Can Someone Tell Me Why Sharada Wants Her Son to Read And Write Kannada?

Day before yesterday, I got an interesting message from a good real-life friend on Facebook. “Hi, I need a favour,” began Sharada.

This was the rest of the message:

Dinesh’s school decided to drop Kannada from their curriculum. Dinesh loves his school and generally doesn’t like displacement so I offered him two choices, change school or learn with me. He has agreed to learn from me. I don’t know how to teach. Do you have any suggestions?

Dinesh is 8. His parents, Sharada and her husband Ramesh (a childhood friend of mine) are Kannadigas. Dinesh’s school is the so-called National Academy for Learning, or NAFL, situated somewhere in Bengaluru.

I don’t know about you, but the name of this school suggests to me that the educatables aren’t exactly kids there. More like adults getting ready for some serious national stuff.

Why did Sharada ask me for this favour?

I think she asked me because I’m pretty serious about education in the mother tongue, have written a book or two in Kannada, and take Indian languages more seriously than most of her friends.

My 9-year-old son attends a world-class school in Mysore, and my 4-year-old daughter will join him there this June. It’s a private Kannada-medium school called Arivu.

Arivu’s world-class-ness doesn’t come from a stately building with a 10-foot compound. It comes from the great teachers, the atmosphere of fun, experiential learning, zero-stress, parents’ involvement and total integration with the rest of the world around the school, not to mention the language of instruction.

“If your neighbourhood has seceded from the real India, a good English-medium school can appear to have some of these good qualities.”

It’s the kind of school which actively and constantly pesters parents to come and visit the campus, sit in the classrooms, make tea, sing, dance, teach children what they know best, and so on.

I know, I know, it sounds a little crazy and I often don’t get time to participate as much as I would like. But like any right-thinking parent, I would like to do more of this stuff, not less.

Arivu’s advantage over English-medium schools

It’s impossible for an English-medium school to have the above qualities in India. Why? Because they make money from exactly the opposite of everything Arivu stands for.

I’m not just throwing this at you. I have had first-hand experience with these schools. I was educated in an English-medium school, and never in a Kannada-medium school. My wife and I also reviewed the best of the best English medium schools in Mysore before deciding on Arivu for our kids.

If your neighbourhood has seceded from the real India, a good English-medium school can appear to have some of these good qualities. Besides, they throw in a lot of other goodies like horse-riding, French, etc., so your idea of what makes a school good is quite blurred to begin with.

“There aren’t too many Arivus in Bengaluru. Not anymore. And even if there’s one close by, how can you send your kid to the kind of school your housemaid looks down on?”

Sharada’s family lives in one of these independent republics, but it’s completely land-locked by India. Like many of her friends, however, she feels she doesn’t have the choice of returning to India.

Her son’s school, NAFL, is perhaps one of the best English-medium schools in Bengaluru. That means Sharada has signed up for 10-foot compounds, closed doors, and a standing instruction to stand outside the compound while the instruction happens inside.

Good English-medium schools make a virtue of these vices, and you’re easily sold since you have the picture of your office cubicle in mind. You leave your child to the self-appointed experts and go do what you think your job is.

Besides, people like Sharada in cities like Bengaluru don’t have too much choice. There aren’t too many Arivus in Bengaluru. Not anymore. And even if there’s one close by, how can you send your kid to the kind of school your housemaid looks down on?

That would go completely against the tide of the times… which is to secede from India as completely as possible.

Does Dinesh really need Kannada?

I have to disclose an important fact for you to get the big picture: Dinesh-the-Kannadiga can’t speak Kannada.

He has the potential (who doesn’t?) but right now he can’t speak it. He barely manages to understand his parents when they speak to him in Kannada, but always replies back in English with a superb call-centre accent. I know good English, obviously, but I don’t get his accent. I’ve tried.

“[Dinesh] barely manages to understand his parents when they speak to him in Kannada, but always replies back in English with a superb call-centre accent.”

I also think his parents speak more to him in Kannada when I’m around. Oops! Did I just say that? I think she and her husband will kill me for this. They’re two of my best friends in the world!

