On the 'return' of Sanskrit

Tarinee Awasthi
Tarinee AwasthiSep 19, 2016 | 17:02

On the 'return' of Sanskrit

In an opinion piece carried by The Hindu in 2014, Ananya Vajpeyi writes, "Sanskrit must be taken back from the clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in Brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes, and a variety of other wrong-headed characters in the Right…"

I could not agree more with her, although one can't but wonder how she has determined who these "wrong-headed characters in the Right" are. The problem with her more recent article, "The Return of Sanskrit: How an Old Language Got Caught up in India's New Culture Wars", which appeared in World Policy Journal 2016 (Volume 33, Number 2) is two-fold; in the first place, she repeatedly misrepresents those who disagree with her on the importance of Sanskrit, and secondly, she presumes that the uses of Sanskrit are limited to those which she chooses to recognise and legitimise.


The flaws in her argument are many; the first is that everyone who is in the "Sanskrit camp", so to speak, is of the Hindu Right; moreover, the Hindu Right is invariably communal, casteist, and divisive.

The second move, which draws upon some of Pollock's impressive, extensive, and substantial scholarship, is that there is something inherent in Sanskrit's use in a contemporary context that allows for; nay, makes inevitable; its use in such a divisive fashion (cf Pollock, 1993).

Finally, she limits the significance of Sanskrit to either academic contexts, or words that have been "naturalised into English and are recognised around the world".

This is a rather elitist reading of Sanskrit, which is oblivious to the pervasive presence of Sanskrit and presumes to decide which of the uses of Sanskrit are "authentic" and which of them are somehow inauthentic and instrumentalist.

In addition, of course, her understanding of what Sanskrit is important for is limited to institutional settings.

Towards the beginning of the article, she writes, "The two meanings of the swastika - one ancient, one modern; one good, the other evil; one Eastern, the other Western - encapsulate the contradictions within Sanskrit itself".


This binary belies the lived reality of millions who continue to revere the swastika, without having even heard of Nazim, let alone supporting it. While I believe that she complicates this simplistic dichotomy through the course of her article, the suggestive parallel between "modern, evil, Western" usages of Sanskrit and the Swastik is disturbing to say the least.

Of course, it is not something she stays with, and complicates almost immediately after, one can't but wonder why she brings it up, and whether she is trying to suggest, if briefly, that all contemporary usages of Sanskrit are "modern, evil, Western".

Her account of what became of Sanskrit in post-Independence India is astonishing. She holds that Sanskrit was mostly ignored by the post-colonial Indian State and only in the last two or three years has it been taken up again under Modi's regime.

Are we to conclude that there is truly nothing of any value whatsoever in Sanskrit texts? (Photo credit: Google) 

"India's post-colonial leaders had managed to build a consensus that valued equal citizenship and democracy over the relics of the past". These "relics of the past" include Sanskrit and caste (almost coterminous in parts of Vajpeyi's analysis) and this consensus, apparently, is being violated by the current BJP government.

Her assessment of the attitude pre-Modi regimes adopted towards Sanskrit seems somewhat inadequate; Pollock (2001) writes, "This anxiety has a longer and rather melancholy history in independent India, far antedating the rise of the BJP" (both about Sanskrit's role in shaping the historical identity of the Hindu nation and about its contemporary vitality), although he comments upon the "disparities between political inputs and cultural outcomes".


At the same time, that Sanskrit is a mere "relic of the past", and as undesirable as caste, is a contention that is clearly problematic. It is nobody's case that Sanskrit texts were not implicit in exclusionary practices or ideas.

However, it is only possible to argue that Sanskrit cannot be used in modern times as a living paradigm, which can engage critically with some of these issues, if one is convinced that those who are passionate about contemporary uses of Sanskrit are invariably motivated by casteist passions or are simply uneducated.

Vajpeyi only cites two modern critics of Sanskrit in this article; one is Ambedkar, the other, Pollock. It is evidently problematic to speak of them in the same breath.

While her treatment of Ambedkar is limited to two paragraphs, she discusses Pollock at greater length, and says, "Pollock's efforts to democratise the world of classical Indic scholarship, desacralise Sanskrit, and bring expertise on premodern India to bear on our understanding of modern India have generated a storm of controversy. After he spoke out in support of JNU's beleaguered students, Right-wing 'culture warriors' of the BJP and their troll armies launched an aggressive campaign this spring to remove Pollock from the general editorship of the Murty Classical Library of India, published by Harvard University Press…"

It is interesting to note how the effort to "democratise the world of classical Indic scholarship" must always be carried out in conjunction with an effort to "desacralize Sanskrit".

