By Venetia Ansell

In the 19th century, Thomas Babington Macaulay instigated a major change in the Indian education system. Macaulay famously wanted to create “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” and sought to do this by championing English as the medium of instruction in place of the traditional Sanskrit-based education. Leaving aside the heated debate over ‘Macaulay’s children’, no one can deny that English has become the lingua franca in India not just for education but for much of everyday life.

As Macaulay realised, language is central to any culture. Not only does it provide continuity, connecting diverse peoples across time and space, but it also moulds and is moulded by that culture. And, in spite of the many languages, old and modern, that India has spawned, it is Sanskrit that stands tall behind almost all of them. Sanskrit is, as it were, the linguistic and literary fabric that stretches the length and breadth of India. India without Sanskrit would not be India.

Thanks in part to Macaulay, Sanskrit has withered as English has flourished. The language, and all it stands for, now faces two related risks.

There is a growing reliance on translations into modern Indian languages, and particularly English. Translating Sanskrit texts is a start, and certainly helps make them more accessible, but it is hardly a solution. A children’s version of the Pancatantra in English, Hindi or Kannada is undoubtedly a good thing but Ayurvedic doctors depending on English translations of the major medical treatises is not. In addition, a vast amount of material is lying in lakhs upon lakhs of undiscovered, undeciphered, untranslated and unpublished manuscripts throughout the country. India needs more people who can read the Gita themselves rather than yet another translation of the text.

The second danger is that Sanskrit becomes just one more dead language. In the West, Sanskrit thrives in the world’s best universities with brilliant scholars and plenty of funding (well, relatively speaking). But if Sanskrit is to avoid the fate of ancient Greek, which prospers in the stone colonnades of Oxbridge colleges but is no better than a corpse to the rest of the world, it cannot exist solely as a source of dry academic study. Sanskrit has outlived its European sisters, Latin and Greek, by many centuries because it has continued to be used not just for religion and government – as Latin was for many years – but also for teaching, scholarly discussions, new compositions, fresh commentaries on old works, the media and of course everyday conversation. If Sanskrit is to live on, it must be spoken and written as well as read and heard. People need to actively engage with Sanskrit.

Many of Sanskrit’s most enthusiastic supporters are NRIs, living abroad or just returned; you never appreciate something until you’ve lost it. In another generation or so, metropolitan Indians growing up in English-as-a-first-language households may well see the value of Sanskrit and the passport it provides to their cultural heritage. The irony is that by that stage they will struggle with the language as much as the many Westerners who – attracted by yoga, ayurveda, vedanta and even Panini – now learn Sanskrit. And in the meantime, who knows how many manuscripts will have succumbed to leaks, insects, fire and old age, and how many pandits will have taken their knowledge, passed down for hundreds of years, with them to the funeral pyre.

 

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