The Mother Of All Languages

Some weeks ago, I saw a wall message on Facebook that had been 'liked' by a friend. The message urged readers to cite Sanskrit as 'mother tongue' during Census enumeration, adding that Sanskrit needed more patronage from Doordarshan, that it was the root of all Indian history and culture and there were many benefits of promoting Sanskrit.



I found several things wrong in this.

First, Sanskrit, even in its hey day, was the language and intellectual property of the elite aka the upper castes and out of reach to the lower castes. That is why the works of poets like Surdas and Kabir became so popular - since they were in local dialect that was spoken by and popular with the masses. Besides, going by the theory that Sanskrit was the language of the Aryans, it would greatly offend people in the south, who proudly proclaim their Dravidian heritage as being different from the Aryan.

Second was the assumption that 'Indian history and culture' was a monolith defined by Sanskrit. If there is one defining feature of Indian culture, it is its diversity - across region, religion, ethnicity and language. Every Indian knows that there is no ONE THING that you can pinpoint as Indian Culture. It is like the story of four blind men who touch different parts of an elephant - the tail, legs, ears and trunk - and describe the those parts as defining the whole elephant.

Practically speaking, what use is a language that nobody speaks in modern times? It is only confined to books and government sign boards - 'धूम्रपान निषेद ' or 'पए जल ' !! Nobody understands it nor pays attention to it. It is like a ceremonial uniform. To be taken out only on special occasions - like festivals and functions - looks great but hangs heavy on the person. And returned to the cupboard when the event is over.

I do not mean to demean Sanskrit. It is no doubt a great language. But to urge educated people to cite it as 'mother tongue' in census is outside of enough. 'Mother of all languages' is different from 'mother tongue'. As a nation, as a culture, we have far more pressing issues to attend to in the Census - issues of population growth, literacy, female sex ratio, working population - which are intrinsically linked to development and which we should be more concerned about.

Doordarshan is welcome to patronise Sanskrit all it wants. I can guarantee it would drive away the few eyeballs it manages to catch!! Who watches Doordarshan these days anyway?

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19 Responses to The Mother Of All Languages

  1. Firstly we cannot say truthfully that Sanskrit is our mother tongue while filling Census forms.The plea from some quarters asking us to include Sanskrit as mother tongue stemmed from the fear the importance of the language and its usage would get atrophied.But this false representation that it is a mother tongue is not the right way.

    All said,Sanskrit is a beautiful language that is very closely intertwined with Hinduism, a major religion in our country.A basic knowledge of the language or atleast some of its terms is essential to understand the religion.No religious function or rituals in temples are complete without the usage of that language.When we are preserving old monuments as heritage sites, this language should also be kept alive and even propagated so as not to get into greater disuse and eventual extinction.The Hindu religious organisations without depending on government should foster this nedeavour of preserving and propagating the language

  2. Deepa says:

    Thanks Partha. Regarding the second part of your comment - no doubt Hinduism is a major religion and rituals are done in Sanskrit - but that is precisely the problem. It is extremely exclusionary. The knowledge is in the hands of a few who dictate terms and behave like intellectual dictators. Reform movements in history have tried to break this by promoting worship in common person's medium. Preserving a language cannot be an end in itself. It should have relevance for people and times. Then it will not only get preserved, but also promoted.

  3. Purba says:

    I had once remarked, Sanskrit is a dead language in a popular forum and was almost lynched for it.

    Agreed Sanskrit is part of our heritage but it has lost its relevance today's India. Just like Doordarshan, as you have mentioned in your write-up.

    Of course many will disagree. A village in MP still communicates in Sanskrit. The language has a rich tradition of poetry and drama as well as scientific, technical, philosophical and Hindu religious texts.

    But the oral use of the language is limited. And when a language is not spoken by it's natives it dies.

    Loved your neatly structured arguments Deepa.

  4. Deepa says:

    Totally agree Purba. I got a similar reaction too. I was told that Sanskrit is the mother of Indian history and culture and if one's mother is dying should we allow her to die or take action. Then I was told that by denouncing Sanskrit, I was deliberately orphaning myself. Communication is an exchange of meaning. And if someone speaks in Sanskrit (a very remote possibility) I'm not going to understand.

    I would also be willing to bet that the people who almost got you lynched would have been in a 21-35 demographic so alienated from reality that they have no idea what they are talking about!

    Keep visiting and thanks for the compliment! I try :))

  5. Rachna says:

    It was a bizarre request to begin with. Frankly, Sanskrit does not affect me. I studied it at school because it was scoring. And, the script being the same as Hindi was easy enough to pick up. To a linguist, it might be fascinating, to a common man it hardly has any significance. And, btw aren't the South Indian languages having Sanskrit as their root too? We definitely have a lot of words in Hindi that have come from Sanskrit.

  6. ramanan says:

    Well written piece..nice to read..

    @Rachna: It can't be said for sure that the Dravidian (aka South Indian) languages have had their origins in Sanskrit..Yes, there are words/phrases that are part of the Dravidian language but many linguists are of the opinion that the two may have different birth trails..Wikipedia has a nice write up on the whole thing...

