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Why Sanskrit remains confined
Sanskrit declined after it ceased to be a medium of knowledge production in medieval era. Learning is the first step to resuscitate the language. But one doubts if it was made for a competitive environment
National Sanskrit day is observed annually on Shravan Purnima, which coincides with Raksha Bandhan. Observances are extended to a full week called the national Sanskrit week. This year it is being observed from August 4 to 10 inclusive of the Sanskrit day on August 7. Its purpose is to promote and popularise the use of Sanskrit.
There is dichotomy about that classical langauge. It remains a popular subject at higher secondary, graduation and post-graduation level. The only other place it exists outside the curricula is Hindu religious ceremonies (karma kanda) likepujas, marriages and shraddhs etc. But otherwise there is practically no journalism; no modern literature; no film industry; no television channel or music industry in the language.
It is strange how Sanskrit disappeared from public life after dominating philosophic, literary and artistic discourses in India for ages. Sanskrit experts themselves are clueless about it. They generally attribute it to external factors like educational policies of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay and Jawaharlal Nehru’s unwillingness to declare it as national language.
To blame the education policies of the British is politically correct. To blame the Muslim rule entails some risk from its overzealous supporters in India. But to analyse one’s historical self is the most difficult task. Like it or loathe it, Sanskrit scholars will have to exercise the third option if they wish to understand the plight of the godly language.
Currently they are banking on the classical greatness of Sanskrit to assert its superiority. They argue that Sanskrit is a scientific tongue, mother of most Indian languages and rich in spiritual and temporal literature. Nobody ever denies that claim.
But the question remains why Sanskrit’s achievement in the last millennium fell utterly short of its achievements in earlier millennia. Sanskrit got marginalised in public domain after it ceased to be a medium of knowledge production in the medieval era. This was the principal reason for its decline.
It was the growth of vernaculars in the medieval ages that dented Sanskrit’s prospects. Many of those vernaculars arose from Sanskrit, and held its legacy in high esteem. But they wished to cater to the masses, and soon assumed a life of their own. The Bhakti movement went hand in hand with vernacular languages. Vernacular movement was started by Kabir in north India, Sant Dnyaneshwar in Maharashtra, Vidyapati in Mithila and Chandidas in West Bengal. Goswami Tulsidas — himself adept in Sanskrit — chose to write his Ramcharitmanas in Awadhi in the 16th century.
Sanskrit pundits of Varanasi tried to stall the project, alleging that Ramayan would be denigrated if rendered into non-Sanskrit language. But Madhusudana Sarasvati, the great Vedantist monk, came to his rescue. Madhusudana Sarasvati, being a Bengali, he knew Ramayan could well be written in a non-Sanskrit language. Tulsidas’ century saw the rise of other poets writing in dialects of Hindi — Surdas, Abdul Rahim Khan-I-Khana (who wrote in Awadhi, Sanskrit and Persian), Raskhan, Keshavdas (himself a Sanskrit scholar) and Bihari Lal Chaube. Interestingly Madhusudana Sarasvati, author of Advaita Siddhi, was the last person in India who became a public persona by writing solely in Sanskrit.
After him none, including Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Sant Thyagaraja could excel in public life solely through Sanskrit.
But the essential problem with medieval era in India was dearth of knowledge production. There was literary creations but no scientific or political knowledge production that could lead India to modernity. The archaic knowledge bank still remained with Sanskrit without being challenged by vernaculars. But the advent of English in the early 19th century changed the game. English brought new knowledge pattern that was founded on contemporary information, research, investigation and rationality.
It believed in making knowledge a ‘laboratory’ rather than ‘temple’. Sanskrit did not have the wherewithal to demystify this new politico-legal-technological regime. Several stalwarts of that era from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Madan Mohan Malaviya had sound knowledge of Sanskrit. But they chose to write and speak in English or their mother tongue.
It is a myth that British ‘imposed’ English on India that led to the decimation of Sanskrit. Had the British ‘imposed’ English, then vernaculars of India would have also suffered a similar fate. But what explains the rapid growth of vernacular (now called modern Indian languages) literature under the same British rule?
Why Sanskrit failed to produce a Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Bharatendu Harishchandra, Subramania Bharati, Utkalmani Gopabandhu Das etc? This is a question that Sanskrit exponents should ask themselves rather than invent an excuse.
The truth is that in the British period, Sanskrit underwent a ‘Renaissance’. From Warren Hastings (1772) to Lord Amherst (1828) the British pursued a policy of ‘orientalism’ whereby Sanskrit, Persian, Urdu etc were promoted. As a part of this project Sanskrit College of Varanasi (now Sampurnanand University), Calcutta Sanskrit College etc were founded. Devnagri font was developed leading to printing of Sanskrit manuscripts.
Many lost Sanskrit manuscripts were recovered from various parts of India; and translation work was undertaken. Even after the victory of the Anglicists, represented by Macualay, Sanskrit did not lose out. No Sanskrit college, or Sanskritpathshala was closed down. In 1902 Swami Shraddhanand started Gurukul Kangri near Haridwar. Madras Sanskrit College was founded in 1906.
It was the growth of modern Indian languages that foreclosed the chances of Sanskrit. Sanskrit’s primacy belonged to an era when books were not mass produced. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, when books began to be mass produced, there emerged a commercial relationship between writer, publisher, printer, book seller and reader. Sanskrit lost out. When in ancient time a Bhartihari, Bhasa or Bharavi wrote a work, it was not their intention that maximum people should posses copy of their work. But sales figure became an important component of literature in modern period.
Thus Sanskrit, with its small readership base, could not compete. The same is true of viewership and audience. That is why Sanskrit got confined to Sanskrit teaching and learning in the 20th century. Both the Sanskrit commissions in independent India (1957, 2015) dealt with only that aspect of Sanskrit. Learning is definitely the first step to resuscitate the great language. But one doubts whether Sanskrit was made for a competitive environment.
(The writer is a socio-political commentator)
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