Misconceptions about Kannada and Sanskrit

Some real reasons for the decline of Indian languages

Indian-language writing has fallen in quality. Good post-independence writers don’t exist. Literary traditions are dying. Nobody writes mahakavyas anymore. People are unable to speak in Indian languages without mixing English words. All this is happening because of language politics at the state level, lack of cultural grounding, aping of the west, and a forgetfulness of Sanskrit “which underlies and connects our languages”.

The above is a summary of the first section of Mr. Shanmukh’s article titled Need of the Hour: Synergy between Sanskrit and Regional Languages. Let me comment on it before commenting on the other sections. As will be shown, Mr. Shanmukh falls in the line of a long list of Sanskrit apologists who see everything as a corruption of Sanskrit and Sanskrit-based culture — corruption not just in a comparative sense but also a historical sense.

There is no denying the fact that Indian-languages are going through a hard time, although I differ with Mr. Shanmukh on the details of the difficulties. But more conspicuous are the incorrect reasons he gives for the problems.

Language politics at the state level is not a reason for the problems Indian languages are going through. In fact, it is an enabler. Linguistic reorganization of states was supposed to increase focus on Indian languages in their specific locales. However, what has been accomplished on the ground is very little. Why? The most important reason is that the states do not have a free hand when it comes to language policy. The Central government is constitutionally bound to wipe out India’s linguistic diversity and install Hindi all over India. State governments are required to toe the line of the Centre and commit a slowly enacted linguistic suicide. This is supposed to be democratic.

The lack of cultural grounding can certainly be seen as a reason. But which culture are we talking about? Mr. Shanmukh, like many others, has an innate inability to differentiate culture from Sanskrit-based culture. This is a pity since Sanskrit is essentially a foreign language in most of India, especially in South India. Anyone who has been observing the recent movement of the Gonds, speakers of the Dravidian language Gondi, who are resurrecting their age-old culture, including Kupar Lingo, their teacher-God, will be left with no doubt that lack of cultural grounding does not automatically mean distance from Sanskrit.

Aping the west is clearly a problem. However, even this is due to political and economic posturing by the Centre – something the different languages of India and their speakers don’t deserve blame for. The very idea of self-sufficient regions and peoples was mocked at by the votaries of development. It is is an open secret that the Centre craves for linguistic uniformity, mistakenly seeing linguistic diversity as a threat to unity and integrity. In this situation, the Centre is overtly and covertly urging Indians to favor English over their own languages since that seems to be the shortest path to destroying linguistic diversity. Hindi imposition finds increasingly vocal opposition all over India.

I have already dealt in some measure with the last reason provided by Mr. Shanmukh, viz., a forgetfulness of Sanskrit. However, I must object to the idea that Sanskrit underlies all Indian languages. Connect the elite world of literature it potentially can in the imaginary world where Indians read each others’ Sanskritized literature religiously, but underlie? No. This would be true if we were talking only about Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi, Gujarati, Punjabi, etc. But there are other language families such as Dravidian and Tibeto-Burman which have no genetic relationship with Sanskrit, and we cannot ignore them. Underlying is serious business.

In fact Kannada, the author’s misconceptions about which I will come to presently, is a Dravidian language which displays very little influence of Sanskrit in the spoken form even today – let alone any sort of underlying. Only written Kannada is Sanskritized to any significant degree, and it is one of the reasons for the distancing of writing from the common man – the “no writers or readers” problem Mr. Shanmukh laments about (in fact, he talks about “capable readers”, meaning readers capable of understanding Sanskrit terminology).

Many educated people conflate writing and speech and come to conclusions about language based on the former because of its accessibility for armchair scholarship. They forget that writing is even to this day an elite preoccupation that can easily distance itself from the non-elite due to excessive borrowing from foreign languages (such as Sanskrit for Kannadigas). In a day and age where the elite is increasingly moving towards English for politico-economic reasons, reckless borrowing from Sanskrit into writing in languages such as Kannada, which people like Mr. Shanmukh support, is an important reason for the decline he laments about; writers don’t identify with Sanskrit terminology as men and women but as parrots, and readers even worse.

