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সমবিভাজন

October 7, 2013

স্কুল থেকেই সংস্কৃত ভাষা শেখার খুব ইচ্ছে ছিল। আরবি ক্লাস ফেলে কয়েকবার গিয়েও ছিলাম হিন্দু বন্ধুদের সঙ্গে সংস্কৃত ক্লাসে। আমাদের স্কুলে আমাদের বাংলা স্যারই ছিলেন সংস্কৃত স্যার, আমার সাথে তার সম্পর্ক ছিল অসাধারণ, কাজেই ক্লাসটা আমি করেই যাচ্ছিলাম। কিন্তু সমস্যা তৈরি হল আরবি ক্লাস আর সংস্কৃত ক্লাস একই সময়ে হত—নিয়ম ছিল মুসলিম ছেলেরা আরবি ক্লাসে যাবে আর হিন্দু ছেলেরা যাবে সংস্কৃত ক্লাসে, কিন্তু সেটিও কোনো সমস্যা ছিল না, আমাদের হুজুরটি ছিলেন যথেষ্ট উদার। সমস্যাটা এলো এক আজগুবি জায়গা থেকে, আমাদের শ্রেণীশিক্ষক একদিন আমাকে ডেকে নোটিস বোর্ডে আমাদের ক্লাস রুটিনের একটা জায়গা আঙুল দিয়ে দেখালেন—দেখলাম ৫ম পিরিয়ডটিতে লেখা ‘সংস্কৃত ও হিন্দু ধর্ম শিক্ষা’ ও ‘আরবি ও ইসলাম ধর্ম শিক্ষা’—তার আদেশে সে ক্লাসের বুধ বা বৃহষ্পতিবারের ৫ম পিরিয়ডটি এরপর থেকে অপরিসীম বিতৃষ্ণা নিয়ে আমাকে উপস্থিত থাকতে হয়েছে আরবি ক্লাসে। এরপর আজ পর্যন্ত আমার সংস্কৃত শেখার সুযোগ হয়নি, আমার ইচ্ছে এখনও আছে, জানি না কখনো পূর্ণ হবে কিনা।
কিন্তু আজ আউটলুকের এই লেখাটা পড়ে মনটা খারাপ লাগছে আবার ভালোও লাগছে। হ্যাঁ, সত্যিই সংস্কৃত তো শুধু তন্ত্রমন্ত্রের ভাষা নয়—এতো দর্শনের সাহিত্যের বিজ্ঞানেরও ভাষা, আরবিও তো শুধু কোরান হাদিসের ভাষা নয়—তাও তো দর্শনের সাহিত্যের বিজ্ঞানের ভাষা। এত সব বিভাজন করে করে আজ আমরা সংস্কৃত শেখার সুযোগ যেমন হারিয়েছি তেমনি আরবি শেখার সুযোগও হারিয়েছি। ধর্ম এক বিকট রোগাক্রান্ত সংগঠন।

http://nirmaaan.com/blog/ajkerlink/5792#comment-2663

আরেকটি সংযোজন:

The story of my Sanskrit
Ananya Vajpeyi

An article in this paper on July 30 revealed that Dina Nath Batra, head of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti, had formed a “Non-Governmental Education Commission” (NGEC) to recommend ways to “Indianise” education. I had encountered Mr. Batra’s notions about education during a campaign I was involved with in February and March this year, to keep the American scholar Wendy Doniger’s books about Hindus and Hinduism in print. His litigious threats had forced Penguin India to withdraw and destroy a volume by Prof. Doniger, and this was even before the national election installed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the ruling party in Delhi.

Some educationists in Gujarat seem to be unperturbed by the message that parts of RSS pracharak Dinanath Batra books for schools send out to children.

“Which school did you go to? You went to an English medium school? Did you not have a moral science textbook? When Christian missionaries have moral science books, no one questions them. When the Gujarat government does it, the media raises its hackles. If ethical and moral values are taught, then what is wrong?” Bhaskar Patel of the Ahmedabad Shala Sanchalak Mandal, an independent body of school trusts, told The Hindu.

State Education Minister Bhupendrasinh Chudasama has said the books, which are prescribed as references, would help build the character of students.

