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Why would anyone want to study Sanskrit? Is it not a dead language that no one speaks anymore? Of what use could it possibly be in this globalised age of informatics? Do we really want to be bogged down in the past when a brave, new world beckons? As one significant other put it, संस्कृत तोह सिर्फ पूजा-पाठ के लिए होता है (Sanskrit is only for religious rituals)! Surely, there must be more important things to learn?

This obtuse and philistine view has come to the fore since last month when India’s Human Resource Development minister, Smriti Irani, decided to replace German with Sanskrit as the third language in Kendriya Vidyalayas; German, however, would still continue to be offered but as a hobby. Furthermore, there appear to be some questions over how German came to be offered in the first place after a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan and the Goethe Institut in 2011.

Regardless of the bureaucratic irregularities, the question has now arisen whether Sanskrit, a relic of the past, should be made mandatory in schools at all. It is saddening to see such retrograde, utilitarian, and dare I say – insular – views being held by so many in prominent positions. There are umpteen reasons why Sanskrit should not just be taught but be at the core of school curricula alongside Maths and Science, and most of these reasons are accepted broadly about classical languages worldwide as Latin and Greek are offered in Europe and classical Chinese in China.

First, Sanskrit lays a firm basis for the rapid acquisition of other Indian languages. In a polyglot country such as India, the value of this skill cannot be overestimated. Not only is Sanskrit the root of many North Indian languages but it has also undeniably influenced South Indian Dravidian languages. A firm grasp over Sanskrit can improve cognition of words and ideas in several languages alien to the speaker. Can this not be done with other languages such as Urdu or Bengali? The short answer is no, not as effectively as with Sanskrit.

Second, Sanskrit is known for its highly ordered and efficient linguistic and grammar rules. The use of cases, dual plurals, and other features of Sanskrit forces students to be more precise in their use of language and develops logical and reasoning skills via sentence structure. A knowledge of Sanskrit helps in understanding not just the grammar of other Indian languages but also several foreign ones such as German, Russian, and Latin which, for example, also use cases and Arabic and Hebrew which have dual nouns.

Third, moving from crass utility to meta-utility, learning Sanskrit opens the door to the culture of ancient India. What richer source of literature, philosophy, and history – with the exception, perhaps, of Tamil – can there be for ancient and medieval India? Sanskrit literature is of many hues and not all of it is religious; there is secular work as well as erotic writings in the language which would do a world of good if popularised. Children will be able to access their favourite stories in the Mahabharata, Kalidasa’s plays, and the poetry of Sriharsha. In other words, Sanskrit nourishes the inner world of the child. As their counterparts in Greece and elsewhere, the Sanskrit classics gently teach children virtues like honesty, fidelity, and courage which one hopes they will imbibe along with differential equations and pericyclic equations.

Perhaps one of the most important tasks the classics do is imbue a sense of community in children. One of the purposes of education in a state is to nurture citizenship. In a country as diffuse as India, Sanskrit remains one of the few things truly common to the overwhelming majority if not all its people. Whatever differences Indians may have in their cuisine, language, or dress, they are all descendants of the same scholars, saints, and emperors. To deny that education plays this role or should play this role – usually through the Classics and History – is contrary to all known practice worldwide.

The most obtuse charge leveled against learning Sanskrit is that it in some way represents the ‘Saffronisation” of education. This is almost as bad as arguing that Sanskrit was once the language of the privileged and so it should not be taught today. There are many hues to this fear of the saffronistas. Yet consider this: if a language is what radicalises a people, don’t look now but ISIS suddenly got a couple of hundred million new recruits! Thousands of Indian children living with their parents in the Middle East or Europe compulsorily learn Arabic or Latin and yet this hardly makes them more Muslim or Christian and less of their faiths. How is Sanskrit any different?

The greatest pity of it all is that everyone is talking about utility as early as primary and secondary education. Back in the day, school was meant to provide a child with a broad and liberal education which would enable him/her to tackle the world; it was university that was meant to professionalise young people and some wondered if that should not be postponed to graduate school. For now, one hopes that it can be agreed that school is too soon to think about utility.

Even if Sanskrit is useless, so what? How many newspaper editors in India use the calculus they learned in school at their jobs? Does any accountant care how to tell the difference between an aldehyde and a ketone? The thing about a good education is that one never knows how a tangential lesson may suddenly provide an answer to a problem in the present.

India’s past is undeniably Sanskritic and the real question ought to be why Sanskrit was not emphasised more all these years. Learning the language does not produce Indian supremacist automatons any more than learning English makes everyone involuntarily genuflect towards the Windsors. Sanskrit gives access to a most incredible world called the past, and most delightfully, it rebels against the creation of mini-consumers as cogs in the world economy.


This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on December 11, 2014.

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