Recently, while presenting the President’s awards to scholars of Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Arabic, Persian, Telugu, Kannada, Odia and Malayalam, M. Venkaiah Naidu, the Vice President of India, expressed concern about the vanishing languages or dialects: “Studies by experts estimate that almost 600 languages are on verge of extinction and that more than 250 languages have disappeared in past 60 years. When a language dies, an entire culture dies. We simply cannot let that happen.” India is a multilingual country where more than 19,500 languages or dialects are spoken. However, almost 97 per cent of the population speaks one of the 22 scheduled languages. Modern Indian languages have ancient roots and are derived in some way from the classical languages. Sanskrit is one of the oldest Indo-European languages, dating back to the second millennium BC. Tamil literature dates back to 500BC, Telugu to 400 BC, Kannada to 450 BC, Malayalam to 1198 AD and Odia to 800 AD.
Unlike the popular perception, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, pays great tribute to the rich heritage of Sanskrit apart from his love for British English and Hindustani. Barrister Nehru devotes one full chapter “Vitality and Persistence of Sanskrit” in his book “The Discovery of India”, written in Ahmadnagar Fort prison during the five months, April to September 1944. “Prison is not a pleasant place to live in even for a short period, much less for long years. But it was a privilege for me to live in close contact with men of outstanding ability and culture and a wide human outlook which even the passions of the moment did not obscure,” records Nehru in the preface.
One can come across Nehru’s love and respect for Sanskrit and the Sanskrit treasure but he did not favour Sanskrit as a national language unlike Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and some of his supporters in the Constituent Assembly who tried to move a resolution to make Sanskrit a National Language. Nehru writes: “Even present-day Urdu, itself wholly an Indo-Aryan language, probably contains 80 per cent words derived from Sanskrit…Pashto, one of the Indo-Aryan languages derived from Sanskrit, is the popular language in the North West Frontier Province as well as in Afghanistan….The language of Ceylon is Singhalese. This also an Indo-Aryan language derived directly from Sanskrit.” He does mention in “The Discovery of India”: “Practically every German university had a Sanskrit department, with one or two professors in charge of it,” adding, “Indian scholarship, which was considerable, was of the old style, uncritical and seldom acquainted with foreign classical languages, except Arabic and Persian.”
“Sanskrit is a language amazingly rich, efflorescent, full of luxuriant growth of all kinds, and yet precise and strictly keeping within the framework of grammar which Panini laid down two thousand six hundred years ago. It spread out, added to its richness, became fuller and more ornate, but always it stuck to its original roots.” “Even in the days of Kalidas, it was not the people’s language, though it was the language of educated people throughout India.” Nehru writes, “Sanskrit, it is now well recognized, is allied to the European classical and modern languages. Even the Slavonic languages have many common forms and roots with Sanskrit. The nearest approach to Sanskrit in Europe is made by the Lithuanian language.” According to the Census 2011, only 24,821 people out of 1.21 billion population of India speak Sanskrit! One comes across thousands of Sanskrit words in the Webster’s English dictionary but no systematic and scientific efforts are being made to identify them despite Sanskrit being considered most suitable language for the computers.
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(The writer is a Socio-political Historian. E-mail: [email protected] )