Sanskrit in post-1947 India

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Sanskrit education

Muslim scholars, teachers/ 2019

Mohammed Wajihuddin, Nov 19, 2019: The Times of India

The students of Banaras Hindu University who are protesting against Dr Feroz Khan’s appointment as Sanskrit teacher because “a Muslim can’t teach Sanskrit” should meet Pandit Ghulam Dastagir Birajdar.

The 85-year-old Mumbaikar, former general secretary of Vishwa Sanskrit Pratisthan in Varanasi, and presently chairman of the committee to prepare school textbooks for Sanskrit in Maharashtra, has such command over the language that he is often asked by Hindus to solemnise marriages, preside over pujas or perform last rites. Even though he declines such requests, he has taught many Hindus to perform Hindu rituals.

“All my life I have promoted Sanskrit and taught it at different places, including at BHU where I have delivered many lectures. Nobody ever told me that Muslims should not teach it,” says a shocked Birajdar on telephone from Pune where he is attending a textbook committee meeting. “On the contrary, big scholars of Sanskrit admire and applaud me for my love for the ancient language.”

A certified pandit who also received a citation from former President Dr K R Narayanan, Birajdar is among several Muslims in India who have bucked the trend and studied and taught Sanskrit. To them, the Vedic principle ‘Ekam brahma dutia nasti’ (God is one and there is none except Him) is the truth also enshrined in the Quranic declaration of ‘La illaha illallah’ (there is no God but God). Bitten by the civil services bug, Dr Meraj Ahmed Khan had studied Sanskrit in college and university, topping Patna University in both BA and MA. Today, this son of a police inspector is an associate professor of Sanskrit at Kashmir University.

“What we teach in universities is modern Sanskrit which has nothing to do with religion,” says Khan, adding that he was never discriminated against for being a Muslim scholar of Sanskrit. “If they did, they wouldn’t award me a gold medal in MA.”

Some scholars say more and more Muslims are learning Sanskrit as they have an urge to understand Indian civilisation. “Since the original sources to understand India’s cultural heritage is in Sanskrit, many Muslims learn it. More than 50% of students in our department are Muslims. There has been no discrimination in appointment of teachers here,” says Dr Khalid Bin Yusuf, a former head of Sanskrit at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). “My Muslim students are teaching at different universities.”

AMU Sanskrit department’s chairman, Prof Mohammed Shareef, says Sanskrit is perceived as a “scoring” subject for UPSC exams and, hence, the interest. “If they don’t qualify in UPSC, there is always the chance to become a teacher,” says Shareef, one of the first Muslims to have received a DLitt in Sanskrit (from Allahabad University). “No one has a divine right on learning any language.”

Many Muslims also learn Sanskrit because they want to use the knowledge of it to bring Islam and Hinduism closer through comparative studies of the Quran and Hindu scriptures. Dr Mohammed Haneef Khan Shastri says former President Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma was so impressed with his Sanskrit that he gave him the title of Shastri. He retired as associate professor from Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan in Delhi in 2016.

Shastri says he wanted to find the commonalities between Sanatan Dharma’s books (Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagvad Gita) and the Quran and Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad).

“If I had not studied Sanskrit, I would not have truly understood and appreciated the meaning of vasudhaiva kutumbkum (entire world is a family). The Prophet also said that there should be no discrimination among people on the basis of colour and creed,” says Khan, whose PhD is on the comparative study of the Quranic verse Surah Fateha and the Rig Veda’s revered Gayatri Mantra.

Shastri says it’s unfortunate that some think it’s their birthright to study Sanskrit. “It is the same mindset which is at work in the protest against Feroz Khan.”

'I may be Muslim, but why can't I teach Sanskrit’

Nov 24, 2019: The Times of India

Firoz Khan's grandfather Gafur Khan in Rajasthan would sing bhajans to swaying Hindu crowds. His father Ramjan Khan studied Sanskrit would often preach on the need to look after cows in Jaipur's Bagru village.

"We had no problems then," said Khan. That's until he reached BHU as a professor to teach Sanskrit. Students from the department erupted in revolt. "A Muslim can't teach us Sanskrit," they said and sat in protest on November 7. "This isn't what Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya (who helped set up BHU) would have wanted," others raged as Khan was appointed assistant professor in the literature department of Sanskrit Vidya Dharm Vigyan.

The students remain adamant even after the administration made it clear that the selection committee had unanimously recommended the selection of Khan "on the basis of prescribed UGC guidelines and BHU Act".

