The Myth of 'Sanskrit Villages' and the Realm of Soft Power

While for some, Sanskrit might be considered a dead language or a symbol of millennia of oppression, for others it is a treasure trove of untapped knowledge that might just save humanity.

This series has two parts, this is the second. The first part discussed Sanskrit from having analysed at depth its relative rankings within the Indian census results. It focused on the last two censuses in 2011 and 2001. The second part is a discussion of how Sanskrit is operationalised for strategic soft power applications related to the under-appreciated realm of faith-based development. 

Sanskrit, apparently, is the language of Future India. At least, that is the opinion of Soumitra Mouhan, who also asserts, in relation to the ‘Revival of Sanskrit’:

“Sanskrit’s credentials to be a language of future India are definitely better and greater than we have realised so far. Its revival will not only renew and revive the pride in our own cultural heritage, but will also bring about spiritualism and the concept of a meaningful society and polity, thereby bringing order and peace all across the country, a desideratum for any developed society.”

The following image shows how it is also framed within a global context on an NCERT-related website where one can download NCERT’s Sanskrit text books. A curious thing is that, while countless rumours of NASA’s supposed use of Sanskrit, as a Vedic Science, can be found on the internet, it is virtually impossible to find any mention of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) making any use of Sanskrit. Even though it is supposedly the most “computerable language,” it only seems to be used to name rockets, missiles, and satellites.

Source: https://www.ncertbooks.guru/ncert-sanskrit-books/

Faith-based development, competitive diplomacy and transformative travel merge in the various leisure tourism markets of the more than $4-trillion global wellness industry. The production of legitimacy and authority in diplomatic and economic arenas involves interweaving narratives through which nations work to control their own images by implementing strategic communication strategies.

This relates to the ways countries compete using their cultural capital. This often occurs through the performance of showing good will. The International Day of Yoga is a good example of actualising yoga for strategic soft power purposes. Take, for instance, how in 2019, the slogan #Yoga4ClimateAction was implemented to increase India’s standing in the world. However, closer inspection of faith-based competitive diplomacy in relation to Sanskrit is sparse.

While for some, Sanskrit might be considered a dead language or a symbol of millennia of oppression, for others it is a treasure trove of untapped knowledge that might just save humanity. Sanskrit, and the knowledge contained in dusty untranslated manuscripts might also help define and chart one’s path toward a utopia-inspired moral horizon, which speaks more about temporalities of becoming, rather than being. It helps link an archaic modernity and potential return to an imagined, previous, Vedic “Golden Age” that is, a priori, eco-sustainable.

Take, for example, India’s vice president, M. Venkaiah Naidu, who claims that Sanskrit can offer solutions to the world’s contemporary issues. Naidu went on to say,

“The heritage of knowledge that our ancient scholars left for us is in Samskrit. I believe Samskrit has the solution for every problem in the world. That probably is the reason why Samskrit is being studied across world now and researches are being done on the ancient texts in Samskrit.”

Himachal Pradesh’s chief minister, Jairam Thakur, believes that “Sanskrit is a language for the entire world and not just India.” While the national president of Samskrita Bharati, Bhaktvatsal Sharma, argues that Sanskrit is not just a language, but also a lifestyle. And that efforts should be made to make this 21st century, a Sanskrit century.

Similar sentiments are shared by India’s Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, who claims “It is essential to learn Sanskrit if you want to understand India and its culture and tradition. By 2050, Sanskrit will be the most prominent language in the world.”

One way to think about the news articles, blogs, and opinion pieces that regularly inform us of “Sanskrit-speaking” villages is how they seem to operate in a similar way to phalaśruti paratexts. The phalaśruti parts of any text outline the potential rewards for a pursuing a particular spiritual task, like reciting a text, and, also, the dangers and pitfalls for not doing it, or doing it poorly. These lists that contain promises of heavenly rewards enable the discourse around the topic being discussed to function as “true.” Think about the function, or purpose, of all the articles on “Sanskrit-speaking” villages. They promote the idea that these villages are “true.”

