get diminished. It is precisely this orthodox approach towards other languages and a prejudicial urge towards dominance by a particular community that can turn out to be a slow poison. In contrast, a growth- aptitude can flourish the flow of expressive- strength! So, who slayed Sanskrit? …. Those who play the politics of words!

It’s also crucial to take note of the current chauvinist trends regarding the alleged ‘purity’ of the Hindi- language which highlights the Sanskrit-oriented approach by prohibiting Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali expressions, words and epithets nor the influence of the south-Indian languages. All through the initial phases of her literary career, the famous Hindi author Krishna Sobti was asked to remove Punjabi- words from her writing, by Rajkamal Prakashan. She refused to do so.

The fresh scars of the Sanskrit skirmish  

The past has witnessed numerous such brutal incidents when Dalits have faced humiliating violence and the incidents of caste-based slurs & derogatory terms for simply reading the Sanskrit scriptures. Even after independence, when untouchability has been declared illegal; by the Constitution, people have faced several such incidents and the drive continues till now! In November, 2019, a controversy over the appointment of a Muslim professor Feroze Khan at the Sanskrit department in Benares Hindu University (BHU) broke out. At the end of the attacks, he was forced to resign and change his faculty. Similarly, in September 2022 a Dalit Sanskrit teacher at a government school of Barabanki, Uttar-Pradesh got mistreated by staff. A staff-member cut his choti (A segment of hair on the head-top known as a symbol of Brahman-roots) in order to degrade him for his choice of language!

According to The Hindu, there are around 14,000 people in India who treasure the remnants of Sanskrit in their own regional dialects. Most of them are locals from the states of Uttar-Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana & Uttarakhand. Hence, a country which celebrates the diversity of culture and language, the sense of dominance over a language seems ridiculous. The claim of nourishing a supremacy of ideas is even more abhorrent. Those who see Sanskrit as a pious language need to raise their voice against the attacks on the very entity of the language and with a belief in the democratic right to education.

The wounds of a Vedic past

Manusmriti, a significant scripture –read dominant caste Hindu dogma—has, arguably, played a dominant role in building the foundation of such classifications by dividing people in four separate parts and deciding their roles, limits and contributions. We have the story of Karna and Eklavya who faced snags in acquiring appropriate education, despite their bursting passion for education. Some Vedic texts speak of the hegemony of Brahmans over Shastra (Theology).  A Shudra (ST/SC) who dares even touch the holy scriptures was considered blasphemous who earnt inhumane and violent punishments.

Sanskrit language educational institutions, schools and universities are still governed by upper-caste Hindus and this dominance is the real obstacle in the linguistic growth of Sanskrit. As the promoter of this ancient language has or will the government remedy this exclusivity?

Attempts to impinge on linguistic rights

India has 22 official languages protected under the VIIIth schedule of the Indian Constitution. This government has shown, however, a distinct partiality for Sanskrit and Hindi. The slogan of  ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’, has been ill-received especially with Kannada, Bengali and Urdu speakers. Southern states have spoken sharply against Hindi supremacy.

Custodians of ‘Shastra’(Scriptures) do not merely limit Sanskrit’s growth but damage the country’s plurality and cultural harmony.

The possibilities

Citizens and netizens, both, need to understand these manipulative political tactics Twitter-trends, however flashy, can never calculate, estimate or wipe away the marks of the past. What we need is fair and equal treatment of all languages in the VIIIth schedule, diversity not uniformity. This will ensure an inclusive  freedom of both expression and equality.


Can Sanskrit ever be India’s national language?

Assam to shut down gov’t run madrasas, Sanskrit tols?




Related Articles