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Geopolitics And Sanskrit Phobia

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This paper discusses the historical and contemporary relationship between geopolitics and Sanskrit, and consists of the following sections:

I. Sanskrit is more than a language. Like all languages, its structures and categories contain a built-in framework for representing specific worldviews. Sanskriti is the name of the culture and civilization that embodies this framework. One may say that Sanskriti is the term for what has recently become known as Indic Civilization, a civilization that goes well beyond the borders of modern India to encompass South Asia and much of Southeast Asia. At one time, it included much of Asia.
II. Interactions among different regions of Asia helped to develop and exchange this pan-Asian Sanskriti. Numerous examples involving India, Southeast Asia and China are given.
III. Sanskrit started to decline after the West Asian invasions of the Indian subcontinent. This had a devastating impact on Sanskriti, as many world-famous centers of learning were destroyed, and no single major university was built for many centuries by the conquerors.
IV. Besides Asia, Sanskrit and Sanskriti influenced Europe’s modernity, and Sanskrit Studies became a large-scale formal activity in most European universities. These influences shaped many intellectual disciplines that are (falsely) classified as “Western”. But the “discovery” of Sanskrit by Europe also had the negative influence of fueling European racism since the 19th century.
V. Meanwhile, in colonial India, the education system was de-Sanskritized and replaced by an English based education. This served to train clerks and low level employees to administer the Empire, and to start the process of self-denigration among Indians, a trend that continues today. Many prominent Indians achieved fame and success as middlemen serving the Empire, and Gandhi’s famous 1908 monograph, “Hind Swaraj,” discusses this phenomenon.
VI. After India’s independence, there was a broad based Nehruvian love affair with Sanskrit as an important nation-building vehicle. However, successive generations of Indian intellectuals have replaced this with what this paper terms “Sanskrit Phobia,” i.e. a body of beliefs now widely disseminated according to which Sanskrit and Sanskriti are blamed for all sorts of social, economic and political problems facing India’s underprivileged classes. This section illustrates such phobia among prominent Western Indologists and among trendy Indians involved in South Asian Studies who learn about Sanskrit and Sanskriti according to Western frameworks and biases.
VII. The clash of civilizations among the West, China and Islam is used as a lens to discuss the future of Sanskriti across South and Southeast Asia.
VIII. Some concrete suggestions are made for further consideration to revitalize Sanskrit as a living language that has potential for future knowledge development and empowerment of humanity.

I. Sanskrit and the Multicultural Sanskriti (Indic Civilization)

In modern Westernized universities, Sanskrit is taught primarily as a language only and that too in connection with Indo-European philology. On the other hand, other major languages such as English, Arabic and Mandarin are treated as containers of their respective unique civilizational worldviews; the same approach is not accorded to Sanskrit. In fact, the word itself has a wider, more general meaning in the sense of civilization. Etymologically, Sanskrit means “elaborated,” “refined,” “cultured,” or “civilized,” implying wholeness of expression. Employed by the refined and educated as a language and a means of communication, Sanskrit has also been a vehicle of civilizational transmission and evolution.

The role of Sanskrit was not merely as a language but also as a distinct cultural system and way of experiencing the world. Thus, to the wider population, Sanskrit is experienced through the civilization named Sanskriti, which is built on it.

Sanskriti is the repository of human sciences, art, architecture, music, theatre, literature, pilgrimage, rituals and spirituality, which embody pan-Indic cultural traits. Sanskriti incorporates all branches of science and technology – medical, veterinary, plant sciences, mathematics, engineering, architecture, dietetics, etc. Pannini’s grammar, a meta-language with such clarity, flexibility and logic that certain pioneers in computer science are turning to it for ideas is one of the stunning achievements of the human mind and is a part of this Sanskriti.

From at least the beginning of the common era until about the thirteenth century, Sanskrit was the paramount linguistic and cultural medium for the ruling and administrative circles, from Purushapura (Peshawar) in Gandhara (Afghanistan) to as far east as Pandurang in Annam (South Vietnam) and Prambanam in Central Java. Sanskrit facilitated a cosmopolis of cultural and aesthetic expressions that encompassed much of Asia for over a thousand years, and this was not constituted by imperial power nor sustained by any organized church. Sanskriti, thus, has been both the result and cause of a cultural consciousness shared by most South and Southeast Asians regardless of their religion, class or gender and expressed in essential similarities of mental and spiritual outlook and ethos.

Even after Sanskrit as a language faded explicitly in most of Asia, the Sanskriti based on it persists and underpins the civilizations of South and Southeast Asia today. What Monier-Williams wrote of India applies equally to Southeast Asia as well: “India’s national character is cast in a Sanskrit mould and in Sanskrit language. Its literature is a key to its vast religious system. Sanskrit is one medium of approach to the hearts of the Indians, however unlearned, or however disunited by the various circumstances of country, caste, and creed” (Gombrich 1978, 16).

Sanskrit unites the great and little traditions:

A bi-directional process facilitated the spread of Sanskriti in South and Southeast Asia. The top-down meta-structure of Sanskrit was transmitted into common spoken languages; simultaneously, there was a bottom-up assimilation of local culture and language into Sanskrit’s open architecture. This is analogous to Microsoft (top down) and Linux (bottom up) rolled into one. Such a culture grows without breaking down, as it can evolve from within to remain continually contemporaneous and advanced.

Pan-Indic civilization emerged in its present composite form through the intercourse between these two cultural streams, which have been called the “great” and “little” traditions, respectively. The streams and flows between them were interconnected by various processes, such as festivals and rituals, and scholars have used these “tracers” to understand the reciprocal influences between Sanskrit and local languages.

Marriott has delineated the twin processes: (i) the “downward” spread of cultural elements that are contained in Sanskrit into localized cultural units represented by local languages, and (ii), the “upward” spread from local cultural elements into Sanskrit. Therefore, Sanskrit served as a meta-language and framework for the vast range of languages across Asia. While the high culture of the sophisticated urbane population (known as “great tradition” in anthropology) provides Sanskriti with refinement and comprehensiveness, cultural input produced by the rural masses (“little tradition”) gives it popularity, vitality and pan-Indian outlook.

Once information about local or regional cultural traits is recorded and encoded in Sanskrit, they become part of Sanskriti. On the other hand, when elements of Sanskriti are localized and given local flavour, they acquire a distinct regional cultural identity and colour. Just as local cultural elements become incorporated into Sanskriti, elements of Sanskriti are similarly assimilated and multiply into a plurality of regional cultural units.

Sanskriti includes the lore and repository of popular song, dance, play, sculpture, painting, and religious narratives. Dimock (1963, 1-5) has suggested that the diversity to be found in the Indic region (i.e. South and Southeast Asia) is permeated by patterns that recur throughout the country, so that each region, despite its differences from other regions, expresses the patterns – the structural paradigmatic aspects – of the whole. Each regional culture is therefore to be seen as a structural microcosm of the full system.

Sanskrit served two purposes: (1) spiritual, artistic, scientific and ritual lingua franca across vast regions of Asia, and (2) a useful vehicle of communication among speakers of local languages, much as English is employed today.

Early Buddhist scriptures were composed and preserved in Pali and other Prakrit (local) languages, but later started to also be composed in what is known as “hybrid Sanskrit.” There was a trend using elegant, Paninian Sanskrit for both verbal and written communication. Tibetan was developed based on Sanskrit and is virtually a mirror image of it.

By the time of Kalidasa (600 C.E.) Sanskrit was mastered diligently by the literati and was, therefore, never a dead language. It is living, as Michael Coulson points out, because people chose it to formulate their ideas in preference to some other language. It flourished as a living language of inter-regional communication and understanding before becoming eclipsed first by Persian and then by English after the military and political conquest of India.

Refuting the habit of dividing the Prakrit languages of India into two structurally separate “North” and “South” independent families, Stephen Tyler explains that “[M]odern Indo-Aryan languages are more similar to Dravidian languages than they are to other Indo-European languages” (Tyler 1973: 18-20).

There is synergy between Sanskrit and Prakrit: A tinge of Prakrit added to Sanskrit brought Sanskrit closer to the language of the home, while a judicious Sanskritization made Prakrit into a language of a higher cultural status. Both of these processes were simultaneous and worked at conscious as well as subconscious levels (Deshpande 1993, 35). As an example of this symbiosis, one may point to various Sanskrit texts in medieval India which were instruction manuals for spoken or conversational Sanskrit by the general public (Deshpande 1993; Salomon 1982; Wezler 1996).

Understanding this leads us to a vital insight about Sanskriti: Given this relationship between Sanskrit and local languages, and that Sanskriti is the common cultural container, it is not necessary for everyone to know Sanskrit in order to absorb and develop an inner experience of the embedded values and categories of meaning it carries. Similarly, a knower of the local languages would have access to the ideas, values and categories embodied in Sanskriti.

Unlike the cultural genocides of natives by Arabic, Mandarin and English speaking conquerors and colonizers, Sanskrit had a mutually symbiotic relationship with the popular local languages, and this remained one of reciprocal reinforcement rather than forced adoption through coercion or conquest.

This deeply embedded cultural dynamism could be the real key to a phenomenon that is often superficially misattributed to the British English: how modern India despite its vast economic disadvantages is able to produce adaptive and world-class individuals in virtually all fields of endeavour. This dynamism makes the assimilation of “modern” and “progressive” ideologies and thought patterns easier in India than in many other developing countries. In fact, it facilitates incorporating “modern” innovations into the tradition. It allows India to achieve its own kind of “modernity” in which it would also remain “Indian,” just as Western modernity is built on distinctly European structures despite their claim of universality. This is why Indians are adaptive and able to compete globally compared to other non-Western traditions today.

II. Pan-Asian Sanskriti

“India is the central link in a chain of regional civilizations that extend from Japan in the far north-east to Ireland in the far north-west. Between these two extremities the chain sags down southwards in a festoon that dips below the Equator in Indonesia.” (A.J. Toynbee)

Centuries prior to the trend of Westernization of the globe, the entire arc from Central Asia through Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Viet Nam and all the way to Indonesia was a crucible of a sophisticated pan-Asian civilization. In A.L. Basham’s “A Cultural History of India,” it is said that:

By the fifth century CE, Indianized states, that is to say states organized along the traditional lines of Indian political theory and following the Buddhist or Hindu religions, had established themselves in many regions of Burma, Thailand, Indo-China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. (Basham 1975, 442-3)

However, unlike the violent spread of Europeanism in recent centuries, this Sanskritisation of Asia was entirely peaceful, never resorting to physical force or coercion to subvert local cultures or identities, or to engage in economic or political exploitation of the host cultures and societies. Its worldviews were based on compassion and mutual exchange, and not on the principle of conquest and domination. This is not to say that political disputes and wars of conquest never occurred, but that in most instances, neither the motive nor the result was the imposition of cultural or religious homogeneity.

