January 16, 2021
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Sanskrit Education: Bowing Our Heads To Tradition?

Looking backwards, inwards or finding one's roots -- the why, what and how (and how not) to teach Sanskrit

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Sanskrit Education: Bowing Our Heads To Tradition?
Teaching Vedic Sanskrit in Kerala: svara (accents) -- rising tone, head up; falling tone, head down
Adelaide deMenil (courtesy: J.F.Staal, Agni, vol. I, Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press 1983, p 181)
Sanskrit Education: Bowing Our Heads To Tradition?

Recently, there have been moves to strengthen the position of Sanskrit in schools and colleges. This is the time, therefore, to reflect critically on the teaching of Sanskrit and the culture its represents.

Like some other great civilizations such as those of China, Japan or Europe, Indian culture can look back to several thousands years of continuity. Other early civilizations, such as those of Old Egypt and Mesopotamia have undergone great changes, starting with the influence of the ancient Persians and Greeks and then notably Islam -- changes that have largely overlaid the old indigenous foundations as to render them almost invisible.

These influences affect most of the superstructure, the 'ideology' of the cultures involved, even though many individual ideas and beliefs continue on the popular and folklore levels. India and China, too, have both been affected time and again by foreign influences and even by the domination of outsiders. This began with the Persians and various Central Asian steppe peoples.

But, both cultures have managed to keep their inherent structure intact, modified as it may have been by each encounter. Due to such influences, the world view, say, of a modern Taiwanese is by no means identical or comparable with that of a citizen of the Tang period, or of Confucian times, or of the still earlier Shang kingdom of northern China.

One should not forget, as is often done, and nowadays even on purpose, that the same applies to modern Indians as well. The man in the street in Mathura, Chennai or Gopalpur village looks at the world in a way markedly different from that of a trader of the Gupta period or a Panjab Vaishya of Rigvedic times.

Both China and India have also kept their old language and literature intact, in differing ways and for different historical reasons. Even in communist China, Mao wrote classically inspired poems which were prominently posted. Not to speak about other countries with a deep appreciation, indeed a love of their past, such as Japan, Israel, Greece or Italy. Japan, for example, is now running a large and comprehensive Government sponsored program, the "Reconstitution of Classics" (which includes all the classical cultures from Rome to Japan)


The Japanese have done that for a good reason. Contemporary people usually forget that wherever we look, we are surrounded by our past: by ancient buildings, rituals, music, and even everyday customs (such as, in India, the habit of women eating only after the men have finished, a custom already attested in the early Yajurveda).

Obviously, in order to understand what we are and how we live today, we have to study the past in a critical and comprehensive fashion. This must be done, as in the Japanese Classics project, through a study of the ancient texts. In India, most of them have been composed in the classical language, Sanskrit, which is important for the traditions of more than 80% of the population.

However, Sanskrit is followed on its heels by early Tamil Sangam literature and early Tamil inscriptions date from the second century BCE, as will be seen in the forthcoming edition by Iravatham Mahadevan (2001).

And, there are classical texts for other larger or smaller sections of the population: the Pali and Tibetan canons of Buddhism, the Gurugranth, the Quran, the Bible, the mythological texts of the Munda, Khasi or Manipur peoples. This variety is a great asset of India and should not be neglected or even suppressed.

Sanskrit, though a classical language, is still alive, in a fashion: it is not quite as "dead" as Latin in the west, where only catholic priests occasionally still converse in it and regularly broadcast it from the Vatican. Publishing in Latin had definitely ceased by 1900 CE.

In India, on the contrary, Sanskrit is not only printed but actually spoken: according to the last census of 1991, by 49,736 people, though not as mother tongue. And, Sanskrit permeates Indian culture even more than Latin did the European.

In both Asian subcontinents, the European and the Indian, the classical languages also have a number of other functions. Importantly, they provide building blocks for forming neologisms for new inventions, such as television, exactly copied as dura-darshana 'far-seeing' in Sanskrit, Hindi, etc.

