Language and Literature: The Sleeping Giant Of Indian Soft Power

The 8th schedule of the Indian constitution has outlined 2 official languages and 22 scheduled languages that have been given official recognition by the government of India, making India the country with the highest number of recognised administrative languages. And going beyond the merely official, the country has a total of around 454 languages, making it the fourth most multilingual country in the world (Hallett, 2016). This multiplicity of languages is undoubtedly one of the countrys most distinctive features; one which separates from nearly all other countries in the world. Indian languages have ranged across the entirety of human history, starting with the truly ancient languages of Sanskrit (Woodard, 2008) and Tamil (Lehmann, 1998), to the much newer languages like modern day Hindi (West, 2009). This linguistic diversity is not only a unique cultural factor, but can also serve to be one of the foremost pillars of Indias future soft power strategy, if properly leveraged.

This paper will therefore examine the general role that language plays in terms of soft power, and the specific role of Indian language in two aspects – as a gateway to classical literature and wider Indian culture, as well as being a means of preventing the appropriation of Indian culture.

It will do so by first examining the relationship between Language and Soft Power. It will then analyse this relationship in the context of India, by using the example of Sanskrit. Finally, it will outline the challenges facing Indian language on the global stage and how they can be overcome.


A language is a part of a culture and a culture is a part of a language; the two are intricately interwoven so that one cannot separate the two without losing the significance of either language or culture. (Brown, 1994)

When Joseph Nye first defined the notion of soft power (Nye, 1991) he spoke of the ability of a country to influence the decisions of other countries, not through coercion but through attraction.

It is important to note that when discussing the effect of language on soft power, it is not done in the strict sense mentioned by Nye. That is to say, we are not attempting to draw a direct link between Indias language and literature, and its ability to influence the decision making of other countries. Instead what we refer to is the creation of a ready and receptive pool of individuals that are more knowledgeable about, and more sympathetic to India and its broad policy objectives as a result of having studied an Indian language, or some Indian literature (Hill, 2016). The aim is, therefore, to examine if such a group exists, and if it does, how can its size be increased and how can it be leveraged for Indias gain?

One of, if not the, most important factors in the formation of such a group of people is the ability to create an affinity and aspiration on the international stage for that countrys culture (Nye, 1991). While language is undoubtedly one aspect of that culture, its true power comes in so far as it acts as a conduit for the rest of that countrys culture. The language of a country is the single largest hurdle to the spread of its culture and one need only look at the dominance of American pop culture to see how the language of its propagation, i.e. English, has exponentially increased its audience.


With respect to India specifically, language can play two roles in the spreading of Indias culture.

The first role is the standard one of Indian language being a means to experience Indian culture at a deeper level. For example, should someone with an interest in Indian culture learn an Indian Language, then they will be able to better immerse themselves into the literature of that language – thereby furthering the connection between India and them.

The second role that Indian Language has to play, is to create a means by which Indian culture when taken to foreign shores, forever remains distinctly Indian. Currently, Indias greatest cultural problem has been the creation of a direct link between its cultural exports and itself (For example, it was only very recently that there was a concentrated effort to reclaim yoga as being distinctly Indian).

It is therefore possible to draw two channels wherein efforts to promote Indian language should be undertaken – as a means to access literature, and as a means of preventing cultural appropriation. The following sections will examine these channels, taking the example of Sanskrit.

Sanskrit as a gateway to Literature and wider Culture

With over three millennia of documented literature (Banerji, 1989), Sanskrit can serve as the perfect gateway for people from all over the world to immerse themselves fully into the depths of Indias culture.

From yoga to classical arts, there is no element that stands in isolation – with all the elements of Indias culture being interlinked. Given the interconnected nature of Indias cultural aspects, Sanskrit and its literature can serve as the perfect framework for understanding these connections.