In a similar way to phalaśruti paratexts, the claims of “Sanskrit-speaking” villages is partly, or, entirely, driven by an earthly agenda.As well, people will ultimately believe whatever they choose to, regardless of available, contrary, evidence. In a sense, stories of villages where everyone speaks Sanskrit do not need to be empirically true for people to believe in them. More importantly, the “Sanskrit-speaking” phalaśruti paratext articles serve as a source of inspiration.

Perhaps, these rumours also act as a buffer to ward off existential anxiety. At least, for some, it is potentially comforting to know that a “real” and “true” India still exists. That M.K. Gandhi’s idea of the village and Mohan Bhagwat’s idea of “core Indian values” are still intact. This is found in one phalaśruti type article about one “Sanskrit-speaking” village. In the article, Jhiri, which we travelled to in the first part of the essay, is described as “India’s own Jurassic Park.” It is supposedly a village that “is a lost world that has been recreated carefully and painstakingly, but lives a precarious existence, cut off from the compelling realities of the world outside.”

The village holds an ambiguously utopian relation to future India. The Sanskrit village intensifies this affective quality.

Consider the example of this faith-based development narrative that has evolved over the past decade in the state of Uttarakhand. In 2010, Sanskrit became the state’s second official language. Even though this project was implemented a decade ago, and has endured changing governments and allegations of corruption, by 2013 Rs 21 crore had already been spent on promoting Sanskrit education in Uttarakhand. Regrettably, there is very little to show for it.

It is unclear how much capital was invested between 2013–2020. Recently, an updated policy has increased this top-down imposition of language shift, toward Sanskrit. The new policy aims to create a Sanskrit village in every “block” (administrative division) of Uttarakhand.

The state of Uttarakhand consists of two divisions, 13 districts, 79 sub-districts and 97 blocks. One wonders how much more investment might be needed to transform 97 villages scattered across the Himalayas into Sanskrit villages? Are we to assume that over the last decade, based on the 2010-2013 expenditure of Rs 21 crore, that Rs 63 crore has already been spent? On what, exactly? There is hardly a Sanskrit village in even one block in Uttarakhand.

The curious thing is that, while 70% of the state’s total population live in rural areas, 100pc of the total 246 L1-Sanskrit tokens returned at the 2011 census are from Urban areas.

No L1-Sanskrit token comes from any villager who identifies as an L1-Sanskrit speaker in Uttarakhand.

This top-down project aims to reverse engineer India and the world through Sanskrit and Yoga. The aim is to reform society toward an imagined Sanskritland. The aspiration is total. Take, for example, the following song that attendees at Samskrita Bharati language camps learn, which inspires people to work towards helping Sanskrit be spoken in every home (gṛhe gṛhe), in every village (grāme grāme), in every city (nagare nagare), and in every country (deśe deśe). Samskrita Bharati’s vision for future India (and world) inevitably leads to a global language shift where Sanskrit is spoken everywhere (saṃskṛta sarvatra), and is installed as the next lingua franca (viśva bhāṣā). The perceived net-positive outcome (abhyudaya) has India positioned as the global superpower and moral dispenser (viśva guru).

This might seem inherently banal and optimistically utopian, yet it is part of a yoga-oriented, faith-based, competitive diplomacy, soft power initiative. Evidence of this includes propositions, such as Yoga and Sanskrit can solve climate change. In this way, Sanskrit and Yoga are used to brand the nation.

This narrative is evolving from its green, eco-friendly roots into a digitising of Sanskrit, ostensibly through a saffron-lite filter. Or rather, green and saffron are forcibly collapsed to present a sustainable programme as a Hindutva programme. A common, albeit erroneous and misplaced, sentiment is that Sanskrit is the best language for computing and artificial intelligence. This is as equally troubled as the “Sanskrit village” narrative. The pair seem to work in tandem. The following quote, from Soumitra Mohan highlights the sentiment.

“The language deserves to be treated much better than it has been so far, more so when it has been called the best ‘computerable’ language. Sanskrit’s credentials to be a language of future India are definitely better and greater than we have realised so far. Its revival will not only renew and revive the pride in our own cultural heritage, but will also bring about spiritualism and the concept of a meaningful society and polity, thereby bringing order and peace all across the country, a desideratum for any developed society.”

