Language loss in the Indian Himalayas
This was a DRAFT, which became published in some other articles, like this one in the Wire. Not all of it was included and most of the images were left out. So, this version presents a more comprehensive picture.
Language-killer = bhāṣā-hantṛ
As a consequence of the global popularity of yoga, there is an unspoken threat to the marginalised languages of South Asia, such as the Central Pahari languages, Garhwali and Kumouni. This occurs via the banal support and shared appreciation that Hindus, Hindu supremacists and global yoga consumers have for the Sanskrit language.
The title is meant to be provocative, and grab your attention. I hope that by the end of the article, should you get that far, that it becomes apparent what I mean, when I ask the question, ‘Does yoga help kill languages?’ Today, Sanskrit plays a central role in the global yoga industry, as well as a peripheral role in the wellness and spiritual tourism industries; which, combined, these industries represent multi-trillion dollar opportunities for the Indian state to promote its cultural heritage on the global stage, while representing itself as the apogee of morality through the term viśva guru (world guru).
Below, I discuss how the politics and consumption of yoga are, in some ways, involved in language endangerment. This occurs through privileging Sanskrit, which is the language that many ancient and medieval texts of Hinduism, yoga, and other philosophical traditions from South Asia, are written in.
To the casual observer, or participant, it might not be that obvious how money, power and politics intersect, through manufactured narratives and subjective experiences, in the production of desire and cultivation of affect. This is because the global popularity in many things Indian, and yogically-related, lends itself to other, often under appreciated or unrecognised agendas and consequences. This includes the consumption of culture that is refracted through the process of commodification. It includes yoga-inflected and Sanskrit-inspired lifestyles, which in certain ways, are obliquely involved in the endangerment of already vulnerable languages. Therefore, the global interest in yoga, and Sanskrit, is involved in language endangerment. It is worth considering how our interest and participation in global yoga, spiritual tourism and the neoliberal pursuit of self-improvement and wellness might be contributing to the global language death crises, particularly in India.
The least conservative predictions claim that 90 percent of the world’s 6–7000 languages spoken today will be moribund, or extinct, by the end of this century. The narrow perspective quite often envisions a world with fewer languages as more appealing than a tower of Babylon vision that has people speaking many unintelligible languages. Many people query why it would not just be easier if everyone simply spoke English, for example, as we could all communicate more effectively. This, of course, is an enduring result of neoliberal ideology to create more effective and transposable markets. Also, in a predominantly monolingual society like Australia, it is not too uncommon to hear someone emphatically declare, ‘Speak English or die, this is Australia!’ This, at least, is a personal anecdote, which others have also experienced on public transport. But, I digress.
This myopic view is contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which has been translated into over 500 languages, including Sanskrit. While it expresses how all individuals and groups have an inalienable right to speak and promote the language of their community, issues related to Linguistic Human Rights, particularly for endangered languages, had to wait until 1996, until the Universal Declaration for Linguistic Human Rights was established.
It is worth considering the possibility that each language is a unique body of knowledge, culture and history, much like the world’s greatest museums. Yet, languages typically die a silent death, and it is generally too late to stop the shift to larger, dominant and more prestigious, ‘economically viable’ languages, even if a vulnerable or endangered language has millions of speakers. We often think of endangered languages as ones that have only a handful, or perhaps, a few hundred speakers; however, there are languages with millions of speakers that are already in vulnerable states. This is due to many factors, but can be seen as a process of language shift, where people shift to languages that are perceived to have more economic potential or symbolic value/prestige. This can be described through the similar the process of glottophagy, or ‘tongue eating’.
The global popularity and profitability of yoga is astounding. It is currently worth to the global economy about USD500 billion per year. Even though the industry is considered to be in the mature phase of its development, it continues to grow alongside the mindfulness and spiritual tourism industries within the USD4 trillion global wellness industry.
As someone who is fascinated by the way culture is filtered through the process of commodification; personally, I am a bit confused by the entanglement of symbols used to inspire the consumption of yoga-inflected lifestyles. Like the picture above, there are countless images, especially on social media, of people performing their consumption of yoga that are generally contextualised by a natural backdrop. It seems to have three functions: 1) Placate the viewer; 2) Stimulate desire for a variety of things; and, 3) Promote the idea that yoga is good for the environment. I am more interested in discussing the third option, and how people come to assume that yoga-inflected lifestyles form part of an eco-sustainable narrative, that through being a docile, neo-liberal consumer, and good citizen, the world will reach equipoise, just like the model in this image above, who is able to withstand the cold harsh landscape and remain strong, elegant, young, and, more importantly, warm.
