(This piece has been written with inputs from Abhishek Ranjan Datta, University of Oxford)
The Government of India introduced the National Education Policy (NEP) in July 2020 with an aim to overhaul the education system of India. One of the significant policy shifts that it makes is to include Sanskrit as one of the ‘modern Indian languages’ in formal education. According to NEP 2020, Sanskrit will be “offered at all levels of school and higher education as an important, enriching option for students, including as an option in the three-language formula” (NEP 2020: 14). This importance placed on Sanskrit language is evident in the generous sprinkling of Sanskrit words throughout the document (See: NEP 2020 in Hindi). The government of India also spent 22 times more on Sanskrit-language promotions than five other classical languages combined in the last three years. Given the document clearly mentions that “the rich heritage of ancient and eternal Indian knowledge and thought has been a guiding light for this Policy” (NEP 2020: 14), these provisions raise important issues of the connection between language, knowledge, and power. This policy also upholds the long-standing state patronage of Sanskrit language, its ongoing efforts to‘ sanskritise’ Indian languages, and construct a particular national identity (Ramaswamy 1999, also see: Sheldon Pollock 2006).
Policies are important political spaces that promote strong connections between knowledge and language, as well as construct the perceptions that knowing a certain language in itself means acquiring knowledge. The political power of language is most apparent in the resources, space, and attention given to a particular language in any political system. In a country like India, which already endures unequal multilingualism and a complicated social history of Sanskrit, these provisions in NEP 2020 can have profound implications. NEP 2020 asserts that ‘vision of the Policy is to instil among the learners a deep-rooted pride in being Indian, not only in thought, but also in spirit, intellect, and deeds’ (NEP 2020: 6). Since education is always socially and linguistically embedded, India’s linguistic and social complexities are particularly important considerations in the field of education. Let us take a closer look at how the NEP imagines Sanskrit as the language of ‘Indian’ civilisation, and the problematic implications of such a claim.
Language and multilingualism remain a crucial focus of the NEP 2020. The policy’s recognition of the ‘power of language’ is evident in the substantial section dedicated to this issue (see page 13-15). While the policy encourages students to learn in their ‘own’ languages and makes some provision for mother-tongue education, in practice, Sanskrit is almost always offered as a third language in schools, instead of other minoritised languages of the state because of the availability of resources and material in Sanskrit as compared to other languages. This throws up many questions around the definitions of ‘mother tongue’, ‘home language’, ‘regional language’ etc. as well as their position vis-à-vis Sanskrit language. There is constant dismissal of minoritised or tribal languages in certain states even though these are lived ‘home languages’ for many students in the classroom, while Sanskrit as a ‘modern language’ is made compulsory in these schools. The policy also recommends initiatives such as ‘Ek Bharat Shrestha Bharat’ (translation – One India, Strong/superior/great India) that the students will learnt ‘the remarkable unity of most of the major Indian languages’ as well as ‘their origins and sources of vocabularies from Sanskrit and other classical languages’(see page 14). The policy notes the volume of rich classical literature available in Sanskrit, and recommends that it is mainstreamed in all levels of school and higher education, as part of the three-language formula. The policy decisions like these not only legitimise one language over another, but also determine the status of those language/s in society.
While describing the ‘origins and sources of vocabularies’ (NEP 2020: 14) of a majority of Indian languages, the NEP attributes it to ‘Sanskrit and other classical languages’ (NEP 2020: 14). The unequal importance accorded to Sanskrit–as compared to other classical languages like Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Odia (which are actually living ‘modern’ Indian languages) or even Pali, Prakrit and Persian–throughout the document cannot be ignored. It is mentioned that Sanskrit ‘possesses a classical literature that is greater in volume than that of Latin and Greek put together’ (NEP 2020: 14). In some states, like Gujarat, the teaching of Sanskrit is even made compulsory in schools which could ‘give a definite advantage to the upper castes’ (Mohammad-Arif 2005: 159) because of the access to the Sanskrit language being limited to upper-caste Hindus. Mohammad-Arif calls this a part of the ‘brahmanisation’ of education by the ruling right-wing party in India. ‘Indianisation, Nationalisation and Spiritualisation’ of Indian school education was one of the stated goals of BJP’s cabinet minister in 2005, and this strategy also resulted in attempts to remove sections of history textbooks from the curriculum that portray ancient Brahmanic customs which are in dissonance with currently accepted practices – another example of a conflation between ‘Indianisation’ and ‘brahminisation’ (Mohammad-Arif 2005: 159). It is clear then that decisions related to curriculum and textbooks are not apolitical, and in fact, can often be seen as a part of a larger political project. It is this association of Sanskrit with the Hindu religion, and the promotion of a Hindu history as the history of India at large throughout policy documents, which makes this disproportionate focus on Sanskrit a matter of concern.
