CANCELLED: The Modern Life of an Ancient Language

4 May 2020, 12:30 - 14:00

CRASSH Meeting Room, CRASSH, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT

Due to the COVID-19 crisis this seminar has been cancelled.

Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work in Progress Seminar Series. All welcome but please email Michelle Maciejewska to book your place and to request readings. A sandwich lunch and refreshments are provided.

This book sets out to answer two questions: What is Sanskrit? Why do we care about it? I want to investigate what makes the language live despite its purported death, what makes it modern despite its efflorescence in the distant past, what has allowed it to travel outside the Indian subcontinent for as long as it has existed, and what lifts it out of the dead letter of ritual and scholasticism into the seething battleground of religion and politics in India today. The contemporary climate of reaction and revivalism in India gives Sanskrit a new lease of life. The role that this classical language is expected to play in the majoritarian regime of the Hindu Right forces us to revisit its long history and reimagine its possible futures. From 2019, with the BJP back in power for a second term, books on Hindu Nationalism are beginning to emerge in history, political science and cultural studies. Histories of Sanskrit literature and philosophy, as well as a vast technical literature about Sanskrit in the disciplines of Linguistics and Religious Studies already exist aplenty. However, there is no single account of the role of Sanskrit in decolonizing, independent and post-colonial India, whether as a guarantor of modernity or as a repository of tradition; whether as a signifier of classical authority in secular left-wing ideology or as a source of Hindu identity in ethno-nationalist right-wing ideology. This book would be the first to place Sanskrit at the center of an inquiry into the genesis of both Indian Nationalism and Hindu Nationalism, the two main ideological currents that have shaped the political life of modern India and continue to do so with escalating urgency, leading up to an explosive showdown between conflicting ideas of India.

Ananya Vajpeyi was the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow 2017-18 and was at  CRASSH in Michaelmas Term 2017 and Easter 2018. During her time at CRASSH she was  working on a political biography of Sanskrit, aimed at narrating the long and continuing life of this language from ancient times to the present. While at  CRASSH in 2019-20, Vajpeyi is completing two volumes about the legal and discursive career of the Śūdra, a caste category denoting the last in a four-tier social hierarchy that occurs throughout South Asian history, from the earliest texts of Sanskrit literature to the writings of B R  Ambedkar, the architect of India's Constitution of 1950. Her long-term research projects on an intellectual life of Ambedkar and a political biography of Sanskrit are also ongoing.