“Since my childhood, till completion of my studies at Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, I never faced any discrimination because of my religion," Khan told TOI recently. "But this is so disheartening. A group of students don't want me to teach them Sanskrit because I am not a Hindu.”

Ironically, the controversy has convulsed a city that has given at least two Muslim Sanskrit scholars who were honoured with the Padma awards in recent years -- Dr Mohammad Hanif Khan Shastri, who retired as professor at Varanasi's Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, and Naheed Abidi of Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith.

Sriram Puranik, one of the students leading the tirade against Khan, said, "This appointment has been made as part of a conspiracy. The whole process, including the interview, was rigged ... Secondly, the stone inscription installed in BHU states very clearly that no non-Hindu can either study or teach in our department. Then why was a Muslim professor appointed?” BHU maintains there is no stone inscription on the campus that says non-Hindus can’t study or teach in the university.

In Gujarat, to Sanskrit with love

Nov 24, 2019: The Times of India

In the narrow by-lanes of minority-dominated Yakutpura area in Vadodara, several Muslim students chant Sanskrit shlokas in their classes every morning. Their teacher is 46-tear-old Aabid Saiyad who for the last 22 years has been teaching at the MES Boys’s High School. But unlike Firoz Khan, who is facing bitter protests over his appointment in BHU, Saiyed has never faced resistance - neither from Hindus nor his own community.

Saiyad firmly believes that religion and faith can’t be an impediment to imparting knowledge. “Knowledge can be imparted by anybody and who teaches is not important until it is imparted in the right way. A non-Muslim too should be able to teach Arabic and vice-versa. Language is to be taught as a language,” said Saiyad, an MA in Sanskrit and English from Vallabh Vidyanagar-based Sardar Patel University.

From a handful of pupils opting for the ancient language in 1998, he says there are 166 students in Class IX, almost all of them Muslims, who are learning Sanskrit. He urges youngsters to follow the moral teachings imbibed in the language to enrich their lives.

In fact, Saiyad’s daughter Izma Banu, a first-year student of MBBS at Baroda Medical College, had not only topped in her Class X exams in 2017, but also scored the highest in Sanskrit with 98% marks.

Prashant Rupera


2nd official language but few students/ 2018

Prashant Jha, Why Sanskrit schools are dying in the land where it’s an official language, November 17, 2018: The Times of India

Mukhem is a small village in the picturesque Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand that is famous for two things — an ancient Nagaraja temple dedicated to the king of snakes, and a Sanskrit school established by the erstwhile maharaja of Tehri almost 80 years ago that was subsequently taken over by the state government. While the biennial fair held to honour Nagaraja still attracts thousands of devotees, the Rajkiya Sanskrit Vidyalaya is in a shambles and has not seen students for almost a decade.

But that’s the story with Sanskrit schools everywhere in the state, the only one in India to have declared Sanskrit as its second official language. According to records surveyed by TOI, as many as 54 of these schools do not have principals and 13 are without a single teacher. Of the approximately 350 sanctioned posts for teachers in these schools, 189 have been vacant for years.

With 90 such institutions, Uttarakhand has one of the highest numbers of Sanskrit schools in the country. An official in the state education department blamed “lack of opportunities” for the poor state of Sanskrit education. “Students have little scope after they pass out. Either they become priests or teachers. The government is also not hiring Sanskrit teachers, so their future remains bleak.” Many question the intent of the government in not appointing teachers to fill the vacancies. “For almost a decade now, even an independent director of Sanskrit education has not been appointed,” said Manoj Sharma, a Sanskrit teacher.

Old-timers in Mukhem said the Sanskrit school was one of four set up by the maharaja to ensure that the language lived. “After the government took over the school, no teacher was appointed here for several years, resulting in students dropping out,” said Nagendra Dutt Semwal, 75, a former priest of Nagaraja temple.

Villagers said things took a downward turn after 2006, when the school’s Sanskrit teacher left. Two years later, said the school’s caretaker Dwarika Prasad, two Hindi teachers were appointed in his place. “How could Hindi teachers have taught Sanskrit?” one villagers asked.

The school at present has no teachers and no students. And, while the principal of a local college has been given additional charge of the school, according to caretaker Prasad, he has “not visited the school even once”.

Meanwhile, the state government continues to spend almost Rs 4 lakh on the school annually in terms of the caretaker’s salary and the school’s maintenance.

Despite the sorry state of affairs, the Uttarakhand government recently announced that it will open nine more Sanskrit schools, two of which will be run in association with yoga guru Ramdev’s Patanjali group. Whether associating with the yoga guru will in any way bolster the state of Sanskrit schools is something only time can tell.

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