If you are this side of the border in Punjab and want to find what for example the great epic Mahabharata says about Punjab and its people, you have to rely on the verses (Shloka) quoted in Roman letters which fail to convey the correct pronunciation and sense of the words.
And if you insist on knowing how to recite the quoted verses, you won’t find even a single professor in this country to help you. You shall have to contact someone in India or the West where you can find a number of scholars and academics who know Sanskrit. But why, a student may ask in wonder, this Hindu epic? What we call Hindus have been our ancestors as majority of us belong here. We changed our faith but can we change our racial roots and forebears?
Secondly, Mahabharata is an unmatchable treasure trove of information on mythology, faiths, culture, social life, tribes, races, regions and caste and class structures. Thirdly, the very name of the epic is derived from the Baharata ‘Jana’ and Bharata kings of Punjab. Fourthly, because of historical importance of Punjab, the home of Indus valley people and the Aryan migrants, the Mahabharata was first recited at the city of Takshashila (now called Taxila) in Punjab by a disciple of sage Vyas named Vaishampayna in the court of King Janamejaya, the great-grandson of Pandavaprince Arjun, one of the protagonists of the epic. The mother of Arjun’s rival cousin Duryodhana Gandhari was from Punjab. It is also worthwhile to keep in mind that Kurukeshatra, the field where Karuravs and Pandavas fought their bloody battle, has been part of Punjab.
The question arises that why learning of languages is not given the due importance? Why certain languages are discouraged and ignored? Such an indifference to languages is an outcome of certain ideological imperatives that push forward plans to base our identity on faith alone. Consequently, we find that history writing here is of poor quality; it’s either distorted or shaped by ideology showing utter contempt for facts. It’s mostly based on presumptions, assumptions and ideological suppositions. In the context of Punjab, it’s crucial for a historian to know or at least to be familiar with a number of languages because our region has been home to linguistic diversity. A historian has to know at least five or six languages if he/she wants to have access to original sources and come out with a reliable narrative. Original sources can only be found in Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Punjabi (peoples’ language of the region), Urdu and English.
Sanskrit, elitist and liturgical, had its early origins in the North Punjab and Swat Valley. How can one write Punjab’s ancient history without deciphering Sanskrit texts, religious and secular? How one can be a reliable historian if they cannot understand Vedas? How can they be taken seriously if they are unable to analyse the original texts of Kautilya’s ‘Arth Shastra’ and Panin’s ‘Ashtadhyayi’? Both Kautilya (aka Chanakya) and Panini, the unusually gifted theorists, had been associated with the glorious Taxila University.There are other innumerable scriptures, books, treaties, poems and tales that offer highly relevant material. Apart from its own literature, Sanskrit is crucial for digging out Prakrits’ oral texts it subsumed as a hegemonic language.
Historian Wendy Doniger writes in her ‘The Hindus’: “…At the very least, those male Sanskritists had to be bilingual in order to talk to their wives and servants and children. It was through those interactions that oral traditions got their foot in the Sanskrit door…Sanskrit won the race to archives and was the first to be written down and preserved…”. It implies that a historian well-versed in Sanskrit can detect beneath its patina of elegance the vitality of Prakrit texts.
Punjab has a history of long interaction with Iran. That Sanskrit and Avestan/ Zend language have shared origins is common knowledge. It’s almost forgotten that Punjab (Sindh also) was annexed by Darius I in the early 6th century. It was one of high revenue yielding satrapies.
The sway of Persian at least at the official level came with the Turk armies in early 11th century that conquered Punjab and later Delhi. The Turk invaders’ mother language was Turkish but they declared Persian as their court language. Being culturally backward, the Turk elite presented itself as an avatar of Persian imperial glory. One finds very valuable material on medieval society in the histories and chronicles composed in Persian. A historian not familiar with Persian can’t boast of his/her knowledge of Punjab and India.
Arabic being a Semitic language had limited but lasting impact on the society in Sindh and Punjab and the rest of India. Arabic vocabulary came in the shape of borrowed words/loanwords. Arabic being language of the Arab invaders lent us words and phrases in the domains of administration, revenue and faith most of which are still in currency. So a level of familiarity with Arabic will do a historian good.
Urdu can provide some material though, to borrow Tamil actor Kamal Hassan’s words about Hindi, it is a language in diapers. One has to know English not out of any colonial hangover but because of loads of material on almost on all aspects of life that appeared in colonial and post-colonial periods.
Last but not least, the role of a natural language of the region, Punjabi in our case, which is a natural repository of people’s history, cannot be overemphasised. Standard and official historians push ahead with their narratives based on priori assumptions. How one can afford to not look at classical Punjabi literature created in the last one thousand years which reflect people’s life in all its complexity. But historians risking their credibility do it especially on this side of border. No one can, for example, really understand the depth of destruction caused by Iranian Nadir Shah without consulting poet Nijabat’s epic ‘Nijabat di Var (aka Nadir Shah di Var)? How can a historian know the tenacity of women’s struggle for emancipation and equality epitomised by Heer and Sahiban, the characters created by great poets?
Language is what preserves. What we do and create in any form eventually lands at the limitless expanse of language and is protected and preserved in an intangible fashion for times to come. Historian, you can’t afford to be less that a polyglot. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2022