Babbbling in India

Modern Mythmaking 26 Comments

Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, June 13, 2010


Have you noticed that telemarketers are now talking to you in Hindi or Marathi? That is the first assumption, and only then do they switch to English. Have you noticed that when you call a bank or a mobile company, you are asked to make a language preference? English is not the only choice, and often not the first choice.

The fact is that less than 20% of India speaks in English, the rest speak some regional language. Until recent times, the rest of India mattered only to the government and politicians, not to the corporate world. Now, as markets in Europe and America are shrinking and the West is moving in to harvest Indian markets, suddenly the 80% non-English speaking mass of India has started to matter, for everything from loans to cell phones.

Language is power. In ancient India, Sanskrit was spoken by the elite, the rest spoke Prakrit. Ancient dramatists gave Sanskrit dialogues to the kings but Prakrit dialogues to servants and women. The word Prakrit comes from Prakriti, or nature, suggesting Prakrit is a more organic language rooted to the earth.Sanskrit, a highly polished and highly structured language, was believed to be the language of the gods in the safekeeping of priests and kings.

English is the new Sanskrit. If you are elite, you speak English; the rest speak other Indian languages. So, if you want to show that you are moving up in life, you make sure you speak English. But if you want votes, or market share, you speak in a regional language. To reach out to the masses, you abandon English and speak in Hindi or Marathi or Telugu or Tamil or Bengali. Language is no longer just a means to communicate; it is a way to acquire power. Even MTV surrendered to Hindi so that it reaches small town India.

In the Bible, we are told that initially all humans spoke the same language. They came together to build a tower that would reach up to the heavens. This Tower of Babel was built as an expression of self-aggrandizement.  To humble them, God twisted tongues and got everyone to speak a different language. Different language resulted in creation of different nations scattered across the world. Different nations meant conflicts, in-fighting, and disunity.

The desire to unite people with a single language has its benefits. Israel resurrected the ancient Hebrew language to prop up the Zionist nationalism. But it also prevents celebration of diversity. Most North Indians, for example, do not know that there is a Ramayana in almost every Indian language. There may be Tulsi Ramayana in Hindi but there is Kamban Ramayana in Tamil and Toda Ramayana in Telugu and Krittivasa Ramayana in Bengali and Bhavarta Ramayana in Marathi and Giridhar Ramayana in Gujarati. Not only is the language different but with different languages come different nuances, unique to that language.

In the Valmiki Ramayana, for example, there is no Laxman Rekha. This idea came from regional Ramayanas. English translators of the Mahabharata were so embarrassed by the explicit sexual descriptions in Sanskrit that some verses were translated in Latin. Our understanding of culture will always be restricted by the number of languages we know.

  • languages sometimes seem so redundant. I visited hong kong once and was stuck with non english spkng ppl. It still amazes me how we communicated without language and came out of the problem. Therafter I am no more scared of the alien lands, I know we can smile and walk down the streets with confidence of being able to link with anyone and everyone.

  • Aditya Naikdesai

    I have started learning Sanskrit 9 months ago. I wanted to be able to read our ancient texts in the original language because like you mentioned, with a different language come different nuances and some ideas or implications are lost in translation. Or misunderstood.

    But now I read here about the existence of two languages – Sanskrit and Prakrit.

    Ideally, is it necessary to know both languages to be able to comprehend the texts better?

    If yes, where can we find references or books that help with learning such languages?

    • p v raj shekhar

      Dear Aditya,

      I am also interested in learning Sanskrit, but don’t know how to learn. Can you please share your experiences and source of learning so that I will also start learning.


      • Aditya Naikdesai


        there’s a friend of mine, from art college, whose art teacher’s wife (a retired doctor) knows sanskrit

        we visit her sunday mornings and read the gita. alternate sundays she teaches us basic grammar. as an aside she also shares stories with us. we discuss ideas at times. but because of her age (and shes also a grandmother now) classes are irregular. even now its been three months since we last met.

        so i am still looking for another source to continue learning.

        i enquired at some book stores and they said there are dictionaries and translated texts with explanations. but i’d still prefer a teacher.

  • Gaurav

    You said ” Our understanding of culture will always be restricted by the number of languages we know.”. I believe this is a profound observation. There is a lot talk about literacy. This is literally about being able to read and write – given a language and its scripts. The cultural litercy that goes with knowing a language – not necessarily reading and writing – is deeper and more meaningful in the context of promoting understanding and maturity. Sometimes I believe an elevated notion of “comprehensive literacy” comes as a sensitive state of mind rather than a set of ‘reading , writing skills’. Literacy limited to these skills makes it easy for the aggressive advertisements of the profit mongers. This is semi-literacy.

  • uppili chakrapany

    Language is the medium to transport a content. Though the content is the objective and essence of the transaction, the energies are spent in colouring and deifying the medium. This barrier often restricts the easy flow of the content.

  • Abhay Nair

    Has the diminished usage of Sanskrit held us back in our progress?

    This query is based on the assumption that most Indian ancient scriptures and Knowledge Banks are in Sanskrit.

    Shouldn’t Sanskrit be an important language for us Indians to know?


  • Siddhesh Ghag

    Knowledge is Power and knowledge is communicated by language, so language is power.

    In the past 10 years the amount of literature generated by the world is more than all of literature generated in the last 5,000 years!

    So definitely language is a means of acquiring power.

    If a guy from North visits South India, he finds himself in a fix if they do not speak his language. However if he manages to learn the local language, he is treated with the same respect and admiration as other locals. I may be digressing into other issues of political nature, but you are right language is the means of understanding culture. So if god asks me you have 3 wishes, I think only 1 wish would be enough “To know and understand all languages in the world”

  • I speak five languages well.and find I am alert to new languages instantly so if I stay in a new place I am able to adopt few words for those few days , and people always appriciate efforts to speak their language.

