Serial Bus

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Why I Know English Better Than I Know Sanskrit

with 3 comments

The following is a faux excerpt of the famous ‘Minute on Indian Education’ by Lord Macaulay doing rounds on the internet. It struck as a bit incredulous to me. Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay was a highly learned man and 1835 was hardly the Golden Age of the Indian subcontinent. Unrest must have been rife – beggars and thieves might have commonplace. But, someone has taken the pain of creating an authentic-looking excerpt from his famous minute to the British Parliament on 02Feb1835.



I went looking for the original minute on the net and found one here. Despite being portrayed as a villain by the nationalistic textbooks of India, he comes across as learned and well-intentioned. He notices that European languages had come to bear the code to modern knowledge and expecting the natives to master only Sanskrit or Arabic would be unjust as, while that will preserve the ancient rituals and texts, they will not be able to obtain the knowledge that is crucial for progress. He compares such a plan to restricting the Egyptians to studying hieroglyphics. It is not a good parallel since Sanskrit was still in use in India, hieroglyphics had become extinct centuries back. He also advances another faux argument when he compares English in India to Latin-Greek in Europe few centuries before. His essential point is valid but his minute smacks of presumptuousness about what other people think or what is true of India’s classical heritage.

Here is the basic tenet of his minute:

“All parties seem to be agreed on one point, that the dialects commonly spoken among the natives of this part of India, contain neither literary nor scientific information, and are, moreover, so poor and rude that, until they are enriched from some other quarter, it will not be easy to translate any valuable work into them.”

The question then was what shall that language be? Macaulay had no knowledge of Sanskrit and Arabic. He was basing is comments on his discussions with other scholars. He says in his minute:

“I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. The intrinsic superiority of the Western literature is, indeed, fully admitted by those members of the Committee who support the Oriental plan of education. It will be hardly disputed, I suppose, that the department of literature in which the eastern writers with any Orientalist who ventured to maintain that the Arabic and Sanskrit poetry could be compared to that of the great European nations. But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable.”

But Macaulay also thought India’s literary heritage to be of little value. His second-hand understanding may have played a part – also, by that time, the renaissance of India’s ancient wisdom had yet to happen. On a sort of high-handed note, he says:

“It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England. In every branch of physical or moral philosophy, the relative position of the two nations is nearly the same…..I doubt whether the Sanscrit literature be as valuable than that of classical antiquity. I doubt whether the Sanscrit literature be as valuable as that of our Saxon and Norman progenitors.”

Based on these arguments, he comes to the following conclusion:

“We have to educate a people who cannot at present be educated by means of their mother-tongue. We must teach them some foreign language.”

So, again which language? He does not mistake in naming which.

“The claims of our own language it is hardly necessary to recapitulate. It stands pre-eminent even among the languages of the west. It abounds with works of imagination not inferior to the noblest which Greece has bequeathed to us; with models of every species of eloquence; with historical compositions, which, considered merely as narratives, have seldom been surpassed, and which, considered as vehicles of ethical and political instruction, have never been equaled; with just and lively representations of human life and human nature; with the most profound speculations on metaphysics, morals, government, jurisprudence, and trade; with full and correct information respecting every experimental science which tends to preserve the health, to increase the comfort, or to expand the intellect of man.”

But, his argument becomes more practical as he says:

“In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is like to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. It is the language of two great European communities which are raising, the one in south of Africa, the other in Australasia; communities which are every year becoming more important, and more closely connected with our Indian empire.”

Macaulay, though a Christian, had a neutral stance towards religion. For him, the practicality and usefulness of a language was more important than any other use. He puts this point of view and his narrow understanding of Indian epics to further use when he says:

“We abstain, and I trust shall always abstain, from giving any public encouragement to those who are engaged in the work of converting natives to Christianity. And while we act thus, can we reasonably and decently bribe men out of the revenues of the state to waste their youth in learning how they are to purify themselves after touching an ass, or what text of the Vedas they are to repeat to expiate the crime of killing a goat?”

Finally, he concedes that it will be logistically difficult to educate the entire population of India in English so he suggests creation of a middle class that would form the interface between the English rulers and the masses.

“I feel with them, that it is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

He delivered the minute on 02 February 1835 and on March 7, 1835, Governor General William Bentinck issued an order that supported the position of Macaulay, with some slight changes. He mandated the use of government funds for learning in English language and stopped the diversion of funds for printing of ‘Oriental’ books, however decided not to abolish the ‘Oriental’ centers of learning.

Certain serious objections to the content and manner of argument and presentation found in Macaulay’s Minute were raised by another member of the Supreme Council, H T Prinsep (brother of the famous linguist, James Prinsep, credited with deciphering the Brahmi script) who was Secretary for matters pertaining to education. He took exception to the procedure adopted in obtaining the signature of the Governor General in some secrecy. He also objected to the various arguments offered by Macaulay in support of his position. His rebuttal can be found here.

If Prinsep’s arguments had been heard, perhaps I would have been a Sanskrit-chanting priest in India. I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here in the US writing this blog.


Written by serialbus

November 1, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Posted in Development, History, India

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. If Prinsep’s arguments had been heard, I would perhaps been a Sanskrit-chanting priest in India. I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here in the US writing this blog.

    FOR GOOD OR BAD????????


    November 13, 2009 at 2:55 am

    • Nice post.

      “If Prinsep’s arguments had been heard, perhaps I would have been a Sanskrit-chanting priest in India”

      I appreciate what you put in the blog but the last line disappointed me. Why do you think if Sanskrit would have been chosen as the language you would just have been a “chanting priest” sitting in India? That was sarcastic and to me it sounded making fun of the language which is so closely associated with our Indian culture.

      Vedic Sanskrit is believed to date back to the 2nd millennium BC and English originated after AD 600.

      English “is” what it has been “made” because of its adoption in most part of the world which were British colonies. It found its way into our lives because it was pushed for it. Its not good or bad.. it just happened and that’s the only point in favor of English.

      I believe a language in itself is nothing if it does not have an association with as rich a heritage as Sanskrit has with vedas – and this association is not just for spiritual things but proven “scientific” methodologies of ancient times. French is the second most spoken language in the world next to English. Why?, because they promoted it. Ask any French guy today he will say French is superior than English. Ofcourse, I am not asking you to be subjective and say Sanskrit is better than English… but let’s just not make an attempt to undermine Sanskrit and our heritage … when we are doing nothing to support it.


      June 21, 2010 at 6:33 am

      • I say the last line simply because my forefathers were Sanskrit-chanting priests. The sentence does not reveal any prejudice towards Sanskrit or priests – and it does not because I have great respect for the language. In fact, chanting priests can also be quite respectable when they understand what they are saying instead of just parroting it.


        June 4, 2011 at 12:59 pm

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