Sarita Boodhoo

Languages Matter

Whither Sanskrit?



— Sarita Boodhoo


I borrow this title from Mr Koichiro Matsuura, former Director General of UNESCO when he gave his message on the celebration of 2008 as the International Year of Languages. He said: “Languages Matter. Languages are indeed essential to the identity of groups and individuals. They constitute a strategic factor of progress towards sustainable development and a harmonious relationship between the global and local context.”


It is a positive sign that the Government of Mauritius is bringing out several bills to give recognition to languages spoken or taught in Mauritius. This is indeed a laudable initiative and deserves to be saluted. The decision to bring various Language Speaking Union Bills was taken on 29 May 2009 at a Cabinet Meeting. I am happy that Bhojpuri is at long last getting official status with the setting up of the Bhojpuri Speaking Union. At a time when adverse winds were blowing on the ancestral languages of the indentured workers and their descendants, there was a need to give Bhojpuri its respectability and assured continuity in a fast forward moving flux of controversial quick sands. Thus the Mauritius Bhojpuri Institute was founded in 1981 as a private endeavour and registered in May 1982. There was linguistic destabilization and associated with it the disruption of the cultural matrix of the people of Indian origin. Bhojpuri needed to be assured of an institutional set-up to give it its prestige and identity. Bhojpuri and its associated cultural and social heritage form one of the pillars of the matrix of multi-lingual and multi-cultural Mauritius. In the fast globalisation of the world, cultures and languages are undergoing rapid and phenomenal mutation.

According to a survey by UNESCO, 50% of the world’s 7000 spoken languages face the danger of disappearance from the surface of the globe. Thus on the ninth International Mother Language Day, on 21 February 2008, Dr Koichiro Matsuura urged governments and institutions all over the world to act now as a matter of urgency as it was observed that “thousands of languages are absent from the education system, the media, the publishing and the public domain in general.”

Therefore, 28 years after the setting up of the Mauritius Bhojpuri Institute, a new wind is blowing in the country and the Government is bringing out the Bhojpuri-Speaking Union Bill — along with the Creole Speaking Union Bill, the Mandarin-Speaking Union Bill and the Arabic-Speaking Union Bill. The other languages utilised and spoken/written in Mauritius such as English (the first on to be given recognition), Hindi, Marathi, Urdu and Tamil have all been honoured with Speaking Union Bills which have since been functioning along the structures and parameters set up by the government.

The battle for the recognition of Asian languages in the formal curriculum of education has been a long and arduous one, humiliating at times, with many precipices, obstacles and hurdles. This battle has been fought by successive generations since one hundred and fifty years and many stalwarts have sacrificed their lives in the struggle. And finally in 2004, the Asian languages including Hindi were officially given recognition in the educational system. How are they faring now? That’s a totally different question which will be addressed at a later stage.


Whither Sanskrit?


For the time being, let us consider the case of Sanskrit. One is shocked and saddened at the fact that in all this comity of languages, Sanskrit, the mother of the Indo-European languages and the most ancient cultural, philosophical, literary, linguistic and scriptural vehicle with an exact scientific syntax and a phonetically superb alphabetic system is conspicuously absent from this long list of language bills.

Sanskrit is the most ancient vibrant living language of the world with a tremendous rich array of literature. Since the ancient times, travellers like Fa Yuen and Huen Tsang from China came and stayed for several years (16 years) in Pataliputra, glorious capital of Bihar, to learn and study Sanskrit and its derivative Pali (the language used by Buddha for his preachings). Thereafter, they employed several workers and loaded dozens of mules and poneys to take back home over a hazardous land journey, hoards of Sanskrit and Pali texts. After many Sanskrit texts were destroyed by invaders in India, e.g. the deliberate fire set at the prestigious and most ancient Nalanda University and its library in Bihar (set up in 300 BC), it was thanks to the laborious work of these Chinese travellers that many Sanskrit and Pali texts could be retrieved.

In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, great European savants and scholars like Max Muller, Dr George Grierson, the French Indologist Alain Danielou, Romain Roland, Higgins, Griffith did monumental work to recognise the literary and linguistic merits and universal philosophical distinction of Sanskrit, its literature and grammar. Sanskrit is taught at the world’s renowned academic institutions, at Cambridge and Oxford Universities and in German, French Universities. What about Mauritius?

Even in South East Asia where Buddhism and Islam have supplanted the once glorious Hindu culture and religion, the Sanskrit linguistic heritage is remarkably well preserved in Bali, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia. Even Singapore (Sinhapur) is of Sanskrit origin. I was pleasantly surprised to see that libraries in Malaysia carry the name Pustakalaya (same meaning in Sanskrit). Bangkok’s new state-of-the-art international airport has been given the name Suvarna Bhumi (the golden land in Sanskrit). The airplane is known as Viman (Sanskrit). Many of the names of places and people are of Sanskrit origin.

