The 16th World Sanskrit Conference, held in Bangkok and supported by the Union Government, was yet another feather in India’s soft diplomacy cap, following the grand success of last month’s International Yoga Day
Following the grand success of the International Yoga Day on June 21, another feather in India’s soft diplomacy cap was the 16th World Sanskrit Conference held in Bangkok from June 28th to July 2. Supported by the Government of India, the conference witnessed participation of over 600 delegates from 60 countries. The five day meet was inaugurated by the Thai princess, a scholar and patron of Sanskrit language, Maha Chakri Sirindhorn and India’s Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj.
Addressing the distinguished delegates, including scholars, teachers, Indologists and lovers of the ancient language in chaste Sanskrit, Ms Swaraj, emphasised that Sanskrit is not a mere language but a “world view.” In fact, the motto of the international meet itself was “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the universe is a family).
The hosting of the conference in Suvarnabhumi, Thailand, and the presence of a large number of scholars from across the world including a big chunk of westerners highlighted the significance of the Sanskrit language in understanding ancient India and its contributions as also its relevance in the present times. It also indirectly served to reject attempts by some “secular” sections to project the language as ‘dead’ and a symbol of Hindutva as against its vibrancy and universality.
As Ms Swaraj aptly put it, “the language of Vedanta is Sanskrit. The language of Yoga is Sanskrit. The language of Ayurveda is Sanskrit. The language of Indian mathematics is Sanskrit. The language of Indian dramaturgy (natyashastra) is Sanskrit. The language of the Bhagavad Gita is Sanskrit. The language of ancient Indian architecture, sculpture, agriculture, chemistry, astronomy, veterinary sciences, economics, political science, and other fields of knowledge is Sanskrit.”
Spread over 31 sessions, including 24 main sessions and seven auxiliary sessions, the conference delved deep into Sanskrit lore including 18 seats of knowledge, 64 arts, four Vedas, over 100 Upanishads, six ancillary Vedas (upavedas), six adjuncts of Vedas (vedangas), 18 epics, the 10 systems of philosophy, history (itihas), literature and dramaturgy.
Staging of the popular Thai Ramayana, a play in Sanskrit, the Sanskrit kavi sammelan (poetry session) and shastrarth (debate) were among the other highlights of the event. Interestingly, one heard the ‘dead language’ being spoken extempore by several foreign scholars.
Ironically, in many graduate and post graduate courses in India itself, Sanskrit is not taught through Sanskrit, and candidates often write their examinations in languages other than Sanskrit. Similarly, it has been observed that Sanskrit scholars pay more attention to the subjects in Sanskrit rather than the language.
Sanskrit can prosper only if it is made the medium for teaching and learning the language. Sanskrit and Sanskrit alone should be the language of communication in Sanskrit educational institutions and Sanskrit departments as also Sanskrit conferences. In schools, Sanskrit is seen as a subject which fetches maximum marks as it can be learnt by rot. It is important that the teaching of Sanskrit be made much more attractive for prospective students.
Apart from the Union and State Governments and NGOs such as Samskrita Bharati, which are doing a yeoman’s service to the language, promotion of Sanskrit should be taken up by corporates as part of their CSR activities. Linking Sanskrit with modern subjects, developing literature on contemporary issues, conducting a scientific study of the available texts and carrying out more functional research in Sanskrit are among the measures that can be taken up on a priority basis to get the language its due place under the sun. These philanthropists can also contribute to the health and well being of crumbling ved pathshalas imparting the centuries old oral and written traditions, particularly in States such as Kerala.
The country’s national news channels Doordarshan News has recently introduced Vaartavali, a 30-minute-long weekly news magazine, which has become very popular with its viewers. Apart from news, the programme includes interviews with celebrities, teaching of Sanskrit words, coverage of cultural events and even snippets from Bollywood movies. Doordarshan has been running Vaarta an early morning news bulletin for five minutes for some time now and the same is expected to be extended by another five minutes. One only hopes that the public broadcaster introduces a bulletin of the same duration later in the evening, encapsulating the developments of the day.
Apart from growing interest in the language and its text the world over, the spread of Yoga, Ayurveda and Indian classical dances have also contributed to the global enthusiasm towards Sanskrit. Recent decisions by the Narendra Modi Government to grant a $20,000 International Sanskrit Award to any scholar making significant contribution to the language, the institution of fellowships for foreign scholars for conducting research in India in Sanskrit language or literature and the provision of opportunities for new learners to pursue graduate or postgraduate courses or research in India are all expected to give a major boost to the promotion of the language internationally. Reflecting the National Democratic Alliance regime’s commitment to the promotion of the language, Ms Swaraj at the conference also announced creation of a post of Joint Secretary in the External Affairs Ministry exclusively to further Sanskrit.
The modern character of the ancient language can be gauged from the fact that it has been found highly effective in developing software for language recognition, translations, cyber security and other aspects of artificial intelligence. As the repository of ancient knowledge, Sanskrit has the potential to provide solutions to many of the contemporary problems.
It would be most appropriate if scholars from organisations representing modern science and technology such as Indian Council for Medical Research, Indian Institutes of Science and Indian Institutes of Technology work together with their Sanskrit counterparts to carry out inter-disciplinary research and come out with the panacea for the manifold problems confronting mankind.
In sharp contrast to the controversies back home, in Buddhist Thailand, one was pleasantly delighted to find Hindu deities such as Vishnu (Wsnu), Ganesh and Brahma being worshipped with equal reverence. At yoga sessions across Thailand, people chant aum, perform the surya namaskar and Ramayana, study Indian classical dances and savour Indian cuisines without any civilisational conflicts whatsoever.
One of the most prominent tableaux at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport is that of the saagar manthan or churning of the ocean from Hindu mythology. Guru Buddhhacharan, a Chinese born Thai scholar of Vedas is planning to open a 100 Vedic schools in the South East Asian country and the nation’s Princess Maha Chakri herself developed interest in Sanskrit studies since she was very young. She obtained her Master of Arts degree in oriental epigraphy from Silpakorn University and Master of Arts in Pali and Sanskrit from Chulalongkorn University. The Princess has supported further education in Sanskrit by granting scholarships for university students to study the language abroad, many of whom have become lecturers at Silpakorn University, whose Sanskrit Study Centre jointly organised the World Conference.
As the world increasingly looks at India as the vishwa guru, learning valuable lessons from its rich past, it is high time we, Indians, close our ranks and reflect our collective identity and unity overcoming petty partisan politics. As our ancestors exhorted, “Sanghacchadhvam, samvadadhvam, Samvomanamsi janatam” (Let us move together, speak in one voice, think alike and understand one another).
(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)