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”.
The Life and Death of Sanskrit
Since its origin in the second millenium BCE, the role that the Sanskrit language has occupied in the Indian linguistic, literary, scholarly, political, religious and cultural landscape has changed drastically. Sheldon Pollock, arguably the most respected modern historian of the languages lays out the ebb and flow of the language in his landmark (yet controversial) paper “The Dead of Sanskrit”. Pollock posits that the role of the language in society has gone from being a medium of human concerns, to a medium of courtly concerns, to a medium of heavenly concerns. The language saw its ‘Golden Age’ of literary production and analysis, and scholarship in early 12th century AD Kashmir among Brahmin scholars, priests and literati. However, this apparent cornucopia of knowledge dried out within just half a century. Sanskrit regained some of its former prolificity in the cosmopolitan kingdom of Vijayanagar from the mid 14th to 16th centuries. Vijaynagar was a highly multilingual society and Sanskrit occupied the role of the high diglossic language (Fishman, 1967). While Sanskrit was used as a language of cultural and literary production, it was already dying out as a spoken language.
Contrary to popular opinion about the Sanskrit language and its knowledge production being purely Hindu endeavors, Islamic invaders (the Mughals) and European colonialists played key roles in the history of the language. In the 15th century, Mughal kings served as patrons of courtly Sanskrit learnings and commissioned translations of Sanskrit knowledge into Urdu and Persian. In the 18th century, after failed attempts by the Maratha court to revive the language in a fashion similar to Charlemagne’s efforts to save Latin, Sanskrit enjoyed its last period of prolific literary production under the Mughal Court (Pollock, 2001).
Colonialism: Sanskrit through Orientalism-tinged glasses
In the 19th century, the spread of European power and influence in the Indian subcontinent accelerated the decline of Sanskrit knowledge production. European colonizers, Nelson writes, eager to establish themselves as kind and generous rulers, created a narrative around Sanskrit that established the language and its associated cultural tradition as an artifact lost in the past. They were then able to position themselves as salvagers of this lost but immensely important culture. The colonizers also viewed the Sanskrit literary tradition as a way of understanding the history and culture of the ‘Hindu people’. To establish goodwill with the populace, and to differentiate themselves from their Islamic predecessors, the British decided on ruling each section of Indian society under its respective laws. Therefore, they turned to a small selection of old Sanskrit texts, including the Manusmriti and Bhagavad Gita to find an “ancient constitution” from which to derive a ‘Hindu Law’.
As is a common theme in postcolonial studies, this pursuit of a set of written rules was very reductionist since actual social and cultural norms in India were more subjective, and in a lot of cases, more recently updated than the literature which the British referred (Nelson, 2017). Colonial India also saw the import of the “nominalist monolingual model” of governance from Europe, which meant that socio-political identity and authority stemmed increasingly from language and community. As a result, Sanskrit texts that were selected by the British came to be viewed definitively as the most important works of Sanskrit, which rendered Sanskrit texts produced thereafter practically redundant. Therefore the ‘Sanskrit culture’ that Indians think of today, and tout as proof of pre-colonial achievements of the civilization, rose to prominence, ironically enough, by efforts of the colonizers.
However, as the British set up vernacular language schools to spread literacy to the masses, the importance of Brahmin Sanskrit literacy declined. In 1857, for the first time in Indian literature, Gujarati poet Dalpatram Dahayabhai acknowledged the death of Sanskrit, saying “The language of the gods had died” (Pollock, 2001). Moreover, in elite urban communities, English increasingly replaced Sanskrit as the diglossic high language for knowledge production.
Sanskrit in ‘New India’
Beginning in the late 19th century, Sanskrit started being associated with the Indian independence movement and served as a “weapon of anti-colonial resistance and a source of pride for Indians embattled by the hegemony of Western values and foreign knowledge systems” (Vajpeyi, 2016). By this time, while people acknowledged Sanskrit’s role in defining the identity of the Hindu civilization, the language had no everyday function. As a result, conscious and sustained efforts by a community of Sanskrit speakers were required to keep it alive. However, Sanskrit never had such a community, except for on caste grounds, and in a ‘New India’, built on the principles of social and religious equality, the caste system was abolished (Nelson, 2017).
An Autopsy of Sanskrit
Before talking about why Sanskrit died out, one must consider what constitutes a ‘dead language’. If the metric is the prevalence of the spoken language, historians argue that Sanskrit was never really alive. This is because, for millennia, Sanskrit has been almost exclusively been used for scholarly, literary, or religious discourse. However, if the metric is a composite of spoken tradition and knowledge production, one can identify three key socio-political factors that seem to have lead to the death of Sanskrit.
