Kabir on Sanskrit

And now – for another view on Sanskrit, lest we step unwittingly into a war that has been raging for thousands of years, about who controls the truth. Keep in mind that the whole idea of Sanskrit is that this is how the male priests of certain castes spoke in the Bronze Age, with its wife-burning, slavery, and oppression of dark-skinned people by lighter-skinned ones.

“Sanskrit is the stagnant water of the Lord's private well," Kabir said, whereas "the spoken language is the rippling water of the running stream."

“The bhakti poets composed in the regional languages, deliberately breaking the literary and religious hold of Sanskrit.”

The debate has been going on since before the time of Buddha, as people have railed against the control, secrecy, and dominion of the elite families of priests who have controlled all worship.

Sanskrit as mrita bhasha, or a dead language

From The Times of India in 2009:
“For some, though, the mother tongue is a holy cow. They argue that only through the mother tongue can one express oneself effectively. Indian English writers, whose mother tongue is not English, give the lie to this claim. Franz Kafka, a great in European literature and a Czech, wrote his books not in his mother tongue, but in German. Similarly Arthur Koestler, Joseph Conrad and Jacob Bronowski, to mention only a few names, wrote theirs in languages that were not their mother tongues. There is a grouse that English subdues vernaculars, the way Sanskrit was accused of doing earlier. In the sixties, the literary world of Kerala was set abuzz with an anti-Sanskrit movement led by overzealous lovers of Malayalam. But it soon burnt itself out. The purists who wanted to rid Malayalam of Sanskrit influence were up in arms against writers using Sanskrit words. They argued that Sanskrit was a mrita bhasha, or a dead language.” Link.
Pasted Graphic
Portrait of Kabir, Bodleian library, Oxford, Mrs. Douce

“Kabir was probably adopted by an impoverished Muslim weaver. ... and as a result he was persecuted by both the Brahmins and the Muslim community.”

Kabir says, tell me, what is God?
He is the breath within the breath.
link to the Tagore translations of Kabir.

“Kabir was born in 1398 a time of great political upheaval in India. Ramananda was his spiritual Master. He spent most of his life around Benaras, the seat of Brahmin orthodoxy. The Brahmins exerted great influence on every level of society, but Kabir denounced them in a satirical way. He also ridiculed the authority of Vedas and Quran as well as the Brahmin and the Qazi. Thus the orthodoxy of both religions hated him. However he had a large following and was safe from their persecution. He had won the hearts of the common people and influenced the religious beliefs of the simple rural folks by denouncing the heavy burdens placed upon them by the religious authorities. Kabir stressed a simple life, the equality of man and condemned religious bigotry. There are many legends surrounding his death, but according to British Scholar Charlotte Vaudenville, he died in the year 1448.” - from onetruename.com

Sanskrit stagnant water

- Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the early twentieth century By Susie J. Tharu, Ke Lalita

Kabir called bhasa
Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, Volume 47

kabir bhasa

Is Sanskrit a Dead Language?

“In the memorable year of 1857, a Gujarati poet, Dalpatra ̄m Dahyabhai, was the first to speak of the death of Sanskrit:
All the feasts and great donations King Bhoja gave the Brahmans were obsequies he made on finding the language of the gods had died. Seated in state Bajirao performed its after-death rite with great pomp. And today, the best of kings across the land observe its yearly memorial.” -Sheldon Pollock, a scholar of Sanskrit, Indian intellectual and literary history, and comparative intellectual history. He is currently the William B. Ransford Professor of Sanskrit and South Asian Studies at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University. He is also General Editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library and the Murthy Classical Library of India.

The debate rages quietly. A court in India recently ruled that Sanskrit is NOT dead. This has to be one of the few times in history that the deadness or aliveness of a language was contested in court. “Sanskrit Not a 'Dead' Language - HC
By Legal Correspondent
The Hindu
January 2, 1998
The Madras High Court has held that "Sanskrit is not a dead language" and observed that the reasoning of the Tamil Nadu Government that Sanskrit had ceased to be a language in use "is nothing but ignorance of reality."
Mr. Justice S. S. Subramani, allowing a writ petition, referred to, a Supreme Court decision, according to which. Sanskrit was the mother of all Indo-Aryan languages and it was this language in which our Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads had been written and in which Kalidas, Bhavbuti, Banabhatta and Dandi wrote their classics.
The judge, in a recent order, also said that the teachings of Sankaracharya, Ramanuja, Madhwacharya. Nimbark and Vallabhacharya would not have been woven into the fabric of Indian culture, if Sanskrit would not have been available to them as a medium of expressing their thoughts.”

“Sanskrit as a communicative medium in contemporary India is completely denaturalized. Its cultivation constitutes largely an exercise in nostalgia for those directly involved, and, for outsiders, a source of bemusement that such communication takes place at all.”

The Death of Sanskrit*

University of Chicago

‘In the age of Hindu identity politics (Hindutva) inaugurated in the 1990s by the ascendancy of the Indian People’s Party (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideo- logical auxiliary, the World Hindu Council (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), Indian cultural and religious nationalism has been promulgating ever more distorted images of India’s past. Few things are as central to this revisionism as Sanskrit, the dominant culture language of precolonial southern Asia outside the Persianate order. Hindutva propagandists have sought to show, for example, that Sanskrit was indigenous to India, and they purport to decipher Indus Valley seals to prove its presence two millennia before it actually came into existence. In a farcical repetition of Romantic myths of primevality, Sanskrit is consid- ered—according to the characteristic hyperbole of the VHP—the source and sole preserver of world culture. The state’s anxiety both about Sanskrit’s role in shaping the historical identity of the Hindu nation and about its contempo- rary vitality has manifested itself in substantial new funding for Sanskrit education, and in the declaration of 1999–2000 as the “Year of Sanskrit,” with plans for conversation camps, debate and essay competitions, drama festivals, and the like.

