When all the arrangements were made by the corporate media and Hinduist forces for ensuring that Modi became the next Prime Minister, the democratic forces and progressive political organizations were still trying hard to make people understand his real agenda of imposing corporate capitalism and Brahminical Hinduism, in a rapidly fascist manner, in the guise of “development”. Middle-class voters were lured by the media and believed him to be the harbinger of “development”. After taking over the rule at the center, Modi’s government has taken up the burden of disproving the undue trust placed on it by the unfortunate Indian middle class – through an array of anti-people activities like cutting of the gas subsidy, privatization of the public sector and substantial hike in train-fare, not to mention the red-carpet rolled out to FDI investments in defense and railway sectors. The Modi government has also been quite manipulative and has tried to distract people’s attention from these vicious schemes, by working out cultural and social programs with attractive sounding slogans. The imposition of Sanskrit week, Hindi usage for official purposes, Guru Utsav and more recently the Svach Bharat Abhiyan are only some of those programs which rely purely upon empty rhetoric, hardly having any logic or working mechanism. Invoking people’s imagination towards the “national” symbols is a constant resort of the rulers for political mobilization. More often than not in the Indian context, Sanskrit has been used for this political end in order to sustain the eternal hegemony of Brahminical forces. The present politics behind imposing Sanskrit as the symbol of national heritage and culture by the BJP government certainly demands a much broader understanding of the historical role played by Sanskrit and other languages in shaping the societal structure and cultures. The language which was once denied to the people is now promoted to be the language of all Indians. Let’s attempt to unearth this irony of imposing Sanskrit as the language of “ALL” so as to reveal the ridiculousness of these announcements and the urgent need to oppose them.
We first need to look at the status of Sanskrit in the ancient Aryan Society in order to understand the real paradox of epitomizing Sanskrit as the language of “ALL”. First of all, Sanskrit is often said to have brought civilization and refinement to the Indian culture and languages. But, many historians like Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya agree to the fact that when the semi-nomadic Aryan tribes entered the northern part of Indian subcontinent around 18th-11th centuries BCE, the Indus Valley Civilization had already established an urban society based on agriculture and trade. The deciphering attempts of archaeologists like Henry Heras, the Russian scholar Yuri Knorozov, Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan have closed in on the finding that the language used in Indus valley could probably be related to a proto-Dravidian language. After their invasion, the Aryan tribes occupied the north across the five rivers, replacing the Indus Civilization and driving the people living there towards the south and east. These races also mingled in course of time. Around 250 Dravidian words found in Vedas and the incidents narrated therein stand as testimony to these historical hypotheses. The Aryans called others ‘Dasyits’ or ‘inferiors’ as their gods, cultures and languages were different from those of the invaders. Irrespective of the exactness of these findings, it is clear that neither Sanskrit nor Brahmins civilized the subcontinent, for pre-Vedic civilization had undoubtedly existed before the Aryan settlement.
The verses sung by the Aryan tribes during their settlement in North India and development of their ritual sacrifices in a royal set up were later collected into four Vedas. After their settlement across the North, they set up a social structure based on Varna and made the oppression of fellow human beings as the very foundation of Hinduism through the Smritis and Shastras, particularly the Manu Smriti. The Shudras and women had no right to listen or speak Sanskrit, nor they had the right to study Vedas as dictated by Manu: “He (the twice-born) must never read (the Vedas) in the presence of the Shudhras.”—Chapter 4, verse 99, “Women have no business with the text of the Veda.”—Chapter-9, Verse 18, “If the Shudra intentionally listens for committing to memory the Veda, then his ears should be filled with (molten) lead and lac; if he utters the Veda, then his tongue should be cut off; if he has mastered the Veda his body should be cut to pieces.”—Chapter 13, Verse4.
