Kannada – As a Culture and as a Language

In this article, the author contemplates upon why and how we practice our customs and then deliberates over how to celebrate the Kannada Rajyotsava—the state festival—in a meaningful way so that we can enjoy and enhance Kannada culture. The following is an English language translation of the original Kannada article. It is particularly valuable to contemplate on the suggestions given by the author now that the month of November has come to an end and there have been several celebrations to mark the State Day through the course of the past thirty days. (Translator's Note)

We look forward to yet another series of celebrations around Kannada Rajyotsava this November. It is by habit that our discussions, writings, thoughts, and contemplation turn to these topics. Many ridicule these celebrations as clichéd or as a ‘November fever.’ There is some substance in these criticisms too. A sensitive person can easily get disillusioned if this ‘celebration’ turns out to be a dry meaningless act fuelled by the synthetic enthusiasm of a social group. For such a person, this is as good as watching a nonbeliever performing a ritual in a lukewarm manner; it is another form of lip-sympathy. At the same time, the situation might have been worse had we ignored these mechanical reminders and stopped rekindling ourselves! I am reminded of the late Dr. Ha Ma Nayak’s writing about the annual Kannada Literary Festivals; in one of his articles he defended these "jatras" by saying that although such festivals have many shortcomings, they must not be abandoned for certain reasons.

If we feel that a certain action is meaningless to us, we should honestly and critically evaluate whether our mental state has truly surpassed the need of performing this action, or is it merely a culmination of our lack of enthusiasm masquerading as detachment. It is the harsh reality that most of the time our sluggishness is the reason behind our inaction and our abandoning of rituals. That is why the Bhagavad-Gītā (3.4) says:

न कर्मणामनारम्भात्
नैष्कर्म्यं पुरुषोऽश्नुते।
न च संन्यसनादेव
सिद्धिं समधिगच्छति॥
(One cannot achieve freedom from action by merely staying away from work. One does not become serene by merely giving up work.)

Even otherwise, common people are guided by well-established rules and regulations; they also need guidance as to when and how to follow rituals; and they yearn for the excitement associated with the celebration of fairs and festivals as well. The world is sustained only by the common folk. We are not, however, hell-bent on retaining all celebrations of all fests, including those that are rigid and mechanical. In fact, the barrenness of an action and the monotonous nature of performance are linked with the mindset of the performer. Any action by itself is inert. Its soulfulness or soullessness comes from the state of the mind of the performer. In the Kaṭhopaniṣad, Naciketa’s father Vājaśravas performed the Viśvajit yāga, a great ritual where the thought of ‘I’ (or ego) was to be sacrificed and one sought to reach the pinnacle of detachment. Vājaśravas, who lacked faith in the ritual, performed it in a dry and mechanical way by merely disposing off a few old cows. Śraddhā (devotion) by itself is never blind; rather, it is a blend of love and respect, knowledge and experience. Therefore, in the celebration of any festival like the Kannada Rājyotsava—pertaining to state, language, culture, society, land, or philosophy—when our sāttvika śraddhā (genuine devotion) awakens, even a monotonous ritual or a meaningless practice gains enrichment and fulfilment due to the grace of an enthusiastic performer. This will be comparable to Naciketa’s adventure of entering the den of death itself and coming out victorious by mastering both agnividyā and brahmavidyā (theoretical and practical aspects of the knowledge of Self). It is certainly possible to celebrate Kannada in a meaningful way.

Although the word ‘kannaḍa’ stands for the entire culture, ‘Kannada as a language’ helps in its self-expression and hence become the front face of our culture. As a consequence, often when we talk about ‘Kannada,’ the language Kannada takes the centre seat compared to other aspects of the society and culture. Barring language, we see many cultural similarities when compared to our neighbouring cultures, and language becomes a unique identity of the culture. At the same time, even within the same ambit of the region of Karnataka and the Kannada language, we see diverse cultural practices and usages. We should thus be cautious about the limits of considering language alone as the predominant feature of the whole culture. Culture does not even depend solely on language for expressing itself.

If that is the case, does language not deserve the importance it has earned in any culture? Indeed, it deserves the importance. In the context of culture, language has two dimensions –one for expressing subjective elements (pertaining to emotion) and another for communicating objective elements (pertaining to the world).[1] Language has the ability to nurture literature where the suggested meaning (vyañjana) takes prominence (as with music, dance, painting, and sculpture); it also has the ability to develop science (śāstra) and business where the designated meaning (abhidhā) and the implied meaning (lakṣaṇa) take prominence. On the one hand, language enjoys the company of various art forms where the line between sound and expression becomes thinner and thinner; in music, it merges into one i.e. the sound vibrations of śruti and laya are itself its expression as well as meaning. On the other hand, language is the facilitator for a purely materialistic pursuit such as business where sound should have unambiguous meaning; nothing else is expected from it. Language moves between these two extremes. This ability (or disadvantage) of language is not present in other fine arts or materialistic tools. Therefore, when we look at language in its totality, we should be extremely careful not to exaggerate or undermine its role. Exaggeration may lead to an overdose of emotion, resulting in childishness while undermining may lead to aridity of emotion, resulting in cynicism.[2] For all contemplation on such topics, we have to again take the refuge of language. Language is the vehicle of our thoughts. It shapes our thoughts and sometimes it becomes our thoughts! In order to direct our thinking deeper into our culture, we must have a good hold on our language. Therefore, to meditate upon the Kannada culture, first we need to have a command over the Kannada language. At the same time, we must not be under the illusion that the oneness that exists between Kannada culture and language also exists in the transactional dimension.[3] A practical thinker should accept both the possibilities of the ideal as well as the practical realities and strive for synchronizing actions with thoughts.

