Updated: March 2, 2020 9:42:18 am
Languages never belong to a particular religion. But members of various religious communities do speak different languages to foster understanding among themselves. It is a cultural bond that unites people rather than divides them. In the past, if the Hindus had spoken only one language, India would have been deprived of its proverbial diversity. From the time of Alberuni down to Ram Mohan Roy, India has seen Muslims learning Sanskrit and Hindus mastering Persian. Today, English is a widely spoken language in India and Indians have as much claim over it as any American, Australian, British or Canadian. If a Muslim teaches Sanskrit and a Hindu learns Arabic, it is not going to change the demography of India.
One of the reasons for Sanskrit being limited to a small circle of people was the narrow outlook of pandits. They never allowed the language to reach the common people. So, India today does not have Sanskrit as its first language, like French in Francophone countries and Arabic in West Asia. When a language is not used by common people, it dies a natural death. If Sanskrit is not made popular among Indians, it is likely to become an endangered language in its country of birth.
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Fortune smiled upon me and I became a student of Persian language and literature in India. This language revealed to me the rich literary culture of the Subcontinent. Many pandits were great scholars of Persian during the Mughal period. Chandra Bhan Brahmin, Mathura Das, Varastamal Sialkoti, Bindraban Das Khushgoo, Laxmi Narayana Shafiq Aurangabadi to name but a few. Similarly, Sanskrit texts like the Gita, Ramayana, Mahabharata, and Upanishads were translated into Persian by Muslim scholars. Many Sanskrit texts that are not available today in their original language survive in Persian. The domain of learning is open for all and goddess Saraswati blesses every seeker of knowledge irrespective of caste, creed, colour or clime. Hence, Alberuni could learn Sanskrit and Ram Mohan Roy mastered Arabic and Persian.
It is difficult to say whether Mirza Ghalib was a Sanskritist. But one can be certain that he had a better understanding of the Sanskrit culture and ethos than those in the Sanskrit department of the Banaras Hindu University who were protesting the appointment of Firoze Khan to the faculty. Ghalib’s poem, Chiragh-e-Dair (The Lamp of the Temple) in Persian is a glowing tribute to Banaras. It consists of 108 couplets, like the rosary of the Hindus. These 108 couplets conjure Banaras silhouetted against the Ganga along with the beautiful arrays of the idol-worshippers, Brahmins and Hindu temples. Ghalib was on his way to Kolkata in 1827 and had halted in Banaras for four months. He saw the city of the conch blowers as the Mecca of India — “Hamana Kaaba-e-Hindostan ast”.
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Since ancient times, Sanskrit has been an important language in India. It contains great wisdom and knowledge. Iranians and Arabs in the ancient and medieval period and Europeans in modern times showed an interest in its classical texts and translated them. They did not disgrace Sanskrit by doing so. On the contrary, they internationalised it — something pandits failed to do. Their conservative outlook will ensure that the language never gains mass popularity. Perhaps this is the reason Sanskrit did not travel beyond India’s frontiers and become a vehicle for it culture and civilisation.
Indians often cite “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” to establish their catholicity and the magnanimous ethos of the Indian civilisation. The evolution of Sanskrit once exemplified this spirit, it should do so again.
Kabir Das rightly said, “We must not ask a saint his caste. If we have to know anything about him that must be his knowledge.”
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 2, 2020 under the title “Language across boundaries”. The writer, 24, is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Persian and Central Asian Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University
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