While Batra’s books have many a tale on courage displayed by women, a story on Shivaji’s mother misses the mark, advocating a ‘Hinduised’ form of valour, that is ‘Durga Shakti’.

The story ‘Heroic Wife’ reinforces a patriarchal view of marriage using a historical tale about Shivaji’s mother Jijabai. Once when she is in Mughal captivity, her father Jadhavrao, posted in the Nizam’s empire, implores her to leave her pitiable condition and go with him. Jijabai replies, “The day I married, the day I became part of the Bhonsale family, my tie with your family ended. I am the wife of the valiant Bhonsale family. I prefer the ‘roti’ at my husband’s place than the food at your house.”

Mystifying the story further, Mr. Batra adds, “While speaking Jijabai looked like goddess Durga. Jadhavrao felt a sense of shame to wait there and he left.”

Ever since Mr. Narendra Modi’s government has come to power, Mr. Batra has become more active, zealous and confrontational in stating his views about Indian history, Hindu religion, and what ought to qualify as appropriate content in schoolbooks and syllabi not only in his native Gujarat but in educational institutions all over the country. He is backed up by a vast governmental machinery, by the fact that Mr. Modi himself has penned prefatory materials to his various books, and of course by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which he has been a member and an ideologue for over several decades.

Anything but ordinary

It’s unclear what the status or authority of Mr. Batra’s proposed NGEC is to be, but I was struck by the mention of one of my former teachers as a potential member of this commission. Seeing the name of Prof. Kapil Kapoor took me back to my days as an M.A. student in English and Linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Prof. Kapoor first introduced me and my classmates to traditions of literature, language philosophy, literary analysis, poetics, semiotics, grammar and aesthetics in Sanskrit. Many of us went on to write doctoral dissertations about these subjects, deviating from British, American and postcolonial literature, and the European literary and critical theory that constituted the bulk of our coursework.

Prof. Kapoor ended up becoming dean and rector, and later, during the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime, setting up the Centre for Sanskrit Studies at JNU. He and I lost touch, partly because I went away overseas and partly because of our political disagreements that were becoming increasingly apparent. But encounters with other scholars like the philosopher Arindam Chakrabarti, the Panini expert George Cardona, and the Sanskritist, and eventually my doctoral supervisor, Sheldon Pollock made me decide to pursue more seriously the path that I had glimpsed in Prof. Kapoor’s classroom: I took up the study of Sanskrit for real.

One of the reasons this did not seem outlandish to me was because my father is a poet and writer in Hindi, and I had been exposed to Indian literary and intellectual traditions at home from a very young age. Along the way I had studied Romance languages as well, so that adding Sanskrit to the repertoire did not feel at all counter-intuitive. At Oxford, I wrote an M.Phil thesis about how the study of Sanskrit had shaped the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern linguistics in Europe. But after that, when I entered the South Asian Languages and Civilizations doctoral program at the University of Chicago, I did not properly realise what I had signed up for.

Learning philology and Indology at Chicago was intensely challenging, yet also proportionately gratifying. We had the best scholars of South Asian studies in the world for our teachers. Along with a small group of classmates, most of whom are professors now in America’s top universities, I spent hundreds if not thousands of hours at the Regenstein Library, painstakingly unpacking sutras, verses, commentaries and arguments in a range of Sanskrit texts, increasingly difficult as we moved to more advanced levels.

Encountering prejudice

It’s hard to describe the peculiar pain and pleasure of this language, so strict are its formal rules, so complex the ideas it allows one to formulate, express and analyse. Sanskrit enables thought at a level distinct from ordinary thinking in the languages of everyday life. This is not to say that one cannot have a perfectly ordinary conversation in spoken Sanskrit: one can, of course, and in Sanskrit pedagogical environments, this is normal. But most of the vast literature available in this amazing language is specialised, technical and anything but ordinary. D. Venkat Rao estimates that some 30 million texts in various forms exist in Sanskrit at this time, the largest textual corpus of any extant human language.

