language politics

Lost in translation: What a Sanskrit book on the revival of Hebrew tells us about India-Israel ties

A biography of modern Hebrew’s inventor Eliezer Ben-Yehuda reveals the dangers of overstating India’s affinity with Israel.

In early July, when “Not in My Name” demonstrations took place across India decrying violence against Muslims and Dalits under the banner of Hinduism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lifted off for Jerusalem, where he celebrated the large-scale purchase of weapons from Israel and a few smaller projects, embraced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his typical overseas alacrity, and spoke, via a joint statement, of how India and Israel “represent two cradles of civilisations that have nurtured their respective heritages over the centuries.”

There was a time when it was more convenient for Israel and India to strike arms deals behind closed doors. But now, in 2017, leaders trot out the language of civilisational rapprochement, and it is in the infinitesimally small yet vast space covered in Modi and Netanyahu’s embrace – the space of the nestled head, the crook of the neck and the welcoming clavicle – that ties between individuals, nations, religions, and ultimately, civilisations are metonymically figured. We almost forget that there were papers to be signed and more than $2.6 billion worth of missiles and drones to be shipped.

The two countries have seemingly come a long way since Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to visit India back in 2003. At that time, Vijay Prashad declared that “Sharon’s visit to India will not increase human interaction. It is designed to emphasise a global counter-jihad...to obscure the grievances of the Palestinians and the Kashmiris behind the rhetoric about terrorism.” Since then, Indians and Israelis – not to mention Jews and Hindus – are meeting each other more and more in the crucible of the global diaspora, and people are beginning to take notice.

In her book, The Unlikely Settler, published in 2014, Lipika Pelham writes about being a Bengali in Jerusalem, just as former Indian ambassador to Israel Navtej Sarna writes in Indians at Herod’s Gate, published in 2014, about the centuries of Indian visitors to that city.

Sanskrit and Hebrew

One moment of constructed intimacy can be found in a modern Sanskrit book. The slender 167-page book titled Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa, published in 2004, is an anomaly among the growing number of biographies that the international Sanskrit revival organisation Samskrita Bharati publishes. Biographies of Babasaheb Apte, Shankaracharya, Shivaji and Keshava Baliram Hedgewar are to be expected, as are those even of more Left nationalists such as BR Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. But this book, written in terse Sanskrit prose, is about a European named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the inventor and original impresario of modern Hebrew.

The book invites the reader at the outset to draw several comparisons: between Hebrew and Sanskrit, India and Israel, Hindus and Jews. As an account about the “revival” of one language, namely Hebrew, popularly conceived of as ancient, sacred, liturgical, and recently “revived,” told in another language, namely Sanskrit, which is popularly conceived of as ancient, sacred, liturgical, dead and needing to be “revived,” Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa itself serves as an image of the world it describes. It thus links the community that it hopes will change how Sanskrit is used in India to a community from a different nationalist moment. “There are many similar parts in the path of revival of Hebrew and Sanskrit,” the author Vishwasa wrote. “These parts become evident with the careful reading of this little story.”

The final printed text artefact of Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa that circulates across the world is the site of a complex condensation of multiple voices. It was authored by HV Vishwasa, who was at the time of publication the editor of Samskrita Bharati’s monthly magazine Sambhasana Sandesa. But it was animated, sponsored and corrected by Chamu Krishna Shastry, the founder and leader of Samskrita Bharati, and it continually invokes various anonymous members of the community. Vishwasa opens the book with an anonymous quotation “from the mouth of one of the best,” whom he reports as saying:

“When the power of desire is strong, after much time has passed since it was in ordinary usage, still, a language can be used once again. This is shown by Hebrew. After two thousand years since it had left usage, that language is once again being made the ordinary language of the Jews in the land of Israel.”

This sentiment, Vishwasa goes on to say, was further elaborated by “the best activists,” and eventually came to be the subject of numerous magazine articles, as well as some books. Eventually, Vishwasa was approached by Chamu Krishna Shastry, who brought Robert St John’s 1952 biography of Ben Yehuda, Tongue of the Prophets, to Vishwasa and told him to use it as the basis for a free rendering of Ben Yehuda’s life into Sanskrit. Vishwasa published this trans-creation in 25 monthly instalments in Sambhasana Sandesa and his account, he says, received “countless enthusiastic responses.” After numerous requests, Vishwasa reworked his narrative and had it published in a single volume.