But my point is this. The kid is 8, and he’s already schooled like a foreigner in Karnataka. His apartment complex doesn’t need him to speak in Kannada. His school doesn’t. His republic doesn’t. The Indian nation doesn’t (it wants him to learn Hindi, which his school is patriotically teaching, anyway).

The auto-rickshaw drivers are a dying tribe; everyone is switching to Ola or TaxiForSure or Meru or whatever, so he won’t need Kannada to move around independently in Bengaluru.

Even housemaids are in the line for a visa to Dinesh’s republic, so Dinesh won’t need Kannada to talk to the help either. In fact, kids don’t speak to housemaids so much anyway.

So why does Sharada want her son to read and write Kannada?

However you look at it, there’s a good reason why NAFL is kicking Kannada out of its classrooms: it’s possible to paint the picture of a Bangalore, an India, and a world in which Kannada is unnecessary.

That it’s inferior, and that it’s already dead, is already being driven into children’s heads, so that makes it easy to convince parents to let go. And the parents have already conceded that the experts on the matter are within the school’s compound.

“[T]here’s a good reason why NAFL is kicking Kannada out of its classrooms: it’s possible to paint the picture of a Bangalore, an India, and a world in which Kannada is unnecessary”

So, why, why, why does she want her son to read and write Kannada?

I’ve told her a couple of times that Dinesh must first learn to speak Kannada. Reading and writing must come later.

Somehow, she doesn’t appreciate this point. She thinks her duty is to teach Dinesh how to read and write Kannada when he can’t speak the language. In fact, she thinks he does speak Kannada. But trust me, he cannot.

I broke my head over the question. Why, why, why does she want Dinesh to read and write Kannada?

I’d have loved to ask her directly, but she’s not answering my phone. Perhaps I’ve been too direct in telling her that Dinesh must speak Kannada first. Perhaps that hurt her.

The only answer I have is that she’s driven by an irrational urge. The kind of urge that a sandalwood tree has to ensure that its saplings carry its scent.

It’s stupid to ask why. That’s how the tree is wired. That’s how we’re wired.

And oh, here’s the suggestion you wanted from me, Sharada — the same one again: don’t teach Dinesh to read and write Kannada. Make him speak it first. Do whatever it takes. That’s how you grow the Kannada sapling.

As far as NAFL is concerned, I don’t expect it to do anything better than kick Kannada out of campus. That’s how those trees are wired. The question is whether your Kannada sapling can take nutrients from them and gradually outgrow them — or not.

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[First Published: Huffington Post May 18, 2015 at 05:33PM,]

AAP’s ideology of cleanliness is not an ideology at all

Despite all assertions to the contrary, operational cleanliness is not a political ideology. Things like abstention from bribery and horse-trading cannot be bullet points in an ideological document. They can only be bullet points in a party’s code of conduct – how it behaves on the path to achieve ideological goals. Ideology is the direction in which the vehicle moves when it’s roadworthy, not roadworthiness itself.

Immunity from realpolitik, which is a fancy word for the give and take behind the scenes, was the central campaign message of the Aam Aadmi Party. That message has been completely destroyed after the sting operation involving none other than the self-appointed icon of political cleanliness in India, Mr Arvind Kejriwal. There are cartoons out there with the Kejriwal bee stinging itself.

As if to add to the party’s woes, two of its top leaders, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, expelled from the party’s Parliamentary Affairs Committee, are engaging with the volunteers and explaining how they did nothing wrong. Their courage seems to indicate that Bhushan and Yadav have less to hide, and less reason to hide, from the public than Arvind Kejriwal.

The problem with this whole experiment called AAP is that, in the absence of an ideology, the public is made to switch meaninglessly between parties and party leaders in search for mister clean.

The Delhi assembly election was pretty much won on the basis that Mr Kejriwal is essentially that person, complete with Gandhian public announcements extolling the need to control the ego. But now he has competition, and in the midst of it all, the idea that political parties have to stand for something over and above individuals is getting completely lost.

Despite all assertions to the contrary, operational cleanliness is not a political ideology. Things like abstention from bribery and horse-trading cannot be bullet points in an ideological document. They can only be bullet points in a party’s code of conduct – how it behaves on the path to achieve ideological goals. Ideology is the direction in which the vehicle moves when it’s roadworthy, not roadworthiness itself.

