Home / Politics / Sanskrit: reviving the language in today’s India

Haridwar: The advertisement was small, tossed to the extreme right of the newspaper page, in faded blue and saffron, but striking for its chaste language and declaration: “Sanskrit-dwitiyarajbhashayuktam deshashya prathamrajyam Uttarakhandam" (Uttarakhand is India’s first state to have Sanskrit as its second official language).

Mahavir Agrawal, vice-chairman of the Uttaranchal Sanskrit Academy (USA), leans forward in his chair to enunciate, first, the visual difference.

On the left page are news reports, all in English, interspersed with advertisements in the same language. On the right, the Sanskrit ad in Devnagri, also the script for Hindi, looks like a colourful patch of letters, unusually incongruous.

Renewed interest: Sadhna Bahukhandi (left) and Anuj Kumari, both PhD students in Sanskrit at Gurukul Kangri University. (Left) Mahavir Agrawal, vice-chairman of the Uttaranchal Sanskrit Academy.

The effect, Agrawal says, is not missed, nor is the message.

“How often do you see an advertisement in Sanskrit, that too in English and Hindi media? I have taught for decades in the language, but haven’t seen anything like this. Have you?" he asks, placing the paper on one of the racks in the steel almirah next to his seat.

There are at least two dozen more such copies, all neatly tied in a bundle and stored to preserve?as?evidence,?as?Agrawal explains, of a historic turn in the history of the language.

In January, the Uttarakhand government, ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), adopted Sanskrit as the second official language—Hindi remains the first—after the state legislature cast a unanimous vote.

The Indian Constitution lists Sanskrit as an official language under its eighth schedule, along with 22 other languages, including Maithili, Tamil, Oriya and Punjabi, though most states use Hindi, English, Urdu or the respective regional languages as their first or second official languages.

In the three-odd months since, the discourse in Haridwar—a temple town in the northern hill state—often leads to a discussion in Sanskrit, much to the pleasure of Agrawal, who is obsessively zealous about the language.

With a rudraksh thread hung around his neck and copious religious texts lined up on his desk, he rattles off idioms in Sanskrit, quickly translates excerpts from the Vedas—the Hindu religious texts—and points to a yoga class in progress as an example of one of the language’s inextricable gifts.

Of late, he has also been overseeing the designing of posters and newspaper ads in the language, a key task that now rests with USA to propagate and spread awareness on the subject, apart from affiliating and funding organizations working in the area, teachers’ training and research.

As many of its functions, the academy also helps set up Sanskrit libraries, collection centres for manuscripts, and edits and publishes rare manuscripts and books in the language in collaboration with the National Mission for Manuscripts, a central body under the ministry of tourism and culture in New Delhi for creating a national database of manuscripts.

In an unusual initiative, USA sponsored the recital of all the four Vedas for a month to create audio-visual material for studies, sparking concerns that such rituals would limit the scope of the language, mostly associated with Hinduism.

“I am interested in the grammar of the language. The religious stuff that we have been taught would not be so relevant to students who are non-believers, who love the language for its use of words and language alone and not because it is full of religious hymns," says Rajesh Pratap, a postgraduate in Sanskrit from Haridwar’s Rishikul State Ayurvedic College.

At Gurukul Kangri University, efforts to propagate Sanskrit have had an unexpected fallout. The language, often described by scholars as that of upper castes such as the Brahmins, is now attracting students from the so-called backward castes. Even more telling is the range of topics being researched—from religious verses in the Vedas to environment awareness in the works of poet Kalidas.

“In my family, no one has studied Sanskrit. But it’s a subject very similar to maths if you can master the grammar," Anuj Kumari explains, while making notes for her paper to be read at an forthcoming Sanskrit conference in Hyderabad. A research scholar belonging to the other backward classes, she is studying works of Sanskrit poet Jayadev and hopes to take up a teaching job at the university after compiling her thesis.

The effort to popularize Sanskrit began much earlier though. The political interest in the language, often dubbed as “dev vaani", or the language of the Hindu gods, did not just remain the prerogative of the Hindu right; both the Congress and the BJP have promoted the language in the state.

In 2003, the then Uttarakhand government, led by the Congress, established USA, and three years later, the BJP-led government laid the foundation for the Uttaranchal Sanskrit University, the only government-run university in the state offering studies in the language.

