Why bother with Sanskrit?

What's with Sanskrit on Twitter?

If Sanskrit elevates you, keep it close. And if it oppresses you, in the words of Sun Tzu, "Keep it even closer".

 |  Why bother with Sanskrit?  |  6-minute read |   15-02-2015
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"Sanskrit" invariably launches standard and antipodal tropes - it is the language of the Vedas, of God - it has oppressed women and "lower" castes; its death is the death of Indian culture - its success is the death of regional and vernacular culture; it is elitist and denied to the masses - it is being forced on the masses through compulsory education; it is the privilege of the elite - it is domain of HMTs ("Hindi-medium types"). The oppositions are inherent and seemingly intractable. Underlying this is cacophonous political rhetoric and a distressingly patchy discourse. It's a wonder that Sanskrit stands a chance at all.

Yet on Twitter, a small but growing community is bracketing out the clamour and pursuing the study of Sanskrit with enthusiasm and dedication. The motley crew includes a software engineer yajurvedī in Stockholm, a New York Jew who's addicted to Sanskrit literature, a Sanskrit glot IIS Bangalore student, a Namboodiri Brahmin from Guruvayoor, Kerala and Pakistani Punjabi in Kuala Lumpur, to name but a few. Congregating around a platform called Sanskrit Appreciation Hour, the group today is just shy of 7,500 followers.

People who flock to this community want to learn Sanskrit for various reasons - religious, literary, grammatical, philosophical, mythological, scientific - but share a fundamental belief. That Sanskrit is a key to a treasure trove of information, refreshingly original and deeply satisfying. That its value in preserving ancient knowledge both religious and profane is incalculable. Most complain about how badly it is taught at school, and rue the lack of courses and teachers for adults. To fill this gap, Sanskrit Hour stalwarts like Bangalore-based engineer Sudarshan HS have gone on to become volunteer teachers. "It began with Sanskrit Hour on Twitter and I've never looked back," says Sudarshan.

Twitter was an unlikely choice to promote an ancient language. Sanskritist Bibek Debroy was supportive but cautious. "If you manage 1,000 followers, I'd say you've done very well," he said. Serendipitous was Twitter's accessibility, highly democratic nature and its ability to erase boundaries. Geographical location, age, gender, religion, politics, caste - nothing is an inhibitor. Exactly what Sanskrit needs. On a platform where acrimony and abuse are a tweet away, participants are required to leave their politics and personal beliefs outside the sessions, in the same way that would remove their slippers before they entered a traditional class. "As an Indian, Sanskrit is a part of my heritage, and I always feel very welcome at Sanskrit Appreciation Hour," says Kashif-ul-Huda, editor of TwoCircles.net. "I don't have time to take a course, but I get to learn a lot in each session," he adds.

A key reason for a lot of people to learn Sanskrit is to understand stotras and stutis they have hitherto chanted by rote. But not for everyone. Aman Sharma, a law student at Symbiosis, Pune says, "God can understand me in any language". He wants to learn Sanskrit to read the dharma sutras and understand their relationship to Indian law. Software engineer Hari Tirumalai finds that he understands the logic behind Indian customs much better after reading dharma and gṛhyasūtras. "There is little or no chance of misrepresentation when you read the original," says Hari. "People visibly straighten up with respect when I tell them I learn and teach Sanskrit," He adds.

Some like art appreciator Binita Dayal excelled at Sanskrit in school, but had little cause to continue. Others never got the opportunity. Gayatri Luthra, who was schooled in Mumbai says "We had to choose between Marathi and French." She leads a satsang along with family members at her Shanti Niketan residence in Delhi. "We do Gita pāṭh, and mantra jāpa with meanings everyday, but I never got to learn Sanskrit properly." She would like to read the scriptures in Sanskrit and interpret them herself rather than depend on translations by others. She plans to learn Sanskrit systematically when her daughters are old enough to take it at school.

16-year-old Kaamya Talwar, a student at one of Delhi's premier private schools enjoys Sanskrit "because of the way it is taught here". Having returned to India after living in the UK for many years, she finds that learning Sanskrit has helped strengthen her value system and deepened her connection to India and her understanding of Hindi. However, she is unlikely to continue with it. Neither will Aman and Aadit Adlakha, students at Delhi Public School, RK Puram. Their mother Priti says, "We neither encouraged nor discouraged them, but they have to find it relevant to continue."

A perceived lack of relevance is exacerbated by the din of controversy. The vociferous claims to scientific, medical and mathematical advances made in ancient times has been double-edged. High court advocate Saideepak wonders if Sanskrit and controversy will always go hand in hand. With Sanskrit it's never a discussion, it's always a debate, he observes. Golfer Malini Mehta, who is allergic to a key allopathic formulation, was very nearly discouraged from learning Sanskrit for this reason. The nature of the discourse grates on her nerves. "I've heard about the Charaka Samhita and want to study it in Sanskrit, but some of the claims people make are so bizarre, I think it might be a waste of my time."

And then there is the oppressive power of Sanskrit. It is the language of the textual tradition of Hinduism and one that scripts normativity. Aware of the healing and wounding properties of ancient texts, the rallying cry of Sanskrit Appreciation Hour is "Learn Sanskrit and read the scriptures yourself". In the words of Ramakrishna Paramhans, "Take the sugar with the sand". Texts of a certain antiquity in all traditions contain ideas that are antinomic to modern liberal sensibilities. Rather than denial or apologetics Sanskrit Hour begs that people read the texts in toto and choose those parts that make the spirit soar. If Sanskrit elevates you, keep it close. And if it oppresses you, in the words of Sun Tzu, "Keep it even closer". Whichever side of the fence you are on - there's every reason to learn Sanskrit.

Access to Sanskrit for those outside the ritual, liturgical and courtly realms was an unintended consequence of the colonial project of English translation. A process which has been taken to the next level by social media. Twitter has spawned an eclectic following from Canada to New Zealand. Along with the philosophes and the devout, Sanskrit Appreciation Hour attracts that young lady who wants to verify the spelling of her tattoo. That young boy who wants to impress a certain girl. That band which composes hard metal songs in Sanskrit. A Sanskrit 2.0, if you will. At the end of the day, Sanskrit is a vehicle of the entire range of human expression It can be stern and didactic but also irreverent, humorous and intensely erotic. Learn it. Find out for yourself.


Rohini Bakshi Rohini Bakshi @rohinibakshi

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

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