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  • The Return of Sanskrit:How an old language got caught up in India’s new culture wars
  • Ananya Vajpeyi (bio)

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NEW DELHI—If you look out your plane window during landing or take off at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, the view of the nearby Jawaharlal Nehru University campus can be startling. From above, you can see that the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies building has the shape of a swastika.

Based on the Sanskrit word svastika, meaning “bringing good luck,” the swastika is an ancient symbol that looks like a cross with its four arms bent at right angles. For at least the past two and half millennia, Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists have considered the sign auspicious. But in the 1920s, the National Socialist Party in Germany adopted it, rotating it to give it a diagonal orientation. Ever since, outside of Asian ritual settings, the association with Nazis has stigmatized the symbol. The two meanings of the swastika—one [End Page 45] ancient, one modern; one good, the other evil; one Eastern, the other Western—encapsulate the contradictions within Sanskrit itself.

Sanskrit is an old language rich with liturgy, scripture, philosophy, and literature, but its use has, for the most part, been restricted to men and religious and political elites. Traditional scholarship has continued to study and debate the narratives, ideas, and ritual practices set out in the estimated 30 million texts of this language, but contemporary understandings have also critiqued the restrictive social contexts in which Sanskrit has all along been embedded.

Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, when British rule was established in India, Sanskrit became a weapon of anti-colonial resistance and a source of pride for Indians embattled by the hegemony of Western values and foreign knowledge systems. But by the end of the 20th century, secular and left-wing scholars began to criticize the elitism—indeed the outright social inequality—associated with Sanskrit learning. Undeniably oppressive for some communities within India, especially non-Brahmin castes and women, but arguably empowering for Indians when seen against the backdrop of colonialism, Sanskrit continues to oscillate between negative and positive meanings, like the swastika-shaped building of the Sanskrit department at JNU.

Since independence in 1947, the postcolonial state had largely ignored Sanskrit. In 1956, a specially appointed governmental commission under the leadership of the eminent linguist Suniti Kumar Chatterji released a massive report on the state of Sanskrit education. This document was presented to the Indian Parliament in 1957, and its recommendations languished for almost six decades. And so, until recently, Sanskrit had settled into a kind of quiescence (seemingly even an obsolescence).

Only in the past two to three years, with the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has Sanskrit re-entered the public imagination as part of the “culture wars” between the Hindu right and secular left.

After a decisive victory in the 2014 national elections, the BJP consolidated power and formed a majority government. The ruling party is now fighting to legitimate the two cornerstones of its interpretation of Hindu culture: caste and Sanskrit. These ideas constitute an assault on the more egalitarian, pluralist, participatory, and progressive visions of political modernity that have prevailed since India’s founding.

It is not that caste or exclusivist high culture based on Sanskrit erudition had ever died away, but India’s postcolonial leaders had managed to build a consensus that valued equal citizenship and democracy over the relics of the past. The ghosts of the caste system and of Sanskrit have now returned to haunt the Indian polity.

In this environment, it is important to understand what sort of object Sanskrit is, why we should care so much about it today, and why it’s so crucial to resist the BJP’s manipulation of this ancient language.


All travelers, immigrants, imperialists, invaders, and seekers of salvation or wealth who have ever come to India, from Alexander the Great in the 3rd century B.C. to American hippies of the 1960s, have encountered the enigma of Sanskrit. The language has something...


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pp. 45-50
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