Amarabharati: Samskrtam and the Resurgence of Indian Civilisation-II
by M D Srinivas on 19 Mar 2016 8 Comments

There is another invidious claim made in the project proposal that the Indian intellectual tradition "retreated in silence" in the face "vociferous" criticism offered by modern western knowledge:


Direct confrontation between Indian and European learning was as rare as that between Sanskrit and Persianate scholarship during the previous three centuries. Or better put, the confrontation was one sided; As modernizing Europe attacked vociferously, Sanskrit India retreated in silence; no shastri ever bothered to answer the critique, made so painfully explicit by Macaulay and his compatriots in the century following our epoch.


The fact of the matter is that most of the Indian Sastras were founded on the technical and philosophical foundations provided by the disciplines of Nyaya (logic), Vyakarana (language analysis) and Mimamsa (hermeneutics). The technical and philosophical sophistication achieved by the Indians in these disciplines were beyond the comprehension of European thought till at least the end of nineteenth century. As one scholar has remarked:


Acquaintance with the Paninian analysis of root and suffixes and his recognition of ablaut (though only indirect via Ch. Wilkin's Sanskrit Grammar) inspired Franz Bopp and others to develop the imposing structure of Indo-European comparative and historical linguistics. The generality of phonetic and morphophonemic rules was rigidly established only in the last decades of the 19th century; at about the same time the notion of "becoming" gave way to that of substitution. A purely grammatical description of language and a formalized set of derivational strings are hotly debated issues today. It is a sad observation that we did not learn more from Panini than we did, that we recognized the value and the spirit of his "artificial" and "abstruse" formulations only when we had independently constructed comparable systems. The Indian New Logic (Navyanyaya) had the same fate: only after the Western mathematicians had developed a formal logic of their own and after this knowledge had reached a few Indologists, did the attitude towards the Navya-nyaya school change from ridicule to respect. (H. Scharfe, Grammatical Literature, Wiesbaden, 1977, p.115)


What else could the Paõóits do but to retreat in despair when they were confronted by what were clearly ridiculous arguments and claims of the Indologists, who could not comprehend the methodology of the Indian Sastras, but nevertheless had the backing of an imperial power behind them? 


Though the onset of British rule had a totally debilitating effect on the Indian intellectual tradition, great Sastric works continued to be written for a fairly long time, in fact almost well into the middle of the nineteenth century, in most disciplines. The Kerala work on Jyotisa continued right into the first half of nineteenth century with the work of Ghatigopa and Sankaravarman. The Oriya Astronomer Candrasekhara Samanta carried on his own observations and worked out many improvements in astronomical computations, which he presented in his treatise Siddhantadarpana written in 1869. A recent history of Indian medical literature lists a large number of major treatises and many more tracts on particular topics, which were written during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (G.J. Meulenbeld, A History of Indian Medical Literature, 4 parts, Groningen, 2000)


In Navyanyaya, major krodhapatras were written by Kalisankara Bhattacarya and Pattabhirama in the first half of nineteenth century. Many important treatises and commentaries in Nyaya, Mimamsa and other Darsanas were produced during the whole of nineteenth century and later. In the sphere of literature, we have the great epic poem Sivarajavijaya written by Ambikadatta Vyasa in 1870, apart from several other Mahakavyas written in the nineteenth century.


In fact any assessment of Indian intellectual tradition and its historical development would be very tentative unless a comprehensive analysis is made of the enormous number of unpublished manuscripts lying in various Libraries and private collections. The compilation, copying, study and analysis of the great manuscript wealth of India is indeed a gigantic task yet to be accomplished.


The Alleged "Death of Sanskrit"


Amongst the theme papers of the Sanskrit Knowledge Systems Project is a paper with the provocative title, The Death of Sanskrit, written by the leader of the Project team, Prof. Sheldon Pollock. In this paper, which seems to be written in a lighter vein in comparison to some of his other scholarly works, Pollock asserts that notwithstanding the various measures initiated and implemented by the Government of India since Independence and the recent intensive efforts "in the age of Hindu identity politics (Hindutva) inaugurated in the 1990s by the ascendancy of the Indian peoples party (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideological auxiliary the World Hindu Council (Viswa Hindu Parishad)", "most observers would agree that, in some crucial way, Sanskrit is dead". The reason why the "death of Sanskrit" has so far not been so clearly announced is because much of modern scholarship had wrongly presumed that Sanskrit was never really alive:


The assumption that Sanskrit was never alive has discouraged the attempt to grasp its later history; after all what is born dead has no later history. As a result there exist no good accounts or theorizations of the end of the cultural order that for two millennia exerted a trans-regional influence across Asia - South, Southeast, Inner and even East Asia - that was unparalleled until the rise of Americanism and global English.