Half of my long years as a doctoral student were spent away from Chicago, in India. For my dissertation, I read a small body of late medieval Sanskrit dharmashastra works. These were texts of a legal and normative nature that were specifically about shudra-dharma: the rituals, duties and constraints associated with shudras, the social category that constitutes the fourth stratum of the orthodox brahminical fourfold varna-vyavastha, what we now normally designate as the “caste system.” I read with pandits and professors, at mathas, Sanskrit colleges, Oriental institutes and Sanskrit departments within regular universities, in places like Mysore, Bangalore and Pune. I even studied Kannada and Marathi to ease my passage.

Nothing in my experience or education up to that time had prepared me for the sheer wall of prejudice that blocked the access of someone like me to the particular aspects of the history, ideology and politics of Sanskrit that I was interested in. Here I was — female, a north Indian in south India, a student enrolled at a foreign university, a Hindi-speaker, and only tenuously and dubiously of a caste that pandits considered acceptable. My teachers and I struggled to communicate, but in the end, most things were lost in translation. A well-known Sanskrit professor in Maharashtra told me that only “perverted women” became scholars, a pronouncement that brought several months of our readings to an abrupt close one afternoon, and ensured I never again returned to meet him.

The caste hierarchy and sexism, the inequality and misogyny that the social worlds of Sanskrit engender and proliferate are shocking to a modern sensibility. For a decade, my teachers in India and abroad had taught, tended, scolded and moulded me like their own child. Now I was confronted with a shrinking community of Sanskrit scholars left in a few places in India. They felt embattled inside collapsing institutions that had no space for their learning, demeaned by democratic politics and secular public life that stigmatised their orthodox beliefs, threatened by gender equality that resisted the patriarchy inherent in their practices, and humiliated by their sheer marginality in the economy of new knowledge systems, communication technologies and political common sense. They were bitter and resentful, and the occasional interloper like me — that too someone with an obviously critical agenda — had to face the brunt of their frustration.

Another journey

After about three years of fighting a losing battle, I decided to make what I could of the dharmashastra materials on my own. The dissertation got completed, and later, when I was writing my first book on an unrelated subject, I returned with joy and pleasure to the classics of Sanskrit literature, like Kalidasa’s long poem, the “Meghaduta,” sections of the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita. In the safe cocoon of another great American institution, this time Harvard University’s Widener Library, I could bracket for a few years the dark side of Sanskrit, its complicity with the power dynamics of caste and gender that make modern India the most confounding contradiction of on-paper political equality and lived social inequality.

But now that India is ruled by the Hindu nationalist government of Mr. Modi, with grandiose and historically baseless announcements being made all the time by the likes of Mr. Batra, it seems the time has come to deal with everything that is wrong with Sanskrit, yet again. A language is only a means to an end. Sanskrit is a powerful tool, but whether its uses are salutary or destructive depends on whose hands it happens to fall into. Its rigour and beauty are undeniable; so are its rigidity and elitism, in certain circumstances.

My former professor, Kapil Kapoor, was knowledgeable and passionate about Sanskrit, which is what made him such a memorable teacher. I cannot believe that he would endorse the ridiculous claims made by some Hindutva spokespersons that there were airplanes and cars in ancient India, and that the Vedic culture invented stem cell research. One of the things I remember about him most vividly was his earthy sense of humour. “If Panini was at Takshila,” he often joked, “that probably means he was a Punjabi, like me.” We would all laugh, transported for a moment to the vanished classrooms of remote antiquity, when one of the most astonishing works of systematic knowledge of all-time, Panini’s Sanskrit grammar, the Ashtadhyayi, was probably composed somewhere on the plains of north-western Punjab.

It’s up to liberal, secular, egalitarian, enlightened and progressive sections of our society to preserve and protect this unique civilisational resource. Kapil Kapoor opened a window for his students, from where they could see a breathtaking vista of India’s past, filled with traditions of philosophy, religion and literature unparalleled in almost any other language. Scholarship like that of Sheldon Pollock and his colleagues helps us to understand the history, the power, the circulation and the importance of Sanskrit knowledge systems in the pre-modern world, not just in India but across Asia. We learn to really read texts, to carefully unpack their meaning in complex historical contexts of production and reception, rather than merely brandish them as false tokens of identity and imagined superiority in our own times.

Sanskrit must be taken back from the clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes and a variety of other wrong-headed characters on the right, whose colossal ambition to control India’s vast intellectual legacy is only matched by their abysmal ignorance of what it means and how it works.