The general consensus amongst many people within the global yoga industry is that yoga has ‘sold out’ and ‘lost its soul’. This paradox is fascinating, because the millions of people who have found meaning, inspiration, identity, community and wellness through the commodification of yoga points to the opposite. People, all over the world, would not have found yoga had it not been for its commodification. Also, the Indian state and many conservative yoga fundamentalists would not have the cultural capital they have today, had it not been for the global rise in yoga’s popularity. Yet, to then bemoan and critique how yoga is consumed seems somewhat hypocritical. And, so I find the ideas of Saskia Brill and Viet Braun interesting:
Commodification is more than just slapping price tags on things, bodies, ideas or practices. All too often, it has been synonymised with the intrusion of capitalism into the paradise of values, reducing all of them to the single common denominator of money. While commodification is regarded as the degeneration of the social, commodities are denounced as watered-down emulations of “real” things, the ones that money cannot buy. But what if commodification was not about impoverishment but enrichment? What if commodities were not things emptied of old values but laden to the brim with new ones?
Meera Nanda suggests that it is the globalising forces of capitalism that help create and commodify a ‘State-Temple-Corporate Complex’, which promotes a Hindu-centric global identity for, and by, the Indian state. This Hindufication of Brand India fosters the potential for unwitting, banal support of Hindu supremacism, as it becomes normalised in the marketing rhetoric and media, where it unwittingly finds its way into the minds, and hearts, of generally apolitical, global yoga consumers. This occurs, primarily, through the affective, romanticised bonds managed by the Indian ministries for yoga, Ayurveda, health and tourism. These affective bonds are further strengthened via the glocalised, bourgeois, cosmopolitan aesthetic and aspiration; which, within the global yoga-wellness industry, is firmly ensconced in appreciating, and privileging, the Sanskrit language and allied cultural practices of Brahmanism.
Let us briefly return to 2010, when the government of the Himalayan Indian state of Uttarakhand declared itself to be a ‘Sanskrit state’, and installed Sanskrit as the second official language, after Hindi.
Many people do not realise that Sanskrit is spoken today, ostensibly as a 2nd-language. According to the 2001 Indian Census, approximately 200,000 people speak Sanskrit as a 2nd-language, and 15,000 people speak it as a 1st-language. For an array of reasons, these figures are unreliable. Nonetheless, since the 1980s, there has been a Sanskrit-speaking revival, which includes the ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ village project. As part of the ‘Sanskrit village’ project, the villages of Bhantola (Kumoun) and Kimoda (Garhwal) are promoted within the Indian media as ‘Sanskrit villages’. They are both located within the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. However, the languages that have been spoken in this region for generations are themselves listed as ‘vulnerable’ by UNESCO.
Yet, due primarily to state-driven ideology, these languages and the communities who speak them are involved in an ideologically-inspired shift to Sanskrit. This is a state-sponsored attempt to redress the shift away from Sanskrit to other Prakrit (local vernacular languages) that occurred approximately 2500 years ago. Since that time, Sanskrit has survived as an artificial, post-vernacular language, ostensibly due to its prestige as a language of high culture and religion. Unfortunately, not every endangered or vulnerable language is afforded the same level of prestige and protection. While many supporters of Sanskrit’s hegemony elide its success by claiming its durability is proof of its inherent sanctity and immortality, these assertions are based on a collection of logical fallacies related to appeals to tradition, authority and purity.
Since 2008, I have been working on a small, self-funded, research project about ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ villages. This began with a master’s degree in linguistics, and culminated with a doctorate in linguistic anthropology. Now, I continue with this side project, as it informs my larger post-doctoral project related to ‘Global Yoga in Japan’. I am also slowly making a low-budget, ethnographic documentary series, titled: Imagining Sanskrit Land. Season 1 focuses on a village in Madhya Pradesh called Jhirī. I wrote an earlier article in Arena Magazine (Issue 147), which explores inter-related aspects to yoga, Sanskrit, and ethno-nationalism in the context of my month-long stay in Jhirī. Behind an institutional paywall is this more academic article, which focuses on Jhirī, and the linguistic issues of this phenomenon. I have written a few other articles as well. This book chapter in this edited volume looks at ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ villages and Jhirī from an anthropological point of view.
