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April 28, 1999


Kerala lady becomes the first Muslim to earn doctorate in Sanskrit

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D Jose in Thiruvananthapuram

At a time when communal hatred plagues the countryside, Fathima Beevi has emerged as a symbol of hope.

Her claim to fame is that she is the first Muslim to obtain a doctorate in Advaita Vedanta.

Fathima had to cross several hurdles to attain her ambition. It was circumstances that forced her, the mother of two, to take up Sanskrit. It was compulsory for all students in her school attending class VI, VI and VII to learn the language She would, she admits, have settled for Malayalam or English if that wasn't so. She couldn't move to another school as hers was the only school in Kalady, where her father was posted as a nursing assistant.

Fathima developed a liking for the language and opted for it as additional language right through school and the first two years of college. When she was about to apply for graduation, her father, an ardent lover of Sanskrit, insisted that she would continue her studies only if she was prepared to take Sanskrit as her main subject.

Fathima graduated with first class and applied for post-graduation. But there was a hitch -- no college in Kalady or nearby areas offered Sanskrit. Thiruvananthapuram was the only place that had the option. However, her family was not prepared to send her there. They preferred that she married and settled down.

Fathima, however, was not ready for that yet. Strong persuasion from her teachers at the Sri Sankara college, Kalady who were impressed by her performance, compelled Fathima's parents to change their mind. Thus, she joined the Government Sanskrit college at Thiruvananthapuram.

Fathima, who secured first class in her post-graduation, had by now developed an irresistible liking for the language. She joined for M Phil at the Kerala University. However, a job offer at the Sanskrit college scuttled her plans. Her parents forced her to accept it.

Her marriage to a businessman saw her ambition of a doctorate not being fulfilled till nine years later. However, a transfer she got to the Sanskrit University at Kalady made it easy for her. She chose Dr G Gangadharan Nair, the Sanskrit department head at the university, as her guide. She submitted her thesis in three years.

"My father was my main inspiration," Fathima told Rediff On The NeT.

Fathima's father had developed a liking for the language after he learnt the basics from a patient whom he nursed. The patient, who thought his end had come, taught him the secrets of astrology, which Fathima's father used to study Vedic scripts and, thus, mastered the language.

Another important factor that went in Fathima's favour was her stay in Kalady. The place had emerged as one of the most prominent Sanskrit learning centres in Kerala.

Fathima, who has penned a book on philosophy in Sanskrit, feels that Sanskrit is a dying language in Kerala despite the millions poured in by the government to promote it. She said the number of students was declining even as more institutions were coming up.

"Even the Sanskrit teachers are reluctant to send their children," she said.

Fathima herself has drafted her eldest son to learn law and the younger one for engineering.

According to Fathima, the lack of job opportunities is the main factor dissuading the children to study the language. Besides teaching jobs, there is no other avenue to absorb talents.

Fathima never felt Sanskrit was more of a difficult language than the rest. However, she added, philosophy, which she specialised in, was hard. "It is interesting if one overcomes the initial hiccups," she said.

She said that learning Sanskrit has influenced her thinking and was instrumental in changing her outlook towards the life. "The reading of Sanskrit classics has helped me gain clarity and purity in thinking," she said.

Fathima did not face much opposition from her community while pursuing Sanskrit. Her husband was particularly encouraging. But that was not the case with his orthodox family. "It is difficult for them to accept a Muslim women scaling the heights in Sanskrit," she said.

Sanskrit has also helped her in understanding Hinduism in its correct perspective. "It is not as it is made out by some political parties. The Vedas do not speak of caste, creed and class. Like Islam, the basic thrust of the Vedas is the concept of a single god," she said. In fact, Fathima's next project is to write a book on the single god concept.

"I don't find any major difference in this regard between the Upanishad and Quran," Fathima said adding that she could not still reconcile with the propagation of Hindutva by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Her mind was still replete with fears about the aggressive approach of some of the Sangh Parivar members. The recent spate of attacks on minorities has only aggravated this feeling. Though Fathima does not mind the BJP trying to protect Hinduism, she feels that as a responsible party it should consider public opinion.

Fathima's only gripe is that busy work and family responsibilities have deprived her of time to consolidate her knowledge in Sanskrit. She said she was very serious about completing another book, the idea for which she has nursing for several years.

She wants to establish that the basic aim of all religious texts is self-realisation.

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