This Article is From Jun 25, 2016

Yes, Sanskrit At IITs May Be A Good Idea. But Conditions Must Apply.

When the announcement about Sanskrit teaching in the IITs was made last month, it was greeted with some consternation. How can C++ and Java-script be expected to hold a coherent conversation with the shlokas of Shankara or Bhartrhari? Why should other classical languages with a distinguished intellectual ancestry such as Tamil not also be taught? Is there a cultural agenda that motivates this move? Has the autonomy of the IITs been compromised? 

Now that the HRD Minister has clarified in the Rajya Sabha that the IITs "have been requested to offer Sanskrit" only as "an elective subject or as a language course for students who wish to study the language", the furore might be expected to quieten down. Yet, Sanskrit has always been a bit of a celebrity language, attracting headlines at least since William Jones praised its "wonderful structure" right down to when Dinanath Batra filed a case under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code against the US scholar Wendy Doniger for her interpretation of the history of the Hindus through an "alternative" reading of ancient Sanskrit texts. Given these recent perturbations round an ancient language, this may be as good a time as any to review the possible contribution that Sanskrit, as well as the many languages of modern India, can make to intellectual paradigm-shifts in an age of virtual reality. 

Here, to start with, is a little mind-game I sometimes play with students on introductory linguistics courses at IIT Delhi: Take the words in Column A and fill in the words in Column B; then take the words in Column C and fill in Column D (of course, all the words are already entered in the present example). 

IIT students notice right away, as do students elsewhere, that there is a more than a coincidental resemblance between these two languages - whether you begin at the Sanskrit end or the English. This piques their interest in historical linguistics and they are able to go on to explore questions of "language families", sociolinguistics and the like. My point is that even such tiny exercises immediately place Sanskrit in an interdisciplinary modern context, opening out potential avenues of research into language which, as we know, often constitutes our basic sense of "identity". 

Indeed, the "identity question" has been at the heart of language contention around Sanskrit both pre- and post-Independence. For example, you might have imagined that Rabindranath Tagore, poet of burnished Brahmin ancestry, would be a vocal supporter of Sanskrit - but no. Tagore was convinced that the purist punditry of Sanskrit and the colonial imposition of English both conspired to stifle creativity and intellectual inquiry in the mother-tongue, which to him was the language in which instruction in science and technology was best imparted. In brief, Tagore saw "Sanskritization" not as an aid but a barrier to the "democratization" of access to education. 

BR Ambedkar, iconic Dalit leader, on the other hand, surprisingly advocated Sanskrit as the national language of India in the Constituent Assembly language debates of 1949 and the early 1950s, along with Dr BV Keskar who later became Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Prof. Nazimuddin Ahmed and some others. Although their motion was defeated, it is instructive to listen to these voices from the early history of independent India, as we once again debate the role of Sanskrit in the education of 21st century IIT students. Consider, for example, Prof Ahmed's rather charming perspective at the time: not only, he averred, was Sanskrit a "grand" and "great" language, but it was "impartially difficult for all." Hindi might be "easy for Hindi speaking areas, but it is difficult for other areas." Sanskrit, on the contrary, was a challenge for everyone! It was, declared the Professor with simple conviction, "the world's greatest language".

Few modern linguists would agree with Prof. Ahmed's implicit assumption that the languages of the world - about 6,500, roughly speaking - should be ranked according to how "great" or even how "difficult" they are. English, for example, is really not any more difficult than, say, Persian or Bantu - or the other way around. All children everywhere, we know for a fact, acquire the entire range of their native languages by the age of about four or five, whatever that language is.                  

Interestingly, many scholars believe that Sanskrit was never a natural spoken language. On the Indian subcontinent, ancient Sanskrit was used by the relatively small, literate upper echelons. The populace, at large, spoke in the prakrits. This point is relevant in the context of the IITs since Sanskrit, a formal, constructed (sams + krta = 'put together') language, was exquisitely codified and laid out in the form of thousands of grammatical rules by Panini (4th century BCE, in Purushapura, now Peshawar in Pakistan). It has thus been argued, that Sanskrit, owing to the admirable efforts of Panini and other ancient grammarians, is especially amenable to computerization. 