In fact, there has been a secret Sanskritization of all languages of the Indian Union since independence. At that time some scholars, such as Raghu Vira, strove to have Sanskrit instituted as the national language. This was not to be -- in spite of token adherence such as Sanskrit printed on Rupee notes and the daily, five minute news broadcast.

Yet, the Sanskritized administrative and scholarly vocabulary has increased exponentially, from pradhana mantri to jala vidyut ayoga (hydel project). In that sense, Sanskrit already is the second national language.


If we agree, that classical languages such as Sanskrit are important for our self-image and for our sense of feeling at home in our own traditions, it must be deliberated how to proceed, in theory and practice, with its study.

Three separate aspects are to be distinguished: (1) the process of learning of an ancient language, (2) the actual reading of ancient texts (either in Sanskrit, or accompanied by a good modern translation), and (3) an understanding of the ancient texts (discussed in modern languages). Each point is discussed below.

Learning and Teaching Sanskrit

The present discussion in India whether one should learn an old, 'nearly extinct' classical language or not has also raged in other countries, and for decades.

All over Europe and America, the teaching of Latin (not to speak of Greek) has been slashed, though each larger town usually still has Latin in at least one high school, and some offer classical Greek as well.

The argument usually was that we rather should study other, 'more important' things than a 'dead' language. This completely overlooks the foundational value of our classical languages.

Also, it must be noted that all of this 'reform' has not improved the standard of education in any of the countries where the US system has been imitated. Complaints about European and especially about American high school standards abound.

However, learning a classical language such as Sanskrit has a value of its own, apart from the link it provides with one's living past, identity and sense of well-being within one's culture. Certainly, students everywhere complain about such 'unnecessary' and laborious extra tasks. But they overlook that such learning helps to train one's mind in certain ways that one cannot achieve by learning modern languages such as English or French.

In Sanskrit (or Latin), you have to think in complex structures. The more complicated the better, though certainly not in first grade, but gradually, as pupils' minds develop. Other possible choices of languages, say modern Japanese, are useful but not quite as difficult (the complex script apart), as the Japanese grammatical structure and thus the way to express oneself and even to think is surprisingly close to that of Hindi or Tamil.

In the actual teaching of Sanskrit or any other classical language, mindless learning by rote of one declension and verb class after another has to be abolished. This discourages most students at once.

The necessary memorization of certain important features of the language must be accompanied by pointing out the inherent cultural features and special meanings (now lost or changed) of certain words and concepts, or by showing the differences in the structure of the Sanskrit language when compared with, say Hindi, Tamil or Mundari. It is high time that new, really pedagogical tools for teaching the language are developed.

Reading and Interpretation

Once students have progressed beyond Beginner's Sanskrit, they can start reading the old texts in class and by themselves, beginning with comparatively easy stories, such as those in the Mahabharata, Ramayana or parts of the Gita. As it is the case in the study of texts in any other classical language, it can and should be done with a critical bent of mind.

This means: without constant reference to traditional commentaries or religious teachers. To do so would be to base modern teaching on an uncritical belief in the myth of the infallibility of the great commentators. Sanskrit texts are usually taught with a heavy reliance on such medieval commentaries, that means, reliance on people who often are as distant from the original culture of the texts as we are today.

Commentators help, but they do not know more or better than Sanskrit specialists do now. When first establishing a critical understanding of Sanskrit texts some two hundred years ago, such commentaries have been very useful. But by now we have enough tools and aids (dictionaries, grammars, indexes, specialized studies, etc.) that allow us to come to our own conclusions, to supplement or even correct the commentaries.

In today's world, students have to see themselves what the texts really have to tell, rather than to be taught ex cathedra by a modern guru or a medieval scholastic. If proceeding in critical fashion, students will gradually improve their knowledge of the cultural and religious background of the period of the text in question and will gain a better understanding of the texts. In other words, such critical reading leads to self-reliance and self-emancipation.

