29.) Hebrew – What Has That Got To Do With Sanskrit?

I was visiting my lawyer friend. As soon as he let me into the chamber I remarked: “Have you decided to grow a beard?” It was an obvious question for a man in his condition.

“You know,” he began, after he had offered me a seat and settled into one himself, “I am the member of a theatre group and my role requires a person with a beard. So my director suggested that I grow one, instead of wearing a made-up one.”

I began to muse why I hadn’t joined an elocution society, I am so dissatisfied at the way I make conversation, when I do, that is. My silent soliloquy ended as he resumed speaking.

“Have you heard of Yiddish?” he suddenly asked.

“A German dialect used by the Jews”, I ventured and then bit my tongue. Why didn’t I say sociolect? See, I do need those lessons after all.

“Only it was spoken all over – in Germany, Poland, Ukraine – kind of Jewish Lingua Franca”, he ever so gently corrected me. “It started along the Rhine around eleventh century. Has a vast literature.”

“Have you ever heard of Salinger?”

My thoughts went to a news item about an affair of a famous author with a younger girl – apparently dug out to show Clinton was not reinventing the wheel with Monica…he used my silence to fill the gap himself.

“He won a Nobel Prize”

I must have looked mildly surprised, for he added: “The only one awarded in Yiddish.”

If Yiddish was so well entrenched as a language among the Jews – why Hebrew then?

He read my mind.

“Hebrew of course was there as the language of ritual, but everything else was done in Yiddish. In 1908 a resolution was passed that Yiddish should be the language of Israel.”

Was Yiddish like Hindi? His talk flowed on regardless of my self-interrogation.

“Of course, for Theodore Herzl the language could only be German. But history marches to its own drumbeat. It was Hebrew which ended up being Israel’s language. It’s a miracle.”

I had long thought so – reviving a dead language. I finally said: “The first time I learnt of this was as a teenager. An Indian leader returned from a visit to Israel and said: if the Jews can revive Hebrew, why can’t we revive Sanskrit?” Then I let out a soft laugh.

“They also laughed when ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­attempts were made to revive the Hebrew language. Then came the first family in which Hebrew was the mother tongue. Now when I hear people make baby-talk in Hebrew – it’s just unbelievable”

Ya – but in India people still laugh at the idea of Sanskrit.


22 Responses to “29.) Hebrew – What Has That Got To Do With Sanskrit?”

  1. Krishen Kak Says:

    We (the educated in English class) in India still laugh at the idea of Sanskrit because our educational system still promotes a macaulayan mindset. But Samskrita Bharati (http://www.samskritabharati.org/sb/) is doing sterling work in promoting Sanskrit across the country and abroad, and Mathur in Karnataka and Jhiri in Madhya Pradesh are two villages where Sanskrit is the first language.

  2. Prof.Mallikarjuna Rao Says:

    Because of our colonial mindset we disparage our past and our classical language Sanskrit. It is an irony that more work in Sanskrit is being done in countries other than in India. May be when we develop self-respect then we learn Sanskrit.

  3. ushma williams Says:

    as a recent student of Hinduism I have just started to learn Sanskrit. what I have over the years having gone through a english colonial education in India have just now realised, how much of the intellectual culture of India was unaccessible to me, and how regrettable that was.
    All I know that India does not even realise her big loss by losing Sanskrit. the language and its people are so completely interlinked and the Indic worldview cannot be put accross in its entirety in English.
    As i teach my own children and others Hinduism for their board exams we have to learn the religion through its Sankrit words, and it is wonderful to see British born childrens amazement at the language of their ancestors ,how proud it makes me to be of this heritage with its long intellectual and spiritual tradition and how easy Sanskrit makes it for me to understand this.Each word opens up the Indic philosophy so ably and precisely is amazing.

  4. Minu Agarwal Says:

    I agree whole heartedly. Sanskrit is the most logical language. it is compulsary in St James’ school in the centre of London.

  5. Maha Says:

    Only an ignorant will not able to grasp the greatness of Sanskrit. What I noticed is, learning Sanskrit makes a person naturally intelligent!!

    That is the beauty is Sanskrit and no other language in the world has this advantage.

  6. Vinod Khare Says:

    Why should I learn Sanskrit? Nobody I know reads or speaks the language – my family, friends, teachers etc. nobody uses that language in any form. We all use Hindi and English and I try to be proficient in both languages.

    I ask again, why should I learn Sanskrit?