It is difficult to bring up Sanskrit without referring to its chequered history and association with caste. As a language that has long been the symbol of caste oppression and exclusion, it continues to occupy a position of privilege. This position cannot be taken over by English or any other language that lies outside of this caste hierarchy. In fact, English has often been seen as a tool of empowerment for marginalised groups who have not been able to transcend the rigid boundaries of caste in Indian society. There even exists a temple devoted to ‘Agrezi Devi’ (The Goddess of English) built by a Dalit community in the village of Banka in Uttar Pradesh. The following song was recited at its inauguration:
“London sey chalkar aayi, yeh Angrezi Devi Maiyya/ Computer-wali Maiyya, hai Angrezi Devi Maiyya/ Hum sabki devi maiyya, jan-jan ki Devi Maiyya” (She hails from London, this Goddess English/ She reigns over computers, she’s everybody’s goddess).” (The Hindu 2017).
Another reason that Sanskrit is often promoted is because of its grammatical ‘perfection’ or the beauty of the language. The drawback with portraying Sanskrit in an idealistic light, or by insisting on its objectivity and scientific nature, overlooks the political roots of such objectivity (Ramaswamy 1999). Is there any merit in characterising Sanskrit as grammatically better than other languages? Is privileging the ‘beauty’ of Sanskrit just another way of obfuscating the fact that it is a language of privilege? This portrayal ignores the investment of time, resources, and space which makes some languages look more ‘developed’ than others. It is important to appreciate that ‘disagreements over merit or demerit of specific forms, whether particular pronunciation, lexical items, or syntactic forms, mask the fact that in their disagreement people are agreeing to the rules of the game by which the legitimacy is defined’ (Bourdieu 1991: 58). It is important to acknowledge the legitimisation accorded to the Sanskrit language through official documents, which only reinforces its privilege, and inevitably reduces the status of the other languages that it is in the process hegemonising.
There are practical pedagogical challenges of teaching Sanskrit language. Sanskrit has been traditionally taught to pass on scriptural knowledge as spoken, recited words (Graham 1997). It has usually been transmitted orally, as recited by Brahmans who are considered authoritative. The transmission of knowledge follows an extensive memorisation of texts and recitation as heard from the guru (Parry 1985, Fuller 2001). It is yet to be seen how NEP 2020’s vision for Sanskrit education overcomes this tradition of rote learning and encourages creative thinking. The policy mentions that the language will be “taught in ways that are interesting and experiential as well as contemporarily relevant, including through the use of Sanskrit Knowledge Systems, and in particular through phonetics and pronunciation” (NEP 2020: 14). It also aims to use Simple Standard Sanskrit (SSS) to teach Sanskrit through Sanskrit (STS). These are all much-needed pedagogical changes.
The issue of language is an important issue; it raises concerns over access to knowledge, legitimate value placed on certain linguistic groups, and pedagogical processes that encourage certain educational thought. Sanskrit is an important world language, the language that holds the potential to give people access to a variety of literature and knowledge systems. However, the excessive emphasis placed on its links with India culture and civilisation, the beauty and grammatical perfection of the language, and its instrumentalisation to define the nation blatantly ignores the issue of language, power and politics. Education is never an apolitical issue.
The wealth of literature and texts that exists in the Sanskrit language must not be discredited in the process of analysing its social history. Questions of access constantly come into play but the democratisation of Sanskrit education in a socially conscious and inclusive manner can actually benefit the discourse and practice around Sanskrit language. The general practice till now has been that it the language has been used very much for religious teaching. But it is worth thinking about how the teaching of Sanskrit in schools and higher education can be more inclusive, and move past its strong connections with caste. Whom does this strong focus on Sanskrit in the NEP leave out? And how can this be acknowledged as a part of the policy, in order to not perpetuate age-old social hierarchies and inequalities?
Bourdieu, P. 1991. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Fuller, C.J. 2001. Orality, Literacy and Memorization: Priestly Education in Contemporary South India. Modern Asian Studies 35 (1): 1-31.
Graham, W. A. 1987. Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mohammad-Arif, A. 2005. ‘Textbooks, Nationalism and History Writing in India and Pakistan’. In Manufacturing Citizenship: Education and Nationalism in Europe, South Asia and China, edited by Véronique Bénéï. London: Routledge
Parry, J. 1985. `The Brahmanical Tradition and the Technology of the Intellect.’ In Reason and Morality, Joanna Overing, ed. London: Tavistock.
Pollock, Sheldon. 2006. The Language of the Gods in the World of Men. University of California Press
Sumathi Ramaswamy. 1999. Sanskrit for the Nation. Modern Asian Studies , Vol. 33, No. 2 pp. 339-381
National Education Policy. 2020. Ministry of Human Resource Development. Government of India [available at https://www.education.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/NEP_Final_English_0.pdf, last accessed on 22 May 2021]
Author information: Mohini Gupta is a DPhil Student at the Faculty of Oriental Studies. Her research work is centred around the politics of language in South Asia, with a focus on sociolinguistic hierarchies between English and Indian languages.
Suggested Citation: Mohini Gupta and Uma Pradhan. 2021. ‘Can Sanskrit education be inclusive?: A perspective on the New Education Policy 2020’, Think Pieces Series No. 17. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).