Just as reading the Bible by oneself in Latin or in translation set off a wave of reform in Christianity some 500 years ago, the renewed study of the foundational texts of Indian culture and of Hinduism, including the difficult and archaic Vedas, will enlighten the average student or citizen -- provided he/she is willing to be drawn into the matter, to invest some time, and if one does not blindly follow traditional interpretations or sectarian teachings.

Initially, it does not even matter too much if the reader erroneously projects certain modern concepts back in time: this will be remedied as soon as one progresses in reading and if one is willing to pay close attention to the texts.

There is no need to belabor the fact that Sanskrit Literature is a very rich one, from old religious texts (Veda, Puranas) to the great epics, from classical dramas to historical inscriptions, and on to medicine, law, Machiavellian state craft, agriculture, etc. Even the science of gems, cook books, and the art of thievery (Shanmukhakalpa) are found.

All these traditions represent the foundation and often also the spiritual support of what makes up today's Indians, due to the implicit values found in the texts, values that are often imperceptibly transmitted and imbibed from childhood onwards.

In short, there is a whole new world to be discovered, which is now shut off to average Hindus, just because they have to rely on a limited range of traditional teachings and informal beliefs. The situation reminds me of a novel I read long ago, of how a village woman learned to read and write and, on reading the Mahabharata in translation, found strength in the Epic women's character to emancipate herself. Knowledge is power, everywhere and any time.


Even a little Sanskrit will help the average reader to control and check translations as well as medieval and modern scholars' commentaries. It will allow readers to see through much of what is bandied about now -- such as a never-changing Hinduism (sanatana dharma), Ram's golden age, the supposedly egalitarian role of women in the Vedic period, the autochthonous 'Aryans', and so on.

Much of the literature, especially the more difficult texts, can and perhaps should be read in good modern translations, which can, however, be checked by someone who has learned some Sanskrit.

This is not utopian at all: for example, in Japanese high schools one reads, next to a lot of old and modern Japanese and next to some translated Western literature, also old Chinese literature in the original Chinese characters (kambun, with some Japanese annotations); or, in my own high school, we did so with respect to some of the old European texts (partially, with modern translations attached).

In India, one could emulate such systems, but one should also include the other traditions represented, whether Tamil, Islamic, or else they should at least be taught in eclectic, paradigmatic fashion as to give an inkling of the enormous variety of cultures actually present in the subcontinent.

Beauty lies in variety and diversity, not in boring uniformity. Inclusivism should be the watchword, not a monolithic exclusion of 'unwanted' or worse, "un-Indian" traditions. Which brings us to the next point.

Changing World Views

Most important would be a serious effort by the teachers of Sanskrit language and texts to let their students understand the world view (weltanschauung) of the texts they read. As indicated, a Vedic merchant, a Gupta time trader and a modern Baniya certainly are not the same kind of person. Their outlook has changed several times over: too much water has flown down the Ganga since.

For example, around the beginning of the Common Era ("A.D."), a relative openness to other cultures and religions prevailed, due to the prominence of Buddhism and Jainism in Indian culture. This was furthered by the many open corridors and links with West and Central Asia, especially in Kushana times.

However, during the more inward looking Gupta times and certainly later on, such contacts persisted at a much lower level. (Incidentally, we may now live just at such a critical turning point, again: the question is whether India will turn inward again or whether she will continue keep an open mind towards a variety of influences, from west and east).

Later on, during the Middle Ages, the strong Muslim and West Asian influence again affected many aspects of daily life, from cooking to greetings. And the more recent British (European) and now the 'global' (American) influences again have seriously changed peoples' outlook.

Such changes and their reflection in the literature of the times must be studied and laid out clearly by teachers. The commonly found stress on mindlessly regurgitating college handbooks does not help in the development of critical thinking, and the traditional stress on the "unchanging nature" of Hinduism obfuscates much of the development of Indian thought. In fact, it falsifies history.

However, students can benefit greatly from the exposure to the very facts of the ancient and medieval texts themselves. Especially so when taught in an enlightened way, as I remember even now from my own high school days. I had the good luck to have some excellent University level teachers, all refugees of conscience from communist East Germany, who made precisely that effort, and taught at college level even in high school. You carry this influence with you for life.

