Posted by: Vikram | May 2, 2016

In North Indian schools, Sanskrit as a third language is about hegemony, not practicality

Language has been a contentious issue in the subcontinent since the establishment of European colonial rule. The question of which language should be used for administration and instruction in schools has led to intense political mobilization at various points of time.

As a step towards resolving linguistic conflicts in independent India, a three language formula for primary school instruction was adopted. Schools in Hindi-promoting states were to include ‘a modern Indian language, preferably from South India’ as a third language, in addition to English and Hindi. Non Hindi states were still compelled to teach Hindi, meaning that true linguistic equality remained elusive. Fast forward 50 years and North Indians have subverted this legislation, offering a prominent example of their adherence to a homogenized national identity centred around the Delhi region.

In the name of the three language formula, Sanskrit has been adopted by most Hindi belt schools as a third language. Sanskrit has far fewer speakers than Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Marathi and any other non-Hindi modern language. A claim is often made that Sanskrit is easier to get good marks in. But there is far more new media (movies, songs) and actual speakers of the Bengali, Tamil, and the other modern languages to learn the other languages from. Therefore these arguments seem suspect. So, why then has Sanskrit been chosen as the third language by so many schools in North India ?

There are two parts to the answer:

  • The widely propagated myth that Hindi is India’s ‘national language’, and therefore has to be spoken in some form by the non-Hindi language speakers.
  • The belief that North India is the centre of Hinduism, and therefore is also the home of Sanskrit, an important language of Hindu liturgy.


A circular typifying third language attitudes: German, French, Sanskrit, Spanish, Japanese, Russian and Chinese are all offered as options. But there is no space for a non Hindi/Sanskrit Indic language like Bengali or Tamil.


We now elaborate on these reasons. A natural question to ask is, wont the potential economic benefits of learning Marathi, Punjabi and Bengali lead to a positive outlook towards learning those languages ? After all, the North Indian elite are very keen to have their children learn languages like German and French. But here, the myth that ‘Hindi is our national language’ comes into play. So pervasive is this myth that even many non-Hindi speakers fall for it. In the minds of most North Indians, every Indian citizen must somehow speak Hindi, or they are deviant from the ‘mainstream’. This makes non-Hindi languages inferior and not worth learning, even if the opportunity presents itself.

We move onto the second reason. Many North Indians believe that Hinduism first developed there, and then ‘spread’ to other regions through Sanskrit epics. However, these epics themselves developed over a long period of time, with no clear point of origin. The importance of these texts in Hindu traditions, and indeed their very content, differs across regions. Also, Sanskrit as a language, was not native to any part of the subcontinent. But the desire to be ‘central’ in the modern Indian state, has led to a strong tendency among North Indians to appropriate Sanskrit. Due to such false and politically expedient beliefs regarding Sanskrit and North India, people, especially the elites there, have come to equate the two.

Thus, non-Hindi Indian languages are not worth learning, and Sanskrit, with a false association to North India takes their place as the third language. Thus, it is the belief in the centrality of North India and its traditions, and the resultant aversion to linguistic equality, that are the real reasons behind the widespread adoption of Sanskrit as a third language in schools there.


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