Fact 26 – There is an amazing amount of literature in Sanskrit

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Thomas Macaulay, who played a major role in the introduction of English and western concepts to education in India, in his ‘Minute on Indian Education’ of February 1835, said ‘I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’.

Macaulay went on to say, ‘It will hardly be disputed, I suppose, that the department of literature in which the Eastern writers stand highest is poetry. And I certainly never met with any orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanskrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same.’

Macaulay was condescending enough to say that there could be something in Indian works of imagination (but of course, they were nothing compared to what was produced in Europe!). And it must be remembered that the “Orientalists” he refers to are, of course, European!

The fact is that European studies and literature really developed only after the European Renaissance (well into the sixteenth century). If Macaulay had compared English outputs before the Renaissance to Sanskrit outputs, where would he have been? In fact, Sanskrit can boast of more works than any other language during the Vedic and classical periods.

Unfortunately, however, Macaulay’s ideas became the line of discourse for many generations of Europeans and many Indians and remain the ‘gold standard’ to this day.

Western educators, unwittingly or on purpose, created an artificial divide among Indians in the name of language. So much so, that in India there was a phase, after independence, when everything about Sanskrit was considered bad. Historians and writers who dominated the intellectual scene during this period had a particular bent of mind, and had particular axes to grind.

Some of the arguments against Sanskrit, as part of this narrative, were the following: it is the language only of the upper classes, especially the Brahmins; it was the language of patriarchy; it is the language in which the caste system was propounded and propagated and caste oppression extended; it was used to as the vehicle to suppress ‘native’ languages; it was the language of the hated Brahminical tradition since it was used by the Brahmins to further their ‘exclusiveness’; and one of the most divisive arguments of all ‘it is only the language of the North Indians’. In fact, all the ills of Indian society of the later part of the second millennium were blamed on Sanskrit. It was easy as the language could not fight back!

The opposition to Sanskrit reached such high levels that some people refused to give their children traditional names since these names were Sanskrit based!

I am not denying that Sanskrit was the language used by the Indian upper classes (like the Brahmins) to deny knowledge and power to the common man of India. In India, the caste system imposed a stratified knowledge and power structure. And Sanskrit may have been the language used by the elite as a tool to exclude the common man from many areas of knowledge.

But this is not the language’s fault!

English was the language used by the Americans to justify slavery and by the British to justify colonialism. Are we therefore eschewing English? German was used by Hitler to promote his bigoted ideas. So, shall we not study or use German? Indians and others still learn English and German.

Also, it is not very logical to use the societal structure that existed, and was recorded through Sanskrit a few hundred years ago as an excuse for not learning Sanskrit now.

The people who frown at the promotion of Sanskrit may say that the traditions recorded in Sanskrit are only those of the upper classes. This may be true. But unfortunately, in the olden days only the upper classes’ traditions were recorded, whether or not Sanskrit was the language. In other countries too, the main inputs we now have about traditions are all of upper-class traditions. Look at Egypt or Mesopotamia.

The other more important thing is that if Sanskrit was used as a tool for exclusion then, now there are no restrictions on learning Sanskrit or anything else. The language should be now actively promoted so that nobody needs to feel a sense of exclusion.

This is precisely what is happening with English. English was, as it still is, a language used by the Indian upper classes. And English certainly excludes many Indians from day-to-day discourse. All attempts to remove this exclusion by removing English from our curriculum and promoting regional languages or Hindi have been a failure. In fact, people from sections of society that have been traditionally excluded are vociferously asking for English education so that they are not excluded.

If the solution to the problem of exclusion due to English education is active inclusion by promoting the study of English, why not the same recipe for Sanskrit? [Of course, I am not gainsaying the fact that learning Sanskrit does not give the learner the global edge in international dealings and education that English does. I am only using English as a comparison to illustrate my point.]

So, I think the whole argument against the learning of Sanskrit based on past discrimination is not very convincing. I agree that there should not be an attempt to impose Sanskrit on the unwilling. But, then, it is not right to impose any language on anyone.

Only in the last few years, has there been a movement to give Sanskrit its rightful place in the world.

Sanskrit has a tradition of being the vehicle for reporting on a great many areas of research and literature. Some of the outputs of these researches and literature are: the Vedas, the Brāhmaṇas, the Āraṇyakas, the Upaniṣads, epics like the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, Purāṇas like the Bhāgavata, the Viṣṇu Purāṇa and many others, Buddhist writings and literature, literary outputs like poetry, drama and prose writings, works on medicine, eroticism, aesthetics, logic, astronomy and astrology, rituals, music, sculpture, painting, philosophy, theology, devotion, dictionaries, thesauruses, etymology, mathematics, architecture, law and many other areas. The Vedas and other religious texts are chanted regularly in many Indian households even now.

The high level of education that existed in India before the 19th century, and the deliberate neglect and uprooting of this system by the British from the 19th century onwards for the introduction of the Western system in the early 19th century, is brought out very poignantly by Dharampal, the great Gandhian, in his seminal work, “The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century”. He cites many surveys done by British officials to arrive at his conclusions. In those surveys, we can find lists of books, used in Indian schools of the various presidencies of India, prior to the ‘modernisation’ of the system. The list includes many important Sanskrit works. And, the most surprising result of some of these surveys was that many schools had more lower caste students than upper caste ones. This actually leads to two conclusions. 1. Sanskrit was routinely taught in Indian schools to a very high level till the 19th century and this attests to the continuity of Sanskrit education from antiquity. 2. Education (and also Sanskrit) was not limited to the upper castes.

We have to remember that among the nations speaking the Indo-European languages, only India (and to some extent Persia) has given rise to great religions – the Sanātana Dharma which includes Buddhism and Jainism also. The other great religions of the world – Islam and Christianity – have both come from speakers of Semitic languages.

The literary, religious and philosophical inquiries and outputs of Persia, from where the world could have seen another great Indo-European religion rising, shifted to an Islamic base after the Muslim conquests of the seventh century. And of course, the same pursuits of Europe, which also had many vibrant native religions and literature similar to the Indian and Persian ones, shifted to a Christian base after the institutionalisation of Christianity, beginning with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century CE.

There was an astonishing amount of work done in Sanskrit till about four hundred years ago. Scholars and poets were composing well-known material in Sanskrit well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries CE [A few examples: Nageśa and others of the semantic school; Melpattur Nryaa Bhattathiripad’s Nārāyaṇīyamworks published by scholars of the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy etc.] However, with the coming of, initially the Muslim rulers, and then the Europeans, the Indian impetus seems to have been lost. In the recent decades this impetus is slowly being regained.

The history of Sanskrit literature falls into two broad periods – Vedic and post-Vedic. The Vedic period starts about 4000 BCE and goes on up to around 500 BCE and the post Vedic period is the one after that.

We will take these periods and its sub-periods in the next few “facts” (Fact 27 to Fact 41).


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