  7. lala Says:

    india has over a billion people. israel has several million. its a bit unrealistic to think about reviving sanskrit for the masses. even trying to start from grassroots will be difficult, as, frankly, there are other things the country needs to worry about. practically speaking, there is no use. however, once we start dealing with outstanding issues, sanskrit can be taught on a larger scale.

  8. Vinod Khare Says:

    @ Lala – Once again, I ask. Why should Sanskrit be taught on a large scale? Why precisely would we want to do this?

  9. lala Says:

    vinod, yes, there is really nothing we can do with it now. i agree with you. i guess when i said “once we start dealing with outstanding issues, sanskrit can be taught on a larger scale.” i was just trying to appeal to the rest.
    people “laugh” (i think the word laugh was intended more metaphorically than literally, although i dont doubt that people literally laugh at it too) at sanskrit because there is really no use for it now. languages we have now serve all the functions we need. learning sanskrit would be redundant, a waste of time.

    it has nothing to do with a “macaulayan” mindset. we do not “disparage our past and our classical language Sanskrit”. no one has time to think about “disparaging” our past and sanskrit along with it. if we disparaged our past, people would not be supporting hindutva etc.

    though it is shabby that more sanskrit research is done outside of india than in india, thats a matter of statistics, we simply have fewer scholars in general than outside. the question remains, why are there more sanskrit scholars outside india than inside? thats the same as asking, why are parents pushing kids to become engineers than pursue their own interests. so, its simply the indian mindset that there are more important things than researching sanskrit.

    simply, sanskrit is just not practical. just as everything else, languages EVOLVE, and its irrelevent whether or not we speak it now.

    consider this: a thousand years ago, assume we had six fingers which eventually evolved into 5 (perhaps, for the good), do we need to go back to having 6???? no. 5 are fine.

  10. kamau Says:

    Hello. Just wanted to say hi and give my two cents. I am a Caribbean American living in New York City. I think it is wonderful that this conversation is happening, because I believe renewed interest on a larger scale within India of Sanskrit is critical for the advancement of Western Civilization as a whole.

    Like it or not, mainstream global culture is indebted to Western Civ for its current and near-future norms. It is becoming more and more clear to me however, admittedly naive and decidedly unlearned in the primary sources of this subject, that Sanskrit and ancient Indian culture are fundamental to Ancient Greek language and mythology. I see many universities including my alma mater beginning Greek-Sanskrit divisions and majors within Classical Studies Departments. It is no suprise to me, however, based just on anecdotal evidence I have found casually looking up some Latin Etymology for self study, that Sanskrit has become fundamental. Firstly, I have come across greek etymons, however, then I see they lead to Sanskrit. A few Greek god names I came across come directly from Sanskrit, otherwise to have no ascribable meaning at all. Ipso facto, the very word “god” is Deus in Latin, and Theos in Greek; very similar to Hindu Dyaus, and universally acknowledged by Classical scholars as its etymon or cognate(because of the fabled Indo-European tongue). I guess this can be observed rather matter of factly; or it can be emphasized: The head of the Greek Pantheon, of the Olympian Gods, has traceable origin in Sanskrit! This fascinates me to no end, and it also saddens me, because as a non-scholar I can scarcely hope to attain the erudition necessary to fully understand the ramifications of Sanskrit and Indian culture on the western world. To all Indians who by birth and ancestry have proximity to this giant oasis of a culture, I can only urge you to explore it. It would certainly require less effort than myself, and the insights derived from a people once again conversing and thinking in their old tongue can hardly be enumerated.

    As an aside, the english word etymology(the study of the origin of words) itself can be derived. Most students in western societies can identify ‘logy’ as the root for “the study of” which is fine although ‘logos’ has far more implications than that for both Western religion and philosophy. The other root ‘etymos’ does not mean ‘origin of words’ but rather simiply “truth.” The ancient greeks exalted as they are in the West, and deservedly so, understood the implications of etymology. In it can be found the truth of a cultures practices, and for cultures with a long and harried past of cultural exchange it can offer a path back to unrivalled order and simplicity. This is the reason I think there are those who propose the study of Sanskrit(like the gentleman above) leads to natural intelligence. I wholeheartedly believe that a study of the Latins and then the Greeks allows one to see modern Western culture with a birds eye view. The words themselves have long since lost the sharpness of their original meaning being like so much diffracted light. It is hard to describe to someone who hasn’t tried it, but I have just started learning Latin, and I can already see the ramifications.. I mean its everywhere. But Sanskrit would open up the mysterious East, that in truth may not be that mysterious after all because their progeny live among us today. Id est, many years from now maybe even the eventual intellectual dissolution of the East vs. West divide may be possible. If there are any Indians who have had the patience to read this unfortunate verbiage, I hope you study this ancient language or at the very least promote its revival. Just imagine if every relic, maxim, WORD, etc. had a context for a growing Indian child. It would promote a thirst for harmony in understanding the world around them. I cannot tell you how mad I am the Classics were removed as a requirement in the American Curriculum. I have truly been robbed. Anyway, I have rambled long enough. By Dyaus, I say claim it. And God Speed.

