Justice Markandey Katju: My views on Sanskrit

Justice Markandey Katju

By Justice Markandey Katju–

(Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own)

I have written hundreds of articles, and the central theme in almost all of these is that India’s national aim must be to must make a mighty, historical transformation, and become a highly industrialized, modern nation, like another China.

This is necessary to abolish the curse of poverty, unemployment, malnourishment, lack of proper healthcare and good education for our masses, and the other socio-economic evils which plague our country even today.

One may ask: what has Sanskrit to do with this national aim? I will explain, but the reader must bear with me, as I will have to take her into very deep waters.

I have often said that to attain our national aim we have to launch a powerful people’s struggle led by patriotic, modern-minded leaders, and in this struggle, the unity of the people is absolutely essential.

For unity, we have to understand what is the common uniting factor which binds all Indians, and makes us one nation.

Speaking in Cambridge University in 1880, a high official of the British Raj named Sir John Strachey said, “This is the first and foremost thing to learn about India, that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity — physical, political, social and religious, no Indian nation, no ‘people of India’, of which we hear so much.”

This statement was taught to all British civil servants coming to India, and became the official British doctrine (it contributed to their divide-and-rule policy).

Is this statement correct? It is not, but the issue requires a deeper analysis.

India has no doubt one common territory and is governed by a Central government. But are we culturally one? Is there anything culturally common which unites us, and constitutes us as one nation? This question must be examined carefully.

I submit that despite our tremendous diversity — so many religions, castes, languages, races, customs, etc — there is something which culturally unites us, and indeed constitutes India as one nation, and that is our common Sanskrit-Urdu culture.

There will be Immediate objections about what have Nagas or Tamilians or many other people living in India got to do with Sanskrit or Urdu?

I have said that India is broadly a country of immigrants, like North America. More than 90% of people living in India today are not its original inhabitants (the original inhabitants are pre-Dravidian tribals or adivasis such as the Bhils, Gonds, Santhals, Todas, etc), but descendants of immigrants that have been coming into our subcontinent for thousands of years, seeking a comfortable life.

Each of these immigrant groups brought with them their own customs, religion, language, etc. But by the intermingling of these immigrants in one land a common culture emerged in India, which may be broadly called the Sanskrit-Urdu culture, and which needs to be explained.

The word Sanskrit in the expression ‘Sanskrit-Urdu culture‘ means the spirit of Sanskrit, and not the Sanskrit language literally, and similarly when I use the word Urdu I mean the spirit of Urdu. The factor that unites all Indians is what I have called the Sanskrit-Urdu culture.

Sanskrit is the foundation of our national culture.

But what, indeed, is Sanskrit? Here again, an in-depth analysis is needed.

1. What is Sanskrit?

The earliest Sanskrit we know is the language of the Rigveda, composed around 1500-2000 B.C. It was spoken by the Aryans who entered India from the north west. Many people have debunked the Aryan invasion theory (AIT), but there is overwhelming material in its support. For example, the striking similarities between Sanskrit and the European languages discovered by Sir William Jones, which clearly indicate that the speakers of early Sanskrit and the European languages had common ancestors.

The caste system probably had originally a racial basis, and it was known as the ‘varna vyavastha’ which literally means ‘color system’ (the Sanskrit word ‘varna’ means color). The people invading India (Aryans) were fair-skinned, while the inhabitants were dark. (Later, of course, the caste system developed into the feudal occupational division of labor in society).

2. Later development of Sanskrit

Sanskrit as a language developed phenomenally after the Rigveda was composed. In fact, Sanskrit is not just one language, there are several Sanskrits. What we call Sanskrit today is really Panini’s Sanskrit, also known as Classical Sanskrit or Laukik Sanskrit, and this is what is taught in our schools and universities today.

It is in this language that all our philosophers, scientists, poets, dramatists, jurists, etc, wrote their great works.

However, there were earlier Sanskrits that were somewhat different from classical Sanskrit.

The earliest Sanskrit work is the Rig Veda, and was subsequently passed on from generation to generation by oral tradition, by being memorized orally in the Gurukul by the young boys by repeating the verses chanted by their guru.

The Rig Veda is among the most sacred Hindu texts, and it consists of 1028 hymns (richas) to various nature gods e.g. Indra, Agni, Surya, Varuna, etc.

Language evolves and changes with the passage of time. For instance, it is difficult to understand Shakespeare’s plays today without a good commentary because Shakespeare wrote in the 16th Century A.D. and since then the English language has changed dramatically. Words and expressions in vogue during Shakespeare’s time are no longer prevalent today.

Therefore, we cannot understand Shakespeare’s plays today without good commentary.