The first factor is the decline of Sanskrit literary production. Since its peak in 12th century Kashmir, Sanskrit literature has experienced a stagnation of not only style and content, but also quantity. As a result, the language has “ceased to function as a vehicle of living thought” (Pollock, 2001). The second factor is the rise of competing vernaculars, to understand which, it may prove to be useful to draw a comparison with the death of Latin. One can think of Sanskrit as the grammatica and the vernaculars as the idioma. Third, the very exclusivity that gave Sanskrit its prestige as a language of culture led to its demise, and the languages of the masses won out.
Today, although Sanskrit is constitutionally recognized as a scheduled language, which means that the government is mandated to promote and develop the language, increasing funding has not been able to stop the decline in scholarship. Sanskrit has not occupied a significant role in post-colonial society. As Pollock famously puts it:
The cultivation of Sanskrit in modern India constitutes largely an exercise in nostalgia for those directly involved, and, for outsiders, a source of bemusement that such communication takes place at all. Government feeding tubes and oxygen tanks may try to preserve the language in a state of quasi-animation, but most observers would agree that, in some crucial way, Sanskrit is dead.
The BJP and Sanskrit Revival
The BJP as a political party has its roots in the Hindu nationalist movement and rose to power in 1996 and in 2014 mainly on the shoulders of upper-caste Hindu supporters. BJP leadership has often spoken of an ideal India being a Hindu Rashtra, or Hindu nation, which spans all off modern-day India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pakistan. In their socio-political worldview, the Sanskrit language and its revival occupy a central role in establishing the identity of this Hindu Rashtra and reconnecting with conservative Hindu values. The spillover of this ideology into policy decisions is often referred to as ‘Saffronisation’ since it seeks to enforce Hindu values on a country is neither constitutionally, nor demographically, nor linguistically homogeneous Hindu. As a result, a significant portion of the BJP’s Hindu Rashtra agenda revolves around revisionist rhetoric and policy, especially regarding the Sanskrit language and Sanskrit scholarship.
In the party’s first term in power in the late 90s, led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the government established the year from 1999–2000 as “The Year of Sanskrit”, and the first week of August as “Sanskrit Week”. The government also sponsored conversation camps, plays, and literary competition for students in attempts to revive Sanskrit (Pollock, 2001). Since 2014, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sanskrit has started occupying a larger role in what Vajpeyi calls the “‘culture wars’ between the Hindu Right and secular left”. She also notes that the BJP led government is now, more aggressively than ever before, working towards Sanskrit revival and translating “Hindu nationalist agendas into concrete policy frameworks”. These policy frameworks include, but are not limited to, introducing “Yoga Day” and “Guru Day” to the official national calendar, funding three new Sanskrit universities, and implementing Sanskrit language teaching in many higher education institutions. (Vajpeyi, 2016).
The revisionist rhetoric of the Modi government and its supporters is manifesting in two main forms in contemporary India. First, the government is engaging in rhetoric to emphasize, not always entirely accurately, the historical achievements of the Sanskrit knowledge production tradition. Secondly, the BJP is looking to marry its two key manifestos of economic development and revival of conservative values by changing Sanskrit’s image from being an “artifact of the ancient world” to being a tool that will propel India into the 21st century and show the modernity of the Hindu civilization (Vajpeyi, 2016). To achieve these ends, not only has the government mandated the teaching of Sanskrit in the nation’s premier institutes of technology, but it is also promoting the idea that Sanskrit is an ideal language for computer programming. In a 2018 speech at a Delhi university, President Ram Nath Kovind said
Many scholars believe that the grammar of Sanskrit, which is rule-bound, formula-bound and logical, is the most appropriate to write algorithms, or to be used in machine learning and even artificial intelligence
Furthermore, key ministers in the BJP government and its supporters have claimed that stem cell research, organ transplantation, plastic surgery, and airplanes existed in India thousands of years before the Western civilization ‘discovered’ them (Vajpeyi, 2016).
In addition to these direct steps, the government has also endorsed the actions of its allied social groups, including the radical Hindu Rashtriya Samyasevak Sangh (RSS). Samskritra Bharti, a ‘Speak Sanskrit’ movement launched by the Hindu Seva Pratishthana, a volunteer organization associated with RSS, is trying to revive spoken Sanskrit across the nation. In his paper “Licked by the mother tongue”, Hastings talks about some of the challenges associated with their mission. Firstly, since Sanskrit has not had any significant function in the everyday lives of Indian people for centuries, the organization has to create contexts and situations where the language can be used in modern society. This is because, unless a language has a function distinct from other languages being spoken in the community, they die out. As Fishman puts it, multilingualism without diglossia is a transitory state of affairs (Fishman, 1967). To create these situations, Samskrita Bharti has been holding conversation camps where participants are encouraged to speak entirely in Sanskrit for around 10 days. However, as per their own reports, the attrition rate of participants after this camp is very high, despite aggressive follow-up strategies (Hastings, 2008).