  • Pingback: Raising Bilingual Children (Carey Myles) and Dreaming in Hindi (Katherine Russell Rich) « Queen of Ambiguity()

  • Raghav

    Hi Devji,
    While reading Mith=Mithys,a thought occured to me and am hoping you’ll shed some light on it.
    Krishna seems to be the lord of all that the society considers taboo,outcast and this interpretation correct? eg:
    1)he is dark,born in a jail,of a ‘low’ caste
    2)steals butter,steals the dress of gopikas when they take bath
    3)meets the gopikas at night for ‘Raas Leela’s
    4)convinces Arjuna in the Bhagawad Gita’
    5)finally manages to make Yudhishtra utter a lie.
    so is all this mocking at the society’s so called laws/rules

    • Devdutt

      Data is correct….but why is he doing it…when as Rama he upholds it to the end….think!

      • Dr.Sreyash

        The reason may be that Lord Krishna wanted to be an epitome of the same society in which we live. The society and its norms are full of nuances described as above and in the end he tries to show us the eternal truth.
        One more reason could be that through Krishna’s deeds, the society is made aware of both good and evil deeds and if we take into account the result of Yudhistira telling a lie(by means of having a problem momentarily while going to heaven)goes on to prove that the outcome of evil deeds can only be evil. In todays world of fierce rat race , one should keep in mind that desired ends should not be achieved by any means .

        • Devdutt

          You are revealing more about yourself by your view of the world….and less about Krishna and his view of the world. :-)

        • noops

          I think (again in my views, but influenced by gita verses mentioning thing like subha-ashubha parityaagi, samatvam)

          I think Krishna’s point it :

          That good and bad, right and wrong, are dualities of this world, have nothing to do with real self/soul. Their definition changes with desh kaal patra (time place and the receptor).

          What Krishna wanted (I think) was to tell that the right can’t be following some fixed moral rules. sometimes breaking them is the more right thing to do.

          So global optima as opposed to local optima.


          e.g. Him covering the sun to make duryodhana think that its night (hence no fight time) and he comes out. To be fought to death. eg him lifting a weapon to kill bhishma to protect arjuna while breaking his promise, he wont lift any weapon.
          eg Krishna flees from battlefeild with Kala Yavana.
          If one stick to some rigid moral principles (eg I’ll not lift weapon against women, kshatriya principle) bad people can take advantage of that.
          Krishna killed a lady, putana. Rama killed Taraka.

      • Raghav

        Oh!tubelight flashed..! ;-)
        is it because as you pointed(in Business Sutra) as Ram in was a more innocent age with strict adherence.
        Values slowly degenrated and lines blurred in Dvapara Yug?
        Also,had one other doubt…he is mostly shown in blue..why is there no ‘Krishna’in Krishna?in idols or other popular art?
        please could you also shed light on why traditionally ‘black’ is considered bad?(the commercials these days-beauty creams or otherwise- unashamedly proclaiming that ‘White’ is ‘Success’)why,oh why, this sin?

        • Nikhil Gokhale

          I am not a great student of mythology like devdutt ji but my answer to your questions is, think of mythology as symbolistic stories to teach humans to behave depending on the situation. This is what devduttji always stresses on, in every talk of his..So in your case don’t look at Krishna or Ram as human beings, consider them to be a symbol of how humans will behave depending on the surroundings..for your black and white issue again the same answer, darkness symbolizes absence of light,absence of knowledge etc..unfortunately, people stopped thinking about this as symbol and started taking the real meaning of the words which transcended itself to the human color. Hope I am right.

        • Aditya Naikdesai

          i read somewhere, and also like nikhil mentions, most characteristics of our deities are symbols that convey the devotees feelings towards that deity.

          blue colour for complexion of deities is to convey that he is as omnipresent as the blue sky that envelops us on all sides.

          the question about krishna’s complexion being blue and not ‘krishna’ – maybe its just a question of aesthetics.

          by the way, rural maharashtra sees a lot of villages worship ‘vitthal’ – all his statues are black.

  • In India and Bhaarat, every 20 kilometres, everything changes – soil, water, weather, food, colours, culture, language,religions AND GODS !Being multi-lingual certainly is an asset !

  • In India and Bhaarat, every 20 kilometres, everything changes – soil, water, weather, food, colours, culture, language,religions AND GODS !Being multi-lingual certainly is an asset !

  • shweta

    v.good article…. Regularly read u in speakin tree…

  • Akshay

    Not just Indian languages, there’s a Ramayana version in just about every. single. language. spoken in South East Asia. There’s a translation in Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Laos, Vietnamese, Malay (Bahasa), Balinese, Tagalog and many others. Every single country in South East Asia has its own folk-art depicting the epic, from the wayang kulit in Java, to the Kechak dance in Bali to the apsara ballet in Cambodia. Ramayana is truly India’s gift to the world.

  • Rohit

    It was strange to notice use of babbbling in topic by a person who I guess doesn’t communicate in any language other than english, in virtual world.

  • Sri


    A friend forwarded your video on East vs. West. I loved it. You do make up stuff (stories/scenarios/people etc..)to get YOUR point across and everyone does that. Very refreshing!!

    Having said that, why are you joining others and fooling the world (esp. the relatively pure young minds) indicating in your articles that God is an external being? e.g. “To humble them, God twisted tongues and got everyone to speak a different language. Different language resulted in creation of different…”


  • Correction Sir,
    The Language is “Telugu” and not “Telegu”.

  • priyasaikumar


    In response to krishna being unconventional in his actions as a role model,I believe he is communicating that “every action must be viewed in context”. Stealing is wrong. But krishna stealing clothes from the banks of the river is shown as naughtiness of a kid and should be taken as such.