Thus the global cultural order dominated by Sanskrit for over two millennia is comparable only to the emerging global cultural order dominated by English and Americanism. The later order, everyone would agree, is not even a century old and is likely to be seriously contested in the coming decades.


We shall not go into a discussion of the arguments in Pollock's paper. Much of it is a restatement of the contention that the Indian Sastric tradition, though very active in the pre-colonial era, could not stand up to modern European power and knowledge and more or less ceased to exist by c 1800. To buttress this up, Pollock looks into a m‚lange of issues: the decay of Sanskrit literature prior to the establishment of Muslim rule in Kashmir in the 13th century; the failure of the Vijayanagar empire to revive Sanskrit literature; the brief infusion of modernity into Indian intellectual traditions in the 17th century Mughal court; and the decadent state of indigenous education as observed in the early nineteenth century colonial Bengal. Presumably, all this discussion is to throw light on the cultural, social and political factors internal to Indian society which nurtured Sanskrit and were also eventually responsible for its alleged death.


Towards the end of the paper, Pollock evokes some similarities between the status of Latin with the onset of European modernity and that of Sanskrit in India. However he does emphasize "that the differences between the two are equally instructive":


For one thing, Sanskrit literary culture was never affected by communicative incompetence, which began to enfeeble Latin from at least the ninth century. The process of vernacularization in India, in so many ways comparable to the European case, was no where a consequence of growing Sanskrit ignorance; the intellectuals who promoted the transformation, certainly in its most consequential phases, were themselves learned in Sanskrit... The specific conditions for the death of Sanskrit have therefore to be located in South Asian historical experience.


Pollock then comes up with a concluding observation:


During the course of this vernacular millennium, as I have called it, Sanskrit, the idiom of a cosmopolitan literature, gradually died, in part because cosmopolitan talk made less and less sense in an increasingly regionalized world.


What was this regionalized world? In fact, the British rule led to the establishment, after a long time, of a trans-Indian polity, but there was no place for Sanskrit in it. Sanskrit and the Indian intellectual tradition survived and even flourished, though under great stress, during the centuries of Turko-Afghan and Mughal rule in large parts of India, even though there was no trans-Indian polity that subscribed to the ethos of Indian civilisation. However, the onset of British rule saw the establishment of a trans-Indian polity that encompassed the entire sub-continent, a polity that was totally hostile to Indian civilisation and sought to subvert it by every possible means. And this left very little "cosmopolitan space" for the intellectual tradition of India as enshrined in the great Sastric literature of Sanskrit.




The Indian nationalist movement in the twentieth century led to a great resurgence of the Indian languages, both in education and public life. It also generated an all-round awareness and respect for the Indian civilisational heritage, especially the great corpus of classical literature of India. When the issue of official language was debated in the Constituent Assembly, there was a considerable body of opinion that suggested that Sanskrit be made an official language of the Indian Union. In the final Constitution that was adopted, Hindi in the Devanagari script, was declared the official language of India with the stipulation that it should draw upon Sanskrit as the primary source to enrich its vocabulary. Sanskrit was also included among the languages recognized by the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution.


In October 1956, the Government of India appointed a Sanskrit Commission under the Chairmanship of the renowned linguist Dr. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee, to "consider the question of the present state of Sanskrit Education in all its aspects". In its Report presented in 1958, the Commission presents a survey of the state of Sanskrit in India.


