Hyphenating language and religion: Protests push Sanskrit back into shell

The news first came in on November 5 as the students chatted away in their hostel room late in the evening. Someone told them that they would have a new professor joining their department from the next day.

The name of the professor, Feroz Khan, had the students intrigued. Khan, a 29-year-old Sanskrit teacher, had secured the highest marks among 60 candidates in the entrance test for the post of assistant professor in the Sanskrit department of the Banaras Hindu University (BHU). He was supposed to join on November 6 — that is, had the students let him.

“The idea of  learning from a Muslim teacher and, more importantly, having a Muslim in their midst at the annual havan organised at the faculty on Raksha Bandhan rattled us,” says Punit Mishra, a third-year student of Sanskrit at BHU, who was sitting on dharna until last week but is now recovering from dengue.

Most students had the same thought, for they considered the courses being offered by the department as deeply sacred and intrinsically linked to their religion. “How can a Muslim teacher teach us about our religion?” asks Mishra.

As the word spread, hostlers and research students of the department started scanning the internet for any information on BHU’s constitution against the appointment. Then the attention moved to a plaque at the entrance of their department.

“Yeh bhavan keval Hindu aur unke ang pratayang ke liye hai (this building is only for the use of purposes related to Hinduism and its allied religion, meaning Sikh, Buddhism and Jainism),” reads the plaque, which now forms the cornerstone of their contention to not allow Khan entry into the building.

Students interpreted it to mean that a non-Hindu cannot be allowed inside the building. The idea of a Muslim professor was so inconceivable to them that by morning, armed with highlighted paragraphs from BHU’s constitution, which are open to interpretation, the students sat on a relay dharna. The sit-in dharna ended on November 23 after the university administration assured them of a solution, but the protest continues.

Khan’s appointment, according to Radhavallabh Tripathi, a member of the selection committee, follows the University Grants Commission’s (UGC’s) guidelines. The university administration too has backed his appointment, including the chancellor, Justice (retd) Giridhar Malviya who is the grandson of the university’s founder, Madan Mohan Malviya.

Tripathi also dismisses the claims that Khan has been appointed to teach darma shahtra, which deals with Hindu rituals. “He has been appointed to teach sahitya (literature), which has nothing to do with religion,” he says.

If the classes had been allowed, Khan would have taught Sanskrit literature such as Kalidas’s Meghdoot or  Abhigyan Shakuntalam, and not Vedic rituals related to birth or death, which is the apprehension that many of the students have.

But even after the air has been cleared about the subject he would teach, the students are refusing to relent. Now their concern has moved to letting a Muslim into the building, and they cite the plaque as evidence of Malviya’s wish not to allow Muslims into the premises.

A professor of Sanskrit at the university who did not wish to be named says, “The plaque could simply be interpreted to mean the building would not be used for promotion of non-Hindu events, say, a recital of the Quran. Interpreting it to mean non-Hindus are not allowed in the building would be stretching it too far.”

But the students are not having any of it. They now see themselves as the protector of Hinduism with the Sanatan Dharma Sansthan throwing its weight behind them. The shankaracharya of Sri Vidya Kashi Math visited them a few days ago and made a rousing speech about Hindus being allowed to Mecca before letting Khan on the premises.

The reason of protest by students stands in stark relief to the stated objective of Sanskrit Vidya Dharma Vigyan Sankay (SVDVS), where Khan has been appointed to teach. Set up in 1918, its precise objective is to try to understand Indian knowledge systems from an Indian, Shastric, rather than modern Western perspective, and as its website states “bring about a fruitful dialogue between the East and the West” as well as “remove the pervading misconceptions about religion, spirituality, astrology and tantras”. 

This is one of the two Sanskrit departments at BHU, the other one being part of the faculty of arts, where students study Sanskrit as part of their graduation course. 

At SVDVS, apart from the usual subject of sahitya and Vedic philosophy, courses in jyotish (astrology) and dharma Shastra (vedic rituals) are also offered, each with its own faculty and curriculum. Students can obtain degrees ranging from bachelor’s to PhD.

But the profile of students at SVDVS and the one at the faculty of arts is different, says the professor who did not wish to be named, and who teaches Sanskrit at the department in the faculty of arts.

“We have a mix of boys and girls from all spectrums of caste and class. At SVDVS, though, most of them are Brahmins and most of the students have had their schooling at gurukuls. Many already work as part-time priests and their cultural and social moorings are deeply rooted in a stricter version of Hinduism.” During festive and wedding seasons, classes are often suspended because students do not turn up,” he says.

New students at the SVDVS have to shave their heads off and wear a sacred thread before entering the building, says Mishra, who is president of the BHU unit of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “It is like our fresher’s party. Will professor Khan be able to do all this?” he asks.

Part of the current controversy stems from the appropriation of Sanskrit as a language of religion and the erosion of its secular aspects, says Tripathi. “All aspects of Sanskrit, even dharma shastra, can be taught by a person of any religion. It is a scientific subject and not religious dogma.”

But he feels the current controversy is helpful to the language, which is all but dead as it has brought Sanskrit into national discourse. “At least it will lead people to think about the language,” he says.

But not everyone thinks it will help the case of wider adoption of the language. The protests have done a great disservice to its adoption among non-Hindus, says Mohammad Sharif, chairman of the Sanskrit department at Aligarh Muslim University. “They will now fear for their lives.”

Although he says it is tough to shake off the perception that Sanskrit is the language of Hindu religion, just as Persian is the language of Islam, most students who choose the language for higher studies do so either because of a love for the language or because they want to use it as an instrument to crack the Civil Services examination, given that like mathematics, it is a very high-scoring subject.

Sharif, too, picked up Sanskrit because he wanted to be either a civil servant or a professor. But there was a time in history when it was normal for a Muslim to be studying Sanskrit, and no one raised an eyebrow, he says.

“When I was studying Sanskrit, my community members would make fun of me. They would jeeringly say that I wanted to be a pandit, but there was a rich tradition of cultural intermingling and Hindus learning Urdu and Muslims Sanskrit during the Mughal era,” he says.

The syncretic culture flourished under Dara Shikoh who encouraged dialogue between Hindu ulemas and commissioned translation of each other’s work. During this time Sanskrit was freely adopted by members of both community and it flourished before losing out to English and Hindi during the British rule.

The period of the Sufi and Bhakti movements that started in the seventh and eighth century was also good for the language.

“It was during this time that many Muslims started singing bhajans and performing at Bhagavad Gita .

Sharif, too, has specialised in Hindu scriptures, the Mahabharata and has led many PhD students through their research on the two texts. But his love for the language has come at a price. He is all but cut off from his own community. “Sanskrit has brought me great respect and fortune. I had to make a choice between being a liberal Muslim and moving up in life and listening to my community members,” he says.

But he is not sure what to make of the current controversy. “The decision is wrong. The administration should have spoken to the students and taken them into confidence rather than letting this matter flare up,” he says.

“Maybe the timing was not right. It came soon after the Ayodhya land dispute verdict.”

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