18 July, 2019

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Speaking In Gods’ Tongue: The Grammar Of Sanskrit Scholarship Today

By Rohana Seneviratne

Dr. Rohana Seneviratne

What makes one a Sanskrit scholar today? 

What areas of the Sanskrit language does one need to be good with to declare “I know Sanskrit”? 

Can one become knowledgeable about Sanskrit scholarship without mastering the language?

What could Sanskrit tell us and could not? 

Do we really need Sanskrit? 

The questions of this sort demand clarification of a few points before being answered. First, Sanskrit scholarship has been a misnomer mainly because one cannot, justifiably, know a certain language without knowing the wealth of knowledge in it, simply because knowledge comes to us getting on a certain language, either oral, written or both, as the vehicle. “Indologist” has often been a substitute for a scholar of Sanskrit but again is debated as “Indology” primarily entails German scholarship of India as known for over a century and is still associated with the academic treatment of India – both classical and modern – in Germany. Second, Sanskrit scholarship, or rather Indology scholarship, arguably, does not have any uniform identity due to its inherent geographical and ethnic properties plus perspicuous transformations over time. This leads to the commonplace – consequently, orthodox – notion that “Sanskrit is Indian” and “Sanskrit is for the Hindu”, which is largely wrong and misleading. Third, the most significant is that Sanskrit needs to defend itself by telling us what it has in store for us today. 

One must be convinced enough of the current applicability of Sanskrit, which is widely debated even within India and beyond before having a vested interest in, let alone learning and using, it. Not attempted here is defending the significance of Sanskrit or elaborating on the role of the language, which may be “divine” for some, and “not-so-divine but a useful tool in certain contexts” for some others, and again an “unpleasantly hegemonic and paradigmatic” for another group. I would also skip why on earth we learn Sanskrit here in Sri Lanka. However, I will return to Sri Lanka’s context to highlight a few points relevant to the public impression of Sanskrit scholarship today. I am attempting to present before you an overview of the principal dimensions of Sanskrit scholarship in the contemporary world with particular emphasis on contemporary India, and the countries in Europe and the west, which we generally believe do not promote but treat Sanskrit as a dead language or even an extinct language. I would also attempt to prove that such a belief is simply a semblance or an ābhasa – to dub it in Sanskrit. 

Where is Sanskrit heading? 

It is obvious that we have to place the Sanskrit language in the global context to recognize its current role, limitations, accolades, and humiliations. Surprising enough to kupamandukas (frogs in the well) but not-so-puzzling to people out-of-the-box, Sanskrit receives accolades and humiliations, more often the latter, not only in the contemporary Hindu dominant India but also among the Hindus and even among Brahmins, the longtime custodians of it. 

The reasons for this situation are largely political. We have to examine how significant the role “language” has played thus far and is playing today in identity politics and nationalist movements in the context of Sri Lanka. For example, the relation between the intellectual forces that have made India what it is today has been debated – both within and largely beyond academia. Ratification of Indian Hindu identity is strongly connected, as they claim, with Sanskrit intellectual history in the past few centuries in particular. However, the saffron terror unleashed by militant Hinduism during the last few decades under the pretext of glorifying Sanskrit and Hindu identity is not, understandably, tolerated by non-Hindu and non-conservative Hindu Indians as well as the non-Indian world community at large. Further, such terror-laden nationalism or jingoism triggered Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hindu scriptures just like Arabic of Islamic scriptures, being abhorred even by non-conservative Hindus. While the political solution was sought to mitigate the repercussions of militant Hinduism and chauvinistic patriotism, Sanskrit scholarship was often frowned upon and measures were also taken to make amendments to the national language policy and structure of education. This historic blow on Sanskrit was hard but the local pundits and policymakers could not reverse it by grabbing the attention of Sanskrit-lovers outside of Indian soil. 

Meanwhile, some public figures with a global reputation like Rajiv Malhotra (b. 1950), are supporting for over a decade the idea of traditional Hindutva enormously bolstered by Sanskrit scholarship. For instance, Malhotra, a widely cited author, who was born and raised in India, now an American by citizenship, but, promoting non-western and nationalistic view on India and Hinduism, complains with logical evidence that the non-Indian – mostly western – reading of Hinduism denigrates the tradition and undermines the interests of India “by encouraging the paradigms that oppose its unity and integrity”. His critiques publicly slashed down the writings of a number of intellectuals including Sheldon Pollock (b. 1948), the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia and Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty (b. 1940), the Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of History of Religions at the University of Chicago, who are very highly regarded as great Sanskritists and Indologists in western academia. In his recent work “The Battle for Sanskrit: Is Sanskrit Political or Sacred, Oppressive or Liberating, Dead or Alive?” that received much attention globally, Malhotra questions the legitimacy of empowering Pollock, an intellectual with – as he calls – “academic Hindufobia”, to lead a project on the Advaita Vedanta. Further, Pollock is determined, in Malhotra’s eye, in “utterly purging Sanskrit studies of their sacred dimension “secularises” the Sanskrit kāvya literature by removing its transcendental dimensions. 

