The Sanskrit non-controversy: Why it is indeed a superior language

There is an unfortunate hoo-haa about German and Sanskrit in Kendriya Vidyalayas (KV), which is putting a negative spin on generally-positive Indo-German relations. It has even prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to question whether their language is being disrespected in India. Which of course is far from the truth, and is a storm in a teacup raised by the usual malign suspects in the media. Best to consider the forest (the desirability of Indo-German ties) over the trees (an ill-advised, illegal move by the UPA in 2011 to mess with the three-language formula, and its inevitable reversal now).
For several reasons, I find the fuss baffling. First, this is merely the reversal of an ill-considered and harmful – therefore typical UPA – step, dissing Indian tradition and replacing it with something European. Second, there is considerable value to Sanskrit that most of us are unaware of, especially if you look at the technical aspects of formal language theory.

People have thundered that the Sanskrit decision is preventing Indian students from aspiring to go to German universities, which is not true – most university education in Germany is conducted in the medium of English. Besides, if you want to learn German, you can still opt for it: it is not banished from the KVs.

Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani. Image courtesy PIB

Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani. Image courtesy PIB

Others have suggested that German is a global language, and therefore – they implied – Sanskrit is inferior to German. Which is not quite true: only a fraction of the people even in Europe speak German, and almost all large German companies conduct business in English. I used to work for Siemens in California, and not knowing German was not a big handicap in communicating with my colleagues, even when I traveled to Germany.

Others complained that this is a burden on students who have already opted for German, which is true. But then it is only since 2011 that German has been made available in all Kendriya Vidyalayas, replacing Sanskrit.

That is the crux of the matter: German replaced Sanskrit in the entire KV system recently. And why was that? Where was the uproar when, apparently on a whim, the previous UPA government decided to replace Sanskrit in mid-stream with German? And why German? Why not Japanese, or Chinese, or Arabic or Spanish, all of which have more commercial and job opportunities for young people? What was the rationale in choosing German?

The KV system, let us remember, has to be uniform all over the country: you cannot have a different curriculum in different states. Thus, if you switch languages, it apparently has to be a toggle effect, and teachers who teach X have to switch to teaching Y.

This is precisely what happened under UPA to Sanskrit. Why is nobody asking why the Kabil Sibal-led UPA ministry surreptitiously swapped Sanskrit out and swapped German in to the curriculum in 2011? Did that not do much damage to the students desirous of studying Sanskrit? Did it not force Sanskrit teachers to suddenly become German teachers?

Furthermore, did the Sibal coup, of the KVs signing an MoU with the Goethe Institute of the Max Mueller Bhavan in 2011, violate the hitherto sacrosanct Three Language Formula, which many of us have been forced into? Growing up in Kerala, according to this formula, my first language (yes, first!) language was mandated to be Hindi, my second language was English, and my third was Malayalam.

In fact, I could have avoided learning Malayalam altogether, because we had a choice of French, Tamil, Sanskrit and so on as optional third languages. So why is it not acceptable if the KVs now offer German as an optional, not a compulsory language? If there is enough demand, the schools will find enough German teachers: that is called the free market, supply /demand, Economics 101.

The Three Language Formula suggested Hindi, English and (preferably) a South Indian language for Hindi speaking students, and Hindi, English, and the regional language for non-Hindi speaking students. The whole idea was to force ‘national integration’, Congress-style. Whether that did so is questionable, but certainly introducing German (or French or Chinese or Japanese) would be unlikely to do any ‘national integration’. So ipso facto the idea of bringing in German is against the law, because German is not a regional language in India.

Now, I am quite a fan of the Germans, because of their diligence and methodical nature, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into a fondness for German, which is a bit difficult. I had to study technical German at IIT Madras, and all I remember now is ‘The chemische industrie produziert synthetische stoffe’. German and Sanskrit for Indians are like apples and oranges.

I contended elsewhere in 2000 that a language has five possible reasons for it to be valuable to a populace:

• A transactional language
• A literary language
• A liturgical language
• A cultural language
• A conquering language

German would be a transactional language or lingua franca with only a limited set of people: Germans, some Swiss, some Dutch, I believe. It is a good literary language, but it does not jell greatly with the Indian ethos. It is clearly not a liturgical language.

A cultural language is one that resonates with the culture of the people: for instance, if you read Guenter Grass’s magnificent works such as The Tin Drum and The Flounder, you can see it is replete with details of the history, the cuisine, and even the crops and fish of Kashubia (a land I have never read about elsewhere) and specifically of Danzig, now Gdansk.

English is the typical conquering language, which is imposed on (and eventually, as is evident, internalized by) the conquered – as in India, Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere. Germans didn’t conquer India, so it is not a conquering language either.

If you look at Sanskrit carefully, you can see that it is many of the above: a lingua franca for most of India’s history, undoubtedly the greatest literary language of India and almost certainly of the entire classical world, the liturgical language of Hindus, and the cultural language that links the conceptual entity of Bharat.

Was Sanskrit also a conquering language? Some, still harboring notions about the Aryan Invasion Fantasy, would say so, but it is increasingly evident that it was the language of the natives, not imported by some "Aryans thundering down the Khyber Pass in their horse-drawn chariots" in the bizarre imaginations of certain "eminent historians" who are past their shelf-lives. One of the (intentional) mistakes people make is in imagining that Sanskrit was only a Hindu liturgical language. Far from it. As this tweet suggests, the body of non-religious literature in Sanskrit, including everything from texts for metallurgy to off-color jokes about bodily functions, is immense. For instance there was the beautiful erotic poetry written by one Dharmakirti; it turned out the same Dharmakirti was a severe Buddhist logician!