  11. suresh Says:

    To answer Vinod Khare – sorry I came to this conversation late – we might want to consider resurrecting Sanskrit for roughly the same reasons that the Israelis resurrected Hebrew. In 1948, when Israelis debated a national language for the country, it quickly became clear that they all spoke very different languages and so, rather than adopt some living language which would necessarily only be the language of a minority, they decided unanimously to adopt Hebrew which had for many centuries been used only for religious purposes. Of course, this decision was helped by the fact that the Arabs (who are even now 20% of Israel) were not part of the decision-making.

    In India, the case for Sanskrit – advocated intermittently by some, mainly in the BJP but also some Christians and even the odd muslim – has been that English is the language of our erstwhile colonisers. On the other hand, Sanskrit has contributed to the vocabulary of many of our “living” languages (including the Dravidian ones) and is also the repository of a large “secular” literature. (The religious literature in Sanskrit will of course only appeal to Hindus, Buddhists and Jains.) In a way similar to Israel c. 1948, Sanskrit is part of the heritage of a large number of Indians even though it is not spoken and since we lack a national language, we can adopt Sanskrit – so the argument goes. (Note: Hindi is *not* the national language; it is the *official* language meaning that it is the language of the institution called the Government of India. English has the status of an *associate official language*. Note also that Hindi is the language of only a minority in India and so are all the other “indigenous” languages.)

    There is, I guess, also a philosophical reason why we might want to consider Sanskrit, about which Prof. Sharma is much more qualified to comment. Let me illustrate it with an example. In the English language Indian press, the word “idol” is used frequently. However, the word “idol” generally means “a false god.” This is not what Hindus mean when they use the word “murti.” I note that when foreigners write about Hinduism, they are typically careful to not use that word, and use the more neutral term “image” instead. The point is that there are typically no exact equivalents for Hindu concepts in English and by over-emphasizing the use of English, we run a risk of misunderstanding our own heritage. (Probably, this is already the case with those of us whose primary education has been in English.)

    Having said all this, I think the idea of Sanskrit as a national language is a non-starter. The 200 million or more Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others, understandably, are unlikely to view this suggestion very sympathetically and even many Hindus would not favour it, as your own reaction shows. However, interested Hindus might want to consider means for encouraging scholarship in the subject – which I do think is badly needed.

  12. suresh Says:

    Apologies for following up my own post, but the following excerpt from the conclusion of Sheldon Pollock’s article on D. D. Kosambi will, I think, be relevant to this thread:

    In raising the question of studying the past, however, we encounter
    one of the great challenges confronting the well-being of
    Indian scholarship today, one that would likely have astonished
    Kosambi himself: the cultural ecocide that has almost destroyed
    millennia-long traditions of language and literature. How are the
    pasts that produced us to be understood if no one can any longer
    read the languages in which they are embodied? It is not going
    too far to predict, I fear, that within a generation the number
    of people able to access the classical, medieval, or even early
    modern vernacular archive of India – in Bangla, Kannada,
    Marathi, Telugu, and so on – will have approached a statistical
    zero. This has already happened with Apabhramsha and the
    Prakrits, and real expertise in Indo-Persian is fast disappearing.
    As for Sanskrit, how saddened Kosambi would likely have
    been, despite his evaluation, to see this great tradition stultified
    in the bloodless teaching and bland research often practised in
    Indian colleges and universities, or captured and demeaned by
    the most retrograde and unphilological forces in the Indian
    polity, or, the worst fate of all, simply forgotten. In fact, the
    most pressing question to raise on the occasion of commemorating
    Kosambi’s contribution to Sanskrit may be, not why he
    used this method or defended that theory – though it is not the
    least of his achievements to force such questions upon us – but
    rather why India has not produced any scholar to succeed him,
    and what if anything can still be done about it.

  13. suresh Says:

    Ok, the last I promise. Sheldon Pollock’s article appears in the Economic and Political Weekly, VOL 43 No. 30, July 26 – August 01, 2008.