Although, in principle, every single human language possesses the property of "recursion", making each a sound base for computation, this codification was already achieved to a great extent for Sanskrit. Indeed, Rajeev Sangal and his colleagues at IIT Kanpur developed, almost 20 years ago, the "Anusaaraka" system which could more or less translate between some major Indian languages. Their inspiration, they explicitly claimed, was Panini's meticulous Sanskrit grammar. So it's not as if Sanskrit has not been a presence at the IITs. 

The current committee headed by former Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswami now proposes a further step. A knowledge of Sanskrit, they suggest, "may facilitate study of science and technology as reflected in Sanskrit literature along with inter-disciplinary study of Sanskrit and modern subjects". Now, the operative word in this clause is the modal verb "may". Sanskrit may - but equally, it may not - stimulate "interdisciplinary" enquiries in premier institutes committed, in the main, to taking forward modern science and technology.

The first thing to note in this context is that Sanskrit, like its Indo-European counterparts, Latin and Greek, had the advantage of a body of written texts ("smriti") in addition to ritual methods of oral transmission ("shruti" i.e. Vedic literature). Inevitably then it accumulated over time a huge, rich reservoir of materials ranging from sacred incantations to courtly plays to doggerel verse; from sophisticated philosophical schools ("darshana") and abstruse commentaries thereon to questions and conjectures (as, for example, in the "Kena" Upanishad) to scientific treatises and descriptions. It is the last category, we are told, that the IITs should look to for inspiration.

Languages, though, are organic wholes. It is difficult, if not impossible, to mine Sanskrit or any other language, just for its possible imagination in the fields of science and technology. If you look for actual, modern science in such old texts, deep problems of scholarly interpretation arise. For instance, my IIT students today who are mostly innocent of Sanskrit, when asked what kinds of scientific devices they would like to invent, mention "teleportation", "time travel machines", "robots that can tunnel through the earth" etc. Obviously, they have read of these things in contemporary science fiction but they could as well have found similar inspiration from reading Sanskrit texts. For what literature or myth imagines, science executes. And what science executes, the social sciences discuss. Such is the nature of interdisciplinary activity. 

In short, interdisciplinary rigor is key to any real research. Cherry-picking for "science and technology" alone does not seem respectful enough to the tensile, flexible and cultural indexing of languages. Languages are truly "human" in the sense that they live, breathe and ultimately die. But even "dead" languages like Latin, Hebrew or Sanskrit, have a "soul" or "spirit" that will never endure trammeling or cultural control. So if Sanskrit is to be "brought to life" in the IITs today, colonial descriptions of it as 'the sacred language of the Hindus' should be rejected as inadequate. Sanskrit today, if revived, must be "secularized". But how? 

Five tentative suggestions: 

1. Relate the study of Sanskrit at the IITs and elsewhere to broader interdisciplinary fields such as translation studies, including machine translation, cognitive linguistics and so forth.

2. India has an almost legendary richness of languages, yet several (at least about 200) of our languages are endangered; if Sanskrit and/or other classical languages are studied in our universities, link them to the archiving and preservation of our often non-Sanskritic endangered languages; the IITs have the skills to do this electronically and should coordinate in this respect with centers such as the Central Institute of Indian Languages - a task well worth undertaking.

3. Establish internships/scholarships particularly for Dalit students to study Sanskrit if they wish.

4. Make Sanskrit courses entirely voluntary; IIT students are already quite stressed out.
5. Coordinate with some of the excellent national and international websites and universities that are already documenting Sanskrit resources and try and start a non-boring, interactive and argumentative inter-IIT MOOC for virtual Sanskrit/other Indian language classes.

Sanskrit is undoubtedly a fine, majestic and robust language. It is also often times startlingly subversive. I end with a favourite verse from Kalidasa, freely translated into the idiom of modern times:

If a professor thinks what matters most
Is to have gained an academic post
Where he can earn a livelihood, and then
Neglect research, let controversy rest,
He's but a petty tradesman at the best,
Selling retail the work of other men.
(From the "Malavikagnimitra" trans. John Brough)

Sanskrit, anyone? 

(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books.)

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