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Tuesday 28 January 2020

Making a hash of oath in Sanskrit

rkdA good number of BJP MPs took oath in Sanskrit on Thursday. Oath-taking in Sanskrit would have lent a steadying majesty to the airs in the parliament. No such effect was seen. The members mostly failed in the resonating phonation that Sanskrit utterances are associated with. Some even mixed up genders, others rushed it. It seems doubtful if any of the MPs who swore in Sanskrit are capable of productive use of the language. For example, how many of them will be able to produce a sentence in Sanskrit meaning ‘I swore in Sanskrit in parliament’? To be fair to most of Thursday’s sworn champions of India’s classical past, the language is not easy to handle what with its highly inflected grammar and agglutinating compounds.

Linguists have declared Sanskrit a dead classical language along with Latin. Gone from active usage and living speech, both are nevertheless around, traceable to the vocabulary understructures of languages descending from them. Sanskrit and Latin are dead yet not quite dead. Not dead, because lexical tissues from both swim around in the Indian and European languages derived from Sanskrit and Latin respectively. Dead, in the sense that thanks to their exacting syntaxes and inflections the two cultural constructs have fallen away since long as demotic preference for simplicity prevailed over pedantic and liturgical insistence on rules and formalities. For all practical purposes our gods’ tongue (sura gira) has fallen silent as has their church language.

ConfabbingA language of quaint scholarship and a living tongue are two different things. Our living tongues are many with two domestic link languages: Hindi or what has become of Hindi and English. The English story of India is an unending debate and warrants special treatment. This sudden flourish of Sanskrit in parliament prompts an appraisal of how we have put by our very own Sanskrit. Though Sanskrit supplies to a large extent the lexical base of most Indian languages, the incursion of Persian and Arabic through Urdu qua Hindustani as patronized by Hindi news channels and in Bollywood dialogues and lyrics has throttled the Sanskritic windpipe of Indian languages. The two blithe suppressants of our Sanskrit base are not to be wished away as they are pretty hard set in the demand-supply logic of pop culture and media consumption.

Languages are like living tissues growing upon an ethos. You can’t transplant or implant a language in an ethos removed from a classical past. And by no means can you cauterise the existing tissues. So where do we go from our parliament with this new-found interest in Sanskrit? To revivalism. Are we going to solemnly resolve and give ourselves back the language from our glory days of yore? Will our classical language walk out of the morgue into which Time has interred it and talk? What will Sanskrit be like in living currency? Admittedly, there is a ring of solemnity to it where the use of Sanskrit grows out of the context as on sacred occasions or at conferences of scholars where the participants work through or know the language. But out of context, it will be pomposity. Our temple of democracy, all said, is a temporal seat of power, where written and oral communications are mediated by English and Hindi. A third will be ornamental at best. What then could have been the language point our MPs were making? The point was this. That the nationalist party of India has arrived.

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