Late yesterday evening, I noticed something strange on Twitter. ‘Sanskrit’ was trending – in New Zealand. Finding this rather unexpected, yet pretty positive, I went to check out why. It turned out that one of Labour’s newly minted MPs – Dr Gaurav Sharma – had taken his Oath of Allegiance in Sanskrit, and also in Te Reo Maori.
I thought this was a nice development. An MP making tasteful nods to both his own heritage, and also to the Maori sphere that is an indigenous, endogenous fundament to New Zealand. A language that came here, and a language that’s of here. Treaty partnership and all that.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite why ‘Sanskrit’ was being so avidly discussed here in New Zealand on Twitter.
Rather, a Kiwi journalist by the name of Michael Field, whom I’ve never previously heard of … had taken to the platform to express his outrage that this had occurred. And, in the process, kicked off a bit of an international contratemps as a result.
What did he say? Why did he object to Sharma’s making use of his ancestral tongue to swear the Oath required of a Parliamentarian?
Because, in Field’s own words … Sanskrit is apparently “a language of religious oppression & caste superiority”, and “[a] mark of Hindutva – mark of fundamentalism.” He also apparently felt that this may have called into question “Labour’s working class values” and posed a question of his own – whether Sharma was, in fact, “a token?”
Field appeared to be having a pretty bad day, because in his haste he then managed to tag in the wrong Gaurav whilst demanding an explanation from Gaurav Sharma – so there’s a completely unrelated Gaurav in New Delhi at the moment with only a few hundred followers presumably wondering just what on earth is going on in Kiwiland that’s got anything to do with him right now.
But to return to Field’s statements, before we explain what’s really going on here .. his own explanation for being outraged by Sharma’s Sanskrit oath goes like this:
In reply to a twitter account called ‘Indians In New Zealand’, Field said this:
“This is nothing to do with multiculturalism – this is Modi’s caste politics straight and simple. Sadly NZ Labour seems to have forgotten their roots; caste has no place in NZ.”
And in reply to another Kiwi who asked him if he was feeling alright given the outlandishness of his initial sentiments, he added:
“Having been frequently in area of India where Sanskrit & Brahmin politics are vivid & result in riots over being forced to speak another language, I was surprised to see a Labour MP heading down that route. And I am feeling fine”
So in essence, Field saw Sharma’s invocation of Sanskrit as being the imposition of “a language of religious oppression & caste superiority”, incipient religious “fundamentalism”, the introduction of “caste” (somehow), and basically a beachhead for “Modi’s […] politics” in Aotearoa.
Which is rather odd, because to start from the back … it implies that he thinks Sharma is attempting to act as a vector for a foreign political leader and party by swearing allegiance to the Queen of New Zealand.
Now, to my mind there are two closely interrelated considerations here when it comes to unpacking what’s happened in Field’s head. A really complicated situation, no doubt.
The first, is that he’s effectively posited that Sharma acknowledging and making active use of his own heritage, somehow renders Sharma not only irreducibly Indian (or, in Field’s own words, a “token”) – but also an alien and incompatible element with New Zealand and our broader ethos as a result of that. He’s suggested that it’s “Labour’s working class values” that Sharma is purportedly at odds with – which is further peculiar, because Labour stopped really being an overweeningly ‘working class’ party several decades ago. I must have missed Field taking issue with the vast majority of Labour’s current Caucus on a similar basis.
Perhaps he wasn’t so worried about those other MPs because they spoke in English – which, as we all know, has not been a “language of […] oppression” for some years now, unless spoken with an American accent.
But the second element which must be considered is how Field has construed Hinduism and Indian cultural (in this case specifically linguistic) heritage. As something apparently intrinsically and irreducibly “oppressive”, bound up with “fundamentalism” and a “superiority” agenda.
In the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shootings last year, we had a prayer performed in our Parliament in Arabic. Was Field similarly aghast, declaring that Arabic and the Muslim faith which it is strongly associated with, to be a tongue and ethos of “oppression”, “fundamentalism”, and “superiority” ? I’d certainly hope not.