The following quote is found on the homepage of one of India’s best-known Sanskrit universities in Benares, namely, Sampūrṇānanda Saṁskṛta Viśvavidyālaya:

“Sanskrit is the most ancient and perfect among the languages of the World. Its storehouse of knowledge is an unsurpassed and the most invaluable treasure of the world. This language is a symbol of peculiar Indian tradition and thought, which has exhibited full freedom in the search of truth, has shown complete tolerance towards spiritual and other kind of experiences of mankind, and has shown catholicity towards universal truth. This language contains not only a rich fund of knowledge for people of India but it is also an unparalleled way to acquire knowledge and is thus significant for the whole World.”

We see this Sanskrit-inspired eco-tech sentiment manifest in the words of Samskrita Bharati’s founder, C.K. Shastry, who believes, that:

“Today’s technology is IT; tomorrow’s will be biotechnology, the day after, nanotechnology. What comes afterwards is knowledge technology. India has the potential to turn into a superpower by 2025, for it is home to scriptures and Sanskrit literature which is a great treasure of knowledge. But the problem is we have not yet decoded it.”

One seemingly intractable issue is the overwhelming volume of manuscripts. The amount of trained philologists, manuscript conservators, and available funds and resources is no match for the decoding of even a fraction, let alone, all the manuscripts that exist. The rough estimation is that only about 500,000 manuscripts have been catalogued  – out of a staggering, yet conservative, minimum total of 7 million manuscripts. And, of these already catalogued, only a handful have been digitised, translated, and published.

The National Survey of Manuscripts has the unenviable task of locating, cataloging, preserving and translating these texts. However, to put it into perspective, in just one survey round across four states, the following numbers of manuscripts were recovered: Delhi (85,000), Manipur (10,000), Karnataka (150,000)and Assam (42,000).

Yet, even with awareness campaigns to promote the documentation and conservation of manuscripts, career prospects are slim. This is compounded by what seems to be a general impression that a serious study of Sanskrit  –  and subsequent investment of capital to work on this literal mountain of manuscripts  – is quickly politicised, or, worse, made into a parody of itself in which policy decisions are put forward that will ultimately undermine efforts to popularise Sanskrit. Four examples are perhaps worth highlighting.

The first example involves the aspiration to reverse engineer next generation transport options, as the title of this article suggests, “Decoding Sanskrit scriptures to make Vedic vimans a reality.” For an exquisite discussion of “archaic modernities,” Banu Subramaniam’s latest book (2019) titled, Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism is an excellent overview. One nation branding issue relates to the general interest and knowledge of Sanskrit and its manuscripts. This is particularly prevalent outside of India, across the global consumer-scape of Yogaland, where India’s “gift to the world” re-orientalizes the biographies of Sanskrit and Yoga through a neo-Orientalist filter to create a neo-Romantic mood amongst New Age consumers of spirituality and yoga-inflected lifestyles. Regrettably, the rumours and factoids about Sanskrit’s ability to sanitise modernity of its blemishes adds tremendous credibility, regardless of the unintended consequences.

The second example occurred at the Bhandakar Oriental Research Institute (BORI), Pune. It highlights the internal tensions within India. Founded in 1917, it was during January 2004 that this repository was ransacked and vandalised. The media used broad saffron-coloured strokes to paint those involved in this and related incidents as homogenous extra-judicial agents of Hindutva. Instead, this particular act is better framed as an exercise related more to internal caste-based politics of Maharashtra that was carried out by the Maharashtra Seva Sangh, which is part of the new religious/political movement, Shivdharma. Adheesh Sathaye, Associate Professor of Sanskrit at the University of British Columbia, explains, how “this largely lower-caste movement consciously regards itself as distinct from mainstream Hinduism and is particularly hostile towards Brahmanic hegemony. Shivdharma is, in short, a marriage of a passionate folk devotion to Shivaji with anti-Brahman politics.”