After these Vedas and Smritis developed the classical Sanskrit in which the “epics” Ramayana and Mahabharata, grammars, dramas and commentaries were written approximately up to the tenth century AD. If Sanskrit had anything worthy till this point, it was the anti-Brahminical/non-Vedic school of thoughts propounded by Samkhyas and particularly by Charuvakas who put forth the philosophy of equality based on Lokayata (Materialism) against the Vedic/Brahminical principle of discrimination. The Buddhist texts produced and translated into Sanskrit by the sages and philosophers like Asvaghosh and Nagarjuna also stand as remarkable contributions to the corpus of non-Vedic thoughts recorded in Sanskrit. At the same time, Buddha himself preached his principles in Pali, the language spoken by the common masses, thereby abandoning Sanskrit entirely and attracting a huge number of followers. But Brahminism reincarnated itself from its great down-fall either by crushing these thoughts violently or by adopting their basic traits within itself. A perfect example is found in the parts of Mahabharata insisting non-violence and elimination of Charuvaka as a villain. Sanskrit also thus sustained its hegemonic status with Brahminical Hinduism as its representative language. But it continued to be the exclusive property of Brahmins and upper-castes. Even the characters of menial nature (servants, slaves and women) in Sanskrit plays spoke in Pali, NOT IN Sanskrit.
Even though it was not the spoken language of the common mass at any historical juncture, literary works, grammatical treatises and commentaries were produced in Sanskrit up to the 8th-9th century. After this time, not much was written in Sanskrit except for the commentaries of early grammars and religious philosophies. But again Sanskrit, as the case with Brahminical Hinduism, spread its presence in South India and upon its languages by infiltration and imposition with spiritual sanctity accorded to the Brahmins and their language. Thus a distinct form of writing called ‘Manipiravala Nadai’ (the writing style employing Tamil and Sanskrit words and letters) developed around 12th century AD. Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu also got influenced heavily by Sanskrit and grew into distinct languages in the medieval age. The royal courts of Pallavas, Cholas and subsequent Hindu dynasties accorded Sanskrit the status of the greatest of all languages and offered it many services, which in turn benefited the Brahmins. But the resistance to Sanskrit and Brahminical ideologies of oppression and discrimination epitomized by it were fiercely confronted by the indigenous cultures and languages across the subcontinent. Pali, Chandal, Paisasa and others in the north and Tamil in the south continued to exist unpolluted by Sanskrit among the common people, and also maintained a rich tradition of oral literatures against its influence. Notably, Sanskrit or Brahminical Hinduism could not penetrate the south and among the indigenous people of the north at a deeper level. Tamil country recorded its resistance to Hinduism in manifold respects. Nandanar, a Pariah untouchable by birth, entered the Nataraja temple of Chidambaram in 6th-7th century AD, valiantly opposing the restriction of worship-right to the out-castes in Hinduism. Nandanar was the first fighter for temple-entry right and one among the three to whom Dr. Ambedkar dedicated his book The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? The Siddhas of Tamil composed many verses refusing the Vedic hegemony and advocating a rational form of Bhakti allowing no middle-man (Brahmin) in the way of reaching the truth (Shiva in their conception). This tradition continued up to Vallalar (1823-1874) who famously denounced Brahmins and idols and preached against the caste system. The Brahmins, who claim Muslim rulers as responsible for the killing and exploitation of Indians, burned Nandanar, Vallalar, Andal and many others who opposed their hegemony. They also assassinated 8000 Jains in Madurai taking the Pandia king as their ally. (This was perhaps the first instance of ‘state-sponsored terrorism’!) The available historical records make it apparent that there were many Muslim rulers who patronized Sanskrit and Brahmins.
