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What’s with making Sanskrit compulsory?

Primacy of the vernacular has offered Indian society an unprecedented level of access to the larger public sphere, transforming the very way we communicate and access information

On Sunday, American pop star Lady Gaga tweeted part of a Sanskrit shloka, sending Indian Twitter into a tizzy. Amidst the flurry of responses that followed was a rather bizarre tweet by editor and writer Hindol Sengupta, known for his right-wing posts, implying Gaga’s tweet was reason enough for Sanskrit to be made compulsory in schools.

While Sengupta’s tweet made little sense (since when is educational policy dictated by the habits of a popstar thousands of miles away?), it re-established on social media a popular right-wing demand: that Sanskrit be made mandatory in education. Indian Twitter responded with a wave of ridicule, with many pointing out how education in Sanskrit would be inaccessible to the vast majority of the country’s populace.

Modern India’s vernacular space

For most Indians, education is in an Indian language, usually the primary official language of their state — a language they speak on a daily basis, often even their mother tongue. The role of this language in their life isn’t limited to education, however. It’s generally also the language they use, either actively or passively, for a wide range of formal modes of mass communication and information sharing — TV and print media, speeches, poetry, prose writing, academic reference materials, biographies, journals, and more.

Let’s call these Indian languages, spoken as mother tongues, vernacular languages. The vernacular’s place in modern Indian society is so secure, so established, that it’s nearly impossible to imagine things any other way. It occupies most spheres of public discourse and is the primary medium through which information is disseminated.

Although it’s easy to take the prominence of the vernacular for granted, it’s worth remembering that the shift from these elite languages to the vernacular was a significant socio-cultural development in Indian history, a long-drawn process over the centuries.

The emergence of the vernacular

In pre-modern India, this space was mostly occupied by a variety of languages of “high” culture, chief among them Sanskrit and Persian. Neither language was natively spoken by Indian communities; they were used across geographies, primarily by elites, for formal records and literature. These bodies of writing formed cosmopolitan, trans-regional networks of discourse with their own worldviews, concepts and cultural norms.

According to the philologist Sheldon Pollock, vernacularisation, the emergence of spoken languages in the public sphere, is intimately tied to the emergence of a literary culture. Contrary to what you might expect, vernacular modes of public communication were not necessarily egalitarian. Vernacularisation was still tied to the elites; elites commissioned these writings to serve their own purposes, and these works were typically produced in courts.

Nor was the choice of the vernacular over an elite language generally motivated by linguistic pride. Motives for choosing the vernacular over an elite language were usually utilitarian and political.

Political, not personal

In its most basic sense, the choice of the vernacular had the power to define a specific audience. Local languages could only be understood by people who spoke it and by choosing a local language, you were also reinforcing your own rootedness in the local environment by identifying yourself with it. It was a strong assertion of a local identity, not an ethnic one.

An elite language could project notions of power for a wider audience, while a vernacular language could legitimise and indeed glorify one’s rule to one’s subjects. While Sanskrit texts could be read by elites across India, a Marathi poem would be identified with Maharashtra by default.

Regardless of motive, the literary cultivation of vernacular languages greatly expanded their range of expression. New genres of poetry and ways of recording information meant languages evolved new ways of seeing and describing the world. This process engaged closely with elite languages; Sanskrit and Persian were not discarded, but rather used side-by-side with the vernacular, albeit for different purposes.

Vernacularisation also involved the adaptation of works of classical literature originally written in elite literary languages. These localised versions reflected contemporary norms, local settings, and political circumstances, retelling these established stories in a new environment. Most Indian languages influenced by Sanskrit naturally chose to adapt and retell the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

Vernacular developments

Although vernacularisation began in South India, its spread in North India better illustrates how closely it was tied to political circumstances. After Timur’s sack of Delhi in 1398, regional states started breaking away from the declining Delhi Sultanate. These new states, corresponding to certain cultural regions, needed to build legitimacy among local elites to secure their rule. Vernacular cultural production proved to be a handy tool to achieve just that, and courts commissioned numerous works in these languages.