The fact that this simple thing is not understood by some of the most intelligent men and women in the country speaks volumes of the poverty of political thinking in India. Politics is no longer about ideology, it appears, and that is a problem.

It is not as if the framers of the Constitution of India finished off the job of creating a perfect democracy. It is not as if sticking to the Constitution is all it takes for the hopes and ambitions of every Indian to attain fruition. It is not as if all we need now is a few clean men and women to do what the book says.

We always need men and women who understand what’s wrong with the Constitution at any given point in time, and what can be done to rectify it. That understanding has nothing to do with operational cleanliness. It is the domain of ideology. Our search must be for a clean ideology; the ideology of cleanliness is not even an ideology.

[First Published: IBNLive March 13, 2015 at 06:19AM,]

Understanding Rape as a Statistical Phenomenon

If the statistical occurrence of burglary can be discouraged by building houses in a certain way, then the statistical occurrence of rape can be discouraged by women dressing in a certain way. I have seen many who take this argument to be an approval of the criminal mind housed in a rapist, or an argument to curtail the freedom of women, but that is a mistake.

If the statistical occurrence of burglary can be discouraged by building houses in a certain way, then the statistical occurrence of rape can be discouraged by women dressing in a certain way. I have seen many who take this argument to be an approval of the criminal mind housed in a rapist, or an argument to curtail the freedom of women, but that is a mistake.

It is the same mistake as thinking that securing a house with a compound, thick walls, grilled windows, reinforced cement concrete ceilings, etc., is an approval of the criminal mind housed in a burglar, or an effort to curtail the freedom of its residents. If in one case people do not depend entirely on the law to discourage crime, there is no fundamental reason why they should in the other.

I am aware that some will conclude that I am equating women with property, but that is incorrect, too. I am not equating women, but that which is lost in rape, with property. Whose property? It is every woman’s individual and private property, and, like all property, it is prudent to guard it well from criminals irrespective of how strong the law of the land is, or how effective its enforcement is.

The question of the relationship between the way in which women dress and the incidence of rape, which is but one of the many relationships that one needs to consider, is the question of the relationship between two statistical phenomena. That is, it is the question of the relationship between the general environment created by the dress-sense of all the different women in society and the statistical probability of rape.

The existence of this statistical relationship cannot be rejected on the grounds that particular sample-cases can be produced wherein the victim’s dress can be shown to have been the least of the motivations for the crime for the most criminal of minds.

The criminal mind of the rapist is not necessarily set in motion by the dress-sense of the victim under consideration, but by the general impact of the overall environment in which he finds women, especially on television and in the movies. This should be read in conjunction with the fact that rape is, first of all, an act of violence which could have been triggered by many factors, only one of which is the general image of women formed in the mind of the criminal due to the overall environment in which he finds them.

To summarize, I say the crime of rape deserves the toughest punishment: capital punishment. But I am certain this will not solve the problem.

No Mr. Modi, Tax Devolution To States Won’t Make Centre Much Poorer

While it is true that the Finance Commission has recommended a 10% increase in the share of the states in the divisible pool, it is not true that the award leaves ‘far less money with the Central Government’ if the Centre’s finances are considered as a whole, i.e., including money not in the divisible pool.

In his letter to Chief Ministers announcing his government’s decision to accept the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission, Prime Minister Narendra Modi writes:

The 14th FC has recommended a record increase of 10% in the devolution of the divisible pool of resources to states. This compares with the marginal increases made by previous Finance Commissions. The total devolution to states in 2015-16 will be significantly higher than in 2014-15. This naturally leaves far less money with the Central Government. However, we have taken the recommendations of the 14th FC in a positive spirit as they strengthen your hand in designing and implementing schemes as per your priorities and needs. (italics added)

While it is true that the Finance Commission has recommended a 10% increase in the share of the states in the divisible pool, it is not true that the award leaves ‘far less money with the Central Government’ if the Centre’s finances are considered as a whole, i.e., including money not in the divisible pool. I’ve summarised the recommendations of the Finance Commission in the table below (all numbers in rupees crore).