So why us? [And I say ‘us’, because as both a devout Hindu, and internationally published authority in the field, I make literally daily use of Sanskrit for both religious purposes and in my work]
Well, I’d hazard that Mr Field has basically gleaned the vast sum of his views on our religion from a comparatively limited perspective. I’m not going to be so uncharitable as to suggest it’s all from some shrill ultra-liberal ‘awoken’ types, as he does state that he’s visited India at some point (although curiously, refused to say when repeatedly asked just where in India it was that he’d been to where there were “riots” occurring in reaction to some purported enforcement of Sanskrit); but wherever he’s gotten his (mis)information from, it’s like some sort of bad fun-house mirror – everything’s not only distorted, but actively the wrong way around.
It may perhaps surprise Field to learn this, but Sanskrit is not some sort of “Modi” invention come up with in a bid to propel “caste politics” back in India (something that, if it were actually occurring, Modi would have to be spectacularly bad at – his own party’s successful candidate for President of India, the currently serving Ram Nath Kovind is a Dalit, an Untouchable; whilst Modi himself is a Vaishya – a merchant. So much for Brahmin supremacy … ).
Instead, Sanskrit is arguably the oldest continuously spoken language of mankind – still having more than ten thousand ‘native’ speakers today in India and finding active use across the world by Hindus for a liturgical language in a manner perhaps comparable to the use of Latin for the Catholics pre-Vatican II.
Its roots run incredibly deeply, with the oldest attested texts in this language dating back to roughly three and a half thousand years ago; and the leaves and branches of its tree spanning incredibly broadly – most of India, as well as large swathes of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and places even further afield speak languages that are ultimately descended from Sanskrit. Almost a billion people in the world today have this language as a rather integral part of their cultural an civilizational heritage even before the religious dimension is taken into consideration.
That was a large part of why Sharma chose to make use of Sanskrit for his Oath – precisely because it was a way of acknowledging the broad (north) Indian spectrum of community. Not because Sanskrit is somehow exclusive to Brahmins (it isn’t – as Sharma pointed out, when he’d gone to school it was a compulsory language for all students; presumably in much the same manner that Latin used to be at various secondary schools in the Anglosphere, including, as it happens, the one I went to even in the 21st century – one wonders whether taking the Oath in Latin (or, for that matter, any of the Latinate legal terms still made active use of therein) would trigger Field into a fit of apoplexy about the Government somehow becoming an apologist for the atrocities of the Roman Empire)
So how is it that we wound up with an incredibly ancient and broadly pervasive language being pidgeonholed into evidently near-exclusive (mis-)association with a relatively recent political phenomenon in contemporary India?
To put it bluntly, I suspect that it is because for Field and others like him – all actual Hinduism, all actual Indian cultural heritage is hidden ‘Hindutva’ extremism. It’s rather like how, in the 1950s in America, being cautiously in favour of a worker getting a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work made one a dyed-(red-)in-the-wool “Communist” in the eyes of some people. Or how, for an ongoing period following 9/11, looking like you might be an Arab, a Muslim, on an international aircraft might lead to some irascible American having a panic about how you must be a terrorist.
Any number of Sikhs were physically attacked for exactly this reason over the same period by ordinary Americans who’d completely misunderstood something that was not theirs, was somewhat obscure to them, and which seemed like it might be a threat just going off what they’d seen on the news.
People often work themselves up into a lather of a moral ‘crusade’ about perceived injustices meted out overseas, and then attempt to replicate the alleged ‘restorative’ action they think should have happened over there, in the comfort of their own back yard at home. Maybe it helps them to feel useful; maybe it’s a cover for other impulses.
Whatever it is, it’s evidently lead Field to feel that the simple act of speaking Sanskrit is an incredibly ‘problematic’ war-cry for something that he profoundly disagrees with.
And therein lies the trouble. Because for Field, I think that if we really drilled down into it, there are no overt expressions of Hinduism that he would think are not somehow “oppressive”. He has not said this, of course, and perhaps he has not even given it much thought.
