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Sanskrit and English

February 3, 1975

Though everyone sees English is spreading very fast all over the world primarily through International commerce and partially through the political transactions, its significance as a vehicle of world unity is not fully realized or at least acted upon. It is noteworthy that the expansive impulse to English came only after her contact with Sanskrit. This is so in time; but in spirit I should say the impetus was given by Sanskrit when English endeavoured to express thoughts originally born in Sanskrit. English was a language of social commercial communication which grew in its linguistic dimension when it started expressing ideas of democracy in the earlier centuries. A social thought normally carries an information, often the information as observed or understood by the speaker. A commercial thought always implies the thought of two persons, i.e. the speaker while expressing anticipates the other man's point of view and tries to absorb that too into his thought. In that sense its dimension is double, if we can classify the earlier as unidimensional. Similarly a political thought tries to abridge and absorb into itself multilateral viewpoints and the thought (along with the language into which it is couched), gets a further dimension to its linguistic structure. All this belongs to one plane which is the plane of social life where man lives a material physical life. The poet adds the dimension of imagination which brings into it the purview of the all-embracing existence of nature and the presiding universe. This enrichment is always, as a rule, limited by the social growth of the language into which that poetry is born. By the time English came into India she was all this but no more. The balancing phrases for which English is known were born in commercial situations and later chastened by the exigencies of Parliamentary debates. In the process of acquiring this great virtue, English has lost the precision which is characteristic of French. [In international agreements of any country if a treaty is to be well defined it used to be drawn up in English and French, the latter being the authority when dispute arises. This is partly true of defining Geometrical theorems].

Sanskrit was originally not a spoken language. Its allied language, less literary, Prakrit, was the spoken language even during the heydays of Sanskrit. It originally served to express ideas not born out of mind, or social circumstances or political necessities. The ideas, if they could be called so (truths), were first seen in the vision of the seer or rishi and later were brought down to life without compromising their truth. Also life was seen in this context and absorbed into the spiritual truths and rediscovered in the living of it. An examination of each word or set of words denoting (1) material objects, (2) living objects, (3) human situations, (4) mental ideas, (5) spiritual truths, in Sanskrit on the one side and English on the other side will readily reveal that English is born into the social plane and grown into the mental plane of ideas whereas Sanskrit was born in the spiritual plane and expanded itself by growth (without losing its original significance) into the planes of mind and life.

It is natural that the contact of Sanskrit gives a live impetus to English to grow and the growth does not in the first place imitate the language that delivers the impact. The growth, first exhausts the plane into which it was then functioning, viz. the social, political planes. This process of growth is not merely horizontal but also vertical in the sense that social, commercial, political ideas each have gained in weight and significance in their own realm.

Later, study of Sanskrit by western scholars had started on an organized scale. No doubt to this day the nature and significance of the study, even in the best of them, is superficial, e.g. yoga means asanas which in turn reduces itself to physical exercises. Dharma becomes law. In spite of this severe limitation it was not impossible for English to acquire certain words as such, certain conceptions as such, extend certain other conceptions of English to more fully express the Sanskrit idea and in the process lend herself to be enlivened at a plane which is not merely creative of language, but is absolutely creative. In the scheme of things creativity in all fields overlaps somewhere.

Sanskrit has initiated this much into English and English has expressed it by growing in other fields. Sri Aurobindo knows no language for his writing use, other than English. His spiritual conception gives one more dimension to the original Indian thought (which by its being spiritual is richer than any other social language) which posited the immutable spirit. Sri Aurobindo posited that the Spirit itself undergoes evolution and his spiritual evolution is well known. Even at the level of spirit Sri Aurobindo's thought has more dimensions to its concepts than the original Vedic conceptions in Sanskrit.

All his original writings (all his writings) are in English. A study of his English reveals this double phase of growth of the English language, (1) extra dimension given by Sanskrit and (2) further dimension given by his vision of spiritual evolution.

An organized study of the growth of the English language over the last 200 years will reveal the springhead of possible growth. Coming to those linguistic landmarks or springheads, and letting the language express widely and richly the spiritual truths, it is possible for English to grow into a universal language. As cited before the growth may take less rich routes, but growth will be there. Thereby it will better serve as a vehicle of world unity.

Academically studies in Indian, British, American Varsities can be instituted along 25, 30 lines and when we find initial response, it will be possible to draw up the very framework of study with all necessary details required.

In real terms the following facts cannot be overlooked:

  1. The prediction that English will die its natural death in India after the British, is not merely belied but today the clamours for English medium education from nursery stage is far greater than before 1947. The English dailies and newspapers show signs of growth. English has lost its literary flavour and enjoyment but its utility is growing.
  2. In spite of organized efforts of purists of Indian language everywhere, especially Tamil Nadu, Sanskrit persists in its existence through other channels. For example, Tamil Nadu school abolished Sanskrit study but the Sanskrit story tellers are in greater demand today than 25 years ago.
  3. All linguists know that no linguistic study is complete without studying Sanskrit.
  4. Through interest in yoga Sanskrit terms are often heard in English literature of our times and in world literature too. T.S.Eliot has bodily transferred Sanskrit words like INDRIYA (part of body) into his poems.
  5. The ecological studies are unconsciously on the verge of looking on earth not as a body but as a being.
  6. Each department of knowledge, in spite of sterile specialization on one side, strays so much into other departments of knowledge and are on the point of seeing that all knowledge stems from the ONE. The study becomes a seeing, the seeing ripens into vision.

We can list a few other similar major aspects but man does not begin at the top, he begins at the bottom. Where man can begin the following suggestions, efforts, ideas are worth considering.

  • The idea of an American youth for each village can include or be extended and one American youth to teach English in each Indian school can be organized on voluntary basis, by public organization. This is an extension of the idea of Peace Corps. The Government can make a token effort at all levels, primary, middle, secondary, collegiate education. Later foundations in the U.S.A. can help it spread and finally a movement of people wanting to visit India can be organized and during their stay here they can teach English at a place of their choice.
  • A counterpart of it can be organized for the migration of Sanskrit knowing persons and later encouraged widely with a view to teaching Sanskrit in schools, organizing Sanskrit courses privately and organizing series of lectures based on truths mainly expressed in Sanskrit, parallel to what obtains in India as Kathakalakshepam - story telling.
  • In the United States efforts can be undertaken through the existing organized field to start chains of special schools for Sanskrit. The necessary basis for this in the USA seems to exist. E.g. the government of New York State sanctioned a grant of Rs.One lakh and sent a scholar to have ‘Kathopanishad' rendered into a play. He was told that Seyril had already done it. He was happy but was disappointed when he knew it was in English. He said people in the USA would rather hear the Sanskrit they do not understand than rendering it into English which they can follow. What they ask for is the Sanskrit recitation. This is an indication of a general atmosphere that prevails there not much noticed.
  • The Sanskrit content of academic studies already undertaken wherever the subject permits can be enlarged through academic efforts.
  • The small and great publishing houses can be shown the great potentialities for present publication in these lines.
    • Stories on Indian Mythology can be published in (1) English or (2) in Sanskrit or (3) in diglot;
    • Shorter versions of the Indian classics can be published in English with a bias for the Sanskrit original words;
    • Simple translations of the great epics of India provide great scope;
    • Centres of Indology, Chairs for the same, etc. could be created by interested publishers;
    • Sanskrit courses of short duration of a few months for tourists in places like Bombay, Bangalore, and in places where Ashrams are situated, (like Tiruvannamalai) will prove to be popular. Poor Sanskrit scholars can make a living that way. The government can organize it. Tourism will have one more activity attached to it.

story | by Dr. Radut