Whose Sanskrit is it anyway?


A class in session at The Madras Sanskrit College, Chennai. In endeavouring to resurrect Sanskrit in a selective manner in the present, it becomes emblematic of a political culture that has clear designs on the present and the future.

By homogenising India’s past under the arch umbrella of Sanskrit, the plurality of Indian culture and the knowledge systems and cultural expressions produced in other languages will be effectively erased from view for a political agenda that seeks to appropriate not just the present but the past too.

One major aspect of the Narendra Modi government’s National Educational Policy, which has raised quite a few eyebrows, is its rather strident emphasis on Sanskrit. The policy states that along with the other “classical languages”, the importance of which “cannot be overlooked”, Sanskrit “will be offered at all levels of school and higher education as an important, enriching option for students, including as an option in the three-language formula”. It rationalises the decision on the basis that Sanskrit “possesses a classical literature that is greater in volume than that of Latin and Greek put together, containing vast treasures of mathematics, philosophy, grammar, music, politics, medicine, architecture, metallurgy, drama, poetry, storytelling, and more (known as ‘Sanskrit Knowledge Systems’), written by people of various religions as well as non-religious people, and by people from all walks of life and a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds over thousands of years.”

Now, what is wrong with learning a language that has such a long, hoary tradition and is a rich repository of some of the greatest treasures of human thought and expression, some may ask in all innocence. They may add that it is the language from which most Indian languages have either descended or drawn profusely at various crucial points of their development. Some others may venture to say, without being quite sure of their sources or the full veracity of their claim (Whatsapp being the culprit at large), that quite a few Western languages owe their origin to Sanskrit, if not directly, at least indirectly.

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