Census Sanskrit

Dominik Wujastyk ucgadkw at UCL.AC.UK
Mon Aug 25 11:22:43 EDT 2008

This discussion about Spoken Sanskrit was sparked off by my mention of a 
new article by Adi Hastings on the subject.

That article is thoughtful, careful, and worth a read.  It deals rather 
well with this particular issue, of what it means when a family claims 
that Skt is the language of their home.


Dr Dominik Wujastyk
Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow
University College London

On Sun, 24 Aug 2008, Stella Sandahl wrote:

> Dear Robert,
> At last something eminently sensible in the debate about living/dead, modern 
> spoken/written Sanskrit. Thank you!
> Regarding the Census figures I posted a while ago, I was very well aware of 
> the fraudulent nature of these figures. As Robert has pointed out, nobody 
> will check the claims about mother tongue. Take for example the number of 
> Assamese speakers: many Bengali-speakers in Assam find it safer for 
> political reasons to declare Assamese as their mother tongue instead of 
> Bengali. The high figure for Sanskrit speakers  in the 1991 Census can 
> easily be explained by the Hindu revivalism taking place in the late 80s 
> with the televised Ramayana etc. which ultimately led to the destruction of 
> the Babri Masjid in 1992. The "missing"  35,601 speakers in the 2001 Census 
> is harder to explain, but rather telling after several years of a BJP 
> government at the Centre. Was it disenchantment with Hindutva educational 
> policies? At any rate the so-called Sanskrit speakers make an entirely 
> political statement. Quod erat demonstrandum!
> Stella Sandahl
> --
> Stella Sandahl
> ssandahl at sympatico.ca
> On 21-Aug-08, at 6:01 PM, Robert Zydenbos wrote:
>> I have followed the multi-threaded 'modern Sanskrit' discussion with 
>> interest, and here come my two cents' worth on a few of the issues that 
>> were raised --
>> 1. Indian census reports: they are certainly useful, but they cannot be 
>> taken seriously literally (cf. the strangely large number of listed 
>> languages spoken in India by one single person, or the number of castes 
>> with only one member). The census merely records what people claim about 
>> themselves. If someone claims to be a Sanskrit mother tongue speaker, 
>> nobody will check to see whether this person has made a truthful 
>> statement. Hence also the bizarre fluctuations in the numbers of Sanskrit 
>> speakers from one census to the next.
>> 2. Mother tongue speakers of Sanskrit:  I know persons who have claimed 
>> they are. These persons are simply Kannada speakers with a special love of 
>> Sanskrit, and they want Sanskrit to figure in the census reports. Surely 
>> the same applies to the vast majority of others (if not all of them) who 
>> have claimed the same.
>> 3. The 'Sanskrit-speaking village in Karnataka': this is something of a 
>> hoax; but as long as wishful thinking among romantics persists, queries 
>> about the village and claims that it exists will also persist. I know of a 
>> college teacher of Sanskrit (real Sanskrit) in Bangalore who is from that 
>> place, and he finds it rather embarrassing to say where he is from.
>> 4. Politics: regrettably, the activities of organizations like Akshara 
>> have a polarizing effect. Some persons feel attracted, others feel 
>> repelled by the political message. In one issue of their monthly magazine, 
>> years back, I read an ultra-short story about a woman who had lost her 
>> three sons in a war with Pakistan, and when asked whether she was sad, she 
>> replied: "yes, I am sad that I could not send more sons to give their 
>> lives for the sake of the motherland". This more or less illustrates the 
>> general atmosphere.
>> 5. Dead or not: the popularity of Sanskrit as an exam subject in high 
>> schools, in my own observation, is that it is thought to be (and 
>> apparently indeed is) a way to score high marks and thus raise the final 
>> average. And this is precisely because practically nobody (teachers 
>> included) considers Sanskrit a language of which active mastery is 
>> required or even desirable. The popular view is that it is quite dead, 
>> only spoken by respectable priests and pundits, and by a few less 
>> respectable dazed political right-wingers. I have heard reports of a 
>> renowned American Sanskritist [name suppressed] who travelled through 
>> Karnataka and Goa and wanted to speak Sanskrit to just about everybody he 
>> met. He could; but he was barely understood, and those who could answer in 
>> Sanskrit could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
>> 6. Eternal intelligibility: the same applies to other dead languages, esp. 
>> Latin, Europe's equivalent to Sanskrit (for a passionate plea to revive 
>> the active use of Latin, see the recent bestselling book [!] by Wilfried 
>> Stroh, _Latein ist tot, es lebe Latein!_).
>> 7. Usefulness: it can be really useful to speak some Sanskrit. More than 
>> once I have been in a situation where the only language in which I could 
>> communicate with a person (these persons were always scholars or temple 
>> priests) was Sanskrit even if in Karnataka it is, let us say, enhanced 
>> with Kannada, and in Pondicherry with Tamil and Telugu and English. The 
>> obvious reason for these additions is that Sanskrit is so little spoken 
>> that no uniform vocabulary for terms from modern and everyday life has 
>> developed. If one compares bilingual X-Sanskrit dictionaries, one finds 
>> that the compilers either declare neo-Sanskritic words from language X to 
>> be Sanskrit, or they think up new words (words that may become current in 
>> a geographically limited area, if at all).
>> 8. Future: who knows? In the first issue of the Münchener Indologische 
>> Zeitschrift (to appear later this year), an interview in Sanskrit will 
>> appear which I did with a senior scholar in Udupi. This is an experiment, 
>> and I hope that it will actually be read. The man's Sanskrit is 
>> delightful: real (not the simplified stuff) and alive. The experiment aims 
>> at (a) creating an awareness that Sanskrit is still used, (b) encouraging 
>> people to help revive Sanskrit, so that it may become a medium of 
>> scholarly communication that eliminates the language barriers between 
>> various non-Indian and traditional Indian scholars.
>> Finally, for those who are interested: a few years ago I have written an 
>> article about the imperishability of Sanskrit, and its modern use: 
>> "Sanskrit: Ewige Sprache der Götter, wiedergeboren und noch immer da," in 
>> P. Schrijver and P. Mumm (eds.), _Sprachtod und Sprachgeburt._ Bremen: 
>> Hempen Verlag, 2004, pp. 278-300.
>> RZ
>> -- 
>> Prof. Dr. Robert J. Zydenbos
>> Department fuer Asienstudien - Institut fuer Indologie und Tibetologie
>> Universitaet Muenchen
>> Deutschland
>> Tel. (+49-89-) 2180-5782
>> Fax  (+49-89-) 2180-5827
>> http://www.lrz-muenchen.de/~zydenbos

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