Some Thoughts on l’affaire Malhotra-Pollock-Murty-Ganesh

A rich Kannadiga gives 5.6 million USD to an American professor of Sanskrit in Columbia University to translate Sanskrit (and some actually spoken-language) works to English. An American citizen of north Indian origin, making highly publicized trips to India and not having two aksharas of Sanskrit in head suddenly rises to save Sanskrit, writes a book arguing that the American professor is inimical to Hinduism. Another Kannadiga, but this time an actual walking encyclopedia of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature, shows what’s wrong with the American citizen’s book. Then the American citizen writes a reply literally begging all insiders to support him instead in the war against the enemy, viz., the said professor, showing the world that it’s not the truth that matters in this war but solidarity within the Indian army.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a few things to say about these developments.

It’s a pity Rohan Murty is paying someone, anyone, to translate Sanskrit and other Indian-language classics to English. The $5.6 million largesse is based on the idea quite popular among educated urban Indians that Indian languages are going to die soon, that is if they already aren’t dead. However, since the wisdom of our ancients shouldn’t die with them, we’ve got to quickly collect it in a living language, viz., English, before the dying languages in which it’s coded become totally unintelligible.

Better than this fatalistic approach would have been to actually fund the Sanskrit University in Karnataka. I’m saying this even though I don’t think this institution should actually exist; it’s more important for us to invest in Kannada. In a world where people understand the difference between Sanskrit and Kannada I wouldn’t make this statement. But people don’t understand the difference.

Even Shatavadhani Ganesh (the walking encyclopedia of Sanskrit in case you didn’t guess) pretty much finds no difference between Sanskrit and Kannada. Kannada, for him, is equivalent to Sanskrit because it has no life without Sanskrit. Read two Kannada sentences written by Ganesh and you’ll experience reading Sanskrit for all you know.

Ganesh shares the belief that Indian languages are dying or dead. Only, he shares the belief about living languages such as Kannada. The one dead language, if you can call Sanskrit that, is like totally actually completely fully alive and kicking. It is in his mind; I must be fair to him.

I don’t share this fatalistic belief about Kannada or other living Indian languages. They’re not dead. They’re not dying. They’re only going from strength to strength. Those who are working in these languages know this quite well. Yes, they lack a few things such as terms of modern science and technology, but if you’ve even taken a superficial look at the recent attempts to fill this void, you know that these languages are just waiting to replace English.

All this is certainly true for Kannada, my mother tongue, which we’ve been strengthening from the inside for close to a decade now. I say we since I’m also a part of this ongoing movement led, so to speak, by stalwarts like D N Shankara Bhat, K V Narayana, and others. This movement intends to make Kannada stand on its own legs in today’s world. We’ve been coining new words in Kannada, writing a new grammar for Kannada because the existing ones try to force-fit Sanskrit grammar like one force-fits a square peg in a round hole, and building a new genre of Kannada writing from scratch – the science and technology one.

Given this, I think it’s much better for Rohan Murty to put his money in efforts to strengthen Indian languages, especially his own mother tongue, Kannada. Not English! What Rohan’s mother, Sudha Murthy (a Kannada writer of some repute) tries to do individually needs the power of Kannadiga youth, and money, behind it. There are many more linguistic registers to fix in Kannada than literature.

Even in the limited context of ancient Sanskrit texts, there is a lot of important Kannada work that hasn’t even been attempted. The Vedas, Upanishads, and the like, remain totally inaccessible to most Kannadigas, including Brahmanas. They need to be completely converted to Kannada, ready for chanting and everything. It’s time we did this to take the wisdom of the ancients to the masses speaking a living language. If this seems like a pitch for Rohan Murty’s money, you’re sensing it right. Why not?

Shatavadhani Ganesh, interestingly but understandably, finds our attempts to reinvigorate Kannada regressive. It’s regressive to try and strengthen Kannada, especially without the best help people like him can offer, viz., filling the empty vessel of Kannada with life using Sanskrit. It’s regressive to try and build a science and technology corpus in Kannada because English is the way to go. It’s regressive to question the ancients’ view of Kannada grammar because it’s ancient and ancient is right. I haven’t exactly proposed chanting the Vedas and Upanishads in Kannada to him but if I may take a guess based on my previous interactions with him, he’d dispose it off as both impossible and unnecessary. Impossible because he’s too busy with Sanskrit; and unnecessary because where’s the difference between Sanskrit and Kannada?

