Claiming power over language

How did the Aryans at the apex claim power over a vast sea of non-Aryans in those days of yore? Specifically, how did they treat non-Aryan languages? Here’s an excerpt from The Pyramid of Corruption (Ch.4 India’s Ancient Pyramid):

The corruptors also assumed ownership over the human voice from which stems language. They ensured that the victim was both ashamed and afraid of voicing his opinion, even when it came to pleading for release from the corruption of the corruptors. The voice of the victims was ‘proven’ by the corruptors to be not just inferior in general terms but also to militate against divinity. The voice of the corruptors, on the other hand, was ‘proven’ to be not just superior in general terms but also to be the voice of divinity itself. When the victims gathered up courage to suspect the truth of such positioning, the corruptors claimed it as further proof that the victims were habituated to suspect and disrespect divinity, of which they claimed to be the protectors and messengers. Some corruptors even claimed to be divinity itself. At every opportunity, the corruptors pointed out that it was better for the victim not to utter his word, because it was incorrect by definition. By thus claiming power over the word of the victims, the corruptors also positioned themselves as teachers of the word, the ones who lent voice to those who they themselves had rendered voiceless. The teacher was further elevated to the status of God, and questioning his judgment or teaching was taught to be sacrilegious. His word was command. His word was also worth repeating over and over again, and was taught to be equivalent to the voice of the divine. It did not matter that the victims did not understand the word, because it was not the meaning of the word which mattered but its repetition. Thus, the victims came to disassociate meaning from word, and their minds were paralyzed.

The victims were discouraged from any pursuits of life other than those licensed by the corruptors. They were thus barred from discovering their own unity, and from raising their voice, because anything they might speak was inferior and unworthy of being heard. Writing was also usurped and it was proven to the victims that they were unworthy of it. It was also filled with unnecessary alphabets and words meant only for the language of the corruptors. The inability of the victims to employ them correctly was offered as proof that the victims did not deserve to employ the written word. Thus was gradually destroyed the victims’ potential to create, retain, reuse and share knowledge—especially knowledge of the corruption to which they were subjected.

Their languages, thereby, were thrown to disuse, and the corruptors declared it to be the natural end to the voice of the ungodly and corruptible. The corruptors, on the other hand, used the written word of their own language to create, retain, reuse and share knowledge amongst themselves—including knowledge of the corruption to which they subjected their victims. Those among the victims who were non-Aryan, and who were treated most inhumanly, were barred from even accessing this writing, and severe punishments were suggested and proffered if access should occur. The quoted reason for this secrecy was simple: the inferiority of the victims, their low birth; and this reasoning emanating from the wielders of public power gradually made the general public feel actually unworthy of accessing such writing.

The disappearance of choice

There was a time when India’s different cultures could benefit from each other by sharing their best art. A Kannada poet could learn from a Bengali poet, a Marathi sculptor could learn from a Tamil sculptor, and so on, and so forth. That which was worth sharing with others in one culture, then, used to stand up all by itself to such a great height that every other culture would take notice. It was ultimately left to the recipient cultures to partially or fully accept the novelty, or even reject it entirely. True, everything so shared was not necessarily good for all of humanity; and true, the recipient cultures did not always exercise caution in accepting the novelty. But you still had to have done something exceptional in art for your work to travel.

One easy example is Valmiki’s Ramayana. Its fame spread so far and wide that it is very difficult to imagine how it could have done that at a time when there were no modern means of transport or communication. The epic had a profound impact on cultures not just in today’s India but also outside it. Of course, it underwent several changes over several centuries to suit host cultures, but there is something exceptionally brilliant about it which gave it wings. It did not have only good effects wherever it went, but that’s not the point here. The point is, one had to be a Valmiki for one’s art to travel across the subcontinent.

Today, not only is art of the caliber of a Ramayana missing, but all art is arguably on its deathbed everywhere in India. Yet physical flesh-and-bones people travel and settle down wherever they want in India. Unfortunately, these people outnumber and outshine any remaining art from their home cultures that could deserve to travel more than them. Dry economic and political factors give these people wings today, and the host culture doesn’t have the choice to reject them; that would be unconstitutional. As a result, cultures no longer have the choice of what they import from other cultures.

