The right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), which rose to power in India in 2014 believes that “A common spoken language with a vast literary heritage should ameliorate all the problems which beset modern India” (Hastings, 2008). For the BJP and its allied Hindu Nationalist groups, this language is Sanskrit. Not only has Sanskrit been dead, in some sense of the word, for centuries, but it was also never the “common” language of India, let alone the “common spoken language”. The Indian subcontinent is characterised by its vast linguistic diversity, and the notion of an ancient shared language is not consistent with facts. Moreover, even when Sanskrit was a prominent language across many parts of the Indian subcontinent, it was mostly restricted to upper-caste Hindu Brahmins, or priests. As a result, Sanskrit has traditionally been regarded as the dev bhasa or, “the language of the gods”, and is associated with literary, scholarly and most importantly, religious works. Since it was arguably never a spoken language for the masses, and was considered a classical language from very close to its inception, Sanskrit has been used in only very specialized and ritualistic contexts. Despite this, Sanskrit is unique among comparable classical languages such as Latin because today, centuries after its ‘death’, it is still politically contentious (Vajpeyi, 2016). Furthermore, it is also important to consider how a long dead language, associated with exclusionary practices can help “modern India”, and how a fundamentally ‘Hindu language’ can promote the idea of a constitutionally secular, and demographically and linguistically diverse modern nation.
This essay examines the history of the Sanskrit language in India in order to understand the changing role that the language has had in Indian society in the past millennia, and the key events that shaped its history. Later, the essay discusses how Sanskrit fits into the BJP Hindu nationalist ideology and identifies and evaluates both policy decisions and endorsements undertaken by the BJP government to revive the language in India. The essay concludes with a consideration of the role that Sanskrit plays in the idea of a truly “modern India”.