“Sanskrit has practically been my whole life” says Dr. Mandakranta Bose, Professor Emerita at UBC who retired as the director of the Centre for India and South Asia Research (CISAR), UBC, after running it for almost 15 years.
Dr. Bose was one of the main organizers of the 17th World Sanskrit Conference held in Vancouver, at UBC, in July 2018. The lead organizer of the event was Dr. Adheesh Sathaye, professor of Sanskrit at UBC. Held once every three years, the World Sanskrit Conference (WSC) is the premier forum at which Sanskrit scholars, teachers, and students meet to share new ideas, strengthen international networks, and promote the public appreciation of Sanskrit learning and culture.
A brief history of the World Sanskrit Conference
The World Sanskrit Conference (WSC) was initiated in 1972 by Sanskritists from around the world and since then scholars have been gathering every third year at different venues to exchange their research findings and views. The International Association of Sanskrit Studies (IASS) was formed around that time. Since India, the birthplace of Sanskrit, is becoming increasingly significant on the global scene, this conference is vital to the exploration and propagation of the richness and versatility of India’s past by exploring the wealth of Sanskrit as a language and as the repository of a vast culture as ancient in origin as it is modern in its relevance.
The conference at UBC was its 17th sitting and the first to be hosted in Canada, so it is indeed a matter of honor and pride that Dr. Mandakranta Bose, one of the best-known personalities of the minority Bengali Indian community in Vancouver has been crucial in presenting it to the world. The University of British Columbia and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada extended their support by providing much-needed grants. In addition to providing the venue, UBC archived the entire conference proceedings in the UBC Library. Generous donations came from individuals, including some local Bengalis and corporations. Many people of Indian origin, particularly Bengalis and Maharashtrians, served as tireless volunteers. The Swaminarayan Temple provided special meals and volunteers. A major benefactor was Mrs. Abhilasha Joshi, the Consul-General of India in Vancouver and her staff, as well as Mr. Vikash Swarup, India’s High Commissioner to Canada in Ottawa, through whose good offices the Human Resource Development Ministry of the Government of India sponsored the travel of Indian participants. The conference was also graced by the visit of Hon’ble Shri Prakash Javadekar, India’s Union Minister of Human Resource Development, who was Chief Guest at the conference.
The 17th World Sanskrit Conference was particularly rich not only in the over 500 learned papers presented in its many academic panels but also for an exciting array of cultural events. Classical music, yoga demonstrations delighted large audiences but perhaps the most noteworthy was a Kutiyattam performance by a troupe from Kerala. The visit of these artistes was financed by the Human Resource Development Ministry of the Government of India and hosted by WSC organizers.
It has been said that “Kutiyattam is the oldest surviving form of ancient Sanskrit theatre. It is a visually arresting, percussion-driven dance theatre that has been performed for more than a thousand years in the temples of Kerala, the lush coastal state in southern India. Carefully preserved and passed down by communities of traditional performers for over ten centuries, Kutiyattam has been declared by UNESCO as a ‘masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’.” 
Dr. Bose on her journey in Sanskrit
Kutiyattam also happens to be one of the lifelong research interests of Dr. Bose, who has authored over 15 books in various fields of Sanskrit including drama, dance, and literature, including sacred literature and the epics. Gender studies and the Rāmāyaṇa have occupied much of her attention.
“Did you know that the Rāmāyaṇa has over 300 versions in India and Asia?” she educated me. She has numerous publications on it, an important work being a translation of a Bengali Rāmāyaṇa by Candrāvatī, a 16th century woman poet, written from Sita’s point of view.
Dr. Bose also encouraged me to think about the complexity and almost infinite potentials of Sanskrit as a language. Scholars of linguistics have shown how greatly the structural, semantic, logical and mathematical resources of Sanskrit can underwrite the most sophisticated code building. It is not for nothing that computer scientists hold the language in high regard. Studying Sanskrit exhilarates the learner with a sense of mystery solving and awe. Also worth mentioning here is that despite its ancient origin and use, Sanskrit enjoys an unbroken continuity. Not only in India but outside it as well the study of Sanskrit has gained popularity in recent years.
