Shikha Shukla weighed her options and settled for an undergraduate course in Sanskrit. She would have preferred history, but her Class 12 board exam score of 82% was lower than the minimum marks required for admission in this subject at nearly all Delhi University colleges. The cut-off for Sanskrit at Kamala Nehru College, at 63%, was more attainable.

“Studying in Delhi University is a big opportunity, so I would have chosen anything,” Shukla, who lives in Kanpur, admitted. “History cut-offs will not drop much and I did not want to wait for the second or third lists for Hindi or English.” Colleges issue multiple lists for each programme, lowering cut-offs along the way, till all the seats are filled.

Of all the disciplines widely offered by Delhi University at the undergraduate level, Sanskrit has the lowest cut-offs. This is indicative of the low level of interest in the subject. For many admission-seekers, it is the ultimate back-up plan. So, despite efforts by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to push the study of Sanskrit in schools and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s insistence that a “treasure house of knowledge is hidden in Sanskrit”, a large section of students signing up for it in college every year wish they could have picked any other subject.

Deepali Pal, for instance, signed up for Sanskrit at Gargi College when she had actually hoped to study Hindi. The college had set its first cut-off for Sanskrit at 50% in the general category and 45% in the reserved sections. Pal, an Other Backward Classes candidate who came from a Delhi government school, scored 51% in her board exams.

Teachers and college administrators agreed that Sanskrit requires urgent government support and effective promotion. Many of them said, however, that Sanskrit’s association with Hindutva and nationalism may be impeding rather than advancing its serious study. As a teacher of a college in North Campus, which has some of Delhi University’s oldest institutions, said on condition of anonymity, politicisation is hampering the modernisation of Sanskrit studies, impacting both teaching and research.

Low cut-offs, lower interest

All Indian languages, including Bengali, Urdu and Punjabi, in Delhi University face a similar lack of interest. But they are taught in far fewer colleges than Sanskrit. RC Bhardwaj, who headed the Sanskrit department at the university’s Faculty of Arts till last year, said this department, along with philosophy, was the first to be established in the faculty in 1922. During his tenure, 28 colleges taught Sanskrit. Another four have since been added.

While cut-offs in some subjects at Delhi University are known to cross 100%, that for Sanskrit seldom goes above 80%. This year, Dyal Singh College had the highest cut-off for Sanskrit at 85% in its first list – though it dropped to 70% in the second list. Its principal, IS Bakshi, said it was a deliberate move to keep the cut-off high as the course was new and they did not want more students than seats. This happens regularly because colleges cannot deny admission to candidates who make the cut. Hindu College had the second highest first list cut-off at 74%. Kalindi College, at 45%, has had the lowest for years now.

Sanskrit cut-offs at DU can start off as high as 80% but invariably come down to as low as 45%.

However, not all students applying for Sanskrit are doing so out of a lack of options. Pankaj Mishra, who teaches at St Stephen’s College (70% cut-off but admission process includes an interview), said he had received applications from candidates with scores above 90%. The second student to take admission in Sanskrit at Kamala Nehru on Monday had 74% marks and professed a genuine interest in the subject. But the fact remains that “90% students take Sanskrit because they did not get anything else”, as Bhardwaj admitted.

A scoring subject

This lack of interest can only be rectified in school, say colleges. According to Mishra, schools do not teach Sanskrit properly and hence, “students are not motivated”.

Schools typically introduce Sanskrit as a third-language option in Class 6 – while colleges admit students who have studied it till Classes 8, 10 or 12.

In school, Sanskrit’s main attraction lies in its reputation as a “scoring subject”.

“In Sanskrit, students’ and teachers’ answers always match,” said Nirupama Sharma, who teaches the subject at Ahlcon International School – implying that answers are somehow fixed. “Then, 90% questions are fill-in-the-blanks or multiple choice.” The elements of grammar taught in lower classes are simply repeated in higher ones.

While this fetches marks, students do not really learn the language. And college teachers end up having to teach it anew. “We have to be very patient,” said Meena Kumari of Miranda House.

The discipline also suffers from prejudice. Shrishti (she does not use a last name), a final-year Sanskrit student at Kamala Nehru College, came from a government school where all students who scored under 60% in Class 10 had to study Sanskrit in Classes 11 and 12. Shrishti had scored higher but wanted to study Sanskrit. However, she was not allowed to do so and had to take English lessons instead.

Sanskrit’s reputation of being a scoring subject carries right through to college and even to the entrance exams for administrative services. Both Mishra and Kamala Nehru College teacher Anil Kumar said many Sanskrit graduates take these exams and do well. For the rest, there is the option of teaching. Shikha Shukla wants to be a lecturer and Shrishti plans to pursue a degree in education. Deepali Pal has not thought that far ahead. “I do not know what I will do later,” she said.

Deepika Pal has signed up for Sanskrit at Gargi College, Delhi University. She wanted to study Hindi but could not make the cut. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury.

‘Political shelter’

Given the situation, Mishra said Sanskrit, like the other Indian languages, needs “political shelter”.

Kamala Nehru College principal Kalpana Bhakuni agreed: “Some reorientation at the school level and promotion in a positive way is required.”

But the last time Delhi University’s Sanskrit department got any attention was during Bhardwaj’s tenure, for organising seminars to counter the Aryan invasion theory – a subject of great interest to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The theory posits that Aryans, the race with which Vedic culture is associated, were not indigenous Indians but invaded India and replaced the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Bhardwaj, for his part, believes the department ought to “counter ideas propagated by Western Indologists”. To this end, he is supportive of research students who come not from Delhi University but from gurukuls – traditions schools, such as those run by the Arya Samaj – and Sanskrit Vidyapeethas (universities), having taken this route himself. He believes these students “make better scholars” and would be able to give their Western counterparts a fitting reply.

Bhardwaj is also not disturbed by the linking of language and religion, and argues that “Indian society has been Vedic from the beginning”. He said, “For the last 1,000 years, Sanskrit has survived through religion practices. We should not deny the truth.”

The former department head is now seeking central grants to set up a centre for Avestan studies to advance research on the subject of the Aryan invasion.

Time to change

Other academics, however, feel it is time to change this approach to Sanskrit. “Sanskrit scholars are not archaeologists or historians and knowing Sanskrit does not mean possessing all knowledge,” said Mishra. “Also, everything written in Sanskrit is not ‘good’ either. This is glorifying a language pointlessly.”

The St Stephen’s teacher also spoke of the rather conservative approach to teaching Sanskrit. “In English [Honours], you will not go over a text line by line in class the way you do in Sanskrit,” he said. “I make sure I critique a text in class. I point out a vidushak [the jester in Sanskrit plays], usually a Brahmin, who eats meat. I talk about the treatment of Sita in Ramayana. Others do not.” Encouraging genuine scholarship in Sanskrit would mean addressing these aspects of its literature as well, he said, but there is little interest in that.

“Entire papers are written on Raja Dilipa’s gau seva [cow protection], a small part in Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsha,” Mishra said. “I was once asked to pick an ‘auspicious date’ for a seminar while on a WhatsApp group for Sanskrit teachers, entire conversations are held on the benefits of cracking coconuts.”

He said it was essential to break free of such thought and work with scholars from other disciplines to study what the texts say on the sciences, mathematics and phenomena such as tsunamis, which is said to be mentioned in the Rig Veda. “Without that, Sanskrit scholarship will not progress,” he added.