Sustainably Speaking: Yoga Comparing Sanskrit in the 2001 and 2011 Indian Censuses

Patrick McCartney


Sanskrit is considered by many devout Hindus and global consumers of yoga alike to be an inspirational, divine, ‘language of the gods’. For 2000 years, at least, this middle Indo-Aryan language has endured in a post-vernacular state, due, principally, to its symbolic capital as a liturgical language. This presentation focuses on my almost decade-long research into the theo-political implications of reviving Sanskrit, and includes an explication of data derived from fieldwork in ‘Sanskrit-speaking’ communities in India, as well as analyses of the language sections of the 2011 census; these were only released in July 2018. While the census data is unreliable, for many reasons, but due mainly to the fact that the results are self reported, the towns, villages, and districts most enamored by Sanskrit will be shown.

The hegemony of the Brahminical orthodoxy quite often obfuscates the structural inequalities inherent in the hierarchical varṇa-jātī system of Hinduism. While the Indian constitution provides the opportunity for groups to speak, read/write, and to teach the language of their choice, even though Sanskrit is afforded status as a scheduled (i.e. recognised language that is offered various state-sponsored benefits) language, the imposition of Sanskrit learning on groups historically excluded from access to the Sanskrit episteme urges us to consider how the issue of linguistic human rights and glottophagy impact on less prestigious and unscheduled languages within India’s complex linguistic ecological area where the state imposes Sanskrit learning.

The politics of representation are complicated by the intimate relationship between consumers of global yoga and Hindu supremacy. Global yogis become ensconced in a quite often ahistorical, Sanskrit-inspired thought-world. Through appeals to purity, tradition, affect, and authority, the unique way in which the Indian state reconfigures the logic of neoliberalism is to promote cultural ideals, like Sanskrit and yoga, as two pillars that can possibly create a better world via a moral and cultural renaissance. However, at the core of this political theology is the necessity to speak a ‘pure’ form of Sanskrit. Yet, the Sanskrit spoken today, even with its high and low registers, is, ultimately, various forms of hybrids influenced by the substratum first languages of the speakers. This leads us to appreciate that the socio-political components of reviving Sanskrit are certainly much more complicated than simply getting people to speak, for instance, a Sanskritised register of Hindi.