The following passage from Arun Bhattacharjee’s “Greater India” elaborates this point clearly:

The unique feature of India’s contacts and relationship with other countries and peoples of the world is that the cultural expansion was never confused with colonial domination and commercial dynamism far less economic exploitation. That culture can advance without political motives, that trade can proceed without imperialist designs, settlements can take place without colonial excesses and that literature, religion and language can be transported without xenophobia, jingoism and race complexes are amply evidenced from the history of India’s contact with her neighbors…Thus although a considerable part of central and south-eastern Asia became flourishing centers of Indian culture, they were seldom subjects to the regime of any Indian king or conquerors and hardly witnessed the horrors and havocs of any Indian military campaign. They were perfectly free, politically and economically and their people representing an integration of Indian and indigenous elements had no links with any Indian state and looked upon India as a holy land rather than a motherland – a land of pilgrimage and not an area of jurisdiction. (Bhattacharjee 1981, 1-3)

This Sanskritisation in Asia provided an adaptive and flexible unity to those regions it influenced. For example, in Thailand you can find the city of Ayodhya and Thai versions of the Ramayana. In Java, a local forest inhabited by monkeys is thought to have been the home of Hanuman at some point and the current residences his descendents. Every polity influenced by this Sanskritization was able to incorporate the vast Sanskriti culture into its own. This malleability provided a non-invasive and unimposing diffusion.

Sanskriti and Southeast Asia:

The establishment of trade (of goods and mutual material benefit) between India and Southeast Asia was the mechanism of this culture and knowledge trade:

Contacts between India and South-East Asia along the trade-routes, once established, persisted; and cultural changes in the Indian subcontinent had their effect across the Bay of Bengal. During the late Gupta and the Pala-Sena periods many Southeast Asian regions were greatly influenced by developments in Indian religious ideas, especially in the Buddhist field. (Basham 1975, 449)

This Sanskrit based civilization was not centrally developed in what is present day India, but was rather the collaborative effort of Indians with many Asian peoples, especially the Southeast Asians. For example, there were regular scholarly exchanges between thinkers from many diverse parts of Asia.

Many Asian kings sent their best students to centers of learning in India, such as Taksasila and Nalanda, which were ancient equivalents of today’s Ivy Leagues in America where the third world now sends its brightest youth for higher education. King Baladeva of Indonesia was so supportive of the university in Nalanda that in A.D. 860 he made a donation to it (Basham 1975, 449). The support given to the university from a foreign king thousands of miles away in Southeast Asian demonstrates how important scholarly exchange was for those regions under the influence of Pan-Asian Sanskriti.

Interestingly, the geographies mentioned in the Puranas, such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, include many countries, especially of Southeast Asia, as a part and parcel of the Indic region. This indicates an ancient link between South and Southeast Asian even before the relatively modern Sanskritization that is being discussed here.

Sanskriti and Thailand:

Sanskriti has an established and obvious influence in Thailand, dating from 1500 years ago to the present day. Sanskrit was used for public social, cultural, and administrative purposes in Thailand and other regions of Southeast Asia.

The Thais, once established in the Menam basin, underwent a process of Indianization which, because it is well documented, provides an invaluable example of the mechanics of cultural fusion in South-East Asia… On the other hand, the Thais absorbed much from their Khmer and Mon subjects; and the influence of Angkor and Dvaravati is obvious in Thai art. Thai kings embraced the Indian religions, and they based their principles of government upon Hindu practice as it had been understood by their Khmer predecessors (Basham, 1975, 450).

In Thailand, Sanskrit is highly respected today as the medium of validating, legitimating, and transmitting royal succession and instituting formal rituals.

The Thai monarchy, though following Hinayana Buddhism of the Sinhalese type, still requires the presence of Court brahmans… for the proper performance of its ceremonials. (Basham 1975, 442-3)
Furthermore, India and Sanskriti directly influenced aspects of Thai aesthetics such as architecture and art.

Thai rulers…sent, for example, agents to Bengal, at that time suffering from the disruption of Islamic conquest, to bring back models upon which to base an official sculpture and architecture. Hence Thai architects began to build replicas of the Bodh-Gaya stupa (Wat Chet Yot in Chiengmai is a good example) and Thai artists made Buddha images according to the Pala canon as they saw it. (Basham: 450).
Dance and theatre also continue to reflect the underlying influence of Sanskriti.

The traditional dance and shadow-puppet theatres in many South-East Asian regions, in Thailand, Malaya, and Java for example, continue to fascinate their audiences with the adventures of Rama and Sita and Hanuman. (Basham 1975, 442-3)
In linguistic terms, Sanskrit had the same cultural influence on Thai as Latin had on English. In other cases, Pali influenced more than Sanskrit – for instance, a person who knows Pali can often guess the meaning of present day Cambodian, Burmese, Thai and Lao, and this Pali impact was largely from Sri Lanka. Basham points out:

Many South-East languages contain an important proportion of words of Sanskrit or Dravidian origin. Some of these languages, like Thai, are still written in scripts which are clearly derived from Indian models. (Basham 1975, 442-3).

Sanskriti and China:

China and India had a unique and mutually respected exchange. Buddhist thought is the most notable and obvious import into China from Sanskriti influence. The Tang dynasty provided an opening for the Chinese civilization to welcome Sanskriti coming from South and Southeast Asia.

The Tang dynasty ruled in China from 618 to 907 AD. This is one of the most glorious periods in the history of China. The whole of China came under one political power that extended over Central Asia. It was in this period that the influence of India over China reached the highest peak. A large number of missionaries and merchants crowded the main cities of China. Similarly, more Chinese monks and royal embassies came to India in the seventh century AD than during any other period. The Nalanda University which was at its height attracted large number of Buddhist monks from all over Asia. The Chinese scholars at Nalanda not only studied Buddhism but Brahmanical philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and medicine also. The Chinese emperor gave liberal support to the Chinese scholars studying at Nalanda” (Bhattacharjee 1981, 131-2).
The characteristic of the recipient “pulling” knowledge is typical in the transmission of Sanskriti and is to be contrasted with the “pushing” model of the spread of Christianity and Islam by divine fiat. Unlike Christian evangelists “pushing”, Hiuen Tsang and I-Tsing came from China to “pull” knowledge by learning Buddhism and other disciplines in India and taking them back.

Foremost among such scholars was Hiuen Tsang who played the most distinguished part in establishing Buddhism on a solid footing in China and improving the cultural relations between these two countries. He learnt the Yogachara system at Nalanda from the famous monk Silabhadra. On his return to China he translated Buddhist texts and trained his pupils. He founded a new school of Buddhist philosophy in China, which carried on his work after his death. His noble example induced other Chinese monks to visit India. We find that during the later half of the seventh century AD as many as sixty Chinese monks visited India. (Bhattacharjee 1981, 131-2)
An outstanding scholar who dipped into India’s prestigious centers of learning to transfer know-how to China was I-Tsing:

I-Tsing…left China by the sea route in 671 AD and having spent several years in Sri-vijaya, an important centre of Buddhist learning in Sumatra reached the port of Tamralipti in Bengal in 673 AD. He stayed at Nalanda for ten years (675-685 AD) and studied and copied Buddhist texts. He came back to China with a collection of four hundred Sanskrit manuscripts containing more than fifty thousand slokas. He translated several texts and compiled a Chinese-Sanskrit dictionary. In his book A Record of the Buddhist Religion as practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago, he has recorded in details the rules of monastic life as practiced in India, which was a subject of his special interest. He also wrote a biography of sixty Buddhist monks who visited India. Most of such monks were Chinese, though some of them belonged to Korea, Samarkand and Tushdra (Turk countries). This book shows the international position of Buddhism in Asia and at the same time indicates its influence in outlying countries like Korea (Bhattacharjee 1981, 138).
Chinese pilgrims were officially sent to Indian holy sites to pay homage on behalf of the Chinese emperorship. The presence of Chinese pilgrims was a practice of close interaction between the Sanskriti superstructure and the Chinese civilization.

Between 950 and 1033 AD a large number of Chinese pilgrims visited India. In 964 AD 300 Chinese monks left China to pay imperial homages (as desired by the Chinese emperor) to the holy places of India. Five of the pilgrims left short inscriptions at the sacred site of Bodh-Gaya. It records the construction of a stupa in honour of emperor T’ai-tsong by the emperor and the dowager empress of the great Song dynasty…The last Chinese monk to visit India was after 1036 AD which marks the close of the long and intimate cultural intercourse between India and China (Bhattacharjee 1981, 125-8).
The exchange was by no means unidirectional. Indian gurus and pandits also went to China and were received with honor by the Chinese. These holy men went to China not just to exchange ideas but also for the practical task of translating Sanskrit texts into Chinese.

In 972 AD as many as forty-four Indian monks went to China. In 973 AD Dharmadeva, a monk of Nalanda was received by the Chinese emperor with great honours. He is credited with translating a large number of Sanskrit texts. Between 970 and 1036 AD a number of other Indian monarchs including a prince of western India named Manjusri stayed at China between 970 and 1036 AD. We know from the Chinese records that there were never so many Indian monks in the Chinese court as at the close of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century AD. These Indian monks and Chinese pilgrims carried with them a large number of Sanskrit manuscripts into China. The Chinese emperor appointed a Board of Translators with three Indian scholars at the head. This board succeeded in translating more than 200 volumes between 982 and 1011 AD. (Bhattacharjee 1981, 125-8).
Buddhism’s spread across Asia is well acknowledged, but beyond mere religion, this pan-Asian civilization also become a fountain of knowledge in fields as diverse as arts, language, linguistics, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, botany, martial arts and philosophy. For instance, in China:

Indian astronomy, mathematics and medicine earned great popularity… On the official boards were Indian astronomers to prepare the calendars. In the seventh century AD in the capital city flourished three astronomical schools known as Gautama, Kasyapa and Kumara. China had already adopted the Indian theory of nine planets. The Sanskrit astronomical work – Navagraha-Siddhanta was translated into Chinese in the T’ang period. A large number of mathematical and astronomical works were translated into Chinese…Indian medicinal treatise found great favour in China. A large number of medical texts are found in the Chinese Buddhist collection. Rdvana-Kumara Charita, a Sanskrit treatise on the method of treatment of children’s diseases was translated into Chinese in the eleventh century AD (Bhattarcharjee 1981, 134-5).
The arts were also centers of confluence of Chinese culture and Sanskriti. Motifs and styles as well as actual artists were exported to China.

Along with Buddhism art of India traveled to China. In fact, the art of India exerted a great influence on the native traditions and gave rise to a new school of art known as Sino-Indian art. The Wei period witnessed a great development in this art. A number of rock-cut caves at Thunwang, Yun-kang and Longmen, colossal images of Buddha 60 to 70 feet high and fresco paintings on the walls of the caves illustrate this art. The inspiration came not only from the images and pictures that were imported from India to China but also from the Indian artists who visited China. Three Indian painters of the names of Sakyabuddha, Buddhakirti and Kumarabodhi worked in China during the Wei period. Gandhara, Mathura and Gupta – the three different schools of sculpture in India were well represented in Chinese art. The best image of Buddha of Wei period was definitely made after the Buddha images of Ajanta and Sarnath. (Bhattarcharjee 1981, 134-5)
Indian musicians also traveled to China and even Japan to share their talent.

Indian music also traveled to China. An Indian musician settled in Kuchi was its sponsor in China. In 581 AD a musical party went from India to China. Although emperor Kaotsu (581-595 AD) vainly tried to ban it by an Imperial order, his successor gave encouragement to the lndian music in China. From a Japanese tradition we come to understand that two principal types of music called Bodhisattva and Bhairo were taken from China to Japan by an Indian brahmana called Bodhi in the T’ang period. (Bhattarcharjee 1981, 134-5)
It is little wonder that Hu Shih, former Chinese ambassador to USA is said to have remarked that India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border.