My interest in this topic began with the assertion that I have personally heard countless times that, ‘there is a village in India where everyone speaks fluent Sanskrit all of time’. These truth claims are supported by a constant trickle of articles within the Indian media-scape.
The picture above is a case in point. The ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ village of Jhirī is located in Rajgarh District, which is in the eastern part of central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. In a direct line, it is about 600 kms due south of New Delhi. The title of this Hindi-medium article is:
yahāñ āj bhī baccoñ se lekar bujurg tak karte haiñ saṁskṛt meiñ bāt
Here, today, from the children to the elders, they speak in Sanskrit.
There is another, smaller title and article on the right side of the page that says:
śat pratiśat log bolte haiñ saṁskṛt
100 percent of the people speak Sanskrit.
Now, having spent a month in the village back in 2015, knowing that the Sanskrit project had, already, all but ceased a couple of years prior, and knowing that, from my personal observations that perhaps only 5 percent (30 out of 600 residents) were even marginally conversant in Sanskrit, these claims by the newspaper are quite perplexing. These are reconstituted and legitimised through various blog posts and other media outlets, like the Hindu supremacist magazine, the Organiser, which predicts that:
The hegemony of this statement needs highlighting. The ‘rural masses’ have typically existed outside of the Sanskritic thought-world, or at least existed peripherally as an imaginative, pure, remnant of an idealised India. Yet, through the ethno-nationalist ideology, rural, out-of-the-way villages are recruited, and expected to forsake their own languages as part of a patriotic sentiment, which is based on the ethno-nationalist political religion of Hindu supremacism. However, there are also contradicting claims that these projects are failures. As this article in the Hindustan Times explains, one of the main reasons that the promotion of Sanskrit fails is due to the caste factor. Historically, only the upper castes were allowed to speak, learn, teach or recite Sanskrit. The Gautama Dharma Shastra, is a legal, political, economic, and moral treatise from about 2000 years ago, which suggests in XII.4, severe punishments for those from prescribed communities that were excluded from the Brahmanical religious practices who happen to speak, hear, recite or teach Sanskrit. These punishments included: having one’s tongue cut out, having molten tin and lac poured into one’s ears, or being hacked to pieces.
If the śūdra intentionally listens for committing to memory the Veda, then his ears should be filled with (molten) lead and lac; if he utters the Veda, then his tongue may be cut off; if he has mastered the Veda his body should be hacked.
There are also other criticisms, linked to the Hindu supremacist ideology that promotes a simplified, vernacular Sanskrit at the expense of minority languages.
It is through the global yoga industry that Sanskrit connects a glocalised ‘yoga tribe’ where the ‘impure’ urban metropole and the ‘pure’ rustic village/ashram become connected through the cosmopolitan aesthetic that Sanskrit offers. Ashish Nandy comments that the increasingly ambiguous boundaries, caused by technology, between the village and the city, also give people the opportunity to imagine what I describe as a pure ‘Sanskrit land’. Also, it is irrelevant whether these ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ villages exist, or not. As these villages act as a reference for a more abstract referent that is psychological, and does not necessarily need to exist in the real world.
The ‘Sanskrit village’ acts as a referent for an ‘eternal present’, which is predicated by an utopian future that ultimately aspires to create a re-imagined, ‘Vedic golden age’ (circa 1200–500 BCE). The utopian aspiration is to create a pan-global Hindu theocratic state (which is eerily similar to ISIS’s global caliphate). This includes replacing English with Sanskrit as the next global lingua franca. Evidence for this aspiration is given by the founder of Samskrita Bharati, which is the international organisation that promotes a simplified, vernacular Sanskrit; and explicitly lays out the theo-political global agenda, and the role of yoga and Sanskrit in fulfilling this aspiration.
In this article, I explain how global yoga consumers are at the risk of adopting an unwitting support for a Hindu supremacist ideology through a banal consumption that filters the more extreme elements through the commodification of yoga and the aversion/bypassing of the consumer, who is not looking to entertain thoughts and discussions about politics in India, or anywhere else.
