Thursday, July 23, 2009

Language and Legacy

Definition of Legacy : Something handed down from an ancestor or a predecessor or from the past
Definition of Heritage : Something immaterial, as a style or philosophy, that is passed from one generation to another

Is language just a means of communication or is it sometimes more?

Does it matter if things change if the things that are dying are the things which teach us life lessons and humility, tolerance and universal brotherhood?

If a beautiful animal, monument, climate are to be protected why should a language which teaches us co existence,reverence for all human beings and has solutions to ALL life questions be allowed to disappear?

Do we stop moving forward if something which is old but aids our movement, in the right direction is relied upon?

Do some basic instincts of nature and nurture and fundamental issues like peace, harmony, love, wisdom, healthy family and social life change with time?

Something of extreme value, which has been abused and perceived as defunct today(functionality unfortunately depends on the ability of 'X' to earn money and position today) should be thrown away without any second thought or reform?

I saw the Fatehpur Sikri and Taj Mahal and I wanted to preserve it.
I saw the Golden Temple and I was happy that it was restored after Operation Blue Star.
I saw the Bengal Tiger and I became a fan of the Save The Tiger Campaign
I visited the beautiful Goa churches and I hoped they would be well taken care of.
My favorite books are duly noted down in a list meant to be given to my children when they are of age.
I read/listened to a fraction of Geeta, Ved, Upanishads, the stories of our sages and I so badly want to pass it on to my children...all children...future generations of my country and the world.

Am I being silly? Am I fighting against the inevitable? I guess I am wishing for what many wished for and acted towards too. If not then, something which is as old as it is, would not have still been around. I am not talking about The National Language. I do not believe in having One National Language or some such title in a linguistically rich and diverse country. It is as symbolic and purposeless as having a National Bird/Animal/Flower, and this only ruffles many a feather and hurts many a fragile ego.

I am talking about preserving/protecting/promoting Sanskrit the language of our scriptures. (The understanding of the difference between forcing and promoting/preserving is assumed here.) The language which enshrines our intellectual and spiritual heritage. A language which is respected and revered by scholars world over and tragically garners diminishing interest within its own country of origin. Oh by the way did the 'practical' people tell what a waste of time and effort it was for the Jews to revive their dying language.(Hebrew has been revived as a literary language several times as a matter of fact)

I know many things die their natural death but don't we try to keep something alive as long as possible which is dear to us and nourishing. Case in point is seed banks. A beautiful tree or an essential food grain may die but we do save its seeds for our future generations. Do we not protect and make efforts to preserve Sanskrit and any other language which offers us valuable insight to our history, and which is responsible for our very essence? What we have taken for granted or for inherent 'Indianness' from Yoga and Ayurveda to the famous Indian Hospitality (Atithi Devobhava) is a legacy handed down to us. It makes us who we are. It should not be confused with the infamous and politically incorrect word 'Religion'. Its a Way of Life. An Indian way of life. And anything which is uniquely us, beautifully us, should be saved.

Every best-seller self-help books and those propounding some great philosophy contain ideas which are not new. It is a fraction of what is there in our scriptures. But then one ought to have seen and fallen in love with a Gulmohar Tree to want to save it somehow, for our children and grandchildren. We do our best to save our Grandmother's unique recipe and how easily we give up on these gems. For if you cannot read and understand how long will it be before it disappears? We are still lucky to have some great Teachers of Vedanta but for how long? If there is a general indifference and ridicule for the language, any language which is more than a means of functional communication it is the death of a culture, be it Bengali, Tamilian, Marathi, Indian Muslim. The smaller but essential arms of the Big Beautiful Indian Culture.

As fellow (American :)) blogger says "It saddens me that translations are taken to be the 100% pure meaning of the original text. :( Anytime something is translated, its original meaning is changed. That's why translators are listed after the author -- because they've colored the entire topic, intentionally or unintentionally."

Surely when things die, new ones will take their place. But the dying should leave a legacy, which the young are proud of. A heritage which nourishes them and humanity.


Destination Infinity said...

I agree 100%. Languages can die their natural deaths, but people should atleast know what they are losing. I can tell you one thing, having born and brought up in TN: People are very very attached to their language - Tamil. Even though my mother tongue is Telugu, I too admire the richness of the literature available in Tamil. Sanskrit, unfortunately has been kept to the learning of the elites. But now even they are ignoring it! Sanskrit was my second language in higher secondary but before I could make sense of it, we were made to memorize quotes and write the rest in English, to score marks and concentrate on the main subjects - mpc. I have always felt bad later for quashing an excellent opportunity to learn this wonderful language!

Destination Infinity

Vinod_Sharma said...

