“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage – to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning. No matter what our attainments in life, there is still a vacuum, emptiness, and the most disquieting loneliness.”
-Alex Haley, American writer
As I finished reading Amish Tripathi’s rather interesting book on Sita, it occurred to me that acknowledging the importance of Sanskrit in shaping India might very well sound clichéd, but it must be given its due credit. Other than the language having very scientifically defined grammar and phonetics, the fact is that various pieces of priceless literature which touch upon a plethora of fields, such as economics (as discussed here), science, sociology and philosophy, other than great works of love poetry, have been written in Sanskrit. In the context of science, I am referring to documented achievements of ancient Indian scientists in fields like mathematics, astronomy and surgery; I am not talking about religious lore, much of which, with all due respect to everyone’s religious sentiments, can be relegated to the sphere of fiction for all religions, and even if there is some evidence as to the existence of some events and characters mentioned in religious lore, nothing can conclusively prove scientific achievements based on them (social media forwards and random websites pandering to our confirmation biases shouldn’t be taken on face value). Going by the Judeo-Christian texts, even Solomon had a flying vehicle (and there are similar things in ancient Greek, Norse and Egyptian legends), and many popular stories by writers like Joules Verne and even JK Rowling have mentioned things that were really invented later, but that does not mean those stories were true when they were written, nor does referring to real places like Delhi or Mumbai or Hastinapur or Kurukshetra or accurate distances between them, in a story necessarily make that story true, though it is a fact that ancient Indian philosophical texts have inspired scientific enquiry across cultures. It is widely accepted that Sanskrit is good for speech therapy, as you can see here and in this piece by a Muslim scholar, as also this research paper on an official US website.
The cultural chauvinism and literalist reading of religious texts among large sections of religious rightists to make “scientific claims” without any concrete evidence is much talked about (this is done not just under a Hindu banner, but among Muslims and others too, as you can see here, here and here, and in this context, this video debunking notorious Muslim preacher Zakir Naik’s critique of the theory of evolution also makes a nice watch, and this issue in the Hindu context has been pointed out and rebutted not only by leftists but even eminent Hindu right-of-centre intellectuals, as you can see in this article, this one and this one), and we do indeed have to learn from modern scientists tirelessly working in laboratories across the world with appreciation and an open mind without baselessly accusing all of them of plagiarism or cultural appropriation. That said, as acclaimed author Vikram Chandra pointed out in an interview, some in the left-leaning political camp too have been guilty of being overly reductionist about Sanskrit as being a language that has texts that have advocated caste oppression, patriarchy and some other regressive ideas, but haven’t all civilizations had their social evils, and can’t one say that about languages like Persian, Arabic or even Urdu, given Maududi’s writings in that language validating purdah, for instance?
The one basic commonality in most of what we know as India, acknowledged as a geographical and cultural unit for centuries, is the prevalence of what we can describe as Hindu culture (that manifests itself even in the Durga Puja being observed by sections of ethnic locals of Meghalaya and the dance Hojagiri performed by sections of ethnic locals of Tripura), and speaking of our linguistic diversity, even the common thread of influence, even if not origin, is Sanskrit, even for Urdu, a combination of Persian and Hindi, for Hindi is derived from Sanskrit (the word ghar, for instance, used in Urdu is derived from the Sanskrit word grih, and the Sanskrit word ‘dukh’ figures in Ghalib’s couplet Ibn Maryam hua kare koi, mere dukh ki dava kare koi). Indeed, it is only desirable for all Indians to identify with and appreciate wonderful aspects of our ancient heritage, which is the heritage of all South Asians, irrespective of religion, just as many Muslims and Christians in Iran, Indonesia, Egypt and Greece celebrate their pre-Islamic/pre-Christian heritage, and there are Indian Christians and Muslims who are scholars of Sanskrit, some I know personally, and of course, there are historical examples like Mian Mir and Dara Shikoh from the Mughal period, whose worldview I have discussed here.
