A campaign to promote Sanskrit through Census betrays false pride

The debate between ‘dev bhasha’ and ‘lokbhashas’ is an old one. But it's doubtful that Mahatma Gandhi, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Tagore, Swami Vivekananda or Aurobindo would have approved of the campaign

A campaign to promote Sanskrit through Census betrays false pride

GN Devy

Some debates run for a few weeks and then are forgotten, some continue for decades. Very few continue to rage for centuries. The debate between Sanskrit, described by its advocates as ‘dev-Bhasha’ versus the languages connected more closely with people’s lives has however continued for centuries.

Sanskrit was rarely the language of the day-to-day life of people in South Asia in any past era. At best, it existed as the language of knowledge transactions and restricted to a small Brahmin class. Throughout the first millennium CE, the social gap between Sanskrit and the languages used in the ordinary life kept widening.

Many writers of the 10th century CE had given up on Sanskrit as the language of scholarship and literary production and had turned to the desi-bhashas as did the Gujarati scholar Hemachandra and the Maharashtrian dramatist Rajashekhara. The 16th century CE Marathi saint-poet Eknath, tired of the advocacy of Sanskrit by his contemporary Brahmins, had said “If Sanskrit is made by gods, is Marathi created by thieves?”

By Eknath’s time, the debate was already a millennium old. During the second millennium CE, in most parts of India that was under the influence of Sanskrit in the past, poets and writers started employing their own languages derived from a mix of the ancient Prakrit and Sanskrit. The move was away from the ‘dev-bhasha’ and towards the ‘lok-bhashas’.

During the colonial period, when Indians encountered English as a language of knowledge, the debate once again acquired a centrality.

The most interesting turn taken by the debate owes a lot to Ram Mohan Roy. The Bengali social reformer was born in 1772. Ram Mohan was in his teens when Sir William Jones established the Asiatic Society (1884) and a few years later proposed his hypothesis about the ‘proto-Indo-Aryan’, an imagined common ancestor of Greek, Latin, Persian and Sanskrit. Jones’ hypothesis proved influential for Linguistics in Europe during the 19th century; but in its perverted form led to rise of Hitler’s racist state obsessed with ‘blood purity’.

Ram Mohan, a gifted polyglot had studied Sanskrit and Persian as well as, later, English, and some Greek and Latin as well. But he responded to the idea of the common ancestry by thinking of a universally shared idea of divinity. That was the foundation of the Brahmo Samaj he founded. Roy’s dedicated campaigns against the practice of Sati, dowry and polygamy and his advocacy of widow remarriage speak volumes for how courageously he rebelled against the social evils prevalent among his own ‘kulin brahmin’ community.

When it came to the question of education for future generations, he avoided any false pride in Persian and Sanskrit and championed the cause of English. The Orientalists and the Anglicists debate of the 19th century, beginning with Ram Mohan and coming to an apparent end with Wood’s dispatch of 1842 had at its heart the question of ‘knowledge’ and not so much the question of ‘language’.

One may find it ironic that after death Jones was buried in Calcutta while Ram Mohan was buried in Bristol. The former had come to India and found a distant past of human civilisation in Sanskrit; the other had gone to England and found the future of the world, as known in those times, in the knowledge production in European languages. Both had transcended any myopic nationalism, both knew that knowledge generation is primary, language pride secondary.

A century later, Tagore and Gandhi had a disagreement on Ram Mohan Roy’s stand on language. Mahatma Gandhi had strongly advocated the use of the desi-bhashas for school education. In his foreword to Dr. Pranjivan Mehta’s book on education, Barrister Gandhi had condemned the use of English as a medium of instruction in the harshest words.

Tagore, himself a writer in Bangla, had no deep disagreement with Gandhi on the question of language, but only on his assessment of Ram Mohan Roy. Gandhi, on his part, had no quarrel with the English language, he wanted education to be closer to the life of people, exactly as four centuries before him Eknath had asked. On the question of knowledge, he was as open and liberal as was Ram Mohan Roy. It was in the context of this debate that he said, “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

Mahatma Gandhi wrote his books in Gujarati. His contemporary Sri Aurobindo, born in 1872, exactly a century after Ram Mohan Roy, one of the greatest scholars of Sanskrit of his time, wrote all his books in English, including the epic poem Savitri on which he worked for full four decades.

These great sons of India-- Ram Mohan Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo-- all respected and loved the Sanskrit language. They also adored and used the English language. None of them attached even an iota of ‘racism’ with either the question of knowledge or the question of language. They well understood the Sanskrit dictum ‘Vidya Vinayen Shobhate’—humility is the mark of learning, or by implication, pride is destructive of knowledge and unfounded pride is most so.

In 2022, a quarter millennium after the birth of Ram Mohan Roy, one notices a strange appeal flooding the social media. I have seen it circulated in Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi. Perhaps, it is circulating in many more languages.

It says, “Gentle folks, this is the fag end of the Census. When the Census person comes to your house to ask your preference of language, do not forget to mention that you ‘know’ Sanskrit. If you do not do so, Arabic and Persian- languages growing in number - will walk away with all government funds for language development. Your Sanatani samskruti will then be annihilated. Save it. Claim Sanskrit as your mother tongue.”

One would have ignored the ludicrous appeal, overlooking its distortion of facts, had it not been for a news, albeit hurriedly disowned by the Ministry of Culture, that the Ministry has funded the Anthropological Survey of India for carrying out gene-testing in order to determine ‘racial purity’. Every undergraduate student of Genetics knows that genes have nothing to do with the dubious concept of ‘race’. Yet, the two statements taken together make one shudder with fear.

The ‘mass-promotion of Sanskrit’ by generating Census data to support its cause, the RSS versions of history being imposed in school texts in state after state, the anti-West and anti-Islam phobia whipped up systematically and the government’s committee to ‘review the history for the last 12,000 years’—all indicate that the latent racist sentiments and fear of pollution embedded in the idea of caste are being released by the current regime as its script of Hindu Rashtra.

The greatest among the Hindus in recent centuries—Rabindra Nath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Swami Vivekanand and Sri Aurobindo— would have found the path to racism being inaugurated as the worst phase in the long history of philosophy and spirituality in the sub-continent. Do contemporary Indians not think so?

(The writer is linguist, cultural activist and Senior Honorary Fellow, The Asiatic Society of Mumbai. Views are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 04 Jul 2022, 12:00 PM