Since then, both institutions have consulted historians and linguists on the language to arrive at a vast compendium of subjects Sanskrit can address: botany in the Vrikshayurveda texts, Varahamihira’s Brihat Samhita for scientific theories on earthquakes and ecology and the calculation of planetary movements and preparing perfumes, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi for mathematics and Kautilya’s Arthshashtra for political and economic organization.

“There is renewed interest in Sanskrit as (a) source to many aspects of science and this can be explored with the philosophical texts in the language as a point of reference," Agrawal says.

In the early years of USA, when Agrawal joined after a stint with Gurukul Kangri University in Haridwar, the purpose was to revive the language in academia. Gradually, as the state saw the number of Sanskrit colleges swell to 52, the language is now facing a rather practical challenge: how to simplify Sanskrit to make it the language of the masses?

Ram Vinay Singh, who teaches in a secondary school in Dehradun, does it by writing and singing poems. They dwell on the topical issues of pollution, climate change and in a romantic deviation, of love and betrayal, and are published in periodicals by four Sanskrit universities in the state, of which three are privately run.

Then there are plays in the language by various local theatre groups. Sudha Rani Pandey, vice-chancellor of Uttaranchal Sanskrit University, argues that the cultural history of the language runs deep. “The 18th century play Sabha Bhushanam, and Navya Bharat Natakam, Naranarayanabhyudaya Natakam, Ajeya Bharatam developed in the 20th century speak well of the richness of Sanskrit," she says.

A USA committee is working out ways to assist theatre groups, a department dedicated to Sanskrit is in place at the state secretariat in Dehradun, and a team of officials is racking its brains to arrive at ways to link the language with the job market. Efforts would be made to gradually link Sanskrit with revenue generation activities, Savita Mohan, officer on special duty for languages in Uttarakhand, says.

In schools, Sanskrit will be a compulsory subject till graduation, a throwback to 1984 when a similar campaign for Hindi made the language compulsory for advancement in the civil services and for use in official communications and in radio and television broadcasts.

In recent decades, Hindi has become widely accepted throughout northern India, partly because most northern languages also derive from ancient Sanskrit. But in the south, where an estimated 233 million of India’s population live, public support veers towards the four main languages of Dravidian origin—Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam—and sees Hindi as the language of dominance. Tamil is especially defended as an ancient language as worthy of respect as Sanskrit.

With difficult grammar rules, verb and noun formations, and many more tenses in Sanskrit, the learning curve itself is pretty steep and intimidating for most. From 49,736 speakers in 1991, the number of speakers of Sanskrit dwindled to 14,135 in 2001.

“The question is: Sanskrit might be the mother of all Indian languages, but what is its modern form to keep the youth hooked?" Agrawal asks.

The question finds its answer next door. Across the room where Agrawal sits, a dark gallery leads to the bare office of the Uttaranchal Sanskrit University, surviving its difficult primary years with just 175 students of the language, 12 teachers, most of whom work as guest faculties and just half a dozen classrooms. The university’s building is under construction a couple of miles away, but in its four years of operation it seems to have learnt the ropes of survival.

The university in its first year began with two students and a bachelor’s course in Sanskrit; today, 150 of its students are enrolled in vocational courses in computers, journalism and library science, apart from undergraduate and postgraduate studies in the literature of the language. Sanskrit remains the medium of instruction.

“There is little interest in (the) youth towards Sanskrit. The additional courses have perked up interest, especially the bachelor’s in education. We have received more than 500 applications this year," says Pandey.

The 39 vacancies advertised for teaching positions in various colleges under the university have also attracted 470 applications. The confluence of the language with vocational education and science, Pandey insists, is natural, beginning with the Vedas. Research in the language points to such linguistic collaborations.

European scholarship in Sanskrit, initiated by Heinrich Roth and Johann Ernst Hanxleden, led to the proposal of the Indo-European language family by William Jones, an English philologist and scholar of ancient India, which played an important role in the development of Western linguistics. Sanskrit and related languages have also influenced China and Tibet through the spread of Buddhist texts in translation. What’s more, recent studies have also shown Sanskrit to be one of the better languages for computers.

On a national level, the Central Board of Secondary Education has made Sanskrit a third language in the schools it governs. Many organizations such as Samskrita Bharati in Delhi also conduct spoken Sanskrit workshops. A Facebook page on “practical Sanskrit" has at least 2,000 followers.

In her 44 years as a teacher of the subject, Pandey says she hasn’t seen a better time for the language than today.

Next: To remember a language, one must make it the language of speech.


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