As our former president Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam stated – “Sanskrit is a beautiful language. It has enriched our society from time immemorial. Today many nations are trying to research Sanskrit writings.” He also suggested that Sanskrit scholars, apart from their academic activity, should take up the task of locating missing literature in Sanskrit available on palm leaves spread in different parts of the country so that these could be documented and preserved, and that they should avail of digital technology for documenting those scriptures both in audio and video form which can be preserved as long-term wealth for use by many generations. Unfortunately, a decade since Dr. Kalam voiced these concerns, this is an issue that still deserves attention. It also remains a sad fact that in many parts of India, despite our national motto ‘Satyamev Jayate’ and Doordarshan motto ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ adopted by the Congress party having been in Sanskrit and the upgrading of the Sanskrit College in West Bengal by the Trinamool Congress government there in 2015, and despite some left-leaning commentators pitching for Sanskrit in their own style (as you can see here and here), there remain few enthusiastic takers for Sanskrit courses, and acknowledging and celebrating the importance of Sanskrit gets mired in unnecessary and baseless political controversies.
It is interesting to note, as has been discussed in considerable detail in this article, that Dr. Kalam was critical of communalism under any religious banner and was a practising Muslim who interpreted Islamic theology very liberally such that his adherence to his faith did not come in the way of his commitment to humanism and Indian nationalism (which is possible as per several interpretations of Islamic theology), something that should be encouraged, and is, in my view, the only feasible way to ideologically combat Muslim extremism, as discussed here.
Dr. Kalam believed that Indians of all faiths, while being committed to modern human rights values, should be bound together by an over-arching sense of culture, which would lay emphasis, among other things, on our ancient Sanskrit texts. While freedom of religion is a human right, and I certainly don’t wish for India to emulate the moral and religious policing in Islamic theocracies like our western neighbour, which is a self-destructive route that destroys freedom of thought, the onus of a composite, syncretic culture or acknowledgement of historical wrongs (such as vis-a-vis Dalits for upper caste Hindus) should not be made to rest with only the Hindu majority, and it is necessary for our fellow Indians who are Muslim or Christian, while enjoying their religious freedom (including of apostasy from their faith), to embrace India’s ancient heritage as their own, and condemn any extremism from within their communities historically or in present times, as many already even do. This was a point reiterated by Guru Golwalkar of the RSS, who had evolved his views considerably by the time he wrote his book A Bunch of Thoughts, which, though misrepresented by many left-liberals, makes some interesting points, as discussed here [without in the least stereotyping everyone in the Sangh Parivar in a negative fashion as I have clarified here, here, here and here, I am not denying that there are many of those in the Sangh Parivar who are only spurred by zeal arising primarily out of confirmation bias in favour of birth-based Hindu identity, manifesting itself in reprehensible speech and action, and they must try and undertake dispassionate analysis, but leftists or minority community right-wingers can hardly claim a non-violent record, and any unlawful violence is a threat to our democracy and rule of law, and differences must be resolved constitutionally with legal punishments sought if necessary, rather than setting off cycles of violent revenge, and we’ve seen hundreds of jihadist terrorists and Hindu rioters, like in the massacres in Ode, Sardapura, Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg Society in the Gujarat riots of 2002, being made to serve prison terms, as also a BJP MLA, Manoj Pradhan, for anti-Christian violence in the Kandhamal district of Odisha in 2008, though it is unfortunate that many politicians believed to have fanned riots like Azam Khan, Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler not being punished has come in the way of a sense of closure to Sikhs and Jat Hindus (think Muzaffarnagar), just as Kashmiri Pandits being denied that sense of closure with those responsible for murdering their kin going unpunished, and there are some such riot-accused politicians in the BJP too, and we need judicial reforms such that it isn’t felt that politicians can evade justice, the way Manu Sharma from a political family almost did in the Jessica Lal case].
And while one may have many serious differences with the ideological and policy approaches of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including on the issue of handling the question of communalism (and I do, which is not to say that I support appeasing communal and regressive Muslims, that parties like the Congress, Trinamool Congress, SP and RJD have indeed unfortunately engaged in), I believe that everyone ought to acknowledge and support efforts made to integrate the minorities by encouraging them to adopt ancient Indic cultural facets without compromising on their religious beliefs, even by the BJP, such as outreach attempts to practising Muslims to participate in the International Yoga Day celebrations in 2015, telling them that chanting what they may see as religious words or verses was not compulsory and that yogic exercises are very similar to namaz, being beneficial for physical fitness. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other senior BJP leaders have, time and again, unambiguously stressed the need for religious tolerance, and even acknowledged positive contributions to the country from our fellow Indians of minority religious groupings, as discussed here, and indeed, Muslims enjoy better civil liberties and security of life and property in India than many Muslim-majority countries.
