Reflections On Sanskrit
When one talks of promoting Sanskrit literature and language, it is important to reflect on its modern significance. As part of our ancient and classical heritage, Sanskrit is the very basis of our identity. While it was extremely important during ancient period of our country it is of great significance in the modern age of twentieth and twenty first century.
It is well recorded in history that Prof Robert Oppenheimer, the celebrated physicist, was an accomplished Sanskrit scholar. He was the Director of the secret Manhattan Project which produced the first ever atomic device in the history of mankind. When it was being tested in the Nevada desert in the US, he along with many other important military officials was present in a room a few kilometers away from the test site. Everybody was gripped with anxiety and nervousness. With bated breath all of them were waiting for the split of the atom. At that crucial and critical juncture, Prof Oppenheimer with restlessness writ large on his face was found reading a book.
One of the Generals of American Army sitting there in that room and badly affected by the tense situation asked Prof Oppenheimer as to what he was reading. The Prof stunned him by saying that he was reading a scripture revered by the Hindus. Provoked by such answer the General was curious to know as to how the study of a Hindu scripture was linked to the test of the first ever atomic device. The Prof explained that the Hindu scripture he was reading was none other than the Bhagwat Gita which was translated to English by Edwin Arnold.
He stated that in chapter 12 of Bhagwat Gita, Hindu Lord Krishna told his disciple Arjuna in the battlefield that he had energy of thousands and thousands of suns in him and at the end of the time that energy would be released to destroy everything in the universe. Professor Oppenheimer explained that the energy that Lord Krishna was referring to would be released through the testing of the atomic device. The linkage established by a western scientist between Bhagwat Gita and the testing of the first ever atomic device in fact established the modern relevance of ancient insights enshrined in Sanskrit literature which is the repository of spirituality, science, philosophy and all that is basic to our society and culture.
Yet another example of a modern scientist giving reference to Sanskrit will drive home the point the enduring relevance of this language. He was Prof Raja Ramanna, who incidentally was the scientist of our country whose name will be forever associated with the production and testing of the first ever atomic device in 1974. He once told me that in Sanskrit the knowledge of science is lying hidden. All of us know that the Justice Party launched the historic movement for social justice and equality in Tamil Nadu during our freedom struggle. It did not accept predominance of Brahmins in society. While fighting for social equality, it also fought against the Sanskrit language which was largely used by Brahmins.
Professor Raja Ramanna referring to that movement for social equality in Tamil Nadu regretted that such progressive movement did not encourage people to go deep into Sanskrit. Rather he noted with sadness that Sanskrit was looked down upon. He was of the opinion that such neglect suffered by Sanskrit deprived us of many treasures which was part and parcel of that great language and which remained hidden. He argued for revival of the study of Sanskrit to rediscover and explore the scientific ideas embodied in the volumes and volumes of literature in Sanskrit. The example of Prof Raja Ramanna advocating the cause of Sanskrit for deriving benefit out of it to promote science underlined the value of ancient insight in furthering scientific pursuit and excellence.
It is Prof Mashelkar, the former Director General of Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, who once stated that in twenty first century, three things would matter. Those three things are: spiritual, digital and herbal. It is well known that India is rich in spiritual values. The spirituality of our country merits attention from whole world. In the field of digital technology, India is a leader in the world. Quite often, India is hailed as a super power in the sphere of computer and digital technology.
As far as herbal is concerned, we are a nursery for Ayurvedic and indigenous medicines. The herbal formulations of India are catching up the imagination of the whole world. In other words, India with its glorious heritage of spirituality, digital technology and herbal medicines is commanding the world attention. It would mean that India with such vast reservoir of ancient wisdom and modern knowledge would play a key role in the post materialistic world order. With little stretch of imagination, one can say that the understanding and exploration of the world of spirituality, Ayurveda and herbal medicine will inescapably drive us to rediscover Sanskrit language.