1. संस्कृतसंवर्धनम् retweeted
Hashmi Shams Tabreed ‏@hstabreed
Critics of Sanskrit hate it for its religious association not realizing its richness. Music, Science, Arts Sanskrit Literature has it all

Sanskrit’s other claim to fame is that it is the most scientific human language of all time. I will have to delve into my computer science background and formal language theory to explain this. I have heard people say, "XYZ says Sanskrit is the best language to do Artificial Intelligence with" or words to that effect. This is not strictly speaking true: for AI, you need logic-based languages such as LISP or Prolog.

Paninian or Classical Sanskrit (as contrasted with Vedic Sanskrit) is the most refined and precise human language ever invented. It has an astonishing property known as a "context-free grammar", and so far as I know, it is the only human language that has ever had this. Context-free means that the language is utterly unambiguous, and every sentence in it can be derived precisely from a set of rules. In Paninian Sanskrit, as embodied in the Ashtadhyayi, there are 3959 rules.

Its context-free nature comes from an audacious attempt by Panini to encapsulate the infinite variety of expression in language in a finite number of rules. Even now, it is difficult to imagine that somebody, 2,500 years ago, had the chutzpah to attempt to condense infinity into a finite set of rules. This idea could have only arisen in ancient India, with its familiarity with the mathematical notion of infinity.

This idea, that Panini codified, was independently re-discovered in the 1950s by IBM engineers, as they tried to figure out a way to communicate with computers. What they needed was to find a way to instruct computers in totally unambiguous fashion. So Backus and Naur came up with context-free grammars (there was some work by Noam Chomsky at MIT in this area), and lo and behold, they were astonished to find out Panini had anticipated them by two and a half millennia!

The human-programmable computer languages that exist today, say C++ or Java or Ruby, can be described precisely in a few hundred rules. This precision allows these languages (and Paninian Sanskrit) to be lexically analyzed by a parser, which can then create a semantic tree structure that encodes the underlying 'meaning' of the statement (or program). That semantic tree than then be translated precisely into machine code (binary, ie 0 and 1, or hexadecimal, ie 16 characters, 0123456789ABCDEF) which will then run on the machine.The above is what compilers do – the programs that translate human-readable languages into the incomprehensible machine code (or slightly less obscure Assembly Language) that machines can understand. I worked on compiler construction for several years, and they are among the most sophisticated software in regular use.

So what exactly does "context-free" mean? It means that the meaning doesn’t depend on contextual knowledge or common sense. Obviously human languages are context-sensitive: you just have to know certain things as a user of the language or else you will be confused. Here is an example of two sentences in English:

1. Fruit flies like an apple
2. Time flies like an arrow

The two sentences are lexically identical, but to the human reader, based on contextual knowledge, they are vastly different. But to a computer, which has no context, they are identical. If the computer is fed the first and told that fruit flies are a kind of fly and that apples are fruits, it will create certain semantic model. Then, when given the second sentence, it will conclude that 'time flies' are a kind of fly and that arrows are fruits!

It is essentially impossible to write such ambiguous sentences in Paninian Sanskrit. That is one of the reasons why word order doesn't matter in Paninian Sanskrit, as it does in English (imagine "Rama killed Ravana" and "Ravana killed Rama" as examples).

That someone millennia ago was able to conceptualize, and even more astonishingly, create a Grand Unified Theory of Language is simply stunning. Let us note that even a widely acknowledged genius like Albert Einsten failed to come up with a Grand Unified Theory of Physics, even though he tried hard. Arguably, Panini’s successful effort then was the greatest accomplishment of a single mind in all of recorded history: creating something so advanced that it took 2500 years to figure out how to use it!

There is another reason for the perfection of Sanskrit, and that is the logical nature of Devanagari. There is no other alphabet that so scientifically orders different sound families horizontally, and the associated types (dental, retroflex etc.) horizontally. Just consider the Roman script – it has a randomly assembled set of sounds, in no particular order, in stark contrast to the rigorous order of Devanagari.

Many of us have studied another rigorously ordered scientific table that has horizontal families and vertical variants or types: that is the Periodic Table of Elements of Mendeleev, which was also so advanced that he was able to group the elements and suggest that there were gaps where new elements, yet to be discovered, belonged. The resemblance is no coincidence: Mendeelev was strongly influenced by Devanagari, and he acknowledged as much in his terminology.

Where there were gaps, he would call the missing, to-be-discovered elements eka-boron, or dvi-silicon or tria-carbon, consciously using the Sanskrit words for one, two, three etc. Later, these anticipated elements were indeed discovered and given new names. So here’s an example of what Rajiv Malhotra might call "digestion" of Indic ideas into western memes, although, to be fair, there is indirect credit.

From several points of view, thus, Sanskrit is not only the one candidate that deserves to be the national language – much as Israelis resurrected the once-moribund Hebrew – but it is by many measures the most perfect language ever invented: truly samskrt or civilized. There should be no reason to fuss even if it is imposed; much less when it is merely being put back into the syllabus where it used to be.

Published Date: Nov 20, 2014 04:01 pm | Updated Date: Nov 20, 2014 04:27 pm