The general mentality about Sanskrit as well as other ancient languages, such as Pali, is merely restricted to the famous epics, and a general awareness of the vastness of the corpus of literature that these languages have produced is evidently missing from the Indian psyche.
Here is a list of four lesser-known texts to understand the magnificence of these sidelined languages:
- KALIVIDAMBANAM By Nila Kantha Dikshitar
For all those deeply upset about the lack of integrity of self-styled Hindu godmen and medical quacks, it may comfort them to know that our ancient forefathers were not oblivious to this menace, which has existed and continues to exist in every civilisation. A satirical piece of work by Nila Kantha, Kalividambanam (‘Mockery of Kalyug’), written sometime during the 17th century, warns the tricks and traits of each social type. Sorcerers, astrologers or physicians, the author leave no stone unturned for mocking the tricks of each social type. In an excerpt describing physicians, he writes-
Svasthair asadhya Arogais ca jantubhir n’ asti kim cana
katara dırghaArogasca bhisajam bhagya Ahetavah.
Natidhairyam pradatavyam natibhıtis ca rogini
naiscintyan nadime danam nairasyad evan antime
The healthy and the terminally ill are of no interest,
Doctors thrive on hypochondriacs and those suffering from chronic diseases.
The patient must neither be given too much hope nor too much fear.
In the first case he will not pay up because he has no worry,
in the second because he has no hope.
(From Three Satires by Bhallata, Kshemedra and Nila-Kantha, Edited and Translated by Somadeva Vasudeva)
- MATTAVILASHA PRAHASANA By Mahendravarman
Mattavilasha Prahasana or ‘A Farce of Drunken Sport’, written by Mahendravarman, is a 7th century Sanskrit satirical play set in Kanchipuram. The play exposes how a rot had set in reformist cults like Buddhism and Jainism and also heterodox Shaivite orders, as them having fallen prey to the same ills in the Brahmanical order they had set out to reform. This one-act play revolves around the drunken adventures of the central character, Satyasoma, and his wife Devasoma, and their journey to recover a lost skull bowl. Mattavilasha Prahasana predates Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) that also pokes fun at the power-hungry monks of the Catholic Church.
- LOKAPANNATI By Saddhammaghosa
Lokapannatti narrates the story of Upagupta, who was a 3rd century BC Buddhist monk. According to the stories in Ashokavadana (written in Sanskrit), Upagupta was a teacher of Ashok, the Mauryan emperor. In Lokapannatti, a Pali text, Upagupta is sent to tame Mara (the devil) by Ashok himself to the enshrinement ceremony festival. Science-fiction has been an integral part of ancient Indian literature. Lokapannati too consists of a story, which narrates the tale of King Ajatashatru, who had gathered the relics of Buddha to hide them beneath a stupa and built robots, known as ‘bhuta vahana yantra’, in order to protect these relics. Later in the story, Emperor Ashok had disarmed these mechanical robots. The story also finds a mention in the book Reignited, written by Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. Those impressed by the Wonder Woman comics having a combination of science-fiction (that evil female scientist in Ottoman Turkey), historical fiction (reference to actual historical events like World War I), religious lore (Olympian deities) and fantasy, would be glad to know that there is an ancient Indian text combining all these genres too!
- KALAVILASA By Kshemendra
Kshemendra (990-1070 AD), a Kashmiri poet, was the pupil of the highly celebrated literary exponent and philosopher, Abhinavgupta. Kalavilasa is considered to be one of the greatest works of Kshemendra. The text, which is a satire, consists of ten cantos and deals with the vices of the society. The artistry of Kshemendra’s writing is marked by his recognition of the fallibility of human nature. He begins subtly by describing the vices in the society. Soon the tone of the satire changes to preaching morality and good conduct. Here is an excerpt from Kalavilasa, which ridicules doctors-
The physician becomes a renowned success
After he has killed a thousand patients with his concoctions,
Swapping around their various constituent drugs
in an attempt to figure out his own science.