While Mr. Modi and his government have highlighted the fact that tax devolution to states has increased as a percentage of the divisible pool (purposely omitted from the above table) from 32% to 42% in the award, one cannot conclude from it that the Centre is left with ‘far less money’. One needs to look at aggregate transfers to states as a percentage of the gross revenue receipts for it. That is what I plot in the following chart, together with the percent-wise break-up of the transfers in terms of tax devolution and grants (from the data in the above table).


Clearly, the aggregate transfers to states (middle curve) indicated by the FC-XIV remain relatively flat before and after the 14th Finance Commission (i.e., going from 2014-15 to 2015-16 and later). In fact, the report clearly states in Section 2.28 that:

We have noted that aggregate transfers accounted for around 50 per cent of the gross revenue receipts of the Union. Keeping in view the Union Government’s expenditure responsibilities, and the need for fiscal adjustment at the Union level, we do not see the scope for increasing the transfers beyond the current level.

Historically, the actual aggregate transfers have tended to lie between 44.7% and 53.7% as a percentage of the gross revenue receipts (as explained in Section 12.6), and that is not changing. The 10% jump from 32% to 42% happening at one go in the first year of implementation, which everyone including Mr. Modi is talking about, appears when one takes only the tax devolution portion of the aggregate transfers and divides it by the divisible pool. This is not to be seen in the above chart which presents the whole picture.

In fact, this 10% jump being talked about everywhere is misleading because it masks the actual expected increase in the aggregate transfers to the states as a percentage of total money with the Centre, which is far more modest (middle curve, 47.54% in 2014-15 to 48.33% in 2015-16). The major increase recommended by FC-XIV is only in the tax devolution portion of these transfers (upper curve, 50.98% to 66.93% in 2015-16), but the grants portion is recommended to be reduced almost equally (lower curve, 49.02% to 33.07% in 2015-16).

Thus, although it helps lend Mr. Modi’s political party the hue of martyrdom, it is not correct to say that the Centre is left with ‘far less money’ because of FC-XIV. The confusion here is because only the tax devolution part of the overall transfers to the states are highlighted, that too expressed as a percentage of something other than the total money in the Centre’s kitty.

Note, however, that Mr. Modi and his government are right in their communication that the states have more of a free hand when it comes to using their funds now. This is because of the recommended and welcome shift of funds to tax devolution from grants, which essentially require state governments to do what the Centre wants them to do.

[First Published: Huffington Post March 05, 2015 at 06:54PM,]

Why Mohan Bhagwat is both right and wrong about Mother Teresa

Of course, Mother Teresa’s objective in doing charity work was conversion to Christianity, and I don’t think she would have considered it something shameful or worth hiding. She might not have done or presided over any conversions herself as her organization in Kolkata, Missionaries of Charity, has clarified, but that’s beside the point.

On February 23rd, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat reportedly said the following at Apna Ghar, a charity and service organization in Bharatpur, Rajasthan:

Here we will not provide service like that rendered by Mother Teresa. It is possible that her kind of work was good but there was a motive behind that service. It was to convert those she served to Christianity. Someone wants to convert others to Christianity, that is another thing, but to do it under the garb of social service is to devalue that service. Here, nothing like that will happen. In our country, social service is done like this, selflessly, completely selflessly.

Political parties and commentators opposed to the Sangh Parivar have unanimously criticized him for this. There are very few points on which I tend to agree with the RSS, but that doesn’t require me to reject everything he has said here.

Of course, Mother Teresa’s objective in doing charity work was conversion to Christianity, and I don’t think she would have considered it something shameful or worth hiding. She might not have done or presided over any conversions herself as her organization in Kolkata, Missionaries of Charity, has clarified, but that’s beside the point.

To suggest that Mother Teresa has nothing to do with the spread of Christianity in India is to suggest that Warren Anderson of Union Carbide had nothing to do with the Bhopal disaster. “Look, he didn’t let the gas out with his own hands!” – is that even an argument?