You must now be wondering why the title of this post mentions Rajiv Malhotra. Why hasn’t the American citizen out to save Sanskrit, not possessing two aksharas of Sanskrit in his head, entered the story yet? I didn’t plan it out this way; I naturally began talking about people I can relate to, those who are tied to me by the bond of Kannada.

But mention I must, because many who are reading this have pretty much cut off their links with Kannada due to circumstances they don’t control. Their children are in English medium schools and the national media, together with the nation’s constitution, has already buried Kannada. Having cut off, some of the people in question have joined the Rajiv Malhotra cult because he’s naming and shaming whites like Sheldon Pollock (the American professor in the story). And boy, isn’t it fun to name and shame whites, the ones who killed Sanskrit, created the caste system, and divided India by creating new languages?

What do I have to say about Rajiv Malhotra? The man’s scholarship begs proof of existence; it’s certainly no match to the walking Sanskrit encyclopedia of Bengaluru, Shatavadhani Ganesh. This fact Rajiv proves in every book of his, every tweet of his. His idea of intellectual kshatraguna is worth nothing in real intellectual circles. Being an intellectual is about pursuing the truth – real or imagined – not about bulldozing your way in the intellectual battle like a warrior with a sword to kill. The only thing to be destroyed in the intellectual battle is ignorance – irrespective of in which individual it’s lodged – the siddhanti or his purvapaksha. Not for Rajiv. For him, intellectuals are people who churn out material to destroy enemies like Sheldon Pollock and stick to it come what may, the truth be damned. Enemies don’t speak the truth, we do. We we we we we. We are right, they are wrong.

You can see this nonsensical approach to non-scholarship in Rajiv Malhotra’s reply to Shatavadhani Ganesh. He’s basically begging Ganesh to fight the enemy, i.e., Sheldon Pollock, instead of creating dissent in what he calls, from the comfort of his home in the United States, the home team. You can also see this approach in the casual way in which Rajiv Malhotra believes someone could have written a ‘grammar of the Dravidian race’. Languages, not races, have grammar, but try telling that to an intellectual kshatriya with an army of twitter trolls. Their intellectual standards are different.

To put a long story short, I don’t have anything to add to the criticism of Rajiv Malhotra in this article. Shatavadhani Ganesh has done a wonderful job of it. I find him unshakeable (I’ve tried) when it comes to Sanskrit and Sanskrit works. Where he is shakeable (I’ve tried) is when it comes to Kannada and living languages.

Ganesh seems to be unaware of Sheldon Pollock’s Language of the Gods in the World of Men – I mean the half that talks about Kannada (not that I think he’s read the half that talks about Sanskrit). In that, Pollock traces the historical path of Kannada as it slowly replaced Sanskrit as the lingua franca – something S Settar independently does in his monumental and recent work, Halagannada: Lipi, Lipikaara Mattu Lipi Vyavasaaya. Ganesh doesn’t have time or inclination for stuff like this. All this talk about Kannada and its independence from Sanskrit (in his blame he includes samskruti also) is the last wish of the dying. Kannada is transient, Sanskrit permanent.

So let’s not even fight the battle for Kannada; let’s chant the Bhagavad Gita and run away like cowards.

Why People Say Sanskrit is the Mother of Kannada And Why They Are Wrong

It’s quite common to bump into people who think it is, but Kannada is not a derivative, a simplification, a corruption, or in short, a daughter of Sanskrit. Based on etymological and grammatical considerations, linguists place Kannada and Sanskrit in two separate language families, viz., Dravidian and Indo-Aryan. If this is the case, why are people misinformed? What prompts even educated Kannadigas to wrongly claim that Sanskrit is the mother of Kannada?

There are four main reasons.

1. Idea of Sanskrit as the mega-matriarch

There is this idea that Sanskrit is the mother of all the languages of the world. Kannada’s is a special case of this. The problem with this idea is that it has no scientific backing. Linguists have shown that it is impossible to derive (using laws primarily of sound change) every language in the world from Sanskrit. That is, it is impossible to propose simple transformation rules (such as old Kannada’s p changing to h in modern Kannada) to show that every language is derived from Sanskrit. Nor is it possible in the case of Kannada. Every now and then appears a novice who gets excited about one or two words in Kannada, known not to be of Sanskrit origin, “appearing similar” to words in Sanskrit. He or she then makes the claim that it proves the genetic relationship between the two languages. But for such claims to hold any water, he or she has to show that it is a general rule – and that’s impossible.