Braj Bhasha literature, for example, now seen as part of the Hindi canon, emerged in Gwalior as local Tomar rulers sought to assert themselves in the face of pressure from Malwa and Delhi. Braj versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were composed in 1435 and 1443 respectively, by the court poet Vishnudas.

Further east, as the Bengal Sultanate identified itself with Bengal as an emerging cultural region, sultans and local courts began to robustly patronise Bengali literature. To the south, the Deccan Sultanates of Bijapur and Golkonda turned to literary production in Dakhni, a local language, to assert themselves against a growing Mughal threat from the north.

At the same time, bhakti and Sufi poetry, composed in vernacular languages, also contributed to this process by contributing from the ground up.

The technology of paper production, introduced to India in the 14th century, according to historian Richard Eaton, greatly fueled this process by introducing a medium with an unprecedented “velocity of movement”. Texts could be written down and circulated, and could reach more social classes than before.

All these forces worked together to create public spheres of discourse shared by speakers of vernacular languages, bound by this unified literary culture. As Pollock puts it, vernacularisation created new regional worlds.

Different regions and different languages followed distinct timelines and events, but the principles of the vernacularisation process broadly remained the same.

Rise of linguistic nationalism

In the colonial period, these abstract worlds would begin to emerge as political concepts.

As Western education took root in India, local elites were exposed to new ways of perceiving identity. One of the more significant political ideas to have made its way to India was nationalism — the notion that a community sharing a collective identity was the foundational basis for the creation of a state. A shared literary language and its canon became the basis for this community identity, giving rise to linguistic nationalism.

Modernisation also ushered in a new era in the vernacular space, as print technology enabled the mass production and rapid circulation of vast volumes of written material. New mediums of public expression emerged, such as journalism and prose writing. These developments helped expand the scope of the vernacular space, and newer printed written material spread, growing notions of community among readers. The various roles of elite languages were taken up by these rapidly modernising vernaculars, and public education in these languages became the norm.

The very worlds that vernacularisation helped create now became mapped onto defined communities. Older works of literature were now seen and reinterpreted through the prism of this new worldview, as assertions of identities that did not exist when they were written.

Indian linguistic nationalism culminated with the linguistic reorganisation of states in 1956, when the abstract boundaries of these “regional worlds” became fixed political boundaries. With this, languages began to be seen as self-contained units.

Since linguistic nationalism needed an established public vernacular space, it could only take shape in languages with an established literary canon, which is why speakers of non-literary languages like Tulu and Badaga did not form similar movements.

English in modern India

In a sense, the process of vernacularisation is still incomplete, even in modern India. There remain spaces where Indian languages hold very little relevance, notably in fields like medicine, technology and the like. How established is research in physics or chemistry in Indian languages, for example?

Sure, non-English materials exist in these subjects, complete with newly coined words and phrases to describe technical concepts. Tertiary education hasn’t become a part of the vernacular sphere either, for the most part, nor has academic writing, particularly in science and technology.

The very fact that these neologisms aren’t current in the speech of most native speakers is quite telling. Knowledge production in these fields is primarily in English — a language not spoken by the vast majority of Indians. Access to vast amounts of modern information is still the preserve of users of an elite language.

Vox populi

The primacy of the vernacular has offered Indian society an unprecedented level of access to the larger public sphere, transforming the very way Indians communicate and access information. Even with our 74 per cent literacy rate (as per the latest census in 2011), more Indians are literate today than in any other era in history. It’s nothing short of remarkable if you think about it.

After paper and print, the latest technology to radically impact the way we communicate has been the internet, and it remains to be seen how Indian languages will deal with it. This could likely represent the next major shift in the vernacular public sphere.

Until then, we have our Twitter debates.

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