Malhotra’s criticism of O’Flaherty’s approach to Sanskrit centred around her arbitrary usage of psychoanalytic concepts to examine Indian subjects and purposively eroticizing the contents in Sanskrit texts that do not deserve as such. Consequently, such Sanskritists jeopardize this sacred tongue rather than promote by purportedly introducing Sanskrit classics to non-Sanskritists that includes the western readership. 

Moreover, Sanskrit scholarship encounters the most serious condemnation by the outsiders, who are not necessarily non-Indians, which adds largely to its shape today. Again as Malhotra holds, insiders view Sanskrit as sacred, but outsiders view the sacredness of Sanskrit as merely a smokescreen for oppressive view. Therefore, the views of Indian and non-Indian “outsiders” have been the most atrocious that undervalue, neglect and threaten Sanskrit irrespective of what it has got in store for new learners and users as well. The truth of such claims is indeed debatable but the core of it is distinct. 

However, political underpinning has not been unfavourable to Sanskrit in the recent past. Reverting India’s soft power needs support from Sanskrit as highlighted not only by Modi’s initiatives to uplift Sanskrit scholarship across India but also by the solid views of some intellectuals of the opposition, one of the best examples of which would be Shashi Tharoor (b. 1956), a Congress MP, an acclaimed writer, and a prolific public speaker. Supporting the Nehruvian legacy, Tharoor has highlighted several times how British rule ruined Indian intellectual heritage while swindling whatever it could out of the Indian soil, as he argued in his viral speech in a few years ago at the Oxford Union on whether Britain owes reparation for colonizing India. On a different occasion, Tharoor’s emphasis was on teaching Sanskrit as a language that endowed the world with wonderful classics vis-à-vis the classics in Greek and Latin, rather than a hegemonic language in the past and/or today. Sanskrit deserves what it deserves, not essentially paradigmatic nor obsolete. Traditional learning of Sanskrit as in the Mathas or Hindu monasteries and the universities such as Sampurnanand University, BHU in Varanasi, and Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan do contribute to the preserving of the language and the associated branches of knowledge but hardly contribute to determining the global presence of Sanskrit. 

Samskrtha Bharati’s endeavour to democratize and popularize conversational Sanskrit deserves a special note here. Having roots in as early as 1981 but founded as a national level organization in 1995, the Samskrutha Bharati promotes Sanskrit for over two decades by making initiatives in introducing it as the mother tongue in thousands of households across India and beyond. Its philosophy of promoting Sanskrit comprises changing the pedagogical principles from rote learning to immersion method through speaking “in Sanskrit” but not only “about Sanskrit”, and encouraging the use of simple but not simplified forms of grammar in the conversational register. As their records prove, the face of Sanskrit scholarship today is fast changing from pedantic shastric learning in the niche of traditional Sanskrit pundits to the joy of effortlessly speaking the “divine” language as a living language. 

Having glanced at how Sanskrit is received in contemporary India, I would like to step outside of its birthplace to review succinctly its trod in the west. 

Sanskrit Scholarship outside India 

Approaches to studies of Sanskrit in Europe, as I witnessed at Oxford and a few European universities including “the other place”, the SOAS of London, and Edinburgh in the UK, Gottingen and Heidelberg in Germany, and Vienna in Austria were, surprisingly, not as avant-garde, ultra-modern or radical as I arbitrarily expected them to have been. While working with my supervisors, advisors, thesis examiners, and teachers who had received their doctoral training from top universities including Oxbridge, Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton, I observed that they were several times more meticulous and assiduous than most of the traditional scholars I met in India. 

The only “sin” they are committing is nothing else but taking nothing for granted, ascribing less or nothing to god, divine origin, or mysticism, and questioning the “unquestionable” (amimasya). Their intellectual labour marked by meticulosity exceeds that of many modern pundits in traditional schools of Sanskrit education, as often confirmed by Indian scholars who have had opportunities to receive academic training outside India. The students are also compelled to grasp the cream of Sanskrit grammar by scientifically following the prescribed textbooks and master a few more local languages such as Hindi, Bengali, Nepali, or Marathi, to assist their research in India. Simultaneously, debating the time-honoured facts by posing them counterarguments with ample concrete evidence is required. Overall, the academia in the west is more challenging for Sanskrit scholars to survive as their scholarship is challenged more often and more publicly, their work must stand harsh critiques and confrontations, and their careers encounter jeopardy not being herded by devotees. 

Well, if the westerners are more pedantically traditional – in the sense much more devoted – in their painstaking study of Sanskrit, what makes them stand out from the crowd? 

Here are a few dimensions of western approaches to Sanskrit scholarship in today’s dynamic world. I should tell you that these approaches have had the pizza effect since Indian scholars have started to respond to them favourably and assimilate some in their system of pedagogy and research culture. 

1. Desaffronization of texts 

Although susceptible to derogatory remarks as writings of pagans or heathens, contemporary critiques of sacred texts by most of the academics that do not compensate truth for sacredness tend to disregard the religious garb of such texts. As long as texts are smeared with religiosity – or to borrow an Indian political neologism – saffronized, to an extent that impedes scientific examination of them, they would not add to valid knowledge. Desaffronizing is thus required to see the core with no frills. Desaffronized and exposed, Sanskrit would be more realistic, commanding and attractive rather than vulnerable, pejoratively mystic, and obsolete. 

