Revival of India’s Ancient Sanskrit Opens a Debate about Contemporary India

June 15, 2008

As India grows wealthier, summer camps that teach children Sanskrit are increasingly popular. Supporters of the Sanskrit revival consider the ancient language integral to Indian culture and national pride. Others disagree.

Opponents see it as a Hindu nationalist effort to turn back the clock and claim the supremacy of Hindu thought in a contemporary India that now includes Muslims and other religious minorities.

The teaching of Sanskrit is an increasingly political issue. The Washington Post reports today that Sanskrit teachers are being viewed with suspicion and scholars are warning against exploiting India’s reverence for its ancient language to privilege Hindu traditions.

Historian Arjun Dev is quoted:

It is critical to understand Sanskrit in order to study ancient Indian civilization and knowledge. But the language should not be used to push Hindu political ideology into school textbook. They want to say that all that is great about India happened in the Hindu Sanskrit texts.

Today, Sanskrit is just one of 22 official languages in India and is considered a dead language by many. As essential to Asia as Latin is to the West, it is the world’s oldest known tongue dating back to the 4th century BCE and is revered as the language of the gods. Knowledge of Sanskrit was historically seen as a marker of social class and educational attainment.

It is currently spoken fluently by only 14,100 people in a nation of a billion, although recent revival efforts have apparently succeeded in initiating “at least four million Indians into speaking the language without making the mistake of associating the language with the Hindu religion, the exclusive preserve of the upper caste Brahmins”.

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