Some Indologists wrt Spoken Sanskrit and Hindutva : 2008 threads


Discussions: FB15

A foreword with a 2013 note by Manas:

Apparently according to Dr. Stella Sandahl, Samskrita revivalists are interested in “cutting throats”, “raping nuns”, “destroying mosques”, etc. This preposterous and extremely offensive allegation was made in an academic e-list no less, eliciting a couple of muted protests. Dr. Sandahl also makes the equally outrageous allegation that Samskrita revivalists are all proponents of the Hindutva political movement.

Here we find one Dr. Maheswaran Nair positing that Samskrita speakers are wannabe mass-murderers.

Prof. Sheldon Pollock in an interview (available on youtube) also made some comments against the spoken Samskrita movement, though he was relatively subdued. His thesis being what I indicated earlier – spoken Samskrita doesn’t do justice to a language of high intellectual output.

I read those papers you have linked. I must give credit to Dr. Hastings for presenting a picture that is relatively objective notwithstanding what I see as his apparent predilections and amusing over-analysis of a book of simple sentences.


Spoken Sanskrit and Spoken Sanskrit

Stella Sandahl ssandahl at SYMPATICO.CA
Wed Aug 13 03:49:54 EDT 2008

In the current debate about "spoken Sanskrit" I believe we are  
talking about two different things. It is one thing when for example  
a Bengali pandit speaks to Telugu pandit in Sanskrit in order to  
debate finer points in a text, or a philosophical issue, a literary  
allusion and so forth. Sanskrit is then their common language, a  
language of learning, of elegance and wit. And this is quite wonderful.

It is an entirely different matter to try to revive and 'modernize'  
Sanskrit. Lying on a table in our university library I found a  
typical example of the latter. There were new-fangled "Sanskrit"  
words for money order, check-out counter, bus station, bank draft -  
as if one finds these things in classical Sanskrit texts! These  
manuals are quite ridiculous: I found a sentence like ahaM  
sevaphalAni khAdAmi which was supposed to mean 'I eat apples'. First,  
as far as I know there were no apples in classical India (weren't  
they brought in by Babur?), second the word seva is obviously modeled  
on Hindi seb 'apple' from the Persian sib with the same meaning. This  
is exactly in line with the examples given by Professor Nair: "adya  
kati iddali bhakshitam?" "adya chayam piitam kim?", equally  
ridiculous.  My niece in Delhi once asked to help her with her  
Sanskrit homework. She had to translate the sentence "Kings live in  
palaces" into Sanskrit. The word given by the teacher for palace was  
'mahala' !!!  I tried to convince the little girl that there was no  
such word in Sanskrit. In vain. The girl said :"teacher says it is  
mahala", and that was what it had to be.

It is very sad to se how the ignorant Hindutva forces demean and make  
the wonderful classical language into something trivial and  
ridiculous. How do we stop them?
How can we rescue Sanskrit from these vandals? I doubt that the  
sevaphalAni-eating student in his mahala can read and understand even  
one line by Kalidasa or Bana or Jayadeva.
But he can cut the throat of those who cannot speak his so called  
Sanskrit. When he is not busy demolishing mosques and raping nuns.

Stella Sandahl

Professor Stella Sandahl
Department of East Asian Studies
130 St. George St. room 14087
Toronto, ON M5S 3H1
ssandahl at
stella.sandahl at
Tel. (416) 978-4295
Fax. (416) 978-5711

Philipp Maas phmaas at ARCOR.DE
Wed Aug 13 05:03:31 EDT 2008

Dear Prof. Sandahl,

I think that we should be careful not to be discriminatory against those who
use Sanskrit in a creative, modernist fashion. The use of Sanskrit as a
spoken language, whether as standard Sanskrit or as a vulgarized idiom, is
not per se a political statement and it does not per se reveal a tendency to
approve of or even to commit political violence. In spite of everything that
Sanskrit may symbolize, it remains a language that serves the purpose of
expressing thoughts. And the freedom of thought includes, of course, the
freedom to choose one's language.