2. Confusing writing with language

Many people cannot differentiate writing from language. Driven by this misconception, they look at Kannada writing, see that there are a lot of Sanskrit or Sanskrit-based words, and conclude that the Kannada language itself must be a derivative of Sanskrit. They talk in fancy percentages: “50% of Kannada is Sanskrit”, “60% of Kannada is Sanskrit”, etc. Apart from the lack of statistical backing for the actual numbers, such claims are wrong for the simple reason that writing and speech are two different things. Especially in the case of Kannada, writing, an elite preoccupation, has deviated significantly from speech due to the very fact of over-usage of Sanskrit words. The percentage claims on the language as a whole would be valid if what applies to writing applied to speech too, but this is not the case. Kannadigas make fun of those who speak Kannada like it’s written: that’s what immigrants do after picking up cheap books claiming to teach spoken Kannada. Much of written Kannada is unintelligible to common Kannadiga, not because he or she is incapable of grasping the content, but because of excessive use of Sanskrit words. There is an ongoing Kannada language movement which aims to fix these problems and bring written Kannada closer to the spoken language (including coining words) so that the benefits of writing and the ability to contribute to it are available to one and all. This is a requirement in today’s age of compulsory primary education, a concept new to every Indian language, not just Kannada.

3. Grammatical mistakes

There is the question of grammar, which is closely related to the above point. Kannada’s grammatical tradition, right fromKavirajamarga (850 CE) up until a decade or so ago, has essentially followed Sanskrit’s, basically because of the huge influence of Sanskrit on the initial grammarians and the fact that Kannada literature was also quite heavily Sanskritised in its earlier stages. Thus, if the Sanskrit grammarians wrote of seven vibhaktis, Kannada grammarians followed suit even though only three could be properly called so in Kannada, and even though, unlike in Sanskrit, no vibhakti pratyaya in Kannada denotes gender and number over and above the noun-verb relationship. If the Sanskrit grammarians talked of karakas, the Kannada grammarians followed suit even though the very concept was unnecessary – unlike in Sanskrit, the mapping between vibhakti and meaning is one-to-one in Kannada. If the Sanskrit grammarians described samasas based on whether the second, first, both, or neither of the two participating words are central to the new word, their Kannada counterparts copied them even though every Kannada samasa has the second word as the central one. And then, if the Sanskrit grammarians described Sanskrit sandhi rules, Kannada grammarians applied all of them to Kannada grammar although it isn’t necessary at all. One could go on and on about this, but the point is – if one picks up any popular Kannada grammar book, one gets the idea that Kannada’s grammar is derived from Sanskrit’s. But really, this is only a case of bad grammar writing. Put differently, the unwritten Kannada grammar on people’s tongues is very unlike Sanskrit’s, but the existing written grammars of Kannada tell a different – and wrong – story. Thankfully, this is being rectified as we speak.

4. The question of content

There was very little original writing in Kannada until very recently. It would not be an exaggeration to say that a large part of theKannada corpus is essentially the result of a vernacularisation of Sanskrit literature. This has led to the idea that Sanskrit is the mother of Kannada, although nobody adds the qualifier ‘when it comes to literature’. But the fact is, although language acts as a carrier for content, the two cannot be equated. Thus, when we translate English content into Kannada, which we’re doing quite a bit, English doesn’t become the latest mother of Kannada. Also, original writing in Kannada is now very much on the rise, and this originality has named people for mothers and fathers. There is still a lot of the aforementioned vernacularisation process left to be completed, but there’s little focus on it due to noise from people lacking understanding of what Sanskrit really has to offer. They forget content and think learning Sanskrit is like learning every Indian language including Kannada. But that is just a bad joke.

[First published: Huffington Post, 16-02-2015]

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.


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).


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.


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.


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]

Violence by language

The idea of a pan-Indian lingua franca is violent. The question is not which language must be the lingua franca, but why any one language must be. The most common answer is that Indians need a common language to communicate with each other. But what is conveniently forgotten is that any lingua franca expands to become the one and only language that ultimately prevails. As I write this, I myself find it next to impossible (even a major waste of time) to write in two languages.

We are also made to conveniently forget that we need to alienate ourselves from the people closest to us to support an all-India lingua franca. For example, elite Kannadigas who think India needs a common language also necessarily give in to the violent idea that it’s okay for them to divorce themselves from tens of millions of Kannadigas. Let the idiots catch up if they have what it takes, or let them be wiped out by ‘survival of the fittest’ – this is the unstated feeling we have for our own brethren.