2. Texts in context 

Contextualizing Sanskrit texts precisely is yet another approach, predominantly made by westerners, although not as easy as it might sound, to recognize the phases and paths of Indian intellectual history. Since most authors of Sanskrit works remained anonymous, used pen names, ascribed their works to acclaimed authors – sometimes their gurus or patrons – and consequently left minimal personal evidence for us to identify them, we are left only with what they say in the colophons or introductory remarks. Scholars work hard, by reading between the lines, to detect the context in which the text was produced. The hermeneutical literature on some works does become the saviour at least into some extent, but most of the time the commentators were humbler incognitos than the authors! 

What do we understand by contextualizing the texts? Lineal conflicts and personal attacks that developed into prolonged clashes between the gurukulas, for instance. And the scribal errors purported to be as such but purposely employed devices to alter meaning or variants resulting from the popularity of the text in vernacular traditions. Even beneath an ostentatious eulogy, we may decipher a lamentation if carefully gone against the grain by following the paronomastic hints or “slesharthas“. Some Indian pundits in early modern India, as we get to know now, produced perverted commentaries of Sanskrit texts in order to elude harsh polemics, win patronage, or take revenge on the gurukula such texts belonged to. 

3. Naked texts 

As many non-Indian scholars argue, Indic texts garbed in religious and mostly mystic attire require being stripped off in order to reveal the significance they deserve. They have been doing this ever since the colonial pursuits to distinguish Sanskrit from – rather situate Sanskrit in – Indo European philology. One of the discoveries along this line was untraceable quotes in philosophical texts. For instance, Appayya Dikshita and his followers in the early modern Benares critically analysed the Dvaita philosophical texts by Madhva’s disciples. Roque Mesquita (d. 2016), for example, wrote widely on Madhva’s Unknown Sources and defended Appaya’s views to Dvaita Vedantins’ disappointment, more importantly, by dismantling the saint-like stature of a few doyens of Sanskrit classics and revealing the intellectual forgery disregarded or viewed otherwise for over centuries. 

4. Scientific evidence over traditional beliefs 

Sanskrit scholars – particularly those with academic training from the west do not let go texts without being pinpointed on the timeline. Dating of texts, therefore, remains significant since faulty dates or no dates at all either mislead us or lead us nowhere. Patanjali, a polymath especially in Sanskrit grammar who composed the prestigious Mahabhasya or the great commentary on Panini’s magnum opus, the Astadhyayi, for instance, is never recognized, by traditional pundits, to be different from the Patanjali writing the Yogasutra, the foundation text of the classical yoga. But evidence from the Indian intellectual history itself proved very clearly that they were at least half a millennium apart. 

Lateral thinking plays a significant role here. To read philosophical texts against the grain – for example, from the viewpoint of sociology or cognitive psychology – requires a bold departure from conservative zeal about the “indispensable” divinity and finite liberation on the bank of the Ganges. Similarly, a recent project completed in the US – with the involvement of Stephanie Jamison (b. 1948) from UCLA, a big name in the field of Western Sanskrit scholarship – was on translating the Rgveda, oldest Sanskrit text, into English, with the help of Indo-European linguistics rather than slavishly depending on Indian hermeneutics as many Indian scholars did so far. We know that the most esteemed commentator Sayana’s Vedartha Prakasha commentary come into existence in the 12th century and his interpretations could not satisfy serious scholars with what the Rgveda meant to Indians more than two millennia. 

5. Dissection of Esoteric texts 

Vedic and Tantric scriptures remained unquestionable (amimamsya) for ages and would continue to do so unless bold approaches to analyze them by using areligious, therefore non-predisposed – tools come to play. The Sanskrit scholarship in today’s west should not, however, be labelled as one bereft of piety but laden with blasphemy and sacrilege. The attempts are made to question the “unquestionability” of the unquestionable, rather than to grill “the unquestionable” themselves. 

6. Sanskrit for Computational Linguistics 

Computational linguistics is not a new member of the ever-growing discipline linguistics but during the last couple of decades, the involvement of Sanskrit in it has triggered an unprecedented interest among hardcore linguists and computer scientists who are not necessarily Sanskrit pundits by training. Sanskrit computational linguistics has also awakened an increasing number of young scientists and engineers around the globe to probe into the so-far-unfathomed rationality of Sanskrit grammar. Their research in the subdomains such as knowledge extraction and knowledge structure identification from resources, text to speech conversion and vice versa, identification of mathematical elements in Sanskrit grammar, and development of tools for analysing and producing Sanskrit texts are literally revolutionizing our existing understanding of Sanskrit including the ways we teach and learn this pleasantly recondite language and associated branches of knowledge. 

Returning to the plight of Sanskrit today on its motherland and its prospects amidst – perhaps overly brash – agitation by westerners, I would like to draw attention again to a few ideas Malhotra underscores in his work titled “Battle for Sanskrit” published with Harper Collins, India, two years back. 