 

A brief dismissal of the claims of similarity between the grammars of Kannada and Sanskrit

Mr. Shanmukh next goes on to say that Sanskrit and “regional languages” (I consider this a derogatory term, but never mind here) have similarities. Where is this similarity? In vocabulary for North Indian languages and grammar for South Indian ones according to him. I’m glad he doesn’t say the opposite, but he is wrong though not alone in claiming that the grammar of South Indian languages is a subset of Sanskrit grammar. On a side note, Mr. Shanmukh clearly did not find it politically correct to mention Tamil or Malayalam, so his attack is mainly on Kannada and Telugu whose elite have always toed the Sanskrit line.

Let me come to his “brief comparison of Kannada and Sanskrit grammar to illustrate” his belief that the grammar of South Indian languages is a “subset of Sanskrit grammar”.

Sentence construction

Mr. Shanmukh claims that sentence structure in Kannada and Sanskrit are very similar. Well, very similar is a relative term, so one cannot tell how similar he means. But the author makes a glaring omission: the fact that adjectives in Sanskrit decline together with nouns, with agreement of gender and number. Because of this, an adjective can be placed anywhere in a Sanskrit sentence, whereas in Kannada, it must appear immediately before the noun it qualifies. This is a very important difference in sentence structure, often making it next to impossible for Kannadigas to make sense of Sanskrit even after several years spent trying to learn and chant.

Also, adjectives are not a category in the Sanskrit grammatical tradition, whereas they need to be for Kannada. Right from Panini, Sanskrit grammarians have treated adjectives (visheshanas) morphologically on par with nouns, calling their qualificatory role as a semantic property. This is, once again, because of declension rules which don’t differentiate between adjectives and nouns. Indeclinables (avyayas) sometimes do qualify nouns, but they are classified as nouns with omitted declension right from the time of Panini, continuing on to Patanjali, Bhartrhari, etc.

In a Twitter discussion with me, Mr. Shanmukh, in a style typical to his think-alikes, wanted me to quote the original Sanskrit lines to prove this – the whole thing being a discussion about Sanskrit, not Kannada. This requirement stems from the usual “I’m the Sanskrit expert and want to see the Sanskrit original because I don’t believe you or your sources have any scholarship” mindset, unfortunately, and often works as a psychological attack on the opponent. Therefore, I refused and continue to refuse to dig up those lines for him.

It suffices to state that I rely on the work of giants in the field such as S.D.Joshi of Poona University and D.N.S.Bhat (last with the Central Institute of Indian Languages, Mysore). Joshi is an acknowledged expert in Paninian studies and Bhat, a linguist of world-renown. My sources, at least, don’t sit on armchairs in the electrical engineering departments in the US and claim or disclaim Kannada scholarship as convenience demands. I did point out the exact paper by Joshi in which Mr. Shanmukh can get his information, but that wasn’t teertha from the shankha.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that adjective declension is the only difference in the sentence structure of Kannada and Sanskrit. So many more differences have been explained in detail by linguists, who have established that the two languages belong to different language families, that it is impossible to enumerate them all here. A good book to find them is Kannada Vakyagala Olarachane by D.N.S.Bhat. As the name suggests, it’s a book dedicated to sentence structure in Kannada.

Vibhakti

Mr. Shanmukh comes to the well-rehearsed conclusion that the vibhakti structure of Kannada is a ‘simplified version of Sanskrit’. Everything appears as a simplified version, even corruption, of the original when the original is erroneously applied to the ‘duplicate’.

The first point one needs to note about vibhaktis is that the concept goes together with karakas in Sanskrit. This is because the mapping from vibhakti pratyayas and meanings is many-to-many. Although this mapping is one-to-one in Kannada, grammarians have simply copy-pasted both the concepts (of vibhakti and karaka) to Kannada.

In Kannada, some vibhaktis may or may not be used, but not so in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, vibhakti pratyayas denote not only vibhaktis but also linga (gender) and vachana (number), but in Kannada they denote vibhakti alone, i.e., the relationship between the noun and the verb.

In Kannada, the prathama vibhakti is optional in writing and almost never used in speech; dvitiya is optional in both; trutiya, chaturthi and saptami, i.e., all three, mainly denote place and the first two denote movement while the third doesn’t; there is no panchami which is different from trutiya and, going by meaning, it is better to retain only the panchami; shashthi is only a pratyaya but not a vibhakti because it denotes a relationship between two nouns and not a noun and a verb.