Patriotism is the offered justification for this violence, but the real one is simply the insatiable desire to get ahead of others in the race for material resources. Far, far non-violent than this is to have state-level lingua francas. That is, Kannada in Karnataka, Tamil in Tamil Nadu, Bengali in Bengal, and so on and so forth. Of course this does not eliminate the violence entirely, but it reduces it by degrees of magnitude. There is no perfection in the material world; the question is whether one is moving towards it or away from it.

Bangalore to Bengaluru: the Untold Story

While the ‘national media’ is fixated on things of ‘national importance’, the media in Karnataka, both Kannada and English, is abuzz with the news that the Centre has agreed to the Government of Karnataka’s proposal to ‘rename’ several cities in the state. Bangalore is now officially Bengaluru, Mysore is Mysuru, Belgaum is Belagavi, and so on and so forth.

Despite all the hype, celebrations, and the occasional mention of the late U R Ananthamurthy’s name (he stood for this cause), it’s important to pause and understand what exactly has happened here. Are the names really new? Who are they new to? In which language or languages are they new? All in all, does it matter?

These names, Bengaluru, Mysuru, Belagavi, etc., are not new to the people of these cities or of Karnataka as a whole. Nor are they new entrants to the Kannada language. Nobody has ever used the words Bangalore, Mysore, Belgaum, etc., in Kannada; it has always been these ‘new’ names. It is, in fact, impossible to use them because it’s foreign pronunciation. British pronunciation, to be precise.

So what’s happening now is not ‘renaming’ from the point of view of those Kannadigas who take their own language more seriously than others. Yes, it’s true that the India outside of Karnataka is going to try and use the same names as used within Karnataka. I say ‘try and use’ because Kannada names cannot necessarily be pronounced by non-Kannadigas. The ‘l’ in Bengaluru, for example, is not pronounced north of the Vindhyas – at least not any more.

So, is this whole thing a sort of an achievement? Does it call for a celebration?

To get some perspective, consider the fact that Germany is not pleading with the EU to be ‘renamed’ as Deutschland; The Netherlands is not pleading to be ‘renamed’ as Nederland; France isn’t pleading to be ‘renamed’ as République Française; the number of such examples is not even countable. In fact, people worldwide have their own names for all the countries and cities they’ve had the opportunity to talk about.

To take one example of a city, what the British call London is known and written in some of the world’s languages as follows: Llundain, Londër, Londain, Londan, Londe, Londen, Londhíno, Londinium, Londona, Londonas, Londra, Londres, Londrez, Londyn, Londýn, Lontoo, Loundres, Luân Đôn, Lundenwic, Lúndūn, Lundúnir, Lunnainn, Reondeon, Rŏndŏn, Rondon, and Londoni. Is this a let-down of the people of London? No. In fact, it’s a matter of Londoner pride for their city, like all living things, to have a Vishnu Sahasranama of its own.

So then, why did some Kannadigas ask for this, why do they call it ‘renaming’, and why are they celebrating now? There is only one answer. They have resigned to the fate, decided for them by the Government of India, of Hindi and English being more important than Kannada. To ask for the Kannada names to be approximated in Hindi and English is, first and foremost, to accept the over-lordship of these two hegemonic languages. Even U R Ananthamurthy advocated for Hindi’s emergence as a pan-India link language; I don’t think he worked out the full impact of such a disaster on Kannada. Perhaps it gives the celebrators some solace now to think that the hordes of migrants who are coming into these cities from the North will at least try and preserve the names of their cities – if not Kannadigas’ existence in them.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 18-10-2014

‘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.

Colonialism and the Question of Medium of Instruction

In 2009, I had written a review of Prof. James Tooley‘s book The Beautiful Tree on my English blog, Karnatique. My basic critique of the book was, and is, that Tooley is so focused on looking at education as a market, and private as God, that he fails to see that his favorite low-cost private schools openly defy the principle that mother-tongue based education is the best scientific choice for children. Let me make a few comments on the topic here, since an interaction with the author on Twitter earlier this week has provided me new insights that I think are worth sharing.