There, Malhotra highlights a few significant points we need to consider if we are truly desirous of benefitting from Sanskrit today. Referring to the movement initiated by the Samskrta Bharati in reviving conversational Sanskrit, he opines that, “the revival should go further and also produce new literary works, plays, novels and the like. Most of all, it should be used as a tool for serious knowledge research. We need modern writings of kayva and shastra and updates of the old ones.” (Battle for Sanskrit, p. 358) 

Another point is that the non-translatable Sanskrit terms must enter the mainstream. Accordingly, Brahman is not God, Atman is not Soul, Dharma is not religion, and Yajna is not sacrifice. 

“At the present time, when our ideas are translated in the West, they are almost always plucked out of context, disconnected from the source, and reinstated as part of Western thought. Preserving the Sanskrit terms as well as the correct history and metaphysical framework should help prevent such hijacking.” (Battle for Sanskrit, 359)

Malhotra argues that India has had to experience the Pizza effect as regards Sanskrit and its intellectual legacy is exploited at an alarming rate. 

“If these trends continue, India will remain an importer of knowledge about its own civilization rather than being at the helm of the discourse concerning itself.” End quote. (Battle for Sanskrit, 357) 

Malhotra’s accusations are largely grounded on the works by the western writers and he has written a lot – substantially in a proleptical manner – on the ways and means and also the extent of Sanskrit being westernized. Let me quote a few lines from Malhotra’s work “Being Different”, again a Harper Collins publication in 2011, where he illustrates a fine example for the so-called westernization of Sanskrit intellectual legacy. 

“Ever since the time of Jones in the late 1700s, Sanskrit scholars have contributed to the creation of linguistics in the Western academy. Colonial Indologists considered the European study of Panini’s grammar a major breakthrough. Sanskrit scholars in Europe were the initial developers of modern linguistics as an academic discipline. The West’s ‘father of structuralism’, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857- 1913), spent his academic career in Paris studying and teaching the Sanskrit grammar of Panini. Saussure’s PhD was on conjugate verbs in Sanskrit, and he, in turn, influenced Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-2009), the eminent anthropologist. Levi-Strauss was only one of many Western thinkers influenced by Saussure’s work, though. After Saussure’s death, his students published his class notes posthumously but removed all traces and references to Sanskrit, Panini and Indian texts, replacing them with generic and universal principles that could be applied to modern European languages! The philosophical principles contained therein became known as structuralism, revolutionizing European art, sociology, history, philosophy and psychology. Structuralism was the precursor of post-structuralism, the philosophical core of postmodern thought. 

Until well into the twentieth century, courses in Sanskrit were a requirement for doctoral candidates in linguistics in most major universities in the West. Only after a period of intensely studying Sanskrit in the academy (and two centuries after its discovery by the West) was the science of linguistics sufficiently Europeanized to become independent of Sanskrit …..” (Being Different, p. 238-239) 

The pizza effect involved in Sanskrit scholarship was remarkable. Due to this, as emphasized also by Malhotra on several occasions, postcolonial Indian clerisy who used to frown upon Sanskrit as an obsolete but irremovable limb of the Indian culture and related to only Hinduism – more accurately Mysticism – started reconsidered Sanskrit in the academia alongside classics and western philosophy. Traditional schools hailing from established guru-paramparas got an extra boost to promote their teachings and started accepting non-Indian disciples willing to learn Sanskrit in order to wade through the dense literature in it. Some Indian historians such as Romila Thapar (b. 1931) stood against to saffronization of Indian history, stressing that it would be an attempt to replace mainstream history with a Hindutva version of history. Some of the novel – rather arbitrary – approaches to Sanskrit scholarship that are christened in the west are still condemned by traditional pundits in their vidvatsabhas or scholarly assemblies but such condemnations hardly hold “valid” in the westerner scholars’ eye. Consequently, debates continue on the type of Sanskrit learning one should have even within India – let alone on any foreign soil. 

I would now have a brief look at the reception of Sanskrit and its intellectual legacy in today’s Sri Lanka. 

In the public eye, Sanskrit in Sri Lanka is entirely associated with the pirivenas or monastic colleges, the Pracina Bhasopakara Samagama or the Oriental Studies Society or, the pirivena branch of the ministry of education, and a few universities, two of which were former Pirivenas, and where Buddhist monks are accepted as undergraduates. Therefore, who stands the naked fact that, just like Pali, Sanskrit in Sri Lanka is only for Buddhist monks? This entails that, though the reality is sadly quite different, Buddhist monks study Sanskrit with the sole aim of comprehending profound Buddhist texts in it, digest Indian philosophy and religion, and thereby support their punditry. Interestingly, most of us tend to sniff at the fact that laymen also learn Sanskrit, and funny enough, to regard that one who reads Sanskrit is essentially an ex-monk, pejoratively known as “hiraluwa”, “latec” or recently coined “disroba”. 

The situation of Sanskrit learning at the universities in Sri Lanka is by no means satisfactory. Undergraduates usually hesitate to offer Sanskrit as a discipline and I encounter more students, mostly Buddhist monks, for whom Sanskrit has been made compulsory by the UGC but often whining about their inability and unwillingness to continue offering Sanskrit. One of the justifications they produce is that they have sufficient knowledge of Sanskrit and the university must allow them to pursue new knowledge – new in the sense unrelated to Sanskrit. Most interestingly, I am striving to teach the rudiments of Sanskrit grammar to the holders of Rajakiya Pandita degree from the Pracina Bhasopakara Samagama. Most of those titular Rajakiya Panditas I encounter – to my chagrin – often fail to parse a simple sentence or work out basic declensions of Sanskrit nouns. 