I too agree with all that you have said. But I feel Sanskrit is not dying at all. If at all it is dead, it is among the educated and westernised elite. It was never a mass language except perhaps long back. That is why Tulsidas was inspired to write Ramayana in the local language, as were others in other languages.

Sanskrit is still alive and kicking in various gurukuls and other schools of learning and is being learnt informally too by many who are attracted to spiritualism or take up "karmkand" or performance of rituals as a means of livelihood. If anything, I feel that once this exciting romancing of the West has run its natural course, there will be renewed interest in the language, even if it is not taught formally in the schools that we go to.

During the Raj, it was Sir Arthur Avalon who, in the 19th century, learnt Sanskrit and translated many tantric and other scriptures into English. But or his efforts, many would have been lost by now. There are still some people who are deeply involved in this task, so that their knowledge is available to a much wider audience. Gradually, some of the "educated" lot who study these translations will be drawn to the original texts too.

Sanskrit is not going to die. Of that I am certain.

manju said...

Nice post, Chrysalis! Seems that we want to 'go ahead' so fast nowadays that we want to leave everything of our history behind!

I studied Sanskrit for a few years in school and college.

I remember journeying in my imagination through India with Kalidas' Medhdoot and marvelling at the wonderful metaphors in the Raghuvansha.

Unfortunately I have not read much of our religious scriptures.

In Mumbai, several Sanskrit enthusiasts conduct regular classes for school children where they are taught spoken Sanskrit. There are Sanskrit Shloka-reciting competitions, too.

manju said...

Typo- should be Kalidas' Meghdoot

Piper .. said...

Have too many things to say, but am in a hurry right now. but couldnt help commenting on this one before i shut down the laptop for now - excellent, excellent post!! One of your finest so far..

Chrysalis said...

DI : thats been my expeirence with Sanskrit at school too. It is not an important enough subject..because it plays no role in earning a livlihood. I am so glad you agree. I plan to take it up once I am back next year.

Vinod ji: Thanks for you comment. I was feeling disheartened. And your comment lifts my spirits up. Its not just about Sanskrit any language which has so much more to offer. I guess you are right it is the exciting new romance with the west which leads to clarion calls of so what if a rich language is dying...
Thanks so much I had worked myself into a worry. I feel much better now.

Chrysalis said...
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Chrysalis said...

Manju ji: We are moving fast but in what direction is the question. We fool ourselves into thinking its for exalted reasons but sometimes I fear its nothing more than a rat race for more power, money, fame ..all of which are transient. I have not read the Meghdoot or the Raghuvansha. Will certainly add it to my Must Read List.
I plan to take up Sanskrit..and I want to do that because I have for some years been exposed to our scriptures...and I am dazzled by their brilliance.

Piper: Thanks friend. Looking forward to your detailed comment. As always your encouraging words hold a special meaning.

shashi said...
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shashi said...

things come and go for sure, the duration differ. with each passing yuga, the quantity of dharma is reducing 1/4 of the original. (the cow of dharma is losing one pada - well stable in satya, still ok in tretA, precarious in dwApara, and now in kaliyuga only one leg.

truth needs no preserving, it doesn't even need discovering. we need the truth, we need to discover, experience etc.
just like bhagavAna doesn't need us or our prayer, we need them to make a shift in our own thinking.

similarly, sanskrit will die and is already dead for many. but it will remain alive for many.

rAmaleelA is already dead, letter writing is dead among the digitally connected, and tape, LP are dead, no more reading the tape/CD insert and discussing it.

but remember, there are different types of people, not all can understand or like everything. there was a time when even movie songs were written by great poets in their own rights, and the rikshawala's thought standard would be raised. now the songs are assembly line produced to sexy dance moves - all great but for the absence of anything else that that would elevate and rejuvenate more than just some body parts.

what we can do to propagate sanskrit or indian culture? spend time with it, and you will slowly get it. when reading translations, or reading others, keep two things in mind - you are not perfect (so maybe not getting the subject right now) AND the speaker/author is also not perfect (so maybe not explaining properly, not connecting the dots properly, maybe covering up some points to hie lack of knowledge).

guru has to be chosen carefully, and watched carefully before surrendering.

while i was publishing/editing indian cultural magazine in cleveland, ohio 'tarang' i wrote an editorial whose gist is this -
when a baby is born we say 'he has eyes of mother, chin of brother, ears like grandpa etc etc. what we fight to avoid discrimination (the physical features and skin color) is genetic and will be preserved by nature.

what we assume as genetic - my indianness - is not at all genetic. THAT needs time to be spent with, understood, cultivated, transmitted.
so many parents in US have these gathering, where guys are debating stocks in the living room, women discussing how bad their husbands are, kids playing nintendo, Wii or watching english movies in basement.

then at 60 the guys wonders - why are my kids not indian?

culture is NOT genetic, nor is language.

your home, bank, school, career, city, country, even spouse can change - but your children? they will remain yours.

there are two ways you can live beyond your dead - your deeds and your children!

for what it matters i have started these sites for igniting the passion about sanskrit, do visit:

BK Chowla said...

