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.

If Ananya Vajpeyi’s objective is to save, promote, revive Sanskrit, the article is woefully lacking. Of course articles like this must be written and read. But in and of themselves they are not enough. What we need is fresh ideas, innovation and action rather than words. You could be the most learned Sanskritist in the world, but if you don’t inspire and encourage learners, if you don’t teach, you are no use to the cause. No use to Sanskrit. Finally, for the record, I’m absolutely certain that forcing people/children to learn by making Sanskrit compulsory at any level will be counter-productive. Love for the language has to come from within. As my teenage sons would say - It’s time to make Sanskrit ‘cool’ and ‘hot’ at the same time – the best kind of attractive.  
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:
And interact with her on Twitter @Ananya_Vajpeyi


Anonymous said...

Reason is simple. Your goal is spread of Sanskrit language whereas her agenda is using anything / everything - Sanskrit is latest one - for furthering the political jehad against THE "evil" forces named in last para of her tirade. These twains shall never meet because their purposes are totally so different.

Kush said...

Having personally attended Sanskrit classes at Samskrit Bharati at Bangalore - I can attest to the fact that nobody's religion or caste is asked. No one even bothers and the whole class just appears like any other language class. I was even taught by a female teacher. It was infact very enriching with the teacher teaching in Sanskrit and the students understanding in Kannada, Hindi, Malayalam or any of their other mother tongues. One gentleman who was a Tamil had some difficulty as Tamil’s base is not Sanskrit – but people whose mother tongue was Malayalam and Kannada were able to grasp the language easily.

The problem I find with the article by Ananya is that she is mixing politics with teaching of a language - sure we need to combat biases inherent in Indian society but I have in my personal reckoning found that "right-leaning" folks often are just as perplexed with caste biases in certain Brahmins as Ananya is. In fact they rue it all the more as inherent differences, biases and injustices have caused Hindu society a lot of harm, historically.

The other thing is that we need to view our society as an extended part of us – and we need to bear some responsibility of its degeneration – which we need to own up to and fix, from within, and through empathy and identification. This approach will be consistent with the karma philosophy of both Hinduism and Buddhism. This is a better way than seeing oneself as holier-than-thou than the rest. For example it is JNU who in Independent India historically opposed the founding of a Sanskrit University for a long time. And it was with the backing of the “secular” Congress that they were able to do this. The Leftist “progressives” have historically had a disdain for learning of anything Sanskrit which unfortunately is classified under religion when a large corpus of Sanskrit literature deals with secular subjects. Since Ananya seemingly has problems with her ex-professor, Kapil Kapoor, here's him on the subject of Sanskrit teaching in the country. (dated: early 2000s.)

"A debate has been on in this country for quite some time now about the role of its inherited learning that at present finds no place in the mainstream education. It has been restricted either to the traditional institutes or special institutes, 'sanctuaries'. It is assumed, and argued by its opponents, that this inherited learning is now obsolete and no longer relevant to the living realities. This is however counter-factual - the inherited learning not only endures in the traditional institutes but also vibrates in the popular modes of performances and in the mechanisms of transmitting the tradition3, such as katha, pravacana and other popular cultural and social practices. And what is more to the point, the vocabulary of this thought is now the ordinary language vocabulary of the ordinary speakers of modern Indian languages. The thought permeates the mind and language.
However, the 'educated'4 Indian has been de-intellectualized. His vocabulary has been forced into hibernation by the vocabulary of the west. For him, West is the theory and India is the data. The Indian academy has willingly entered into a receiver-donor relationship with the western academy, a relationship of intellectual subordination. This 'de-intellectualization' needs to be countered and corrected by re-locating the Indian mind in the Indian thought. Arguing for Sanskrit literary theory as the appropriate theory for Indian literary criticism is a part of this larger enterprise."

The rest of the essay is equally enlightening and can be read here:

Kush said...

After having rebuffed by certain Brahmins and other biased people in India – instead of trying to help reform society from within – she went straight into the arms of the enemy as we learned yesterday from an email of Shri Rajiv Malhotra who has been in long correspondence with Prof Kapil Kapoor of JNU – Ananya’s teacher at JNU – and with Ananya’s father – who ironically had assured Rajiv that Ananya will certainly help in calling out certain biased professors of Sanskrit in the West who are part of a cabal (1) of writers known for their dubious scholarship. Some of their claims include that Swami Vivekananda had a homosexual relationship with Ramananda Paramahansa (1)! We understand that Ananya did not pass off her theses to Prof Kapoor which could be of use in Rajiv’s next book. Rajiv writes and I quote (2):

"He mentioned [Ananya] during my discussion on how Ferdinand Sassuere had used Pannini's Sanskrit grammar and other Sanskrit texts to formulate his theories on structuralism. He mentioned that Ananya had done her MA on this very topic in UK - a topic inspired by him. But later she U-turned upon reaching USA for her PhD. In fact, she was reluctant to share her own MA dissertation once she went to USA, as its thesis counter to the anti-Sanskrit camp she had joined. Prof Kapoor promised me several times over the years to get her MA dissertation for my reference, but never managed to get this from his own former student.Now in this latest article she lashes against him as someone in the Modi era -- she belongs in an anti-Modi camp.I also once met her father, a distinguished Hindi scholar, through a mutual friend in Delhi. I explained to him my work in exposing Hinduphobia and biases against our sanskriti. He confidently replied that his daughter was an example of young scholars who will counter such biases. He was so proud of her while she was still a student in USA. Little did he know. How naive parents can be regarding where their children are headed intellectually after leaving home.The story gets worse. Her network of contacts in Delhi lobbied with Sonia G's cabal to get a Padam Shree award for her PhD adviser, Sheldon Pollock. He is the author of the infamous book "The Death of Sanskrit". He more than any other individual has helped to reposition the srtudy of Sanskrit into terms and filters of "caste abuse". While Indian leftists already hated Sanskrit, they lacked direct knowledge of the language or its texts. This is where Pollock has provided them ammunition by training a small army of sepoys like Ananya, and got them jobs in India, from where they carry out the civilizational war far worse than the Brits ever could.With this background you can see through her article in The Hindu. She calls Sanskrit studies "biased" in India - parroting the predictable allegations about gender and caste. But here's the elphant in the room she misses: She has nothing to say about the massive biases against Sanskrit and sanskriti in the Western academy of which she is a product."

Again, though Samskrit Bharati works with RSS sometimes but the two organizations are not linked officially – sometimes they share space to conduct classes, which can be held at Art of Living, or in a temple or even in someone’s home, if it has a large hall. This is important to state or else Ananya may in her next oped attack Samskrit Bharati which has done more for Sanskrit than most.

(2) Rajiv Malhotra's response to Ananya Bajpei is very enlightening and should be read by every Indian. There were two emails sent and Shri Rajiv certainly reminds us of the erstwhile Sita Ram Goel.