For now, we can focus our inquiry into the means of enhancing our linguistic skills for understanding the finer feelings of our culture. Those serious in the pursuit of filling their hearts with Kannada culture should start by focusing on Kannada grammar as well as etymology. When we approach our study from this angle, we can really appreciate why our ancestors stressed so much on grammar as a linguistic discipline. Grammar is an extraordinary science that explains how a sublime feeling transpires as a word, how advaita (non-duality) becomes dvaita (duality), and how energy becomes matter. Rather than reducing this to a mere technique or restricting it as a tool of anthropology, we should absorb this holistically as a vyāyāma-śālā (gymnasium) or yajña-śālā (place where the ritual is performed) for all our sensitivities. For this, we first should understand the heart of Kannada words. That naturally implies that our vocabulary should grow seamlessly.

Translated by Raveendra Holla from the Kannada original. Edited by Hari Ravikumar. The original essay is titled ‘ಕನ್ನಡನುಡಿ-ಕನ್ನಡಸಂಸ್ಕೃತಿ’ and appears in the anthology ಭಾಷಭೃಂಗದ ಬೆನ್ನೇರಿ.


[1] Those interested further in this topic can refer to Kuvempu’s article in ದಾರ್ಶನಿಕ ಕಾವ್ಯ ಮೀಮಾಂಸೆ, pp. 1-13

[2] Translator’s note: For example, we should be careful not to become cynical about our language just because English has become the medium of all jobs and businesses; we should also be careful not to chant the ‘Kannada for everything’ mantra just because its power of expression is superior when it comes to describing our culture.

[3] Translator’s note: Without doubt, there is an organic connection between language and culture; however, worldly affairs like business and trade are not necessarily tied to a single culture or language.



Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.



Raveendra is a software engineer based in Bangalore. His interests revolve around mathematics, poetry, philosophy, and Kannada literature.

Prekshaa Publications

The Mahābhārata is the greatest epic in the world both in magnitude and profundity. A veritable cultural compendium of Bhārata-varṣa, it is a product of the creative genius of Maharṣi Kṛṣṇa-dvaipāyana Vyāsa. The epic captures the experiential wisdom of our civilization and all subsequent literary, artistic, and philosophical creations are indebted to it. To read the Mahābhārata is to...

Shiva Rama Krishna

சிவன். ராமன். கிருஷ்ணன்.
இந்திய பாரம்பரியத்தின் முப்பெரும் கதாநாயகர்கள்.
உயர் இந்தியாவில் தலைமுறைகள் பல கடந்தும் கடவுளர்களாக போற்றப்பட்டு வழிகாட்டிகளாக விளங்குபவர்கள்.
மனித ஒற்றுமை நூற்றாண்டுகால பரிணாம வளர்ச்சியின் பரிமாணம்.
தனிநபர்களாகவும், குடும்ப உறுப்பினர்களாகவும், சமுதாய பிரஜைகளாகவும் நாம் அனைவரும் பரிமளிக்கிறோம்.
சிவன் தனிமனித அடையாளமாக அமைகிறான்....

ऋतुभिः सह कवयः सदैव सम्बद्धाः। विशिष्य संस्कृतकवयः। यथा हि ऋतवः प्रतिसंवत्सरं प्रतिनवतामावहन्ति मानवेषु तथैव ऋतुवर्णनान्यपि काव्यरसिकेषु कामपि विच्छित्तिमातन्वते। ऋतुकल्याणं हि सत्यमिदमेव हृदि कृत्वा प्रवृत्तम्। नगरजीवनस्य यान्त्रिकतां मान्त्रिकतां च ध्वनदिदं चम्पूकाव्यं गद्यपद्यमिश्रितमिति सुव्यक्तमेव। ऐदम्पूर्वतया प्रायः पुरीपरिसरप्रसृतानाम् ऋतूनां विलासोऽत्र प्रपञ्चितः। बेङ्गलूरुनामके...

The Art and Science of Avadhānam in Sanskrit is a definitive work on Sāhityāvadhānam, a form of Indian classical art based on multitasking, lateral thinking, and extempore versification. Dotted throughout with tasteful examples, it expounds in great detail on the theory and practice of this unique performing art. It is as much a handbook of performance as it is an anthology of well-turned...

This anthology is a revised edition of the author's 1978 classic. This series of essays, containing his original research in various fields, throws light on the socio-cultural landscape of Tamil Nadu spanning several centuries. These compelling episodes will appeal to scholars and laymen alike.
“When superstitious mediaevalists mislead the country about its judicial past, we have to...

The cultural history of a nation, unlike the customary mainstream history, has a larger time-frame and encompasses the timeless ethos of a society undergirding the course of events and vicissitudes. A major key to the understanding of a society’s unique character is an appreciation of the far-reaching contributions by outstanding personalities of certain periods – especially in the realms of...

Prekṣaṇīyam is an anthology of essays on Indian classical dance and theatre authored by multifaceted scholar and creative genius, Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh. As a master of śāstra, a performing artiste (of the ancient art of Avadhānam), and a cultured rasika, he brings a unique, holistic perspective...


इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...