What does Mr. Shanmukh have to say about vibhakti in support of is simplification theory? Innocent of the above facts, he says the number of vibhaktis is the same in Sanskrit and Kannada — and he is wrong. He says panchami is retained in Kannada grammar even though it has gone ‘out of vogue’, as if he can produce proof that it was once in vogue, and different from the trutiya. He claims that this hints at the ‘origins of the grammatical structure’ — and he is wrong; it hints at trying to force-fit the grammar of a foreign language, nothing more.

Kannada grammarians have until very recently been trying to put a square peg in a round hole, and I don’t want to blame Mr. Shanmukh for not being aware of the latest developments in Kannada linguistics and grammar. For some people, a round hole may look like a simplification of a square hole, but readers must decide for themselves. For examples and a lot more details about vibhaktis, please refer to D.N.S.Bhat’s Kannadakke Beku Kannadadde Vyakarana (Kannada needs its own grammar).

Sandhi

Again, not surprisingly, Kannada sandhis become variations of Sanskrit ones in Mr. Shanmukh’s mind. He is not to blame, really, because the Kannada grammatical tradition has simply aped (have we heard this word before?) the Sanskrit tradition.

In continuation of this aping, Mr. Shanmukh claims similarity between Kannada and Sanskrit sandhis because, firstly, all the Sanskrit sandhis have been retained as they are in Kannada according to him. This doesn’t mean that Sanskrit rules apply to Kannada words, but only that they apply to Sanskrit words borrowed into Kannada. It is hard to understand why this is interesting: why wouldn’t they apply? Secondly, Mr. Shanmukh claims that agama, lopa and adesha sandhis are variants of one or the other Sanskrit sandhi.

Lopa sandhi of Kannada, he says, is a minor variant of Sanskrit’s poorva roopa sandhi. What is the nature of this “minor variation”? Just this, that the exact vowel that gets dropped in Kannada (the last vowel of the first word) is the one which is retained in Sanskrit, and the exact vowel that is retained in Kannada (the first vowel of the second word) is the vowel that is dropped in Sanskrit. If this can appear like a “minor variation”, one wonders, just wonders, what a major variation can look like.

In a similar display of his genius, Mr. Shanmukh also treats Kannada’s adesha sandhi, where the first consonant of the second word changes, as a “minor variation” of Sanskrit’s jastva sandhi where the last consonant of the first word changes. If this definition of minority is slowly, even slowly, becoming unacceptable to you, you’re getting the drift of where this is going.

In the third sandhi example, Mr. Shanmukh’s genius reaches new heights. In one stroke of his pen, he redefines what has been called agama sandhi in Kannada from the ages. While this sandhi has been applied to the agama or appearance of a new consonant that didn’t previously exist in the junction between the two words joining in the sandhi, Mr. Shanmukh gives two examples of Kannada words where an existing consonant is doubled during sandhi (whether they weren’t already doubled in the first word is quite another matter). One hopes, for all the defense of Sanskrit and Sanskritization one finds in Mr. Shanmukh’s writing, that he refers a good Sanskrit dictionary for the meaning of the term agama. And yes, even after having imagined his own version of agama sandhi, Mr. Shanmukh falls short of supporting his “minor variation” theory. His agama sandhi, i.e., consonant doubling, he says, is not called out in Sanskrit as a separate sandhi but “lies scattered across” different sandhis. Of these scattered ancestral remains of the Kannada language (as he thinks of them), the only example he quotes is yan sandhi even in which, in support of his genius, the consonant which is supposed to repeat doesn’t.

I haven’t even got to the actual differences between Kannada and Sanskrit sandhis – even the very concept of a sandhi differs in the two. It will have to be in another place and time. Interested readers are again referred to D.N.S.Bhat’s Kannadakke Beku Kannadadde Vyakarana.

Samasa

Here again, Mr. Shanmukh makes the uninteresting claim that Sanskrit samasas are found in Kannada and that “there is no difference”. When one doesn’t recognize Sanskrit words as Sanskrit words and Kannada words as Kannada words, I cannot blame him for getting excited about Sanskrit samasas applying to Kannada. Mr. Shanmukh also claims that amshi samasa in Kannada is the same as avyayibhava in Sanskrit, glossing over the “minor variation” that the name amshi is used in Kannada because it’s not an avyaya that participates in the sandhi.