Similarly, the Sanskrit language kept changing from around 2000 B.C. when the Rig Veda was composed to about 500 B.C. i.e., for about 1500 years. In or around the 5th Century B.C. that the great scholar Panini — perhaps the greatest grammarian the world has ever seen — wrote his great book ‘Ashtadhyayi’ (Book of Eight Chapters).

In this book, Panini fixed the rules of Sanskrit, and thereafter no further changes in Sanskrit were permitted, except slight changes made by two other great grammarians, namely, Katyayana who wrote his book called ‘Vartika’, and Patanjali who wrote his commentary on the Ashtadhyayi called the ‘Maha Bhashya’.

Except for the slight changes by these two subsequent grammarians, Sanskrit as it exists today is really Panini’s Sanskrit or classical Sanskrit.

3. Panini’s achievement

Panini carefully studied the existing coarse, unsystematic Sanskrit language in his time and then refined, purified and systematized it, so as to make it a language of great logic, precision and elegance ( the word ‘Sanskrit’ literally means prepared, pure, refined or perfect).

Thus Panini made Sanskrit a highly developed and powerful vehicle of expression in which scientific ideas could be expressed with great precision and clarity. This language was made uniform all over India, so that scholars from North, South, East and West could understand each other.

Panini’s Sanskrit enabled scientific ideas to be expressed with great precision, logic and elegance. Science requires precision. Also, science requires a written language in which ideas can be written with great precision and logic.

No doubt the first language of people everywhere in the world is the spoken language, but further development of thinking cannot take place unless there is a written language in which ideas can be expressed with precision. A scientist may think out new ideas in his mind, but these will remain rambling, diffused and disorganized ideas unless they are set down in writing.

By writing we give our ideas greater clarity and make them coherent and in a logical sequence, somewhat like in a mathematical theorem where each step logically follows from the previous step. Hence for progress in science a written language is absolutely essential in which scientific ideas can be expressed with great precision and logic, and this was Panini’s great achievement.

I am not going into the details about the Ashtadhyayi but I will give one small illustration in this connection.

In the English alphabet, the letters A to Z are not arranged in any logical or rational manner. There is no reason why G follows F why Q follows P, etc. They are haphazard, random.

On the other hand, Panini in his first fourteen Sutras of Ashtadhyayi arranged letters in the Sanskrit alphabet in a scientific and logical manner, after close observation of the sounds in human speech.

For example, the vowels, a, aa, i, ee, u, oo, ae, ai, o, ou are arranged according to the shape of the mouth when these sounds are emitted.

Similarly, the consonants have been arranged in sequences (called varga) of five consonants each, on a scientific pattern. The ‘Ka’ varga (i.e. ka, kha, ga, gha, nja) are sounds emitted from the throat’ the ‘Cha’ varga from the palate; the Ta (Ta is pronounced as in train) varga from the roof of the mouth’; the Ta varga from the teeth, and the Pa varga from the lips.

Also, the second and fourth consonants in each varga of five consonants are aspirated consonants, i.e. the previous consonant combined with ‘Ha’, e.g. ka+ha becomes kha.

No language in the world has its alphabet arranged in such a rational and systematic manner. When we see how deeply our ancestors went into the seemingly simple matter of arranging letters of the alphabet, we realize how deeply they went into more advanced matters.

Panini’s classical Sanskrit is in contrast with the earlier Vedic Sanskrit that is the language (or languages) in which the Vedas were written.

After Panini wrote his Ashtadhyayi, the entire non-Vedic Sanskrit literature was written in accordance with Panini’s grammar, and even that part of the non-Vedic Sanskrit literature which existed before Panini was altered and made in accordance with Panini’s grammar (except some words called apashabdas).

Vedic literature is only about 1% of the entire Sanskrit literature. About 99% of Sanskrit literature is non-Vedic in nature. For instance, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, the works of Kalidas, etc, are no doubt highly respected but they are not part of Vedic literature and hence they are now almost all existing in accordance with Panini’s grammar.

To illustrate, some parts of the Mahabharata were written before Panini because Panini has referred to the Mahabharat in his Ashtadhyayi. Even such parts of the Mahabharata were altered and made in accordance with Panini’s grammar.

Thus, today, all of the Sanskrit non-Vedic literature is in accordance with Panini’s grammar, except a few words and expressions, called Apashabdas or apabhramshas (as Patanjali has described them) which for some reason could not be fitted into Panini’s system, and hence have been left as they were.

However, it was not permissible to change the language of the Rigveda and make it in accordance with Panini’s grammar. Panini or no Panini, one could not touch the Rigveda, because it was held to be so sacred that it was not permitted to change its language.

In fact, after having been initially composed may be around 2000 B.C. the Rigveda was thereafter never written and it continued from generation to generation by oral tradition to be memorised from Guru to Shishya.