In studying the old texts, it will come as a shock to a young mind that people even 300 or years ago did not think at all as we do now. There was little reason then, e.g., of voluntarily leaving one's own traditional surroundings, and of crossing the ocean (kala pani) -- which was not a thing to be done.

Few then wanted, as former US ambassador to India in Kennedy's time, J.K. Galbraith, has quipped recently, "to be reborn on the banks of the Hudson," while we now have more than a million people from South Asia who have chosen to do so, and who have quickly developed their own views of India, clearly idealized and glamorized in certain cases.

On the contrary, it is extremely important to realize that the past is a foreign country. We cannot assume that we can understand people of a few hundred years ago as well we do our contemporaries. We have to study those times in great detail. The more we know about the recent and not so recent past, the better we can understand where we come from -- and where we might go!

This is especially valuable and important right now, when the distant past frequently is glorified and described as a lost Golden Age. There is no need to go into an intercultural comparison of the dangers involved with such thinking; they are obvious to any student of 20th century history.

Indeed, much of the present wave of revising history, instead of critically investigating the past, simply creates new and wrong mythology. This has been happening imperceptibly for quite some time on the important popular level. For example, most of the pictures in Amar Chitra Katha are historically wrong. (By comparison, Japanese historical comics have been meticulously researched, be it for dress, buildings, older forms of speech, etc.)

As visual beings, we are constantly exposed now to wrong, elaborate Mahabharata chariots with (not attested) roofs, with four (not two) wheels, and with the driver sitting in front of (not, like Arjuna, standing on) the chariot; or we find Mughal style palaces in the Epic period, and so on.

Not to speak of simply improbable items like great stone-built towns in Rama's mythical Ayodhya of c. 3000 BCE, at a time, when just a few subsistence level, village agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers lived there. Much of what is being told now in comics, popular books, on TV and in Bombay films is historically impossible, pure and simple.

It makes for nice viewing, perhaps, but it educates the majority of the public the wrong way, by creating a golden, mythical age that never was. Reading the Sanskrit texts themselves will immediately destroy such fantasies.

Or, to give a limited but more serious example: a thorough study of the Vedic texts would show that items such as the recent booklet accompanying the Indus exhibition at the National Museum are not based on facts -- that is, on a systematic interpretation of the Vedas. One cannot have, as in popular books, the Rigveda at 2500 or even 5000 BCE, simply because the horse- and chariot-rich Rigveda is possible only after the invention of this quick vehicle in the Russian steppes or in Mesopotamia at c. 2000 BCE .

If this would be obvious to any reader of a good encyclopedia who can compare such facts with the Sanskrit texts themselves, why is it not obvious to leading archaeologists riding their particular hobby horse? This kind of project leads to the dumbing down of the people -- a point in case being the uninitiated visitors to the museum.

Knowing Sanskrit and reading the texts themselves, even reading them in the local languages, will enlighten the people, and they can finally judge for themselves.

Obviously, this cannot be done by decreeing the study of "scientific astrology" or some such non-verifiable topic that is shunned by serious researchers the world over.

"Vedic Astrology," apart from the fact that it is not Vedic at all but squarely post-Vedic, is only for the superstitious weak who need to seek self-reconfirmation and solace about the uncertainties of life from shaman-like figures.

It is not what ancient India is all about. There are so many other topics in Sanskrit texts that can be studied with more profit, from arithmetic to zoology.

If the teaching of Sanskrit, then, was done in a modern, enlightened way, including the study of the world views underlying the texts, then the much feared obfuscation and simple-minded glorification of the past could be avoided and something of value could be transmitted to students: a sense of tradition and well-being within their own multi-faceted culture, from Kashmir to Kanya Kumari.

Other World Views

Theory apart, the real life question is of course: how to find the teachers who are able to teach in the way delineated? as they themselves have grown up with all sorts of myths.

