Caine is from Noblesville, IN and an alumnus of the Hindi 2020 Virtual Summer Intensive program.
Over the past five weeks, I have been learning Hindi with the National Security Language Initiative for Youth Virtual Summer Intensive (NSLI-Y VSI). The NSLI-Y VSI is a program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in which we dedicate five weeks to the study of a critical language—mine being Hindi. As the culmination of the program approached, I dedicated myself to the study of ancient Sanskrit literature. While I was partially motivated by my desire to learn about Indian culture through analysis of Sanskrit literature itself, I was very much motivated by my interest in learning through interviews with real people who’ve been influenced by Sanskrit literature.
By studying this ancient Indian literature, I was provided with a profound glimpse into Indian culture. One of the works of particular interest to me was the Rig Veda, one of the oldest attestations of Indo-European language. The Rig Veda served as a foundation of an understanding of modern Indian culture and provided unparalleled insight. Additionally, interviews with individuals on the influence of literature on modern Indian religion, culture, and philosophy served to show the profound impact Sanskrit literature has had on real people.
The Rig Veda is among the most consequential pieces of literature in history. Its graceful blend of religion and philosophy laid the foundation for Hinduism, the third largest religion in the world. Furthermore, beliefs expounded by the Rig Veda form an integral part of modern Indian literature and education.
Even school children are exposed to and expected to learn Sanskrit and ancient Indian literature. In an interview with Dr. Parekh, I was told that “in indian literature, especially in Sanskrit, when the students are starting to learn, they have to learn about Sanskrit to the point where they can sing and they can express [themselves].” Moreover, “the government is promoting this subject [Sanskrit] very well, nowadays some dramas are actually filmed in Sanskrit so the people can understand and take part in their history.” My experience over the past weeks — and more so the commentary of experts — suggests that Sanskrit and the Rig Veda are still relevant in modern Indian education. This speaks volumes regarding the enduring importance of Sanskrit and the Rig Veda in not only ancient history, but also in the modern age.
Complementing its relevance in the class room, Sanskrit and the Rig Veda maintain relevance in religion. Anuj, an associate of AFS, he remarked the following,“If you belong to a Hindu practicing household, you use this language to pray. It’s an important part of life.” Later emphasizing that “Sanskrit is not only related to Hinduism. Sanskrit touches all the groups — not only Hindus. Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, and Christianity all use Sanskrit in some way.” This sentiment is certainly accurate. In fact, Jainism and Buddhism rose out of a revolt of mainstream brahmanical Hindu practices which themselves were a product of Sanskrit literature. The significance of the Rig Veda and Sanskrit to both Hindus and non-Hindus elevates its importance from a school subject to one’s tether to the supernatural: religion.
In addition to religion, the influence of ancient Sanskrit literature on modern Indian literature cannot be understated. Anuj commented on the subject with the following: “The [Sanskrit] literature has had a very large influence on modern Indian literature. Indian writers, whether they’re writing in their vernacular or English, read a lot of these stories as a part of their academic syllabi and as part of general scholarly pursuits.” This exposure from a young age goes on to have a large influence on the writings of modern Indian authors. “You have these texts, like the Ramayana and Mahabharata… And these writings have definitely influenced the way that they [modern Indian authors] compose stories and the way that they use dialogue.” This commentary leads one to believe that Sanskrit literature does in fact impact modern authors. So although Sanskrit is not the language of mainstream Indian, it maintains subtle influence on the authors who create the literature consumed by the masses. The Rig Veda’s clear presence in education, modern religious practices, and genre literature solidifies its importance in modern India. However, the poor state of Sanskrit in the twenty-first century cannot be understated. As Anuj quipped in our interview, “You don’t have Netflix series in Sanskrit.”
It is a painfully obvious truth that Sanskrit has minimal relevance in modern India, and with dried up funding for the study of Sanskrit, there has certainly been a decline in its revival in the past few decades. Accompanying its dwindling popularity, Sanskrit has also made troubling contributions to modern Indian society. Most notable of these contributions is the caste system. The caste system is an ethnographic classification system based in India. Although it’s illegal, remnants of this previous social structure stubbornly remain in Indian society. According to Anuj, “ancient Sanskrit literature certainly does play a role in propagating the caste system.” Indeed, the first mention of Varna, the foundation of the caste system, is in the Purusha Suktam verse of the Rig Veda. In the hymn, Purusha is sacrificed by the other gods to have his mind, eyes, head, and feet indicate the caste divisions: Brahamans coming from his mouth; Kshatriyas his arms; Vaishyas his thighs; and Shudras from his feet. This verse from the Rig Veda is one of the first indications of the lingering, ethnographic classification system fixed — even today — in Indian social structure.
These harmful contributions would seem to discredit Sanskrit’s perceived excellence and validity given its odious past. However, it’s worth mentioning that “language and literature are just tools for human expression.” Sanskrit isn’t intrinsically evil and it’s negative contributions to modern Indian society are vestigial of hegemonic interpretations rather than the content contained within. Indeed, many of these interpretations were made by non-Hindus such as during British colonial rule in which the British propagated the modern conception of Indian caste using Sanskrit literature as justification. The equivocal nature of Sanskrit literature, and specifically the Rig Veda, creates an interpretation vacuum in which the absence of positive interpretations allows aspects of Sanskrit literature to be used to promote one’s own hegemony. For example, Anuj reminded me that some ancient Sanskrit philosophical texts, such as the Upanishads, don’t deal with casteism but rather fill this interpretation vacuum with the voices of the oppressed.
Although Sanskrit literature has been used to justify heinous acts in the past, this is not due to its intrinsic nature but rather how it’s been used and interpreted. I believe that a complete appreciation of Sanskrit literature is predicated on an understanding of the astounding influence this literature has had on modern literature, education, and religion — while being aware of its unpleasant contributions it’s made on modern society in India and elsewhere.