What of those, one wonders, for whom Sanskrit is part of their lives, their very being? Or must such people not exist, for Pollock (2001) has already pronounced his verdict, "Sanskrit as a communicative medium in contemporary India is completely denaturalized. Its cultivation constitutes largely an exercise in nostalgia for those directly involved, and, for outsiders, a source of bemusement that such communication takes place at all"; the variety of roles languages and registers play notwithstanding, Sanskrit in general must have been denaturalised.

Few people, I admit, can truly claim Sanskrit as their mother tongue; but can only those who claim Sanskrit as such claim it? But let me not be carried away, lest I be termed a "Right-wing 'culture warrior' of the BJP" or a soldier of their "troll armies" (as a side, having been taught by more than one of these "culture warriors", I am sorry to report none of them were affiliated to the BJP in as excitingly insidious ways as Dr Vajpeyi suggests).

For criticism of Pollock must obviously come from those with ulterior motives. It is inconceivable that someone could actually have an engaged criticism of Pollock's scholarship, or have serious ideological issues with his general editorship.

What is also appalling is the account of the ways in which "the BJP government has made Sanskrit a key component of its goal to recast the secular Republic of India as the Hindu Rashtra".

Here, Dr Vajpeyi indulges in factual inaccuracies, oversimplifications, and gross misidentifications and misrepresentations of the pUrvapakSa, unbecoming of a scholar.

The International Yoga Day, she claims, was instituted by the BJP; the first Yoga Day celebrations appear to have been carried out in June 2015, after the endorsement at the United Nations by 175 countries of a resolution proposed by India.

There are also deep issues with ability to speak in Sanskrit that the minister of external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, demonstrates; for as we have observed, it is a completely denaturalised practise.

But that aside, the minister even dared claim that knowledge in Sanskrit might help think of solutions to problems such as "global warming, unsustainable consumption, civilizational clash, poverty, and terrorism".

It is not clear just why such a claim would be so offensive to Dr Vajpeyi. Are we to conclude that there is truly nothing of any value whatsoever in Sanskrit texts?

But she does repeatedly claim that there is, in fact, much in them that must be studied seriously. Then shall we refuse all access to whatever there may be of value?

Or are we to critically reconsider them so as to find a strategy that allows us to utilise that which is valuable and expunge that which is bigoted? Her reduction of votaries to Sanskrit to those who would find airplanes in ancient India does not merit a serious response, for it is obviously a strategy to reduce the ideological "other" to the least intellectually sound components and then ridicule them.

It comes down to this; are we to believe that only uses of Sanskrit legitimised by Dr Vajpeyi; or even better, Prof Sheldon Pollock; whose own legitimacy is drawn from their association with various academic institutions in cosmopolitan locations, are valid, and all others motivated by some ulterior motive or the other?

With immense respect for their scholarship, I cannot possibly agree. Sanskrit has far more uses, far more meanings, than they are willing to concede. Sanskrit lives on in ways that they refuse to recognise.

"Today Sanskrit has come out of the ivory tower and descended onto the cultural battlefield. It's time that scholars and academics did the same," ends Dr Vajpeyi's article.

On the contrary, it is only today that Sanskrit is re-entering the ivory towers that have, for far too long, been dominated by those who would shut their eyes to all but the most convenient expressions of "popular sentiment", and arrogate to themselves the right to legitimise some forms of assertion and dissent while dismissing others.

I agree, it is time scholars and academics descended; but onto a cultural battlefield? Or into a space of creative contemplation, serious dialogue, which treats either side with respect, and honestly tries to understand it, and find a middle path?

A middle path is impossible if we reduce the variety of positions on Sanskrit into those held by these "wrong-headed characters in the Right" on the one hand, and those who seek to "desacralize Sanskrit" on the other.

But must there not be dialogue between those who claim Sanskrit as their own while also recognising problems inherent in some of its usages on the one hand, and those who wish Sanskrit well even while situating them outside the pale of the traditions that claim it?

Works cited

1. Pollock, Sheldon, "Ramayana and Political Imagination in India" in The Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 52 No. 2, May 1993

2. "The Death of Sanskrit" in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 43, No 2, Apr, 2001

3. Vajpeyi, Ananya. "The Return of Sanskrit: How an Old Language Got Caught up in India's New Culture Wars" in World Policy Journal Volume 33, No 3, Fall 2016 

4. "The Story of my Sanskrit", The Hindu, August 16, 2014

Last updated: September 19, 2016 | 17:02
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