Newspaper article International New York Times

Hope Floats for an Idiom Long Slighted

Newspaper article International New York Times

Hope Floats for an Idiom Long Slighted

Article excerpt

Proponents of teaching the ancient scholarly language Sanskrit dream of its revival under the government of India's new prime minister.

The Indian government's National Sanskrit Institute, whose headquarters are in a run-down section of western New Delhi, has the hallmarks of a long-neglected state project.

Unattached electrical wires dangle down its facade, and one of its senior scholars, Ramakant Pandey, greeted a recent visitor in a fluorescent-lighted office under a slowly revolving ceiling fan, his mouth stained bright red with paan, as betel is known in Hindi.

It felt like an office that did not receive many visitors. Still, Mr. Pandey was not downhearted.

"Good times are coming," he said.

This summer marks a changing of the guard, as a new group of elites led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi set themselves up in government-issued bungalows in the capital, displacing the anglophone intelligentsia clustered around the Indian National Congress.

It is unclear what this means for the fabric of high society in New Delhi, with its golf links and polo tournaments. But one project almost certain to benefit is the teaching of Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Brahmin scholars, an effort that has been largely ignored by the Congress government and ardently promoted by the Hindu right wing.

"This government will help Sanskrit, we know that," Mr. Pandey said. "They are traditional people, they love literature, they love culture."

"And Modi ji is a traditional prime minister," he added, using a Hindi honorific.

Many linguists view these efforts skeptically, noting that even in Sanskrit's heyday, some 1,500 years ago, it was primarily used by Brahmin intellectuals as a language of scholarly discourse, and never served as a mother tongue.

In the most recent census, only 50,000 Indians described Sanskrit as their first language -- more than the 14,000 that gave that answer in 2001, but still less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the population. …

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