Let’s come to the core of our discussion: how this language, which was mother tongue only to Brahmins, kept away from the common mass, always represented the Brahminical Hinduism, was never alive as a spoken language and linguistically distinct from the Dravidian and North Eastern languages, assumed to take the pan-Indian identity, motherly status and unquestionable authority in the modern secular state of present India? This story of Sanskrit’s imposition as the “national language” is inextricably linked to the reincarnation of Brahminical Hinduism during the colonial and postcolonial times. The British colonizers were the first to bring the vast territory of the subcontinent into a single empire of British India. The colonial government was most pragmatic in its approach to the native culture and religions, with no other motive but to sustain their rule with minimum or no resistance erupting from within. They were prepared to align themselves with anyone towards this end. Brahmins being the unquestioned superiors among the natives, their version of religion, language, culture and tradition were taken to represent the whole of the subcontinent. By its policy of “non-interference”, in fact the colonial government made the Brahminical values spread uniformly across the nation and allowed the conversion of the caste system into more rigid and oppressive structure. With this was spread the sanctity of Sanskrit in its modern version using scientific tools. Orientalist scholars like William Jones, H. H.Williams and Max Muller accorded Sanskrit the parental position in the Indo-European family of languages. It was primarily through Sanskrit that the Brahmins established their remote connection with the European race and thereby positioned themselves above the rest of the natives. Yet, the missionary workers and a few colonial officers like Ellis and Caldwell, who served in Madras Presidency, mingled freely with the common mass and also found the uniqueness of Dravidian languages, Tamil being the most ancient and unpolluted of Sanskrit among them. This alternate discourse of Dravidian language family and nationalist identities based on political mobilization against the cultural unity claimed by the revivers of Hinduism, posed a great threat to the spread of brahminical hegemony and Sanskrit. At the same time, the hitherto unrepresented and enslaved sections across the country emerged as a group capable of voicing their demands and rights due to the hard-work of progressive leaders coming from these sections. For instance, Mahatma Jyotirao Phule made the first generation school children belonging to Mahar and Mali castes recite their demand for education to the oppressed sections when the Prince of Wales visited India in 1889: “Tell Granma (Queen Victoria) we are a happy nation; but nineteen crores are without education!” thus, the resistance to Brahminism, and monopoly of Brahmins and their Language erupted in various parts of India in the nineteenth century. The Hindu ideologues realized that they could not sustain the monopoly of their religion retaining the older practices advocating discriminatory treatment to the lower castes. In the modern age, the barbaric aspects had to be eliminated or given new meaning to suit the changing circumstances, and that’s exactly what the neo-Hinduistic philosophers like Vivekananda, Arabindo, Gandhi and others did. With this phase of appropriating Hinduism and Brahminical hegemony were shaped Sanskrit and Hindi as representative/national languages of modern India.
A special reference to Hindi is to be made here. Hindi, as it exists now, developed only in the 19th century and was gradually promoted to become another “national language” in the early 20th century. In fact, modern Hindi is a highly Sanskritized version of many languages being spoken by the people of North India. The Devanagari script was assigned to Hindi instead of the Persian script only during this time. With Hindi getting opposed furiously by many regions especially Tamilnadu, Sanskrit was put forth as the icon of India and as the epitome of national identity. In 1956-57, the Central Government appointed a Sanskrit Commission, which inordinately declared: “Indeed, the very land ‘from the snow-covered abode of Siva down to the wave-washed feet of Kumari’ reverberates with the sounds of Sanskrit. Sanskrit’s geography provided the template for the nation’s geography, and the blueprint for its territorial unity.” Surely ridiculous it was, for Sanskrit was no one’s mother tongue except a few hundreds who willingly declared so. In modern India, ironically of course, Sanskrit was projected as the common language just because it was no one’s language. Likewise, Hinduism was told to be the religion because it was no one’s religion, and India was declared to be the nationality of all just because it was no one’s nationality! This was the modern incarnation of Sanskrit and Brahminical Hinduism within the modern (so- called) secular India. Curiously, Dalits, Shudhras, women, and all those sections, who were once disallowed even to listen to it, were invited to study it, master it and accept it as the national language. Obviously however, those who mastered it from these sections were not given the “sacred” jobs hitherto performed by the Brahmins. For instance, Kumud Pawde describes (in her autobiography) how she, a Dalit woman, was first projected as an example for the reach of Sanskrit among the lower castes, but denied any job or respect after she mastered Sanskrit. Likewise, the 206 backward and untouchable caste people who have mastered the Sanskrit Mantras and rituals with diplomas to become temple priests have been denied any right to be appointed in temples with the Brahmins stealthily approaching the Supreme Court against the Tamilnadu Government’s order in this respect. On the contrary, Hinduism was indirectly referred as ‘Indian culture’, ‘morality’ and ‘spiritual values’, since the religious terminology was inappropriate for modern times.