It is perspicuous how Sanskrit did not receive the recognition it deserves in Sri Lanka particularly during the last few decades. Sanskrit – along with a few more subjects including Pali – was deracinated from school curricula a few decades ago for known and unknown reasons, leaving it in the sole custody of Buddhist monks. While most of the custodians were traditionally trained but not seeking novel and more enjoyable ways of teaching and learning Sanskrit, the students who somehow managed to cross the borderlines return to become the custodians, in the forms of teachers in the academia including the pirivenas – though unintentionally – supporting that samsara-cakra and contributing to the deterioration of the education system. Most of those who excelled in the training, unfortunately for us, found more attractive opportunities in and beyond academia abroad and, more pathetically, never looked back at the Sanskrit education in Sri Lanka, or in some cases, even at Sanskrit, after securing employment and study opportunities totally unrelated to what they had done during their undergraduate career. 

Who needs Sanskrit in today’s Sri Lanka and for what? 

Well-known is that the Hindu temples in Sri Lanka serving to the Hindu communities here use Sanskrit in their daily chanting and rituals and train young priests in them, seemingly without any specific zeal for the preservation of the precision of the language. Not much different to their practice, Buddhist monks from their early Samanera age, are “required” to learn Sanskrit alongside Pali Buddhism and Sinhala to becomes “pundits” and thereby sustain the Buddhasasana. Having said that, do we, including both Buddhist and Hindu Sri Lankans, actually find Sanskrit useful beyond religious contexts? Does the Tamil and Sinhala nationalism in Sri Lanka, even in their bellicose forms, require Sanskrit to supplement their intellectual paraphernalia to rise against dominant forces and threats? Dismayingly, even Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has not shown a serious interest in promoting or at least preserving, Sanskrit scholarship in the past decades, largely because it is Pali – not Sanskrit – that is expected to sustain the local version of Theravada Buddhism on this land. The academic contexts where Sanskrit is taught in support of the study of disciplines such as the Sinhala and Tamil languages and literature, History, Religious Studies, Archaeology, and Philosophy often confine Sanskrit scholarship to the basics. 

The way Sanskrit was – and still is – treated in Jingoistic Sinhala is interesting. As was seen in the works of Hela Havula and its descendants, the Hela language or pure, if not uncontaminated, Sinhala, wanted scholastic Sanskrit – in the sense Paninian Sanskrit – to leave it and to retain only its Hela or tatbhava forms. Over time, Sinhala Punditocracy, however, seems to have realized that Sanskrit could not be amputated from the body of the Sinhala language because it is not a spare limb but inherent in its blood. Nevertheless, it does not mean that our pundits have seriously considered the necessity of Sanskrit in modern Sinhala either. What we may observe in written Sinhala is a lukewarm attitude towards Sanskrit – let alone its accurate use – by both pundits and general speakers. No aversion, No enthusiasm. The consequences of this indifference can be more destructive than any open aversion, just like that by the purists, if they could be labelled as such. If even the Sinhala punditocracy has bigger fish to fry, we may never expect others to take care of Sanskrit here. 

I am not going to report on the breadth and width of the maltreatments Sanskrit receives in Sri Lanka where even the term “Samskrta” tends to appear misspelt as “samskrtika” in most of the posts in the press. On the other hand, the form of pseudo-scholastic Sinhala or the Sinhala language purported to be extravagantly garnished by Sanskrit as used by Panditammanyas or self-styled pundits, especially in the press, in Sri Lanka excels even Paninian Sanskrit in many ways. The result is a nauseating form of apabhrasta or substandard Sanskrit, and therefore apabhrasta Sinhala as well. We may well debate the applicability and particularly the legitimacy of such practices but I believe that our own neutrality to the trend of such misuses of the language over the last few decades is causing much more damage. 

How should we preserve – let alone promote – Sanskrit scholarship in Sri Lanka? This question is indeed associated with another harder-to-answer question: why learn Sanskrit, which is raised and has been with us for decades across the globe. As I attempted to highlight at the beginning, the significance of learning and sustaining Sanskrit depends, equal to that of any other discipline particularly those from the humanities that do not yield instant fruit and is mostly personal or limited to a niche outside of the Indian soil. However, I personally believe that the following can be some of the possible ways we may consider in order to give Sanskrit no accolades but at least what it deserves. 