The core of this argument rests on the shared preference that global yoga and Hindu supremacists have for the Sanskrit language. We can understand this more broadly as the Sanskrit episteme; which is an ‘unconscious’ structure where beliefs are uncritically justified as ‘true’. This includes the use of similar narratives, textual references, cultural and physical practices, history, and identities. Yet, how commensurable are the ontologies of these worlds? They intersect at various points, but are the end points similar? In some ways, yes. Broadly, through a utopian aspiration to create a better world through yoga, we can see how the seemingly incommensurate worlds of global yoga consumers and Hindu supremacists can merge.
The appeals to authority, tradition and purity inherent within the hierarchical structure of Indian society are most notably witnessed via the guru-disciple relationship in the context of global yoga. This is another structural reference point for unwitting enculturation into the Sanskrit episteme. This control mechanism is built upon cultivating affect. It is anti-intellectual, in the sense that the spiritual seeker (and citizen, as emotive appeals are the politician’s rhetorical strategy of choice) is told not how to think, but rather how to feel. In this way, there is the potential for widespread uncritical consumption of factoids. Which, combined with a shared utopian aspiration to attenuate feelings of disenchantment, global yoga consumers are at the risk of supporting a Hindu supremacist ideology, without even knowing it. This is because many mega-gurus popular around the world with global yoga consumers and spiritual seekers promote support for a banal, or soft, ethno-nationalism, which is not immediately apparent for the parochial consumer of spiritual lifestyles that yearns to be accepted into a group of like-minded people.
Global yoga consumers imbibe the rhetoric which proposes Sanskrit has an edificatory power to create moral and cultural change in people who speak and hear it. Therefore, when the naive global yoga consumer hears about the Sanskrit village project, it is overwhelmingly met with a positive opinion. However, there is little regard for the languages marginalised by this project.
Sanskrit promoters claim that the language is the linguistic version of some type of sanitising solution. This logic is at the core of the moral panic propagated by the Indian state and Hindu supremacists. This is demonstrated by the Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj, who understands that the potential of Sanskrit to purify minds is why it should be promoted. This opinion is shared by many, including the founder of Samskrita Bharati, C.K. Shastry, who explains the reformative potential of Sanskrit to transform lives.
According to Madhav Deshpande, an eminent Emeritus Professor of Sanskrit, this ‘moral panic’ narrative, mentioned above, was first used about 2500 years ago by the grammarian-priest Kātyāyana (3 BCE) and, his (not yoga-sūtra related) successor, Patañjali. This was because they were worried about purity, dialectal variation, and the fact that the Sanskrit language (they called it bhāṣā) was no longer being spoken as a mother tongue by their community. In other words, Sanskrit was entering a post-vernacular state. Therefore, they decreed that using Sanskrit as a language of conversation, as opposed to just in liturgy, would also help the speakers and listeners attain religious merit (puṇya). Interestingly, this moral panic logic, and the perceived salvational benefits, are used today for the same theo-political purpose, which is an existential mooring point to create, supposedly, a better world.
The efficacy to transform lives resides in the perceived purity of utterances articulated in Sanskrit. In an earlier article in Himāl South Asian, I discuss the problematic relationship between the theology of ‘purity’, Sanskrit revival and the ethno-nationalist political theology of Hindutva (Hindu-ness). The expansionist aspiration of Hindu supremacists has global implications. It can be seen, quite clearly, through the alliance between Hindu supremacist groups in India and the new global wave of white supremacy. In this article by Carol Schaeffer, we learn about the such figures as Rajiv Malhotra, who was earlier described as the ‘the philosopher-in-chief of Internet Hindutva. Roughly, ‘he is to swarms of angry right-wing bloggers, chat-room lurkers and Twitter trolls what Ayn Rand is to American libertarians’. Schaeffer also introduces another author with similar extremist views as Malhotra. These two figures are allies in a larger movement to ostensibly create a pan-global Hindu theocracy. The premise of this global alt-right aspiration is to recoup a perceived golden age of humanity, based on Hinduism’s precursor, the Vedic culture. For the Hindu supremacist (or Vedist), at least, well, according to The Vedic Foundation, this occurred at ‘the start of human civilization on the earth, people and the Sages both spoke pure Sanskrit language’.