The first problem with this is that it destroys culture everywhere. People can no longer distinguish between good and bad, beneficial and harmful, what’s worth exporting and what’s worth importing. Cultures that were used to evaluating foreign art before accepting or rejecting are now being forced to accept foreign flesh and bones, and this forced acceptance dilutes them further. Even the cultures that send out these flesh and bones are losing sight of the importance of art. There was a time when they used to send out the works of Valmikis, but now they send out people with no food or work, let alone art, and this seems to them to be a valid way to interact with other cultures.

The second problem is that migrants physically replace natives. This is a war-like situation because the natives are increasingly robbed of their right to the basic necessities of life and gradually, life itself. This creates a further barrier between cultures through which art finds it impossible to travel. More dangerous are the walls of hatred that get built because of imposed suffocation and consequent resistance. Nor are the fountains of flesh and bones coming anywhere close to containing themselves any time soon. The very fact that they can physically spread out dilutes the reason to contain and yet, those who are being forced to accommodate are the ones who are family-planning themselves out of the planet.

All this, ladies and gentlemen, is due to Indian nationalism as conceived today. It must change.

One question you must ask about Aryan Migration

The whole debate on Aryan migration, as it runs today, focuses on the northwestern border of the Indian subcontinent. While most scholars claim that the Aryans traveled from the west to the east of that border (i.e., Into-India), Hindutvavadis claim that they traveled in the opposite direction: native to India, they went westwards (i.e., Out-of-India) to civilize the world.

I have listened to both sides of the argument, and I find the Into-India claim more convincing than the Out-of-India claim. This is because of the linguistic, archaeological, literary and genetic evidence that the adherents of the former theory provide. It’s all in the public domain, so I don’t need to elaborate on it. The Hindutvavadis, on the other hand, have little more than pride in Akhand Bharat to offer. Obviously, I am open to scientific evidence from them in case they happen to provide it. I read nearly everything Shrikant Talageri, David Frawley, Koenraad Elst, and others write.

In The Pyramid of Corruption I take the Into-India view as the default model but make it clear that nothing in the book requires it. The Out-of-India model is equally good for the purposes of the book. Neither camp opposes Aryan migration itself. However, there is no agreement on what the words Aryan, Dravidian, etc., mean. This is because they came from linguistics and it is the Into-India folks who understand it to any significant degree, not the Out-of-India folks. The latter most often dismiss it as pseudo-science. When I say Aryan, I mean the speakers of Indo-Aryan languages (I drop the Indo because the book is about India); and when I say Dravidian, I mean the speakers of Dravidian languages.

After this rather long preface, let me make a very simple point about the geo-location of the whole Aryan migration debate. It is actually quite baffling for a South Indian like me. It is this, that both sides of the debate are focused on one particular region of the Indian subcontinent: the northwest. Nobody seems to be interested in Aryan migration into South India and yet all of India, which is so huge, is called into attention whenever this debate surfaces.

The Hindutvavadis have this idea of one-nation-one-everything which takes them understandably away from the idea of Aryans migrating anywhere within India. That would mean they weren’t already there. But even the Into-India folks seem to have lost interest in Aryan migration to the south. So the whole debate centers around the northwest, taking South Indians quite far away from it all but still telling them it’s related because they’re also Indians.

What is even more baffling is the fact that it is this Aryan migration to the south which is beyond doubt. There is linguistic evidence available, even today, which conclusively proves that the languages of South India are structurally unrelated to those of North India. There has been give and take of words here and there, but in terms of grammar and etymology of native words, the two are different language families. There is no disagreement on this.

Yet, Aryan migration to the Dravidian south, together with the Sanskrit language, is hardly a topic of scholarly discussions today. Instead, the whole Aryan migration debate is restricted to a region admitted to be Aryan by everyone! This has to change because Aryan migration into non-Aryan regions is more important and interesting than into Aryan regions. Even the Hindutvavadis have no option but to start using that bad word – Dravidian – if they want to appear even slightly scientific in their approach to Indian languages.

So, next time someone talks about Aryan migration, I think it’s a good idea to ask: To where? To South India?

Culture and the Ellara Kannada movement

For those who aren’t aware, we in Karnataka are witnessing a youth movement to modernize Kannada writing and make it accessible to, and contributable by, people from all castes and religions.

