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Sunday, September 27, 2015

PM's Sanskrit jibe hits a raw secularist nerve

By Swapan Dasgupta

By now I am entirely convinced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a mischievous streak that is visible in private conversations but occasionally surfaces in public. He just loves needling opponents, particularly those who have an inflated sense of their own self-worth. 

His aside in Dublin on hearing Irish children sing a Sanskrit hymn in his honour was sharp and calculated to hit home. Modi raised a simple question: would such an act in India not have driven the secularists crazy? Regardless of all those pious interventions on twitter by people proclaiming the secular-cum-Sanskrit credentials of their grandfather and daughter, the fact remains that the controlling interest in the secularism industry belongs to those who believe that Sanskrit equals Hindutva and that learning it is the prerogative of those who socially ‘backward’ guys who attend shakhas. To them, the celebration of Sanskrit is the personification of anti-modernity. 

Of course not every secularist is so utterly crass; but the average ‘Hindu’ secularist—the type who believe that the natural destiny of every successful child is to settle down in the US—has a supercilious view of India’s Hindu ‘mumbo-jumbo’. In the old days, particularly during the heady Ayodhya years, their refrain used to be: ‘what will the world think?’ Today, it’s more what will their Facebook friends think? 

Don’t get me wrong, the secularist who laments that her son is forced to read Sanskrit as an obligatory third language—albeit ‘high scoring’—rather than French, German or even Mandarin, isn’t a Hindu hater. Rather, she doesn’t see herself as one. But given half a chance she would say she is a ‘ceremonial Hindu’—someone who perfunctorily observes some elementary rituals on Diwali or Onam or Durga Puja, and puts a sari on some special day in anticipation of Facebook ‘likes’.  

Such people are uber-liberal: they hate the idea of prohibition, even on Gandhi jayanti and, particularly, voting day; they can’t countenance meat bans—although many will discreetly admit that they grew up as vegetarians and, in any case, find the idea of beef a bit much to digest; and they embrace the idea of modernity which, in their value system, implies the values endorsed by the New York Times or its bastard progenies in India.

For them there is another world outside the echo chamber that is inhabited by the ‘Other’ –yes, even the liberals have their ‘Other’. But that world is unknown and incomprehensible. 

Many years ago I met a well-meaning engineer who had returned to India after 30 years of working with a well-known company in Texas. He told me that he was convinced that George W. Bush had stolen the presidential election from Al Gore. What had prompted this amazing conclusion was not the Florida recount but the fact that he hadn’t met a single American who had voted for Bush. That he lived in Texas, Bush’s home turf, didn’t seem to bother him. 

Likewise, there are people who proudly proclaimed during the 2014 general election that they didn’t know anyone who intended to vote Modi. For them, Modi supporters occupied a separate universe. At best the Modi bhakt was like the proverbial Pandey ji who taught Hindi and Sanskrit in English-medium schools and who, invariably, was the butt of jokes that reeked of social condescension. 

Last week on Twitter, Heeraman Tiwari, an Oxford-educated Sanskritist teaching in JNU wrote: “A celeb… economist once told me in my face: ‘refreshing to see a Sanskritist so liberal in your views.’” I don’t think Tiwari was exaggerating. As someone favourably disposed towards the Prime Minister and his political assumptions, I have often observed the incredulousness in the faces of liberals upon realising that I come from the same social background as many of them and, indeed, can eat with a fork and knife.

In the autumn issue of Spectator Life, conservative right-wing writer Douglas Murray has a wonderful article on the perils of being on the ‘wrong’ side of a Left-wing dominated media. “Certain (TV) presenters”, he observed, “behave as though their entire stack of liberal credentials are at stake. Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark is an example of this phenomenon, striking a weird, flared-up nostrils, ‘What horrible smell has come before me?’ pose before even asking the first question…Here we get reminded of one of the great truisms of politics: while the right tend to think the left are misguided, we rarely think they are evil. The favour is not returned…”

This may explain the intense prejudice the left-liberals harbour against not only Sanskrit but also the whole gamut of cultural nationalism. In the past three days, in response to Modi’s jibe in Ireland, a large number of media liberals have gone on record to say that they are not against Sanskrit but only its contrived association with saffron politics. I wish that were indeed the case. In 1998, at a conference of education ministers, the same lot created a stink when it was announced the proceedings would open with a rendering of the Saraswati vandana—a celebration of the goddess of learning. 

Many classical languages, including Sanskrit, have an overweight of religious literature just as many Indian dance forms have an association with temple worship. To try and forcibly de-sacralise and secularise the inheritance is an ideological exercise that needn’t be appreciated. One of the pedagogic shortcomings of Sanskrit learning in schools is the attempt to cast it in a modern functional mould. The sacred dimensions of Sanskrit—important to both believers and non-believers—has been bowdlerised, with disastrous consequences. 

Modi’s observation may have been in passing but even unintentionally he touched a raw secularist nerve. The outrage of the minusculity wasn’t triggered by any falsehood but because what the PM said was indeed true of those who want to be arbiters of good taste. 

Sunday Pioneer, September 27, 2015


yajsingh said...

Sad that Sanskrit is being politicized and demonized in its land of origin; do the children of Marxist-elite (irony) even realize their chosen language - English, is evolved from Greek & Latin, which in turn is derived from Sanskrit? Too much for truth.

Unknown said...

I fully agree with Swapan Dasgupta .Alas! it is a fashion to denigrate mother of modern indian languages and appear sophisticated to demean the root. I love Devabhasha .