Myths such as a Mahabharata war of 3102 BCE -- again, in the times of simple, village cultures of the Panjab predating the Indus civilization. Or, the "Aryan invasion" and destruction of the Indus cities by 'Aryan hordes' -- while there merely was small scale immigration of pastoralists into the Panjab, followed by the transfer of Aryan culture by those local people who wanted to pick it up.

Or, the brand-new "Myth of the 21st Century" -- that of the indigenous, autochthonous Aryans who somehow emerged from the Indian soil, letting us forget that we all (Africans excluded), ventured out of Africa only at c. 50,000 BCE, and that many of these early emigrants then entered India in several waves.

If one was really serious about introducing Sanskrit and doing something about studying India's past from her own literary and inscriptional sources, what would be needed is a comprehensive plan that includes not just the teaching of the language but also of how to approach the texts in an independent and enlightened manner, and of how to understand them as testimony of the changing world views of the past 3000 years or so.


There is, finally, one more corollary to all of this that creates problems in a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic country such as India. Though Sanskrit may be the classical or religious language for the great majority of the population, it is not the only one for all of the people.

There will always be local groups and even whole populations, such as the people of Tamilnadu, who will not be very happy with a decree to unilaterally introduce Sanskrit into the curriculum.

I think it is indeed high time to recognize that the Old Tamil of the Sangam texts is another ancient, some two thousand year old classical language of India, with its own literature, poetics, symbolism, and religion. This has to be taken into account.

By comparison, in the European Union no one would dare to prescribe a Latin based curriculum in Greece! An important ancient culture such as the Greek or Tamil one must be given due importance and its descendants must have the possibility to study their own classical texts in school and college -- that is, if Tamils indeed prefer to do so.

Free choice is the word, not coercion.

A way has to be found to accede to these demands, for example by actively teaching ancient Tamil, but Sanskrit texts and their interpretation only in translation. It is necessary, however, that the texts of both classical Tamil and of Sanskrit are included in any curriculum as both are part and parcel of what constitutes the Indian cultural complex.

Similarly, in areas that are strongly Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, etc., ample choice must be given, if locally desired, to study the classical texts connected with all these religions and world views. These groups are not likely to accept a religious reading of Sanskrit texts.

One may look for Sanskrit translations of medieval Persian, Zoroastrian or Christian texts. If necessary and if people insist, however, Sanskrit should be replaced in such areas by Arabic, Persian, Pali, Tibetan, Latin, or by the older Hindustani of the Gurugranth, the Munda, Khasi or Manipuri of the local religions.

That perhaps is asking very much, but local solutions can be found -- if they are not in place already.

The opposite is, of course, equally necessary. For example, even in northern India, some long extracts of Tamil texts and of their interpretation must be presented as part and parcel of any Sanskrit course. One cannot exclude a large section of the population from the national consciousness just because it is distant from one's own parochial area and interests.

Similarly, teaching based on the actual texts and ideas of Islam would help to dispel many wrong concepts in the popular mind about that religion, too. Again, a certain amount of any Sanskrit course must be allotted to make students familiar with the classical texts of their next door Muslim neighbors.

The same applies to all the other classical texts of the Sikhs, Buddhists and so forth. Some inkling at last of these very diverse traditions should be provided for students. India can only be greater by recognizing her diversity. She does not deserve the forcing down the throat of students just of one "modern" version of Hinduism, however understood.

A democracy is characterized by recognizing its minorities and their minority views, not by dictating one totalitarian way to think and live by for all citizens.

In short, any introduction of Sanskrit must proceed flexibly enough as to include those groups in the country that are not adherents of Hinduism, however defined. They must be given the chance to read texts from their own classical languages, and of their own choice.

Ideological and religious coercion was typical for the 20th century -- and it did not work. It only created strong counter-movements from which we now suffer badly.

In the 21st century, all of this should be a thing of the past. What is needed is a return to the strong Indian tradition of TOLERANCE.


(The author is the Wales Professor of Sanskrit, Harvard University)

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