"Sanskrit is the soul of India," proclaimed India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in chaste Hindi as he opened the 15th World Sanskrit Conference: "Sanskrit bharat ki atma hai." His words were greeted with a standing ovation and five full minutes of sustained applause from the audience of Sanskrit lovers and scholars--one thousand from India and over two hundred from the rest of the world--packed to capacity in Delhi's prestigious Vigyan Bhavan. The by-invitation-only conference (previously held in many great cities of the world, including Paris, Leiden, Vienna, Edinburgh and Helsinki) ran from January 5 through 10, 2012.
The prime minister's inspiring endorsement made headlines throughout India and was quoted throughout the week by the eminent participants, who lived and breathed Sanskrit nearly around the clock at the two venues of the week-long gathering, Vigyan Bhavan and Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts. As it turned out, Hinduism Today was one of the few publications staying to cover the event after the PM's address--a revealing statement on the priorities of the Indian media, who might have taken greater interest in this prodigious international event in the nation's capital.
In a journalistic career spanning over two decades, this reporter has attended many big conferences, national and international. This one was a mega-event, both in scale and in intensity of participation at every turn. The conclave was sweetly enhanced by the posh venue--Vigyan Bhavan, which is use mostly for official government affairs--and by the enthusiastic presence of our prime minister. Also rare was the bipartisan support of a function with such a strong religious flavor. Though sponsored by the Congress-led government, it was equally endorsed by the Bhartiya Janata opposition party.
Sanskrit was the preferred language of discourse; even the international delegates were conversing in fluent Sanskrit during the deliberations and discussions in hundreds of meetings. There were twenty wide-ranging session topics: Vedas; linguistics; epics and Puranas; Tantras and Agamas; grammar; poetry, drama and aesthetics; Sanskrit and Asian languages and literatures; Sanskrit and science; Buddhist studies; Jain studies; philosophies; religion; ritual; epigraph; Sanskrit in the technological world; modern Sanskrit literature; pandit meeting (conducted entirely in Sanskrit); poets' meeting; law and society; and manuscriptology. The sessions went on from morning to night in the various plush, high-tech halls and seminar rooms of Vigyan Bhavan, which spreads over several acres in the heart of Delhi. Delegates could be seen popping in and out of sessions, to catch at least parts of others going on simultaneously.
The first day's special lectures were held in the Bhavan's main hall, with Kapila Vatsyayan as chair. Ashok Aklujkar entitled his message "Reflections of an East-West Sanskritist," while scholar Lokesh Chandra addressed "Sanskrit as trans-creative dimensions in various languages, literatures and thought systems." Dr. Chandra observed, "Sanskrit has been the fountainhead of thought and belle letters, of visual and performing arts, of life and ritual, of power and virtue in Central, East and Southeast Asia. Modern life is threatened by unnatural developments. Humankind will have to find its rhymes in the deeper universes of being. Sanskrit enshrines samskaras, or values, that can illumine the tonality of the future--beyond cloning, computers and other manifestations of the technosphere."
The technical and in-depth topics, such as manuscriptology, Tantras and Agamas, were of great interest to attendees, who jumped at the chance to question the speakers. Other sessions were of wider interest. The poetry session, for instance--conducted entirely in Sanskrit--featured current topics, including a clever satire on mobile phones invoking their "omnipresence." Here the language of the Vedas was used for some healthy fun and entertainment!
The session Epics and Puranas attracted a large audience. Of special interest was Mrs. Sushma Jatoo's presentation: "Sacred geography of Amarnath: textuality and history," in which she shared her arduous pilgrimage to Amarnath, while highlighting its geographical and historical background.
A few topics I expected to hear about (but may have missed in the vast event) are: Sanskrit websites, Apple's open-source Devanagari font, the long-stalled Pune Sanskrit dictionary project and the remarkable experimental Indian villages where Sanskrit is the only language spoken.
Evenings featured the Festival of Sanskrit Theatre on the spacious lawn of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Accomplished artists and troupes from all over India regaled, entertained and enthralled the assembled Sanskrit afficiandos with Sanskrit music, dance and drama. This reporter had never witnessed so much cultural activity completely in Sanskrit medium, which included Kuivaam, Kathakali, Nagivar Kuttu, Ankiya Nat and Manipuri Rasa. The performances were shown on big digital screens across the venue so even those at the back could enjoy the color, flavor and festivity.
In addition to the theater festival, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, National Manuscript Mission and other institutions collaborated in a series of exhibitions entitled "Visvavara," with the general theme, "Biocultural survival of humanity through Sanskrit traditions."
Another big draw was a huge Sanskrit book fair at which new books on Vedic and Sanskrit literature were released, and publishers of Sanskrit and Indology set up 70 stalls offering their recent publications for sale. The stalls did a roaring business in the evenings.
At the closing session, on January 10, guest of Honor Dr. Karan Singh, Member of Parliament and Chairperson of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, received a thundering applause for his opening statement: "I have heard people say that Sanskrit is a dead language. But my own view is that we are alive today because of Sanskrit language." Dr. Singh expressed his serious concern for the neglect of Sanskrit in many universities due to lack of financial resources and interest.
Presiding over this last event, Mrs. Sheila Dikshit, the Honourable Chief Minister of Delhi stated boldly that the time has come to free the Sanskrit language from universities, classrooms and academics and release it to the common people through events such as conferences, evening dramas and music festivals.
The conference was jointly organized by Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan and the International Association of Sanskrit Studies. The Sansthan, fully funded by the government under the Human Resource Ministry, is a "deemed" (i.e., autonomous) university founded in 1970 to propagate, develop and encourage Sanskrit learning and research.
The conference was backed by India's Central Government and Delhi's administration--both led by the Congress Party. A solitary BJP (opposition party) member I spotted at the conference was totally supportive: "When it comes to the promotion of Sanskrit, we are very much with the government and organizers and congratulate them for convening this World Sanskrit Conference in such a professional manner."