(Ananya Vajpeyi is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, HUP, 2012. E-mail: vajpeyi@csds.in)

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7 Comments
  1. এই বিভাজন আর বিভাজনের সমাজ শিক্ষা আমাদের অনেক ইচ্ছেপূরণ হতে দেয়নি; আপনার না, আমারও নয়৷ উপমহাদেশে আজ যে নিরপেক্ষতার একান্ত প্রয়োজন, তার পথে যদি সমাজ (হ্যাঁ, সমাজই তো ধর্মের আসল ধারক!) বাধা হয়ে দাঁড়ায়, তবে একদিন না একদিন রাষ্ট্রবিপ্লব অবশ্যম্ভাবী৷ আমি সেই দিনের পথ চেয়ে বেঁচে আছি৷ আপনার দীর্ঘশ্বাস আমারও বুক জুড়ে ফেটে বেরুতে চায়৷

    • আমার কাছে ভাষাটা মহামূল্যবান, কিন্তু রাষ্ট্র কেমন যেন ভাষাবিমুখ — আমাদের এঅঞ্চলে রাষ্ট্রগুলো ধর্মের মতোই ভাষাবন্দী, ভাষাবান্ধব নয়। ভারত রাষ্ট্রে এই ভাষা সমস্যা তো অত্যন্ত প্রকট — ভারতে ইংরেজির অবস্থানকে আমি অনেক দিন থেকে পিতৃভাষা হিসেবে দেখছি, মাঝেমাঝে একে আমি নব্য ‘দেবভাষা’ও বলি — অবশ্য ভাল দিক হচ্ছে জাতপাত ব্যতিরেকে সবাই এটা শিখতে পারে প্রাচীন ‘দেবভাষা’ সংস্কৃতের সাথে এখানেই ইংরেজির পার্থক্য, কিন্তু মিল হচ্ছে শিক্ষিত বিত্তশালী ও এনআরআইরাই ইংরেজিতে অত্যধিক দক্ষ ও সড়গড়।

  2. Sorry for responding in the new language of the gods! Having been a keen student of IE languages and of the various modes of expression and communication at our disposal, I have, unbeknownst, begun to peel off all my prejudices. Religion and the consciousness of anthropological class, skin colour for example, are the biggest human prejudices — language is merely an adjunct of that. Of course, we can’t possibly know all the languages that we wish to in our eagerness to seek our roots. My roots, I’m convinced, are firmly in the soil; my ancestors, and yours in all probability, were the Austro-Asiatic people who spoke languages of the pan-Mundari family (Santhali, Mundari, Ho, etc). A far superior language, a major fragment of the Indo-European family, had subjugated us long before the Turks did, or the English, for that matter. Why should you lament not knowing Sanskrit — a distant cousin of our own tongue?

  3. Reblogged this on নবরস মুন্সির সুভাষিতা and commented:
    স্কুল থেকেই সংস্কৃত ভাষা শেখার খুব ইচ্ছে ছিল।

  4. Politics and the English language

    Written by Mrinal Pande | May 5, 2014 9:50 am

    Like millions of fellow voters I have been watching the exclusive TV interviews given by heavyweight leaders, first to India’s major English channels and later, almost grudgingly, to the print media and Hindi channels.

    India in election mode is a world gone crazy. All is magnified by enervating and threatening sounds: joy, anger, blind trust and obduracy.

    There is even a certain subtext to the choice of English over regional languages, and vice versa. Recent interviews given by three major political rivals from Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra to the English channels have been run for days on the small screen and triggered headlines nationally. All leaders had chosen anchors known for their aggressive, no holds barred stance, but began by ensuring that they, not the anchors, came through as the alpha male.

    Then came the linguistic spin. The leaders began replying in Hindi to questions being posed in English, till the hapless anchors also switched languages and began speaking in Hindi. It was only after this that the leaders gave interviews to the print media and Hindi channels. One such Hindi daily with a large circulation in the crucial states of Bihar and UP had the rare pleasure of getting an online interview, while its sister English dailies were overlooked. Subverting the usual pattern, they then chose to publish the great leader’s thoughts in an English translation.