While today’s globalization is largely the Westernization of the globe, the earlier civilizational expansion was a mutually nourishing form of Sanskritisation that made huge impacts on the intellectual and cultural development of India, China, Japan, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, present-day Afghanistan and Central Asia.

As will be discussed later, beyond Asia, Indic civilization profoundly influenced Europe’s modernity and the enlightenment movements. While Sanskrit’s positive role in world history is well documented, awareness of this is primarily confined to a few narrowly specialized scholars. The current teaching of world history tends to be Eurocentric and ignores the contributions of other civilizations and traditions.

Sanskrit can help generate the necessary knowledge systems in order to explore the objectives, methods, and institutional dynamics of intellectual life in contemporary Asia. Also, the history of Sanskrit and Sanskriti can provide the modern world a model of how cultural diffusion can lead to a harmonious and synergetic flowering of humanity rather than forced assimilation through oppression and subjugation. The colonial and neo-colonial necessity of a master/slave relationship in the spread of influence is neatly refuted by the legacy of Sanskriti.

III. Decline of Sanskrit

Since 12th CE, Sanskrit slowly declined in India under political duress and, while remaining an important influence, gradually lost its vitality as the cornerstone for a pan-Asian culture.

While many universities in India were destroyed by invaders from West Asia, it is telling that there was no new major university founded during the entire 500 year Mughal rule over India.

India’s valuable lead as knowledge producer and exporter was lost, and India became an importer of know-how from and dependent upon Europeans, a fate shared by much of Southeast Asia.

IV. Sanskrit Influence on Modern Europe

Europe’s “discovery” of Sanskrit:

“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either…” (Sir William Jones, Supreme Court Judge of the British East India Company, 1786, Singer 1972, 29).
The European colonial mindset was one of discovery with the goal of appropriating the “discovery.” One need not look hard to find vivid examples of this in the conquest of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The “discovery” of Sanskrit and Sanskriti by European scholars followed this model quite well. European scholarship saw potential in the Sanskrit language not only for exploration on its own terms, but also to take back to Europe and use for imperial purposes.

Arindam Chakrabarti, Professor of Philosophy, University of Hawaii, brought to my attention a colonial wall carving in Oxford which blatantly boasts of the intellectual conquest of Sanskrit by the British. Chakrabarti wrote as follows:

There is a monument to Sir William Jones, the great eighteenth-century British Orientalist, in the chapel of University College, Oxford. This marble frieze shows Sir William sitting on a chair writing something down on a desk while three Indian traditional scholars squatting in front of him are either interpreting a text or contemplating or reflecting on some problem.
It is well known that for years Jones sat at the feet of learned pandits in India to take lessons in Sanskrit grammar, poetics, logic, jurisprudence, and metaphysics. He wrote letters home about how fascinating and yet how complex and demanding was his new learning of these old materials. But this sculpture shows – quite realistically – the Brahmins sitting down below on the floor, slightly crouching and bare-bodied – with no writing implements in their hands (for they knew by heart most of what they were teaching and did not need notes or printed texts!) while the overdressed Jones sits imperiously on a chair writing something at a table. The inscription below hails Jones as the “Justinian of India” because he “formed” a digest of Hindu and Mohammedan laws. The truth is that he translated and interpreted into English a tiny tip of the massive iceberg of ancient Indian Dharmashastra literature along with some Islamic law books. Yet the monument says and shows Jones to be the “law-giver,” and the “native informer” to be the “receiver of knowledge.”

What this amply illustrates is that the semiotics of colonial encounters have – perhaps indelibly – inscribed a profound asymmetry of epistemic prestige upon any future East-West exchange of knowledge. (Arindam Chakrabarti, “Introduction,” Philosophy East & West Volume 51, Number 4 October 2001 449-451.) 

The picture symbolizes how academic Indians today often remain under the glass ceiling as “native informants” of the Westerners. Yet in 19th century Europe, Sanskrit was held in great awe and respect, even while the natives of India were held in contempt or at best in a patronizing manner as children to be raised into their master’s advanced “civilization.”

In 1794 the first chair of Sanskrit in Europe was established in Copenhagen. In 1808, Schlegel’s university had replaced Hebrew and Arabic with Sanskrit. Sanskrit was introduced into every major European university between 1800 and 1850 and overshadowed other classical languages which were often downsized to make way for Sanskrit positions. This frenzy may be compared with today’s spread of computer science in higher education. The focus on Sanskrit replaced the earlier focus on Arabic/Persian as the source of intellectual thought.

As a part of this frenzy among Europe’s leading thinkers, Sanskrit replaced Hebrew as the language deemed to belong to the ancestors of Europeans – eventually leading to the Aryanization of European identity, which, in turn, led to the cataclysmic events of the following century.

Most of the famous European minds of the 19th century, by their own testimony, were either Sanskritists, or were greatly shaped by Sanskrit literature and thought by their own testimony. Professor Kapil Kapoor describes how Europeans have benefited from Sanskrit:

[T]hose who believe that this [Sanskrit] knowledge is now archaic would do well to recall that the contemporary western theories, though essentially interpretive, have evolved from Europe’s 19th century interaction with Sanskrit philosophy, grammar and poetics; they would care to remember that Roman Jakobson, Trubetzkoy and de Saussure were Sanskritists, that Saussure was in fact a professor of Sanskrit at Geneva and that his published papers include work on Sanskrit poetics. The structural, formalist thinking and the linguistic turn of contemporary theory have their pedigree in Sanskrit thought. In this, Europe’s highly fruitful interaction with the Indian thought over practically the same time-span contrasts sharply with 150 years of sterile Indian interaction with the western thought. After the founding of Sanskrit chairs in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Europe interacted with the Indian thought, particularly in philosophy, grammar, literary theory and literature, in a big way without abandoning its own powerful tradition. In the process, it created, as we have said a new discipline, Historical-Comparative Linguistics, produced a galaxy of thinkers – Schiller, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Jakobson, Trubetzkoy and above all Saussure – and founded a revolutionary conceptual framework which was to influence the European thought for the next century, Structuralism. (From “Eleven Objections to Sanskrit Literary Theory: A Rejoinder,” by Kapil Kapoor, the expanded version of the lecture delivered at Dhvanyaloka on June 11, 2000. See the complete essay on-line at: http://www.indianscience.org/essays/st_es_kapoo_eleven.shtml)

To this list of “revolutionary” European thinkers who benefited from Sanskrit, one may add many more, such as Bopp, von Humboldt, Grassman, Schlegel, Max Muller, Voltaire and J. S. Mill. Max Mueller’s very influential book, “What India can teach us,” gave a strong push for the European assimilation of Sanskrit thought. The French, ranging from Voltaire to Renoir, and the British also learnt a great deal via the Germans. In the 19th century, there was also a shift away from the Enlightenment Project of “reason” as the pinnacle of man, and this was influenced by Sanskrit studies in Europe and eventually led to a departure from Aristotelian thought to structuralism. Many disciplines in Europe got a boost from the study of Sanskrit texts, including philosophy, linguistics, literature and mathematics.

Sanskrit used to boost White Christian Supremacy:

European “discovery” of Sanskrit brought the opportunity to appropriate its rich tradition for the sake of the Europeans’ obsession to reimagine their own history. Many rival theories emerged, each claiming a new historiography. The new European preoccupation among scholars was to reinvent identities of various European peoples by suitably locating Sanskrit amidst other selective facts of history to create Grand Narratives of European supremacy. Exploiting India’s status as a colony, Europeans were successful in capturing Sanskrit and Sanskriti from India in order to fulfill their own ideological imperatives of reconciling theology (specifically ‘Semitic’ monotheism, from which Christianity sprouted) with their self-imposed role of world ruler.

One of the leading promoters of Aryan theories, Friedrich Max Muller (1823-1900) described the inception of his discipline as the starting point for a new science of human origins:

Thanks to the discovery of the ancient language of India, Sanskrit as it is called . . . and thanks to the discovery of the close kinship between this language and the idioms of the principal races of Europe, which was established by the genius of Schlegel, Humboldt, Bopp, and many others, a complete revolution has taken place in the method of studying the world’s primitive history (Olender, 7)
The central theme to this reinvention of European (read “Christian”) narrative was of origins and, thus, implied destinies. Determining what language was spoken in the Garden of Eden was considered central to this. The newly discovered language of Sanskrit and its literature proved to be vast and erudite and the uncovered links between European language and Sanskrit excited the scholars and encouraged an assimilation of this most ancient and profound linguistic culture. At the same time, the perceived spiritual providence that the Abrahamic God had bestowed on Europeans in the form of Christianity had to be incorporated and synthesized into the narrative. The “scientific” and empirical evidence of linguistic survey had to coincide with theological laws.

”The comparative study of languages was inspired by Renaissance debates over what language was spoken in the Garden of Eden. By the eighteenth century scholars were persuaded that European languages shared a common ancestor. With the adoption of positivist, “scientific” methods in the nineteenth century, the hunt for the language of Eden and the search for a European Ursprache diverged. Yet the desire to reconcile historical causality with divine purpose remained… ” (Olender, jacket)
The formation of two mutually exclusive and diametrically opposed groups of peoples was the device constructed to achieve this need – these were the Semitic ‘race’ and the mythical ‘Aryans’. The Semitics, synonymous with the Hebrews, were portrayed as a sedentary, passive, inclusive, and trapped in time. However, they were a people who were in communication with the one true God and thus held the seed of religion.

Faithful guardians of pure monotheism, the Hebrews had a magnificent part in the divine plan, but one wonders where the world would be today if they had remained the sole leaders of mankind. The fact is, while they religiously preserved the principle of truth from which a higher light would one day emanate…(Olender: 99-102).
The rightful rulers of the world had to have been intelligent, moral, active, and industrious – a people willing to explore and expand, conquer and dominate. The concocted Aryan race was assigned this role. Scholars coined various ethno-linguistic terms such as “Indo-European”, “Indo-Germanic”, and “Aryan” to refer to this newly discovered people, and used these interchangeably to refer to the linguistic family as well as a race.

As scholars established the disciplines of Semitic and Indo-European studies, they also invented the mythical figures of the Hebrew and the Aryan, a providential pair which, by revealing to the people of the Christianized West the secret of their identity, also bestowed upon them the patent of nobility that justified their Spiritual, religious, and political domination of the world. The balance was not maintained, however, between the two components of this couple. The Hebrew undeniably had the privilege of monotheism in his favor, but he was self-centered, static, and refractory both to Christian values and to progress in culture and science. The Aryan, on the other hand, was invested with all the noble virtues that direct the dynamic of history: imagination, reason, science, arts, politics. The Hebrew was troublesome, disturbing, problematic: he stood at the very foundation of the religious tradition with which the scholars in question identified, but he was also alien to that tradition. Wherever he lived, under the name of Jew, in a specific place among a specific people, he remained an outsider, aloof, different (Olender: Foreword x-xi).
The key players in the scholastic juggling act who attempted to reconcile the Semitic and the Aryan included several famous European scholars, namely: Renan, Pictet, Max Muller, and Grau. Christian supremacy and Christian manifest destiny was central to the works of these Orientalists.