Thus the Vedic literature is not in accordance with the Panini’s grammar. However, the non-Vedic Sanskrit literature (which is 99% of the entire Sanskrit literature) is almost all in accordance with Panini’s grammar, including all the great scientific works.

This provided for uniformity and it systematized the language so that scholars could easily express and communicate their ideas with great precision.

This was a necessary requirement for the development of science.

The spoken language no doubt is very useful, but dialects change every 50-100 km, and hence there is no uniformity. A written language like classical Sanskrit in which scholars could express and communicate ideas to other scholars living far away with great precision and clarity was thus absolutely necessary for the development of science, and this is the great achievement of Panini.

4. The contribution of Sir William Jones

Among the British who studied Sanskrit, the foremost was Sir William Jones who came to India in 1783 as a Judge of the Supreme Court of Calcutta.

Sir William was born in 1746 and was a child prodigy who had mastered several languages such as Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, etc. at a very young age. He had studied at Oxford University and had also passed his Bar examination to qualify as a lawyer.

When he came to India, he was told that there was an ancient Indian language called ‘Sanskrit’ and this aroused his curiosity and he became determined to study it.

Consequently, he enquired and found a good teacher called Ram Lochan Kavi Bhushan — a poor Bengali Brahmin who lived in a dark and dingy room in a crowded locality in Calcutta. Sir William started going to this person to learn Sanskrit.

He has written in his memoirs that when the daily lesson was completed he would glance behind and saw the Bengali Brahmin washing the floor where Sir William Jones sat to learn his lessons, as he was regarded as a ‘Mleccha’.

However, Sir William was not insulted by this as he was a scholar and hence thought that one should accept the customs of the teacher.

Having mastered the Sanskrit language, Sir William established the Asiatic Society in Calcutta and also translated many of the great Sanskrit works e.g. Abhigyan Shakuntalam and Meghadut into English.

These works were brought to the notice of the great German scholar Goethe who greatly praised them. Sir William proved that Sanskrit was very close to Greek and Latin.

In fact, it was closer to Greek than to Latin because Sanskrit has three numbers — singular, dual and plural as is the case with Greek, whereas Latin has only two numbers — singular and plural, like in English, Hindi and many other languages.

Thus, Sir William established that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin were all descended from a common ancestor and he was the creator of modern comparative philology.

There were several other British scholars who conducted research into Indian culture, but it is not necessary to go into detail about it.

Suffice it to say that these scholars were wonderstruck about the great achievements of Indian scholars whose works were all written in the Sanskrit language.

5. Misconception about Sanskrit
There is a misconception about the Sanskrit language that it is only a language for chanting mantras in temples or religious ceremonies. However, that is less than 5% of the Sanskrit literature. More than 95% of the Sanskrit literature has nothing to do with religion, and instead it deals with philosophy, law, science, art, literature, grammar, phonetics, interpretation, etc.

In fact, Sanskrit was the language of freethinkers, who questioned everything, and expressed the widest spectrum of thoughts on various subjects.

In particular, Sanskrit was the language of our scientists in ancient India. Today, no doubt, we are behind the Western countries in science, but there was a time when India was leading the whole world in science. Knowledge of the great scientific achievements of our ancestors and our scientific heritage will give us the encouragement and moral strength to once again take India to the forefront of science in the modern world.

As stated above, the word ‘Sanskrit’ means “prepared, pure, refined or prefect”. It was not for nothing that it was called the ‘Devavani’ (language of the Gods). It has an outstanding place in our culture and indeed was recognized as a language of rare sublimity by the whole world.

Sanskrit was the language of our philosophers, our scientists, our mathematicians, our poets and playwrights, our grammarians, our jurists, etc.

In grammar, Panini and Patanjali (authors of Ashtadhyayi and the Mahabhashya) have no equals in the world; in astronomy and mathematics the works of Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta and Bhaskar opened up new frontiers for mankind, as did the works of Charak and Sushrut in medicine.

In philosophy Gautam (founder of the Nyaya system), Ashvaghosha (author of Buddha Charita), Kapila (founder of the Sankhya system), Shankaracharya, Brihaspati, etc, present the widest range of philosophical systems the world has ever seen, from deeply religious to strongly atheistic.

In law there were numerous treatises in Sanskrit such as the various Smritis, Mitakshara by Vijnaneshwar, Dayabhag by Jimutvahan, etc.

Jaimini’s Mimansa Sutras laid the foundation of a whole system of rational interpretation of texts which was used not only in religion but also in law, philosophy, grammar, etc.

