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Why Sanskrit should be perceived as a dead language in order to keep it alive

By Rajiv Shah
It was such a pleasure reading a Facebook post. Rajiv Tyagi is former Indian Air Force squadron, his profile describes him as “politically promiscuous anti-fascist dissident, brain defogger, atheist, adventurer, empath, humanist”. This is what says in his post: “Sanskrit for all practical purposes is a dead horse. No amount of flogging will make it pull a political cart any longer.” 
It takes me back to the days when I started covering Gujarat Sachivalaya in 1997. It was, I think 1999, if I am not mistaken. Then education minister Anandiben Patel, currently Uttar Pradesh governor and a known Narendra Modi protege, told me, “We don’t need English, we need Sanskrit.”
But before recalling all of it, let me first reproduce what Tyagi has to say about Sanskrit:
“Even when it was in currency, it was never the language of the people. Sanskrit was like the silly k-language that schoolkids make up within their gang, by adding a k sound before every syllable, to make themselves unintelligible to others outside the gang -- only the minuscule population of Brahmans read, wrote and spoke Sanskrit.
“They also made laws that made it mandatory to pour molten lead into the ears of lower castes who dared to even hear the language of the Vedas... Therefore Sanskrit could never have been the language of the people.
“Silly statements about Sanskrit being the language of AI (I think he means all-India) notwithstanding, there is no work going on in the world of computational sciences, to promote the use of Sanskrit on computers, primarily because no one working on computers is learning Sanskrit.
The political madness frequently triggered by Sanskrit, is promoted only by our ignorant embrace of medieval texts as sources of 'wisdom' and 'science', in a speeding world that is becoming increasingly incoherent to those who pursue such sources for wisdom...
Sanskrit has nothing to offer to the modern world, though studying it should be funded by Government. For it is an indelible part of our world's cultural heritage, just like Latin and Klingonese are. And because so much literature has been written in it…”
Despite Anandiben’s insistence on Sanskrit (and pitting it against English, something that she repeated before several journalists), she couldn’t ensure, for obvious reasons, to have her say. If Keshubhai Patel, chief minister between 1998 and 2001, wouldn’t pay much heed to her, perhaps because he considered her as a supporter of his perpetual bete noire Modi, even Modi, even as skillfully promoting Hindutva in the name of culture and tradition, only peripherally cared much for Sanskrit.
Despite his known ideological positions, I must say, credit for reviving English in Gujarat goes to Modi. Though his English wasn’t really good (in fact, amidst quiet laughter during his first business summit in early February 2002 (it was called Resurgent Gujarat), speaking in English in front of he British ambassador, he pronounced ‘delegates’ as ‘dulgats’), he ensured a surprisingly no nonsense approach.
In fact, his was the first major reversal of the language policy adopted way back in 1960s following a tussle between two ministers, both of whose surnames of “Thakore”. If one of them was called “Thakorebhai Panchava”, because he wanted to introduce English in Class 5, the other one was called “Thakorebhai Athva”, as he wanted English to be taught starting Class 8.
The option was given to schools to decide. The result was, children would start learning English in Class 8, and stop studying it in Class 10. This produced a whole generation of Gujaratis who knew little or no English! Modi appeared to understand that this, as he found it was a huge hindrance for Gujarat going global. He began encouraging English in schools. A major difficulty then, which continues to this day, has been utter lack of English teachers.
Rajiv Tyagi
Those days, I recall, we journalists would be called for press-cum-lunch meets by a pro-RSS group which ran a school in Gandhinagar to tell us that Modi was “neglecting” Sanskrit at the cost of English. They would also proclaim that they had planned agitation against such neglect of Sanskrit – something they never did. I prepared a report on this for the Times of India.
Be that as it may, some of the pet Modi officials, especially promotee IAS babus, mostly from Gujarat, kept talking about why Sanskrit should be made compulsory in every school starting from Class 1, though they never made their view public. Some of them, who knew the language, would even talk in Sanskrit in their chamber with the Sanskrit scholars visiting them.
One such official was Bhagyesh Jha. Jha became famous in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots when he, as district collector, Vadodara, told then Election Commissioner JM Lyngdoh that the atrocious burning of Best Bakery, leading to the death of several persons, was a “minor" incident. The Times of India quoted Lyngdoh as castigating Jha: “Are you a joker or what?”
The result was, Jha became very close to Modi. Transferred to Gandhinagar, as culture secretary, Gujarat government, he organised several mass cultural programmes in Ahmedabad, roping in some of the top Bollywood choreographers, earning him accolades from Modi and those around him. Suave and polite, I would often interact with him, even enter into polemics.
Once, on visiting his chamber, I found he was talking in Sanskrit with a top scholar (I don’t remember his name). On seeing me, he stopped the conversation. Thereafter, several times of over, while I would argue with him that Sanskrit was a dead language like Latin, and that it should be studied only for research purposes, he would underscore how it was increasingly becoming popular. He would even give roll out examples of families which would only talk Sanskrit at home!
I sent a link of Rajiv Tyagi’s Facebook post to Jha on WhatsApp, seeking his reaction, recalling our polemics on Sanskrit. I didn’t get any reply. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting his reply, either. After all, I am not important enough in his scheme of things, now that, having retired, I am not with the Times of India. Jha too has retired but is still matters among high and mighty.
I want to end with what a senior professor of chemistry, whom I have held in high esteem, told me once. Our next door neighbour in Gandhinagar, this professor, who rose from the scratch from a village in North Gujarat to do his PhD in IIT, would tell me how he would study in a Sanskrit school during his childhood, and later turned to higher education.
One who can recite Sanskrit shlokas like no one, I asked him once: “Do most of you who recite Sanskrit shlokas understand their meaning?” He politely replied: “No way. Only 10% of them know their meaning. Ninety per cent reciting sholakas during Hindu rites mug up and recite them. They can’t tell you their meaning. And those who listen surely don’t know Sanskrit”!

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