In India, it is common to hear the phrase “Sanskrit is the mother of all Indian languages”. Genealogically, this is not true, since Sanskrit is not the parent language of most Indian vernaculars, but instead mostly a source for lexical borrowings. However, the Samskrita Bharti has exploited this already inaccurate adage to talk about Sanskrit as the ‘mother tongue’, or a language spoken by the mother. The organization recognizes the importance of households in spreading spoken Sanskrit across the country and view mothers as crucial agents of change in this process. This is interesting not only because the dev bhasha is now becoming the jana bhasha, or the language of the people, but also because Sanskrit is being changed from a language associated with “masculine priestly authority and ritual practice into one of feminine domesticity” (Hastings, 2008). This, however, does not mean that the exclusivity associated with the language has gone away, since middle and upper-middle-class upper-caste Hindu households are Samskrita Bharti’s primary targets. Despite such efforts, only about 30 households were recognized as “Sanskrit Households”. Among them, most were families of people who work for the organization. Moreover, it is ironic that a movement that seeks to domesticize Sanskrit, by labeling households that do speak the language as special, is itself ritualizing the practice (Hastings, 2008).
Sanskrit and “Modern India”
In addition to these intrinsic factors that are inhibiting the revival of Sanskrit, there has also been significant pushback by various groups about the government’s emphasis on Sanskrit. Since the language is historically associated with a select elite section of the society, and some of its most revered texts, such as the Manusmriti, preach oppressive social ideas, many people think of Sanskrit as a language that is associated with discriminatory and patriarchal ideas. People believe that Sanskrit has a history of marginalizing everyone who is not an upper-caste Hindu man, and therefore should not occupy a large role in ‘modern India’, which should instead be based on the foundations of social equality. Secular and left-wing scholars argue that the strong connections of Sanskrit to Hindu propaganda means that the evils of making the language more prevalent outweigh the benefits. Dalits, people who have historically been thought of as outcastes of the Hindu Caste system, a keystone of Sanskrit knowledge production, believe that the language promotes old ideas of social inequality. Muslims and other non-Hindu Indians believe that while Sanskrit highlights the greatness of the Hindu civilizations, it overlooks the contributions of Islamic and other influences on the Indian cultural heritage (Vajpeyi, 2016).
As established in this essay, what Indians today think of the Sanskrit language and its associated culture is a product of centuries of myth-making, not only by European colonizers but also by the democratically elected Indian government. This means that the ‘Hindu identity’ that Sanskrit defines is also based on mythological and/or orientalist ideas about what the Hindu identity is. Moreover, the BJP’s efforts to use Sanskrit to highlight the greatness of a purely Hindu past, marginalizing all other groups (including lower caste Hindys), displays an obsession with purity that is commonly associated with fascism (Singh, 2017).
At this point, it becomes important to revisit the question with which we started this essay. How will Sanskrit help solve the problems of “modern India”? Can India truly even be a modern country if it looks towards a long-dead language to solve its problems? From a policy perspective, the opportunity cost of the government’s obsession with Sanskrit Revival is very high. The attention, time and funding allocated to Sanskrit Revival, most literally a lost cause, could much better spent taking direct action to mitigate the real, tangible, solvable problems that exist in “modern India”: from healthcare and education reform, to pollution, corruption and social injustice. While it is undeniably important to not forget the Sanskrit language and appreciate ancient Sanskrit scholarship, there are better ways of achieving these goals. Trying to revive a language that was rarely, if ever, spoken, enforcing Hindu rhetoric on a secular country and making fictitious claims about the greatness of the language are not sustainable means of cultivating an appreciation of the past in future generations. Not only are some of these actions unconstitutional, but they also undermine the true value of the Sanskrit language and Sanskrit knowledge production.
Fishman, Joshua A. “Bilingualism with and without diglossia; diglossia with and without bilingualism.” Journal of social issues 23.2 (1967): 29–38.
Hastings, Adi. “Licked by the mother tongue: Imagining everyday Sanskrit at home and in the world.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 18.1 (2008): 24–45.
Nelson, Matthew. “Life in a Dead Language.” Journal of World Literature 2.4 (2017): 411–432.
Pollock, Sheldon. “The death of Sanskrit.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43.2 (2001): 392–426.
“Sanskrit Most Suitable for Machine Learning, AI: Ram Nath Kovind.” The Indian Express, 22 Apr. 2018, indianexpress.com/article/education/sanskrit-most-suitable-for-machine-learning-ai-ram-nath-kovind-5146982/.
Singh, Prabhakar. “A lawyer’s account of the ‘Death of Sanskrit ’thesis.” Economic & Political Weekly 52.38 (2017): 27.
Vajpeyi, Ananya. “The Return of Sanskrit: How an old language got caught up in India’s new culture wars.” World Policy Journal 33.3 (2016): 45–50.