In literature, the contribution of Sanskrit is of the foremost order. The works of Kalidas (Shakuntala, Meghdoot, Malavikagnimitra, etc.), Bhavabhuti (Malti Madhav, Uttar Ramcharit, etc.) and the epics of Valmiki, Vyas, etc. are known all over the world. These and countless other Sanskrit works kept the light of learning ablaze in our country up to modern times.

6. Discussion about Sanskrit in the Constituent Assembly debates
I would like to quote from the Constituent Assembly debate which took place on September 12, 1949, in our Constituent Assembly on the question as to which language should be made the national language.

The Hon’ble Shri Ghanshyam Singh Gupta: “We want to hear your views on Sanskrit”.

Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed: ”I am extremely thankful to the Hon’ble Member Mr. Gupta. If you have to adopt any language, why should you not have the world’s greatest language? It is a matter of great regret that we do not know with what reveration Sanskrit is held in the outside world. I shall only quote a few remarks made about Sanskrit to show how this language is held in the civilized world. Mr. W.C. Taylor says : ‘Sanskrit is a language of unrivalled richness and purity’.”

Mr. President: ”I would suggest you may leave that question alone, because I propose to call representatives who have given notice of amendments of a fundamental character, and I will call upon a gentleman who has given notice about Sanskrit to speak about it.”

Mr. Ahmed: ”Yes, Sir, I shall not stand in between. I will only give a few quotations. Prof. Max Muller says that “Sanskrit is the greatest language in the world, the most wonderful and the most perfect’. Sir William Jones says: “Whenever we direct our attention to the Sanskrit literature the notion of infinity presents itself. Surely the longest life would not suffice for a perusal of works that rise and swell protuberant like the Himalayas above the bulkiest composition of every land beyond the confines of India’. Then Sir W. Hunter says : ‘The grammar of Panini stands supreme among the grammars of the world. It stands forth as one of the most splendid achievements of human invention and industry’. Prof. Whitney says :’ Its unequalled transparency of structure give Sanskrit the undisputable right to the first place amongst the tongues of the Indo-European family’. M.Dukois says :’ Sanskrit is the origin of the modern languages of Europe’. Prof. Weber says :’ Panini’s grammar is universally admitted to be the shortest and fullest grammar in the world’. Prof. Wilson says :’ No nation but the Hindu has yet been able to discover such a perfect system of phonetics’. Prof. Thompson says :’ The arrangement of consonants in Sanskrit is a unique example of human genius’. Dr. Shahidullah, Professor of Dacca University, says :’ Sanskrit is the language of every man to whatever race he may belong’.”

An Hon’ble Member: ”What is your own view?”

Mr. Ahmed: ”My own view is that Sanskrit is one of the greatest languages, and….”

An Hon’ble Member: ”And should it be adopted as the National language or not ? It is not spoken by anyone now.”

Mr. Ahmed: ”Yes, and for the simple reason that it is impartially difficult to all. Hindi is easy for the Hindi speaking areas, but it is difficult for other areas. I offer you a language which is grandest and the greatest, and it is impartially difficult, equally difficult for all to learn. There should be some impartiality in the selection. If we have to adopt a language it must be grand, great and the best. Then why should we discard the claim of Sanskrit?”

Pandit Lakshmi Kant Maitra: ”If today India has got an opportunity to shape her own destiny I ask in all seriousness if she is going to feel ashamed to recognize the Sanskrit language — the revered grandmother of languages of the world, still alive with full vigour, full vitality? Are we going to deny her rightful place in Free India? That is a question I solemnly ask? I know it will be said that it is a dead language. Yes. Dead to whom? Dead to you because you have become dead to all which is great and noble in your own culture and civilization. You have been chasing the shadow and have never tried to grasp the substance which is contained in your great literature. If Sanskrit is dead may I say that Sanskrit is ruling us from her grave? Nobody can get away from Sanskrit in India.”

Though Sanskrit was not accepted as the national language of India, it has been placed in the eighth Schedule to the Constitution, and is also referred to in Article 351.

I will conclude by dealing with the question posed earlier when I said that Indian culture is the Sanskrit-Urdu culture. I reiterate that when I use the expression ‘Sanskrit-Urdu culture’ I referr to the spirit of Sanskrit and Urdu, not Sanskrit and Urdu literally.

Sanskrit was a language of freethinkers, who questioned everything, taking nothing for granted, and it is this mindset which all Indians, including Nagas and Tamilians, must develop and inculcate if our country is to progress.

As regards Urdu, its poetry is a poetry of protest, protest against injustices, and against the afflictions of the common man, and evoking empathy for fellow human beings.

So while Sanskrit emphasizes on reason (like Voltaire), Urdu emphasizes on emotion (like Rousseau), and both these attributes are necessary for India’s progress.

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