Monday, December 8, 2014

Pratap Bhanu Mehta Cries for Dead Sanskrit I

I am Sanskrit

I did not lack support in independent India. There are dozens of university departments whose cumulative achievement has been to convince everyone that I am truly dead. I did not lack support in independent India. There are dozens of university departments whose cumulative achievement has been to convince everyone that I am truly dead.
Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Posted: December 8, 2014 12:30 am

I am Sanskrit: the language of the gods. But like gods, I am now more an object over which “ignorant armies clash by night”. I carry a heavy load. I am burdened with every sin. For some, I am everything that was wrong with India. I am exclusion, obscurantism, esotericism and dead knowledge. I am burdened, by others, with the weight of redemption. I am the source of all unity and insight, all knowledge and eternal light. But for both sides, I am more an icon than an object of understanding: for one, an icon for blanket indictment, for another, an icon for obscure yearnings.

They fight over my origins. Some say I was the language of invaders, imperiously subordinating everything around it. Others cite me as the example of a whole civilisation that spread across Asia, without the force of arms. They fight over my death. Some autopsies pronounced me dead by the 18th century. They say I died of internal corrosion: a slow insidious loss of faith in the knowledge systems I represented. It was an easy fate for a language that refused to be the language of the masses. Some say I was the victim of political murder: the great empires killed me, dismantling the structures that sustained me. But in all fairness, this has to be said: I somehow felt safer under the patronage of the Mughals, or even the British, than I do at the hands of my benevolent defenders in democratic India. Some refuse to pronounce me dead. I have been put on life support. Whether this will revive me or prolong my agony, I don’t know.

Some think I am still living, though I have assumed more ghostly forms. They argue that the vernaculars did not displace me. Rather, the inner life of most vernaculars builds on my legacy. Even when they transcend me, they cannot escape my imprint. Even in opposition, I am an aesthetic reference. I don’t live as a language. I live as philology. But anyone who understands these matters will understand that philology should not be underestimated. I don’t live as philosophy. I live as liturgy. And this liturgy, even if not fully understood, defines the faith of millions. The abstract idea of India fears me. But I still remain the hidden meaning of every nook and corner of the geography of India. Not just ancient, but even India’s medieval and modern past is not fully accessible without me. I remain the substratum beneath all controversies over the past. I am the ghost that refuses to go away.

Some fear me as the source of all social faultlines. I was the marker of caste and the oppression that came with it. I am feared as the symbol of division. Sanskrit is a code for merely Hindu, at the exclusion of all else. Some say I can be a point of connection: I was an instrument of caste but can also be the source of its subversion. And did not poor Dara Shikoh think that I could illuminate the meaning of the Quran?

True, some ignorant progressives have denied all that I can offer. But my tragedy is that I have to fear my supporters more than my attackers. If there is a big idea running, in different forms, through my texts, it is this: the gradual displacement of the “I”, full of ahamkara (egoism), by the realisation of a deeper self. Yet, my political supporters wield me as an instrument of collective narcissism, a shrill assertion of pride. My priestly custodians, spread over the centuries in temples and maths, often with huge endowments, suffocated me in orthodoxy. They limited my reach. Contrary to what my opponents believed, I was not fixed in eternal verities. I was used for innovation: from the mathematics of the Namboodiris to the brilliant innovations in logic in places now long forgotten, like Nabadwip. But somehow, the image and social association with orthodoxy persisted, no doubt helped by the institutions supposed to nurture me.

I did not lack support in independent India. There are dozens of university departments whose cumulative achievement has been to convince everyone that I am truly dead. Their scholarship and engagement with new forms of knowledge was killed by a deadening mediocrity. I was taught for three years and in most schools in ways that did not enhance linguistic competence or open up the doors of knowledge. Many of my supporters, with their small hearts and conspiratorial minds, would rather blame others than introspect. For them, I am a weapon to cut open wounds, not a source of knowledge.

If I am dead, do I want a rebirth? If I am a ghostly shadow, do I want to become visible again? I am not sure. I would feel so out of place in this India. William Jones said I am a language of precision. What will I do in a culture that has lost the art of fine distinctions? I am the language of logic and form. What will I do in a culture where public argument is nothing but the flouting of logic? I am a language where the purpose of language is language itself. What will I do in a culture where everything is instrumental? I am the language of refined eroticism. What will I do in a culture where my supporters would unleash the tides of repression? I am the classic language of double meanings. What will I do in a culture where people cannot even hold one meaning in their head? I am the language of the classic pun. What will I do in a culture that is humourless? I am the language of itihasa. What will I do in a culture where all history is merely politics by other means? I am the language of refined aestheticism. What will I do in a culture where aesthetics is confined to museums or kitsch? The meaning of my name, they say, is perfection. What will I do in a culture where excellence is seen as an instrument of domination? I am the language of the gods. What will I do in a world where gods have been banished by godmen? I am the language of liberation, the gateway to being itself. What will I do in a culture that seeks bondage and refuses self-knowledge?

Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, “Tradition is the living thought of the dead, traditionalism is the dead thought of the living.” Now that I am caught between -isms, I doubt myself. I have become more a reflection of the dead thought of the living than the living thought of the dead.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

Join the discussion…

If better theories or histories or metaphors are unavailable for grasping the
broad Wirkungsgeschichte of a cultural form like Sanskrit, this is all the more
the case in trying to distinguish among its constituent parts, and their effects
and histories. Consider the history of the Sanskrit knowledge-systems. The two
centuries before European colonialism decisively established itself in the sub-
continent around 1750 constitute one of the most innovative epochs of Sanskrit
systematic thought (in language analysis, logic, hermeneutics, moral-legal phi-
losophy, and the rest). Thinkers produced new formulations of old problems, in
entirely new discursive idioms, in what were often new scholarly genres em-
ploying often a new historicist framework; some even called themselves (or,

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    The misconception carries a number of additional liabilities. Some might argue that as a learned language of intellectual discourse
    and belles lettres, Sanskrit had never been exactly alive in the first place. But
    the usual distinction in play here between living and dead languages is more
    than a little naive. It cannot accommodate the fact that all written languages are
    learned and learnèd, and therefore in some sense frozen in time (“dead”); or,
    conversely, that such languages often are as supple and dynamically changing
    (“alive”) as so-called natural ones. Yet the assumption that Sanskrit was never
    alive has discouraged the attempt to grasp its later history; after all, what is born
    dead has no later history. As a result, there exist no good accounts or theorizations of the end of the cultural order that for two millennia exerted a transregional influence across Asia—South, Southeast, Inner, and even East Asia—
    that was unparalleled until the rise of Americanism and global English. We have
    no clear understanding of whether, and if so, when, Sanskrit culture ceased to
    make history; whether, and if so, why, it proved incapable of preserving into
    the present the creative vitality it displayed in earlier epochs, and what this loss
    of effectivity might reveal about those factors within the wider world of soci-
    ety and polity that had kept it vital.


    works in English or Hindi on Sanskrit culture, while the first literary text hon-
    ored was a book of pattern poems (citrakāvya), an almost metaliterary genre
    entirely unintelligible without specialized training.
    Such disparities between political inputs and cultural outcomes could be detailed across the board. What it all demonstrates—the Sanskrit periodicals and
    journals, feature films and daily newscasts on All-India Radio, school plays,
    prize poems, and the rest—may be too obvious to mention: that Sanskrit as a
    communicative medium in contemporary India is completely denaturalized. Its
    cultivation constitutes largely an exercise in nostalgia for those directly in-
    volved, and, for outsiders, a source of bemusement that such communication
    takes place at all. Government feeding tubes and oxygen tanks may try to pre-
    serve the language in a state of quasi-animation, but most observers would
    agree that, in some crucial way, Sanskrit is dead.
    Although we often speak of languages as being dead, the metaphor is mis-
    leading, suggesting biologistic or evolutionary beliefs about cultural change
    that are deeply flawed.


    Sanskrit is a dead language. Repeat after me, Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta.
    ...and I am Sid Harth


    This anxiety has a longer and rather melancholy history in independent In-
    dia, far antedating the rise of the BJP. Sanskrit was introduced into the Eighth
    Schedule of the Constitution of India (1949) as a recognized language of the
    new State of India, ensuring it all the benefits accorded the other fourteen (now
    seventeen) spoken languages listed. This status largely meant funding for Sanskrit colleges and universities, and for a national organization to stimulate the
    study of the language. With few exceptions, however, the Sanskrit pedagogy
    and scholarship at these institutions have shown a precipitous decline from preIndependence quality and standards, almost in inverse proportion to the amount
    of funding they receive. Sanskrit literature has fared no better. From the time
    of its founding in 1955, the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters)
    has awarded prizes in Sanskrit literature as one of the twenty-two officially acknowledged literary languages. But the first five of these awards were given for
    0010-4175/01/392– 426 $9.50 © 2001 Society for Comparative Study of Society and History
    *I am grateful to Allison Busch and Lawrence McCrea, both of the University of Chicago, for their
    critical reading of this essay


    The Death of Sanskrit*
    University of Chicago

    “Toutes les civilisations sont mortelles” (Paul Valéry)

    In the age of Hindu identity politics (Hindutva) inaugurated in the 1990s by the
    ascendancy of the Indian People’s Party (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideo-
    logical auxiliary, the World Hindu Council (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), Indian
    cultural and religious nationalism has been promulgating ever more distorted
    images of India’s past. Few things are as central to this revisionism as Sanskrit,
    the dominant culture language of precolonial southern Asia outside the Per-
    sianate order. Hindutva propagandists have sought to show, for example, that
    Sanskrit was indigenous to India, and they purport to decipher Indus Valley
    seals to prove its presence two millennia before it actually came into existence.
    In a farcical repetition of Romantic myths of primevality, Sanskrit is considered—according to the characteristic hyperbole of the VHP—the source and
    sole preserver of world culture. The state’s anxiety both about Sanskrit’s role
    in shaping the historical identity of the Hindu nation and about its contempo-
    rary vitality has manifested itself in substantial new funding for Sanskrit education, and in the declaration of 1999 –2000 as the “Year of Sanskrit,” with
    plans for conversation camps, debate and essay competitions, drama festivals,
    and the like.

...and I am Sid Harth

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