What are the ingredients of soft power? Indian movies, actors, songs and TV serials are known to be popular in the region and in many places across the world. No policy was framed in this regard, but it just occurred on its own. Thus songs of films of the late Raj Kapoor such as Awaara hoon (“awara ya” in Russian) continue to be popular in Russia. Shah Rukh Khan similarly has international fans. Indians surely feel happy to note this phenomenon of soft power. However, the underlying stuff of culture is preserving, re-discovering, studying and reviving ancient knowledge. Let us call it sustainable culture for soft power.
It is common to say that Indians rediscovered Yoga only after the West did so. Today, Yoga is a brand name and many variations are to be found including speed yoga. Ayurvedic medicine and its derivatives are also getting popular. All these, like Raj Kapoor songs, happened on their own due to ‘market forces’. No state intervention was needed. No policy was required.
However, in cultural matters, state sponsorship is a necessity. Only because Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh sponsored classical music or Shastriya Sangeet in the 19th century, many extant traditions of Hindustani classical music at Varanasi were able to sustain themselves. This has been eloquently articulated by the vocal maestro of Hindustani music, Pandit Chunna Lal Mishra.
One area where state sponsorship is imperative today is the study of Sanskrit. The state of decay in the study of Sanskrit in India is at its worst. Ananya Vajpeyi of the University of Massachusetts reports that author Gurcharan Das was disturbed about having to go to American universities to study or refresh his Sanskrit in preparation for writing his book, The Difficulty of Being Good (2009). As Sanskrit becomes unpopular in India due to lack of jobs and as Sanskrit/Indology departments in prestigious European universities close down, we are witnessing an extinction of this knowledge even as the world is looking up to India to revisit its past via Sanskrit and other ancient languages.
Most ancient texts, including the 6000 sutra Arthasastra of Kautilya, are in Sanskrit. While many lost Buddhist works in Sanskrit are in the process of being re-translated into Sanskrit from Tibetan at the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies at Sarnath, there is no study of Indology in India. This is indeed paradoxical. The present Department of Ancient Indian History Culture and Archaeology of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) was earlier called the Department of Indology. How come that the top authority on attempts to decipher the Indus script is the Finnish Indologist Asko Parpola (whose specialisation includes Sanskrit, Vedic Sanskrit, Indus script and translation of the Tamil classic of Tirukkural into Finnish)? Recall how James Prinsep of the East India Company deciphered the Brahmi script in which Asokan edicts were engraved. This was followed by the archaeological finds of Alexander Cunningham, Marshall and Mortimer Wheeler to unearth the Indus valley civilization from the mounds of Mohanjodaro and Harappa (now in Pakistan). Even in the field of strategic culture, an important field of contemporary international relations, the tendency is to await scholarly work on India from the West.
In order to maintain our cultural heritage, it is vital to encourage the study of Sanskrit. For a start, there is a need for renewed vigour on reworking of Sanskrit texts like that of Chanakya or on Buddhism in a holistic manner. This needs state sponsorship and finance. It is only by creating career opportunities for young university entrants that the study of Sanskrit and through that to expand their knowledge in the fields of history, philosophy, Buddhist/Jain studies and political science can be provided a fillip. This will also encourage school going children to opt for Sanskrit till Class XII (CBSE) for its usefulness in future in various disciplines.
To begin the study of aspects of Indology in India by Indians should not become impossible. In budgetary terms, efforts to encourage the study of Indology will not prove very costly. It should be possible to do this with about Rs. 100 crore per year. Holistic centres to rediscover ancient texts based on Sanskrit covering linguistics, philosophy, history and political science can be coordinated by the University Grants Commission.