1. Desaffronizing Sanskrit and its applications, i.e., freeing Sanskrit from monastic and clergical carte blanch, for instance, making Sanskrit down-to-earth by re-introducing it to laymen’s school curriculum, 

2. Clearly condemning pseudo-Sanskritists and modern punditocrasy allergic to Sanskrit, 

3. Discouraging flattery and adulation of pseudo-Sanskrit compositions and works,

4. Deprecating Sanskrit being labelled as an “obsolete” or “dead” language, and if possible, 

5. Promoting true Sanskrit scholarship. 

In the realm of creative writing in Sanskrit, we had very few Sanskrit poets essentially including Ven. Davuldena Gnanissara (d. 2017), and Ven. Kekunawela Piyaratana the reception of whose poetry in Sanskrit left hopes about a living Sanskrit scholarship outside India. Interest in and activities on conversational Sanskrit are on the rise in Sri Lanka, which I am glad to note here. The University of Kelaniya commendably organizes an annual conference where conversational Sanskrit is one of the media papers can be presented. Further, at Peradeniya, I have started teaching a few courses on creative writing in Sanskrit at as a result which a few students have produced new compositions in Sanskrit in the form of poetry, drama, and short stories. It must be stressed that any clarion call to re-empower the Sanskrit language and its intellectual tradition in Sri Lanka must be not only from Sanskrit scholars but also essentially from all language experts, literati, historians, philosophers, archaeologists, proponents of alternative medicine and so on. 

To reiterate, Sanskrit cannot be forgotten by a long shot by any serious scholar in any discipline, as it is not simply the lingua franca in South Asia in the good old days but also a leading player in constructing and sustaining the world’s intellectual history. Moreover, it is by no means a candidate for a pair of wings, as many would imagine since it continues to thrive in different forms today, although all such forms might please neither hardheaded conservatives nor draconian technophiles. 

*Rohana Seneviratne, DPhil (Oxon), University of Peradeniya – text is Based on the Plenary Speech at the 8th Annual Sinhala Studies Symposium “Sinhala Studies at Crossroads”, University of Colombo, October 2018.

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  • 1
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    Hello Rohan Seneviratne,

    It is very nice that your blog is providing valuable information to us. I want to aware you toward the ‘The Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship Programme in the UK’. Get more information through the given link: https://www.ukscholarships.com/the-royal-academy-of-engineering-enterprise-fellowship-programme-in-uk/

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    Rohan’s Seneviratne,

    Thanks for your essay on the language Sanskrit.

    Language is a medium of Large communication. When the believers of a particular faith or ideology, accept that language was used to communicate with God or Gods, it becomes secred. Examples are Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Arabic, the primary sacred languages. Apparently, the God or Gods can only understand in those languages,

    Now there are secondary sacred languages, such as Greek, Latin, Pali, that wrote /transcribed from the primary. They are also sacred.

    Then there are tertiary sacred languages. Sinhala, Spanish, Italian, Tamil, English etc.

    In the Land of Native Veddah Aethho, they should all be prefixed as Para. Para-Sanskrit, Para-Pali, Para-Sinhala, Para-Portuguese, Para-Dutch, Para-English, Para-Arabic etc., to reflect the fact that they all are Foreign, Para to the Land of Native Veddah Aethho

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    What I know, in the Buddhist history, Maghadhi is the original language. Sanskrit is the polished version of Maghadhi which was used only by Brahmins who were the experts in Hindu Vedas. On the other hand, PALI is the village version which was used by the uneducated villages and Thathagatha Buddha used it as it is the easiest for villagers to make understand the Buddha Dhamma. British Philosopher George Bernard Shaw some where has told that in comparison to English, Sanskrit is a complete language and he was saying how they could have lived if Sanskrit did not exist. In Pali, every sound (that is the alphabet) has a specific meaning which can be manipulated for many purposes. English doe snot have that kind of agility.

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    I do not agree with the “GOD’s Language” application. Gods has some ability. That is when they are near a human, they speak the language of the human mind at that moment of the time. Even Arahants and Buddha had that ability and is part of what is called NIRUKTHTHIYA.. There are bhikkus who understand what I say.

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      JD/ Jimmy,
      “There are bhikkus who understand what I say”.
      Really? I thought only you could understand what you say .

    • 1
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      “God’s language” is simply “deva bhasha”.

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    Unlike Christianity whose devotees are rich countries, history of Buddhism had been not studied by anyone. Even India is Hindu. What ever studied is influenced by christian thinking.
    anyway, Buddhism believes that there was infinite number of Buddhas. The time took to happen these was unaccountable. Anyway, Buddhism says, every time, Buddha’s Primary language was Maghadi. Modern academics, scholars cannot comprehend as this cannot be grasped by the logical mind.
    I think for what you say, Maghadhi can be the most initial language that gods talked. Read Agghanna sutta.

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    You have written some Crap too. Your article is very dumb and very political. You write DPhil too. amazing. Certain parts are simply Stupid.

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    I thought I can get an idea of what Sanskrit looks like, sounds like and whether it can be used to make a Buck like what the Hindian Ambanis have done..

    When I think about it, Hindia and our Lankawe are the poorest cousins in Asia although they are the longest surviving Nations . both clocking up over 250 Centuries..

    China which is of similar vintage is nearly number one in the world.
    Japan , used to be near number one.at some stage.
    Inhabitants in both these countries are doing very well..

    What I notice is they do not have to use Scriptures written in dead languages when they have to seek divine intervention.

