A crusader of Sanskrit educationChandrakant Paudel’s frustration at the inertia of progress is something felt by many in the rural parts of Nepal.
The other day I saw the news on Facebook of Chandrakant Paudel’s arrest by the Baglung district administration in the midwestern hill district of Nepal. The young man, educated in Sanskrit schools and college, including in Kathmandu, and descendant of a priestly Brahmin family, had campaigned for some time to have the Dalit children admitted in the local Shree Muktinath Ved Vidyashram Sanskrit seminary established by his grandfather. His argument was that the seminary must admit Dalit and indigenous children because everyone had the right to Sanskrit education in our times.
Sanksrit seminaries are spread all over Hindu South Asia, where children of the priestly caste Brahmins get educated mostly with free room and board to be priests and Sanskrit scholars. These schools and their hostels are funded by charities and governments. Priestly Brahmin boys, mostly from impoverished families from rural areas, come from far and wide all over Nepal and India and receive a free education until they become graduates. Some do follow the priestly professions after finishing secondary education but many go on to be equal to college graduates and beyond to specialise in various classical Sanskrit degrees, such as the Vedas, Ayurveda, Astrology, Grammar and so on.
But in Nepal’s case, a sizable number of these Brahmin graduates, after their free-loading at the schools for more than a decade, turn their back on religious pursuits and joined the civil services, as their knowledge of Nepali, the only medium language, both as their mother tongue and Sanskrit-derived language becomes unbeatable with Sanskrit as an optional subject, which brings them high marks given the system of exams. Nepali and Sanskrit as optional subjects topped off with Nepali as a compulsory subject makes a deadly combination for the civil services exam. Additionally, Sanskrit’s obsession with correctness makes these graduates’ Nepali impeccable and unbeatable. Hordes of them, thus, got into the civil services in the past and probably still do.
Paudel the crusader wanted this opportunity to open for everyone, including Dalits and indigenous groups. This push to make free Sanskrit education available to all, including the much-denigrated Dalits in the holy Hindi tradition, horrified the upper castes, the seminary trustees, including his own father, who broke off all communications with Chandrakant. In their eyes, what Chandrakant was doing was the worst kind of transgression of sacred Hindu values. In the scriptures, Shudra, the fourth in the Hindu hierarchy after Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, were forbidden to listen to the Vedas, violations of which prescribed severe punishment.
Sanskrit education, and the whole world that it opened in philosophy and theology, remained closed to the fourth group in the Varnashrama Dharma. The Dalits occupied the fifth category and were outside the fold. The pressure and threats of the upper caste villagers to Chandrakant’s outrageous demands must have driven him to the rope, and he allegedly began using violent, abusive language on Facebook.
When I called the Chief District Officer of the district, a Brahmin man, he said Chandrakant went violent. ‘We protected him for long but when he started beating up people, breaking things and issuing threats on social media, we took him into custody to maintain peace.’
Now, a few things become clear here. The young man didn’t have to embark on a crusade for free Sanskrit education for all, irrespective of caste, if the government had passed egalitarian laws for admission into the Sanskrit seminaries. But this is the prevailing situation in almost all such Sanskrit seminaries situated in Hindu holy places in India and Nepal.
And that’s the tragedy for Sanskrit education. The language in which much of India’s ancient literature and philosophy lies sleeping, and the language that is the source of a majority of Indian languages, is open structurally only to a handful of Brahmins. In my own 10 years of Sanskrit education, I had only three or four other students in my classes, the majority taking it to be the outdated language of the priestly Brahmins. (I always got the highest marks during my years of Sanskrit education, ending in a distinction in my BA exams). Indeed, the teachers and professors in my school and college were all priestly Brahmin men.
But the Chandrakant case also raises the issue of the modality of resistance. What is the best way to crusade for social change? Especially those social transformations that challenge caste and gender hierarchies? As Chandrakant’s case shows, violence as an answer to violence is never going to work. As also the Maoist case demonstrated, 10 years of the violent Maoist insurgency didn’t permanently erase the caste ideology of the upper castes in Rukum district, where four Dalits youths and two of their friends were murdered in their attempt to help one among them elope with his lover, who was being forced to marry against her wishes within her own caste.
Social change is slow, but can occur when fought on all three fronts: ideological, structural and everyday practice. A step towards this is changing the entire school curriculum, from K to 12. Since 2006, the year that saw the closing of the 10-year Maoist insurgency, and at least after three Madhes movements and numerous small revolts and mutinies, a new generation of youth has come of age that is impatient with the old ways of doing things. They want change, and they want it now, as Chandrakant’s impatience has shown.
While the desire for change and impatience with the unjust past is salutary, there needs to be preparation for the change. And this preparation has to be that of the mind and dissemination of ideas. Kathmandu is bursting with ideas. And young men and women who get a chance to educate themselves in the capital city find themselves in the maelstrom of transformative ideas. But men and women in the villages remain in the grip of poverty and tradition. Their ideas about gender roles, caste status, and ‘us and them’ still resemble their parents’ even though geopolitically and technologically the world has moved on. Only transformative ideas flowing from the new movements carried by the young men and women and the media and curriculum have a chance to bring about a new world of egalitarian values and equal opportunities for all. Let’s work for them together.
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