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Quick Takes, Traditions

Is The Global Prestige Of Sanskrit Aiding And Abetting Hindu Nationalists And Supremacists? (Patrick McCartney)

The utopian aspirations of the Hindu supremacist agenda, which I discussed in an earlier article, include replacing English with Sanskrit as the dominant language of India and perhaps as the next global lingua franca.  Furthermore, their explicit aim is to create a pan-global Hindu theocratic state.

The growing clout of Hindu nationalists in promoting this utopian project can be viewed as a direct consequence of the worldwide popularity of yoga, which they leverage for their own political ends.  This threat is intensified by the banal support for a Hindu supremacist ideology that is fostered through an affective, shared appreciation that both Hindu supremacists and global yoga practitioners have with Sanskrit.

Sanskrit plays a central role in the global yoga, wellness and spiritual tourism industries.  These industries combined represent multi-trillion dollar opportunities for the Indian state to promote its cultural heritage on the international stage, while representing itself as the apogee of morality through the term viśva guru (world guru).

At the same time, the Sanskritization of Indian languages constitutes a direct threat to the marginalized languages of the subcontinent, such as the Central Pahari languages, namely Garhwali and Kumouni.   Due to the prestige of Hindi, English and Sanskrit, these marginalized languages could become endangered and moribund in only a few generations.

Currently the villages of Bhantol and Kimoda, located in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. are being cultivated as “Sanskrit villages”.  Bhantola is Kumoun-speaking, and Kimoda has Garhwal as its native language.  The unsubstantiated claims circulating in the Indian media regarding the vitality and perceived linguistic purity of Sanskrit in these villages needs to be put into proper perspective.

Sanskrit is a treasure trove of knowledge. However, for the speakers of Garhwali and Kumouni, they are equally as important as the literary-liturgical language of Sanskrit. While global yoga practitioners might have heard about Sanskrit, and would be otherwise delighted to know that “Sanskrit-speaking” villages possibly exist, it will come at a cost, especially for Garhwali and Kumouni.  These villages have unwittingly decided to support a Hindu supremacist language planning policy that privileges Sanskrit and also disregards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution of India, and the BJP’s own manifesto.

In 2012 Uttarakhand officials nominated via Article 345 of the Constitution that Sanskrit would become the second official language after Hindi. It  also declared Uttarakhand to be a “Sanskrit state”.  Through the current national and state government’s ideological affiliation with the Sangh Parivar, a cluster of Hindu nationalist organizations to whom the present Indian prime minister Narendra Modi belongs, it plans to expand the promotion of Sanskrit.

However, this move comes at a price to the less prestigious, but nonetheless local-regional languages of Uttarakhand, namely, Kumaouni and Garwhali. Both these languages are not on the 8th Schedule, which means they do not have constitutional support for preservation and promotion, which Sanskrit does.

Both languages belong in the Indic branch of the Indo-European family.  However, they are also influenced by other neighboring Himalayan languages outside this family. Garwhali, which is the eastern neighbor of Kumouni, has approximately two million speakers. Nevertheless, according to UNESCO, the prestige and promotion of English, Hindi, and now Sanskrit means that Garwhali is considered to have already attained “vulnerable” linguistic vitality. That is only a couple of degrees away from being “endangered” as well as “extinct”.

Yet the ideological language planning policy of the Uttarakhand government actively supports the move to a moribund state for these two languages through its promotion of Sanskrit. That goes against the Indian Constitution. According to Article 350A, provisions are made for adequate facilities to protect and promote the mother-tongues of linguistic minority groups.

This is one reason why there is a legal push to have Sanskrit considered the mother tongue of a minority group.  Under Article 30(1A) there would be even more power to promote Sanskrit through state-sponsored “minority” institutions, even though there are already several state-funded Sanskrit university campuses through the National Sanskrit Academy.

What are we to make of this situation, which is further complicated by the “Sanskrit-speaking” village project that Samskrita Bharati, a non-profit group whose mission is to revive the classical language, oversees? The internet is full of rumors of villages where “everyone speaks only fluent Sanskrit, all of time”. Here is an example. However, should we believe these rumors? The project aims to make Sanskrit the “language of the masses in rural areas”, as this article from The Organiser asserts.