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    I am a Tamil , and yes we do consider Tamil to be a sacred language.Almost all of the Hindu education/scripture a Tamil Hindu reads/uses is in Tamil. The Thevaram/Devaram, Thiruppugazh, Thirumanthiram, Thirukkural, Thiruvisaippa, Thiruppallandu are considered scripture. In fact, a little known fact is that both the Bhakti Tradition of India, and the Advaita vedanta Revival(led by Shankarachariya) both originated in Tamil Nadu and spread to other parts of India…revitalizing Hinduism. ( Today Shankara is said to have been born in the state of kerala..but till the 13th century Kerala was not a separate state but part of Tamil Nadu..and Shankara lived in the 7th century ). Interestigly enough, the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma is also from Tamil Nadu. in South India Tamil has a great influence so I wonder if that language is considered to have the same divine power as Sanskrit. Tamil is also widely used in many Hindu temple in Sri Lanka but Sanskrit is the primary language used in temple ritual.
    Another interesting fact which is little known is that 60% all inscriptions found in India by the Archelogical survey of India were found in Tamil nadu, and 55% of them were in Tamil. The Overwhelming majority of these Tamil inscriptions were of religious nature(most Tamil Nadu Hindu temples have extensive inscriptions all around their stone walls). This underscore the importance the Tamil language holds/held in the religious/sacred field. Remember both Tamil and Sanskrit extensively borrowed words from each other, Tamil more so , however Sanskrit borrowed the Dravidian( Tamil ) grammar, syntax and lexicon. All languages borrow words from each other that is not a big deal but when a language borrows another languages grammar, lexicon and syntax it is a big deal and shows how much the other language had influence on the said language. This is what Tamil had on Sanskrit and not the other way around.

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    Tamil sage Agastya is said to have learnt Tamil from Shiva and his son Murugan/Kartikeya. He is considered as the Father of Tamil literature, he sat in the Pothigai (Agathyamala) hills near kanyakumari and compiled the first Tamil literature called Agathiyam. Hence the divine origin of Tamil is eminent.
    Refer: “Agastya” in answers. com
    Sri Aurobindo suggests the possibility of two distinct cultures existing in two different geographical regions of ancient India. First is the Vedic Aryan culture with its symbols of Sun, Fire and soma sacrifice prevailing in Punjab and Northern and Central India, Afghanistan and perhaps Persia with Sanskrit as its main language in Northern India. The other is Non-Aryan (different from the Vedic), in East, South and West, the nature of which is not known. In ancient India, religion and spirituality is the source of culture or in other words, culture emanates from religion. So a distinct culture presupposes a distinct religious and spiritual tradition.
    There existed in ancient India another great spiritual tradition, which may perhaps provide the clue to the other non-Vedic or non-Aryan tradition and culture. It was the Siddha tradition in Southern India with its own unique philosophy, yoga, literature, systems of science and medicine and with Tamil as its main language. There are similarities as well as differences between the early Vedic and the Siddha tradition. Both of them had an integral spiritual vision which conceived the world as a real manifestation and expression of the divine power; expressed their spiritual intuitions in a symbolic language; developed a distinct and unique culture with its own thought, language, science, traditions, symbols. But there are also differences between the two traditions. While the Vedic tradition followed the Sun-Fire-Soma symbolism, the Siddha tradition followed the Shiva-Sakthi-Kundalini symbolism of the Tantras.

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      TAMIL SIDDHA MEDICINE

      Siddha medicine as opposed to Ayurveda was formulated by 18 great siddhars headed by Adiguru Muruga and Siddhar Agathiar (Sage Agasthya) was practiced in Tamil Nadu and Parts of Kerala alone. Siddha medicine is also called Tamil Medicine because it was written down in Tamil language alone. This traditional medicine is there in Tamil country for nearly ten thousand years (Refer: The Hindu : Tamil Nadu / Tirunelveli News : Team visits Government Siddha Medical College) There is no such thing called Bengali medicine and Telugu Medicine.. So even this very fact makes Tamil a divine language just like Sanskrit.
      Refer : Siddha medicine – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]
      Refer : Siddha – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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        Wow Siva, you have skillfully copied this from
        https://www.religiousforums.com/threads/is-tamil-considered-a-sacred-language.115951/

        Congrats. You get the Plagiarism Super Start Award this year !!

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          So what at least I am decimating this information and you are jealous as the truth is being told. anti Tamil racist

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            SSS you mean disseminating. Decimating is what Maneesh has done to your inflated ego. Are you sure you are not related to the Kalavedda that infests these columns?

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              Taraki thanks for pointing out to my spelling mistake. Maneesh has not done anything . What I posted is the truth and every one is aware of this. irrespective of where I took it from . The Site did not give information regarding Sanskrit borrowing the Tamil language grammar, syntax and lexicon , this is from what I read from another site . What Professor Hart had written about Tamil and SanskritWe all look at various sites to research and get our information . As long as the truth is disseminated , this is all that is required, Both Sanskrit and Tamil are great languages and had a very close symbiotic relationship to each other and have rich history. Indian and Hindu culture is a mixture/blend of these two language and cultural traditions , but Europeans , North Indians and Brahmins( my own community ) only concentrate and emphasise on Sanskrit and its contribution to Hinduism and the greater Indian culture that influenced many parts of SE Asia and even NE Asia but ignore Tamil , as Sanskrit is Indo European , which they consider is part of them and Tamil is Dravidian and is not part of them
              https://sangamtamilliterature.wordpress.com/dr-george-harts-letter-recommending-tamil-as-classical-language/
              http://tamilnation.co/literature/sanskrit.htm
              Instead of giving the links which sometimes are not allowed to appear I posted what is there , as it will appear.