In the works of Renan, Pictet, Max Muller, and Grau, Christ remained a central figure in the conceptualization of Indo-European civilization. The new religious sciences attempted to treat all religions in the same way and yet to impose a Christian providential meaning on the new comparative order. The very organization of religious data was affected by older hierarchical classifications. The cataloging of peoples and faiths reflected the belief that history was moving in a Christian direction (Olender: 136-7).
These scholars’ main objective was to use scientific reason to substantiate theological necessities no matter how far the hard facts had to be bent. Max Muller, in reference to comparative philology, explicitly stated the orientation of his research:

“We are entering into a new sphere of knowledge, in which the individual is subordinate to the general and facts are subordinate to law. We find thought, order, and design scattered throughout nature, and we see a dark chaos of matter illuminated by the reflection of the divine spirit.” (Olender, 90-92)
Since the paradigmatic expectations of the scholar are exposed as foregone conclusions of his analysis, the bias and subjectivity in the writer’s scholarship becomes obvious. Furthermore, the Christian supremacist agenda behind his work is obvious:

The Science of Religion will for the first time assign to Christianity its right place among the religions of the world; it will show for the first time what was meant by the fullness of time; it will restore to the whole history of the world, in its unconscious progress towards Christianity, its true and sacred character.” A good disciple of Augustine, Max Muller was fond of citing his remark that Christianity was simply the name of “the true religion,” a religion that was already known to the ancients and indeed had been around “since the beginning of the human race (Olender: 90-92).
He deplored the tactlessness that many Christian missionaries exhibited in their dealings with pagans, and advocated subtlety in asserting superiority:

The man who is born blind is to be pitied, not berated. . . . To prove that our religion is the only true one it surely is not necessary to maintain that all other forms of belief are a fabric of errors. (Olender: 90-92).
One large problem about the synthesis was that the Vedic religion had to be shown as barbaric and primitive in order to legitimize the need to colonize Indians. Therefore, it could not have been the beliefs of the ancestors of Christian Europe with its perceived religious supremacy. The scholars were forced to reconcile with the paradox of how the intellectually superior Aryans believed in such a low form of religion. Pictet was forced to ask himself:

Everything known about them [Aryans] suggests that they were “an eminently intelligent and moral race”. Is it possible to believe that people who ultimately brought such intensity to intellectual and religious life started from the lowly estate of either having no religion or wallowing in the abyss of an obscure polytheism? (Olender: 93-98).
The result of such groping in the dark was pathetic and childish. The theories proclaimed with great aplomb fit into a general framework of Aryan people being superior in every way except the spiritual impetus to be world rulers. Therefore, the early Indo-Europeans were said to posses the seed of monotheism which did not sprout until the providence of the Abrahamic God through Christ. Pictet justifies this ‘primordial monotheism’ as follows:

Pictet then attempts to provide philological justification for the notion of “primitive monotheism” by examining Indo- European words for the divine. The Sanskrit word deva attracts his attention. Can a word exist without a prior meaning? If deva is attested, then so is the implicit sense of “superior Being”.
Shrouded in mystery, the Aryas’ idea of God remained “in an embryonic state,” and their rudimentary monotheism lacked rigor. Pictet readily concedes all this, all the more readily as it is hard to explain why, having once known the truth, the Aryas should have abandoned it for error. Weak and vacillating as their monotheistic vocation no doubt was, it was nevertheless providential; it would fall to Christianity to nurture the seed first planted by the Aryas. (Olender: 93-98)

Christianity was thus deemed to be the destiny for the Aryans to adopt and eventually transmit to the whole world. Grau, a German Christian evangelist, took this idea to a new level by purporting that though the Aryans were “endlessly adaptable”, without Christianity the Aryans were hopeless and lost. In other words, they “suffered a congenital lack of backbone provided by monotheistic Christianity” (Olender, 106). The preservation of Christian dominance was Grau’s primary directive.

Grau’s views were in some ways “reactionary,” in the sense that they ran counter to the praising of Aryan values that was all too often to the detriment of the Christian church. For Grau, the danger was that Christ would be forgotten: the Cross had to be planted firmly at the center of any venture of cultural understanding. Grau’s writings give a surprising new twist to the fortunes of the Aryan-Semitic pair. (Olender: 106).

Parallels with the Self-Appropriation of Judaism by Europe:

An interesting parallel is to examine the colonial mindset of self-appropriation of knowledge in the case of the Jews for the creation of the European identity. Though history-centric monotheism was appropriated by Europe from the Jews to be implemented in the colonial scheme, the Jews were excluded as “others” and even denigrated. For example, Grau is explicit in his distancing Christian Europeans from the Jews.

The monotheism with which Grau credits the Semites has little to do with the Jews. When he does speak of Jews, it is to recall the wretchedness of a people that has contributed nothing to history other than perhaps its religious potential- and in that case he generally refers to “Hebrews” rather than “Jews”… (Olender: 109-110).
The theme of feminizing the colonized by the masculine conqueror is also applied to the Hebrew people.

Semites, Grau argues, are like women in that they lack the Indo-German capacity for philosophy, art, science, warfare, and politics. They nevertheless have a monopoly on one sublime quality: religion, or love of God. This Semitic monism goes hand in hand with a deep commitment to female monogamy. The masculine behavior of the Indo-German, who masters the arts and sciences in order to dominate the natural world, is met with the Semite’s feminine response of passivity and receptivity. As the wife is subject to her husband, so the Semites are absolutely permeable to the God who chose them (Olender: 109-110).
In one fell swoop of the ideological axe, European scholars were able to take ownership of the ‘backbone’ of monotheism through Christ and the masculine traits of world domination.

Indian Influence on European Linguistics and Postmodernism:

In the early 19th century, Sanskrit grammar, philology, and linguistics were being studied intensely in Europe. One of the basic concepts of Sanskrit grammar is how domains of knowledge, music, language, society, etc. hang together. Every such domain, as per this principle, is constructed such that no unit has meaning by itself, but meaning exists only in a two-dimensional system. Such a system is a network of opposites in two dimensions: paradigmatic (vertical) and syntagmatic (horizontal). Saussure later used this central concept from Pannini’s “Astadyhayi” to formulate his Structuralism model. By contrast, Aristotle’s morphology is mere taxonomy, i.e. a mere system of enumeration. His system does not show unity via relations, and his world is not a cohesive unified system. Over the following fifty years, there came about a revolution in European thought in the use of this “structuralist” mode of thinking, even though it was much later that Saussure formalized the system and then Europeans gave it the name “Structuralism.”

Around the 1860s, Sir Charles Lyall worked in geology in morphological studies of fossils, which is a special case of what became later known as structuralism. This was a major discontinuity in European thought, and is believed to be the influence of Sanskrit structure of knowledge. Charles Darwin’s work in the 1880s was also morphological in method. In the 1890s, Germany developed morphological schools, and Russian formalist schools also came up. Morphological schools came up in Europe in geology, botany, literary theory and linguistics.

A key figure in this East-West influence was Saussure, a Professor of Sanskrit in Geneva, and an ardent scholar of Panini. He later moved to Sorbonne, where he taught the famous lecture series on linguistics. The notes from this series were compiled later by his students into the published work that is still regarded as the “origin” of Structuralism. But it is amazing that this published work by his students did not even mention Panini or Sanskrit or any Indic works at all! What a blackout!(1)

Saussure’s own PhD dissertation was on “Genitive case in Sanskrit,” a fact overlooked in today’s historiography of European linguistics. It is unclear if Saussure himself suffered any embarrassment about learning from Sanskrit. He published a paper titled, “Concept of Kavi,” for instance. Unfortunately, he did not publish very much himself, and relied on students to do that after him. Saussure’s works became the foundation for all linguistics studies throughout Europe.

What gets labeled as “difference” in French postmodern thought via Derrida is actually the Indian Buddhist theory of apohavada which Saussure had researched and taught in France in his Sanskrit seminars.(2)

It is important to note that Pictet mentored and influenced Saussure’s understanding of linguistics and philology. Saussure was fifteen when he first began correspondence with Pictet whose work Saussure claimed “took the reader ‘to the threshold’ of the origin of language and ‘of the human races themselves’” (Olender 99-102). It is more than likely that the presuppositions and biases in Pictet’s work flowed through the mentor/student relationship down to Saussure’s work.

One of the consequences of Saussure’s work was that it reduced the need for Europeans to study Sanskrit sources, because Saussure’s formulation into French, repackaged by his students without any reference to Sanskrit, meant that subsequent scholars of linguistics could divorce their work from the Sanskrit foundations and origins of the principles of Structuralism.

Structuralism, once formulated and codified by Saussure’s students, became the watershed event and gateway through which many developments were precipitated in European thought. For example, Levi Strauss applied Structuralism in the 1930s/40s to the study of societies.

Trubetzkoy, who belonged to the famous Praha (modern Prague) school of Sanskrit, is now called the “Father of Structural Phenology.” Yet today’s books on the subject rarely mention his debt to Sanskrit for his ideas. (His PhD dissertation from Moscow University in 1916 was on the Rig Veda.)

Later in the 20th century, Post-Structuralism was developed in response to Marxist critiques of Western society. There was loss of faith in Enlightenment reason after World War I, because going beyond religion into reason had resulted in such massive calamities. TS Eliot and WB Yeats started the inwards movement in literature and history, respectively, going away from exclusive belief in ‘reason.’ They reinterpreted the classical Eurocentric Grand Meta-Narratives. The new thinking was that a structure is not just an absolute or abstract entity, but is in N number of manifestations.

After World War II, there was a general dislike for Grand Narratives and linear progression theories of all sorts. Post-Modernism became a rejection of all tendencies of Grand Narratives. Hence, the focus is on small stories of small people and centers on the literature of Subaltern peoples, the marginalized sectors of society. Monism/Modernity is replaced by Plurality. However, the relationship between Marxism and Indic frameworks has been too simplistically based on the Marxist critiques of European societies. What has not been adequately examined is that many Post-Modernist principles are deeply embedded in classical Indian thought, i.e. many truths, many ways of telling the truth, and many paths being valid.

