Building cultural bridges with Sanskrit

  • Vandana Ramnani, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jul 09, 2014 12:06 IST

India’s language of the scriptures is back in focus. A few weeks ago some members of the new government took their oath in Sanskrit. Following external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who incidentally is a graduate in Sanskrit, were water resources minister Uma Bharti, an ardent admirer of the Bhagawat Gita and health minister, Harsh Vardhan, who has studied at the Sanskrit Victoria Jubilee Senior Secondary School in Delhi.

That’s not all. Data on online applications to Delhi University this season has also indicated that English is not among the top 10 popular subjects but Sanskrit and French are the new trendsetters. While 78,135 students have applied to honours courses in Sanskrit and 75,356 for French, only 58,201 have applied for the all-time favourite English.

All this only goes to show that Sanskrit will be the flavour of the season not only for Indian students but also for a number of American students who participate every year in the Indian language programme organised by the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) based in Gurgaon.

Established in 1961, the AIIS is a consortium of 78 American colleges and universities that offer training in South Asian studies. It is supported by the US State Department. According to Purnima Mehta, director general, American Institute of Indian Studies, “Inter- cultural understanding begins with individuals who have language abilities. Without the ability to communicate and understand a culture on its own terms, true access to that culture is barred. A person competent in other languages can bridge cultures. I see learning other languages as becoming increasingly important.”

This year, Kashi Gomez from the University UC Berkeley’s department of south and southeast Asian Studies is participating in the Sanskrit summer programme. Earlier, Hamsa Stainton, a PhD candidate in the department of religion at Columbia University in New York City, worked on the topic: history of stotra literature in Kashmir.
Stotras, stutis and stavas — hymns of praise or praise-poems — are some of the most widespread and versatile compositions in Sanskrit. They have been popular across religious traditions for at least two millennia. Stainton’s focus was on a well-known but understudied collection of stotras from 14th century Kashmir: the Stutikusumãñjali of the Saiva poet and scholar Jagaddhara. He discussed how Jagaddhara attempts to preserve some of the Sanskrit literary traditions that have come before him, while also presenting his own innovative reflections on the stotra genre and a wide variety of religious practices and ideas. In doing so, he explored the power of Sanskrit poetry and prayer.

The institute offers both nine-month academic year and eight-week summer courses every year. Of the languages taught at the Institute, the Hindi programme continues to have the largest number of students.

In 2012, around 77 students studied Hindi during the summer language programme, while 82 students studied in 2013. The Sanskrit programme has had 150 students since 2001.

The course

The AIIS academic year programmes offer an incomparable experience of language immersion training. Participants typically become integrated into their host families and communities, experience the subcontinent’s changing seasons and the range of social and cultural practices associated with them, participate in numerous field trips and have other opportunities to travel within India, besides working individually with local experts on major projects relevant to their planned area of academic research.
The language programmes are located in cities and states where the respective target language predominates: Jaipur (Hindi); Lucknow (Urdu); Kolkata (Bengali); Madurai (Tamil); Chandigarh (Punjabi); Pune (Marathi and Sanskrit); Ahmedabad (Gujarati); Hyderabad (Telugu); Mysore (Kannada); and Thiruvananthapuram (Malayalam).

Although the programmes vary considerably in size, each programme centre contains classrooms, a library with target-language materials, computer learning stations, a kitchen and dining area, and staff office space. Students are normally housed with target-language-speaking families in the area.

A two-way exchange

Oxford University offers a three-year BA in Oriental Studies (Sanskrit), a BA in Classics and Oriental Studies and a BA in Theology and Oriental Studies.

Sanskrit continues to be taught in Harvard University, too. Harvard’s first course in the language was introduced in 1872. James Bradford Greenough first taught Sanskrit here in 1872. In the 1880s Harvard established the Department of Indo-Iranian Languages, and in 1903, Charles Rockwell Lanman became the first incumbent of the Wales Professorship of Sanskrit

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