Gurmukhi vis-à-vis Panjabi (first written: 8th August 1988)

Over the years and in the course of my travels I have learned an enormous amount. One of the earliest tactics I cottoned onto during this time was to observe what the European museums and artefact collectors could tell me without sharing with them that which was obviously beyond their ken.


An example was shown to me of some of the earliest Gurmukhi characters inscribed on a plinth – they were presumed to be part of a now-defunct ancient language once in vogue in an area north-east of the Black Sea and north-west of the Caspian Sea. I enthusiastically pointed out the Gurmukhi to the group, who also had in their possession coins used as currency in north-western Europe in the area of the Low Countries and that depicted the historical figures of Sita and Raam. I of course was over the moon. Contacting the group sometime later, in order to show them to one other distinguished person, I was dismayed by the way they immediately closed ranks. The later official line was total refutation that the group ever had said items in their possession. And so I ‘wised up’ and came to understand that Europeans collectors hide away artefacts conclusively proving India’s cultural and linguistic dominance over the whole of Europe.

My personal research following this encounter later threw open just how mired in Sanskrit words are the north and west European languages still commonly used to today. And I know that more formal archaeological research will unearth evidence that India and Sanskrit-Indian masters dominated the European peninsular.

But everything is cyclical.

India once dominated. Then she retreated from her sphere of influence, drawn back to her roots in Aryadesh (the original name for India). The subsequent decay of Aryadesh became evident in first the depletion and then the non-existence of any recognisable and serious artistic literary medium among the nmasses. Sanskrit, that universal, which was later to be imitated by Latin during the penultimate decay of the Roman Empire, became the language of dictatorship, inculcating far-reaching social divisions, not merely of labour and language but of legitimacy and power and identity. The selfish overlords became despotic and the masses as usual paid the price.

The dialects of Panjabi constituted the language of spoken communication, while Sanskrit maintained an iron-grip as the official language of governance and dharmic observation. (Please do not confuse dharma to mean religion. In the same way you should not confuse Soul with Atman.) Thus, Panjabi had neither social nor literary status.

With the Turkish invasion of c.12th century came Persian’s replacement of Sanskrit as the language of government administration, the failure of Arabic to command such dominance stemming from the high prejudice and low esteem in which it was held compared with Persian. Thus, Sanskrit underwent a further evolution – from a global language to one symbolising internal Aryadesh power and authority, to a language confined to the refined pursuits of literary, philosophical and dharmic expression.

In the early 1800s the English missionary, William Carey, initiated a language program emulated throughout the administrative sectors of the East India Company. It aimed at teaching the colonisers the language of the people they ruled, for the purpose of more effectively administering colonial rule. The result was a codification of complex native linguistics, shoehorning them into the grammatical limitations of English. For their part, the Indian masses, excluded from learning Sanskrit, took to enthusiastically studying English. Theirs was a keenness to understand the outside world, to expand their knowledge base; and it stood in stark contrast with the disinterested English colonial who displayed no faculty for learning new languages. Soaking up English literature, history and rules of language composition the Indian assistant translators mired themselves in a construct far less complex than Sanskrit; and in turn they came through their acquisition of the English language to depose Panjabi as the language of communication, most prominently in the matter of prose-writing.

Sanskrit’s own evolution as the language of the reified, disconnecting it from the language of political power, was formalised in Macaulay’s 1835 injunction that English be adopted as the language of government. And by 1844 English language knowledge was an imperative qualification for those Indians wishing to join the Civil Service; thus, reinforcing the value-meaning of English as the language of literature and power. Local languages naturally suffered, though it must be said that parts of the Indian gentry refused to be complicit in this mass linguistic migration, encouraging local language use, extolling the superiority of the Sanskrit-language classics… but all the while inexorably drawn towards the English-language classics.

In the clash of the titans, Sanskrit and English, had the bracketing of the former as the language of refinement and privilege and power not occurred, entailing exclusion of the mass of Indians from learning and using a language that had once enjoyed global power, then English would never have secured a foothold in India. In the meeting of two wrongs only a wrong will win.

Here then was a multiplicity governed in various streams of its official, unofficial, ritual and everyday life by a hierarchical structure of languages. Local languages have been among the worst-suffering in this hierarachy – with Sanskrit marginalized, the appetite for complex grammatical syntax was lost; English-learning had bequeathed a laziness, an attitude of ambivalence towards the cosmopolitanism conjunctural with being a multiplicity such as India was and is; and variation consequently became something to be frowned upon, cast into the wilderness. Simultaneously, the rising fortunes of English in India heralded a panacea for the social and political exclusion experienced by the lower orders, a level playing-field on which to improve their standing.

The saddest joke is that in lionizing and valourising English, we may forget that that greatest of English writers – Shakespeare – has been proven by the University of Cambridge studies in 1890s and early 1900s to be the most shameless plagiariser. Names, settings, even entire works appear in Shakespeare having been lifted directed from Arabian stories.

Returning to my opening salvo about Panjabi and her Gurmukhi characters, these are reinvocations by Guru Angaddevji (following instructions laid down for him by Guru Nanakdevji) of an ancient script. So it was quite natural that I was so enthused and excited by the finds described in the opening paragraphs of this post!

Gurmukhi, the ancient language stretching from north-east of the Black Sea to north-west of the Caspian Sea, has 52 distinct sounds; and we can see today how the multitude of European languages use diacritical marks to enlargen their own sound base (in English there are 26 distinct sounds) in approximation of the more numerous Gurmukhi characters. I’ve carried out my research on this topic, and many years ago. It remains for the current crop of linguists to draw out these linkages, to present the array of Gurmukhi in European format with existing and newer diacritical marks that fully and finally captures its breadth and scale and sheer beauty.