V. Colonial De-Sanskritisation of India

European colonizers embarked on ambitious campaigns to assert their cultural and religious superiority. They systematically bred many generations of Indians under their tutelage, making them embarrassed of their own “backward” heritage and pressurizing them to sycophantically mimic the “modern” West for their ideal “civilization.” An example is the famous Macaulay’s Minute which became the blueprint to remove Sanskrit from India’s education system and replace it with English:

Macaulay’s Minute (2nd Feb. 1835)

[A] single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India…

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 abridgements used at preparatory schools in England…

We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother tongue. We must teach them some foreign language…

Even more shocking than this is that some19th century Bengali apologists of Hindu renaissance internalized this contempt and became anti-Sanskritists. Ram Mohan Roy’s intellectual legacy continues unabated in that science and Sanskrit are still held to be incompatible and mutually exclusive. Sanskrit was dismissed as a dead language of ancient liturgy without a future, its advocates declared a sentimental, nostalgic miserable lot brooding over its lost, past glory. Modern, Westernizing Indians are afraid that Sanskrit learning will undermine the secular and scientific spirit and ideal of independent India. To learn Sanskrit is to oppose progress, evolution, and to reinforce elite, Brahmanical hegemony on the masses. Roy, who is sometimes described as a champion of modern India, strongly protested against the decision of the committee of Public Instruction set up by the colonial authorities to start a Sanskrit college in Calcutta. In a letter written in 1823 he argued,

The pupils will there acquire what was known two thousand years ago with the addition of vain and empty subtleties since then produced by speculative man (Bhate 1996: 387).
The long term result of this trend has been to de-intellectualize the Indians, as explained by Prof. Kapoor:

The ‘educated’ Indian has been de-intellectualized. His vocabulary has been forced into hibernation by the vocabulary of the west. For him, West is the theory and India is the data. The Indian academy has willingly entered into a receiver-donor relationship with the western academy, a relationship of intellectual subordination. This ‘de-intellectualization’ needs to be countered and corrected by re-locating the Indian mind in the Indian thought.
Kapoor contrasts this with the attitude of “the self-respecting voice of an intellectually confident India” as represented by the 5th century philosopher of language, Bhartrhari, who emphasized the importance of understanding others’ traditions but without abandoning one’s own: “The intellect acquires critical acumen by familiarity with different traditions. How much does one really understand by merely following one’s own reasoning only?”

VI. Post Independence Indian assault on Sanskrit

Sanskrit enthusiasm after independence:

Independent India started out with great enthusiasm to preserve and recover its indigenous civilization, including the central place of Sanskrit in it.

Dr Ambedkar zealously worked to promote the composite civilization (Sanskriti) of India characterized by linguistic and religious plurality. A dispatch of the Press Trust of India (PTI) dated September 10, 1949 states that Dr Ambedkar was among those who sponsored an amendment making Sanskrit as the official language of the Indian Union in place of Hindi. Most newspapers carried the news on September 11, 1949 (see the Sanskrit monthly Sambhashan Sandeshah issue of June 2003: 4-6). Other dignitaries who supported Dr Ambedkar’s initiative included Dr B.V. Keskar, India’s Deputy Minister for External Affairs and Professor Naziruddin Ahmed. The amendment dealt with Article 310 and read:

1. The official language of the Union shall be Sanskrit. 2. Notwithstanding anything contained in Clause 1 of this article, for a period of fifteen years from the commencement of this constitution, the English language shall continue to be used for the official purposes of the union for which it was being used at such commencement: provided that the President may, during the said period, by order authorise for any of the official purposes of the union the use of Sanskrit in addition to the English language.

But the amendment to make Sanskrit the national language of India was defeated in the Constituent Assembly. By way of consolation, (1) Sanskrit was granted a place in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution, (2) Sanskritized Hindi to be written in Devanagari script was declared the national language of India, and (3) the slogans appearing on various federal ministry buildings and on the letter heads of different federal organizations would be in Sanskrit, and (4) a citizen of India would be able to make representations to the Government in Sanskrit.

In Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that the ancient past of India belonged to all of the Indian people, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others, because their forefathers had helped to build it. Subsequent conversion to another religion could not deprive them of this heritage; any more than the Greeks, after their conversion to Christianity, could have ceased to feel proud of their achievements of their ancestors (Nehru 1946: 343). Considered the pioneer of Indian secularism, Nehru wrote:

If I was asked what was the greatest treasure that India possesses and what is her finest heritage, I would answer unhesitatingly – it is the Sanskrit language. This is a magnificent inheritance, and so long as it endures and influences the life of our people, so long the basic genius of the people of India will continue…India built up a magnificent language, Sanskrit, and through this language, and its art and architecture, it sent its vibrant message to far away countries.
Such thinking survives in many segments of India’s intelligentsia today. In a verdict by the Supreme Court of India on the offering of Sanskrit as an option in the schools operated by Central Board of Secondary Education, the Honorable Judges quoted Nehru, and also drew attention to the “New policy directives on National Education” proposed in 1986 which included the following provision:

Considering the special importance of Sanskrit to the growth and development of Indian languages and its unique contribution to the cultural unity of the country, facilities for its teaching at the school and university stages should be offered on a more liberal scale.
The Honourable Judges accordingly instructed the Board to amend its constitution and offer Sanskrit as an option forthwith after concluding:

Victories are gained, peace is preserved, progress is achieved, civilization is built and history is made not only in the battlefields but also in educational institutions which are seed beds of cultures.
In 1969, a delegation of members of parliament led by Dr. Karan Singh, met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and impressed upon her the need and the importance of promoting Sanskrit as the cultural lingua franca of India and proclaiming a Sanskrit Day to promote the cultural unity of India. Mrs. Gandhi supported the project. Since then Sanskriti is being promoted through a number of symbolic projects: Sanskrit Day is celebrated every year. A daily news bulletin in Sanskrit is broadcast on the All India Radio. The staging of plays in Sanskrit and production of films and documentaries in Sanskrit is encouraged.

Sanskrit Phobia:

Unfortunately, after a few years of honeymoon with Indian traditions, the marginalization of Sanskrit began in full force in independent India. Kapil Kapoor gives a good introduction to this:

A debate has been on in this country for quite some time now about the role of its inherited learning that at present finds no place in the mainstream education. It has been restricted either to the traditional institutes or special institutes, ‘sanctuaries’. It is assumed, and argued by its opponents, that this inherited learning is now obsolete and no longer relevant to the living realities. This is however counter-factual – the inherited learning not only endures in the traditional institutes but also vibrates in the popular modes of performances and in the mechanisms of transmitting the tradition, such as katha, pravacana and other popular cultural and social practices. And what is more to the point, the vocabulary of this thought is now the ordinary language vocabulary of the ordinary speakers of modern Indian languages. The thought permeates the mind and language.
This trend started with the mimicry of the 19th century Orientalist critique of Sanskrit as the language of hegemony and domination, which was based on the normative Western European experience being projected upon others. Not surprisingly, the title of an unpublished paper of Robert Goldman is “The Communalization of Sanskrit and Sanskritisation of Communalism.” Lele similarly advises jettisoning of Sanskrit from its position of power, prestige and profit in favour of vernacular languages. The critical, subaltern school champions the local, the indigenous, and the autochthonous seeking the continuity and specificity of ‘native’ culture. The emphasis is on recuperating cultural authenticity of the subaltern from Sanskritic hegemony.

These attacks against Sanskrit are grounded in the following beliefs:

1: There has been no connection between Sanskrit and Prakrit (and/or other vernacular languages of South Asia. This is because Sanskrit was entirely elitist and was never a spoken language and there were never any native speakers of it.
2: Sanskrit has been an effective instrument of creating a civilization (Sanskriti) built on Brahmanical hegemony and domination of the subaltern classes.
3: Sanskrit is a language of rites and rituals that are devoid of philosophical merit.
4: Sanskrit does not have the expressive spirit and temper of science and technology. Hence, to make Indians modern they must abandon it.
5: Sanskrit has no value to non-Hindu traditions. It would compromise secularism.
6: As a dead language, Sanskrit has no future in the world culture.

While it is true that Sanskrit privileged a small percentage of the population – drawn from many castes and communities – as being learned, the same bias has also existed in every other learned tradition, such as Latin, Persian, Arabic and Mandarin, and is now true of the elitist role of English (Ironically the very scholars who are anti-Sanskrit, use and thrive on the hegemony of English.) Yet these other languages are not subject to the same political attacks as Sanskrit. European classics are respected in modern secular education, even though Socrates kept slaves and many famous European thinkers violated human rights. Likewise, classical scholarship in Persian, Arabic and Mandarin also accepted or even advocated social oppression of the under classes, such as women or non-believers, and yet these classical languages and their respective cultures are respected in the modern academy. This is accomplished by focusing on their positive aspects and downplaying their negative aspects, but the same treatment is not accorded to Sanskrit.

Kapoor explains this prejudice against Sanskrit as compared to other classical languages:

The charge [that Sanskrit frameworks are Brahmanical and hence elitist]…stems from a deep ignorance of things Indian. Only a person who has not read the primary texts and has only read about the texts can make this kind of statement…I am afraid the criticism ceases to be honest and becomes merely a political gesture treading the familiar paradigm of ‘caste – elephant – snake charmer – rope trick ‘ India. Just as we cannot characterize Plato’s ontological categories as ‘pagan’, just as we cannot characterize Derrida’s epistemic categories as ‘Jewish’, we cannot characterize any of the Indian literary theoretic categories as ‘Brahminical’.
An important equality between Sanskrit and Western classics would also be achieved if we were to decouple the study of Sanskrit from the history of religious privileges and focus on its many positive qualities. In fact, the vast majority of known Sanskrit texts are in disciplines that are nowadays considered secular and not in Hinduism per se. Kapoor continues his comparison with Greek classics as follows:

Europe’s 13th century onwards successful venture of relocating the European mind in its classical Greek roots is lauded and expounded in the Indian universities as ‘revival of learning’ and as ‘Renaissance’. But when it comes to India, the political intellectuals dismiss exactly the same venture as ‘revivalism’ or ‘obscurantism’. The words such as ‘revivalism’ are, what I call, ‘trap words’. And there are more, for example ‘traditional’ and ‘ancient’ – the person working in Indian studies is put on the defensive by these nomenclatures. ‘Tradition’ is falsely opposed to ‘modern’ and the word ‘traditional’ is equated with oral and given an illegitimate pejorative value. And the adjective ‘ancient’ as pre-fixed – ‘Panini, the ancient grammarian’, ‘ancient Indian poetics / philosophical thought’- makes the classical Indian thinkers and thought look antiquated. No western writer ever refers to Plato, for example, as ‘ancient’ or Greek thought as ‘ancient’. This psychic jugglery is directed at the continuity of Indian intellectual traditions suggesting as it does a break or a disjunction in the intellectual history. There is no such disjunction in India’s intellectual history but then the Indian intellectual brought up on alien food must set up a disjunction in Indian history if there is one in the western history! If at all there is a disjunction it happens with the foundation of the English education and then too it is a horizontal disjunction between the mainstream education system and the traditional institutes of learning and not a vertical temporal disjunction.

Nevertheless, the negation of Sanskrit and its replacement by Eurocentric civilizational structures plagues the modern Indian education for several reasons. Orientalist discourse in Indology is based largely on a politics of emphasizing difference and irreconcilable dichotomies with reference to the civilization, religion, society and identity of the people of India – the old divide-and-rule strategy to control people of colour. One such major dichotomy that has been imposed as an intellectual lens is Sanskrit versus Prakrit and the related Sanskritic versus “subaltern” civilization. In its analysis of Sanskrit as an instrument of oppression and domination, Orientalist discourse (e.g. van der Veer 1993: 21) has a two-pronged strategy: (i) the fabrication of a phobia of Sanskrit based on selective analysis of “Brahmanical” ideas, values, and discourse, and the generation of a counter-image of non-Brahmin and non-Hindu groups and their alleged oppression. The result is the charge of Sanskrit as an instrument for creating and sustaining “Hindu Hegemony.”