Tooley thinks the market is making an independent decision in choosing English as the medium of instruction in India. But he seems not to see that it is basically an effect of colonization – a word I haven’t seen him use. World over, the low-cost private schools he visits are run in the language of the colonial power, current or past. He hardly advertises this fact but makes a big deal of the privateness of the said schools. Because he sees no coercion in the ‘market transaction’ of admitting children to these schools, he claims, everything is in order. But many things are not in order, and the open neglect of the mother-tongue is foremost among them.

When I began the Twitter discussion on language with him, Tooley asked me whether I tweet in my mother tongue. I told him I do, and also the other things I do related to Kannada. But what I want to dissect here is the nature of Tooley’s argument. He seems to want to prove, if possible, that I myself don’t respect my mother tongue, and claim that, therefore, I had better give up this line of argument. It’s not disrespect for my own language, if it exists, that he is interested in criticizing, but a possible hypocrisy or inconsistency in my argument.

Indians have not yet come out of their colonial experience. In fact, places like Bengaluru are facing their second colonization, this time from what calls itself as India. Due to the reckless fetish of including diverse peoples under one administration, the British could not give patronage to education in Indian languages. T.B. Macaulay has stated this very clearly in his arguments for English as the medium of instruction in the education system he helped erect. The independent Indian nation, which continued that colonial fetish, also treats Indian languages as necessary evils, not more, and this is most visible in large cities like Bengaluru. Now, if Indians use English and dump their mother tongues, it does not illustrate a free choice made in the Utopia of pure liberty but the effect of these historical assaults on liberty.

I must admit that I am fortunate not to appear hypocritical in this whole argument. My family, especially my wife, has stood by me in my decision to continue my non-paying Kannada work and in my decision to get my son admitted to a Kannada medium school by choice. Unfortunately, I see that every educated Indian cannot claim to be this fortunate. But that does not take away the merit of the argument that mother-tongue education is best for children. Circumstances force them to send their children to English medium schools; it would be folly to think pure liberty is at play here, as Tooley seems to think. It is a case of pure coercion, with the subtle detail that the coercion has occurred in the past.

Tooley is not worried about any of this. His view is rather myopic, unfortunately, and the basic line of his argument is that the choice of language of instruction is an inexplicable market phenomenon that we had better respect. His first response to my question regarding the medium of instruction betrays the feeling that any inconsistency between the walk and the talk of the questioner, with regard to language use, can be used to defeat him in the argument. But even such an inconsistency, where present, is itself a result of colonization. Colonization makes the colonized individual a mess of inconsistencies and contradictions. It is a similar inconsistency that led Mahatma Gandhi to hate the Indian Railways on the one hand but use it to travel all over India on the other. I write in English, and Indians want to send their children to English medium schools, because history coerces us to do so. Those whom I have to call away from English are today immersed in it, and I have no option but to use a thorn to remove this thorn.

In short, by neglecting the medium of instruction and dedicating his book to the privateness of the low-cost schools, Tooley proves to be not so much of an educationist in the first place. His arguments are ethics-free and education-theory agnostic, and threaten to make the world forget, even celebrate, the gory history of colonialism and its adverse impact on education. His are arguments that legitimize the neglect of the world’s linguistic diversity and thereby the true education and liberty of the people of the world, all in the name of a strange thing that has come to be known as liberty in some Western scholarly circles.

But the Indian who is truly concerned about the future of his children, as of India in general, has no option but to recognize the importance of mother-tongue education. He might not be able to send his own children to mother-tongue schools for various reasons today, but that neither diminishes the truth nor relieves him of his duty to tell his children why they are being sent to English medium schools. They’re not being sent because of an inexplicable and sacred market phenomenon, but because of our colonial history.

If children are told this truth, a day will dawn on which we can claim to have fully reversed the effect of that history, a day on which Tooley’s favorite low-cost private schools will fall head over heels to offer education in the mother-tongue (not that he particularly cares). Indian children will not take too long to recognize that the phase of English-medium craze we’re going through is a temporary one which they can stop in their own lifetime, even if they have themselves had to undergo English education.

Only, most of us will have to stop hiding the truth from them or think we’d be hypocritical to use English at work and send children to English medium schools but advocate for mother-tongue education. This is not hypocrisy but one of the many contradictions introduced by colonialism. I see no reason for Indians to feel guilty for using English at work or sending our children to English medium schools. But at the same time, we must not downplay the importance of the mother tongue in education. The apparent contradiction is put in place by our colonial past, not by us. At no cost must we let our thought side with untruth, however much we may be forced to act against our will. It will take time and effort, but the truth will ultimately triumph.