Language and Discourse: Why the issue is not merely about Sanskrit or English

Language and Discourse: Why the issue is not merely about Sanskrit or English

With the rapid spread of English in India, most Indians are worried about the future of Indian languages, especially Sanskrit. It is also observed that learning is less efficient when conducted through a foreign language. Furthermore, efforts are undertaken to popularize Sanskrit, not only in the hope that a language of Indian origin may come to serve as the lingua franca of India but that it may encourage better thinking patterns on account of its logical structure.

In all such cases, we find that the emphasis is entirely on language as the key to build a better India. No attention is paid to the discourse which is the medium through which a language expresses its power. A discourse encapsulates the socio-political meaning of what is communicated through language and is therefore more important than the language itself. The same discourse can be expressed through different languages and while usually a language is associated with its own peculiar discourse, the same language can be employed to communicate different discourses. Let me explain this point with an example.

Consider a man who sends his 12-year old son to work, instead of giving him an education, and lives on his income. Evidently, this is wrong but how do you raise the issue? You could tell the man that his son has a right to education. By not sending him to school and making him work, the man is violating the rights of his son. This is a discourse of human rights, of European origin, but it is not that it can be articulated only in English. You can just as easily use the term mānavaadhikāra instead of ‘human rights’ and make the same point.

Instead of the foregoing, you could also tell the man that by denying his son an education, he is violating his pitṛ-dharma (paternal duty) which is to protect and nurture the child. This is a different discourse, a discourse of dharma, of Indian origin, but it can just as easily be conveyed in English by using the term ‘paternal duty’ or ‘paternal obligation’. This is what I mean when I say that the same discourse can be conveyed through different languages.

Therefore, it is the discourse which really matters and not the language. Discourses arise in a particular language but they can be easily translated into a different language. However, what is difficult to transfer from one language to another is the power contained in the discourse. As our own linguistic tradition puts it, śabda (word, logos) i.e. discourse has a śakti (power) to impel the listener to perform an action.

Thus, in the above example, the two kinds of discourse can have different effects depending on the audience. Consider the man to be a traditional Indian who has not enjoyed the privilege of a liberal-humanist Western education system. Whether you tell him in English that he has violated the rights of his son or whether you tell him in Hindi that he has violated the adhikāra of his son, the discourse will have no effect on him because he simply cannot grasp the idea of his son being endowed with any rights or adhikāra.

European thinkers in the 17th century proposed that it was God who endowed humans with inviolable rights. Once the idea became sufficiently entrenched in the European mind to be regarded as common-sense, then the discourse of human rights could continue in the liberal-humanist tradition even without the need for a God. Once the idea comes to India, it is translated as adhikāra but the Indian neither shares the historical experience of the European nor does he know anything about this God of Christianity who exists outside of nature and grants something called rights to humans.

But due to the colonial circumstance, the Indian, especially the Indian exposed to the West, finds himself in an inferior position and simply emulates the Westerner. The Indian learns the concept that humans are endowed with inviolable rights and how to speak it, even if he does not feel any of it. Deep down nothing stirs – the discourse does not carry any śakti of its own. But it succeeds because it works by convention. An Indian realizes that if he needs to express a grievance, he should say ‘my rights have been violated’. The justice system responds to that expression and remedies the grievance in the form of safeguarding the person’s rights.

However, neither of the two are emotionally moved by the discourse of rights. It is not as if the Indian goes ‘Oh my god, a right has been violated. This cannot be allowed to happen. Something must be done to safeguard it.’ The pain comes to the complainant from the actual grievance. The judge is moved by his duty to address the grievance. The whole discourse of rights is merely a language-game which is played out by convention but it has no inherent value of its own.

Coming back to our man in the example, he does not understand this language-game and his role in it. Like us, he too is not moved by the discourse on rights but because of his non-exposure to the Western system, he does not understand the convention and so does not play his part in it. He simply looks at you with bafflement – what rights of the son? where do they come from?

On the other hand, if he is a devoted Hindu and you tell him that he has violated his pitṛ-dharma something stirs within him. He feels that he is being accused of having committed a serious crime and he will be moved in this case, either to deny or to confess. This is the power of a discourse and whether you say pitṛ-dharma or parental obligation (assuming he understands English) the effect will be the same.

On the other hand, if the man in question is a modern Indian then a discourse of dharma or obligation will not work. He will simply retort that he is a secular person in a free country and not under any obligation to fulfill any dharma. Indeed, if you want to get anywhere with such a man you will have to use the discourse of rights, whether you express that discourse in English or an Indian language.

