Lip service to Sanskrit, no revival roadmap

Messages in chaste Sanskrit from the Prime Minister, foreign minister and education minister at a global summit tomorrow will not be enough to convince scholar Ramesh Bhardwaj that the Narendra Modi government has what it takes to revive research in Indian classical languages.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 28.06.15
Sushma Swaraj

New Delhi, June 27: Messages in chaste Sanskrit from the Prime Minister, foreign minister and education minister at a global summit tomorrow will not be enough to convince scholar Ramesh Bhardwaj that the Narendra Modi government has what it takes to revive research in Indian classical languages.

New Delhi has thrown its diplomatic weight behind the 16th World Sanskrit Conference in Bangkok, sending the external affairs minister for the first time to the event, which begins exactly a week after the Prime Minister led International Day of Yoga celebrations from Rajpath.

But sections of India's classical language scholars fear the public diplomatic outreach may end up as little more than "tokenism" amid a persisting domestic apathy that Amartya Sen highlighted at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2014.

The scholars credit human resource development minister Smriti Irani, whose carefully crafted message the Bangkok organisers will read out along with one from Modi, with bringing Sanskrit back to Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan schools last year after it was displaced by German.

But a year after it assumed office, there is little other evidence that the Modi government has done much for India's classical languages, including Sanskrit, which many in the current administration claim to hold dear.

Rohan Murty

"There is no clear roadmap for Sanskrit research," Bhardwaj, head of the Sanskrit department at Delhi University, told The Telegraph. "The reason, I suspect, is that the government and its advisers are themselves not clear about what it means and what it takes to build both quality research and a pipeline of potential researchers."

Sen had called classical languages the "emotional content of a culture" and asked India's government to enhance investments into their research and into the humanities as opposed to a lopsided focus on the sciences.

Globally, countries keen on keeping their classical languages alive have adopted a three-step process: introducing these languages in schools, protecting traditional forms of learning (examples in the Indian context will be gurukuls and madarsas) and contemporary research at universities. India lags in all three processes.

Soon after coming to power in May last year, the Modi government had announced the celebration of a "Sanskrit Week" in schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education.

But scholars argue that India needs to follow the examples of some European countries and get its schools to adopt classical languages as a mandatory subject - not just in central schools, and not just as a subject of study for a week in a year.

Learning Latin is mandatory in Italian high schools, for instance, but Sanskrit is either an optional subject or not taught at all in Indian schools.

"Tell students they can choose one classical language, but then make sure they study that," Masud Anvar Alavi, head of the Arabic department at Aligarh Muslim University, told this newspaper.

"This shouldn't be looked at from the prism of religion - that Muslims should study Arabic or Persian, and Hindus Sanskrit."

Italy has a system of schooling called the Liceo Classico where Latin and ancient Greek are compulsory subjects but India lacks any organised gurukul system for Sanskrit.

The research scene is no better.

In Bangkok, India has provided the funds for a cultural event and a dinner that foreign minister Sushma Swaraj will attend with the Sanskrit scholars. But back in New Delhi, one of the country's top Sanskrit research institutions is struggling to stay afloat, stripped of funds.

The Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan was allocated zero fresh funds in the July 2014 budget, and then again in the February 2015 budget, documents show. The institution had no vice-chancellor for over a year and a half before Parameshwara Narayan Shastry, a Sanskrit scholar, was appointed in April this year.

The Indian government's apathy is thrown into sharp relief by a new focus on classical languages and literature - including India's - at foreign institutions.

Rohan Murty, son of Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy, has given a $5.2-million grant to Harvard University Press to publish works in Indian classical literature in both the original language and in English.

The Murty Classical Library of India was launched in New Delhi this January, a spokesperson said. "The idea was to revive classics - but not focus only on Sanskrit, as can happen," library spokesperson said.

"I may speak Kannada, for instance, but I don't really know much about Kannada classics. Changing that is the idea."

Harvard University Press will publish fiction, non-fiction, poetry and religious texts in Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Persian, Arabic, Telugu, Urdu, Malayalam and Buddhist texts in Pali.

Some scholars see hope in the government's support for the Sanskrit conference and in the global renaissance in research on classical languages.

"I'm optimistic," Amarjiva Lochan, a Delhi University Sanskrit professor who is participating in the conference, said over the phone from Bangkok.

"You have never had an Indian foreign minister attending such a conference, even though it has been held for decades. And in this conference, we are treating Sanskrit like a living language."

For instance, Sushma will inaugurate the conference speaking in Sanskrit - as she had done while taking the oath of office in May 2014.

Conferences like the Bangkok summit are important for Sanskrit scholars, and must be encouraged, Bhardwaj agreed.

"And it is very good if the government supports such initiatives," he said. "What you don't want is the support reduced to tokenism. There's a lot that needs to be done."