Imagining Sanskrit Land

Religious nationalism and transglobal yoga

  • Across the Indian media and online there are several rumours, or factoids, that suggest there are communities in rural and often remote areas of India where entire villages speak only fluent Sanskrit.
    Photo by Patrick McCartney
  • Sanskrit, which many people consider a dead language similar to Latin, classical Greek, ancient Hebrew, and classical Chinese, is still spoken as a second language in some places in India and in very small pockets, or language nests, abroad, usually among the Hindu diasporas.
    Photo by Patrick McCartney
  • It is believed that the people considered fortunate enough to speak or hear Sanskrit will become more righteous, that there will be a cultural and moral reformation, and that their lives will be transformed.
    Photo by Patrick McCartney
  • Religious identities are intimately connected with politics and patriotism in modern India.
    Photo by Patrick McCartney
  • One reason for this idea that Sanskrit is ‘pure’ is that, regardless of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, it is thought by many people that Sanskrit is the mother of all languages and the ‘oldest language in the world’.
    Photo by Patrick McCartney

Throughout the several years I have spent living and working in India, I have heard many times the emphatic assertion by people from all walks of life that ‘there is a village somewhere in India where everyone speaks Sanskrit’. I resolved that one day I would substantiate the veracity of these claims. As an anthropologist, the way in which rumours like this grow and take on a life of their own, indirectly feeding a nationalist and romantic image of  “pure, untouched, and pristine” village life in rural India, fascinates me. Professionally, I am interested in the macro-level processes of creating imagined communities, and how this manifests at the micro or interpersonal level. The construction of our collective ideas regarding any community or nation is based on a tacitly agreed-upon imaginary landscape.

In my research, I focus on what the transglobal yoga community imagines itself to be, who is involved, and who gets to say what an authentic yoga lifestyle, practice, identity, and community can, ought to, or should be. This leads me to explore larger social and political processes of banal nationalism related to religious fundamentalism, and whether these questions are important to modern yoga practitioners. Part of this research includes exploring the role that spoken Sanskrit plays and the value ascribed to it within and beyond the transglobal yoga community. For those not ensconced in a Hindu thought-world and religious practice, Sanskrit is generally considered a dead, dying, or endangered language. A good way to appreciate its position and cultural prestige is as the Latin of Asia.

Approximately seven years ago, during an Internet search for information about these villages, I came across a clip on YouTube about a Sanskrit-speaking village called Jhiri. In this nationally syndicated news clip the presenter asserted that “almost all the people always converse in Sanskrit.” I found this phrase deeply ambiguous. I wanted to know more, and so, during April and May 2015, I spent four weeks in the village of Jhiri, where I faced exceptionally challenging conditions related to my health, the heat, and the fact that the village does not have electricity or running water. I was treated as a village guest. The hospitality shown to me by this community touched me deeply, and I am sure we will be friends for many years.

During this time I conducted anthropological research to understand the sociolinguistic reality of Jhiri, and the aspirations of this community to become a Sanskrit-speaking village. The community leaders decided about twelve years ago that they wanted to make this transition happen. While it was successful for five years or so, over the past seven years the active teaching of Sanskrit has stalled. The reasons for this are complicated and somewhat opaque. It remains to be seen whether the community can revive its own interest in this project of language reclamation.

I am also making an ethnographic documentary series about Jhiri, entitled Imagining Sanskrit Land. This is part of my broader investigation into the politics of imagination, which is specifically related to the reliance of various groups—including the transglobal yoga industry—on the Sanskrit episteme. This refers to the justified true beliefs located within the voluminous Sanskrit corpus, which, as yoga practitioners, we know is the source of the names of the yoga āsanas (postures) and countless treatises related to various branches of science, spirituality, and society.

As I sat in the air-conditioned comfort of the diplomatic enclave in Delhi watching the outside temperature rise steadily past 40°C in mid-April 2015, my anxiety also continued to increase. This was because I could not locate the Sanskrit-speaking village I had come to India specifically to look for. In over five years of thinking about this village, and the others I have heard about through the Indian media, I had not met a single person who had actually been to Jhiri. Yet countless people assured me that Jhiri and other similar villages exist, and that, more importantly, “everyone speaks fluent Sanskrit.” This included people who work for Samskrita Bharati, which, since the early 1980s, has evolved from an office in Bangalore to become an international organisation devoted to promoting a vernacular, simplified Sanskrit around the world. None of the several employees within this organisation who emphatically asserted that “everyone in Jhiri speaks Sanskrit” knew where the village was or even how to get there.

11/11/2017 12:10:00 AM

Title on email: Imagining Sanskirt Land.
11/11/2017 12:09:58 AM

Title of the article in my email: Imagining Sanskirt Land.

11/10/2017 9:12:26 PM

Curious as to Banazaman's background and thoughts...

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