The biggest difference between samasas in Kannada and Sanskrit is that in Kannada, the second word is almost always central to the new word. Not so in Sanskrit. In fact, the classification of samasas in Sanskrit into tatpurusha, avyayibhava, dvandva and bahuvrihi is based on the second, first, both, and neither of the two participating words being central to the new word. To follow the same classification is to come to the conclusion – as indeed the Kannada grammatical tradition has come – that almost every samasa in Kannada is tatpurusha. And then, of course, it is a slippery slope towards the claim that Kannada is a cheap imitation of Sanskrit.

This clearly shows that the concept of samasa is not directly applicable to Kannada, and that it is especially meaningless to teach Sanskrit samasas as Kannada ones. D.N.S.Bhat has been researching and publishing on this topic and his Kannadakke Beku Kannadadde Vyakarana shows the extraordinary difficulties in trying to force Sanskrit’s samasa classification on to Kannada, with examples. Due to these, he suggests that there are three main Kannada samasas: those with a noun, a verb, or an adjective as the first word, respectively (the second word is always a noun). Unfortunately, this classification has gained popularity too recently for engineering professors in foreign countries to be notified.

Kriyapada

In one masterly stroke, Mr. Shanmukh claims that the kriyapada (verb) structure of Kannada is a “huge simplification of Sanskrit, but essentially the same”. The oxymoron in this claim suffices to dismiss it, but let me give you some of the pleasure of the dismissal. To get nearly all, you must read D.N.S.Bhat’s Kannadakke Beku Kannadadde Vyakarana.

First-person verbs in Sanskrit do not carry any information about gender. For example, gacchati (goes) applies to all three genders. In Kannada, on the other hand, one must denote the gender: hoguttane (he goes), hoguttale (she goes), hoguttade (it goes).

Only one pratyaya is attached to verbs in Sanskrit, and it carries information about person, number, and tense. For example, the verb yaati (goes) is made up of yaa (to go) and ti where the latter is the pratyaya which denotes person, number and tense. To get to the nearest Kannada word hoguttane (he goes), one has to attach not one but two pratyayas, one (utt) for tense and the other (aane)  for person, gender and number, to the verb hogu. One cannot drop the second pratyaya.

Kannada verbs denote tense proper as in English while Sanskrit verbs rely on the concept of completeness of the action. In Sanskrit, the lakaaras lat (e.g. bhavati) and lrut (e.g. bhavishyati) appear to denote the future tense; and lit (e.g. babhuuva) or lrun (e.g. abhuut) the past tense. But in reality, lit denotes a completed action while the other three lakaaras denote uncompleted ones. In Kannada, there are two words for the above four words denoting becoming: aaguttade and aayitu. These denote future and past tenses proper, like in English. Thus, Sanskrit verbs display a reliance on the concept on kaala-vyavasthe while Kannada verbs, the concept of kaala-sambandha.

The above are some of the differences between verbs in Kannada and Sanskrit – what Mr. Shanmukh calls a “huge simplification from Sanskrit”. As to how it is “essentially the same” is a topic in black magic. And then again, his claim that the dvivachana of Sanskrit is “lost” in Kannada suggests that there existed a time when it was present. This is a hangover of the original flawed idea that Kannada is a derivative of Sanskrit, and it also appears as the word “retained” when he talks about purusha or person (prathama purusha, etc).

 

A brief dismissal of the central role of Sanskrit the language

Having “proved” the similarity between Kannada and Sanskrit grammars, Mr. Shanmukh proceeds to claim that “what holds true for the Sanskrit-Kannada grammar relations also holds true for Sanskrit-Telugu grammar connections.” By itself, of course, this claim is innocuous. Since not much holds true for the former, it is safe to let Mr. Shanmukh claim that that much holds true for the latter. I am no expert on Telugu – I can’t even speak it – but I can and will hazard a guess: the overabundance of the scientific method in Mr. Shanmukh’s comparison of Kannada and Sanskrit likely carries over to his comparison of Telugu and Sanskrit.