When Sanskrit was turned down as the national language by the majority, Hindi, a proxy for Sanskrit to represent Hinduism, was promoted as the official language. Tamilnadu, Periyar to be precise, was the first to identify the real motives behind promoting Hindi and Sanskrit. Periyar wrote in 1937: “imposition of Hindi or Sanskrit would certainly deprive our self-respect, freedom, civilization and economy.”, and he himself started the anti-Hindi agitation the next year. He also warned that Sanskrit or Hindi would be projected as the language of all, but neither oppressed sections nor their languages would be given equal status. His words were proved most right after the gradual promoting of Sanskrit. Since 1956, crores of funds have been allotted for developing, reviving and researching Sanskrit. This language alone enjoyed the privilege of central government funding and promotion, while developing other languages remains the responsibility of the respective state governments. The present imposition of Sanskrit week and preference to Hindi for official usage is nothing but a more fascist face of imposing Brahminical Hindutva ideologies through these linguistic rocket-launchers.
Understanding this language politics and opposing the supreme status accorded to Sanskrit and Hindi, which are enforced in multiple ways with an aim to enslave the huge proportion of Indian population, is the first formidable step in the long and strenuous path of abolishing Brahminical hegemony and liberating the lower castes, Adivasis and women from the clutches of fascist Hindutva forces.
Aloysius, G. 1997. Nationalism without a Nation in India New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Cardona, George. “On Attitudes towards Language in Ancient India” Sino-Platonic Papers.Jan. 15, 1990. URL: www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp015_language_india.pdf
Chattopadhyaya, Debiprasad. 1976 What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.
Jha, Dwijendra Narayan.2009. Myth of the Holy Cow New Delhi: Navayana.
Orsini, Francesca. 2002. Hindi Public Sphere (1920-1940): Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism. New Delhi: oxford University Press.
Parpola, Asko. 2009. Deciphering the Indus Script. Cambridge University Press.
Ramaswamy, Sumati. “Sanskrit for the Nation” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2 (May, 1999), pp. 339-381.
Importantly, the writings of Periyar and Ambedkar.
*Note: This is an edited version of a speech delivered at a forum held by the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (fAPSC) at IIT Madras on 10th October 2014. During the discussion, Prof. Rajesh, a linguist, made two significant points which ought to be mentioned here: firstly, none of the Indian languages originated solely from Sanskrit. Instead, Sanskrit has also gained much from the Indian languages, particularly the retroflex sounds. Likewise, Indian languages have also gained several qualities from Sanskrit. Secondly, Maithili, which is remarked to be a branch-language of Hindi, in fact has writings dating back to 14th century, whereas Hindi developed to become a written language only in the 19th century. Hence, it is wrong to assume Maithili or Bhojpuri or other north Indian languages as the branches of Hindi, the reality is other way around. The article titled “India as a linguistic area” published in linguistic society of America: http://www.jstor.org/stable/410649 and “Sanskrit and the Indian languages – myth and reality (2011)” published in frontier: http://www.frontierweekly.com/archive/vol-number/vol/vol-44-2011-12/vol-44-11-14/sansktit-44-11-14.pdf could be referred in this regard. The contribution of Prof. Rajesh towards a scientific understanding of the topic is gratefully acknowledged. During the discussion, the increasing sanskritization of Hindi in the present scenario was also pointed out as a Hindutva scheme.