Thursday, December 08, 2016

The best thing I read this morning

Ashay Naik's "Language and Discourse: Why the issue is not merely about Sanskrit or English"


Consider, for example, a simple, popular story from the Pañcatantra of a heron who deceived the fishes in a lake and killed them. In the original text, the story typically begins as follows:
अस्ति नानाजलचरसनाथसरोवरः। तत्र एकः बकः कृताश्रयो निवसति।
asti nānājalacarasanāthasarovaraḥ. tatra ekaḥ bakaḥ kṛtāśrayo nivasati.

There was a lake filled with different kind of acquatic creatures. A heron dwelled there, having taken refuge [at the lake].

This is not merely the setting for a story. There is latent in this simple introduction a whole discourse about human life. The word sanātha ‘filled’ used for the lake suggests that it was like a nātha ‘master’ and the fishes were living within it like a servant takes refuge with the master. The heron, also, we are told, was kṛtāśrayaḥ ‘one who has taken refuge’ with the lake.

In other words, the story is projecting an ecosystem with the lake at its center. It is inhabited by the fishes who are the prey and the heron who is their predator. The fact that they are part of the ecosystem and as such servants of a common master, legitimizes the normal predation of the heron. This is what makes his subsequent deceit so poignant. As members of an ecosystem, he was permitted to catch the fishes, if he could, as the fishes were permitted to escape from him, if they could. But what he was not permitted to do, what manifested his evil was the fact that when he grew old and was unable to catch the fish, he resorted to deceit in order to kill them. You can see just how expressive this simple introduction turns out to be. It also teaches us that our existence on earth is of a similar nature. The earth is our nātha and we are kṛtāśrayaḥ here. Such a profound philosophy is encapsulated in these simple words.

Today many people are making a strong effort to save Sanskrit, to spread Sanskrit, to get as many Indians speaking Sanskrit as possible. But the kind of Sanskrit we find in the Pañcatantra is not the language that is being propagated. If a contemporary Indian who has learnt Sanskrit was asked to write the aforementioned story, he would probably say:

एकस्मिन् सरोवरे अनेकानि मत्स्यानि सन्ति। तत्र एको बकोऽपि निवसति।
ekasmin sarovare anekāni matsyāni santi. tatra eko bako’pi nivasati.
In a lake, there lived many fishes. A heron also lived there.
You see the difference? We may preserve Sanskrit but we have lost its discourse. The discourse in the foregoing words speaks of the fishes and the heron as autonomous beings. The lake is a separate entity, merely a place where they have taken up residence. The sense that they form together an ecosystem is gone. The language is Sanskrit but the discourse is English. The language is ancient but the discourse is liberal-humanist. Therefore, we must persistently pay attention to the fact that it is not just the the language we are trying to save but also the discourse. It is preferable to express the Sanskrit discourse in an English language than to spread the Sanskrit language but use it to express an English discourse.