    What is happening, one wonders. Is the charisma of English, the language of India’s power pack, no longer what it was? Has a belated realisation struck the political class that a large number of Indian voters do not understand English? And the majority are located in the Hindi belt? Are those who can charm the masses and whip up a cultural xenophobia using debatable data and a few colloquial witticisms going to walk away with a major chunk of votes, never mind their past and present affiliations?

    Fact is, whenever the old system begins to collapse in India, the official language of the ruling class also loses authority. The earliest official language to lose clout thus was Sanskrit, used only by the upper castes and upper classes. When Buddhism became the state religion, Sanskrit was unceremoniously ousted by Pali, Paishachi, Apbhransha. After the decline of Buddhism and the fracturing of the great Mauryan empire, Pali too lost out. Then, Islamic rule brought in courtly Persian and anointed it as the official language. Like Sanskrit before it, Persian was largely an aspirational medium, accessible only to the upwardly mobile and ambitious members of the Indian nobility (read upper caste Hindu males) . Ultimately, when India became part of the British Empire, the Queen’s English sent Persian packing from the courts and ruled the land through communications issued in English and translated for the common folk in official versions of Urdu and Hindi.

    The sudden spurts in the growth of India’s regional languages is proof that whenever the central power begins to collapse — taking with it its formal court language — there is a short hiatus when the marginalised languages will suddenly acquire a life and produce brilliant literature: the poetry and prose of Gunadhya, Akka Mahadevi, Kabir, Gyaneshwar, Mir, Nazir Akbarabadi, Nirala, Mahadevi Varma and Firaq Gorakhpuri. Faced with gut-wrenching change, humankind needs mother tongues like it needs comfort food. But creative periods are never too long. Once new power takes over, it brings in another language, limited edition.

    An under-reported fact: Hindi and Urdu, two languages that helped leaders to reach out to the masses and promoted as future official languages, were effectively barred from assuming that role in both India and Pakistan post-Independence. The leaders announced that use of only these two from among the many that peoples spoke may enrage those who did not accept their dominance. English remained as the de facto official language. Under a strange compromise, Hindi and Urdu were anointed with great political fanfare as the teaching medium for poorly run government schools and madrasas. The power pack continued to send its progeny to English-medium private schools. These languages, like the Khajuraho temples, became symbols of mass culture and sustained by state-funded akademies run at the top by English-speaking bureaucrats. A pyrrhic victory until 2014.

    Exhausted by battling against misrule and divisive ideologies, while the under-informed and confused millions wait, new promises arrive swiftly on the wings of regional languages and begin to invoke false images of violence and crushing cultural slights suffered in the past. Contradictions arrive late. Their representatives want time to reveal the entire past and subtly nuanced truths in English. But time is perennially in short supply on super prime-time TV. Can the haltingly articulated defence of secularism by those unused to debating the issue in the regional languages convince the crowds sold to the Manichaean vision in stark black and white where they stand in a permanently adversarial relationship with Dilli?

    http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/politics-and-the-english-language/99/

  5. I am Sanskrit

    I am Sanskrit: the language of the gods. But like gods, I am now more an object over which “ignorant armies clash by night”. I carry a heavy load. I am burdened with every sin. For some, I am everything that was wrong with India. I am exclusion, obscurantism, esotericism and dead knowledge. I am burdened, by others, with the weight of redemption. I am the source of all unity and insight, all knowledge and eternal light. But for both sides, I am more an icon than an object of understanding: for one, an icon for blanket indictment, for another, an icon for obscure yearnings.

    They fight over my origins. Some say I was the language of invaders, imperiously subordinating everything around it. Others cite me as the example of a whole civilisation that spread across Asia, without the force of arms. They fight over my death. Some autopsies pronounced me dead by the 18th century. They say I died of internal corrosion: a slow insidious loss of faith in the knowledge systems I represented. It was an easy fate for a language that refused to be the language of the masses. Some say I was the victim of political murder: the great empires killed me, dismantling the structures that sustained me. But in all fairness, this has to be said: I somehow felt safer under the patronage of the Mughals, or even the British, than I do at the hands of my benevolent defenders in democratic India. Some refuse to pronounce me dead. I have been put on life support. Whether this will revive me or prolong my agony, I don’t know.