Sanskrit has affected every aspect of Indias culture in some form or another, and so provides individuals with a perspective that would be unavailable through any other language. Sanskrit is an intrinsic part of yoga, ayurveda, spirituality and philosophy, and any study of these subjects requires that the student have an understanding of Sanskrit. Furthermore, Sanskrit is the only language that is able to accurately articulate certain ideas that have developed in India over many millennia. One need only look to a concept like Dharma, which has had an overarching impact over all of Indias culture, to see that there is no clear translation for such a concept in any other language. In such situations, Sanskrit is the only ways wherein one can truly understand the complexities of such concepts, and therefore it is only through Sanskrit that one can understand the true impact of such concepts on Indias culture.

Sanskrits role in preventing cultural appropriation

Indian culture has, over the past decades, faced a problem of appropriation. That is to say, when Indias culture has been exported over the world, it has been adopted by other societies without recognising India as the originator of that culture. This in turn has affected Indias ability to create tangible links between foreign individuals and India. One need only look at the history of Yoga internationally to see this. Prior to recent initiatives, such as the International day of Yoga, India has been unable to create clearly recognisable linkages between itself and yoga practitioners around the world. And a major reason for this has been the translation of yoga and its asanas from Sanskrit to other languages. By changing the name of yoga asanas, ayurvedic medicine, and even aspects of Indian spirituality and religion, people around the world fail to associate these aspects of Indian culture with coming from India, and in this way Indian culture looses its essence when sent abroad. It is therefore imperative that going forward, India must ensure that such translations do not happen.


While Indian languages form a significant portion of the dominant languages on the global stage (Simons and Fennig, 2018), this is largely a result of the domestic Indian population. When examined in terms of the number of countries wherein these languages are spoken, Indian languages often range between 1 as the least and 7 as the most (Simons and Fennig, 2018). Therefore, the first challenge facing India is that of increasing the total number of speakers of its languages.

In this field, India must look at the blueprint laid out by China and its Confucius Institute. The Confucius institute is a state supported organisation that aims at developing Chinese language and culture teaching resources and making [Ministry of Education] services available worldwide, meeting the demands of overseas Chinese learners to the utmost degree, and contributing to global cultural diversity and harmony.(Ministry of Education, 2012). The institute is headquartered in Beijing and has, since its inception, opened numerous centres in countries all around the world.

While other countries have similar institutes, such as Frances Alliance Franais, what makes the Confucius institute a tempting model is the administrative structure that it employs with respect to its centres. There are three forms of centres – those that are controlled by the main headquarters, those that are licensed to the host country, and those that are controlled through a joint partnership of the main headquarters, a Chinese university and a university in the host country (Gil, 2009). By creating a joint partnership between the centres and local universities, the institutes are able to acquire a much larger audience than simply those who have a special interest in China.

Given how wide Indias cultural impact can be, it is important that that India adopts a similar strategy of ensuring local integration, so as to maximise its soft power potential. This must be done either through a systematic reform of the ICCR cultural centres or through the creation of an entirely new organisation. This reformed/ new organisation can also take advantage of facilities such as the internet and local advertising to begin to target individuals in specific regions so as to further integrate themselves into the local community.

The second challenge is ensuring the eventual conversion of Indias linguistic potential into true influence. As mentioned earlier, this paper looks at the relationship between soft power and language in terms of creating receptive groups of people. However, once such a group is created, India must find a way to convert it into tangible influence at the state level.  India must look at countries like Japan as cautionary examples. In the case of Japan, while there is an overwhelming favourability for Japanese culture, this favourability has not transformed itself into any real power for the Country at the International policy Level (Otmazgin, 2008).


This paper has attempted to analyse and examine the question of how India can leverage its numerous languages to increase its soft power influence across the globe. Firstly, the country must recognise the strength of its languages, such as Sanskrit, in not only providing a point of entry into a deeper level of culture but also in terms of preventing the loss of its already exported culture. Secondly, it must find innovative ways of dealing with the challenges of increasing the number of people speaking Indian languages, and then converting that number into tangible influence.

One thing certain – as India continues to assert itself on the International stage, it will require a coherent and well structured soft power strategy that includes its numerous languages.

Aman Nair is a Junior Research Fellow at the Center for Soft Power, India Foundation


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