Star Wars, Sanskrit, and Saffronization

It wasn’t very long ago that Narendra Modi stood in New York’s Central Park, a grinning Wolverine beside him, and loudly exclaimed ‘May the force be with you!’ unto a fawning crowd. The clip was played over and over again as news channels around the world collectively shit themselves in manic joy. Modi’s ever present brigade of devotees (and their passion for their hero does border on the devotional, with no tolerance for criticism, but that is for another day and another piece) marvelled at how savvy and ‘with it’ the Prime Minister was. Never mind that Modi couldn’t tell Darth Vader from Dhokla and would probably think of a lightsaber as a dandia stick from a psychedelic garba raas. Here was a man who knew what was what – a man conversant with and not afraid of making Western cultural references. Such progressive. Much modern. Wow.

Or maybe not. Despite Modi’s numerous foreign trips and impeccable displays of international statesmanship, his government, in the short time that it has been in power, has time and again taken steps towards what can be described as nothing other than the saffronization of this country and its institutions.

The HRD Ministry’s latest diktat has been to Kendriya Vidyalayas, the ubiquitous central government schools which number over 1,000 in India as well as abroad. In her infinite wisdom, Smt. Smriti Irani has directed KVs to stop teaching German as a third language in classes VI to VIII and to replace this with a compulsory Sanskrit class instead. This change comes mid-session, which means that students of class VIII who have been learning German for the past three years will have to write a Sanskrit exam later this year. Never mind that Sanskrit is already offered as a third language across KVs, and that over 75% students choose it over the other options. This government wants EVERYONE to learn Sanskrit. Also, doing puja every day is kewl.

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The logistics of how a bunch of eighth graders are supposed to be able to write an exam in a language they are completely unaware of aside, imposing Sanskrit is, on a principled level, extremely condemnable.

There is no good reason why a 13 year old should be forced to learn Sanskrit over German, or any other language that the child may choose. German, Spanish, Mandarin or Arabic, for that matter, are thriving languages, the knowledge of which is an asset in a globalised world. In comparison, Sanskrit is a language that has no contemporary relevance save for two: (1) as a language to study Hindu scripture in, whether from a religious or scholarly perspective and (2) for historical or linguistic study. Both of these are at fairly advanced stages of one’s education, after one has voluntarily chosen his or her specialization, and thus cannot be argued as reasons for imposing Sanskrit on schoolchildren.

Moreover, given the distinctly religious connotations of Sanskrit, replacing other language options with it carry the sinister message of Hindutva with it. The idea of Sanskrit being ‘our language’ as Indians is inherently problematic, and symptomatic of the Hindutva virus – the idea of a single, unified culture for the nation – a culture which traces its historical roots back to the Vedas and stood as a monolith until ‘foreign invasions’ by Turkic groups oppressed and subjugated us. The narrative that proponents of Hindutva, who undoubtedly welcomed this move with much celebration, seek to promote is one of a glorious Hindu past, where ‘we’ invented everything – from more accurate claims like Aryabhatta’s idea of zero to fantastical declarations that we pioneered nuclear weapons (bhramastras in the Mahabharata, don’t you know?)  This attempted homogenization of what is an extremely heterogenous nation – with scores of distinct cultures, cuisines and dietary practises (heya Mess Com!) and belief systems, even under the large umbrella of Hinduism – seeks to bury the many identities and practises that are unique to different people as Indians (and indeed, Hindus) under a strangely contrived version of Hinduism mixed with jingoistic nationalism. Not to mention the millions of Indians who do not identify with the Hindu faith at all: their very identity as Indians are questioned and doubted by those who seek to paint us all in a deep coat of saffron. India is not a Hindu Rashtra, and it never should be thought of as one. It is a nation which displays a dizzying variety of cultures and civilizations, each of which contribute to the identity of the nation as a whole.

What makes this move troubling in the imminent context of attempted cultural homogenization can be illustrated by taking the example of the only other ancient spiritual language that has been revived and revitalized in the modern world – Hebrew. Hebrew is the sacred language of Judaism, used in the Torah as well as in Jewish prayers and rituals. Due to the spread of the Jewish diaspora all over the world, Hebrew lost its place as the natural language of the Jewish people, and came to be replaced by the various languages of the new places that Jews lived in. However, a movement to revitalize Hebrew started in the late 19th century, around the same time that Zionism and the demand for a Jewish homeland gained prevalence. Led by a newspaper editor named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a group of dedicated Jewish scholars revitalised the archaic language, updating it and pushing for its widespread usage among the Jewish diaspora. The political subtext of this movement should not be overlooked – it was a very deliberate process to create a single unifying language for Jews all over the world in light of the demand for a Jewish state. This happened to be the most successful revitalization of a language in history, and today over 9 million people speak Hebrew. Most of these are residents of Israel, where Hebrew is the official language. In Hebrew, the Israelis found a way to leave behind the diverse cultural heritages they had gained from generations of staying in various parts of Europe and elsewhere in the world, and to replace these with a  single unifying culture which became ‘Jewish culture’ or Israeli culture.

Perhaps the forces of Hindutva want just this – the creation of a neo-Vedic Hindu Rashtra with a contrived common culture. However, the situation in India is very different from that of the Jewish diaspora in a pre-Israel world (not to mention the issue of the second class treatment of non-Jewish citizens in Israel, even in present times). As mentioned before, India has a number of diverse cultures which thrive simultaneously and hold various layers of the loyalties of different people. While a unifying factor existed in the case of Hebrew – the return to a promised homeland after two millennia of suffering in what came to be identified as ‘foreign lands’ – no such historical force exists in India. While Israel was created as and continues to be an avowedly Jewish state, India does not and has never identified itself as a Hindu nation. Sanskrit never was the language used by a large majority of people, and was restricted to Brahmins, who often used the exclusive nature of the language to perpetuate their privilege in society and to keep other groups suppressed.

This sort of cultural imperialism, based on a fictional historical idea of a Hindu Happy Fun Time World that existed somewhere in the vague past, is exactly the sort of thing that liberals all over this nation should raise their voices against. The notion that we all originate from a common source culture is becoming more and more prevalent amongst the masses, and threatens to subvert the numerous cultures that, in reality, come together to form the ever evolving, amorphous ‘Indian culture’ that we are so proud of. The realisation that we are different from each other, and that this difference is not inherently a bad thing, must be shared with the larger public, and must be celebrated instead of avoided like some sort of shameful family secret. There is no singular ‘staple diet’ of India, just as there is no ‘Indian mother tongue’ or ‘Indian morality’. We exist in a vibrant, diverse, hectic and often crazy multiplicity of flavours, feelings and faiths. And may we continue to do so for years to come.

On a lighter note, those kids in the 8th grade are pretty screwed, aren’t they?

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2 thoughts on “Star Wars, Sanskrit, and Saffronization

  1. maybe KVs are also undergoing “academic reforms” by motivated teachers who make sure that you need three attempts to clear a damn project viva.

    Like

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