Language wars are a constant feature of Indian public life. Most recently there was much discussion on Language on Indian twitter triggered by the National Education Policy (NEP 2020). But amidst the language squabbles, we tend to reflect less on the root cause of all the language schisms – The rise of the Vernacular. A relatively recent phenomenon in Indian history.
Back in 1000 CE, Sanskrit reigned supreme as the primary literary tongue of India. There was some Prakrit literature and considerable literature in some of the older Southern languages – Tamil and Kannada in particular. But for the most part Vernaculars had a position secondary to Sanskrit.
The language of prestige and literary expression was undoubtedly Sanskrit, though it was hardly the mother tongue for a large percentage of Indians. Vernaculars reigned at home, and in common speech. Yet in an age of limited literacy, they never competed with Sanskrit for “prestige”. This was very much the case not just in India, but in much of the western world as well. In Europe, as late as 15th century, 70% of the printed literature was in Latin!
Now Latin was far from being the mother tongue of Europeans at the time, yet it was the preferred mode for intellectual expression. Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote chiefly in Latin. So did Descartes. So did Isaac Newton, few decades later. Newton may have been a good Englishman. He lived a good half a century after the age of Shakespeare in the 17th century Yet even at that very late date, the language he preferred to write his “Principia Mathematica” in was Latin. Not English. Ofcourse his other work “Opticks” was in English, but even that book had a Latin translation. And I presume his readers in mainland Europe preferred the Latin version. Not English.
Let’s come back to India. As already discussed, the reign of Sanskrit and the secondary status of vernacular was not an Indian anomaly. It was consistent with the state of affairs in Europe. The great Indian philosopher Adi Shankara, who purportedly lived in 8th century in Southern India, wrote his work not in whatever was the language spoken around him, but in Sanskrit. All his works without exception were authored in Sanskrit.
Some three centuries later, another great Vedantin Shri Ramanuja, lived in the Tamil country, a land that is in our times perceived to be hostile to high culture and Sanskrit. Yet Shri Ramanuja wrote all of his work in Sanskrit. There is not a single work of his in Tamil that survives.
This is not to suggest that literature in the vernacular was non existent in 1000 CE. It very much existed. Perhaps a little more so down south which had already seen the flowering of Bhakti literature in the Tamil country long before that date. In Karnataka, during the Rashtrakuta period, we did see the composition of some Kannada works. A prominent example being the emperor Amoghavarsha’s Kavirajamarga. But nevertheless the dominant language for literary expression was very much Sanskrit.
If we check the works of mathematicians and men of intellect throughout the first millennium, be it Varahamihira in the North west, or the two Bhaskaras, or for that matter Aryabhata, they were essentially in Sanskrit. Not in the Prakrit tongues
Even as late as 12th century, the great mathematician Bhaskara II who lived somewhere in what is Northern Karnataka today, wrote his work Siddhanta Shiromani, in Sanskrit. Not in Kannada or Maharashtrian Prakrit.
Several technical Sanskrit texts authored in the ancient times have survived the vagaries of time much better than much more recent vernacular technical texts in the middle ages. A classic example is Aryabhata’s Aryabhatiya (circa 4th century) and Jyeshtadeva’s Yuktibhasha (circa 17th century) . The former is authored in Sanskrit, and the latter in Malayalam. It is not a surprise that the former is a pan-Indian classic, while the latter is little known and somewhat inaccessible until very recent decades.
Nevertheless Prakrit tongues did feature in some Sanskrit plays, especially as the language used by women, and by common folk. Even Kalidasa uses Prakrit on occasion in his plays. But there was no sense of insecurity about the Prakrit tongues. Sanskrit’s status was not grudged.
