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Why China's intellectuals are turning to Sanskrit

Ananth Krishnan
Ananth KrishnanSep 05, 2015 | 18:37

Why China's intellectuals are turning to Sanskrit

In China, there's a quiet - but no less remarkable - revival under way of the unlikeliest kind. Over the past few weeks, 120 Chinese - a group of highly qualified intellectuals, scholars, graduate students and artists - have been gathering in the old town of Hangzhou - famed in China for its beauty of hills and lakes and cultural history, but known today as the centre of IT in China and the home of e-commerce giant Alibaba. For the first time in a decade, the Hangzhou Buddhism Institute has resumed classes teaching Sanskrit. This resumption, organisers say, comes amid a wider campaign by the Xi Jinping government to promote traditional culture. But what's striking, according to teachers at the institute, is the demand for Sanskrit.

"Normally, my Sanskrit classes comprise of no more than 20 students each year. I was quite astonished to learn from Dr Li that he has such a large response from Chinese students," Konrad Meisig, dean of the Institute of Indology of the Mainz University, told Chinese media. The classes are being taught by Chinese scholar Li Wei, who has a doctorate from Meisig's university. Interestingly, when the institute offered classes in 2004, there was "little interest", according to Gang Xiao, a teacher with the school. Meisig suggested in an interview that the revival was on account of "a huge amount of interest and craving for knowledge about foreign cultures in China".

In the case of Sanskrit and China, there appears to be more than that at play. The interest in Sanskrit appears part of a wider curiosity about Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy, including Tibetan Buddhism, among white-collar, educated, urban Chinese. This struck me when I visited the thriving Sanskrit programme at China's most elite school, Peking University in Beijing, or Beida as it is known here. Satyavrat Shastri, a renowned Sanskrit scholar who has visited Beijing to teach intermittently at Beida, told me on one visit a couple of years ago that there was also deep interest in unravelling a trove of rich - but forgotten - Sanskrit manuscripts found in Tibet. There certainly was deep passion and interest among the young Chinese enrolled at Beida. Their pronunciation as they recited shlokas was particularly impressive. Perhaps what was even more impressive was their deep desire to learn about a classical, ancient language from a neighbouring country at a time when many in India themselves feel that patronage of this old language is on the wane.

Beida's Sanskrit connection goes back more than five decades, when the renowned Chinese Indologist Ji Xianlin started the programme, blessed by then Premier Zhou Enlai who was keen to foster cultural ties with India -- that was before 1962. The programme today wants to keep alive the late Ji's contribution, which includes what are considered brilliant translations of Indian epics that have been read widely in China. Beida is training more than 50 students who could, if they persevere mastering this most complex of linguistic traditions, play a crucial role in boosting not only India's but the world's knowledge of Sanskrit by supporting the ongoing effort to translate the lost palm-leaves of Tibet.

Yet one source of sadness that I heard at Beida was their limited engagement with Indian universities. More Sanskrit teachers in China appear to have been supported and taught by German schools - such as Mainz University - which also have a long tradition of Sanskrit study. Students have told me of difficulties in securing short-term opportunities to study in Indian universities, which either show little interest in China or are bound by bureaucratic fixations that enable little cooperation with overseas institutes that may follow different procedures. (Not to mention a continuing difficulty with obtaining visas to attend conferences, which are often held up, I heard, because of a policy requiring Chinese scholars to obtain home ministry clearances, which on occasion do not arrive in time.)

So Chinese students turn not to India but to the West to fulfil their passions for Sanskrit. Wei Xiuxiu, 24, a graduate of an art school in China, bemoaned in an interview with the Shanghai Daily the reliance on Western English translations to learn Indian philosophy. "I hope one day I can read the original works and even do the translation," she said. Wei recalled how her love of Sanskrit began - an explanation that sounded familiar to me following my visit to Beida. "Although these alphabets seem so distant and are so difficult to recognise," she said, "the moment I read it out loud, I could feel the power of the ancient words."

Last updated: September 05, 2015 | 18:37
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