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If Sanskrit is to live on, it needs to be taught better

By Arundhuti Dasgupta
December 09, 2014 08:41 IST
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If the classical language is to live in India, its teachers and fans must separate their love for the language from that for the country or their religion, feels Arundhuti Dasgupta

The debate over Sanskrit has the country in thrall. Some are angry that German, which gives students access to a global education, has been given the short shrift. Others are jubilant that the glory of Sanskrit is being revived, while some question the rationale of teaching our children three languages.

Let us, for a moment, step away from the politics being played over language. The goal, ostensibly, is to make Sanskrit relevant to the young student. But will this be served by the way it is taught at our schools and universities? Not really; for that, we need a change in our attitude towards the language and in the pedagogic styles that we follow.

A few years ago I enrolled for a course in Sanskrit. Aghast, many of my friends thought that I was straying from sanity. Some put it down to mid-life crisis and others to a hidden sadistic streak. Why Sanskrit? That was the general response. 

Well, I made a feeble attempt to explain that I wanted to read some of the stories in the original and I wanted to study mythology and so…There was usually a polite smile before the conversation drifted to something else.

But it was true. I was drawn to the language for its literature. The words seemed to carry an entire universe within themselves; besides having made their way into the global lexicon.  Learning Sanskrit, I believed, would open the hidden doors to an ancient world of stories, people and places.A course

 in Sanskrit is like a course in culture and society, in the history of trade and economics and much more. For example, aubergine is what the French call brinjal but both the words for the vegetable have their origin in Sanskrit vatimgana. The word travelled with the Arabic traders and acquired an ‘al’ and became ‘al badinjan’.

It travelled further and in France, it changed to ‘aubadinjan’ and then, aubergine. It travelled to Portugal where the ‘al’, was dropped and it became ‘badinjan’ and subsequently brinjal which is how it travelled back to India when the Portuguese colonised parts of the country.

Sanskrit gives us an insight into the people who spoke it. The wry humour in its Subhasitams (aphorisms), the wit and sparkle in its Samvad (dialogue) and the unusual perspectives of its Natakas (plays) and Kavyas (poems) are illuminating.

The language and the way it was used and coded into a complex set of grammar rules and principles tell us how people lived, what made them laugh and what angered them; it lets us into the philosophical, linguistic and literary debates that raged in an ancient time.

Unfortunately, that is not what you get when you sign up for a course in India. In most colleges and schools, the emphasis is on grammar and spoken Sanskrit. This is the way all languages are taught, its teachers say. What’s wrong?

To begin with, Sanskrit was never really common lingo. It was the language of poets and playwrights. To expect students of the language to converse only in Sanskrit today is unrealistic. However, what is interesting is to see the languages and words that Sanskrit has spawned.

Another problem is that Sanskrit enthusiasts look at it as a tool to glorify our past. It becomes a way to assert our superiority over other civilisations. Sanskrit is devabhasha, or the language of the gods, which takes it out of the realm of natural languages. While that may be a great way to describe a beautiful language, it cannot form the basis for its study.

As J E H Smith, professor of philosophy and author (Nature, Human Nature and Human Difference: Race in Early Modern Philosophy) writes on his blog titled Why I’m studying Sanskrit: “Now in classical Indian philosophy the idea of a transcendental language that is channelled through human beings but that is not produced by them yields very interesting reflections about the nature of both language and meaning," he says.

"But as an understanding of language today, this theory can have no place among thoughtful, reasonable people,” he adds.

When I studied the language, I found that it was seen as a means to the reading of the Bhagavad Gita and for chanting mantras. Sanskrit was not a language to be loved but one that would help pursue better understanding of religion. No language can survive such abuse.

Sanskrit can be a window into a rich cultural and philosophical society that benefited from diverse and often opposing points of view. Read the Subhasitams, which are two-line or four-line aphorisms covering a wide range of subjects, and it becomes clear that this was a society that was not afraid to laugh at itself.

For instance there is one about old men who can take everything in their stride -- balding pate, wrinkled skin, walking sticks and dentures -- but not the fact that the young girls now call them grandfather.

And there is another that says we must heed those words that are strung together in a sensible manner and reject all else, even if they were spoken by Brihaspati (the guru of gods) himself.

The plays are a revelation, too, as are the Kavyas and the epics and even the manner in which the literature has been defined and categorised.

A mahakavya (Ramayana and Mahabharata are examples), for instance, must be broken down to cantos, must include a description of nature and the place where it is set, apart from telling a story that has a hero and several other characters.

A language takes years to develop and even longer before it can produce a complex system of classification for its literature.

If non-Sanskrit speakers have to appreciate the richness of its literature, it has to be made more accessible. And that does not mean setting up camps for speaking Sanskrit or Gita-chanting programmes.

Resources that offer easy to read translations of the texts online with well written commentaries may be enough. It has to be more about the legacy of the language and less about its obscure grammar rules or pronunciation. 

A Sanskrit teacher who taught at a Kendriya Vidyalaya asked me to join a batch of about 10 kids at her home if I was keen to learn the language. I did, where, to my horror, she proceeded to berate all the children for their inability to pronounce a word or conjugate a verb. There is more to the language than that.

At the university I attended, many of the Sanskrit classes were conducted almost entirely in Marathi. Marathi is a great language with its own set of riches but, for a student who knows neither language well, this is a sure way of ensuring that she never comes back.

If Sanskrit is to live on, it needs to be taught better, and universities in India must invest in creating resources just as their counterparts are doing across the world with Latin. 

Sanskrit too is being researched and studied with a great degree of rigour in several universities in the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom. To do the same in India its teachers and fans must separate their love for the language from that for the country or religion.

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Arundhuti Dasgupta
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