I see Mr. Bhagwat’s criticism to be directed against the entire Christian religion which openly uses charity as a delivery system for the Christian faith. Both Christians and non-Christians know it, and the Constitution of India allows it. In fact, except in situations like this one involving Mother Teresa, Christians are quite proud of conversions via charity. And, for someone like me (and Mr. Bhagwat) who doesn’t think Christianity must spread in India, charitable work indeed loses its sheen if it comes with the baggage of conversions.

Let me end with where I don’t agree with Mr. Bhagwat. It is in his last sentence where he says Hindus (that’s what he means by ‘in our country’) do social service “completely selflessly”.

I must remind Mr. Bhagwat that not enough of social service happens in our country to begin with. In fact, we Hindus have an entire system of alienating those capable of service from those who need it, which invites the Mother Teresas of the world in the first place. It’s called the caste system, and its effect is being amplified by the idea of India which your organization spreads, Mr. Bhagwat.

Also, most Hindu social service organizations in India hope to convince Hindus, themselves included, that even they can do what the Christians do. “Even we can take care of the sick, even we can give free education to the underprivileged” is the cry of these latecomers. And why do they do that? It’s not selflessness, Mr. Bhagwat, but a clear sense of self and a fear of losing it.

I’m not saying it’s wrong or that we Hindus shouldn’t do it. I’m saying we should do more of it, and also work to get rid of overall Pyramid of Corruption which associates purity and impurity, superiority and inferiority, to everything we can think of: people, languages, you name it. It’s time your organization, the RSS, stops defending and implementing it.

[First Published: IBNLive February 25, 2015 at 11:58AM, ]

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]

AAP and the limits of expansionism

Why did AAP win Delhi? Can AAP do to the rest of India what it did to Delhi?

Among many answers to the first question, one must stand out as important: the party had its ears to the ground, i.e., it spent most of its time listening to those at the bottom of the pyramid of power instead of imposing the images and words of supermen from above. That they didn’t have any supermen in the first place helped them become popular with laypeople, providing them an impression of flatness of organization and ideology. Everyone, it appeared, was welcome to AAP as long as they weren’t with “the bad guys”.

But organizational and ideological flatness within AAP is a myth. It was stated in exactly these terms by some, who left the party, but one doesn’t need a proof for it; it’s a truism. Any well-run political party must have a command and control structure, and those who command and control must, in a well-known hierarchy, be above those who are commanded and controlled.

When the organization isn’t large enough, hierarchy doesn’t come in the way of its being close to the ground: the voices from below reach the top because the top isn’t too high up in the air.

Why am I bringing this up? I’m bringing this up to answer my second question above, as to whether AAP can do a Delhi with all of India. AAP’s relative flatness compared to BJP and Congress, which was good enough for the geographically insignificant area of Delhi, is not scalable as it tries to “go national”. Localness isn’t expandable from one locus.

For starters, the very name of the party is in a foreign language for most of India: Hindi. The language of Delhi, it is considered a dangerous threat to liberty in South and East India; there aren’t any Aam Aadmis there to begin with; that’s an alien expression. The actual Aam Aadmi, who speaks an Indo-Aryan language like Hindi, is not exactly welcome in South or East India because he comes to replace the native Dravidian or Tibeto-Burman, to colonize.

No successful organization, because of its inevitable hierarchy, can maintain even an impression of flatness when it expands beyond a certain size, or beyond certain natural boundaries such as those of language and ethnicity as discussed above.

The Congress and the BJP have mastered the art, of not even putting up a facade of flatness, in “going national”. They essentially operate without the advantage which AAP had in this Delhi victory, and they’re not apologetic about it. In fact, they want the peoples of India to apologize for being diverse and making it difficult for them to keep their ears to the ground.

AAP’s fate will be no different as it tries to expand beyond Delhi. Aloofness from the ground is in the very nature of expansionism. I’m not saying this to cast my vote in favor of the BJP or the Congress. Far from it, I am saying this to forewarn the peoples of India against falling for another national party to rule over them thinking it will be fundamentally different from the existing ones. The thing to learn from AAP is that localness is the way forward, and this naturally requires rejecting AAP everywhere outside Delhi.


[First published: IBNLIVE, 11-02-2015]

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]