The idea is that the first people to walk this earth were Vedic Sanskrit-speaking Aryans that already had a well-developed culture and language, and that, as a result, they colonised the entire world forming the Urkultur for all of humanity. *Proof of this is offered in such publications as this, which lays the ground for the expansionist rhetoric that is based on a circular time cycle. While we are apparently in the last of the four epochs (currently Kali Yuga), it is proposed that there will be an eventual return to the first epoch, Satya Yuga, which is considered to be the paragon of virtue and morality. In relation to this, it is worth, also, considering how this ‘New Age of global culture’ might come about. As Jan Nelis points out, in relation to the recycling of myths:
Apart from the cult of creation through destruction (the prevalence of violence in early fascism), and, linked to it, the myth of war (which was seen as a vitalising, catharsis-inducing element), there is the idea of a physical and spiritual rebirth of the Italian masses, united in a newly nationalised State.
Interestingly, the apocalyptic necessity that is required to essentially reset the circuit is found in many ‘end of days’ / final judgement story lines. Millennialism is a key feature in many religions, including the global alt-right zeitgeist. Many people are not willing to wait for the total destruction of the planet through nuclear war. According to them, complete destruction is essential for the new golden age to begin. Yet, it is worth clarifying the difference between apocalyptic millennialism and eschatology. Eschatology anticipates a complete end to history, whereas apocalyptic millennialism is hyperactive and impatient, and anticipates a cataclysmically-violent destruction.
In this previous article, I discuss the ways in which people inclined toward an eco-sustainable, vegetarian, vegan and yogic-inspired lifestyle are attracted to eco-yoga camps. I discuss how this is one way in which people can come to unwittingly support Hindu supremacist ideology. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) has become quite successful in repositioning itself as an alternative lifestyle option, particularly for disaffected youth. Here is one such promotional video. However, the ultimate political theology behind ISKCON is apocalyptic and deeply supremacist. As I discuss in the above-mentioned article, here is one aspect worth reiterating:
These ideas are uncritically consumed and reconstituted also by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), generally known as the “Hare Krishna” movement. One video from the annual Polish Woodstock festival, where ISKCON establishes Krishna’s “Village of Peace”, suggests, among other things, that the Ka’bah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is a Shiva lingam, a potent symbol of Hinduism related to the Shaivite sect. This is part of a post-truth campaign that posits a global Vedic civilization as the aboriginal culture (Urkultur) of humanity, and claims that Sanskrit-speaking Aryans were the first humans. And, due to the cyclical time of Vedic cosmology, we are supposedly in the process of returning to this pan-global Vedic “way of life. The “Vedic creationism” of ISKCON is encapsulated by the construction of the Temple of the Vedic Planetarium, which can be viewed as a three-part model on YouTube.
The shared ideology between Hindutva and ISKCON is not hard to establish. According to an article in DNA, the leader of the World Hindu Council (VHP) claims that the Middle East, Africa and Europe were previously Hindu, while a senior member of ISKCON explains his organization’s support for creating the shared aspiration of a Hindu/Vedic nation and world.
From the DNA article mentioned above, which has the title: Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders want whole world converted to Hinduism, we learn that:
Kamal Lochan Das of ISKCON said the deep meaning of the name of the VHP was that they wanted to ensure that the entire world became Hindu. He claimed that the name of Russia was derived from the penance of ‘Rishis’ there. “Isnt Russia a Hindu Rashtra?” questioned the religious leader, while calling for Hindus to work till the entire world became a “Hindu Rashtra.”
We do not have to venture too far into the mythology of the Sanskrit episteme to find a myth of war, which is premised, entirely, by the creation of a new moral order and golden age through the complete destruction that is represented in the battle that occurs in Bhagavad Gita. This text is well known to any serious student of yoga. It is likely found in essential reading lists for every yoga teacher-training course. But, what many people do not realise is its role in the nationalist agenda; or how the eschatology of Hinduism is similar to that of Christianity, which awaits the total destruction of the world through the coming of tenth avatar of Vishnu, otherwise known as the apocalyptic horse rider, Kalki, who is represented, below, flanked by several other Hindu deities, who seem to be bestowing their grace or energy upon him.
Expressed in modern political rhetoric, the BJP politician M.M. Joshi justifies this expansionist aspiration as a return to this imagined, original, pan-global, Vedic Urkultur, which does not intend to be confined to India, because it is ‘a spiritual proliferation of Hindutva [which is required] to save the basic humanitarian and cultural crisis in the dejected and over-materialistic situation looming large in the present world’. A lot of this ahistorical hubris is built upon such nationalist-inspired ideas from the early 20th century. L.B.G. Tilak’s 1903 book, titled, The Arctic Home of the Vedas, interprets Vedic knowledge to suit a particular agenda, which should be seen in context. Essentially, through selected readings, as the title suggests, Tilak proposes that Vedic-speaking Aryans, who colonised the world, had their home in the Arctic Circle, where present-day India was apparently originally located. This is represented in the map below.
