Recently, the Railway Ministry took a bold decision to replace Urdu language with Sanskrit on all signboards at the railways’ stations in Uttarakhand. This is being seen as a step towards promoting Sanskrit.
However, the latest effort to revive Sanskrit is, like all other efforts in the past, fraught with political consequences of alleged communalisation. Moreover, there has been that usual hollow question as to the feasibility of reviving the ancient Indian language.
While the allegations of communalisation and saffronisation do not even warrant any concern, the questions as to feasibility have impeded all efforts to revive Sanskrit. This is where India has got lessons to learn from the revival Hebrew in Israel.
Just like Sanskrit, Hebrew too had fallen out of common usage and had become a liturgical language, and was subsequently revived after nearly 2000 years. While Hebrew had become practically dead as a spoken language by around 400 CE, it remained preserved as a liturgical language for Jews around the world.
The origin of Hebrew can be traced back to the biblical times when Jews used to both write and speak Hebrew till the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, following the Babylonian Siege.
Hebrew benefited from the rise of Zionism, triggered by the rise in anti-Jew sentiment in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. The string of revival of the ancient language led the British mandate recognising the language as the official language of Palestine’s Jewish inhabitants in the year 1922.
Modern Hebrew obviously differs from the Biblical version, but the 8 million-odd Hebrew speakers today, can fully comprehend what is written in the Old Testament and its connected texts.
It ought to be mentioned here that the process of revival of Hebrew got institutionalised with anti-Semitism, settlement of linguistically diverse Jews alongside the pre-existing Jews in the Palestine region and the Jewish haskalah (Enlightenment).
The Jews in the Palestine region used to speak a variety of languages such as Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish, and French. In order to communicate among themselves, the linguistically diverse Jews had been using the Hebrew language since the Middle Ages.
With settlement of Jewish refugees from across other parts of the world, both the newly arrived Jews and the native Jews in the Palestine region switched to Hebrew as a lingua franca.
The rise of Jewish nationalism and settlement of linguistically diverse Jewish refugees under several Aliyahs, therefore, became a cause of Hebrew revival. The horrors of Holocaust and Aliyah Bet also contributed to Jewish nationalism and also the need to further revive Hebrew as it emerged as the National Language of Israel as well as the lingua franca of the Jewish nation.
The post-Holocaust period had witnessed the influx of another 6,88,000 Jews in the country, more than doubling the Jewish population of what was then a newly created country. This new wave of refugees had to be taught the ancient language and thus led to the establishment of Ulpan (an intensive Hebrew-learning institute) further institutionalising the process of Hebrew revival in Israel.
While a strong sense of Jewish nationalism definitely played a massive role in springing Hebrew back to life, there was also an active personal involvement at a very individual level. While a plethora of factors described above played a role in Hebrew revival, Eliezer Ben Yehuda is the man who can be described as the father of Hebrew renaissance.
In 1881, Ben Yehuda pushed his idea of Hebrew revival. He developed a modern Hebrew vocabulary that consisted of both brand new and ancient Hebrew words. He was also able to convince his friends into copying his endeavours and incorporating the language into their everyday affairs.
He also managed to get Jewish teachers on board with his ambitious plan of Hebrew revival. The teachers saw a great advantage in Ben Yehuda’s plan because it entailed the practical benefits of playing a unifying role in the diverse and multicultural classrooms at the time.
Along with his wife, Deborah Jonas, Ben Yehuda created the first modern Hebrew speaking household. Eventually, he also raised the first modern Hebrew-speaking child, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda. It was Ben Yehuda’s efforts which eventually took shape of a massive revival, which is till now peculiar to the Hebrew language.
In a matter of little more than six decades, the process of Hebrew revival largely culminated leading to the adoption of the language as the National Language of Israel.
The rise of Hebrew in Israel and its virtual springing back to life is a valuable lesson when it comes to Sanskrit revival in India. Looking at Hebrew, which had started to wane by 587 BCE and had fallen out of common usage in 400 CE, there is no reason why Sanskrit cannot be revived in a similar manner.
The biggest cause behind Hebrew renaissance was a very strong sense of Nationalism that must happen in India also if Sanskrit is to be restored to its old glory. Of course, a perfect analogy cannot be drawn, as it was Anti Semitism and Zionism that had led to Hebrew renaissance, whereas in India, we will have to pump up our nostalgia for the ancient language in order to launch the process of reviving Sanskrit.
Moreover, Ben Yehuda, who can be described as the father of modern Hebrew is a big example that India needs to emulate at a very personal and individual level. While Ben Yehuda had to resurrect Hebrew back to life, the case of Sanskrit is different.
Sanskrit has fallen out of popular usage, but it remains a living language. It has not yet died and has not become a purely liturgical language, unlike what Hebrew had once become. It may be the least spoken of languages in India, but it is certainly not done and dusted. The language added 10,000 new speakers between 2001 and 2011 Census, a mean feat for a country as populous as India. Nevertheless, it is clear that we do not need a process of reconstruction, unlike the one that was initiated in the case of Hebrew.
What India can learn from the resurrection of Hebrew is that the effort needs to be potently institutionalised, and a consensus that Sanskrit, the mother of all languages, and very closely related to Indian languages, could be a linguistically uniting factor for many cultures across the length and breadth of the country. The rise of Hindu nationalism laced with reforms and progressiveness can facilitate this revival, doing a great service to our civilization which today, faces the threat of being forgotten given the failures of our institutions at containing the undue influence of the deracinated.
Sanskrit is alive, though it obviously deserves to be way more popular than some thousand speakers it presently musters. While we have been pessimistic about restoring the language to its old glory all this while, Hebrew Renaissance makes a strong case for Sanskrit revival.