Let us not look at only metro cities on language issue.Sanskrit is around and will remain alive.
One has to go to smaller cities and towns....say Haridwar

Anrosh said...

if the language dies, so do the 'root' culture, but culture is evolving constantly - what happened to america is because it is the country of the immigrants and it evolved with its own way of living. one can look at this in various angles

but with cross lingual marriages in india - bits and pieces of the mom's and dad's language will remain, but the kid will hold on to the state language ( that is why i prefer that every state should include teaching a state language in the first 10 years of schooling ) well sanskrit is a root language - well one could study it in marathi or tamil.

let's not blame the west for everything that is going wrong in the country - how many parents will send thier kids for advanced classes in maths and science and not pay enough attention to languages ?

little do people realise that in order to communicate research findings one needs language, not some integrals and equations.

the basic problem with our indian system of education is "communication" is not encouraged and that is why research findings ( with much money on it stand wasted ) and have repetitions.

well, there is a whole theory studying inyour native tongue and arriving at optimal functioning and then there is another theory on bilingualisim.

in my personal opinioni - sanskrit ko chodo ( too difficult for my brains) to have a command over one language on many levels is more of a winner.

it is situational..i am starting to think

Chrysalis said...

Shashi ji: Agree with all that you have said. Culture and Language both are not genetic. It has to be learnt ,cultivated and transmitted.Very well said.

BK Chowla ji: Thank God for that. Sankrit being alive....

Anrosh: I am in no way blaming the West for what ails us. Far from it. The Indian Westernized elite who have not been exposed to what I am hoping will be saved by means of saving Sanskrit is another issue. Toalyy agree with you that the parents will probably pay for their child's French class rather than Sanskrit. I took up the cause for Sanskrit simply beacuse of the scriptures written in that language which are too precious to lose. If someone can assure me the correct transaltions without any essence being lost...I would be happy with any language.

Pranab said...

The dream of making India a great nation, a world power and reclaiming its lost glory is inextricably linked to our ability to project to the world an image of Indianness that is armed with sagas of economic success stories, scientific and technical ingenuity but nourished with the rich cultural identity, history and a sense of plurality. Revival of Sanskrit and preservation of our local /regional languages and dialects will be an important determinant of that ability.

I believe that justifying revival of sanskrit just for exploring the gigantic amount of knowledge and spiritual wisdom is doing injustice to the vast contibution and power of this language to mankind. Not because using the word scriptures & religion make it a politically untouchable and a socially unfashionable idea but because Sankrit has an immense contribution to the fields of astronomy, mathematics ,medical science and many more which should not be undermined. I doubt if its known that NASA has acknowledged since long that Sanskrit is the world's only language that is gramatically unambigious thus making it a perfect candidate for use as a next gen programming language for AI(Artificial Intelligence computer systems).

I have to admit that I feel insecure due to the fact that the my own mother tingue is declining and declining fast. I feel scared becuuse I feel that it also imperils the culture, the values and the beliefs that I grew up with. The obsession with success in academics and careers and to be seen as hip has reached such heights that the passion to learn and speak english has become synonmous with denial to speak in any other language. I see the decline of my mothertongue as a betrayal of sorts to the my forefathers and the land I belong to .

Lastly, commonsense would tell that any translated text reflects what the translator understood rather than what is being said. Now it depends on the translators if he can with pin point accuracy understand the context and totality of what is said and delve into the mind of the sayer and frankly this is sth of an oxymoron.

Reading a translated version of our Sankrit literature is like eating makki ki roti and sarson ka sag but sipping wine along with it rather than lassi. Now a MKR would still be MKR , SKS would be still SKS but they would not what MKR and SKS would and should taste like together. A langauage is also a reflection of a culture and any translation inevitable adds and removes original flavours. I am ashamed to admit that I myself can't understand much Sanskrit(as of now) but I prefer Hindi translation of the texts to English ones.

Chrysalis said...

Pranab: You put it better tha I did :)
I spoke of only the scriptures because that is what I am currently exposed to. Thanks for mentioning the other things too.
About feeling insecure about a fast disappearing language, I know excatly what that feels like.My mother tongue is Dogri which many Indians have not even heard about. Anyways I relate to how a loss of a language also leads to a loss of an accompanying way of life. Thaks for your wonderful comment.

Pranab said...

Thanks for empathizing on the issue of Dogri. I think we need more people to realize the risk the Dogra Society runs if we lose it, people could contribute the most by just passing it on the younger folks. Just to inform you, I heard a Dogri Version of Ramayan was released recently.