Sunday, 17 August 2014
Ananya Vajpeyi, this is the story of my Sanskrit.
Ananya Vajpeyi’s article ‘The Story of My Sanskrit’ which appeared in The Hindu1, was brought to my notice by @RamaNewDelhi and @madversity. As the founder of an initiative that aims to popularise Sanskrit via social media, I read it with great anticipation, always on the look-out for innovative ideas to promote Sanskrit. I found much in the article it that I sympathised with. And much that I disagreed with. Fundamentally, though, I found the author still stuck in established discourse and existing pigeonholes. Her article brings nothing new or effective to the process of reviving Sanskrit. We get to read a lot about how qualified and well educated she is, but what about some concrete steps to ‘Save Sanskrit’ which her last paragraph urges her readers to do?
I do not agree with her categorisation of “liberal, secular, egalitarian, enlightened and progressive sections of our society” as the saviours of Sanskrit from the “clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes and a variety of other wrong-headed characters on the right whose colossal ambition to control India’s vast intellectual legacy is only matched by their abysmal ignorance of what it means and how it works.” This simplistic binary tells me if I’m not one, I am necessarily the other. Even if I were to agree with her categories, I don’t think one or the other is in a better position to ‘save Sanskrit’. Also, with due respect, in my experience many ‘characters on the right’ are earnestly trying to balance the intellectual legacy rather than control it. Sandeep Balakrishna2 @sandeepweb is an example of this. I don’t share his politics, but I understand and respect what he’s trying to do in the intellectual space.
I’m fully in agreement with Ananya Vajpeyi on the ‘peculiar pains and pleasures’ of Sanskrit, its challenges and gratification. She clearly loves the language, which is why I find it odd that she needed to explain that her decision to study Sanskrit didn’t feel ‘outlandish’ or ‘counter-intuitive’. To my mind anyone wanting to study Sanskrit is perfectly natural. To her comment that the social worlds of Sanskrit engender and proliferate caste hierarchy, sexism, inequality and misogyny – I’d like to respond by saying that Sanskrit texts are not alone in this – most, if not all texts of a certain antiquity contain ideas that are ‘shocking to modern sensibility.’ That’s neither here nor there in the study of ancient texts, and certainly has no bearing on the revival or saving of Sanskrit.
Having never studied Sanskrit in India, I personally have no visibility of the prejudice she says she faced from scholars. However it wouldn’t surprise me at all and it wouldn’t be an isolated incident. Kanchana Natarajan, author of ‘Vivekavidhi of Maṇḍana Miśra’ talks in the introduction of her book about how difficult it was to find a teacher willing to instruct her. Finally, after being turned down by many scholars, she found one learned Brahmin mīmāṃsaka who reluctantly agreed to teach her on the condition that classes would not be conducted on the days she was menstruating (I presume she had to tell him when 'the curse' was upon her…). It is said that Mahadevi Varma was denied permission to study Sanskrit at Benares Hindu University by Madan Mohan Malvia because she was not a brahmin (She eventually did her MA from Allahabad University in 1933). While Sukumari Bhattacharya was allegedly denied permission to study Sanskrit at Calcutta University because she was not a Hindu.3
Reviving and promoting Sanskrit
When I first started #SanskritAppreciationHour on Twitter, Bibek Debroy @bibekdebroy told me if I got to a thousand followers, it would be ‘a very good number for Sanskrit.’ 5,500+ followers later, I think I’ve earned the right to talk about what it will take to save/revive/promote Sanskrit. The platform I’ve developed is consciously inclusive, gender neutral, race neutral, religion, creed and caste neutral; not to mention age neutral. It refuses to be limited or dragged down by stereotypes. Lecturers include a Punjabi housewife, a New York Jew, a Yajurvedi in Stockholm, and a brilliant and engaging science student in Bangalore. It seeks to draw, to inspire beginners – answers queries, clears doubts and at the end of every session, people are connected with someone who can guide them to a class/teacher close to where they live, whether it is in Chinchpokli or Cincinnati. This is not to say that brahminical exclusiveness is a myth, but that in as much as it does exists, it need not be a limiting factor to the teaching and revival of Sanskrit.
#SanskritAppreciationHour is innovative. From being a one ‘man’ band it now has the support of 8 guest lecturers – who keep interest levels high by using a mix of devotional, medical, and mathematical texts, kāvya, yoga, and conversational Sanskrit, verses from the epics, the purāṇas, hitopadeṣa, subhāṣitāni, riddles, jokes, even recipes from a 16th century text – you name it! We answer questions from what your child’s name means, to what a śloka you saw in a dream might signify.
We swap stories about having visions of our iṣṭa-deva/devi. Fortunately Bhakti allows all us non-brahmins to have those since the 7th century.We point out Sanskrit in your everyday life that you didn’t even realise. Like amṛtāñjana means an ointment which revives you if you are wounded or in pain, and vajradanti is a toothpaste that purportedly makes your teeth as strong as a thunderbolt. And that tela comes from being the extract of tila (sesame) although it now applies to all oils.
@hariturmalai has spun off his own #SanskritQuiz which has rapidly gained in popularity. We share links to videos and and texts. And we draw inspiration from Saṃskrita Bharati, an organisation which has taught 1.2 crore people in the last 32 years, in 2,500 Indian towns and 14 countries – never once asking what the caste or religion of a person was. Anyone, everyone is welcome to learn.
Sanskrit carries a dark side from which you need to ‘bracket’ yourself only if you choose to address the dark side. It's just as easy to skirt it. There are enough un-prejudiced learned brahmins and Sanskritists to make this work, to revive Sanskrit. Not that I’ve ever asked, but I’m pretty sure that 95% of the guest lecturers on #SanskritAppreciationHour are brahmins, and I haven’t seen a hint or a squeak of prejudice or refusal to teach anyone. In fact the need to teach and popularise Sanskrit is what draws us all together, even though we don’t share each other’s social or political views.
3 I have not been able to find corroborating evidence at the time of writing this blogpost for the 2nd and 3rd examples. This information was in one of the comments on Anaya Vajpeyi’s article in the online version of The Hindu.
You can read more of Ananya Vajpeyi’s work here: http://works.bepress.com/ananya_vajpeyi/
And interact with her on Twitter @Ananya_Vajpeyi