A recent routine award distribution ceremony has provided an occasion to scrutinise the government's flawed and inward-looking strategy to promote Sanskrit. The occasion was the distribution of the first World Sanskrit Awards, instituted by Indian Council of Cultural Relations and presented in New Delhi to Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand and George Cardona, Professor Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania, USA.
The prizes were bestowed by Vice President Hamid Ansari and his speech, while initially staying within the template of addresses in such situations, concluded with a noteworthy remark: "The case for studying Sanskrit makes itself, and there is no need at all to invoke higher spiritual incentives in order to justify this." In essence, the language will propel its cause and requires no official custodians or apologists.
To understand the significance of the VPs contention, there is need to go into the background of efforts over the past four-and-a-half decades to promote academic discourse on — and in — Sanskrit globally. Alongside, it also crucial to recall how the previous strategy was altered after the 2014 regime change and how government involvement in what was till then a platform of Sanskrit scholars, was affixed a more ideological character and 'sarkari' (and sanskari) stamp.
It may sound ironical in today's political context, but the first push to 'internationalise' was given by the 'Nehruvian' regime of Indira Gandhi in 1971, when her education minister, the academic, Professor VKRV Rao, initiated plans to host the first World Sanskrit Conference, eventually held in 1972 in New Delhi. Rao was driven by Jawaharlal Nehru's appreciation of Sanskrit which was in sharp contrast to the anti-traditional image of the first premier as presented by the Indian regime now. Nehru remarked: "If I was asked what is the greatest treasure which India possesses ... I would answer unhesitatingly that it is the Sanskrit language and literature .... This is a magnificent inheritance, and so long as this endures and influences the life of our people, so long will the basic genius of India continue ..."
Rao was driven by two objectives: to establish contribution of various regions of the world to Sanskrit studies and the contribution of the language to the advancement of knowledge in different regions of the world. Despite the first global assembly on Sanskrit being held under the aegis of government, the Indira Gandhi regime ensured that this responsibility was taken over by an independent body. It encouraged the formation of International Association of Sanskrit Studies, comprising leading international and Indian scholars, which took over from the second conference at Torino, Italy, in 1975.
Most of the conferences, held every few years, were organised in other countries, with exceptions in 1981, 1997 and 2012, when they were hosted in India. The Indian government stayed consciously out of the picture, though, in 2012, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led Indian political bigwigs at the assembly mainly because it was held in New Delhi.
Sushma Swaraj delivered the opening address (in Bangkok) "in rhetorically pleasant and chaste Sanskrit". She earlier demonstrated her prowess with the language when she chose to take oath as member of Lok Sabha in Sanskrit
This altered in June 2015 when the 16th World Sanskrit Conference was held in Bangkok. Not only did the size of the Indian delegation go dramatically to more than 250, but it was also led by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and backed by a 30-strong team of the sangh parivar affiliate, Samskrita Bharati. Government blessings for such a large Indian delegation was also unprecedented and was justified as another instance when the Modi government was leveraging India's soft power on the lines of yoga promotion, personally steered by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
On its website, Samskrita Bharati declares that it was established in 1981 "for the continuing protection, development and propagation of the Sanskritam language." The organisation pursues the goal of an ideal utopian, patriotic Hindu Rashtra with Sanskrit as its common language. Samskrita Bharati also promotes the idea that Sanskrit must be studied as a matter of duty by all devout Hindus (and Indians). The organisation also aims to take the language to "the masses regardless of caste and creed". Its understanding and use of Sanskrit is integrally linked to jingoistic nationalism based on Hindutva ideology. Though the vice president pointed out that Sanskrit "encompasses one of the largest literatures of any language" and also "incorporates the sacred literature of three of the world's major religions", Samskrita Bharati projects an exclusivist vision of the language because sangh parivar has appropriated Sanskrit for its moral and political agenda.
Sushma Swaraj delivered the opening address (in Bangkok) "in rhetorically pleasant and chaste Sanskrit". She earlier demonstrated her prowess with the language when she chose to take oath as member of Lok Sabha in Sanskrit. Her speech reflected major concerns of Samskrita Bharati: Sanskrit not being taught through Sanskrit medium and in examinations answers being written in languages other than Sanskrit; present Sanskrit scholars paying more attention to the subjects in Sanskrit rather than the language; and hurled a veiled criticism at the gathered scholars — "Who have deserted Sanskrit? The common people or the Sanskritists?"
Swaraj concluded the assault by advising that "Sanskrit should be the language of communication among Sanskritists". She also announced the awards that were conferred by Ansari. It needs to be mentioned that at language camps Samskrita Bharati runs, participants are disallowed from speaking in any other languages because its objective is Sanskrit grihe grihe graame graame or in every home and in every village.
The vice president couldn't have been more apt and for the study of Sanskrit to flourish is it time to release it from the shackles of cultural and linguistic commissars of this regime
In contrast to Ansari's description of Sanskrit as an inclusive language, Swaraj equated it with a tradition "comparable to river Ganga. The Ganga remains sacred from Gomukh, its source, to Ganga sagar where it enters the ocean. Similar is Sanskrit; sacred by itself, it sanctifies all that comes into its contact..." She also appreciated Samskrita Bharati for its programmes.
Sangh parivar exponents accuse Western scholars who "claim expertise" in Sanskrit of distorting bharatiya sanskriti (read, the Hindutva view of Indian culture) which is not being promoted at the World Sanskrit Conference. They also contend that there is need to emphasise the association of the language with Hinduism on a more sustained basis. By vesting Sanskrit with spiritualism and aligning it with the Hindutva ideology and restricting use within the Brahminical caste order, the cause of the language suffers, as it causes disinterest among secularists in matters Sanskrit.
The vice president couldn't have been more apt and for the study of Sanskrit to flourish is it time to release it from the shackles of cultural and linguistic commissars of this regime. Instead of the sangh parivar's goal of all Indians speaking in Sanskrit, emphasis should be on how classical languages are studied.