Mr. Shanmukh then makes a leap of faith and states that what in his theory applies to Kannada and Telugu actually applies to “many, if not most, regional languages”. To be precise, his claim is that proficiency in Sanskrit enhances proficiency in “regional languages” — a term which, as I noted above, I despise. Since we know how much of his theory applies to Kannada, Telugu, and by induction to every other Indian language (as he says), the meaninglessness of this claim simply follows. That meaninglessness, of course, is more applicable to non-Indo-Aryan languages than Indo-Aryan ones.

The views on Sanskrit of people like Mr. Shanmukh rest on a false understanding of what Sanskrit has to offer. What it can offer is not a mastery over the grammar of every Indian language but some of the most beautiful and important documents of human learning. Sanskrit is a great language which contains, because it was the lingua franca in the Indian subcontinent for several centuries, the sum total of human achievement in this part of the world in ages past. And that is not to be ignored at all.

Instead of pointing out this actual advantage of learning Sanskrit, people like Mr. Shanmukh make, again and again, the worthless claim that learning Sanskrit is like learning every Indian language. Thus, Sanskrit as a carrier of knowledge has become less important for them than Sanskrit a language. Is it because they know that most of the knowledge in Sanskrit works has already been translated to Indian languages, and that, therefore, they have nothing new to sell Sanskrit with when it comes to knowledge? Or is it because it is only when Indians struggle with a language they don’t understand that the Shanmukhs of the world can retain their precarious position at the top of the pyramid? One can only guess.

The politico-economic motivations of Mr. Shanmukh, in trying to force Sanskrit on to everyone and everything, are harmful to Indian languages. According to him, since the modern economy is resulting in a lot of migration, Sanskrit can help migrants learn the language of the host people faster. What about the natives? What about their point of view? They’re the idiots, as he later goes on to suggest mildly, unconsciously, of course. Nothing much needs to be said about them – except that their languages are corruptions of Sanskrit and that they have to accommodate purity knocking on their doors.

Little does he realize that inter-linguistic migration must actually stop if at all the natives have to retain their identities and languages. Actually, he has no use for this realization. Clearly, Mr. Shanmukh justifies continued Aryan migration towards the south and the east, together with the baseless notion that the Aryan language Sanskrit is the original mother tongue of the natives. ‘The mother cometh, so prostrate and make space.’

He also claims that the infusion of new ideas from others (i.e., migrants) can help dying languages (this is the mild claim of the idiocy of natives). He is right inasmuch as new ideas are welcome, but wrong in thinking that these ideas have to come fitted in the physical brains of physical people migrating across physical linguistic borders. No, ideas spread based on their worth irrespective of all sorts of boundaries; they don’t need to be couriered into alien lands by migrants who don’t leave. Linguistic boundaries have to be retained, even strengthened, because they provide the most important sense of identity, self worth, and means of educational, economic and political uplift for the natives. The migrant cannot and must not become the centre of all policy and, as is clear in the arguments of Mr. Shanmukh, the science of linguistics itself.

To keep the language of the Aryan migrant at the centre of their endeavor was the original mistake committed by Kannada grammarians, and Mr. Shanmukh simply praises their tradition without even understanding it or its implications. I don’t really blame him for this because there is tradition in his support; I only want to point out the problems with the tradition and the dangers in continuing it.

It’s time to drop the claim that Sanskrit is the language of India and the mother of every other. It is one of the languages, it is no longer spoken, and far from being the mother as imagined. In a democracy, the languages of the people are bound to rise above that of the Gods (to the popular expression, it’s not my view), and living ones above dead ones.

Shouldn’t we promote the knowledge in Sanskrit texts, and isn’t it easiest when we promote the Sanskrit language itself? The former doesn’t require the latter as much as one might think. Translation is the word here. However, I am not against promoting Sanskrit itself as long as it can be done without relying on nonsensical claims, and without endangering the diverse living languages of India. This latter requirement makes it very difficult, but that is the nature of the game. There are no easy solutions. And by the way, I mean promotion within India here. Outside India, Sanskrit and the knowledge in its works have travelled without the need for nonsensical claims by Sanskritists, their migration in large numbers, or the brute force of the government. Even there, however, the language is considered less relevant than the knowledge itself.

[First published in The News Minute on 21-01-2015]