What’s in a Sanskrit university? New tensions over Kannada identity

Since Sanskrit has come to be symbolically associated with Brahmin culture, the founding of the Karnataka Sanskrit University, many argued, was a case of upper caste cultural dominance being exercised through the BJP

The activist pushback against the KSU is at bottom an expression of dissent towards a political party tied to the idea of seeking national unity in one religion and one language

The latest episode in the struggles over Kannada identity unfolded over the BJP-led Karnataka government’s award of 100 acres of land and a large financial package of ₹359 crore towards the establishment of a Karnataka Sanskrit University (KSU), near Bengaluru.

Since the state government had budgeted only ₹2 crore towards Kannada University, Hampi, the only academic institution in Karnataka wholly devoted to research on Kannada language and culture, this decision symbolized a disregard for the linguistic welfare and cultural status of Kannada. Deepening the irony, the recent financial pleas of the cash-starved Kannada University, whose large body of high quality scholarly work should make it a blue chip entity for the state’s public investments, had only evoked indifference in the state government.

Owing to COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, Kannada activist individuals and organizations, including the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, took to social media to criticize the Karnataka government for privileging Sanskrit over Kannada, for its unconcern with securing the linguistic primacy of Kannada within its own state. The activist outburst showed other concerns too. Since Sanskrit has come to be symbolically associated with Brahmin culture, the founding of the KSU, many argued, was a case of upper caste cultural dominance being exercised through the BJP, the ruling party in Karnataka. Anxieties that the KSU would become a hub of Hindu right-wing activities surfaced.

Kannada’s embattled relationship with Sanskrit, of course, has an old lineage. The Gokak Agitation, the influential pro-Kannada mass movement, emerged in 1980 to protest the Congress-led Karnataka government’s decision to restore Sanskrit as an option for the first language of study in secondary schools. Anyone choosing Sanskrit as their first language would now be forced to settle for English and Hindi as the second and third languages of study and miss out on Kannada.


In the early twentieth century, a few Kannada writers, most of whom were in fact Brahmins, expressed deep regret about how Kannada scholars partial towards Sanskrit had smuggled in Sanskrit grammar into Kannada. This desire to replace the official Kannada grammar with the grammar native to Kannada has been kept alive since by a small group of scholars, most notably, in recent years, by DN Shankara Bhat. Indeed, Kavirajamarga, the first known text composed in Kannada in the ninth century by Nrupathunga, the Rashtrakuta ruler, is seen as an attempt to consecrate Kannada in place of Sanskrit as a language befitting royal authority. Further, the poems and songs composed in Kannada free verse by the Lingayat saint-poets, the Haridasa saint poets and Tattvapadakaras in medieval Karnataka stand witness to the long running passions for evolving spiritual imaginations and devotional kinship with God in Kannada instead of in Sanskrit. Indeed, Kannada continues to be the ritual language in thousands of shrines across Karnataka.

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Revealing ignorance about these complex cultural dynamics between Sanskrit and Kannada, the defenders of the KSU, including a few members of the state BJP, have countered the Kannada activists saying that Sanskrit has always been the language of temple and life ritual practices. Many of them have even felt certain that Sanskrit was the mother language from which all Indian languages have emerged and as such Kannada was to be viewed as its daughter and the Kannada activists therefore ought not to be hostile towards Sanskrit. Dismissing the claim of the mother-daughter linguistic relationship as erroneous, the latter emphasize that Kannada is a Dravidian language whose origins were independent of Sanskrit.

Significantly, the Karnataka government has not clarified that the KSU will offer academic freedom to pursue critical intellectual work in Sanskrit and only recruit Sanskritists with a proven record of scholarly integrity in a transparent process.  If a Sanskrit University does not generate knowledge that is taken seriously by scholarly communities in India and abroad, and only functions to serve a narrow party ideology, then the enterprise will prove culturally noxious and an abuse of taxpayer’s money.

The controversy over the KSU arrived in the wake of the Karnataka High Court’s upholding of a public interest litigation filed by four pro-Sanskrit organizations opposing the state government’s decision to make Kannada a mandatory language of study in higher education institutions under the new National Education Policy. Indeed, a social media campaign titled, Yellara Kannada (“Everyone’s Kannada”), which wished to retain only Kannada words and abjure the Sanskrit ones seen in Kannada and to abandon the mahapranas (aspirated consonants), gave renewed life to the century old desire to dispense with the Sanskrit words and to fashion a grammar that was faithful to Kannada and not Sanskrit.

While the BJP has been on the defensive saying the promotion of Sanskrit was not antithetical to the interests of Kannada, the official response of the two opposition parties, Congress (I) and JD(S) – for reasons available only to themselves – has been subdued.

The activist pushback against the KSU is at bottom an expression of dissent towards a political party tied to the idea of seeking national unity in one religion and one language. Subscribing instead to the vision of India as a federated linguistic polity, where Indian languages enjoy equal autonomy and linguistic prestige, and to the diversity of religious traditions within and across Hinduism, the Kannada activists, in recent years, have resisted the use of Hindi signage and announcements in the Metro rail services in Bengaluru and also rallied for the official adoption of the bi-colour Kannada flag as the state flag.  Their efforts were applauded by language activists in several Indian states as triumphs against the culturally centralizing thrust of the Central government.

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Last year, it became known that the Central government had spent around ₹644 crores over the previous three years to promote Sanskrit, which was more than twenty times the budgeted expense of ₹29 crores for the promotion of the five other classical Indian languages, i.e., Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Odia over the same period.  This clear example of policy unfairness, among several others that can be guessed in the discussion above, puts the federal model of the Indian nation under strain. If an elected government disregards the ethics of federalism, the language activist groups are likely to do all they can to resist the unwisdom.

(The writer is Ramakrishna Hegde Chair Professor, Institute for Social and Economic Change).

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal).