Bound by Language in the Time of Controversy

Published: 24th December 2014 06:01 AM  |   Last Updated: 24th December 2014 06:01 AM   |  A+A-


CHENNAI: At a time when arguments about German replacing Sanskrit in public schools are flying around, this small group in a quiet neighbourhood in Mylapore is busy studying Vedanta, Mimahamsa, Sahitya, Vyakarna, Jyotisha and Nyaya. For them, grammar, poetics, astrology and logic — everything is related to Sanskrit.  Seated in an old classroom at the Madras Sanskrit College in Mylapore, this group of teenagers are dressed in veshtis with their hair tied into a kudumi, and could be heard joking with each other in Sanskrit.

They are from various States such as Kerala, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and their only common link is Sanskrit. As their principal puts it, “Sanskrit is the centre around which their education revolves. “Sanskrit is not just a language. It is culture and philosophy; we have to save it. Everything began here. Civil engineering with Vaastu Shastra, medicine with ayurveda, metallurgy, environment and agriculture — the Sanskrit texts have it all,” says N V Deviprasad, the principal.

The alumni of the college are all over the country and some abroad. Many are working as professors and scholars, a few as priests in their native temples, and some even in jobs like banking and IT.

Their cultural references, he says, are soaked in language and scriptures, there is no turning away from it. Even the scientific interpretations, he says, are one-sided. “Vaastu Shasthra is not just about where to locate the kitchen and the bedroom. It is also about how deep to dig the foundation, which angles to calculate.” With losing all these truths, he believes, everything is getting destroyed.

With the casteist tag associated with the language, questions often arise about who is allowed to study Sanskrit. Being located in a place like Mylapore, which is often seen as a brahmin bastion, adds to the stereotype. “We are open to applications from anybody, there is no restriction,” says the principal, although applications from other castes are rare or even nil. There are no applications from girls and except for girls and women who come and take part-time classes, there have been no girl students ever in the history of the college.

“Restrictions or admission criteria apply only if there is high demand.  Nobody wants to learn languages anymore, leave alone Sanskrit,” laments Deviprasad.

The moral values that come from learning a language, he believes, apply not only to Sanskrit but also to any language and arts. “Languages tell us about life about ethics. But today, even parents don’t want children to study languages, everybody wants a professional course and a well-paid job,” he adds.

The language has faced a long history of opposition especially in Tamil Nadu, with the Dravidian movement against brahmin monopoly in education and employment in the early decades of the 20th century. Sanskrit being associated with brahmins has been opposed by the loyalists of Tamil and the Anti-Caste Movement, even with the recent instance of Sanskrit Week celebrations being opposed by political parties.

The Sanskrit College has now had a 109-year-long journey through setbacks.

“Well, we survived,” says Deviprasad. Meanwhile, the boys in this college continue to lead a life much unlike the outside world, with the first prayers at 6 am, visiting temples, chanting and daily rituals. But some stand in the corners talking on their smartphones and there is also a computer lab on the campus.

Change has arrived on this campus too, but life goes on with Upanishads and occasional games of volleyball.

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