Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The neglect of India's classical languages

Last year, the Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock asked why India pays scant attention to its linguistic heritage. The neglect of classical languages means that the vast majority of Indians remain divorced from a deeper understanding of their own past. To put things in perspective, think of how well studied Western classical languages are; it is no surprise that the West understands its own journey to the present really well -- and is constantly reinterpreting it.

I feel proud of India’s Hindu-Buddhist history, but my knowledge of Sanskrit or even my own mother tongue Tamil – yet another classical language – is so poor, any understanding I may claim to have of this heritage can only be superficial. I have not read a single text in an Indian language. Even the realization that Sanskrit has a complex grammar, that novel numerical methods constitute much of ancient Indian mathematics, was recent – I learned of them through the painstaking work of Western scholars such as Nicholas Ostler and Kim Plofker.

In her new essay, Crisis in the Classics, Ananya Vajpeyi stresses the enormity of the Indian problem:
Kusum Pawde, a Maharashtrian woman of non-Brahmin origins, has written a seminal essay titled “The Story of my ‘Sanskrit’,” describing the struggles she faced growing up outside upper caste society in Maharashtra and becoming a Sanskrit scholar and university teacher. Her story took place back when the study of Sanskrit was still confined to Brahmin men; Pawde had to fight discrimination on the grounds of both caste and gender. Yet, when I first read her essay whilst doing my own doctoral work in Maharashtra thirty-five or forty years after she completed her education, even with my rather different social and financial situation, I found it no less difficult to navigate the world of Sanskrit scholarship.

The only place Sanskrit felt accessible was in the classroom at the University of Chicago with American professors and classmates, or on the fifth floor of the Regenstein Library, which housed every text – old or new, classical or vernacular, Indian or European – that one might conceivably need. Between 1998 and 2003, I spent almost five years in the field, travelling to every major centre of Sanskrit, learning throughout the Deccan and southern India. By the time I returned to Chicago to write my dissertation, I had to concede that there was no “there” there for the study of pre-modern India, in India.

In early 2010, Gurcharan Das told me that he was disturbed about having to go to American universities to study or refresh his Sanskrit in preparation for writing his latest book, The Difficulty of Being Good (2009). Das was an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1960s, where he read Sanskrit with Daniel Ingalls. Four decades later, he returned to the University of Chicago to brush up his philological skills with Ingalls’ students, Sheldon Pollock and Wendy Doniger.

As we shared stories across generations, I recounted to Das my own disappointments and difficulties in trying to study Sanskrit in India. I told him about my misadventures at universities, libraries, archives, and traditional schools in multiple states – Maharashtra, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Bengal. I had spent my twenties in graduate school, searching for Sanskrit. I found it more readily in the U.K. and the U.S.; in India, it consistently eluded me. Das looked at me in amazement; it had not occurred to him that his experience – call it the difficulty of being good at classical studies in India – was not by any means unique to him.

Arguably, linguistic diversity and literary richness ought to be India’s strongest suit, given its history both as an old civilization and as a diverse and multi-vocal democracy. Alas, we have driven our languages and literatures into the ground. Linguistic chauvinism and language-centred identity politics abound. Yet, not a single political ideology protects and nurtures the languages, which remain orphans in the political process and in the networks of institutional patronage cultivated by different parties.

But Sanskrit was never merely – and certainly need no longer be – a tool of epistemic violence against vulnerable sections of our society, including women, lower castes, tribals, and Muslims. It is, like it or not, one of a very small number of keys to our entire recorded history; without an ability to be functional in this language, without preserving its texts, its archives, and its material residues, we simply cannot know our own origins. Wilfully destroying and forgetting the historical past, in the manner of Communist Russia and China in the twentieth century, or distancing and censoring it in the manner of other new republics based on old cultures, like Turkey and Iran, is not the way forward for India.

Try to imagine independent India without its founding, fundamental, and inalienable texts, whether ancient or modern, upper caste or outcaste: the sermons of the Buddha, the edicts of Asoka, the epics of Vyasa and Valmiki, the songs of its Sufis and bhakti poets, the teachings of its saints and sages, the lessons of its gurus, the Constitution of its Republic, Gandhi’s letters, Ambedkar’s articles, Nehru’s speeches, Tagore’s national anthem, and the innumerable stories that we continuously recount. Not land, blood, race, religion, or state – language itself is our essence. Without our words, we are nothing.
It's a superb essay, a heartfelt plea that one hopes will be heard -- and soon. Read it here.


sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about these Sanskrit books?

Hari said...

sfauthor -- Thanks for the link. There do seem to be done interesting books in there. I'll have to look in detail.