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Sanskrit – Prakrit: Or the Voice of Silence

Published on 18 June 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

In her recent book Professor Wendy DONIGER states that the etymology of the language she teaches: Sanskit – the literary language of ancient India – is “perfected, artificial”. It is therefore based upon an implicit comparison with Prakrit or “primordial, natural”, the language spoken by “non-professionals”. This category included poor Brahmins not gracing the courts of the elites, the lesser castes, Pariahs, and of course, women.

Diplomatic discourse in the past was also “Sanskrit” – it reflected the worldview and interests of the ruling elite. As the personal representative of the ruler the diplomat was often a junior member of his family, or of the inner court. He articulated and represented “elite interests”.

Times have changed, and the diplomat is no longer supposed to speak “Sanskrit”, but the national language instead, i.e. to represent the interests of all citizens of his country. It is up to the government to arbitrage between all interests. Interest groups will loudly draw attention to anything that narrowly impinges on their well-being. Opposing interests are often diffuse, or have not banded together to articulate their views. An import duty on bicycles e.g. will benefit producers, but the cost is spread thinly among the many bicycle owners. So the “Sanskrit” of specific interest is surrounded by the silence of “Prakrit”. It is a rare occasion when silence becomes deafening.

Tradition (as well as etiquette) and distance from the home country predispose diplomats toward ignoring “Prakrit” – both the home-grown and, by reflection, the local one. This can be dangerous as well as stupid. To introduce here an analogy, revolutions occur when “Prakrit” becomes “Sanskrit”. Is has no voice, until it becomes the only voice – a revolution.

Another source of “Prakrit” has emerged – a language that, like Esperanto – is not bound by borders. This is the language of poverty, health, education, and the environment. The issues are global, and these issues may jump like wildfire across borders, and surprise elites too oblivious of their existence.

Sanskrit – Prakrit. An effective diplomat must be able to hear – and listen to – both languages. This is not easy, for the silent voices are numerous, and not easily identified. They may not even be here – like the future generations clamoring for a livable and loveable place with equivalent opportunities for fulfillment. Before taking decisions a good diplomat will not shout, but always mutter: “Sanskrit- Prakrit”.

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