It may be fair to say that ours is a country where an incredibly rich linguistic heritage, far from occasioning anything more than rhetorical pride, becomes often the pretext for politics. Even as most of them struggle for patronage and survival, Indian languages, classical or vernacular, ancient or medieval, are found routinely reduced in public discourse to little more than instruments of power and conflict. A case in point is Sanskrit.
In ironic contrast to the enormous prestige Sanskrit enjoyed as a language of all learning and culture throughout her millennia-long premodern career across South, Central and Southeast Asia, today this prolific tongue has come to be understood in its own land as merely an instrument of ritual and repression. Therefore it is regarded by some as redundant, if not abhorrent, to the secular and emancipated sensibilities of the modern age. This is, however, a woefully inadequate understanding of the vast and variegated repertoire of Sanskrit and the many voices and visions it entails.
Name any knowledge system in the world and you will find a Sanskrit text or entire genre devoted to it. From metaphysics to erotics, logic to poetics, statecraft to medicine including veterinary science, from maths and astronomy to painting and architecture, history, law, linguistics, music, ethics, food, some say even theft (!) … the list is endless. Not many know this or have the creative exposure and opportunities now to explore Sanskrit’s extraordinary intellectual history. Hence, unfortunately, all sorts of misconceptions abound, associating an obscurantism and archaism with the tongue. Further, in today’s polarised climate, if you are an Indian studying Sanskrit or writing history based on representing—and not bashing—Sanskrit texts in all their virtuosity, you are liable to earn a particular ideological sobriquet or be labelled a cultural chauvinist.
Putting aside this politics of language, it is important to understand that there is nothing inherently sectarian or hegemonising in Sanskrit, and to assume so would be highly reductive of its rich history. Languages are not mere instruments of power and politics! They are the fecund medium for the transmission and preservation of enormous flows of knowledge. And if anything, they may embody plural perspectives, critical voices and debates.
For example, Sanskrit treatises (shastras) on any subject typically employ a dialogic form where a purvapaksha and an uttarapaksha—or different points of view—are presented and interrogated. Plays and poetry (kavya), on the other hand, often expose and indict various forms of authority in early India. You have only to read a Kalidasa or a Shudraka to hear the Sanskrit litterateur speak truth to power, or a Bilhana and a Kalhana to glimpse the contempt in which they held almighty kings. Consider this verse from Bilhana’s Vikramankadevacharita, the biography of the 11th century Chalukyan king of Kalyana:
When their own accomplishments are few and far between/ why ever do kings gather around them great poets?/ What need, indeed, would berry-wearing forest-dwellers / have for goldsmiths-in-residence?! (1.25)
Given that ancient and medieval poets typically depended on the court for patronage, caricaturing the king thus was a brave and risky thing to do! And yet they did it.
Similarly, you have texts like the Chaturbhani, a set of hilarious, at times even bawdy, highly satirical monologue plays from the 5th century, or Mahendravarman’s 7th century Mattavilasaprahasana, Damodaragupta’s 9th century Kuttanimata or Kshemendra’s Deshopadesa from the 11th century, which lampoon and castigate social hypocrisies generally, and pompous members of society overly conscious of their status and purity, in particular. This capacity for self satire hasn’t got quite the notice it deserves.
Still other texts present commentaries on unorthodox or transgressive attitudes and behaviour, thereby sagaciously engaging with and complicating the question of what constituted right or wrong rather than propagating any dogma. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are outstanding examples. The larger aim was perhaps moving towards a more ethical order for the individual and the community at large. Similarly, kavyas do not always appear committed to reproducing hierarchies determined by wealth, gender, ritual authority and monarchy, but instead may critique them. The concerns and vantages of some of these texts could extend to the underdog, the menial, the criminal, the rebel, even the ‘feminist’, etc. as I have detailed in my book Imagining the Urban.
Clearly, Sanskrit writers were not passive “housebirds of patricians”, as D D Kosambi provocatively called them, simply mouthing what the ruling class of the day may have wanted to hear and complicitly furthering ideologies of domination. The narratives in Sanskrit literature are far more complex and profound than that and present a polyphony of worldviews—if only we are willing to listen. But modern intellectuals, while arrogating to themselves the quality of enlightened radicalism, are loath to extend any such possibility to their forebears. The tendency has been instead to label Sanskrit as elitist and courtly and having little to do with the wider world. In the next part of this series, let us investigate these assumptions about Sanskrit literature and move towards a greater appreciation of its public interface.
(To be continued)
(The writer is author of Imagining the Urban: Sanskrit and the City in Early India)
Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University