It is only well into the second millennium that the Prakrits start asserting themselves as literary media, in North India. One early figure is Vibudha Shridhara, an Agrawal writer in whose Apabhramsha work has the earliest historical reference to Delhi
हरियाणए देसे असंखगाम, गामियण जणि अणवरथ काम|परचक्क विहट्टणु सिरिसंघट्टणु, जो सुरव इणा परिगणियं|रिउ रुहिरावट्टणु बिउलु पवट्टणु, ढिल्ली नामेण जि भणियं|
“There are countless villages in Haryana country. The villagers there work hard. They don’t accept domination of others, and are experts in making the blood of their enemies flow. Indra himself praises this country. The capital of this country is Dhilli”
One observes here that unlike Sanskrit which has an unchanging quality, the Prakrit here only bears a very tenuous link to the Prakrits today. Because Prakrits were constantly evolving. They were meant to be context-sensitive and change with time. In sharp contrast to Sanskrit – a “high prestige”, relatively context-free, low-entropy language.
Even as late as 16th century, Sanskrit enjoyed a huge edge over vernaculars. Both in North and South India. The works of the supposedly populist Gaudiya Sampradaya in 16th century Bengal , were primarily in Sanskrit – be it Jiva Goswami or Rupe Goswami. Not in Bengali.
In the Vijayanagara Empire down south, Telugu literature no doubt flourished. Yet several important theological works of that age (e.g. the works of Madhva philosophers like Vyasatirtha, and Vadiraja) are in Sanskrit. They didn’t write in Telugu or Kannada.
The point I am trying to make is that right up to 17th century, the language of intellectual expression was the classical tongue (be it Sanskrit in India or Latin in Europe). So it is not as though the ascendance of Vernacular is a 1000 year story. But rather a 200-300 year one
And this had political implications too. In an age before the rise of the vernacular, the Empire was the primary form of political organization. Regional nationalisms were very much at bay. The Holy Roman Empire reigned supreme over much of mainland Europe.
With the rise of the vernacular, there emerged regional nationalisms. What suffered was the notion of a united Christendom. Something that was very much within the realm of reality even as late as 1500 CE.
Even in our times, the biggest threat to the idea of a single civilizationally united India is very much the politics around the Vernacular languages, and the regional nationalisms they engender.
But this is in some respect a price we have paid for modernity. The rise of the vernacular is inextricably linked to the urge to be accessible, to be popular, to be democratic. Tulsidas created a revolution when he authored the Ramayana in the vernacular. Something that had not been attempted on that scale till then in Northern India. And it very much stemmed from this urge to reach out.
The 19th century in India will go down as the century that is somewhat analogues to the 17th/18th century in Europe. It witnessed the decline of the classical language (Sanskrit), and the big big boom in vernacular literature.
The vernacular boom especially in late 19th / early 20th century, spanned across regions. It was the age of UV Swaminatha Aiyar, the age of Bharatenduh, the age of Premchand. The common theme was to create “prestige” dialects among the many prakrits that existed. In Tamil Nadu, it was perhaps the Central Tamil dialect of the Tanjore region. In the North, it was the language spoken in and around Delhi – the Khariboli dialect.
So now the vernaculars sought “status”, “respectability”. They sought to be bounded by grammars (though Vernacular grammars do predate 19th century in many cases). They sought to attain “prestige”. Unlike in the past when they were content playing second fiddle to Sanskrit.
Has this been a good thing?
I am not sure. What have we gained by the Vernacular revolution? A difficult politically incorrect question that ought to be asked.
The intellectual life in this country is now conducted for the most part in the English language, which has supplanted Sanskrit as the language of the elite. So the function played by the Vernacular in the main is to fan regional passions.
Sanskrit remains. We call it English now.
This is not to say I grudge the many fine works of literature that have been authored in the various vernacular languages over the past 200 years – Bharatenduh, Premchand, Kuvempu, Kalki. One can go on.
But has it been worth it? To be honest, I don’t think so. The costs have outweighed the benefits. One argument is – Hey…vernaculars enable better instruction to kids. “In their Mother tongue”.
Oh yes, the Mother tongue angle, which is impressed upon us so very often. But much of this instruction is terrible The people who run this country are the ones who learnt their trade in Sanskrit (i.e. English). Vernaculars exist to cater to regional vanity.
To my mind, Sanskrit (i.e English) will continue to dominate the intellectual life of this country, exactly as it has for 2000+ years Vernaculars cannot compete with it. But yes, they can definitely help break the Indian nation. That’s one thing the vernaculars can succeed at.
The author tweets @shrikanth_krish