Science and technology is an important area where we’re experimenting with using Kannada in a way, and to an extent, unheard of until now. This involves the creation of a new corpus by and for the common people, not Sanskrit pundits real or fake.

However, I want to focus on an aspect of this movement which is often misunderstood: culture and intercultural interactions.

We believe in taking what we want from all cultures and languages and leaving the rest. Till now, there was no moderation in using Sanskrit words and works and no path to Kannada standing on its own legs in all its native majesty. That’s what we’re bringing.

Specifically, we have no hatred for Aryans or Aryan culture or Sanskrit. Just like even honey, if consumed without moderation is bad for the body, and just like if it is consumed with moderation it is good for the body, all cultures and languages are welcome, but with moderation. A balanced approach is the hallmark of this movement. We often make mistakes in achieving this moderation, but there is an overall agreement that moderation is necessary.

Who decides what’s moderate and what isn’t? Every one for himself or herself. Every person decides what to take from which culture for himself or herself, not individuals at the forefront of the movement today.

For example, we will not take movement-wide stances such as ‘all religion is evil’, ‘there is no God’, ‘Brahmins have to be kicked out’, etc. We believe this is where our Tamil friends under Periyar Ramaswamy made a mistake. We will not repeat those mistakes. All views and biases are welcome on all aspects, except one: that Kannada is inferior to any other language and cannot stand on its own.

‘The artificial language of a learned mediocrity’

Rabindranath Tagore has been a great source of inspiration to me. It all began close to fifteen years ago, with one night of reading the Gitanjali from beginning to end as if it were the Bhagavad Gita, and rejoicing in every line. But, to put it briefly, there it did not end.

I don’t always agree with him, but if there is one well-known Indian figure who understood India from the ground up, I think it’s him. What struck me most about him very early was that, though quite evidently a member of the Indian elite of his time, he never distanced himself from the realities of life around him.

Indians today have a lot to learn from the balanced approach he took to nearly everything he touched. He could simultaneously immerse himself in the philosophy of the Upanishads, yet rebel against the caste system. He could simultaneously make the Brahman of the Upanishads his Ideal on the one hand, and on the other criticize the casteism of the brahmanas. I used to adopt the same approach towards Hinduism even before I discovered Tagore. But once I did, his writings gave me the strength to speak and write openly about these two extremes myself.

I can safely say that it is Tagore who brought any clarity I can now claim to possess about politics and economics. In The Pyramid of Corruption, I adopt his definition of a nation as an organization of politics and commerce, though, I must warn you, I don’t agree with his way of dealing with nationalism.

Anyway, as I delved deeper and deeper into Tagore’s writings, I felt many of my own thoughts expressed in them – and it has often been a hair-raising experience in the literal sense. Such was the experience when I encountered the following passage by him. I read it after I had discovered the Kannada linguistics genius, D. N. Shankara Bhat, in fact, after I had spent nine years learning directly from him about my mother tongue Kannada, its relationship with Sanskrit, and the road ahead. Writes Tagore in a 1918 essay titled Vernaculars for the M.A. Degree:

[The] direct influence which the Calcutta University wields over our language [Bengali] is not strengthening and vitalizing, but pedantic and narrow. It tries to perpetuate the anachronism of preserving the Pundit-made Bengali swathed in grammar-wrappings borrowed from a dead language. It is every day becoming a more formidable obstacle in the way of our boys’ acquiring that mastery of their mother tongue which is of life and literature. The artificial language of a learned mediocrity, inert and formal, ponderous and didactic, devoid of the least breath of creative vitality, is forced upon our boys at the most receptive period of their life…

Just take a moment to sink it in. Here was a Bengali poet – Bengali being a descendant of the ‘dead language’, i.e., Sanskrit –  and perhaps one of the greatest authorities on the Upanishads in his time, criticizing the unnecessary Sanskritization of Bengali. Here was a brahmana calling Sanskrit a ‘dead language’ – something quite unpalatable to Hindutvavadis (no wonder they don’t even so much as mention his name). Here was an Aryan criticizing the unnecessary infiltration into Bengali of that great language of the Aryans – Sanskrit – and pointing out the problems due to the infiltration.

