The Pleasures and Perfections of Sanskrit


James Mallinson, S.R. Bhatt and Sudha Gopalakrishnan in conversation with Vikram Chandra


Harish Alagappa, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


‘Sanskrit’ literally translates to ‘refined, or well-ordered, speech’, which is a rather apt description of a language loved by linguists around the world for its near-perfect structure and organization. In the words of panellist, S.R. Bhatt, Chairman of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research, ‘Indian culture is known for the richness of the Sanskrit language’ and its ability to express ‘comprehensive ideas that are universally acceptable.’

Author and entrepreneur Vikram Chandra began the session by asking the panellists about what drew them to study a language whose formal rules of grammar were laid down nearly two and a half thousand years ago. Mission Director, National Mission for Manuscripts, Sudha Gopalakrishnan, said that she ‘came to learn Sanskrit from an oral tradition. My parents were really learned, and engaged with me in the language.’ Art was another window into the world of Sanskrit for Gopalakrishnan, ‘Koodiyattam (a form of Sanskrit theatre) gave me an opportunity to learn texts and their cultural context.’

According to S.R. Bhatt, Sanskrit is a ‘perfect language’ because of the incredible genius of Panini, the fifth-century BCE poet and grammarian who formalized the rules of grammar for what’s now acknowledged as Classical Sanskrit. Bhatt noted that ‘Panini has created a very systematic formulation of grammar. He gave us the basic framework and also the mechanisms to build more words.’ Vikram Chandra, whose start-up Granthika aims to reinvent writing for the digital age, added that, ‘Panini created the world’s first rules for generative grammar. His Aṣṭādhyāyī is an algorithm that works on word rules, and based on those rules, generates language.’

A common theme of the talk was whether it would be possible to reintroduce Sanskrit to India in the present day. The panellists agreed that forcing students to study Sanskrit at school is not the way forward. Sudha Gopalakrishnan was of the opinion that ‘If it comes down to a question of imposition or choice, then it should always be choice.’

Senior Lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical and Indian Studies at the University of London, James Mallinson, related a rather unusual incident that might suggest Sanskrit is not as absent from modern India as some might think. While hang-gliding in rural Karnataka, Mallinson missed his intended landing zone and ended up in the in a village where nobody spoke English or Hindi. Luckily, he found a gathering of Hindu priests and asked them for directions in Sanskrit, which helped him on his way.

This led to the question of whether Sanskrit was an exclusive language, used by the Hindu religious elite to keep the lower castes in check. Mallinson noted that while ‘In general, Sanskrit was the preserve of Brahminical tradition,’ over the course of his research, he found many ‘yoga manuscripts written by a school of Tantric Buddhists that were written in Sanskrit.’

Mallinson, who has extensive experience in translating Sanskrit texts, mentioned that there were roughly ‘1.3 crore (13 million) Sanskrit manuscripts in India, as opposed to around 30,000 manuscripts of European languages.’ Bhatt chimed in that more written Sanskrit records existed than people realised, but ‘a large part of old and unread manuscripts was lost by outside forces.’

The session concluded with the panel exploring the idea of whether it would be possible for Sanskrit to become a common language of India once again. S.R. Bhatt was confident that it can be done, citing the example of what Israel did with Hebrew. He concluded the session by emphasising the importance of studying Sanskrit in the context of Indian history and culture, stating, ‘no culture can survive whose past texts are ignored or forgotten.’


Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill


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