Western Indologists, such as Sheldon Pollock and Robert Goldman, and their Indian counterparts have embarked on the task to exhume, isolate, analyze, and theorize about the modalities of domination rooted in Sanskrit as the basis of Brahmanical ideology of power and domination. They assume that Sanskrit and the classical culture based on it have radically silenced and screened out of history entire groups and communities of disadvantaged persons. They therefore seek to construct new perspectives that accords priority to what has hitherto been “marginal, invisible, and unheard” people and their (non-Sanskrit) languages.

This construction of Sanskritic (equated by them as Brahmanical) domination is coupled with a hermeneutic for understanding the continuity of specific past forms of violent sediments in contemporary India. In fact, the subaltern “others” are often held together as a category by a single principle, namely, having a common enemy who is deemed to be the cause of all their problems. This common enemy is Sanskriti. Such a task, they feel, entails solidarity with its contemporary victims: subalterns, women, religious and cultural minorities. Here is one such example:

The exclusive use of Sanskrit higher learning was in many ways instrumental in consolidating the hegemony of the Brahmins over Hindu society. If the teaching method can be said to have served the exclusive design of the Brahmanical education, the teacher-student relationship replicated the hierarchical model of Hindu society (Acharya 1996: 103).
For example, Prof. Vijay Prashad is among those who have championed a massive Western funded program to create solidarity between Indian Dalits and African-Americans under the umbrella of a newly engineered identity known as Afro-Dalits. The thesis they proclaim says that Dalits are “the blacks of India” and non-Dalits, i.e. upper castes, are “the whites of India.” Using this framing, the history of American slavery gets transferred over to reinterpret Indian history, and to locate the cause of all Dalit socioeconomic problems on Indian civilization. Many Christian evangelists have jumped on this bandwagon as a great way to earn the trust of India’s downtrodden, by projecting their fellow Indian countrymen and countrywomen as the culprits. The project includes reinventing the history of various Indian jatis to make them feel un-Indian and eventually anti-Indian. Once a certain threshold is reached, i.e. once the ground has been prepared, a given local activist “cell” can get appropriated by other more blatantly political forces. Many foreign funded activities are going on that create a separatist identity especially among the youth of these jatis. The intellectual cover for this anti-India work is under slick terms like “empowerment”, “leadership training” and, of course, “human rights”.

One may say that certain portions of the Indian left have been appropriated by the very same “imperialistic” forces which in their day jobs they attack. In fact, it is precisely such leftists who make excellent candidates to be recruited as they seem more authentic in their stands on India. This has created a career market for young Indians seeking to step into the shoes of such sepoys in order to enjoy the good life promised and delivered by the well funded foreign nexuses of South Asian Studies and related institutions of Church, government related think tanks and even the supposedly liberal media.

There is a major untold story in the way many Indian intellectuals play both sides, some more intentionally than others: On the one hand, they project images of being patriotic Indians winning recognition abroad and are being idolized back in India. On the other hand, they are deeply committed in often deliberately ambiguous work which can be made to appear in multiple ways, but which ultimately feed various separatist forces. Meanwhile, ambiguity serves as great cover because many Indians tend to be naïve about geopolitical implications of such work, are trusting of the good intentions of others or feel uncomfortable confronting problems they cannot deal with.

It is against this backdrop that much of the anti-Hindutva scholarship and lobbying works. Of course, most Hindus I know are against any form of religious bigotry, especially violence, for respect for every person’s own sva-dharma (personal dharma) is a core Hindu value, and being Christian, Muslim, etc. falls under sva-dharma. But what most broadminded Hindus fail to realize is that underneath this attack on Hindutva there lies a broader attack on Indian Sanskriti, and this, in turn, feeds the pipeline of separatist tendencies. Naturally, many foreign nexuses have invested in such human and institutional assets while maintaining a “human rights” demeanour as part of their strategy of managed ambiguity.

Sheldon Pollock, one of the foremost Sanskritists of today, appears to agree with Edward Said in the need to reclaim “traditions, histories, and cultures from imperialism” (Said 1989: 219). He nevertheless insists that we must not forget that most of the traditions and cultures in question [India is obviously included in this] have been empires of oppression in their own right – against women and also against other domestic communities (Pollock 1993: 116). The Western Sanskritist, he says, feels this most acutely, given that Sanskrit was the principal discursive instrument of domination in premodern India. Thus Pollock deftly turns Said’s attack on imperialism into nonsense by insisting that the subjugated Indians are themselves imperialists, as much as the conquering Europeans. In Pollock’s view, the trend continues today, and Sanskrit is being continuously reappropriated by many of the most reactionary and communalist sectors of the population (Pollock 1993: 116). Needless to say, this line of imagining invites many Indian mimics who make their careers as India-bashers in order to prove their usefulness to the Western institutions they serve.

Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal (1997) have no hesitation in declaring that the main purpose of the learned traditions preserved in Sanskrit is to underpin a static social and religious structure, while they spare similar criticism against the elitist Arabic and Persian based cultures. Additionally, they continue to make use of the loaded term “Brahmanical” in the formulating the following expressions: “Brahmanical orthodoxy,” “Brahmanical social orthodoxy,” neo-Brahmanical orthodoxy,” “the high Brahmanical tradition,” or “Brahmanical ruling ideology.” Yet they fail to define and establish their premises of tyranny vested in whatever they mean by “Brahmanical,” nor do they use similar rhetoric against “Mullah orthodoxy”, “Imam ruling ideology” and so forth when discussing Islam.

One of the pillars on which Sanskrit Phobia is sustained is the linearization of Indian civilization into arbitrary historical stages just to map India on to European historical stages. Kapoor criticizes this:

[There] is a questionable assumption, the assumption of a break or a rupture in the Indian cultural / intellectual tradition between the ‘Sanskrit’ period and the ‘vernacular’ period, something that actually does not exist but is postulated on the false analogy of the western history of ideas. From Vedic Sanskrit to Classical Sanskrit to Pali to Prakrit to Apabhramshas to the modern Indian languages, it is one story of linguistic-cultural-intellectual continuity.
Contemporary Indologists and South Asianists (a term used by the US State Department to refer to scholars it depends upon for research on South Asia) emphasize a class conflict between Sanskrit and Prakrit. The use of the Marathi language by Jnanesvara, who was the son of an excommunicated Brahmin, according to Jayant Lele, initiated a revolt by the subaltern and the oppressed against the Brahmanical hegemony and the force of reaction symbolized by Sanskrit, a dead, fossilized language that had lost the ability to generate live, new meanings. Being monopolized by the ruling classes, Sanskrit held no meaning for Jnanesvara’s community of the oppressed. Marathi, on the other hand, was the language of the living tradition of that community (Lele 1981: 109).

According to Lele, Sanskrit traditionally has been limited to the Brahmins and other higher castes. It was manipulated by the wily Brahmin leadership on behalf of landed or dominant castes to serve their own agenda and vested interests. The thesis may be stated as follows: Elitist Brahminism = (1) hegemonic Sanskrit + (2) homogenizing Hindutva + (3) subjection of the masses to forced Sanskritisation.

Hardened and rigid languages (like Sanskrit, at this stage) simultaneously threaten individual and social identity. A living language is, therefore, in itself a critique of domination. It is a rejection of the language of oppression. Ideology critique uses a language of protest but at the same time, launches a quest for a hermeneutic understanding, for establishing a new community. In this sense Varkari sampradaya was a discourse of the oppressed(Lele, 1995: 70).
Varkaris (devotees of Vitthala) offered an all-encompassing blue print for transcending the context-bound interpretations of tradition while containing its essential ones. As per Lele, their use of Marathi language, a living language, in itself was a critique of domination and of Sanskrit, a language of oppression (Lele 1995: 70). By remaining fully involved in social life Varkaris subverted a significant hegemonic appropriative strategy. They explicitly denied the priestly role of a mediator relying on self-experience gained through the daily involvement in normal social life. They united spirituality with daily life experience and thereby opened up the possibilities for reflection on life that has inherent in it a transformative potential (Lele 1995: 71).

According to Lele, the Varkari critique involved rejection of external (Brahmanical) authority, magic and miracles, severe criticism of mindless rituals, secrecy, exclusivism and esoteric practices, insistence on full involvement in productive life, emphasis on the unity of the male-female principle in identifying both god and guru as mauli (mother manifestation), equal and authoritative status of the female poet-saints and a conscious and yet fully living use of the language and idiom of the oppressed classes indicate an attempt to widen discourse and to involve those who experienced the falsehood of a hierarchical social order in their daily life (Lele 1995: 72).

Lele’s logic appears to be that simply by using Marathi, the Varkaris were “obviously” engaged in a “critique”; hence, their practices and themes must necessarily be a criticism of Sanskriti which was threatening to their individual and social identity. There are several flaws in such logic: (1) Many of these themes are not discontinuities but part and parcel of traditional Hinduism – uniting spirituality with daily life experience is, for instance, one of the main themes of the Bhagavad Gita, and worship of God as mother (and women poet-sages) is present in the Veda. (2) Initiation into profound and esoteric disciplines and the occurrences of miracles in the lives of the saints are all part of the Varkari tradition, as much as of “Brahminical” or traditional Hinduism. (3) Tremendous social, cultural and political disruptions in the form of Islamic invasions and iconoclasm may have also been a little threatening to individual and social identity of the Marathi-speakers. Indeed, it can be argued that the Varkari tradition blossomed at a time when traditional Hinduism was under tremendous stress from Islamic invasions and acted to shore up core local symbols, beliefs and ritual practices – such as pilgrimage – exactly as a culture symbiotic with Sanskritic learning would.

Apart from works such as the above that dubiously pit Sanskrit in a historical fight with the vernaculars, Sanskrit phobia is also being spread by a second line of attack, which uses contemporary Indian politics as the starting point. A research project (in partial fulfilment of a Ph D degree) submitted in 1994 to the Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago would serve as an illustration of that trend. The proposal by Adi Hastings (a cultural anthropology student at the University of Chicago) was provisionally entitled,” The ‘Revival’ Of Spoken Sanskrit In Modern India: An Ethnographic And Linguistic Study.” (This project has since been completed.)

Hastings described in detail his goal to examine recent attempts in India to promote and broaden the use of spoken “simple” Sanskrit. While the classical Sanskrit language has been supported by authorities as a medium of scholarly and literary discourse, it recently has been promoted by political groups as a future lingua franca and emblem of a specifically Hindu nation. Hastings’s project sought to problematize the privately-funded movements to promote conversational “simple Sanskrit” as the emblem of a specifically Hindu nation.

He proposed the following working hypothesis: the movements under investigation have fashioned Sanskrit, India’s classical literary language, into a sign which both represents and points to membership in an imagined Hindu national community. In promoting explicitly conversational Sanskrit, these organizations are trying to recapture elements of a perceived Hindu heritage, and in doing so to reinstate or revive what they see as the most important element or unifying thread of ancient Indian civilization.

Thus, Sanskrit, once symbolically identified as the exclusive property of certain restricted communities (entailing access to and mastery over certain forms of privileged knowledge), is now used to invoke a generalized and popular level Hindu cultural heritage. In this context, argued Hastings, Sanskrit would no longer function as a classical language (if indeed it ever was; cf. Kelly 1996), but would become a superordinated language of politico-religious unification.

