Sanskrit and faith-based development: Searching for Sanskrit speakers in the Indian Census

Patrick McCartney
21 min readFeb 9, 2021

Patrick McCartney © 2020 All rights reserved

This essay has two parts. The first discusses Sanskrit’s relative rankings within the 2011 and 2001 Indian censuses. The second is a discussion of how Sanskrit is operationalized for strategic soft power applications related to faith-based development.

Part 1: Sanskrit in the Census

As far as historical linguists and sociologists are concerned, Sanskrit became a second language around the beginning of the post-Vedic Period (ca. 500 BCE). This shift, from being a “mother tongue” to becoming a second language is described as a shift to a post-vernacular phase. Yet, regardless of the theological presumption, that the perceived devabhāṣā is eternal, Emeritus Professor of Sanskrit, Madhav Deshpande, explains it has undergone significant historical changes.

One of the key justifications for Sanskrit being used as a tool for the development of society is its perceived linguistic purity. However, it is argued that only a “pure” Sanskrit can deliver the utopian world it is used to inspire.

What, exactly, might a pure Sanskrit sound like?

This is a particularly vexing question, not only for the descriptive linguist who is aware that even in the earliest layers of the Vedic corpus (Ṛgveda), hundreds of loan words from other languages and language families are found. How did they get there? More troubling is how this historical “impurity” affects the metaphysics that form the moral framework. If the earliest stratum of Sanskrit is not “pure,” then the Sanskrit promoted and spoken today is even less so. Put another way, its linguistic fuel, or, dare I say, śabda śakti, is more like the fuel pumped into the tank of one’s Bajaj Discover motorbike, rather than the fuel that will be used to power India’s first rocket to the sun, Aditya-L1, later this year. How, then, could this reclaimed hybrid form of Sanskrit possibly be used to generate the intended moral reformation?

It was during the post-Vedic Period that vernacular Sanskrit, otherwise known as bhāṣā, begins to show significant changes, simplification, and loss of archaic forms. In the contemporary revival movement, simplification is essential to increase its acquisition as a second language. This is at the point where vernacular Sanskrit can be feasibly equated with a Prakritized