Who killed Sanskrit?

Our own language

Read Kalidasa in Sanskrit and I dare say, you'll find even the great Bard of Avon inadequate on many fronts. Dandi's 'Urubhangam' and Bharavi's 'Kiratarjuniya' can eclipse the best of the literature of the rest of the world. But in this age of smartphones and WhatsApp, learning Sanskrit sounds anachronistic to Indians.

In this age of rabid linguistic chauvinism, do we care for our ancient and most perfect language, Sanskrit? While teaching Persian and Sanskrit at the world-renowned Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune, I often wonder why no Indian student ever evinces interest in learning this magnificent language that has given birth to at least 36 modern languages, including German, Russian, Polish and a raft of Slav and Scandinavian tongues. We talk incessantly about nationalism and restoring our rich past but are reluctant when it comes to learning Sanskrit.

Being a polyglot, knowing all Semitic tongues and a bunch of European languages, I'm of the opinion that Sanskrit is a mine of wisdom. Its grammar is so scientific and methodical that once you understand Panini's 'Ashtadhyayi', 'Siddhantkaumudi ' and 'Varna-vichara,' not only Sanskrit but innumerable subcontinental as well as occidental languages become easier to learn. The word Sanskrit originated from 'Sans' and ' Krit.' 'Sans' means 'something done in totality', 'Krit' means' an accomplished piece or task.' Sanskrit, therefore, is an accomplished language in its totality. There's no ambiguity in it. Semantically and phonetically, Sanskrit is a complete language without a trace of structural obscurity.

English Orientalist Sir Monier Williams called it “the only finished language among all existing and extinct tongues.” It's heart-warming to see youngsters from Europe learn and master the language. When they start conversing in it without any error, one is happy that the language is still not dead and is in safe hands, though almost dead in the country of its origin!

And that saddens me no end. Our ancient and Vedic literature is in Sanskrit but hardly anyone knows it. Read Kalidasa in Sanskrit and I dare say, you'll find even the great Bard of Avon inadequate on many fronts. Dandi's 'Urubhangam' and Bharavi's 'Kiratarjuniya' can eclipse the best of the literature of the rest of the world. But in this age of smartphones and WhatsApp, learning Sanskrit sounds anachronistic to Indians. Alas, we've enough time for petty linguistic and religious disputes, but no time for the revival of our great language.

Readers will empathise with me and feel pity that when I teach and conduct workshops for elementary and advanced Sanskrit at different varsities in India, only old scholars of Sanskrit come and even they are now few and far between. Youngsters don't even come anywhere close by, as if Sanskrit were a plague or a pariah.

The world’s three top universities – Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard -- have Sanskrit departments that are centuries old. British universities (Oxford, Cambridge and the School of Oriental and African Studies, London), German (Heidelberg, Berlin among others) and American universities (Yale, Syracuse, etc) have been involved in the study of Sanskrit for long. Columbia University in New York and Indiana University have very old departments of Sanskrit where the language is taught at a functional level. The famous poet and scholar A K Ramanujan honed his Sanskrit at Indiana University. Oxford's Sanskrit department had held our second President S Radhakrisnan spellbound, causing him to bemoan the casual treatment it received in India.

There were at least 27 active centres of advanced learning of Sanskrit at universities and colleges in India just after Independence. Now, no one studies the language, and without enough people knowing it, a huge corpus of untranslated Sanskrit works are still languishing in the ‘godowns’ of different universities.

Professors of Sanskrit at Indian universities are just whiling away their time while getting hefty salaries. They themselves can't speak or write correct Sanskrit. Their written and colloquial Sanskrit is not just stale, it's wanting on all counts. At five universities in India, Sanskrit is officially taught in Hindi or other vernaculars, not in Sanskrit! Can there be a bigger irony than this?

And it's hardly in school curriculum. Teachers who teach Sanskrit know it so inadequately that they teach it through Hindi, Marathi and the respective state languages. Students opting for Sanskrit write their papers in Hindi and other tongues and get full marks! Students opt for Sanskrit, and parents encourage it, to get very high marks. It's called a 'scoring' subject!

I remember I got an invite from Darbhanga Sanskrit College in 2006. The invitation card seemed to have been written by a student who had just started learning the language. I was shocked to be told that the principal, said to be a Sanskrit 'scholar', had himself written it. The language was not just immature, it was fraught with grammatical errors.

On the contrary, when I interact with European professors of Sanskrit and ancient oriental languages, especially professors from Oxford and Cambridge, I marvel at their knowledge of Sanskrit and their dedication to exploring its vistas. Wendy Doniger, the American scholar of Sanskrit and Indian Mythology, speaks effortlessly in modern, colloquial and Vedic variants of Sanskrit.

There's so much to be learnt from Sanskrit books, tomes and treatises, yet there's no proper grant sanctioned for it by the UGC and the government. The attitude is, what does one get by learning an obsolete language? Will it get you a job? I've got fed up with these refrains in India.

Why hasn't a collective endeavour been made to educate people about the greatness of a language that still has the potential to become a universal lingua-franca? The great Kannada scholar Kuvempu called Sanskrit 'universal knowledge' and considered it to be the only flawless tongue among all extinct and existing languages. He said that excellent command of Sanskrit could enable the speaker to learn other languages easily and quickly. The enunciation of Sanskrit's composite words paves the way for learning a plethora of languages. But who cares? We've already written a dirge on Sanskrit's demise, read out the requiem.

(The writer is a scholar of Sanskrit and Semitic languages, civilizations and literature)

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