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    I would have loved to comment on the content of this article. but, it does not show any Academic, Scholarly like value. It is mostly BS and Political. One’s religious bias and politics do not help in writing a good article or getting more knowledge. Utter crap.

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      Wow JD, you are the supreme intellect of this universe !!
      Congrats. You get the Super Start Award this year for inferiority complex !

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    Sanskrit is a dead language for a reason. It is an esoteric caste-based language that was not allowed to go to the wider masses. Wider masses were observed and copied, and then the language was developed as a self-centered tool for North Indian ego-centricism.
    *
    Buddha, who understood the power of the masses, used Pali, which was derivative of Sanskrit. Buddha did not go down to the level of the masses because he felt sorry for them. No, he saw the deadlock and boredom in indulging in his own closed-up world, and knew that was something more interesting out there he could indulge in.
    *
    This is quite unlike Latin and Arabic which was used for higher levels of spirituality for the Masses. Indeed, Arabic interaction was so powerful it is used by over a billion people today. Latin has been used for over 2,000 years and was readily available to all Christians, and even if no one understood it, they loved the spirituality it invoked. These languages are hardly dead.
    *
    It’s good to find out any hidden codes in Sanskrit of course for sake of curiosity, but other languages also have their own codes which are not hidden, and available for all to understand. Indeed, languages like Arabic and Latin, with English as the language tool, has taken Math and Sciences to a higher level and make productive for the use of all of humankind. Spanish and English also copied Mayan and Inca codes. Egyptian- now that was the language that built the pyramids. However, the codes were closely guarded, and couldn’t survive that new few millennia.
    *
    PS. Come to think of it, White fellows are buttering up the S. Asian region trying to unlock any Sanskrit codes.

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    Take English. It might not have the romantics and inflections as Sanskrit, Latin or Arabic, but it doesn’t sit obsessing with just words. The people are able to use ALL of their natural faculties for expressionism. For example, the British, have the most beautiful melodious music as compared e.g. to Indian drums, chants, and voice undulations based on bodily innervations. English is a language for the masses to communicate with. And all of the White people (who are egalitarian), have a heightened capacity for art and architecture. And for all of the English language’s lack of romanticism, who can beat poets and storytellers like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Byron?
    *
    Hope Sri Lanka won’t spend too much taxpayer money of the Masses to study Sanskrit too much as if will magically take us to a higher plane. No, better we utilize our natural assimilation with Tamil, English, and Arabic.

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    Ok….read the whole article (not an easy read), and also saw the credentials of the author. Fascinating language, Sanskrit. And as Sri Lanka is in large part Buddhist, and have elements of ancient North India too, it will be a good reason to bolster up the spoken language of Sinhala with Sanskrit. It will open the Masses’ minds to better dimensions of thought more natural to them. Interesting to know that the method and techniques of European linguistics were learned from the Sanskrit language. The Europeans certainly assimilated knowledge from places they had conquered.

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    Oh, ohh, ohhhhhh!!!

    (Our self proclaimed High Cast) Siva Sankaran Sharma is red handedly caught for Plagiarism. Before you’re proved to be a low cast by someone(jealous ) , can you please provide any documentary evidence of your (High Cast) claim.

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      Oh, Oh,. I do not have to prove anything to you converted fake Arab low caste Indian Tamil immigrant. You are just angry with me like 99% of the Sri Lankan Muslims for pointing out to your real origin and breaking the fake Arab myth. I was the one who was the first to challenge this myth . Others may have known it but did not want to rock the boat and went along with the fake Arab origin myth. What is posted is the truth and as a Brahmin and practising Tamil Hindu , I also use these Tamil books and scriptures and not Sanskrit scriptures, like almost all Tamils do. Even if we are Brahmins so what I poste did correct even in my context. Tamil Brahmins think , dream and pray in Tamil and not in Sanskrit , as this is our mother tongue and we are Tamils. We only recite prayers in Sanskrit by rote , just like Catholics used to in Latin or non Arab Muslims in Arabic but when we really pray to god and yearn for him , our prayers and thoughts are in Tamil and never in Sanskrit. Did I say that it is my personal research .What is posted there is also from other sites. We all refer to the internet and various sites before posting . Good try fake Arab , converted low caste Tamil jihadi. Will not work . Will be still posting here about you fake Arab low caste Immigrants

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    Dear poor Siva Sanger Sharma Aka Tamil Brahmin!

    /You are just angry with me like 99% of the Sri Lankan Muslims for pointing out to your real origin and breaking the fake Arab myth,…/

    I don’t know about the 99%, but I’m not angry with you. I feel simply sorry for you. Because you’ve taken seriously the fake phenomenon created by the power thirsty group of people ( self proclaimed “Brahmins”) and believe that you’re somehow preferred by God for no reason, like Zahran & co, the terrorists, believe. Come to the real world Mr. Brahmin, by the way are there any tier system in the lunatic Brahmins group and what tier are you in? I use Amarasiri’s constant claim of low IQ level to you for your stupid Brahmanism.

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