And, this is why current maps that imagine a Hindu nation demonstrate the imposition of this Hindu nation, otherwise referred to as Bharat, over current, arbitrary, geo-political borders.
But, this is not just the discourse of unregistered outliers. This rhetoric is found at the core of the Indian state’s ideology. It is found on government websites, like the Ministry of External Affairs, which has an article, titled: Yoga: Its Origin, History and Development.
The paragraph in outlined in red is troubling. Mostly because it suggests that from India, a global ‘yogic way of life’ was part of a global colonisation by the ancient Indians, which occurred at the ‘very dawn of civilisation’. And, that this sits at the core of humanity’s civilisation.
As Romila Thapar explains, these tropes favoured by the Hindu supremacist groups, which is considered to an anti-colonial narrative, is actually built upon the imaginings of the colonial elite.
Consequently, the creation of a Hindu state is projected as a legitimate objective. The unbroken descent of Hindu ancestry and religion from earliest times, according to this school of thought, legitimises the primacy of Hindus in the present, and takes up from Max Mueller’s construction of a superior Aryan culture and the Aryan foundations of Indian (read Hindu) civilisation. Interestingly, it was the Theosophists, and in particular Colonel Olcott, who first propagated this theory in the late nineteenth century. Olcott argued that the Aryans were indigenous to India and took civilisation from India to the West. This theory is now being promoted by Hindutva, but with no reference to the colonial view where the origins lie.
When we start to consider the prospects of actually decolonising yoga, it is important to verify whether the narratives we choose to support and propagage are indeed correct. Otherwise, we might simply be enabling a new iteration of colonial thought.
The predicted timeline is that by 2020, 2023 or 2025, India will become a Hindu theocratic state, and by 2030, the rest of the world will also join in this seemingly ‘Hindu caliphate’ in which, Sanskrit, as the next global lingua franca, will experience a return to it’s ahistorical position as the supposed first global language, and apparent ‘mother of all languages’. As Ariel Sophia Bardi explains:
The Hindu nationalist vision of India hinges on an imagined, culturally pure Vedic golden age, a Hindu rashtra, or nation. It’s usually represented by the ancient kingdom of Ram, the godly hero of India’s national epic, the Ramayana.
There are many groups coming together in India to discuss ways to make this happen, or rather, dismantle the secular constitution of the world’s largest democracy. This includes the current BJP-led government, which A. James Gregor explains that:
The ideology of the BJP is clearly redemptive, mass mobilizing, anti-individualistic, and industrializing. The principal theoreticians of Hindutva have spoken of unity, self-sacrifice, communitarianism, and enduring nationalist commitment as the defining virtues of party members. As cultural nationalists, the political ideologists of the BJP favor traditional religious practices — and, as a consequence, have been charged with tendential biases towards a form of exclusivistic totalitarianism.
Quite independent of its animating political religion of rebirth and development, the BJP makes appeal to traditional religion for collateral support. It can be said to seek unity, discipline, and resolution through the indoctrination of its secular religious beliefs, with auxiliary support in traditional religious Hinduism. (pages 767–8)
In similar ways to Malhotra, and to promote the ideas of reversing the threat of the above-mentioned cultural crisis; in his book, Dharma Nation, Frank Morales proposes a pan-global nationalism built upon the Hindu ideal of dharma, which is often translated as ‘moral duty’; however, Morales translates it as ‘natural law’. Dharma Nation just so happens to be published by the influential publishing house for the ‘alt-right’, Arktos.
David Frawley, like Morales, is also worth mentioning as another example of the ‘white Hindu’. As Vikram Zutshi explains, Frawley is a:
well known American teacher of Ayurveda, Jyotish and Vedic traditions, who leads a double life as an enthusiastic promoter of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), a nearly all-male cadre organization comprising tens of millions of active members that promotes a paramilitary ethos, hyper-masculine nationalism and a radical vision to reshape Indian society along authoritarian theocratic lines.
To many yoga consumers, curious about yoga philosophy and Ayurveda, Frawley represents a font of wisdom. His books are found in many essential reading lists for yoga teacher training courses. However, many people do not realise his exceptionally alt-right political views, which are sprinkled into his ideas, like this:
Sanskrit thus lends itself to be the language of the New Age of global culture.