    Some think I am still living, though I have assumed more ghostly forms. They argue that the vernaculars did not displace me. Rather, the inner life of most vernaculars builds on my legacy. Even when they transcend me, they cannot escape my imprint. Even in opposition, I am an aesthetic reference. I don’t live as a language. I live as philology. But anyone who understands these matters will understand that philology should not be underestimated. I don’t live as philosophy. I live as liturgy. And this liturgy, even if not fully understood, defines the faith of millions. The abstract idea of India fears me. But I still remain the hidden meaning of every nook and corner of the geography of India. Not just ancient, but even India’s medieval and modern past is not fully accessible without me. I remain the substratum beneath all controversies over the past. I am the ghost that refuses to go away.

    Some fear me as the source of all social faultlines. I was the marker of caste and the oppression that came with it. I am feared as the symbol of division. Sanskrit is a code for merely Hindu, at the exclusion of all else. Some say I can be a point of connection: I was an instrument of caste but can also be the source of its subversion. And did not poor Dara Shikoh think that I could illuminate the meaning of the Quran?

    True, some ignorant progressives have denied all that I can offer. But my tragedy is that I have to fear my supporters more than my attackers. If there is a big idea running, in different forms, through my texts, it is this: the gradual displacement of the “I”, full of ahamkara (egoism), by the realisation of a deeper self. Yet, my political supporters wield me as an instrument of collective narcissism, a shrill assertion of pride. My priestly custodians, spread over the centuries in temples and maths, often with huge endowments, suffocated me in orthodoxy. They limited my reach. Contrary to what my opponents believed, I was not fixed in eternal verities. I was used for innovation: from the mathematics of the Namboodiris to the brilliant innovations in logic in places now long forgotten, like Nabadwip. But somehow, the image and social association with orthodoxy persisted, no doubt helped by the institutions supposed to nurture me.

    I did not lack support in independent India. There are dozens of university departments whose cumulative achievement has been to convince everyone that I am truly dead. Their scholarship and engagement with new forms of knowledge was killed by a deadening mediocrity. I was taught for three years and in most schools in ways that did not enhance linguistic competence or open up the doors of knowledge. Many of my supporters, with their small hearts and conspiratorial minds, would rather blame others than introspect. For them, I am a weapon to cut open wounds, not a source of knowledge.

    If I am dead, do I want a rebirth? If I am a ghostly shadow, do I want to become visible again? I am not sure. I would feel so out of place in this India. William Jones said I am a language of precision. What will I do in a culture that has lost the art of fine distinctions? I am the language of logic and form. What will I do in a culture where public argument is nothing but the flouting of logic? I am a language where the purpose of language is language itself. What will I do in a culture where everything is instrumental? I am the language of refined eroticism. What will I do in a culture where my supporters would unleash the tides of repression? I am the classic language of double meanings. What will I do in a culture where people cannot even hold one meaning in their head? I am the language of the classic pun. What will I do in a culture that is humourless? I am the language of itihasa. What will I do in a culture where all history is merely politics by other means? I am the language of refined aestheticism. What will I do in a culture where aesthetics is confined to museums or kitsch? The meaning of my name, they say, is perfection. What will I do in a culture where excellence is seen as an instrument of domination? I am the language of the gods. What will I do in a world where gods have been banished by godmen? I am the language of liberation, the gateway to being itself. What will I do in a culture that seeks bondage and refuses self-knowledge?

    Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote, “Tradition is the living thought of the dead, traditionalism is the dead thought of the living.” Now that I am caught between -isms, I doubt myself. I have become more a reflection of the dead thought of the living than the living thought of the dead.

    http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/i-am-sanskrit/99/

  6. How Sanskrit came to be considered the most suitable language for computer software
    Misreading of a 1995 paper in ‘AI Magazine’ and the sheer power of assertion repeated so often that it’s never questioned seem to be responsible.

    About Sanskrit in contemporary India, there are two things of note.

    The first is typified by what I found in the Hindustan Timesa few days ago. When a mobile app firm observed August 15 by asking people to tweet with the hashtag #IndianAndProud, many Indians responded. A selection of their 140-or-less character epigrams covered three full pages in the paper on August 19. One repeated an assertion that’s been made so often it’s no longer even questioned: that “Sanskrit is considered the most suitable language for computer software”.

