Sanskrit, Sans Speakers


Celebrating 10 Years of the Jaipur Literature Festival

Harish Alagappa, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


agním īḷe puróhitaṃ

yajñásya devám r̥tvíjam

hótāraṃ ratnadhā́tamam

These are words from the Bronze Age, which have been uttered, and continue to be uttered, by Hindu priests for the last three and a half thousand years. The verses are an exhortation to Agni, the God of Fire, and open the Rig Veda, a collection of hymns and epic poems that form the foundation of what is now known as Hinduism. Composed sometime during the second millennium BCE, the Rig Veda is the earliest extant piece of literature in Sanskrit, the progenitor of almost all the languages spoken today in Northern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal.

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While it is still a controversial idea in India; most historians, linguists, archaeologists, and anthropologists across the world now agree that Sanskrit was the language of a large group of Proto Indo Europeans who migrated into the Indian subcontinent sometime during the second millennium BCE. From these people and their language came ideas, culture, and a belief system that, whilst undergoing numerous changes in the succeeding millennia, is still held in reverence by over a billion people today. To most Indians today, Sanskrit is the cloth on which the rich and varied tapestry of culture and ideas that form the Hindu tradition has been embroidered. Thus, one can deduce that the primary reason for the existence of a controversy at all is that many Indians still see the Proto Indo European migration theory as an attempt by their erstwhile European colonizers to place the genesis of this Hindu tradition to a location outside the Indian subcontinent, as if it somehow invalidates all the subsequent glories and failures of Hindu culture.

Sanskrit is seen by many Indians as not just a holy language, but as an almost perfect language, possessing a clear, unambiguous, and logical series of rules that is as flexible as it is structured. Yet, for all this reverence, Sanskrit is hardly, if ever, used as a medium of communication among Indians today. According to the 2011 Indian census; less than 20,000 people in India speak Sanskrit as a first language. While it is taught to millions of young people as a third language in Indian schools, it is an open secret among students that the Sanskrit elective is an easy way to score high marks by memorizing the basic rules of grammar. If you were to ask most Indian students who scored 100% in their Sanskrit board exams to actually conduct a conversation in the language, chances are high that they would not be able to discuss anything close to the kind of complex ideas that the language has historically been used to expound.

Efforts by Sanskrit revivalists to try to bring the language back to life have not seen very successful results. These revivalists often give the example of how Israel brought Hebrew back into popular parlance to illustrate that such a revival is possible, but despite their efforts, most Sanskrit speakers in India today are either Hindu priests or academics. There are a few Indian villages that have tried and succeeded at making Sanskrit their lingua franca, as it were, but the residents of these villages are decidedly multilingual, as they would still need to speak another language while communicating with people from outside their community. The utility of a language is evident in the number of people who speak it, and while Sanskrit is a language whose structure and history imbibe with an inimitable sense of beauty; one must not forget that even during ancient times, it was never the language of the masses.

Within a few centuries of the composition and the codification of the Rig and the other Vedas and its companion commentaries, the Upanishads; Sanskrit was almost exclusively the language of the elites, used primarily only in religious ceremonies and for occasions of social and political importance. The Vedas and Upanishads were composed in a language now referred to as Vedic Sanskrit; but within a few centuries of their final composition between around 1000 to 800 BCE, the great Indian epic poems of the Mahabharata and Ramayana were already being composed in a form of Sanskrit that is now referred to as Classical Sanskrit. This is the language whose grammatical rules were codified by the great grammarian and possibly the world’s first information theorist, Panini, in the fourth century BCE. By the time of Panini, Prakrit was already the language of the common person, and Sanskrit had already been isolated to the tongues and minds of the elites.

Sanskrit has a history of being held in great respect by the people of the Indian subcontinent while never quite being popular enough to emerge as the language of the masses. In this light, Sanskrit revivalists appear to be fighting against the tides of history and popular opinion. Yet, I would advocate that they keep trying, for a language as beautiful as Sanskrit deserves to last through the ages.

As the Jaipur Literature Festival enters its 10th year, some of the world’s leading writers and historians will explore the fascinating history and uncertain future of Sanskrit.

On the 19th, Mellon Fellow of Religious Studies at Stanford University and author of Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, Audrey Truschke will be in conversation with Kavita Singh, Professor of Art History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, to investigate the social, political, and cultural history of Sanskrit in Mughal India.

On the 21st, panellists James Mallinson (Senior Lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical and Indian Studies, University of London), S.R. Bhatt (Chairman of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research), and Sudha Gopalakrishnan (Mission Director, National Mission for Manuscripts) explore the ‘Pleasures and Perfections of Sanskrit’. Later the same day, eminent Sanskrit scholars A.N.D. Haksar and Bibek Debroy discuss the life, works, and genius of Kalidasa, perhaps the greatest poet and playwright of Sanskrit literature.

And on the 22nd, Sanskrit scholars Bibek Debroy and Pushpesh Pant discuss the history and legacy of another great Sanskrit text, the Puranas, with James Mallinson.

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