With best regards,

Philipp Maas

Spoken Sanskrit and Spoken Sanskrit

adheesh sathaye adheesh at OCF.BERKELEY.EDU
Wed Aug 13 06:33:20 EDT 2008

Dear Profs. Hart, Nair, and Sandahl, and colleagues,

With all due respect, I find it hard to accept that the construction  
of neologisms like 'seva-phala', 'iDDali' or even misuses like  
'mahAla' are in any way indicative of 'ignorant Hindutva forces'. It  
is not at all uncommon  to see vernacular words or forms used within  
medieval Sanskrit manuscripts, and particularly when the concept does  
not occur in classical Sanskrit. Certain MSS of zivadAsa's or  
jambhaladatta's vetAla-paJcaviMzati, for example, appear to be  
replete with north Indian vernacular 'loan-words' and shoddy, Hindi-  
or Marathi-based grammatical forms. This is  just the tip of the  
iceberg. Moreover, contemporary spoken Sanskrit is quite obviously  
and self-consciously a simplification of classical Sanskrit, and this  
has been done in order for the language to be more accessible and  
appealing to young, twenty-first century students, who WOULD like to  
express their thoughts about riding the bus, eating apples, using  
computers, and other modern-day activities. It's actually quite a fun  
thing to do.

One must, it is true, engage in this linguistic practice knowing full  
well that what one is speaking is a hybridized and simplified form of  
the classical parole, and this I think is where some of the Hindu  
nationalist ideological projects are indeed harmful, as Prof. Nair  
points out, in representing spoken Sanskrit to the Indian public as  
being both authentic and Hindu. What's most disturbing to me about  
the Hindu spoken Sanskrit movement is not how the language is  
treated, but how many textbooks attempt to naturalize (and  
nationalize) upper-caste, puritanical Hindu practices through  
language teaching.

On the other hand, may I respectfully suggest that the idea that the  
ancientness of Sanskrit somehow debilitates this language from  
accepting neologisms, or makes it useless for expressing modern  
ideas, itself might be construed as an act of intellectual violence  
on par with 'cutting throats', 'demolishing mosques', or 'raping  
nuns'? Clearly, as scholars of classical Sanskrit, we have an  
obligation to continue to teach students how to read and understand  
kAlidAsa, bANa, or perhaps even the magisterial ZrIharSa--but can  
this teaching not occur side-by-side with an acceptance of a  
consciously different register of the Sanskrit language, albeit  
contrived and manufactured, for contemporary, everyday usage? Perhaps  
the latter might serve as a kind of gateway for the former?

with best regards,

Dr. Adheesh Sathaye
Department of Asian Studies
University of British Columbia
408 Asian Centre
1871 West Mall
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2
adheesh at

George Hart glhart at BERKELEY.EDU 
Wed Aug 13 11:06:47 EDT 2008

Sorry for so many posts, but I think this may be useful to someone.

Years ago, when I was reading from Ramanuja's Sribhasya, I noticed  
that his usages often mirror the Sanskrit that is still spoken by the  
pandits in Chennai.  For example, the word "samiiciina" for "fine,"  
"good," "excellent" is used by that writer.  On the other hand,  
Sankara's Sanskrit does not seem to be connected with the Sanskrit I  
heard in Chennai -- its style and word usage is quite different.  This  
suggests that there is a continuous tradition of spoken Sanskrit that  
developed in Tamil Nadu 1000 years ago and still continues today.  The  
Sanskrit used in Kerala was probably rather different (something also  
suggested by my very superficial acquaintance with the Manipravala  
works of 4 or 500 years ago).  Certainly, in many parts of India and  
Nepal, Sanskrit has been used as a spoken language for a long time.   
It would seem that each area has developed its own style and word  
usage.  As we know, the pandits of one area often look down at the  
Sanskrit (esp. pronunciation) of pandits from other areas.