    The way I’ve often seen it, that statement is usually prefixed by the words “A report in Forbes magazine in 1987 said that…”. Perhaps in this case the Twitter character limit forced their omission. But this attribution to Forbes has been made so often, it is no longer even questioned. Though if it was, we’d find that no such report was ever in Forbes, whether in 1987 or any other time.

    So why do so many people appear to believe it? Or what does it even mean? Or where did this shibboleth come from in the first place?

    Natural language for computers

    To answer that, you have to go back about 30 years, to 1985. That’s when, in a previous life, I was writing software for a living, particularly in a field that the industry was actively trying to profit from at the time, Artificial Intelligence. That year, a researcher named Rick Briggs at National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, made waves by publishing a paper in AI Magazine, titled “Knowledge Representation in Sanskrit and Artificial Intelligence.” (Abstract and full text available here.)

    This is the paper that would launch a thousand claims about Sanskrit and software.

    Now a major AI goal at the time was to get computers to understand “natural language” – meaning not Lisp or C or Prolog, which they all did quite well, but languages we humans speak. Like English, or Hindi, or Tagalog – or, for that matter, Sanskrit. That you can today ask Google a perfectly grammatical English question (try “What is the temperature on Tristan da Cunha?”) and actually get meaningful results owes something to those early research efforts. And Briggs alerted AI folks to something fascinating and useful: that the grammar of Sanskrit – structured and rule-based as it was – had significant lessons for this business of natural language understanding. Studying the way ancient Indian grammarians worked, Briggs suggested, might help AI researchers “finally solve the natural language understanding [problem]”.

    All of which is fascinating enough. But while his abstract does say that “a natural language can serve as an artificial language also”, nowhere in the paper did Briggs claim that Sanskrit is “the most suitable language for computer software”. That second is an essentially meaningless statement.

    For one thing, different kinds of software are suited to different computer languages. Much of AI research has happened in Lisp, for example, because of its ability to manipulate words and sentences – but Lisp is nearly unheard of outside AI. So there is no such thing as the “most suitable language” for software. But for another thing, if it was indeed so spot-on suitable, we’d have seen software written in Sanskrit by now. That we haven’t is a pointer to the truth: certainly the rigorous rules of Sanskrit grammar have lessons for AI, but writing software is another challenge altogether. The way computers are built requires a certain clear and unmistakable logic in how we give instructions to them. Nobody has yet found a way to do that in any natural language, whether Sanskrit or English or Tagalog.

    Elective, not mandatory

    Which brings us to the other thing about Sanskrit in contemporary India: Himachal Pradesh has just announced that “Sanskrit will be made a mandatory subject in all government schools” in the state.

    Why would a state force its students – or at least, the students in government schools – to learn Sanskrit? This is not to suggest that no students must learn it, not at all. After all, plenty of the collective wisdom of this country, gathered over many centuries, is recorded in Sanskrit and is, we believe, stored somewhere safe. I would have liked to learn enough Sanskrit – and maybe will someday – to read and understand even the line Rick Briggs deconstructs in his paper: “Maitrah: sauhardyat Devadattaya odanam ghate agnina pacati.” (He did kindly translate: “Out of friendship, Maitra cooks rice for Devadatta in a pot over a fire.”) And of course some of us – AI researchers, in particular – would do well to learn enough of the language’s grammar to use it as Briggs suggests.

    The word, of course, is “some”. Some of us will learn the intricacies of quantum mechanics, so as to tackle the endless mysteries of our universe. Some of us will learn the ins and outs of economics, so as to understand the dynamics of trade and markets. But not all of us. Because we don’t need that knowledge to live our lives. Which is why those subjects are not taught to every school-going kid.

    In the same way as it would make no sense to make quantum mechanics and economics mandatory, it makes no sense to make Sanskrit mandatory in schools. Make it available as an elective for those who want to study it; leave the rest to focus on their other subjects.

    Because for all its precise grammar and its centuries of history, this is the truth about Sanskrit: few people today speak it – just over 14,000 according to the 2001 Census, in fact. And certainly computers don’t speak it.

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