The third example comes back to the faith-based development issues first raised in this article. In 2017, the Assamese government declared it would make Sanskrit compulsory in all public schools, up to the eighth grade (class VIII). Yet, this politically expedient decision does not address the genuine issues around language planning and promotion of Sanskrit, not to mention, who will fill all these new teaching positions? More importantly, it discriminates against the economically underdeveloped populations. As Mayu Bora writes, the Asom Sahitya Sabha’s position is that students would benefit more from studying geography and history, or minority languages, like Bodo, which is the language of largest indigenous tribal group of Assam.

The fourth example relates to Samskrita Bharati’s push, through the New Education Policy, to replace English in the three-language education policy with Sanskrit, and make English optional. Much importance is made of promoting Sanskrit as a “language of the masses.” However, having attended several Samskrita Bharati camps, I am familiar with the opinion that Sanskrit was apparently the only language spoken by everyone across the sub-continent. This ahistorical and factually incorrect claim shows either complete ignorance of India’s rich and dynamic linguistic ecology, evidenced in the Nirukta, Asthadhyayi, Mahabhashya, and other linguistic commentaries roughly 2500 years ago, or a willful ignorance fueled by an ideological agenda. It also demonstrates a willingness to persist with a narrative that does little else than exercise the sort of linguistic hegemony and fundamentalist attitude that pushes people away from learning Sanskrit. Or invites those inclined to this theo-political position to embrace it. However, it does not seem to really exude one idea of an open-minded deshabhakta (patriot), who supports linguistic diversity, as it is enshrined in Article 345 of India’s constitution.

Yet, it seems, political expediency justifies restricting linguistic diversity, as long as it occurs through a development narrative. As Union minister Pratap Sarangi, explains “Sanskrit is the language for science, mathematics, and environment […] It is the most scientific language [and] if it is used more often by India, we will become a world leader.”

After all, “Sanskrit is a gift of India for [the] entire humanity,” at least, that is what India’s HRD Minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, asserted just after the Central Sanskrit Universities Bill, 2020 was passed by India’s upper house of parliament. This was done to upgrade three Deemed Sanskrit universities to Central University status.

Amaravāṇī is a wing of Samskrita Bharati that promotes Sanskrit through songs. One example is the song Viśva-bhāṣā Saṃskṛtam (“The universal-language is Sanskrit”). Information about the song on Amaravāṇī’s website claims, that “There are many villages in India where the entire population speaks solely and fluently in Saṃskṛtam!” Such truth claims, as we have seen, are curious things.

Yet, these lofty ambitions to help save the world, ostensibly, from itself, have humble origins among the mythical villages of rural India, which we are told, speak, or could speak, the language of the rural masses, Sanskrit. The inhabitants of these rural areas are meant to be grateful that Sanskrit’s perceived civilising power will finally reach them, even if this ideological benevolence is soaked in a neo-colonial Sanskritisation impetus made explicit in ways, such as Saṃskṛtaṃ sarveṣāṃ kṛte…sarvadā; Sanskrit for everyone…forever.” Strength, it seems, is not found in linguistic diversity.

The idea of the Sanskrit village continues to gain momentum. One of the first things that Uttarakhand’s former chief minister, Ramesh Pokhriyal, did when assuming the Union’s HRD portfolio is announce a plan to upgrade his pet, Sanskrit village development, project from the state-level to the union (national) level.

Finally, 2021 marks the first completely digitised census the nation will experience. Hopefully, this allows for data to be enumerated, rationalised and published much more efficiently, and that it will result in next round of Sanskrit data to be released sooner than the seven-year lag that occurred at the last census. Hopefully, too, there will be fewer glitches in 2021, compared to 1941, which was completely botched due to it being the first census at which self-reporting of data was introduced.

Patrick McCartney, PhD, is a Research Affiliate at the Anthropological Institute at Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan. He is trained in archaeology, anthropology, sociology, and historical linguistics. His research agenda focuses on charting the biographies of Yoga, Sanskrit, and Buddhism through a frame that includes the politics of imagination, the sociology of spirituality, the anthropology of religion, and the economics of desire. His social media handle is Patrick McCartney