There is a wonderful sloka that can be used when teaching beginning  
Sanskrit -- but I have forgotten the details of the story that goes  
along with it.  Perhaps someone can recall it.  Someone, wanting to  
show off to Kalidasa how much Sanskrit he knew, said, "bhojanam dehi  
raajendra ghrtasuupasamanvitam."  Kalidasa is supposed to have replied  
"maahiSam ca zaraccandracandrikaadhavalam dadhi."  Of course, the  
first utterance is ungainly and awkward, while the second flows like  
moonlight.  The dhvani, according to my pandit, is that Kalidasa is  
implying that the would-be Sanskrit speaker is stupid and slow, as  
buffalo yogurt is supposed to dull the mind.

George Hart

hhhock hhhock at EXPRESS.CITES.UIUC.EDU 
Wed Aug 13 11:31:11 EDT 2008

The thread on spoken Sanskrit has been very interesting, and some  
points strike me as quite a propos. First, I don't see any problems  
with neologisms. Even if we ignore the sometimes controversial  
examples of supposed Dravidian borrowing in early Vedic and the much  
less controversial ones in later Vedic and post-Vedic (such as  
niira-), or the late borrowings from North Indian languages in late  
Sanskrit texts, there is evidence for borrowing at many other stages,  
and in many different spheres (consider e.g. (tri-)koNa, horaa and  
the like, from Greek). Moreover, if Sanskrit is to be used in a  
modern context, not only to discuss fine points of philosophy or  
grammar, it has to be modernized to make it possible to talk about  
trains, apples, and the like (and hybrids like relayaana strike me as  
much more felicitous than words such as agniratha(...)yaana). There  
is a problem, however, as far as the lexicon goes, namely the whole- 
scale importation of Sanskrit-derived Hindi, Marathi, etc. words into  
Sanskrit, with their modern meanings, rather than the use of  
established Sanskrit words (consider the use of aarambha instead of  
utsava in the Hindi-speaking area). While Sanskrit needs to be  
modernized, it does not need to be intellectualized, thank you; it  
always has been perfectly capable to deal with intellectual issues.

Second, I agree that the kind of spoken Sanskrit that is being  
propagated by Hindutva organizations is grammatically, lexically, and  
intellectually without merit, not far removed from a pidgin form of  
the language. The fact that it does not provide a useful entry to the  
full form of the language, as found in the philosophical, religious,  
and literary tradition of India (not to speak of the vast range of  
technical literature), supports the view that the motivation for this  
enterprise is not to connect modern Indians with their traditions but  
to give Hindus (or better: Hindutvavaadins) a false, manufactured  
sense of identity. (I should add that the founders of this movement,  
such as Krishna Shastri, had a much fuller grasp of the language and  
spoke it very well.)

Best wishes,


Ganesan ganesan at IFPINDIA.ORG 
Thu Aug 14 08:06:02 EDT 2008

Of course, the spoken Sanskrit courses which serve as introduction to the 
great language and which are mainly aimed to disprove the critics that 
Sanskrit was not and is never a spoken language should lead the learners to 
study the vast corpus of classical texts.
But, the 'agenda' of the so called Hindutvavadi is not to 'demolish mosques 
or to rape nuns'. With all their obvious mistakes in some of their views 
they can not be outrightly condemned and they never resort to such demeaning 
It is so strange that even after such horrific and barbaric terrorist acts 
being perpetrated in Kashmir still the Hindutvavadi is condemned for those 
crimes ('demolishing mosques or raping nuns') with which he has been proved 
subsequently to be not at all associated. !!

Mahadevan, Thennilapuram tmahadevan at HOWARD.EDU 
Fri Aug 15 03:46:50 EDT 2008

I concur with Professor Hart.  I was at Kanchipuram about ten days ago to attend a sadas (214 particpants from allover South India, mostly from the Tamil country and none from Kerala) of the RV reciters.  The sadas lasted three days, the samhita recitation on the first day, the krama the second day and the gana the third day.  Part of the aim was for the professional vaidikans to raise questions regarding the minutiae of recitation: the questions would be handed overto an MC-like figure who would put it to the sadas and he would invite a known specialist to come forth an answer.  The discussion was all but in Sanskrit with Tamil funcioning to provide a rough syntax.  A Brahmanical coine.
Best wishes,
T. P.  Mahadevan


Spoken Sanskrit

Dominik Wujastyk ucgadkw at UCL.AC.UK
Fri Aug 8 12:31:58 EDT 2008

There's an interesting set of reflections on the topic here:

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology
June 2008, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 24-45
Posted online on July 28, 2008.