Language revival, maintenance or reclamation are very difficult processes to manage, as there are many factors prohibiting a successful revival. This process is further complicated by adopting/reviving a language amongst communities that have no historical relationship with speaking Sanskrit, such as the Himalayan communities in Bhantola and Kimoda.
The sociolinguistic field of 2nd-language acquisition explores the ways in which people learn to speak other languages than their ‘mother tongue’, or the language (s) they learnt to speak at home as children with their families.
When it comes to learning a 2nd language as an adult, especially a language that is not considered ‘natural’, like Sanskrit, this inevitably involves the production of ‘impure’ linguistic features related to how people speak the ‘target language’, i.e. the language being learnt. Sociolinguists refer to this stage of making errors in the target language as the ‘imperfect learning’ stage. This occurs when the grammar of our first language(s) interfere with our attempts to speak ‘correctly’ in the target language we are learning. Without doubt, we will use certain features of the more deeply embedded language(s) until our learning of the target language reaches a more stable, fluent state.
Inevitably, there will always be perceived ‘errors’ that occur through substrate interference from the source language(s). Think about when you have tried to learn some other language and when you speak it as beginner; you might have an accent, combine words from your 1st language with the 2nd language, or not put the verb in the correct position. There are many languages that do not follow a Subject-Verb-Object syntactic structure like English, e.g. ‘Sam ate the apple’. For instance, in a Verb-Subject-Object language like Scottish Gaelic, the sentence would be ‘Ate Sam the apple’.
This substrate interference plays unimaginable havoc on the political theology related to Sanskrit’s perceived purity and supposed power to reform lives. This is because it apparently requires people to speak a ‘pure’ language, which is further complicated by the fact that even the earliest substrate of Sanskrit that is recorded in the Ṛgveda (ca. 1200 BCE) has a few hundred loan words from other languages. Linguistic purity, therefore, is about as nonsensical an idea as racial purity. It is no wonder that these ideas are often found together.
The Sanskrit allegedly spoken by non-native speakers undoubtedly has substrate interference from the 1st languages: Kumouni, Garhwali, and to a lesser extent, Hindi. Even though the concept of ‘linguistic purity’ is quite problematic from a linguist’s perspective, when compared with the grammar of Classical Sanskrit, how linguistically ‘pure’ is the simplified Sanskrit spoken in these rural villages? What distinctions can we see between the ossified grammar of Classical Sanskrit and the revived ‘living’ Sanskrit in these villages? What can this tell us about 2nd-language acquisition and the revival of endangered languages. What are the grammatical and phonetic features of this developing hybrid language?
we look at the Declaration of Human Rights (Article 2), we are informed of our inalienable right to speak the languages of our choice. However, this is complicated by how the Constitution of India affords more legal protections for its two official languages (Hindi and English), and the 22 scheduled languages, than it does for non-scheduled languages.
As this article in The Hindu reveals, according to the 2011 Census data, India has 780 languages, which use a total of 66 different scripts. However, according to UNESCO, India has 197 ‘endangered’ languages; and, since the 1961 Census, India has apparently lost 220 languages, from a total of 1652.
UNESCO uses a ‘Degrees of Endangerment’ scale to assess language vitality, and considers the regional languages, Kumouni and Garhwali to have ‘vulnerable’ linguistic vitality. The rate of decline in these two languages is so drastic that they will most likely become endangered and possibly extinct within only a few generations. The argument I make is that the global popularity of yoga focuses on the Sanskrit episteme, and the Sanskrit language, at the expense of other, local languages. This global yoga preference for Sanskrit obliquely supports and emboldens the Sanskrit revitalisation project; which, in turn, puts pressure on local communities through directly effecting the linguistic vitality of marginalised languages. This is because regional, less prestigious languages like Kumouni and Garhwali are not valued by the global yoga practitioner. It is also due to the perceived salvific benefits attributed to the deva-bhāṣā (‘language of the gods’), which are supposedly not found in the modern Indian languages, as they have apparently been sullied by contact with Islam and Christianity to create hybrid mleccha (barbarian) languages like Hinglish.
