November 8, 2012
If we want to preserve our heritage, the indifference towards Sanskrit has to stop
An Indian postage stamp honouring Panini, the great Sanskrit grammarian whose analysis of noun compounds still forms the basis of modern linguistic theories of compounding. Source: Wikimedia Commons

"SANSKRIT," THE mother of all Indo-Aryan languages, which has also helped in development and enrichment of almost all languages across the globe is fighting a tough battle in its own country of origin, India. The language, acknowledged and documented to be the most structured and scientific language in the entire world, and which was the lingua-franca. has now been reduced to a vanishing minority with just about 14,000 speakers left, across a country of over one billion.

Why this plight of Sanskrit?

It took nearly 200 years of systematic attack on Sanskrit to reduce it to such a pitiable and marginalised position. It all started with the advent of the Britishers in India and their desire to control the entire country. The transgressors identified that India is so evenly structured that it was almost impossible to enslave the country.

The British identified the social structure and the lingua-franca Sanskrit, which was also the language of scriptures, as an essential founding block of this unity in all the diversity of India. A systematic and strategic propaganda about the social structure and class division was started and an onslaught on Sanskrit was initiated.

With the entry of T. B. Macaulay, who was the 'Secretary to the Board of Control' and looking into the affairs of India, things changed very fast. Macaulay advocated that for taking complete control of the country teaching of Sanskrit has to be stopped and only English should be promoted.

He argued that support for the publication of books in Sanskrit (and Arabic) should be withdrawn, support for traditional education should be reduced to funding for (the Madrassa at Delhi) and the Hindu College at Benares, but students should no longer be paid to study at these establishments. The money released by these steps should instead go to fund education in Western subjects, with English as the language of instruction. He said,

...that we ought to employ them in teaching what is best worth knowing; that English is better worth knowing than Sanskrit or Arabic; that the natives are desirous to be taught English, and are not desirous to be taught Sanskrit or Arabic; that neither as the languages of law, nor as the languages of religion, have the Sanskrit and Arabic any peculiar claim to our engagement; that it is possible to make natives of this country thoroughly good English scholars, and that to this end our efforts ought to be directed.

This policy resulted in the Education Act of 1835. Thereafter, all Sanskrit schools and institutions lost to the British policies and bureaucracy and Sanskrit suffered irreparable damage.

Reinterpretation of Hindustan's scriptures and documents

A battery of British scholars started learning Sanskrit and based on whatever they could learn of Sanskrit in a year or two, they started translating the ancient scriptures and documents in English. While in India they started a propaganda claiming that Sanskrit was a dying language; but ironically Sanskrit was being introduced in almost all universities in Europe. The tardy and incorrect translations based on desultory learning of the British scholars became an introduction of Hinduism and Sanskrit to the rest of the English-speaking world. Selected works with twisted translations which presented Hinduism and India in bad light were promoted with full vigour to highlight how bad the system of India was. The language of instruction of Sanskrit for higher education in India was changed to English and almost all top positions of Sanskrit professors were occupied by Europeans. The neo-scholars of English language of Indian origin, who could not be educated in Sanskrit, also started relying on the English translations by the European authors, which also got referred in all subsequent works. Unfortunately, if one picks up any Indian textbook on History, the same propaganda continues. Among the list of books referred to prepare any History textbooks; one can find that 80 per cent of them are by foreign authors and rest are using their work as leading references. Nearly 200 years of this kind of propaganda not only polluted our culture but also almost destroyed the learning of Sanskrit.

Sanskrit Post-Independence

During the framing of India's Constitution, there were long debates on official language of the Country and the role of Sanskrit. The 'Constituent Assembly' and the sub-committee formed on 'Languages' highlighted the need to undo what the Britishers had done and emphasised on the need to make Hindi as the language of the State so that the common man can be empowered and made a part of the Government. Article 343 of the Constitution specifically provided that English as a State language would be phased out in 15 years period and Hindi would be the State language. Sanskrit was also considered to be made the official language, but it was felt that the country should wait for some more time before initiating such an effort. In the same spirit, Article 351 specifically mentioned that for enriching Hindi language, Sanskrit would be used. The Constitution of India directs under Article 351 that wherever necessary or desirable, for development of Hindi vocabulary, it shall be expanded primarily based on Sanskrit and secondarily on other languages.