The book thus renders and transports to the present the voice of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda as mediated by Robert St John, who in turn based his hagiographic third-person biography on the Hebrew memoirs of Eliezer’s wife Hemda, as translated into English by their daughter Dola Ben-Yehuda Wittmann. This complex layering of narrative voices and languages – bridging Hebrew, English and Sanskrit – gives Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa incredible latitude in drawing from separate discourses, calibrating with dramatic effect the narrative timelines of early Zionism with those of Indian and Hindu nationalisms. It invokes new realities almost a hundred years after Ben Yehuda’s death.

Blurring identities

In Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa, the figure of the Jew is differentiated, but not given autonomy. Unlike St John’s Tongue of the Prophets, in which the author uses Hebrew and Yiddish words – as transliterated into Roman script – to provide a Jewish context to conver­sations rendered in English, in Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa, Hebrew and Yiddish words are in large part fully translated into Sanskrit and not given in the original. This narrative does not have “rabbis,” but yahudya-dharma-gurus; Jews don’t “daven,” they do pujadi, and they do it not in “synagogues” or “shuls,” but in prarthana-mandiras.

This full-scale incorporation of Jewish terminology into a Hindu religious, specifically Sanskritised, lexicon is notable because Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa itself finds it so unnotable. Vishwasa finds it necessary only a few times to explain Hebrew ritual words, but when he does, he does not simply explain them, but draws parrallels between them and Hindu ritual words: He describes Ben Yehuda as having a “bar-mitajhav-samskarah,” which he then describes as “upanayana-samskara-sadrasah,” that is, something similar to the Upanayana samskara.

This is perhaps most notable in the work’s introduction, where Vishwasa interprets the commonly-used Sanskrit compound “devabhasa”. In Sanskrit compounds, lexemes (or word units) combine with other lexemes, usually without the grammatical markers of their full conjugational forms. So words inside Sanskrit compounds do not carry number, gender and case markers the way stand-alone words do. “Devabhasa” can thus be rendered as either “language of God” or “language of the gods.” In Vishwasa’s interpretation of the compound – which is placed in the mouths of what are purported to be Orthodox Jews – he uses the words devanam (plural, masculine, genitive) and bhasa (singular, feminine, nominative), rendering it as the familiar “language of the gods,” which is so often used to described Sanskrit.

By doing this, Vishwasa remarkably erases what is, perhaps, the most salient distinguishing mark of Jews –their radical monotheism. Though a small example, it shows the strategies the author uses to laminate on top of each other not only India and Israel, but Jews and Hindus, and all other permutations of that relation. Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa’s simultaneous speaking through and speaking as (Zionist) Jews projects a Sanskrit revival movement that should be like (Zionist) Jews, while simultaneously revealing an unbridgeable gap between the two.

It is this gap that is useful for the new nationalist project, allowing the re-inscription of the Indian nationalism of the early 20th century as well as the Hindu nationalism of the early 21st century within the single time-frame of a unified Zionism. It presents the earlier moments of Indian nationalism as incomplete, insofar as they did not yield a state like Israel, as measured by the domestication of a sacred language. The text thus creates a new narrative in which the failure of the 1956 Sanskrit Commission to institute Sanskrit as the national language – just as Andhra Pradesh was being founded purely on linguistic grounds – becomes more notable than Partition–Independence in 1947.

In all this, Jews, Israelis, and anyone else who do not fit into the narrative are left out. What we are given in the end is the image of intimacy, but nothing more. The idea of human interaction is marshalled to ends that were predetermined before any interaction occurred, and which ultimately reasserts a difference greater than before.

When historians write about the texts that influenced global policymakers, they will, in all likelihood, not mention Bhuvamanita Bhagavadbhasa. But the text points to the ways in which actors all the way up the scale give voice to those they claim to represent by voicing others. Sometimes this is to mock them and sometimes it is to embrace them, but at all times it ends up effacing the realities of any interaction. There are many reasons to celebrate the potential of the growing intimacy between Hindus and Jews, Jews and Indians, and Indians and Israelis. But we must pick the right ones.

This article first appeared on Economic & Political Weekly.

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