It reported that there were 1,381 Pathasalas and Mahavidyalayas in Uttar Pradesh with 4,462 teachers. There were 1,320 Tols in Bengal, 305 in Bihar and 146 in Orissa. There were 112 Pathasalas in Madhya Pradesh, 88 in Mysore and 32 in Andhra Pradesh. The Travancore-Cochin State had 47 Sanskrit Schools. The Commission also found that in Uttar Pradesh almost all the schools had provision to teach Sanskrit; in Bihar, Sanskrit was compulsory up to the IX Standard; more than 75% of the school students in Bengal studied Sanskrit. Sanskrit was a compulsory subject for all the students in the Benares Hindu University and the Lucknow University. The Report also listed the important University Departments and Research Institutes engaged in Sanskrit research.


The Commission made detailed recommendations on Sanskrit education both in the traditional and the modern streams, on various measures to be taken to promote Sanskrit research etc. It also addressed itself to the issue of "Sanskrit and the aspirations of Modern India" where it refereed to the role of Sanskrit in awakening "national self-consciousness" and "national solidarity". The Commission recommended that Sanskrit should be declared an additional official language of India.  It also noted that:


The place of Sanskrit in maintaining both the cultural and political unity of India is like that of the Chinese system of writing in preserving the cultural and political unity of China. In China, virtually there is not one language but a number of languages, all coming from a single ancient Chinese speech, but they are generally described as "dialects". The fact of their really being languages and not dialects (in Han or Chinese-speaking China) is obscured by the great factor of the Chinese system of writing. The modern Chinese languages may differ from one another profoundly in pronunciation as well as recent grammatical developments, but the fact that the written language consisting of characters... is understood everywhere, is a great link which binds up most remote corners of China into a single cultural unit. Any attempt to replace the Chinese system of writing by a strictly phonetic system, whether of Chinese or foreign origin, is likely to lead to a cultural and political disintegration of China. Therefore, in China they have accepted the position that a few years of hard labour must be put forth by Chinese boys and girls in acquiring some thousands of characters of their language which constitute the most obvious, the most potent and virtually indispensable expression or symbol of Chinese unity.


The Commission reported that in the course of its interaction with diverse sections of Indian society it noted a deep sense of disappointment that not much had been done for the revival of Sanskrit. The Commission cites an old verse that many Sanskritists referred to in this connection:


ratrirgamisyati bhavisyati suprabhatam

bhasvan udesyati hasisyati pankajasrih

ittham vicintayati kosagate dvirephe

ha hanta hanta nalinim gaja ujjahara


The night will pass and the bright day will dawn; the sun will rise and the lotus will bloom in all its beauty - while the bee, imprisoned in a closed bud, was pondering over its future, alas, an elephant uprooted the lotus-plant itself.


The situation of Sanskrit in India, nearly a half century after the review by the Sanskrit Commission, makes us recall the same verse; for the Indian society had great expectations that we would soon re-establish Sanskrit and the Indian intellectual tradition in all their glory in Independent India. This remains a dream for future. The current status of Sanskrit learning is not all that dismal, as may be seen from the following report by well-known Sanskrit activist, Chamu Krishna Sastry:


There are eight Sanskrit Universities, 93 Sanskrit departments in various Universities, 200 Sanskrit PG centres, 800 Sanskrit colleges, and 5,000 Sanskrit schools in India. In seven states Sanskrit is taught as a compulsory subject at upper primary and secondary levels... In six other states though Sanskrit is not a compulsory subject, 90% of students at upper primary and secondary levels are opting for Sanskrit. There are 3 crore students studying Sanskrit at various levels. There are six lakh students in traditional Sanskrit schools. The total number of Sanskrit teachers at all levels is nearly eight lakhs... There is an active Sanskrit teaching programme at graduate and post graduate levels in more than 450 universities outside India.


Independent India has seen an even greater revival of all the Indian languages. They have fully re-established their perennial links with their ancient literary heritage and Sanskrit, and have largely come on their own. But the same is not true of the world of Indian learning which is yet to re-establish its links with great intellectual tradition of India.


Samskrtam indeed is amarabharati the eternal language, like the timeless sanatana civilisation of India. An awakened India is well aware that demise of Samskrtam would mean the end of Indian civilisation. It has to respond to the challenge that resurgence of Indian civilisation depends crucially on revitalisation of Samskrtam.



Prof. M.D. Srinivas is Chairman, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai. This is an edited version of the paper article which appeared in Kapil Kapoor & Avadhesh Kumar Singh (eds), Indian Knowledge Systems, Vol. I, IIAS Shimla, 2005, pp. 33-50.


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