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A language that goes beyond words

There is more to Sanskrit than comprehending the wisdom contained in the Vedas and the Upanishads

education Updated: Nov 05, 2013 15:25 IST
Proyashi Barua

There is a general misconception that Sanskrit is a language that is just related to the traditions of Hindu worship. “Arts and aesthetics, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, logic and reasoning, climatology and Indian calendrical science have a profound and an intrinsic connection with the language, especially when it comes to advanced research,” says Dr Satyamurti, assistant professor of Sanskrit at Delhi University.

Needless to say, the knowledge of Sanskrit helps students and researchers gain better insight into Indian culture and heritage. Knowledge of this language is indispensable for all researchers of ancient Indian history. This is because ancient Indian history cannot be understood correctly without a thorough comprehension of the Vedas and the Upanishads, which were originally written in Sanskrit. “Today, however, most of the researchers of ancient Indian history, especially the scholars of the western world, have no knowledge of Sanskrit. They rely on the translated versions of the original texts and manuscripts which are full of mistakes. This is a serious problem on account of which there have been an increasing number of instances of misrepresentation of ancient Indian history,” rues Satyamurti.

Interestingly, it is not just the body of text-heavy subjects that share potent interfaces with this language. “Courses that come under the umbrella of vocational education, such as hairstyling, dress designing and cosmetology, to name a few, share the same interfaces,” informs Satyamurti. He goes on to explain, “Students of Sanskrit study aesthetics, which is a fairly vast subject with several branches. For instance, dramatics has a close connection with aesthetics. Now within drama, students are exposed to the different ways in which actors of ancient times used to dress. They also get to familiarise themselves with the accessories, jewellery and hairstyles of those times. This knowledge becomes very handy for those who want to branch out to creative fields and develop signature brands that are rooted in ancient Indian traditions.”

Initiatives abroad
Given the sheer efficacy of the language, both in a classical and contemporary context, it is not surprising then that universities not just in India but across the world are doing their bit to strengthen and improve the existing traditions of teaching Sanskrit. The University of Rome is one such example. “The chair of Sanskrit was instituted at the University of Rome in the year 1891,” says Raffaele Torella, who currently holds the chair. “And the response to our Sanskrit department has always been very encouraging. Our applicant pool has not just represented a multitude of cultures and civilisations, it has also been heterogeneous in terms of academic backgrounds. In other words, we don’t just have students who earlier studied literature, philosophy or arts. In fact, some of our students are qualified engineers,” he adds. The students have predominantly hailed from various parts of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas.

The University of Rome is committed to improving the standards in terms of teaching and learning Sanskrit. “In most universities (including a few prominent Indian universities) the teaching mainly follows traditional methodology, with limited concern for modern linguistics. Moreover, there is no philological approach and space for original research work is very limited. In our university we are very proactive in terms of addressing these fundamental issues. Also, our advanced students start working with manuscripts quite early on in the course and undertake original research in various fields,” informs Torella.

And in DU
Citing some initiatives undertaken by Delhi University, Satyamurti says, “Our Sanskrit department is planning to organise an international conference on modern Vedanta in March. A similar conference is expected to be organised on Vedic phonology and the different styles of Vedic chanting would be preserved in a language lab. The lab, a first of its kind, is expected to be set up as and when the UGC approves the same in the 12th plan.”

Torella and Satyamurti are in agreement that today it is mostly the mediocre minds that enroll for higher studies in Sanskrit. “This is a pity because of all the oriental languages, Sanskrit is the most complex and comprehending this complexity clearly requires above-average intelligence,” observes Torella.

So what needs to be done to attract the best brains to the subject? “There is a serious need for granting more funds by way of scholarships. Without improved funding even the bilateral agreements between universities (mostly concerning student and faculty exchange programmes) get adversely impacted,” says Torella. In support of this statement, he elaborates, “The University of Rome has a bilateral agreement with Jadavpur University. While we have been able to send our students (five in one year) to Kolkata by dint of scholarships, they have been unable to do the same. This is because the scholarship amount of the incoming students (Jadavpur University) is not adequate to cover the cost of living at Rome. So despite the fact that students don’t have to pay for university fees here they still are at a disadvantage.”

According to Torella, people by and large are unaware of emerging career opportunities in this field. “For instance, not many people know that a degree in Sanskrit can open up additional scope in the editorial world. This is because editing certain books on Indian culture does require one to have at least a basic command of Sanskrit. Today, many yoga ashrams across the world require their instructors to be knowledgeable in Sanskrit,” says Torella.

The need of the hour

There is a serious need for granting more funds by way of scholarships
Without improved funding even the bilateral agreements between universities get adversely impacted
People should be made aware of emerging career opportunities in this field
Not many people know that a degree in Sanskrit can open up additional scope in the editorial world
Many yoga ashrams across the world also require their instructors to be knowledgeable in Sanskrit