There is a beautiful legend I had heard in my childhood. Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri was an erudite Sanskrit scholar of medieval Kerala. He was afflicted with paralysis, but that did not stop him from writing Narayaneeyam, one of the most celebrated compositions in Sanskrit. Miraculously he was cured after writing the same and he became a celebrated Vedic scholar. Poonthanam, a poet who wrote in Malayalam, was Melpathur’s contemporary.
Poonthanam had limited knowledge of Sanskrit. One day, at a discourse held at Guruvayur temple, Poonthanam recited the shloka ‘Padmanabha Amaraparbho’ as ‘Padmanabha Marabrabho’. Melpathur mocked poor Poonthanam as half-poet and said ‘Padmanabha’ is the lord of immortals and not the lord of the trees, which was what Poonthanam’s misspelling meant. A celestial voice from the sanctum of the temple answered that, “I am the lord of trees too”. However, this did not teach Melpathur any lesson and he remained haughty about his knowledge.
A few days later, Poonthanam submitted Jnanappana, his devotional composition in Malayalam, to Melpathur and pleaded him to edit the same. Melpathur scoffed at the idea of editing a book written in Malayalam which was just a ‘Desa Bhasha’, a local language. He was a poet of ‘Deva Bhasha’, the divine language, and such a task was beneath his stature. That night, Melpathur was stricken by paralysis again and he heard the divine voice of Narayana, “For me, Poonthanam’s bhakti (devotion) is more important than your vibhakti (grammar or language)”. A repentant Melpathur begged forgiveness of Poonthanam. To this day, it is the Jnanappana that remains popular than the scholarly and deeply philosophical Narayaneeyam.
For many centuries, Sanskrit was the language of the scholars in India. It is doubtful whether it was the common man’s tongue. Kalhana of Kashmir wrote Rajatarangini, Jayadeva of Odisha wrote Gita Govinda, Mahendravarman I of Tamil Nadu wrote Mattavilasa Prahasana, all in Sanskrit, showing how widespread the language was across the subcontinent.
The 18 Puranas were compiled, rewritten and modified by scholars from Kerala to Kandahar and Gujarat to Assam. It is said that Adi Shankara’s eloquence in Sanskrit used to keep his rivals in awe. Many Sanskrit scholars opine that had Shankara not been famous as a saint philosopher, he would have been as famous as Kalidasa in poetry. Sanskrit was the literary language and lingua franca for the educated of ancient and medieval India.
By the time other Indian languages were maturing, Sanskrit had ceased to be the language of common people. Even in classical Sanskrit drama, the dramatists were often careful to make women and Shudras speak in Prakrit or local tongues, much like how drivers or maids are caricatured in modern films with their rustic Indian languages.In short, Indian elite always had a link language, earlier in Sanskrit and later in Persian, followed by English. However, for the major part of our history, Sanskrit served as the link language. It was the language of religion, philosophy, science and art. Despite this, there was no political unity in India. India might have had cultural unity, but it was never a politically united country. It just shows the mirror to those who vociferously argue for a common language for the whole country.
If common language could bring unity, there would have been only one Arabian country and the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK would have been one nation. If common religion would have given unity, there would have been only one Islamic super state. If common language would have given unity, there would have been no partition of Bengal or Punjab. So, it shows neither a common language, religion, or race can ensure a unified nation.
Though India rarely had political unity, culturally it was always united. To understand this miracle, one should look at how Hinduism spread across the continent. Hinduism as we know now has very little to do with Vedic rituals or the philosophical speculations in Upanishads. For elite scholars, those may remain fascinating, but the Hinduism of the common man is far removed from such Sanskrit texts. Only a few would have read Valmiki’s Ramayana or Vyasa’s Mahabharata in Sanskrit. The epics were popularised by Tulsidasa, Kambar, Ezhuthachan, Kritibhasa and countless of such ‘Desa Bhasha’ poets.
The oral tradition of tales and retellings in ‘Desa Bhashas’ made religion take roots among people worshipping many million gods in many million ways. Hinduism did not try to impose the concept of one God, one method of worship, one right way of religion or one common festival. Instead it celebrated everything, including a few festivals where Gods are questioned. It has place for festivals like Onam, one that honours an asura and it is open enough to accept many tribal gods as manifestation of the Brahman. The unity was achieved by accepting and assimilating many things.
All these hold lessons for those who think India needs one common language, one common religion and one common culture. If this lesson is not enough for them, they should perhaps learn from the history of the USSR that tried to impose such forced unity and what happened to such forced attempts. firstname.lastname@example.org