  7. Snigdha says:

    Thanks Deepa - on your Blog - I just loved it - I will follow it, wish I could start this as well - but....

    On your writing on Sanskrit - I think this is excellent! I would also say that Sanskrit appeared to me as a language that allows you to sustain the Casteism and Hinduism. I did have Sanskrit as it was scoring but never had any affect on my life - I don't even remember - it was always a fun to read sanskrit. There are so many communities - having so many dialects in India. We all feel proud of our own mother tongue - and preserving one's own mother language is the biggest challenge in today's world as mother language is key for one's own identity. I wish that those who are talking on behalf of the whole nation, change their lense and start looking at themselves in the mirror. I wish they have their self realization. It makes me frustrated seeing this section of so called Politicians, who don't care about the Citizen's rights. Do they ever talk for the people with disabilities who need to be enumerated in Census, do they ever talk about the homeless people, who live on the streets, those who migrate in other cities for work, those who are sold off for trfficking, those who are becoming extinct?

    Keep it up Deepa - Well done!

  8. Deepa says:

    Rachna & Ramanan: Both Dravidian langs and Sanskrit have influenced each other. Although there are those that believe that the former has influenced the latter more than vice versa. The influence of Sanskrit has been more on Dravidian vocabulary than in construction and grammar. (got that off wikipedia - so thanks ramanan)

    Snigdha: So great to see you here. Given what has been happening in Parliament today, I think we can safely say that politicians are not bothered about anything other than preserving their power. I like what you said about the extinction of people vs. the extinction of language. Profound thought.

  9. Zephyr says:

    I agree with Ramanan about the origin of Dravidian languages. Though Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu have close connection to Sanskrit, Tamil is a pure language, which only in later periods was influenced by Sanskrit. In fact, there is a lot of Tamil influence on the other three Dravidian languages. Sanskrit like Latin is wonderful as the divine language.

  10. Rachit says:

    I know Sanskrit as a language never touched the nerves of the masses and it was only confined to elite and Brahmins.

    Yet, it's the most scientific language, even Latin ranks second.

    And, I guess every language in India needs an attention other than the English. English over the years got the special patronage from the Government of India which diluted the effect and scope of other major languages.

    Also, I may like to share a point... whenever you have to name a person, a company, or any other auspicious thing than Indians have this tradition of choosing words from Sanskrit, strange but interesting.

  11. Nooreen says:

    Interesting read....thanks for sending me the link..Keep me posted

  12. nehi says:

    Sanskrit is a great language indeed; no doubt its the mother of many Indo/Asian languages. It is also one of the richest in terms of literary works and is intertwined with Hinduism. But the fact remains that its past its prime since quite some time. The reasons are for the pundits to research upon but increasing Sanskrit content on DD will not help , for sure....

  13. Deepa says:

    Rachit: Yes we certainly name things with words Sanskrit origin. Like college festivals being called 'Srishti' or homes being called 'Ashirwad' etc. They sound pretty I suppose

    Nooreen: Thanks for visiting. Please keep coming.

    Nehi:Would there be a Pankaj connection there? Anyways - welcome and glad to see your comment.

  14. radha says:

    Most of the languages we speak originate from Sanskrit. And what is spoken becomes our mother tongue. Not the source. While we must promote and keep the language alive, one should be practical.

  15. Kasturi says:

    its controversial like you promised girl!!
    As I see it- there were other languages/dialects which originated from the Aryan's language, when sanskrit was spoken. Pali was one of them. I guess our Sanskrit proponents would promote that too for preservation of culture, if that was their aim. But they may not because Pali is linked to Buddhism. So we know what they are promoting - dominance of a single religion.

    Like you said sanskrit was the language of the upper castes and that dominance would be another thing that the patrons are gunning for.
    Agree with you totally misplaced efforts.
    kasturi

  16. Sanskrit like Greek and Latin is a classical language and as you say a "mother language"- so not to be confused with Mother tongue! However it is a beautiful language that deserves patronage. The GOI Hindi is very sanskritized and sounds different from the other brands. I find that even the educational boards like the ICSE and ISC have discontinued sanskrit as a an option for 2nd / 3rd language in favour of more in use languages. Does that mean that this language is dying out? If yes then we need to do something about it -stating it as your mother tongue is not the answer. .... !

  17. Kasturi says:

    its controversial like you promised girl!!
    As I see it- there were other languages/dialects which originated from the Aryan's language, when sanskrit was spoken. Pali was one of them. I guess our Sanskrit proponents would promote that too for preservation of culture, if that was their aim. But they may not because Pali is linked to Buddhism. So we know what they are promoting - dominance of a single religion.

    Like you said sanskrit was the language of the upper castes and that dominance would be another thing that the patrons are gunning for.
    Agree with you totally misplaced efforts.
    kasturi

  18. nehi says:

    Sanskrit is a great language indeed; no doubt its the mother of many Indo/Asian languages. It is also one of the richest in terms of literary works and is intertwined with Hinduism. But the fact remains that its past its prime since quite some time. The reasons are for the pundits to research upon but increasing Sanskrit content on DD will not help , for sure....

  19. Nooreen says:

    Interesting read....thanks for sending me the link..Keep me posted