  14. Dr Nishith N Dhruv Says:

    Sanskrit is the blood flowing through the circulation of almost all the major Indian languages – except of course the Tamil. It will survive like that. The problem in India is removal of illiteracy. It is the mother-tongue that will serve the purpose best. Again English is being seen as another language with which all Indians better be familiar. In fact, the survival of our mother-tongues is increasingly being challenged by English. In this scenario it is rather unrealistic to make it a compulsory language. Rather, it would be wise to teach it as an optional language volantarily and without putting extra burdeon on the already burdeoned student.

  15. s.p. attri Says:


    1. Dear Surinderji,

    We should not belive in majic or on providence either. Only one good sign I am seeing is that, young and educated Muslims are leaving Islam. 6 million Muslims are deserting Islam every year in Africa and in the last one year, one lakh British Muslims have left Islam. I take the trouble of writing on Islam so that Hindus, most of whom do not know even a b c of Islam, may have some understanding about Islam. No one finds pleasure in loitering in a gutter.

    Many many thanks for your valued comments

    Dr R Brahmachari,

    Aug 12, 2.15 PM

    2. My Take:

    Dr. Brahmachari Jee:

    Agreed. We Hindus cannot rely on magic nor upon providence, for either our defense or our survival. The business of life is conducted through courage & bravery, and not through magic or trickery.

    3. A compromise solution is between equals. Sullas regard us Kafir-Hindus as evil & sinful, fit only to be killed & sent to Islamic Hell. It is a dumb-idea to try to compromise or reason with Sullas. We have been chanting peace for centuries & getting killed.

    4. Yes, Moslems do leave Islam, but Moslems are also picking up new converts to Islam. We Hindus shall have to rely entirely on our own resources. We shall have to become deadly-enemies of cowardice, becoming daring as well as daunting. We shall have to hit Islam really hard. So far we have not done anything like that, but it is mandatory to plan on it. It is a crying-shame that, we have not pursued this idea before.

    Surinder Paul Attri.

  16. Harish Duggirala Says:

    Vinod Khare, what are you, a bit thick?

    We would want to revive Sanskrit because knowing it along with Old Tamil is the key to knowing ancient Indian heritage, then like a clown you wouldn’t have to rely on an English translation to read the Vedas or Kalidasa.

    We would want to revive it because it is the only language that can connect all of India and Hindus, my mother tongue is Telugu and let me put it very clearly, I am NOT interested in Hindi, especially the so called Hindi your kind speak, you know the highly persianized variety, that just sounds like gibberish to me.

    As for the so called “minorities” objecting, well I guess they will just have to f**k off and the Hindus who object to it in my mind aren’t even Hindus but drOhi’s (traitors).

  17. Best Bakery Arsonist Says:

    This comment has been removed as it is inappropriate.

  18. JeffreyCArcher Says:

    Interesting and pertinent, as this strand has turned towards Hindu vs. Islamic polemic: Brahma and Saraswati predate Abraham and Sarah, and the Torah’s story about Abraham calling Sarai his “sister” corresponds to some versions of who Saraswati was to Brahma. Krshna and Christ–Gopis and church as bride of Christ. Siva and Islam: crescent moon, Kalima (Devi) and Islam’s kalimas (professions of faith, such as “There is no god but Allah . . . ), Uma (another of Devi’s names) and Ummah (community, a central tenet of Islam), Shivite and Shi’ite (missing a “v” . . . hmmmm), Mahadev and Mahdi, and the fact that there is still a linga stone in the Kaaba . . .
    The religion and culture of the West (not to mention pre-columbian America–Maya, Goddess of Illusion, and Mayans, the great empire of the Americas) are largely sourced from (eminated from?) India, and the greater story is best interpreted from the ancient texts–mostly in Sanskrit–of Bharat. That is why Sanskrit is important, not to mention the linguistic roots of a majority of European and Asian languages and myth (and no small influence in Native American language and myth). Sanskrit is worthy to know, if we are to know ourselves and best approach our collective future.

  19. JeffreyCArcher Says:

    . . . oh yeah, and I recently discovered Allah is a name of Durga!!!

  20. s.p. attri Says:

    This post has been removed as it is neither appropriate for this blog nor is it a valid length for a comment. Please refrain from posting comments that are longer than a few sentences.

  21. ron Says:

    Attri you make many valid points. You have certainly put the islamists, christists and maoists in a bind.

  22. Dan Says:

    I strongly recommend that you screen comments before posting. Alternatively, you can take down the screed spams of that majnun (and not in a good way) Attri after they are posted. Please do us all a favor take them down now!

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