Why bother with Sanskrit?

Why schools fail to make Sanskrit exciting for students

The success of Sanskrit at the school level is predicated on the quality of textbook content and the nature of instruction

 |  Why bother with Sanskrit?  |  7-minute read |   03-04-2015
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In what might seem to some as the ultimate post-colonial irony, a British exam board is promoting its curriculum and certification for Sanskrit in India. CIE, the Cambridge International Examinations board has been in talks with a number of Indian schools to explore the possibility of students sitting the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) in 2016. The curriculum was created by the Sanskrit faculty at St James School, which has been teaching Sanskrit in London for nearly four decades. Their textbooks are published by Motilal Banarasidass, and carry a foreword by Prof Satya Vrat Shastri, chairman of a commission set up by the Modi government to "assess the present status of Sanskrit education and integrate the language into the modern education system". The Sanskrit faculty at St James will also offer teacher training to schools that subscribe to the curriculum.

Please don't get me wrong. I'm intimate with the CIE exam and have great respect for the curriculum as for the commitment of the faculty at St James. I regularly recommend their textbooks to beginners and enthusiasts. But it does beg the question - what ails our exam boards, our curricula and our teaching methods that we would have to look beyond our shores for a solution? What ails Sanskrit learning at school level in India?

Growing up in the '70s, Sanskrit was compulsory at school, so much so that if you failed in class eight, you could not sit the main board exam two years later. Not that it endeared us to Sanskrit. On the contrary. Today, the situation is different. Sanskrit is optional, competing with non-Indian languages (French, German, Spanish, Mandarin) in some parts of the country, and with Indian vernaculars in others, to be third language. What implication if any does this altered scenario have on Sanskrit learning and teaching?

The success or failure of Sanskrit to endear itself to students seems to be predicated largely on the quality of textbook content and the nature of instruction. South Delhi parent Malini Mehta is singularly unimpressed by both. "Forget the relevance of Sanskrit - the books are so boring and it is so poorly taught that I feel like I would be wasting my son's time by making him take the subject." Is it that schools are unable to communicate with boards like CBSE who decide the curriculum and text books?

Padma Bhushan, Padma Shri Shyama Chona, erstwhile principal of Delhi Public School says there are more than sufficient mechanisms for teachers to share views and feedback with school boards. Veera Pandey, CBSE coordinator for Amity School, Noida concurs. "We have regular seminars, workshops and many points of contact." The chasm between education providers and recipients is evident. Chandigarh based IT professional @SNChdtakes a dim view of the teaching method, "Schools use what can be called 'Grammar Translation Method' where there is too much emphasis on learning grammar initially rather than learn Sanskrit as a living language."

Maya Menon, founder-director of The Teacher Foundation, Bangalore, agrees with the parents. The foundation offers courses which help teachers acquire innovative teaching skills. "Just recently I observed a Sanskrit lesson in progress at a local school, and the kids were spellbound. So much depends on how a teacher engages students," she says. Sridhar Rajan, Delhi based educator, feels that teacher training programmes would be enhanced by a dedicated module for languages. "General teaching skills are part innate, part acquired, but to teach a language well you need a specific skill set which our teacher training courses have overlooked," he suggests. Nor should the process end with a BEd or MEd. "We'd be able to raise the bar continuously if teachers had access to focus groups, discussion forums, new material and new ideas."

Colin Sandison Smith who teaches languages at one of Surrey's leading schools shares the resources placed at his disposal. "There are support platforms where all language teachers can share best practices as well as problems. We have access to webinars and other tools from organisations such as Association for Language Learning which keep us up to date with the latest in language teaching and acquisition. We have access to excellent teaching material, courtesy bodies like Deutsche Welle, BBC and TV5. We immerse our kids in week long residential programmes in the country of their chosen language. Locally, we take them to plays and performances which enliven their learning experience."