Our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in his world famous book The Discovery of India devoted six pages to Sanskrit under the subchapter “Vitality and Persistence of Sanskrit”. He described it as a precise language and marveled at its astonishing vigour. The scope of Sanskrit language and literature containing rich imagination, philosophy, poetry and scientific insight made a deep impact on his mind. He attributed the cultural unity of India to the remarkable treasure contained in Sanskrit. He gave a reference to Thailand where Sanskrit words were adopted for using new technical, scientific and Governmental terms. It was a refreshing example of a foreign country opting to embrace the ancient words from Sanskrit to prepare a modern framework for governance.
It was William Jones, who described Sanskrit language as much richer and vital than Greek and Latin. He did considerable work on Sanskrit and said in 1786, “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is a wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity in the root of verbs and the forms of grammar than could possibly have been produced by accident.”
The language of Sanskrit occupied high position in ancient times and has been found relevant for the modern age. Deep research conducted by scientific community throw light on the fact that Sanskrit is the most computer friendly language in the world. In the age of information and digital technology Sanskrit is of great significance in providing connectivity and linking people together.
It is through Sanskrit that India could build bridges of friendship with Asia and the whole world during the ancient period of our history. Now, that we are living in a more globalised world we require as much modern knowledge and technology as the ancient insights embodied in Sanskrit knowledge and literature. Swami Vivekananda had said that the knowledge hidden in the Sanskrit words had to be brought to the doorsteps of the people and made popular. He beautifully and hopefully stated that knowledge buried in the “incrustation of centuries of Sanskrit words” could be made the common property of all people.
Unfortunately, Sanskrit instead of becoming the common property of people remained confined to a particular caste. Thus started the decline of Sanskrit. We painfully recall that Dr BR Ambedkar who wanted to learn Sanskrit was not allowed to do so due to the fact that he was a Dalit. He eventually could learn that language with the assistance of some friends. It is rather extraordinary to note that Dr BR Ambedkar who rebelled against Hinduism and all that is associated with Hindu religion, culture and scripture used the knowledge and insights of certain Sanskrit texts to defend the rights of women and their empowerment in the Constituent Assembly of India.
When the articles concerning equal rights for women were being enshrined in the draft constitution he justified the incorporation of women’s rights by stating that the scriptures upheld such rights. Thus, Dr BR Ambedkar who did not get the opportunity to learn Sanskrit and in fact who burnt Manusmriti one of the revered texts of Hinduism fell back on the ancient insights expounded in many scriptures to champion the rights of women. Yet again we find an example of derivation of ideas from Sanskrit literature to advance the cause of gender equality which is now the defining theme across the world.
Swami Vivekananda who wrote: “The only safety, I tell you men who belong to the lower castes, the only way to raise your condition is to study Sanskrit, and this fighting and writing and frothing against the higher castes is in vain, it does no good, and it creates fight and quarrel, and this race, unfortunately already divided, is going to be divided more and more. The only way to bring about the leveling of caste is to appropriate the culture, the education which is the strength of the higher castes. That done, you have what you want.” Sanskrit has, thus, been understood as the language which can be used to promote social equality, justice and empowerment of deprived and disinherited people.
In fact, Nobel laureate Professor Amartya Sen profusely drew inspiration from Sanskrit texts to develop and expand the scope of justice. He made frequent references to Sanskrit words Nyaya and Niti in his book The Idea of Justice to give new depth and content to the famous theory of justice of Professor John Rawls. He forcefully argued that while Professor Rawls’s theory of justice harped on creation of institutions for ensuring justice, the ancient Sanskrit texts stressed on Nyaya and Niti which centered around feeling of sensation of justice in day to day life of people.
Professor Sen who is hailed as one of the powerful advocates of human development is well versed in Sanskrit and quite often draws inspiration from old Sanskrit scriptures to support his arguments and drive home his points. In one of his books he used the Sanskrit phrase Kupa Manduka for explaining the narrowness of outlook and vision. The frequent usages of Sanskrit terminology in his scholarly writings underline his love for the language and literature of Sanskrit. The fact that a Professor of Economics is exploring the boundless treasure of Sanskrit speaks volumes for the abiding significance of the language for the twenty first century world.
