The Modernity of Sanskrit

A review of The Modernity of Sanskrit by Simona Sawhney, Permanent Black, Ranikhet 2009, Pp. 213, Rs.495

by A.N.D. Haksar

Besides a means of thought and communication, language can be many things. A repository of history and a vehicle of culture. A tool of scientific inquiry and a field for literary creativity. A medium of governance and scholarly discourse and a hallmark of power and class.
Sanskrit has been all these in the course of the last three thousand years. It was also the language of religious ritual and speculation. This, probably its earliest role, has persisted with some changes to modern times while the other roles faded, mutated or were taken over by other languages.
These changes in an ancient civilization’s principal language provide important areas for academic research and better understanding today. The present work is a welcome contribution in this direction. It is also a pointer to how such research is increasingly taking place outside the homeland of Sanskrit. The author is Associate Professor of South Asian Literature at an American university.
“The book is written”, Professor Sawhney says in her introduction, “as a way of asking how we might read Sanskrit texts today”. Curiously, they “appear to us at once as testaments from a world that has disappeared and as our own contemporaries”. For, they have a “deep engagement with Indian cultural modernity”.
Sawhney refers to the modernity of Sanskrit in three perspectives.  First, as a contributor to thinking on literary, political and cultural modernity in India.  Second, as reflecting the dynamic of political and cultural change in its own literature. And third, as needing to be seen with a “modernity in which it is neither neglected or revered”.
Her suggestion for this is a literary approach to Sanskrit texts. This “might lead us to perceive them neither as antiquarian pieces of archival interest nor the testaments and guards of a severely hierarchical community, but rather as texts whose import and significance always leaves something to be determined”. In other words, presumably, to be reinterpreted continually.
Apart from her literary focus, Sawhney also strikes a political note. There has been a cultural shift in India, she says. “A significant feature of this shift has been the almost total appropriation of the Sanskrit tradition by the Hindu right”. For many Indians, to learn the language now is also “to imbibe the language of a modern ideology”. Thus “a divisive political agenda, formulated on the basis of a religio-nationalist identity, precedes the reading of texts”. The result is that “those who do not subscribe to that ideology often see no reason to study the language either, so strongly has it become associated with cultural conservatism”. This “stamp of orthodoxy”, she opines, “makes Sanskrit a kind of metaphor for institutional violence and the preservation of hierarchy”.
This somewhat sweeping approach, notably highlighted in the book’s blurbs, may attract an audience more interested in polemics than the language itself. But, to carry conviction, it also needs mention of the purvapaksha, that is the other side, in such a discussion on the politics of Sanskrit. This is missing, as are some other relevant points. For example, while the author dwells on the exchanges between Gandhi and Ambedkar on caste and reservation, she omits any notice of Ambedkar’s proposal in the Constituent Assembly to make Sanskrit the official language of the Indian Union. Nor does she note the rich tribute to Sanskrit paid by Nehru, the acclaimed symbol of India’s modernity.
It is the literary focus, however, which valorises this work. There is an erudite and sensitive examination of Sanskrit’s impact on parts of modern Indian literature, particularly Hindi drama. The case studies of Kalidasa, Ashvaghosha and Mohan Rakesh, and of the Mahabharata and Dharmavir Baharati, throw fresh light on the ancient authors and works as well as the modern dramatists. Particularly insightful is the discussion of poetry, drawing on modern writers like Hazariprasad Dvivedi, Jaishankar Prasad and Buddhadeva Bose and the Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana from 9th century Kashmir.
“If we read Sanskrit texts today, we have to do so with the sense that they are not entombed in a dead age but that they can, in some way, break through to our world”, the author concludes. It is a conclusion which endorses the timelessness of all great literature.

A.N.D. Haksar translates Sanskrit texts for several publishers including Penguin; his latest book is The Courtesan’s Keeper (Rupa, Delhi, 2008), the first English rendition of Samaya Matrika, a satire from 11th century Kashmir – see here for more details.

The Modernity of Sanskrit was published last year in the US by the University of Minnesota, and was released earlier this year in its South Asian edition by Permanent Black.  More on the US edition here, and on the South Asian edition here.


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