“The last time I was visiting a university in India, there were about 300 students in that batch at Graduate level!” exclaimed Professor Bose.
In Oxford and in other British Universities interest in Sanskrit learning is increasing. Sanskrit learning continues in the UK and in many European universities, some of whom have 200-year-old Sanskrit chairs. Japan has a strong tradition of Sanskrit learning and so have many Asian countries.
Perhaps this is what modernity means: that we find in ancient disciplines new openings for human advancement. With the rise of “algorithms” as an essential tool in practical and even speculative areas of learning, many scientific disciplines now study Sanskrit as a way to find new ways to think creatively.
Casteism and Sanskrit
To our dismay, however, we find that the study of Sanskrit is plagued by casteism and gender prejudice rooted in an orthodox mindset—at least in certain quarters in India. There are scholars who believe in elitist principles and taking the study of Sanskrit to be the exclusive vehicle of the sāstras (ancient Sanskrit texts prescribing belief and conduct), they try to restrict Sanskrit to upper caste Hindu students. Women too are often similarly marginalized. Dr. Bose wanted to highlight these issues at a discussion forum during the 17th World Sanskrit Conference, which was titled “The Story of Our Sanskrit, A Public Forum on Gender & Caste in Sanskrit Studies.” The main speakers were Kaushal Panwar (Motilal Nehru College, DU) & Ananya Vajpeyi (CSDS, Delhi), with Dr. Bose as the moderator.
The forum heard the immense obstacles Dr. Panwar had to overcome in her quest to learn Sanskrit because she comes from one of the lowest Hindu castes. Reprimanded by her school teacher for daring to cross boundaries, young Kaushal carried on by sheer grit to earn her place in Sanskrit studies. And hers is not a rare case. Dr. Ananya Vajpeyi has pointed out in her copious writings, for too many people Sanskrit studies are too often colored by caste, race and gender prejudice. That is what Dr. Bose and her Sanskritist colleagues hoped to highlight these issues through their talks. Even in her own journey, Dr. Bose had faced in her youth the invisible glass ceiling back in India, where few women were given the opportunity to teach in university departments of Sanskrit. But to her shock and surprise, these discussions were marred by a number of Sanskrit scholars who not only dismissed Dr. Panwar’s experience of humiliating obstacles but even her capability as a Sanskritist. What could be a more glaring demonstration of the shameless patriarchal orthodoxy that rules the Sanskrit academic world?
So what is the solution?
It is important that we realize that Sanskrit is above all a powerful tool of learning that gives access to some of the most advanced intellectual achievements of humankind. It is one that can open for us vast stores of precious knowledge. To take only one of many possibilities, the ancient Sanskrit texts that comprise the Hindu śāstras are deeply philosophical and can be guiding lights in our personal and community life in spiritual, moral and practical ways. Knowledge is humanity’s most powerful instrument for progress. Yet, like many other such powerful instruments, Sanskrit is too often kept in the hands of the privileged few and denied to those who are still disenfranchised, including women and low-caste individuals. What legitimizes this? Those who do not wish to make Sanskrit everyone’s story defend their prejudice by citing some passages in the śāstras; but Dr. Bose points out that they conveniently overlook the noble injunctions in the śāstras for freedom of thought and learning. Nor do they keep in mind that society’s rules must change with time. Dr. Bose urges them to listen to the advice of a key text of Hindu ethics:
Dharmaśāstravirodhe tu yuktiyukto vidhiḥ smṛtaḥ/
Vyavahāro hi valavān dharmas tena avahīyate//
When dharma [right conduct] and the sāstras [texts setting down the rules of conduct] clash, a logical discussion is appropriate. [In such cases] dharma must follow custom [i.e., prevailing social conditions].
What we learn from this is that we should take no received wisdom as of absolute authority and that our conduct must conform to the customs of particular times.
We thank Dr. Bose and Dr. Sathaye for organizing the World Sanskrit Conference and for placing these valuable discussions in front of our society and thus making us aware of the treasures that lie within Sanskrit.