On Sanskrit, Kannada, Purity, and SL Bhyrappa

I have high regard for Sanskrit. I learnt the language quite a bit out of my own interest with some help from course material published by Aksharam in Bengaluru, but mostly by reading Kannada translations of Sanskrit texts. I read, recite, and greatly benefit from the Bhagavad Gita and a few important Upanishads. Not a day passes without my remembering and being guided by shlokas and mantras from these great texts.

But none of this requires me to speak and act as if Kannada, my mother tongue, is pure to whatever extent it is because of Sanskrit’s influence. A language doesn’t get ‘purified’ when good spiritual literature enters it; its authors and readers do if they do their job well. Nor is the entry of Sanskrit words into Kannada in itself a purification process.

Unfortunately, people like SL Bhyrappa, perhaps unknown to themselves, and despite their immense scholarship, continue to perpetuate such untruths by repeatedly making statements like ‘Only Sanskrit can save the purity of regional languages’. This is such a false statement that, I’m sure, if Mr. Bhyrappa considers it with an open mind, he can see it himself.

If he had said ‘Only Sanskrit can fill Indian languages with the greatest spiritual literature of India’s bygone sages’, I would be very close to agreeing with him, except for the fact that some other languages – also Aryan ones – like Pali would also fit the bill. After all, Buddha was a great Indian saint, too. Sure, some important Buddhist texts have Sanskrit versions available, but Pali is still the language to go to for the most ancient Buddhist texts.

In fact, this filling of Indian languages – not regional ones as he puts it, that’s demeaning – with the spiritual wisdom contained in Sanskrit works is a superb and very important exercise from the point of view of spreading the message of the great sages. But it requires a level of linguistic expertise in the living languages of India that is missing for the precise reason that we tend to think there isn’t any inherent purity to them. If all of Kannada’s purity comes from its brush with Sanskrit, a foreign language, why would anyone even consider a career in Kannada linguistics? In fact, there’s virtually no one doing that – at least no one who wouldn’t dump it for a call-centre job that drains their life.

Instead of considering Sanskrit as pure and Kannada impure without it, it’s time to move on to the narrative that Kannada is as pure as any other language, if at all the word purity can be applied to languages. Its being a Dravidian tongue does place it close to the bottom of The Pyramid of Corruption, allowing for narratives of the type used by SL Bhyrappa and others, but this Pyramid must be destroyed. It is in nobody’s interest to maintain its rule. Not even in SL Bhyrappa’s if, giving him the benefit of doubt, it were true that the attainment of spiritual wisdom by the Kannadiga people is truly a matter close to his heart.