The problem in India today is precisely that even if we get rid of English it will not make any difference because the Western discourse now permeates even the Indian languages. The issue is not with the alien language but an alien discourse and for as long as that persists, Indian thought will not be able to freely express itself and explore its full creativity. We remain compelled to employ a discourse that we do not feel, that stirs no emotion inside of us. On the other hand, the discourse that we do feel, that stirs an emotion within us, we are not permitted to express it because it is anti-secular.

While a discourse can manifest itself in different languages, it is also true that a language is connected with a certain discourse depending on the kind of culture it produces. 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 अनेका मत्स्याः सन्ति। तत्र एको बकोऽपि निवसति।

ekasmin sarovare anekā matsyāh 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.

Coming back to our allegedly good-for-nothing father, we can also see that a discourse is not merely a view regarding a certain issue but expresses a particular socio-political reality. Let us assume that we are engaged in a discourse of rights and the man fails to understand it and continues to send his son to work. The matter cannot end there for if the man will not uphold the rights of his son then someone else needs to do it. In a modern society, that is the role played by the state through a social security infrastructure of workers and orphanages. The son will have to be put in their custody so that his rights are guaranteed. This not only imposes a welfare cost but also demands that the state exact violence for the defence of rights. Here the violence occurs in the separation of the son from his family.

In the Indian context we may not have a robust social security infrastructure as found in the West but even more importantly we are not culturally prepared to exact the kind of violence that the discourse of rights requires. This is true of all modern values and secularism serves as an excellent example to understand the problem. In Australia, the Muslim demand for sharia was rejected forthright by the attorney general declaring that the country will have only one set of laws. While we may applaud this decision as the genuine practice of secularism, the fact remains that it entails a form of violence against the Muslim community. In India, we think that secularism does not work properly because of appeasement and vote-bank politics. But it is not just that – the fact is that our Hindu intellectual heritage, which permits each community to follow its custom, makes us reluctant to practice the violence demanded by secularism. Of course, the tragedy that the Hindu intellectual heritage is not given its due is another matter. But the point I am trying to make is that modernity entails violence and if you are not prepared to practise it then you are not fit to articulate a modern discourse. In India, the only kind of violence the allegedly Hindu authorities are keen to practice is against the culture of the Hindus i.e. violence against oneself, which is relatively easy.

But what if we engage in a discourse of dharma? Let us imagine we do that and the father now understands the point but argues that in his jāti it is the norm that when a son turns 12, he is supposed to support the father. He further explains that in his case too, after he had turned 12, he had supported his father and so why is it immoral for him to expect the same from his son? This is a valid argument and, indeed, the discourse of dharma itself allows each jāti to live in accordance with its own customs. All that can be done here by those who find this custom of living on the son’s income grotesque is to break ties with such a jāti. Stop dining with these people. Stop marrying into this community. If their customs are too offensive, then cast them out. As we know, this is what Indians, and not only Indians but communities around the world, have traditionally done. Create separate spaces for different communities and allow each community to practice their weird customs in their own space. This creates the problem of socio-political fragmentation but it eschews violence against the customs of the community. In this example, the discourse of dharma does not cause a break up of the family.

Thus, discourses are not just about solving particular problems but involve a whole way of going about the world. This is why it is not easy to simply transfer a discourse from one culture to another. Yet people are deluded into thinking that if they can translate a foreign discourse into their own language, it will work for them. It does not. It may go only so far as to make the discourse sensible to them or admit it as a convention but it cannot stir any emotion spontaneously within them; it can make them think but it cannot make them feel.

As we saw in case of human rights and dharma, discourses have their advantages and disadvantages but their effectiveness depends on their capacity to inspire people to act, to shape the reality of its audience. It is important to recover the language that united ancient India but it is even more important to recover the discourses embedded within it, which brought into being the life-world of the ancient Indians. Whether we can abide in it, given our modern context, is a separate question but by recovering it at least we can use it to show a mirror to modernity, to understand the different ways in which humans have constructed their world.

Disclaimer: The facts and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Ashay Naik

Ashay Naik is a Sanskrit scholar and a software professional. He is deeply interested in studying Bharatiya culture, political philosophy and theology. He has completed his Honours in Sanskrit from the University of Sydney and is a contributor to the Swadeshi Indology series. He is the author of Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra. He blogs at and tweets at @AshayNaik1.