The Durbar Hall, brightly painted in Jodhpur blue and enveloped in stained-glass windows, was packed to capacity. The audience represented many nationalities, but they were bound together in their reverence for one language—Sanskrit. At the 13th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival held in the stately 19th-century Diggi Palace in the Pink City, Sanskrit stole the show and no one was complaining.
One of the key topics at the JLF, called the ‘Kumbh Mela of Literature’, this year was Sanskrit as a living language. “Sanskrit is very much alive and well,” said Oscar Pujol, a Sanskrit scholar from Spain, who has authored two dictionaries in the language. “Sanskrit can still influence philosophical thought and human sciences in the world,” added Pujol, who heads the Cervantes Institute, the cultural arm of the Spanish embassy, in Delhi.
Scheduled on the opening day of the JLF on January 23, the session on Sanskrit brought together several scholars in the language from across the world. “You don’t open a Hindi film without offering a prayer in Sanskrit to Lord Ganesha for removing obstacles. You don’t have a Hindu wedding without it and you don’t have a temple without Sanskrit,” said Rachel Dwyer, professor of Indian Cultures at SOAS, London. “However, the idea of Sanskrit as a religious language is problematic. It has a whole range in literature, drama, philosophy, poetry, mathematics and medicine,” said Dwyer. “It is important to see Sanskrit as part of a wider study of Indian culture.”
With its importance cutting across disciplines and boundaries, Sanskrit is now being talked about as the next biggest cultural export from India to the rest of the world after yoga. Many believe the language that flourished in ancient and medieval India is ready to reclaim its rightful place in the modern world. While the language is an important element of yoga, there are many more aspects of Sanskrit that underline its significance in a variety of fields, from linguistics to logic and Ayurveda to aesthetics. Of the 4.5 million manuscripts identified by the National Mission for Manuscripts, more than 2.5 million are in Sanskrit. “Sanskrit is a necklace on which pearls of Indian civilisation are strung,” said Madhura Godbole, Sanskrit scholar and American Institute of Indian Studies professor, who is acclaimed for training western PhD students.
Pujol, who wrote the Sanskrit-Catalan and Sanskrit-Spanish dictionaries, said after revolutionising knowledge in the world, first in the middle ages and again in the 19th century, Sanskrit is heralding a ‘third revolution’. “The first revolution saw Sanskrit translated into Arabic and then into Spanish. It introduced the decimal system to the world and books on medicine, astronomy, philosophy and Indian sciences… This was very essential for changing the intellectual outlook of Europe,” he explained.
“Sanskrit influenced not only Arabic, but many European languages and this prepared the ground for the Renaissance,” said Pujol. The second revolution was when westerners began to learn Sanskrit in the 19th century, changing the way languages were studied in the West. “The terminology of phonetics came from Sanskrit, the same with linguistics, comparative philosophy and religion.”
The third revolution, Pujol believes, will cover areas like aesthetics, psychology, grammar, computational linguistics, logic, science of interpretation (mimasa) and study of consciousness. “The history of consciousness is a hot topic in the West and the knowledge in Sanskrit could be put to use to solve some of the problems that human sciences are having in the West,” he added.
One of the major areas where Sanskrit could have an immediate impact on the global scene is mindfulness. The mammoth material available in Sanskrit for the study of consciousness could offer solutions to depression, stress and addiction ailing the modern society. Sanskrit texts are full of literature that treat the mind as an instrument of liberation. Mindfulness is already used to cure high blood pressure, insomnia, lack of concentration and stress.
“Sanskrit knowledge is still relevant in the modern world. Indian and western scholars should forge ties and put this together. It is happening in a chaotic way, but India should lead this revolution,” said Pujol, underlining the significance of Sanskrit as a universal heritage. “Don’t consider Sanskrit as a symbol of backwardness.”
Faizal Khan is a freelancer