Refuting the Sanskrit Phobics:

A dominant assumption common among Sanskrit phobic scholars, both Western and their Indian accomplices, is Gramsci’s theory that the “vernaculars are written down when the people regain importance” (1991: 168). This is, unfortunately, untrue for both Europe itself and India. The history of the relationship between Sanskrit and the non-Hindu, non-elite populace suggests many positive interrelationships which Sanskrit phobics simply ignore. For example:

– Lele shares in the widely held belief that the emergence of regional languages in India was due to bhaktas who mostly came from the marginalized castes. But this is simply untrue. In Karnataka, for example, old Kannada literature was courtly, was suffused with Sanskrit, and was unintelligible to those ignorant of Sanskrit. Similarly many Tamil kings, poets and scholars of all castes, Jains and Hindus, appear to have been fluent in Sanskrit as well as Tamil, and this does not seem to have inhibited the development of Tamil in the least, but benefited both.

– In the north, some of the earliest regional-language texts were composed by courtly (elitist) Muslims (e.g. verses of Mas’ud Sa’d Salman, ca. 1100, of the Yamini Kingdom of Lahore). The relationships between language, literature, and social power cannot be analyzed by any simple formula transferred from Europe, as Lele does in order to interpret Indian contemporary politics using Sanskrit as the whipping boy (Pollock 1996: 244-245).

Francis Buchanan-Hamilton, writing in the first decade of the nineteenth century about Bengal, observed, “The first rudiments of education are usually given…under the tuition of teachers called Gurus, who may be of any caste or religion.”

– According to William Adam, there were more than 100,000 vernacular indigenous schools for the “indigent” classes in Bengal and Bihar in 1835. This averaged a school for every sixty-three children of school-going age (cited in Acharya 1996: 105, 99). In fact, colonial scholars sent to study India’s education system remarked that native education was often more widespread than in England and that it included lower caste students.

– While the genealogical account found in many inscriptions is in Sanskrit, the “business” portion (i.e. details of the land grant etc) are in the regional language. This is an interesting indicator of bilingualism.

The importance of Sanskrit given in Jainism and Buddhism – which have always been against caste hierarchies – undermines the claim that Sanskrit was a Hindu/Brahmin hegemonic instrument. For example:

– Paul Dundas observes that Jains of Western India produced, from about thirteenth century onwards, an extensive literature of the types of narratives, chronicles, and biographies in a style that has been called “Jain Sanskrit” (Dundas 1996: 137). As the lingua franca of shastra, and general literary culture, Jains could enthusiastically utilize Sanskrit without any danger of compromising their sectarian identity and socio-religious values.

– In the days of Buddhists studies in China, when Indian Sanskrit scholars were translating Buddhist texts into Chinese with the help of boards of local scholars, there existed a school of Sanskrit studies in China. Clearly, this was not intended for the purposes of any Brahmin hegemony in China.

– Jan Houben draws our attention to the fact that testimonies of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims show that Sanskrit was widely used, not only in a great number of texts but apparently also in discussions. However, he laments that the background and precise circumstances of the shift of the Buddhist and Jain to Sanskrit and its importance for the development of Sanskrit as a “lingua franca” at least in the sphere of intellectual and religious discussion have not yet received sufficient attention (Houben 1996: 176).

At the meetings of the Constituent Assembly (1946-1949) members who were not Sanskritists, nor Brahmins, nor Hindus, moved an amendment to make Sanskrit the national language of India. Sponsors included Dr Ambedkar and Professor Naziruddin Ahmad. Standing up in the Constituent Assembly, Professor Ahmad declared:

I offer you a language which is the grandest and the greatest, and it is impartially difficult, equally difficult for all to learn.

This stance certainly unsettles the presumption that Sanskrit is a language of the wily Brahmins and other ruling elites who have been using it for centuries to dominate the masses.

Pollock feels the need to rethink received accounts that imagine a “resurgence of Brahmanism” leading to a “re-assertion of Sanskrit” as the language of literature and administration after the Maurya period (Norman 1988, 17-18; Kulke & Rothermund 1990, 85). Pollock instead suggests the possibility that a new cultural formation, a Sanskrit cosmopolis, was created and which continued until 1300 (Pollock 1996, 207).

Pollock persuasively argues that the prominence of Prakrit in inscriptional discourse does not represent ignorance or rejection of Sanskrit. Such a claim is based on the assumption that there was some type of invariable co-relation between Prakrit and Buddhism/Jainism and Sanskrit and Brahmanism. The available epigraphic evidence suggests, as Pollock affirms, that trans-regional use of Sanskrit for public political texts was instituted in South India by no specific event of political or religious revolution. A uniform idiom and aesthetics of politics, homogenous in diction, form, and theme characterizes all of India (Pollock 1996, 216-217). When vernacular languages were becoming popular among the masses, Sanskrit became the language of communication among them.

Sanskrit was appreciated by some of the Muslim rulers of India who patronized it, and, in some cases (as in Bengal and Gujarat), had their epigraphic records inscribed in Sanskrit. It was the scientific and secular aspect of Sanskrit that made the Arabs welcome Indian scholars to Baghdad to discourse on sciences and to translate books in these subjects into Arabic.

A large mass of literature in Sanskrit was not produced by any particular community. Several instances can be quoted of non-Brahmin and non-Hindu authors who have made significant contribution to Sanskrit literature. In Karnataka, 300 Sanskrit schools are nowadays being run by non-Brahmins.

Kapil Kapoor explains the non sectarian importance of Sanskrit as a major container of Indian civilization and national identity:

By abandoning…Sanskrit tradition, we have become passive, uncritical recipients of Western theories and models…Had the classical thought enshrined in Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit texts and some of it preserved as adaptation in Old Tamil texts been made a part of the mainstream education it would have enabled the educated Indian to interact with the west on a level ground. This tradition has attested texts and thinkers in a wide range of disciplines – philosophy, grammar, poetics, prosody, astronomy, architecture, mathematics, medicine, atmospheric sciences, sociology / ethics (dharmasastra), chemistry, physics, agriculture, economics and commerce, music, botany and zoology, weaponry and art of warfare, logic, education, metallurgy. The texts of these disciplines not only make statements about the respective domains of knowledge but also enshrine the empirical wisdom gathered by our society over centuries in these spheres. All this knowledge has been marginalized by and excluded from the mainstream education system. Efforts to incorporate it or teach it have been politically opposed and condemned as ‘revivalism’.
The table below summaries the main Sanskrit Phobic arguments and rejoinders to them:

Sanskrit Phobic ArgumentsResponses
There has been no connection between Sanskrit and Prakrit (and/or other South Asian vernacular languages).Linguistic evidence suggests that Sanskrit is related to Prakrit languages and that exchanges occurred in both directions.
Sanskrit has been the instrument of creating a civilization built on Brahmanical hegemony and domination of the subaltern.This is missionary/colonial lens imposing Western social models to a very different Indian social structure and denies the vital role of Sanskrit in shaping and fulfilling, thriving and vibrant culture that benefited many.
Sanskrit is only a language of rites and rituals that are devoid of philosophical merit.The depth and breadth of Sanskrit literature covers many non-religious disciplines. Besides, the rites and rituals are often deeply poetic and reflect a plurality of philosophies of life.
Sanskrit does not have the expressive spirit and temper of science and technology.The depth and breadth of Sanskrit thought encompasses many scientific and technical fields such as mathematics and metallurgy. Abstract thought, open inquiry and logic are key hallmarks of Sanskrit learning.
Sanskrit has no value to non-Hindu traditions. It would compromise secularism.Numerous Jain and Buddhist scriptures are composed in Sanskrit. Sikh scholars went to Benares to learn Sanskrit.
As a dead language, Sanskrit has no use to world culture.Sanskrit, just as it contributed to Western thought, has the potential to contribute towards a renaissance of thought in Southeast Asia and India.

Sanskrit studies have been pursued (whether within or outside India) in isolation from the true spirit of Sanskrit and Indians. Arvind Sharma has a provocative question: “What would have Sanskrit studies abroad looked like if they had originated in India and gone abroad, instead of originating abroad and then being adopted by the Indians?”

The House Indians:

To interpret the contemporary Indian intellectual fashion of selling out to the West, let us examine the framework established by Malcolm X in his analysis of a segment of African-Americans whom he labeled, “house Negro.” Malcolm X said:

There were two kinds of slaves. There was the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes – they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good ’cause they ate his food — what he left. They lived in the attic or the basement, but still they lived near the master; and they loved their master more than the master loved himself. They would give their life to save the master’s house quicker than the master would. The house Negro, if the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we,” he said “we.” That’s how you can tell a house Negro.
If the master’s house caught on fire, the house Negro would fight harder to put the blaze out than the master would. If the master got sick, the house Negro would say, “What’s the matter, boss, we sick?” We sick! He identified himself with his master more than his master identified with himself. And if you came to the house Negro and said, “Let’s run away, let’s escape, let’s separate,” the house Negro would look at you and say, “Man, you crazy. What you mean, separate? Where is there a better house than this? Where can I wear better clothes than this? Where can I eat better food than this?” That was that house Negro. In those days he was called a “house nigger.” And that’s what we call him today, because we’ve still got some house niggers running around here.

This modern house Negro loves his master. He wants to live near him. He’ll pay three times as much as the house is worth just to live near his master, and then brag about “I’m the only Negro out here.” “I’m the only one on my job.” “I’m the only one in this school.” You’re nothing but a house Negro. And if someone comes to you right now and says, “Let’s separate,” you say the same thing that the house Negro said on the plantation. “What you mean, separate? From America? This good white man? Where you going to get a better job than you get here?”

…Just as the slavemaster of that day used Tom, the house Negro, to keep the field Negroes in check, the same old slavemaster today has Negroes who are nothing but modern Uncle Toms, 20th century Uncle Toms, to keep you and me in check, keep us under control, keep us passive…To keep you from fighting back, he [the white man] gets these old religious Uncle Toms to teach you and me…


In an analogous fashion, and entirely independently of Malcolm X, Kapil Kapoor analyzes the Anglicized and now Americanized Indian intellectuals’ internalization of Western categories to form what they call Indian literary criticism. He writes:

The Indian literary criticism has in fact been marked by severe limitations. It has, all in all, been derivative and backward. Before PL-480, it was Anglo- and after PL 480 it is a footnote to the Anglo-American school – even the European frameworks filter through English translations, commentaries and Anglo-American practices. Besides, it has always been backward – there is always a time lag between its enunciation in the west and its emulation here. Hence, the derisive comment about Indian literary criticism quoted by Prof. Narasimhaiah ji – “You mean those carbon copies of Mathiessen, Blackmur and Leavis?”
And [Indian literary criticism]…has been seasonal. Every successive passing fashion in the Anglo-American school has been dutifully applied to the Indian literary reality – Leavisian Moral, New Criticism, Structuralism, Post-structuralism, Semiotics and Deconstruction, Postmodernism, Psychoanalytic, Feminist, Marxist, New Historicism, Cultural Materialism, Stylistics. Each successive framework has been found to be a perfect fit for the malleable Indian reality, without any modification or adaptation!… This is expressive of what we said above – the mental subordination of the Indian critical mind to the western academy, the uncritical reception of western theory, the data – theory / the recipient-donor relationship into which the post-1947 mind has so willingly contracted. As a result of this, all the modern Indian languages, including Indian English have become recipient language – Sanskrit is the only donor language, has always been and continues to be. The displacement from what has been and is a donor tradition amounts to promoted de-intellectualization (de-culturization, if you please).

