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Reviving ‘dead’ language: India’s Sanskrit speakers bringing it to millions

INDIA: In a tiny flat in a rundown alley in New Delhi, Rakesh Kumar Misra is working against the odds to bring India’s ancient Sanskrit language to the country’s millions.

culture
By AFP

Sunday 29 May 2016, 10:00AM


Participants attend a Sanskrit class at the Sanskrit Samvadshala on the outskirts of New Delhi. Photo: AFP

Participants attend a Sanskrit class at the Sanskrit Samvadshala on the outskirts of New Delhi. Photo: AFP

The 4,000-year-old classical language was traditionally used by Brahmin intellectuals and Hindu priests. Rarely spoken as a mother tongue in India, Sanskrit is often dismissed as a dead language.

But Misra is undeterred, spending up to 12 hours a day hunched over his computer, translating and writing articles for a weekly 16-page newspaper in the script.

“My aim is to take Sanskrit to the masses, to make it accessible to everyone,” Mr Misra, who has a masters in Sanskrit studies and sees the language as indelibly linked to India’s heritage, said in a recent interview.

Hopes of a Sanskrit revival, long pushed by Hindu hardliners, have been rising since India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi stormed to power at last year's general election.

Several ministers, although not Mr Modi himself, took an oath of office in the revered language and a national “Sanskrit week” was later declared to promote its teaching in schools.

The first Sanskrit movie made in more than two decades (and only the third ever) was shown at a leading film festival in November in the tourism state of Goa.

Vinod Mankara, director of “Priyamanasam”, about a 17th century-poet from the southern state of Kerala, said he hoped to secure government help to show the film overseas to “mesmerise foreigners” with the language.

“It’s been my desire from long back to propagate the beauty of the Sanskrit language,” he said.

But the focus on Sanskrit has sparked a debate about its role in India, which has 22 official languages, many spoken by sizeable minorities.

Critics fear Hindu hardliners are promoting Sanskrit as a way of imposing Hindu superiority on the country’s religious and linguistic minorities.

Mankara has rejected criticism that his film promotes Hindu ideology, calling it “pure art”.

It comes at a time of raging controversy over whether the Modi government is failing to uphold India’s tradition of secularism and diversity, amid rising fears of growing intolerance towards Muslims and others.

Education Minister Smriti Irani, responsible for promoting the language, denies the right-wing government has any hidden agenda and describes Sanskrit as the “voice of India’s soul and wisdom”.

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But she faces an uphill battle popularising it in schools, where it is offered as an optional language, and where some believe it’s linked with India’s past not its future.

“There are a lot of languages on offer and it’s difficult to deliver it everywhere,” said KC Tripathi, head of languages at the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government body that advises on school curriculums.

Mr Tripathi said the council was forming a new education policy, at the Modi government’s request, that includes updating and improving the way Sanskrit is taught in schools.

Only 14,100 people speak Sanskrit as their main language, according to the latest census figures, less than one per cent of India’s 1.25 billion population.

Still used in Hindu prayers and chants in temples, Sanskrit is the root of many but not all Indian languages and descends from the Indo-Aryans.

It was used thousands of years ago by India’s intellectuals whose manuscripts covered everything from philosophy to astronomy and medicine, not unlike Latin or Greek in the West.

“You can’t think about India without thinking of Sanskrit. The intellectual heritage of India for the last 5,000 years is rooted in Sanskrit,” said Ramesh Bhardwaj, head of Delhi University’s Sanskrit department, the world’s largest with 4,000 undergraduate students.

“This is not a dead language,” he added.

Mr Bhardwaj said he is disappointed the government has not done more to revive Sanskrit, including making it compulsory in schools, so younger generations can understand India’s roots.

“They [the government] came to power in the name of nationalism which includes Sanskrit, but nothing has been done,” the professor said.

Mr Misra, who draws no salary for producing his newspaper, one of only a handful in India and distributed mainly outside Hindu temples, is under no illusions about the scale of his task.

But he said India, like any country, cannot progress without all its people, not just its elite, understanding its past.

“It shouldn't just end up becoming a language of textbooks and research.”

 

 

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