The ideology of the Indian government and state government of Uttarakhand overlooks the linguistic vitality and diversity of less prestigious regional languages. As the aim is to popularise Sanskrit; however, this privileges developing Sanskrit amongst communities that have no historical link to this language. Therefore, the ideology of the Indian state is actively progressing the future extinction of these languages. This is manifestly unconstitutional and against the UN Declarations.
Having said all this, there appears to be political will to save and promote all Indian languages. The BJP’s (Indian People’s Party) 2014 Manifesto (page 49) says:
BJP would promote Indian languages, and put measures for the development of all Indian languages, so that they become a powerful vehicle for creating a knowledge society.
The UKPP (‘Uttarakhand Transformation Party’) is the first Green Party registered in India. Their manifesto also pledges:
To save all languages, dialects, scripts, cultural traditions etc., in order to allow people to [be] enriched with their heritage.
Interestingly, INC’s (Indian National Congress Party) 2014 Manifesto does not mention any language planning policy. Regardless, as the statistics mentioned above explain, the drastic loss of languages in India needs more than vapid promises on the election campaign.
2010, the Uttarakhand state government nominated, via Article 345 of the Indian Constitution, that Sanskrit would become the second official language, after Hindi. The state parliament unanimously voted to also declare Uttarakhand a ‘Sanskrit state’. Through the current national and state government’s ideological affiliation with the right-wing Sangh Parivar (‘The Family of Organisations’), it plans to expand the promotion of Sanskrit. However, this comes at a price to the less prestigious regional languages of Uttarakhand, namely, Kumouni and Garhwali. Both these languages are not on the 8th Schedule, which means they do not have constitutional support for preservation and promotion, which Sanskrit already does.
Within the state of Uttarakhand, Garhwali is the western neighbour of Kumouni. Both languages have approximately two million speakers. According to Article 350A of the constitution, provisions are made for adequate facilities to protect and promote the mother-tongues of linguistic minority groups. This is one reason why there is a strategy that involves a legal push by supporters of Sanskrit to have it considered the mother tongue of a minority group, so that under Article 30(1A) there would be even more power to promote Sanskrit through state-sponsored ‘minority’ institutions, even though there are already several state-funded Sanskrit university campuses overseen by the National Sanskrit Academy.
While the imposition of Sanskrit in these villages occurs from the top-down, the patriotic-religious sentiment is also a bottom-up phenomenon, which is driven by the aspirations of local communities to attain higher levels of prestige through the sociological process M.N. Srinivas defined as Sanskritization.
Sanskrit is a treasure trove of knowledge. However, for the speakers of Garhwali and Kumouni, they are equally as important as the literary-liturgical language of Sanskrit. While global yoga consumers might have heard about Sanskrit, and would be otherwise delighted to know that ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ villages possibly exist; this will come at a cost, especially for Garhwali and Kumouni, because they have unwittingly decided to support a Hindu supremacist language planning policy through their interest in yoga, which privileges Sanskrit, at the cost of marginalised languages; and, which also disregards the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution of India, and the BJP’s own manifesto.
We often think about ‘language death’, but this is usually couched as a natural, passive process that is devoid of a perpetrator and seemingly also a victim. Therefore, perhaps, consumers of global yoga might be charged with linguistic manslaughter, instead? Even though global yoga consumers might not consider these things, or simply dismiss these ideas as absurd, I believe that there is something more to consider. Avoiding, at least discussing these issues, should not be an option.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Elizabeth De Michelis, Pallabi Roy, Stephanie Majcher, and Rohini Bakshi for taking the time to read this article and provide many thoughtful comments.
Dr Patrick McCartney is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University and a JSPS post-doctoral scholar at Kyoto University, Japan. His project, titled: ‘Yoga Scapes: The Economics of Imagination and Utopian Aspirations of Transglobal Yoga in Japan’ intersects at the politics of imagination, the economics of desire, the sociology of spirituality, and the anthropology of religion. Patrick focuses on the unregulated global yoga industry, which exists within the multi trillion-dollar global wellness industry.
Within this globalised setting, Patrick works on untangling the subtler associations and processes involved in the socialisation of yoga consumers into particular ideologies and ‘ways of life’. This includes exploring the filtering of culture though commodification. It involves analysing the marketing strategies and rhetoric of the key social actors within this field, and how they use, or are inspired by, the Sanskrit episteme to legitimise certain worlds, identities and practices. This research is enriched with ethnography in yoga studios, online forums, yoga teacher-training courses, yoga festivals, and ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ villages.