Such rumors fuel a politically-inspired religious sentiment, and are too often uncritically asserted and believed to be inherently “true”. The rumors easily spread, even though many people have no idea exactly where these villages are located, and have only heard from someone else, who is just as likely to have also not been there themselves, that these villages do in fact exist in the way they are represented in the media.

These factoids are symbols of hope for a possible future world, which is just as much a possible expression of modernity as it is an appeal to purity and tradition. In an antithetical sense, people want to believe that there are idyllic “Sanskrit-speaking’” villages where the ancient tongue might have been spoken, possibly unbroken, for thousands of years.

Sanskrit becomes a type of linguistic time machine that can transport people to the “eternal present”, as it is perceived to be an effective cause in the purification of place, person and community, which, it is believed will result in moral and cultural reformation, a rejection of polluting Western values, and a return, instead, to “core Indian values”. However, such a civilizational ethos is always a dangerous proposition, especially for the marginalized minorities within this imagined nation-state.

Furthermore, it connects a glocalised community—the “impure” urban metropole and the “pure” rustic village become connected through the cosmopolitan aesthetic that Sanskrit offers. As Ashish Nandy comments, the increasingly ambiguous boundaries, caused by technology between the village and the city, also gives people the opportunity to imagine a pure “Sanskrit land”.

However, it is irrelevant whether the reality of Sanskrit-speaking villages is true, or not. These villages act as a reference for a more abstract referent that is psychological, and exists in the social imagination, and not in the real world.

The promotion of Sanskrit in most of these villages has only occurred for the past fifteen years, or so. The late 2000s seem to have been when the apex of enthusiasm for this project was reached. This stage of adopting/reviving a language involves the production of ‘impure’ grammatical and phonetic features through substrate interference from the source language(s), which in this case would be Garwhali, and to a lesser extent, Hindi.

Such interference plays unimaginable havoc on the political theology related to Sanskrit’s perceived purity and concomitant power to reform lives, as it requires a “pure” language. This article in Himāl South Asian discusses the problematic relationship between the theology of “purity”, Sanskrit revival and the nationalist political agenda.

While these villages are promoted from the top-down, the patriotic-religious sentiment is also a bottom-up phenomenon, which is driven by the aspirations of local communities to attain higher levels of prestige through the sociological process M.N. Srinivas defined as Sanskritization. More sociolinguistic research is required to ascertain the veracity of these truth claims regarding “Sanskrit-speaking” villages, and the linguistic vitality of Sanskrit as a vernacular, living language.

Through scouring various media, I have compiled a list of sixteen possible locations, including one in Nepal. So far, in a self-funded capacity, I have only managed to visit two. I can report that the linguistic vitality in these villages in Madhya Pradesh and Assam is well below the levels suggested in the media.

These villages are often located in reasonably remote, rural locations. Multiple, non-standard spellings of village names only increases the ambiguity, which is confounded by multiple villages with the same name, which might also be in the same district, or the even smaller administrative divisions, as the potential “Sanskrit-speaking” village.

While the world is worried about the rise in populist politics, and the appeal to disaffected and marginalized people yearning to join organizations like ISIS, there is little discussion about the insidiously subtle ways in which Hindu nationalism, global yoga, and a seemingly innocent revival of an ancient language are used to radicalize people into a supremacist ideology.

Patrick McCartney is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University and a Lecturer in linguistics at the University of Adelaide. He has accepted a 2-year fellowship at Kyoto University. His project, titled: Yoga Scapes: The Economics of Imagination and Utopian Aspirations of Transglobal Yoga in Japan”  stands at the intersection of the politics of imagination, the economics of desire, the sociology of spirituality, and the anthropology of religion. Patrick focuses on the unregulated global yoga industry, which exists within the multi trillion-dollar global wellness industry.  The author would like to thank Elizabeth De Michelis, Pallabi Roy, Stephanie Majcher, and Rohini Bakshi for taking the time to read versions of this article and provide many thoughtful comments.

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