Licked by the Mother Tongue: Imagining Everyday Sanskrit at Home and in 
the World
by Adi Hastings

This paper examines the ways in which Sanskrit revivalists in contemporary 
India imagine social contexts for the production and reproduction of 
Sanskrit speech. In contrast to the received view of Sanskrit as being a 
ritual language par excellence, opposed at every step to the domestic 
sphere and everyday life, Sanskrit revivalists treat Sanskrit as a “mother 
tongue,” figuring the home as the primary site for the creation of an 
“everyday Sanskrit” world and the mother as the primary agent of this 
process of Sanskritizing the domestic sphere. “Domesticating Sanskrit,” 
the process of bringing the elevated ritual language down into everyday 
life, at the very same time “Sanskritizes the domestic,” that is, ritually 
transforms or elevates the home into a “Sanskrit home.” Moving outward 
from the Sanskritized domestic sphere, activists also imagine other 
contexts in which one could use Sanskrit, which nonetheless conforms to a 
notion of a Sanskrit interiority or domesticity.

Dr Dominik Wujastyk
Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow
University College London

Klaus Karttunen klaus.karttunen at HELSINKI.FI 
Mon Aug 11 03:38:08 EDT 2008

Dear colleagues,
H. H. Hock studied spoken Sanskrit in the 1980s in U.P., in Lucknow  
and Varanasi, if I remember right. See his article  “Spoken Sanskrit  
in Uttar Pradesh — a sociolinguistic profile”, Journal of  
Orientology. Lokaprajñā vol. 2. Prof. N. S. Rāmānuja Tātācārya  
Felicitation Volume. Puri 1988, 1–24. There has been a small  
percentage of people giving Sanskrit as their language in every  
census, but often it seems to be "father tongue" rather than "mother  

Klaus Karttunen, Ph.D.
Professor of South Asian and Indoeuropean Studies
Institute for Asian and African Studies
PL 59 (Unioninkatu 38 B)
00014 University of Helsinki, FINLAND

Tel +358-(0)9-191 22674
  Fax +358-(0)9-191 22094
  Email Klaus.Karttunen at

Spoken Sanskrit

veeranarayana Pandurangi veerankp at GMAIL.COM 
Mon Aug 11 03:47:37 EDT 2008

dear friends,
welcome to such new studies.
but is is difficult for a naiyayika to imagine ritual transformation of
household in the context of modern sanskrit revivalism. Since I know
personally many sanskrit families here, it is nothing but some kind of
national revivalism.
George Hart glhart at BERKELEY.EDU 
Mon Aug 11 10:07:05 EDT 2008

I myself once encountered someone from Karnataka who lived in the  
village where "Sanskrit" is spoken.  It was a dumbed-down language not  
much resembling (in my opinion) the eloquent tongue used by Kalidasa  
and Sankara -- or even the epics.  It dispenses with such frills as  
the dual and many verb forms.  I asked him if he had read Sanskrit  
literature -- poetry, darsana, whatever.  He seemed nonplussed by the  
question -- he spoke Sanskrit; why should he read Kalidasa?  I felt he  
was entirely ignorant of the intellectual grandeur and scope of the  
language and spoke it (or his version of it) merely to make a  
statement.  I would remark parenthetically that the use of Sanskrit in  
a Malayalam historical novel I once read -- including 3-line Sanskrit  
compounds -- was far more sophisticated than this "Sanskrit" speaker  
could have managed.  If he had studied the literature of Kannada --  
which I suspect was his real native language -- his Sanskrit would  
certainly have been much better.  George Hart
Rasik Vihari Joshi Tripathi jrasik at COLMEX.MX 
Mon Aug 11 10:27:02 EDT 2008