Today, there are people who think Kannada has descended from Sanskrit; others lament the fact that it hasn’t; and yet others fake an Aryanized tongue. The formal Kannada alphabet continues to carry several useless aksharas required only to write Sanskrit words as they’re written in Sanskrit, and there is hardly any capacity that Kannadigas have retained of coining new words without relying on Sanskrit. And what kind of Sanskrit words do they coin? Such as can neither be pronounced nor understood by the vast majority of Kannadigas. Even Kannada grammar, before it was taken up for serious revision by D. N. Shankara Bhat, was considered as a corruption of Sanskrit grammar, and we Kannadigas have been happy with that for ages.

The fact is, Kannada is a Dravidian language capable of standing on its own. How much more weakening and devitalizing it must be, how much more pedantic and narrow it must be, for Kannadigas to allow Sanskritists to define what ‘good Kannada’ is! How much more nonsensical it is to allow to perpetuate ‘the anachronism of preserving the Pundit-made’ Kannada ‘swathed in grammar-wrappings borrowed from a dead language’! How much more is over-Sanskritization a ‘formidable obstacle’ which is preventing Kannadigas from ‘acquiring that mastery of their mother tongue which is of life and literature’! How much more artificial Kannada is turning and losing its creative vitality, if Tagore had to complain all this about Bengali!

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.

On distance, caste, and language

Distance is a fundamental and natural regulator of social relations, for men and women all over the world tend to interact with people who are close-by. This is for two commonsensical reasons: first, distance requires the additional hassle of transport and communication, which may or may not be available or affordable; second, proximity creates the feeling of kindred which is both necessary for, and is facilitated by, social interactions.

Language is a fundamental and natural tool for and outcome of social interactions, and distance, therefore, has a fundamental impact on it: the speakers of any given language tend to cluster geographically, and it is possible to draw very accurate geographical boundaries between any two linguistic peoples and earmark well-defined linguistic areas. To put it in another way, people who live together and who are isolated from other people either geographically or otherwise, develop their own language. For all practical purposes, language is equivalent to distance in regulating social interactions. Marriage is a fundamental and natural social institution, and distance has a fundamental impact on it, too: marriages also tend to form geographical clusters, as men and women tend to choose their spouses from nearby. But most marriages happen within the same linguistic area, because communication and cooperation, which are facilitated by a common language, are essential ingredients of successful marriages.

Therefore, matrimonial and linguistic clusters have significant overlaps worldwide. Even with the coming of modern means of transport and electronic communication, the importance of distance as a regulator of social relations has not reduced by any significant degree. Fast cars, ships, airplanes, mobile telephony and the internet have had negligible impact on the geographical clustering of languages and marriages. On the contrary, the existing geographical clustering of languages and marriages has had a significant impact on the patterns of social relations that have emerged on these new technological platforms.

In the Indian subcontinent, caste is an additional regulator of social relations. But it is neither a fundamental nor a natural regulator in the sense that distance and language are; it is an artificial one which has come to be due to the mishandling of racial diversity. Caste, however, impacts both marriage and language. That caste impacts marital relations—even appears to be its fundamental purpose—is a well known fact. But it is perhaps less known that caste also impacts language, creating different caste-based dialects and usage patterns within the same language.

Despite these impacts, caste as a regulator of social relations is weaker than distance, and one must concede that it is therefore not as fundamental a regulator as distance. The artificial regulations imposed by the caste-system on marriage and language fail to supersede the fundamental regulations imposed on them by distance: we find the people of almost all castes finding their spouses within tens of kilometers and living within well-defined linguistic areas. That is, it is very rare to find people crossing the barrier of distance to marry within the caste. Therefore, by and large, both languages and marriages are primarily distance-limited, and only secondarily caste-limited. I say ‘by and large’ because languages like English and marriages of the higher castes such as the brahmanas tend to go beyond geographical limits, but these are trivial exceptions from a percentage occurrence perspective.

Caste as a regulator of social relations is weaker than language, too, and therefore less fundamental than it. Different castes, because of their geographical co-location, have no choice but to communicate with each other, albeit while maintaining the social restrictions imposed by the caste-system. This communication cannot happen without a common language, even though there may be dialect and usage differences due to the isolation between castes. Essentially, therefore, castes are contained within well-defined linguistic areas. Once again, it is only the numerically trivial upper castes that provide an exception to this rule.

(Excerpted from The Pyramid of Corruption)