At the school level in India, it would seem then, that Sanskrit suffers from three key problems - pedagogic approach, resources and relevance. With a good teacher, the paucity of resources can be offset, as in the case of Rytim Vohra, who opted to study Sanskrit at Delhi's Vasant Valley School. "Our teacher was so amazing, that the textbooks didn't matter. Sanskrit was fun, besides being an ancient language that spoke to us culturally." Not so the case for Anshula Bakshi, senior consultant at a global management consultancy firm. "Sanskrit was taught poorly, boring, and to be very honest, I didn't see how it would help university applications or job prospects," she says candidly. She studied French instead.

Given the perceived lack of relevance and the competitive environment, serious thought needs to be given to how Sanskrit should be taught today. Bangalore University plans Bachelor of Education courses for foreign languages. Jeevan Kuman, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Department of Foreign Language recognises that "…teaching a [foreign] language is not easy." Commendable insight. It would be wonderful to see similar empathy for and commitment to Sanskrit. And if the HRD ministry feels the urge to make something compulsory, instead of the language itself, perhaps they should train their sights on improvements in teacher training.

In formulating solutions, education expert Meeta Sengupta (@meetasengupta) is frustrated by how difficult it is to get even the most basic information. How many schools in the country teach Sanskrit? How many Sanskrit teachers are there? Where are they located? How can they be reached? And what of the myriad of central and state boards each with their own policy? Repeated requests to the HRD minister, on Twitter for instance, have fallen on deaf ears. "Is it really necessary to have to use RTI for this kind of information?" she muses.

Lakshmi Iyer (@lakshmisiyer), director and head of education advisory at Sannam S4 concurs. "We must have more systematic access to accurate information. We don't even know for certain how many children there are in the system. 200 million children from class one to ten, of which about 70 per cent are in the public system - is a rough estimate. Nor do we have accurate information on policies regarding Sanskrit," says Iyer. Sengupta would like to kick start a debate on the best practice in Sanskrit pedagogy. "The first step is to organise a Sanskrit teachers' conference. Improvements in teaching materials and methods will go a long way in helping Sanskrit," she says. The issue of relevance still remains, and needs much deeper consideration.

sanksrit-1_040315054007.jpg Agnihotrayajña at Mogly's Gurukul.

While we wait for the government's special commission to come back with its findings, the proposed Sanskrit Teachers Conference to materialise, and while we meditate on the relevance of Sanskrit, is there another way? Perhaps there is. Nestled in the glass and concrete that is Gurgaon, one chances upon a sylvan oasis - Mogly's gurukul. Brain child of sisters Praketa and Gayatri Luthra, this pre-school blends Montessori teaching with a traditional gurukula curriculum. "We don't think it is necessary to jettison the modern for the traditional or vice versa. Why shouldn't our kids have the best of both?" asks Gayatri. The day at Mogly's Gurukul begins with an agnihotrayajña. Lessons are interspersed with Sanskrit mantras, nature walks, special farm days with activities like milking cows, storytelling, and art and craft to better understand festivals like Shivratri, Navratri, Holi and the upcoming Baisakhi. "Sanskrit is not a chore. Powerful Vedic chants string lessons together, and become second nature."

sanskrit-2_040315053951.jpg 

 

sanskrit-3_040315054637.jpg Shivratri poster meant to teach kids about Lord Shiva.

In fact Mogly's says it's never too early to start. "We believe that a child begins learning from the time it is in its mother's womb. Therefore we have programs for expecting mums as well," Luthra says. So while the issues around Sanskrit wheeze and shuffle along waiting to be resolved, I am reminded by St James and Mogly's, perhaps not inappropriately, of the Nike tag line. "Just do it."

Writer

Rohini Bakshi Rohini Bakshi @rohinibakshi

Sanskrit junkie&founder #SanskritAppreciationHour.Indian Army.Womens' Empowerment.Justice for #1984.Devout Hindu.Egalitarian.Liberal.

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