Kush said...

To those coming to this page I would like to point you to the value of Sanskrit in this essay by Professor Kapil Kapoor of JNU:

Quoting from the essay:

"those who believe that this knowledge is now archaic would do well to recall that the contemporary western theories, though essentially interpretive, have evolved from Europe's 19th century interaction with Sanskrit philosophy, grammar and poetics; they would care to remember that Roman Jakobson, Trubetzkoy and de Saussure were Sanskritists, that Saussure was in fact a professor of Sanskrit at Geneva and that his published papers include work on Sanskrit poetics. The structural, formalist thinking and the linguistic turn of contemporary theory have their pedigree in Sanskrit thought. In this, Europe's highly fruitful interaction with the Indian thought over practically the same time-span contrasts sharply with 150 years of sterile Indian interaction with the western thought. After the founding of Sanskrit chairs in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Europe interacted with the Indian thought, particularly in philosophy, grammar, literary theory and literature, in a big way without abandoning its own powerful tradition. In the process, it created, as we have said a new discipline, Historical-Comparative Linguistics, produced a galaxy of thinkers - Schiller, Schelling, Schopenhauer, Nietszche, Jakobson, Trubetzkoy and above all Saussure - and founded a revolutionary conceptual framework which was to influence the European thought for the next century, Structuralism."

Here's a lecture on YouTube where Professor Kapoor comments on the objections of our desi so-called intellectual classes to the worth and value of Sanskrit:

For those wanting more, I recommend his book 'Text and Interpretation: The Literary Tradition'.

Lastly, thank you Swapan for a great article elucidating "the values endorsed by the New York Times and its bastard progenies in India".

Subhodeep Mukhopadhyay said...

An excellent analysis Sir.

It has become "Oh so fashionable" to denigrate Sanskrit in India that sometimes I feel amazed at the colossal ignorance of some folks.

Sanskrit is a dead language, some insist, what is the use of learning it? How dare the government not allow me to eat meat? Such ignorant rants is exactly in line with the Leftist and well as the Generic Church narrative, and we Hindus are directly falling for the oldest game in the town.

Just as red cannot be separated from a red fruit (to use a Sanskrit Vedantic simile), in the same way evil cannot be separated from leftists and Generic Churchists, and idiocy from the wannabe Indian liberals and selfie clicking credit card wielding modernists who follow the "values endorsed by the New York Times and its bastard progenies in India", as you rightly said.

And again, if you try to dis-associate religion from a religious language like Sanskrit (apart from being a scientific language as well as linguists delight), you end with horrible Sanskrit books of the NCERT type with texts like "ahmedaH islAmAbAdam gachChati" and such nonsense.

Anonymous said...

PM's Sanskrit jibe hits a raw secularist nerve
Posted: 26 Sep 2015 09:42 PM PDT
By Swapan Dasgupta

“Modi’s observation may have been in passing but even unintentionally he touched a raw secularist nerve. The outrage of the minusculity wasn’t triggered by any falsehood but because what the PM said was indeed true of those who want to be arbiters of good taste. “

Sunday Pioneer, September 27, 2015

What Swapan has said and written about only proves that even without any backings by any one would and should be left with People desiring their Instincts to either they themselves Learn the Sanskrit ar even want to propagate it should rest with the People and their Interests and ardent desire to follow and adore and it should be left to them as to how thay perceive for any advancements
Of the Sanskrit Language and its IMPORTANCE as an Ancient Language with very many slokas and sayings are and had been conceived by the Ancient Teachers of Sanskrit Language.
One can see that Swapan had been very very causious not either to Propagate or asked for any State’s help.He had left the terms to be defined by the Scholars .
No one therefore had any qualms and no more insinuations as to the Sanskrit Languages propagations or the contents in them even though the ANCIENT Peoples wisdom and Knowledge were Preserved in the Article.

thevedbrat said...

After having read the above, I looked up Mr Murray's article that you reference above. A few gems:-
"It may be a thankless task, but the self-appointed role of a conservative commentator is to prick the complacent left-wing consensus and attempt to inject into the debate those things which before the age of moral preening we used to call facts."
"The left are very good at telling people the lies or half-truths that people want to hear and which make them look nice and compassionate."
Being a graduate of La Martiniere College, Calcutta like yourself, I never studied Sanskrit, but have always wondered why so much social derision was heaped upon those who had studied it or loved it in some way. As you mentioned once in another of your articles, "...the right to free speech isn't extended to those who violate the Nehruvian Consensus". But like Mr Murray states, consolation lies in knowing that you are not alone.

Anonymous said...

Well said. But perhaps this is the defining moment for Sanskrit and "Hindutva" issues. Now that white Irish kids have recited Sanskrit shlokas confidently, the convent educated, Indian secularists may follow suit. Just as hatha yoga has now been accepted and considered even fashionable by these same secularists, due to the thumping endorsement that it has received by fashionable western icons over the decades, the time for a change of attitude towards Sanskrit, Hindu scriptures/religion may have finally arrived. A weak, and diffident race needs endorsement of the strong and confident ones. Interesting that none of these regular secularists have made any comment about Irish kids' Sanskrit recital. They may well see a conspiracy (an Overseas Friends of the BJP hand) behind this. Or perhaps they have been shamed?

Hari said...

Brilliant piece. Swapan nails it when it comes to exposing the pseudo-liberal bias!