In Mauritius it would seem Sanskrit has been either taken for granted or given a low profile by apologetic leaders, often loud-mouthed but weak-kneed. Sanskrit is taught at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute. Did we know that? The Brahman Maha Sabha and Hindu Maha Sabha teach and conduct examinations in Sanskrit for decades. The Hindi Pracharini Sabha has been offering Sanskrit as an alternative examinable subject with Hindi as main, for more than 50 years. The Arya Sabha baithkas and schools conduct exams in Sanskrit known as the Visharad ek. Sanskrit is taught as a language at the DAV College run by the Sabha. And yet I find it astounding that politicians and Ministers in particular who spend most of their time throughout the year making beautiful speeches at ceremonies and functions on the readily available podiums of socio-cultural organisations whether at the Ganga Talab or elsewhere having no say in including a Sanskrit Speaking Union? Some of them are so knowledgeable and well versed that they could even put to shame some of the pandits. This is the tragedy. Rhetoric, rhetoric and nothing but rhetoric. What about the hundreds of pandits and several brands of Purohit Mandals? These pandits who have done yeoman service in the promotion and propagation of Dharma indeed owe their existence but to Sanskrit. What about the many Federations, temple custodians surviving on government subsidies and the large number of temples and their pandits? Ultimately these have a raison d’être because of the Sanskrit scriptures, texts and mantras which is their livelihood and status. I find it alarming that not one of them has deemed it useful to raise a voice to push for Sanskrit! No wonder then that the sort of Johny Levers are brought in to sap and erode the community.

We may not be conversing in Sanskrit as some other languages passed as a Speaking Union, but Sanskrit is the mother and base of our psychic being. It nurtures our soul, spiritual and cultural survival. It is the language of the Hindu’s well being and psyche. From cradle to the “tomb” (samshan), the Hindu’s life is regulated by Sanskrit mantras, adorations and prayers. The sacred sixteen sacraments are based on Sanskrit mantras. From morning to evening the Hindu recites daily mantras at one time or the other. The temples reverberate with Sanskrit verses and chantings. The Pandits thrive thanks to the great kathas based on Sanskrit texts, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, Vedic, Upanishadic and other Shaktas texts. They learn by heart and repeat at ceremonies and family rites or social functions and at temples, Sanskrit texts, a tradition passed on from generation to generation.

No Yaj, Hawan, Puja or Hindu ceremony is possible without Sanskrit verses. The wedding ceremony is consecraled by meaningful, powerful Sanskrit mantras. Whether we offer prayers in Shivalayas, Kovils, Mandirams, Mandirs or Kalimaye, to Lord Shiva, Kartikeya (Muruga), Lord Ganesh, Rama, Vishnu or simply follow the reformist teachings of Swami Dayanand who culled and placed Sanskrit Mantras of the four Vedas at the disposal of the common man, they are in Sanskrit. The Hindu peace hymn – “Om Dyav Shanti…” – is chanted daily since millennia.

Now, a very interesting observation: the population of Mauritius is using Sanskrit in one way or the other only by reference to people’s names! How many times do we take the names Navin, Pravin, Arvind, Dev, Jayen in a day? These are all Sanskrit names. Surnames such as Ramaswamy, Ashirvaden, Ramalingum, Devalingum and first names like Pushpa, Rajini, Shakti, Vijay, Dhananjay, are Sanskrit names. Place names like Kailasson are Sanskrit in origin (Kailasham – The abode of Kailash) another name of Shiva. Do we realise that daily we greet each other in Sanskrit – Namasté, Namaskar, Namaskaramu?

Gandhi’s Satyagraha has become a universal symbol for passive, non-violent resistance. «Yoga » is being promoted worldwide and has entered all languages. The symbol «Om» and its sound is used and chanted by all Hindu linguistic groups considered as the primal sound of the Cosmos.

Everyday we utilise terms like Sabha (Society), Mandal or Mandali (circle), Pathshala (school), mandapam (altar), Kalyanam (auspicious), bhawan (building), Jyoti (light), Agni (fire), Maha Shivaratri, Divali, Swami, Vidhwan (scholar), Yogi, Pratima (idol), Mata (mother), Pita (father), Brata (brother), Amba (Mother), Buddha (the enlightened), Sahodra/Sahodri (brother/sister), Govindam (Krishna), Govinden, Arya (noble), Prasad/Palsadi (offerings). This list is endless. Scholars may carry out research on how Sanskrit permeates our society, homes, and Mauritian culture in general. It is incredible how many times in a day we are repeating or using Sanskrit names and terms.

So politicians, leaders of political parties, ministers, and custodians of socio-cultural organisations — do wake up and honour Sanskrit, a world recognised language.

“Dharma Rakshita Rakshitam” — When Dharma is uplifted, it protects man.  

Sarita Boodhoo

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