…The body of literature it addresses is Metro. There is metro literature written under the influence of, and often imitating, both the western (Anglo-American) societal problematic as themes and there is the metro theory that both explains it and is validated by this body of literature. Its audience is urban (English) educated elite. There are no western readers for this as the West is not interested in Indian language literatures or in the Indian paraphrase or redaction of their theories. (Whatever limited but profitable western audience is there is of readers interested in being told by India’s ‘colonized’ minds about India’s colonized mind!)

As in the case of house Negroes, these house Indians enjoy great privilege from Western institutions either directly or indirectly. Kapoor continues his description of these self-hating Indians:

[T]he educated Indian, particularly the Hindu, suffers from such a deep loss of self respect that he is unwilling to be recognized as such. He feels, in fact, deeply threatened by any surfacing or manifestation of the identity that he has worked so hard to, and has been trained to reject. But it lies somewhere in his psyche as ‘an unhappy tale’, as something that is best forgotten. It is these people wearing various garbs – liberal, left, secular, modern – who oppose, more often than not from sheer ignorance, any attempt to introduce Indian traditions of thought in the mainstream education system – a classic case of self-hate taking the form of mother-hate!
I regularly come across such house Indians in the US academic study of India. When the masters say, “jump,” the house Indian asks, “how high sir?”

VII. Sanskriti and the Clash of Civilizations

Contrary to the wishful thinking of postmodernist literary theories and trends in pop culture, the competition among major civilizations is intensifying. Sanskrit phobia must be examined in the broader context of geopolitics today and not in the narrower context of local Indian sociopolitics only. Each of the main three contenders in the clash of civilizations – USA, China and Islam – deploys its own culture as a form of social and political capital, and each has a unique language in which its civilization is rooted.

There are pragmatic reasons behind the intensifying clash of civilizations, and ideology may often be a weapon rather than the underlying cause: Only one billion out of the six billion people in the world today live at Western levels of consumption, but by mid century most of the ten billion people (projected population level by mid century) will mimic Western consumerist lifestyles, and this will further pressure the environment, resources, capital and labor markets.

This global competition is deploying collective assets, such as identities, cultural capital and soft power. France, USA, UK, China, Arabia, Japan, etc. each wear their respective civilizations with great pride, and use it as a vehicle in international diplomacy, foreign soft power and cultural capital.

Every ancient civilization has had its social abuses, but the proud cultures named above do not throw out the baby with the bathwater, i.e. they each insist on reforming their tradition internally rather than demonizing it in world forums to gain legitimacy in foreign eyes or abandoning it in the name of “progress.”

The West (especially America), China and Pan-Islam are, therefore, each asserting themselves in this inter-civilizational competition for intellectual market share, projecting with pride their respective rich heritages which include languages. For instance, the rapid globalization of English language culture has privileged Western paradigms that are implicitly embedded in its literature and thought:

– Despite the numerical expansion of English speaking people in non-Western countries, the certification and legitimization of English and of its modern thought are controlled by standards established by Western institutions.

– These control mechanisms are diverse: prestigious awards, elitist institutional affiliations, jobs, financial grants, foreign travel, access to media channels, etc.

– The intellectual capital includes Eurocentric historiography, literature, philosophy, sociology, human rights theories, art history, and school curricula. 

– The institutional backbone of the West that propagates this superiority includes government agencies, multinational religious institutions, academic establishments and private funding agencies.

– In this new inter-civilizational competition, everyone is equally invited to play; however, the rules, referees and rewards are often controlled by a few.

– In some instances, the dominant culture also selects and props up proxies to represent the third world in a fashion acceptable to the dominant religious and secular ideologies of the West.

If one were to apply this to a hypothetical scenario of Western intervention in China, the components might be as follows (not necessarily in this sequence):

– Attack on China’s human rights
– Demands for internal reforms
– Critiques of Mandarin as hegemonic
– Denigration of Chinese culture and the hierarchies embedded in Confucianism as the basis of China’s human rights abuses.
– Social re-engineering of minority groups to promote separatism

That this trajectory is not currently in vogue in the Western academy is an indicator of China’s strength as a geopolitical force. But let us not forget that the linking of China’s traditional culture with backwardness and the scapegoating of Confucianism as anti-progress and promoting inequality, led Chinese patriots using imported Western Marxism to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and the murder of millions of innocents. There are many ways for Asian cultures to be taught to hate themselves, but the consequences are always the same – genocide and cultural devastation.

Unfortunately, India’s domestic relationship with its Sanskrit-based heritage is mixed up in petty short sighted politics:

– Sanskrit phobia has become a weapon for identity based vote banking, often under the guise of imported ideologies and funding for “human rights.”
– India’s social schisms, cleavages and centrifugal forces have been exacerbated by interventions from the three global civilizational powers – the West, Pan-Islam and China – each of which has made heavy investments in India’s intellectuals, media, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and other mechanisms of influence.
– While powerful top down economic forces (such as foreign capital in business, infrastructure development and export growth) are integrating India, simultaneously, other sociopolitical forces are potentially trying to downgrade India’s geopolitical influence by breaking apart its social fabric and identity at the grass roots.
– Such fragmentation has energized the anti-Sanskrit movement.

VIII. Leveling the Civilizational Playing Field

Kapil Kapoor explains that literary theories embed culture-specific thinking and experience and that the trendy Indian intellectual application of Western theories to Indian culture is dangerous:

Theories are culture specific – they are codes of a community’s expectations from the art form / forms and therefore more adequately account for that community’s response to the artifacts. Cultural specificity of theories can therefore be problematic if the theories of one culture are applied uncritically to the empirical reality of another culture. There are the Indian habits of mind and there are the western habits of mind nurtured over time by the specificity of the community’s experience and these may differ crucially. It is these habits of mind that are imbricated deeply in the respective conceptual frameworks. The western linearity of time and thought with its in-built evolutionary imperative that is implicit in such structures as ‘pre-X-post A’ (pre-colonial, colonial, post-colonial) contrasts sharply with the Indian schema of cyclic and simultaneity. Similarly, the western binarism and the search for certainty differs from the either-or/both schema and the uncertainty schema of the Indian mind. The list is long – the teleological anxiety, the apocalyptic vision, the wait for the millennium, the redeemer expectation, the anthropological centrism, the conception of man as a sinner, a vengeful God, an ethics contingent on a personal God – all these western constructs offer conceptual opposition to the Indian habits of mind, at least to the non-Hebraic habits of mind…The world-view / philosophy of a culture cannot be ignored in any discussion of an appropriate aesthetic. The Indian world-view therefore has to be taken into account. The critics of an Indian aesthetics rooted in Indian philosophy reduce Indian philosophy to simple ‘idealism’ and ignore the tremendous inner differentiation and range of Indian philosophical thinking…
As global competition becomes increasingly knowledge based, it becomes important for each civilization to excavate its intellectual assets that lie embedded within its non-translatable categories, frameworks and literature.

What will be the future of the Sanskrit-based Indic and pan-Asian civilization in this emerging global theater?

This issue has great relevance to many Asian nations, including Thailand, which regard Sanskrit with the same respect with which Westerners regard Latin and Greek.

India and Southeast Asia share this magnificent ancient, yet modern and postmodern, civilization. It deserves to be nurtured and presented to the world on par with the other civilizations competing for global market share, i.e. civilizations that are based on European thought, Chinese thought, and Arabic-Persian thought.

India and other countries with Sanskrit based cultures should form joint projects to reinvigorate this discipline. Some principles to consider are the following:

– European Christians created a great Renaissance from heathen Greek and Latin texts which led them eventually to establish cultural equations with many other ancient languages and develop modern philology. South and Southeast Asians must also look at their own classical heritage for creative solutions while at the same time assimilating Western thought.

– There must be parity between the positioning of Sanskrit and other major classical languages: India and Southeast Asia should give Sanskrit a status comparable to the status given to Latin by the West, Arabic by the Arabs, Persian by Iran, and Mandarin by China.

– Objective, multi-disciplinary scholarly efforts must be funded and undertaken to engage and challenge biased scholarship based on trendy theories of suppression of vernaculars and oppression of “marginalized” people by Sanskrit.

– Dalits and other under privileged Indic peoples should be encouraged to study Sanskrit as a possible path to self re-discovery, and should be promoted as leaders of learning.

– Asian countries should sponsor the study and teaching of the history of Asia that would be less tainted by Eurocentrism than is the case today.

– Freudian and other trendy “theories” to analyze Sanskrit texts should not get privileged over indigenous interpretations, to restore balance and respect for the tradition as is the norm for other classical languages.

– Over 25 million Westerners (including almost 18 million Americans) are yoga enthusiasts. Sanskrit inhabits their bodies as a result of practices such as mantra, asanas, chakras, prana, kundalini etc. — all terms that cannot be translated into other languages because they are discoveries of embodied states unknown to most other cultures. This latest Sanskritization of the inner world could expand to over 100 million Westerners in the next ten years. Indian authorities should see this as a form of cultural capital, and Indians should reclaim this heritage rather than allowing others to appropriate and remap it into “Christian Yoga,” “Kabala Yoga,” “Islamic Yoga,” “Western science,” etc.

– There should be a fresh challenge the colonial divide-and-rule scholarship that has created tensions between Buddhism and Hinduism. For instance,

– Challenge the Orientalist theory that Buddhism was “eradicated” in India by Hinduism

– Challenge the exaggeration of disconnects between Hinduism and Buddhism

– The recent archeological findings in Raipur show once again that Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism and Jainism thrived peacefully together, under Hindu rulers. (See: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1050621/asp/frontpage/story_4896126.asp)


1 Panini’s thought flowed over to Structuralism via Saussure’s students. This is discussed in the following. (1) Singh, Prem. 1992. “Rethinking history of linguistics: Saussure and the India Connection.” In “Language and Text: A Kelkar Festschrift.” Ed. by R. N. Srivastava. Delhi: Kalinga Publishers. Pages 43-51. Also, (2) Ivanov, Vyacheslav V. 1974. “Growth of the Theoretical Framework of Modern Poetics.” In “Current Trends in Linguistics” edited by T. A. Sebeok. Vol. 12. The Hague: Mouton. Pages 835 – 61.

2 Also see Kunjunni Raja, Indian Theories of Meaning (Adyar, Madras). He is the topmost scholar in this.


Many scholars have contributed to this paper, most notably Dr. Shrinivas Tilak, Jay Patel and Aditi Banerjee.

An earlier version of this paper was presented as the opening plenary at the International Conference on Sanskrit in Asia: Unity in Diversity, held in Bangkok in June, 2005, sponsored by The Infinity Foundation and organized by Silpakorn University, Thailand, with Her Royal Highness the Crown Princess of Thailand as its chief patron. The earlier paper is published in the Sanskrit Centre Journal, Silpakorn University, Volume 1, 2005. Feedback received at that event has further helped to shape the final version.


Maurice Olender, The Language of Paradise. Harvard University Press

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Published: 2005