Comparative Studies in Society and History

Competing Histories

The Death of Sanskrit 1000

Sheldon Pollock a1
a1 University of Chicago


In the age of Hindu identity politics (Hindutva) inaugurated in the 1990s by the ascendancy of the Indian People's Party (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its ideological auxiliary, the World Hindu Council (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), Indian cultural and religious nationalism has been promulgating ever more distorted images of India's past. Few things are as central to this revisionism as Sanskrit, the dominant culture language of precolonial southern Asia outside the Persianate order. Hindutva propagandists have sought to show, for example, that Sanskrit was indigenous to India, and they purport to decipher Indus Valley seals to prove its presence two millennia before it actually came into existence. In a farcical repetition of Romantic myths of primevality, Sanskrit is considered—according to the characteristic hyperbole of the VHP—the source and sole preserver of world culture. The state's anxiety both about Sanskrit's role in shaping the historical identity of the Hindu nation and about its contemporary vitality has manifested itself in substantial new funding for Sanskrit education, and in the declaration of 1999–2000 as the “Year of Sanskrit,” with plans for conversation camps, debate and essay competitions, drama festivals, and the like. 1


1000 I am grateful to Allison Busch and Lawrence McCrea, both of the University of Chicago, for their critical reading of this essay.

1 The VHP assessment is cited in Bhattacharji 1990; see also Goldman 1996 and Ramaswamy 1999. A recent review of Hindutva fantasy (and fraud) about indigenous Sanskrit is found in Witzel and Farmer 2000. The “Year of Sanskrit” runs for “Yugabda 5101,” the year of the Kaliyuga dating system now apparently in use by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (“Times of India,” Bombay ed., December 10, 1999).