Ahmedabad: Muslim conservatives opposed him, but an unfazed shehnai legend Ustad Bismillah Khan continued to play it on the ghats of Varanasi and in the temples. The great Indian shehnai maestro was awarded with Bharat Ratna in the year 2001, being the third classical musician. Many more Muslim legends—Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to Ustad Zakir Hussain Ustad Amjad Ali Khan to popular singers like Muhammed Rafi—crossed the national barriers and assimilated and promoted Indian culture overseas.
Taking this syncretic tradition forward, many Muslim children in India are now gradually flocking schools to learn Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world which they see as the root of the subcontinent’s rich culture and tradition.
Gujarat has been an epitome of this cultural assimilation. Since the last 22 years, when Aabid Saiyad became Sanskrit teacher at MES Boy’s High School in Vadodara, many Muslims have learnt the ancient language. In Yakutpura area of Vadodara, several Muslims students still chant Sanskrit shlokas in their classes every morning and Saiyad ensures that they enjoy learning the ancient language.
Saiyad believes that faith cannot be a barrier to teaching or learning. “Knowledge can be imparted by anybody and who teaches is not important until it is delivered in a right way. A non-Muslim, too, should be able to teach Arabic and vice-versa. A language should be taught as a language and not a religion”, said Saiyed, who secured Masters in Sanskrit and English from Vallabh Vidhyanagar-based Sardar Patel University.
In faraway Jaipur, a government-run school stands out, not only because it teaches Sanskrit, but also because majority of its students are Muslims. Out of 277 students enrolled, 222 belong to the community, according to media reports.
In Ustad Bismillah Khan’s Varanasi, Prof Feroze Khan is currently facing resistance from students over his appointment in Banaras Hindu University (BHU). But they scarcely know his family’s background in the rich Indian culture, his grandfather and father’s love for Sanskrit, bhajans and cows protection.
Feroze Khan, who holds a doctorate in Sanskrit, started learning Sanskrit since he was in Class 2. “I don’t know as much of The Quran as I know Sanskrit literature, despite being a Muslim”.
He completed his Shastri (Bachelor’s Degree), Shiksha Shastri (B.Ed), Acharya (Post-Graduate) and received his Ph.D in 2018 from the Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan, a Deemed University, in Jaipur.
In the last 1,000 years, Sanskrit has seen downfall and revival. In the 19th century, classical Sanskrit began to be revivified by German scholar Max Muller, and others, who translated the Upanishads into English and other European languages. Dr J Robert Oppenheimer, a German migrant to America who fathered the nuclear bomb, quoted from the Bhagavad Gita when the USA dropped atom bombs in Japan in 1945. The scientist, who remarked “I become Death”, was aware of the holy book’s Chapters 10 and 11 wherein Lord Krishna reveals His Universal Expanse to Arjuna.
Mahatma Gandhi had also observed that Hindu children should possess a sound knowledge of Sanskrit. But his exhortations could not trigger popular interest in the language immediately. Still, there emerged villages in southern states like Karnataka where the entire population began to converse in Sanskrit.
Experts say there is some misconception that Sanskrit language is only used for chanting mantras in temples or at religious ceremonies. But there is a lot of Sanskrit literature which has nothing to do with religion.
Sanskrit also connects the people to the classical form of yoga that has been orally transmitted for thousands of years. Many people now believe there is rich philosophy beneath yoga practice. Sanskrit lives through this philosophy.
Sanskrit is not just an Indian classical language. Along with the spread of Yoga, it is also spreading to European many countries. Altogether 192 nations, including 44 Islamic nations, celebrated the International Yoga Day this year. Sanskrit is expected to reach these countries as well.
Its revival is like that of the Jewish language, Hebrew, which remained rather dormant for about 2,000 years but began to bounce back in the 20th century.