Mahatma Gandhi described Sanskrit as the Ganga of all languages. He said that if the river Ganga dried up everything else in India would dry up. In today’s world badly affected by global warming and climate change the river Ganga, in fact, is drying up and getting polluted. One saint fasted to save the river Ganga from degrading affects of mining and he lost his life. He was Swami Nigamananda. Nobody knew that he went on fast for this noble cause. Even the print and electronic media which highlighted so much about fasts of others did not give any coverage to Swami Nigamananda’s fast. It is important for us to save the Sanskrit language which is justly described by Mahatma Gandhi as the Ganga of all languages.
On March 17, 1940, Mahatma Gandhi reflected on the neglect of Sanskrit studies across India. He gave his opinion while answering a question if Patna University had practically tabooed the study of Sanskrit. What he said deserves to be quoted in detail. He stated, “I belong to a generation which believed in the study of the ancient languages. I do not believe that such a study is a waste of time and effort. I believe it is an aid to the study of modern languages. This is truer of Sanskrit than of any other ancient language so far as India is concerned, and every nationalist should study it because it makes a study of the provincial languages easier than otherwise. It is the language in which our forefathers thought and wrote.”
The efforts made in many foreign countries to study Sanskrit must inspire us to learn something from that language in which, “Our forefathers thought and wrote”. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wrote that there was a Department of Sanskrit in every University in Germany. Why should we not have such departments in every university of our country? Apart from studying Sanskrit in universities we need to cultivate the habit of using Sanskrit words in our conversations in day to day life.
I fondly recall here the example of Major Gopi Singh who was ADC to late President of India, Shri KR Narayanan and who attained glorious martyrdom in Kashmir in an encounter with terrorists in November 2005. During his lifetime he always preferred to speak in Hindi and that too Sanskritised Hindi. On one occasion he complimented me for using the Sanskrit word Chirharit in place of evergreen in the context of some plants of the Mughal Gardens of Rashtrapati Bhawan. He enthusiastically told that the resonance created by the word Chirharit in mind and body is of superior quality than the resonance created by the word ‘evergreen’.
The Sanskrit language confined in the wonderful grammar of Panini is rich with imagination, poetry and philosophy. The pronunciation of the Sanskrit words and idioms make a deep impact on our being. Unfortunately Sanskrit language could not embrace and adapt itself to the evolving ages. Look at the English language. It is just five hundred years old and yet it has become a global language. It is due to its adaptability and flexibility to accept words from other languages from across the world. We need to ask ourselves whether the monopolisation of this language by a particular community could bring about its decline.
It is time for us to turn the search light inwards and examine ourselves to rectify our lapses. By doing so, we can promote the cause of purity of mind. It is by detoxifying our culture and our habits that we can contribute to establish a clean and healthy society. Study of Sanskrit will strengthen our approach as much as it strengthened the approach of people like Mahatma Gandhi, Prof Robert Oppenheimer, Prof Raja Ramanna, Dr BR Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Professor Amartya Sen and Major Gopi Singh. Let this award presented to Prof Satpathy inspire us to take even a small step to uphold our cultural values which are now inspiring even the western people to lead an ethically correct life.
Mr Bruce Reach of New York wrote a book entitled Upholding the World: A Call for Ethics form Ancient India. He authored that book after visiting Dhauli in Orissa where Kalinga War was fought. He advocated that the globalised world of today could be upheld by following the teachings of Ashoka the Great who ruled his vast kingdom by employing non-violent method, respecting life and imbibing ethics and values in his own life and promoting them. If an American could be inspired in 21st century by Ashoka’s system of governance why shouldn’t we be inspired by our own rich culture? Our ancient insights is thus of great significance to enrich modern life. This is where Sanskrit language and literature are of paramount significance.
By Satya Narayana Sahu
(The author was OSD and Press Secretary to the late President of India, Shri KR Narayanan and served as Director in the Prime Minister’s Office. He is currently Joint Secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The views expressed by the author are his personal views.)