But if we are not allowed to speak nor otherwise make use of our ancient liturgical language because he is afraid of its connotation … what exactly constitutes ‘allowable’ expressions of Hinduism for him? Shall he be banning my Mandir from having the fine Swastika-carved doors to the shrines, too, because of Nazi use of the symbol? When my research institute makes use of ‘Arya’ in its title and its motto [‘Arya Akasha’, and ‘Krinvanto Vishvam Aryam’, respectively] – is Field going to likewise declare that these are ‘oppressive’ due to a certain 20th century political phenomenon which was quite big on “Aryan” as a term?
Ultimately, the question is quite a simple one. If he genuinely feels that even things which have no necessary connection to nor connotation of the very specific politics he claims to abhor, are somehow symbols and weaponized tools of same … then does he actually have any mental distinction between ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Hindu’. Or is every single one of the more than one hundred and twenty thousands of us here, representing New Zealand’s largest non-Christian community of faith, some sort of blatantly obvious Hindu extremist – to be hounded from public life and perhaps the country as well.
I would dearly hope that Field was not in earnest with the clear and unctuous implications of his claims on Twitter yesterday. And that instead, it was the product of that accursed scourge of the Modern Age, ignorance combined with an over-enthusiastic desire to rush in and oppose some alleged social injustice one has read about occurring elsewhere in the world via social media.
Except there are plenty of actual injustices occurring out there in the world – elsewhere in the world I mean – for Mr Field to concern himself with, without having to attempt to transplant and invent one right here to his own (political) back yard in our nation’s Parliament.
So, to recap:
Gaurav Sharma MP taking his Oath of Affirmation in Sanskrit (and also Te Reo Maori) … was not intended to signify what Michael Field thought it did.
Indeed, it COULD not really signify what Field thought it did, for the many reasons (and more) aforementioned. (Including that Sanskrit is not and has not been for some time, the exclusive preserve of Brahmins – and is learned by many in India as part of standard school education; and that both the language and the religion are quite some orders of magnitude older and broader than one political current in present-day Indian politics; with the BJP (Modi’s party), whatever one thinks of them, also not really being ‘Brahmin supremacists’; meanwhile, Ambedkar, the incredibly prominent Independence era Indian politician who forsook his native Hinduism to become a Buddhist precisely because of his feelings about the caste system … actually himself championed a push for Sanskrit as a national language for India)
There are no “riots” occurring in India due to an “oppressive” imposition of Sanskrit. (Although there ARE occasional flare-ups of animosity in the Dravidian-language dominated South about the perceived imposition of Hindi – which is ironic, because Field actually suggested Sharma should have used Hindi instead; notwithstanding that this is not actually Sharma’s own native language, Pahari)
And whilst one could perhaps suggest that, as a doctor of medicine, Gaurav Sharma is not exactly ‘working class’ .. I’m not sure how Dr Sharma’s inclusion in Labour’s 2020 Caucus is a vitiation of that party’s “roots”, “working class” or otherwise. A phrase that I most certainly home Field was not using as a cover for “White/Anglo/Pakeha”.
Sanskrit is a truly beautiful language, and I say that as somebody who’s spent much of the past half decade working with it near-daily. I truly do feel that our Parliament – The People’s House, the House of Speech – has been enriched for its having been made active use of for this small-but-important ceremony occurrant therein.
I also, as a Hindu New Zealander (although not an Indian), feel myself and my community somewhat more represented as the result of this, as well. It is a small thing, it is a symbolic thing – but in politics, that symbolism can mean everything. One that shows that Heritage, “roots”, matters! And is valued by us as a nation. One that shows that, contra to what Field and his ilk may desire, we too have a place here. And that we are not going to be “oppressed” out or marginalized by somebody who would seemingly wish a restatement of Macaulayism (so named for its instigator – a British Lord who wanted to ‘de-Sanskritize’ India and replace this with English, in part as a way of striking against what he viewed as the “hideous, and grotesque, and ignoble” ‘Brahminical religion’, as he termed it).
On the plus side, this is the first time I think I’ve seen a New Zealand MP make reference to Proto-Indo-European – so there’s that.
Although if one is eagerly anticipating Proto-Indo-European actually making an appearance in Parliament’s debating chamber, for instance as part of an Oath of Affirmation … you may be waiting some time.