The then political leadership was fully aware about the importance of Sanskrit and a handful of our leaders did highlight their concerns then and now. While underscoring the importance of Sanskrit, first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru said;

If I was asked what is the greatest treasure which India possesses and what is her finest heritage, I would answer unhesitatingly - it is the Sanskrit language and literature, and all that it contains. This is a magnificent inheritance, and so long as this endures and influences the life of our people, so long the basic genius of India will continue.

However, the efforts and dreams of the Constitution framers could not be fully realised even after over 60 years of Independence. The resistance did not come from the people but from the English-speaking bureaucracy and the foreign-trained English speaking politicians of the country, who continued to look down upon Hindi and Sanskrit as lesser languages, and as the languages of uneducated people.

Present state of affairs

Various commissions and committees have highlighted the importance of Sanskrit and the need to restore it to its old glory. All our texts, documents and scriptures are in Sanskrit; losing the language would be losing our roots. Besides, Sanskrit is the most structured and scientific language spoken anywhere in the world. In its syntax, grammar and structure, no other language can match it. 'Sanskrit Commission' which was set up by the Government of India, in its 1957 report specifically pointed out that Sanskrit is one of the greatest languages of the world and it is the classical language par excellence not only of India but of a good part of Asia as well. The report states the Indian people look upon Sanskrit as the binding force for the different people of this great country and described this as the greatest discovery made by the Commission as it travelled from Kerala to Kashmir and from Kamarupa to Saurastra. The commission, while so travelling, found that though the people of this country differed in a number of ways, they all were proud to regard themselves as participants in common heritage and that heritage emphatically is the heritage of Sanskrit.

India's official education policy specifically mentions that facilities for the intensive study of Sanskrit has to be encouraged. Still, the apathy, neglect and propaganda against Sanskrit has been so much that the Supreme Court of India had to intervene in 1994 to declare that Sanskrit has to be a part of education. However, the various States of India are still disadvantaging, discouraging and discriminating education in Sanskrit at School, College and University level. Sanskrit learning has been stopped in many schools in want of teachers and funds. In Colleges and Universities, courses are being closed down and students are being discouraged; indirect discouragement and strategic discouragement is caused by limiting financial resources. Though Sanskrit is a subject for appearing in Civil Services, the State and Universities are providing no facilities to students for preparing for civil services in Sanskrit, whereas other subjects are being patronised.

As a result of this systematic propaganda against this great heritage, offensives of the British rulers, and poor support for Sanskrit post-independence, the language has now been reduced to a poor minority. According to the 2001 census of India, there remain only 14,135 speakers of Sanskrit in Hindustan. According to the Indian Census policy, if the total number of speakers of any language is reduced to less than 10,000, it wouldn't even be reported as a separate language.

What needs to be done

The situation is emergent and Sanskrit now urgently needs special protection. The Constitution of India provides for special protection to minorities based on distinct language, script or culture as per the provisions related to minorities contained in Article 29 and 30. Through a gazette notification issued in 1993, the Union Ministry of Welfare notified only five religious communities viz; the Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Zoroastrians (Parsis) as minority communities. Linguistic minorities have not been considered for the purpose of awarding protection and the consequential “Minority” status either by the Union of India or the States. This needs to change. Despite being a language of the masses once upon a time; Sanskrit now needs this necessary protection, as available to minorities.

If Sanskrit is accorded “Minority” status, it will ensure a right to all Sanskrit-speaking communities and students to ensure learning in Sanskrit from primary level itself (Article 350A). Minority status also ensures the right to conserve the language, independence in structuring and managing institutions of Sanskrit learning, right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice, protection from arbitrary acquisition, additional funds for running institutions and printing/ publishing of books in Sanskrit; and scholarships and other funding for students learning Sanskrit; etc. Besides according “Minority” status to Sanskrit, every State must also follow directions contained in Article 351 of the Constitution and declare it as the second/ third language of the State.

It is absolutely essential that Sanskrit be taught as language in all schools and institutions of higher learning. State must ensure that institutions of higher learning produce good Sanskrit teachers and also ensure that all vacancies of Sanskrit teachers in schools are filled-up immediately. At individual level, all parents should also ensure that their children learn Sanskrit, so that they can taste and appreciate the genius and depth of India directly in their basic mother tongue, without relying on corrupted interpretation of their own texts by a third person.

Hemant Goswami is a social activist who recently moved the “Punjab and Haryana High Court,” praying for directing the Government to accord protection of “Minority” to Sanskrit language. The High Court has directed the Government to take a decision within two months for according Sanskrit the protection as available to “Minorities.” Hemant can be reached at