‘This anxiety has a longer and rather melancholy history in independent India, far antedating the rise of the BJP. Sanskrit was introduced into the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India (1949) as a recognized language of the new State of India, ensuring it all the benefits accorded the other fourteen (now seventeen) spoken languages listed. This status largely meant funding for Sanskrit colleges and universities, and for a national organization to stimulate the study of the language. With few exceptions, however, the Sanskrit pedagogy and scholarship at these institutions have shown a precipitous decline from pre-Independence quality and standards, almost in inverse proportion to the amount of funding they receive. Sanskrit literature has fared no better. From the time of its founding in 1955, the Sahitya Akademi (National Academy of Letters) has awarded prizes in Sanskrit literature as one of the twenty-two officially acknowledged literary languages. But the first five of these awards were given for works in English or Hindi on Sanskrit culture, while the first literary text honored was a book of pattern poems (citraka ̄vya), an almost metaliterary genre entirely unintelligible without specialized training.

‘Such disparities between political inputs and cultural outcomes could be detailed across the board. What it all demonstrates—the Sanskrit periodicals and journals, feature films and daily newscasts on All-India Radio, school plays, prize poems, and the rest—may be too obvious to mention: that Sanskrit as a communicative medium in contemporary India is completely denaturalized. Its cultivation constitutes largely an exercise in nostalgia for those directly involved, and, for outsiders, a source of bemusement that such communication takes place at all. Government feeding tubes and oxygen tanks may try to preserve the language in a state of quasi-animation, but most observers would agree that, in some crucial way, Sanskrit is dead.

‘Although we often speak of languages as being dead, the metaphor is misleading, suggesting biologistic or evolutionary beliefs about cultural change that are deeply flawed. The misconception carries a number of additional liabilities. Some might argue that as a learned language of intellectual discourse and belles lettres, Sanskrit had never been exactly alive in the first place. . . .

“At all events, the fact remains that well before the consolidation of colonialism, before even the establishment of the Islamicate political order, the mastery of tradition had become an end in itself for Sanskrit literary culture, and reproduction, rather than revitalization, the overriding concern. As the realm of the literary narrowed to the smallest com- pass of life-concerns, so Sanskrit literature seemed to seek the smallest possi- ble audience. However complex the social processes at work may have been, the field of Sanskrit literary production increasingly seemed to belong to those who had an “interest in disinterestedness,” as Bourdieu might put it; the moves they made seem the familiar moves in the game of elite distinction that inverts the normal principles of cultural economies and social orders: the game where to lose is to win. In the field of power of the time, the production of Sanskrit literature had become a paradoxical form of life where prestige and exclusivity were both vital and terminal.”

Sanskrit - The Undead Language

Sandeep Prasanna has posted an interesting essay on the current state of Sanskrit.

After several thousand years, the relevancy of a language is often in question. But Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism and a central language of Jainism and Buddhism, continues to pervade the lives of millions around the world—in prayers, in poetry, and even in daily vocabulary. Sanskrit occupies a place in South Asia akin to Latin in Europe—spoken fluently by few, but acknowledged and respected by most. It is the foundation on which all modern northern Indian languages are created. In terms of vocabulary, Sanskrit-derived words or words taken directly from the language dominate nearly all Indian languages’ higher registers (including those of some Dravidian tongues). Tracing the development of Sanskrit is a complicated and immersive task because Sanskrit itself is so dense and diverse.

Sanskrit is an Indo-European language, a member of the Indo-Iranian group and the Indo-Aryan branch. In the Indian census of 1991, almost fifty thousand people listed Sanskrit as their mother tongue. This number has fluctuated intensely in the last few decades, rising as much as 714% from 1981 to 1991 and decreasing nearly 75% from 1991 to 2001 (India Census Bureau). This instability probably reflects the fact that Sanskrit, a dead language, is almost never used outside of formal or religious situations, and so the definition of a “fluent speaker” may continuously oscillate between bookish knowledge and conversing power. The three states with the highest population of “Sanskrit speakers,” according to the census, are those regions with notable traditions of Vedic study (Kushala 2). The Times of India reported that residents of the village Mattur in central Karnataka spoke Sanskrit as their vernacular (Kushala 1), but those numbers are not well reflected in the 2001 census, raising questions about the validity of that reputation.

Today, Sanskrit has a varied application. Government agencies in South Asia use Sanskrit phrases for their mottoes; Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu religious philosophers use Sanskrit for terminology; some Sanskrit words have entered English—avatar, pundit, yoga, and nirvana, for example; and students in India have the option of learning Sanskrit as a third language. Some computer programmers have even proposed the use of Sanskrit to structure computer languages because of its rigid grammar and unchanging syntax (Lakshmi 1). In Hindi and Kannada, two languages at opposites of the Indian linguistic spectrum, saṃskṛti—literally “Sanskritic”—is used to describe things that are traditional, and has a connotation of refinement and class. Full article here.

More on the Non-deadness of Sanskrit.


- used to describe people who hope to be upwardly mobile, to rise by imitating the manners and habits . . . of Brahmins
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