Dear Hart,
Do you know that there are fourteen Sanskrit Vidyapeetha in India, and
six Sanskrit universities in Varanasi,Tirupati, Delhi,Jaipur etc.  where
sanskrit is the media of teaching and all Professors and students speak
Sanskrit. My mother toung was Sanskrit. My father Pandit Rampratap
Shastri was Professor and Head of the Departrment of Sanskrit at the
Nagpur university and I learnt Sanskrit with him as a  child and then at
Varanasi I studied upto Shastri degree. I took my first Ph.D. in India
and second at Sorbonne.I have  composed and published 15 Sanskrit Kavyas
I still speak Sanskrit fluently. My latest Sanskrit Kavya is Satyam
Universl Truth). I wonder if you have met any Professor or student of
these institutions? With best regards,
Rasik Vihari Joshi
George Hart glhart at BERKELEY.EDU 
Mon Aug 11 10:42:29 EDT 2008

Dear Rasik Joshi Tripathi,

I myself spoke Sanskrit for a year with pandits from the Sanskrit  
Sanskrit college -- I made sure none of them knew English.  I became  
pretty fluent, and was intrigued to discover that my wife, who is  
Tamil and has studied Tamil literature thoroughly, could understand us  
after a time.  Colloquial Tamil contains thousands of Sanskrit words,  
though of course high Tamil uses pure Dravidian equivalents (e.g.  
tuuymai for suddam < suddha).  Sanskrit syntax has been deeply  
influenced by Dravidian -- and this is even more true of spoken  
Sanskrit (bhavaan aagamisyati vaa, where the vaa replicates the  
Dravidian interrogative -aa).  This no doubt made it easier for her to  
understand.  The Sanskrit used by the pandits had, in my estimation,  
very little in common with the language of the person from the  
Sanskrit village.  They used the language sensitively, creatively, and  
with a full knowledge of all its forms.  I remember once being taken  
to task for using too many bhaave constructions, a convenient  
workaround that, of course, enables one to avoid remembering all the  
various verb conjugations.  It is certainly true that there are many  
like yourself who are well-versed in Sanskrit even today.  A Tamil  
gentleman living in the Bay Area recently presented me with a  
composition -- quite well done -- he had written in Sanskrit on the  
Titanic.  He had truly mastered the language.  George Hart
Rasik Vihari Joshi Tripathi jrasik at COLMEX.MX 
Mon Aug 11 12:11:17 EDT 2008

Dear Hart,
I am very glad to know that you are also a fluent Sanskrit and Tamil
speaker.yes.There in much similarity with dravidian. If you would be
interested I will send you my Sanskrit Kavya "Satyam". If yes, l. send
me your mailing address.With best regards,
Rasik Vihari Joshi 

Maheswaran Nair swantam at ASIANETINDIA.COM 
Wed Aug 13 02:42:17 EDT 2008


  In Malayalam, my native tongue, 60 to 70 percent words of the  
language of an educated Malayalee are Sanskrit. In many Indian  
languages the state of this affair will slightly change. Such people  
need not make Sanskrit their spoken language. There is hidden agenda  
behind popularising spoken Sanskrit. Hindu revivalists and  
communalists are popularising it. They have organizations for the  
same. At times of mass murders of people belonging to other religions  
there is need to distinguish them. "Interested parties" have plans to  
make Sanskrit the national language of India. A time may come when  
during purposely created communal riots, the question will be put  
"bhavaan samskrtam janaati kim?" Those who reply in the affirmative in  
Sanskrit will be spared and others will be butchered.
I am also fluent in Sanskrit and have evolved an easy  method for  
teaching Spoken Sanskrit, not the spoken Sanskrit popularised by the  
revivalists which is like "adya kati iddali bhakshitam?" "adya chayam  
piitam kim?".
K.Maheswaran Nair
Professor of Sanskrit
University of Kerala


एक उत्तर दें

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