Sunday, 23 November 2014

Learning Sanskrit or German?

The columnists seem almost unanimous - making Indian children learn Sanskrit is a fundamentalist-obscurantist, Hinduttva conspiracy, while learning German is something forward looking-progressive and modern.

I feel that learning and knowing different languages is culturally enriching, a wonderful way for us to know the world. Thus in my opinion, learning German is fine. However, I also believe that India has neglected teaching Sanskrit to school children, depriving them of a wonderful tool in knowing their own cultural roots.


Lord Meghnad Desai, a member of House of Lords in UK, wrote about it in Indian Express:

Sanskrit is today a dead language which is spoken rather badly by a few. How often have we all heard Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam murdered by bad pronunciation. Sanskrit is and was, throughout history, an elite language which only Brahmins were privileged to learn... in India, the forward-looking, development-oriented people want to learn German. But the obscurantists want the country to go back to its ancient roots and learn Sanskrit.

Outlook clarifies that the order of Education Minister Ms Smriti Irani is not just about Sanskrit but it asks Kendriya Vidyalayas (Central schools) to replace German, taught as third language, "with Sanskrit or any other modern Indian language". In a letter, Ashok Aggarwal, writing on behalf of All India Parents' Association has written that the decision of education minister is "unfair, illegal, unconstitutional and unjust".

I don't know if legally Ms. Irani has taken a wrong decision and if it is unconstitutional - I hope not. However, I wonder if media and columnists, by making it a "German versus Sanskrit" debate, are perhaps deliberately creating some confusion? Would it not be more appropriate to pose it as the "foreign language versus an Indian language" debate?

The three language education formula (mother tongue + English + an Indian language) was created to promote unity of India. I feel that today there are many persons in India, especially those who speak English, who think that in the globalized world using school time to learn another Indian language is a wastage of time while learning French, German, or any other "foreign" language is much more important for the future job prospects of their children.

I wonder if all this debate, presented in terms of Hinduttva-versus-Progressive ideas about education, is really about our belief about the inferiority of India's vernacular language speaking majority world?


I had studied Sanskrit for three years in the middle school. I do not recall those studies with particular pleasure, but that did not mean that Sanskrit was an especially boring subject - rather, I think that in general, teaching in our school was unimaginative and boring, not just in Sanskrit, but also in other subjects like physics and history. Unless we are fortunate to get a gifted teacher, most of Indian education system continues to be like that.

Few decades later, when I was living in Italy and was forced to learn Italian, which included learning the Latin linguistic structures, I was suddenly reminded of Sanskrit - the way of remembering changes in verbs according to the tense, gender and persons in Latin, is very similar to Sanskrit.

Later, my work helped me to learn French and Portuguese. I also studied German on my own for some time, though I was never any good at it. Knowing different European languages, often I am struck by the similarities in the roots of different words in different languages, wondering about their common origins and about how languages intermix and gain from each other.

Learning different languages helped to awaken my interest in different humanistic areas - arts, history, archeology and anthropology. It gave me many opportunities to learn about these areas in the European (and western) context. It also made me understand that while I knew so much about origins of Greek and Roman cultures, I hardly knew anything about India's past - for example, I was unaware of the works of persons like Kalidasa or Shudraka.

For many centuries, learning Sanskrit was barred to majority of Indians - it was reserved for Brahmins. However, in Independent India, what stopped us from democratising Sanskrit knowledge and making sure that all Indians could learn it? Or because it was also the language of exclusion and discrimination in the past, should we ignore it and forget it?

I do not have any ideological love for any language or any desire to prove that ancient Indian civilization was better than any other civilization. But I think that Sanskrit is a part of the Indian heritage and if we ignore it, we ignore our own past. How can we love and cherish who we are, if we decide to ignore and forget where we come from?


In the end I don't think that the discussion is about closing our doors to languages like German. Learning German can give us an entry into reading and understanding works of great writers like Goethe, Kant and Hesse. However, I don't think that those who talk of teaching German are worried about not knowing the great German writers. I think that our worries about learning German are more practical - how it can help us to find jobs and make carriers.

I think that as a market-driven society, we are willing to ignore education about literature, art, culture and history, and focus on practical skills that can get us jobs. I also think that it is a short-sighted view.

Today, learning new languages especially European languages, is easier than it has ever been in the history. Internet, free online courses, watching TV channels from other countries, making friends from other countries and chatting with them - if you really wish, you can learn new languages and keep that knowledge alive through internet. Perhaps one day, it will become equally easier to learn Indian languages and Sanskrit through internet.

I believe that learning our own languages and cherishing our own history, literature, art and culture is an important first step for becoming aware and responsible citizens. Only when we know about our own roots, can we explore and appreciate the roots and rich diversities of others.

It is not just about Sanskrit - I wish, our education system could teach our children about the rich works in our "vernacular" languages - from Marathi, to Tamil to Urdu.

Sanskrit may be a "dead" language, not spoken by people, but the language is very much alive for understanding our past. Words from Sanskrit have permeated all the different Indian languages.

I think that this debate is also about a "future-job centric" view of education versus the building of a "cultural foundation" role of education. I believe in a holistic education and not a job-centric education - make our science and maths learning more interactive and practical, but do not give up on subjects like arts, literature, culture and history.

If I were to ask you about the works of Shakespeare or Homer or Dante, probably you would be able to give me some answers. However I suspect that if I ask you about the works of Kalidasa or Banabhatta or Jayadeva, few of you will be able to remember the titles of their works. That is the real tragedy.



  1. Valid points there. In the decades before Sanskrit has been neglected in our country, and today the change is not welcomed easily. However, it is absolutely not illegal of what HRD minister has decided upon. Learning foriegn language could be an option or not, but valuing our language first is good step. I never learnt Sanskrit but today my daughter though NRI chose to learn it by her own will.

    1. Thanks Sushma.

      Often when we grow up, we start understanding the world and the things we value and appreciate. However, discussions in terms of fundamentalist-versus-liberalists are a way to not to look at the complexity of issues.

  2. A comment from Christa from Germany (received by email):

    Dear Mr. Deepak

    just read your article on Since I do not have any account you accept I cannot reply on that item. That's why I do it via e-mail.

    Just want to let you know that Sanskrit will live forever - it is not suitable for Whats App but suitable to please the universe. Sanskrit and Latin are not used in daily tattle these (dead) languages were made for highter purpose.

    May be you like to visit my websites in German language created as homage to my beloved India and his great lore including Sanskrit.

    Greetings from Germany
    Christa (female)


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