Scholars, priests, villages, young and old are part of an
all-India movement to revive our sacred language
BY CHOODIE SHIVARAM, BANGALORE
Soothing tones of sanskrit waft through the air as you walk
past the spacious two-storied school in the interiors of
Bangalore's Girinagar. Enter the building and it
reverberates with the rich traditions of this land. You are
at Aksharam, the organization that teaches spoken Sanskrit
in ten days! People thus initiated are all set to commence
their wonderful journey in the world of Sanskrit. Aksharam
is an offshoot of Samskrita Bharathi, a voluntary
organization devoted to the revival of Sanskrit (
www.samskrita-bharati.org/). It seeks to restore Sanskrit to
daily life in India and re-establish it as a common man's
Adds: I remember, the Navaratri vacations of 1987, Sri
Guravarujulu was my teacher from Samskritha Barathi.. the
words, "Mama nama Guravarajah, Bhavaaan naama kim?" still
rings in my ears..)[/color]
At Aksharam, everyone, including toddlers, converse in
the ancient language. You speak to the little ones in
English or Kannada, and precisely comes the reply in
I was unable to converse in Sanskrit, despite
some study of the language. Honestly, the little children
gave me a complex. Unlike at other homes, parents here
translate the English rhymes children learn at school into
These children in turn are able to teach
Sanskrit to their teachers and friends! Sanskrit sounds so
pure and divine as it emanates from the innocent mouths of
little children. It's a unique experience.
When I called Aksharam at ten one night, I was surprised to
hear the solemn chanting of slokas in the background. Even
at this late hour, the senior research students were
learning the nuances of spiritual Sanskrit from Guru Vishwas.
He told me, "Sanskrit is the most ancient, highly developed,
literature-rich language. It is a treasure house of ancient
Indian wisdom. It is certainly the vehicle of our culture
and key to the heritage of this great civilization. Speaking
the language not only helps in learning, but also gives the
students pride in their civilizational values. Speaking this
language generates energy."
Why do people think Sanskrit is difficult to learn? "The
answer is simple. They don't follow the natural way. The
first step in learning any language is to converse in it,
because speaking and listening to a language takes you
closer to it," explained Vishwas.
He has been conducting
the ten-day speak Sanskrit courses in India and abroad and
is the chief editor of the Sanskrit monthly Sambhasana
Sandesha, which is published by Aksharam.
Speak Sanskrit Movement
The decline of Sanskrit in modern times worried people like
Sri Krishna Sastry. He knew the wealth of knowledge we were
losing by forgetting the language. He proposed, "Let service
to Sanskrit not stop at worshiping with the language;
everyone should be able to speak the language.
Conversational Sanskrit has to be taught and popularized."
In 1981 Sri Krishna Sastry, with a group of like-minded
friends at Tirupati Sanskrit College, founded Samskrita
Bharathi and evolved the "Speak Sanskrit Movement."
They launched the movement through the Sanskrit unit of
Hindu Seva Prathisthana. Organisations like Bharath
Samskrita Parishad, the Sanskrit unit of Vidhya Bharathi,
Vishwa Samskrita Prathisthanam and Swaadhyaaya Mandalam
contributed to accelerating the propagation of Sanskrit. To
keep pace with the rapid growth of the movement, a
centralized institute of Samskrita Bharathi was formed at
New Delhi in 1995. Aksharam in Bangalore became its
"Our mission is to engender a cultural renaissance of India
by bringing Sanskrit back to the mainstream, to propagate
the great scientific truths hidden in our ancient
scriptures, attain social harmony by removing barriers of
caste, creed and race, and achieve national integration
through Sanskrit," Sri Krishna Sastry told me.
In 15 years, Samskrita Bharathi reached impressive heights
through its sevavratis (Sanskrit missionaries), who
relentlessly work towards resuscitating the language. Now
more than two million people around the world can speak
simple Sanskrit. Nearly four million people have learned
Sanskrit through correspondence, and 25,000 teachers have
been trained to conduct spoken Sanskrit workshops.
As a result of their efforts and the efforts of many others,
30 million students in India are studying Sanskrit.
There are 1,500 mahapatashalas (Sanskrit colleges), with
100,000 students, and 3,500 patashalas (primary and
secondary schools), where students learn Sanskrit in its
traditional form. Premier scientific and technical
institutions such as the Indian Institute of Science,
Bangalore, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and
the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, have introduced
the study of Sanskrit.
The Centre for Development of Advanced Computing, C-DAC, has
been conducting research on Sanskrit and computers. Sanskrit
is also taught in about 250 universities in 40 countries.
Over 400 universities promote Sanskrit Studies and Research.
India has ten Sanskrit universities and 250 institutions
involved in Sanskrit research. Eighty Sanskrit journals are
circulated in the country.
Among the most unusual results of the Speak Sanskrit
Movement are the two villages of Mathoor and Hosahalli in
Karnataka. The movement adopted them as a means to promote
spoken Sanskrit, and today everyone in them-from the
menial laborer to the merchant, to the brahmins-speaks
Sanskrit with élan.
These two villages are known
throughout the country. More recently, Samskrita Bharathi
has succeeded in teaching conversational Sanskrit to the
entire tribal village of Mohaka, near Jabalpur.
Sanskrit's checkered history
Yes, Sanskrit is regaining its lost grandeur in India, but
how did it ever get relegated to such a low position in the
first place? Sanskrit was the lingua franca of India before
the country was invaded by aliens. It was the medium of
administration, commerce, trade and education. Cultural,
religious and intellectual transactions were in Sanskrit.
Then in 1835, Lord Macaulay produced his "Minute of Indian
Education" in which he stated, "What we spend on the
Sanskrit colleges is not merely a dead loss to the cause of
truth; it is bounty money paid to raise up champions of
error [that is, Sanskrit scholars]." He said Sanskrit
literature is, "barren of useful knowledge" with "the most
serious errors on the most important subjects." His
recommendation, adopted by the British administration, was
to no longer fund any Sanskrit education, save the Sanskrit
college at Banaras.
The knowledge and use of Sanskrit became limited to the
priestly class and a small number of pundits who used it for
religious practices. "Thanks to that priestly class, the
language was preserved. They must be given credit that their
continued use of Sanskrit helped its survival," avers Shri
Shivamurthy Swamiji, pontiff of Tarabalu Math in Bangalore.
"After independence, the Kothari commission sacrificed
Sanskrit by not including it in the three-language formula,"
states Sri Krishna Sastry. He is referring to the system
whereby students would learn English, their regional
language and Hindi. Those already in Hindi-speaking areas
would learn another Indian or European language. "Compelled
by political and economic pressures and fascination for the
West," he went on, "India continued learning foreign
languages, especially English. The elimination of Sanskrit
for the majority of Indians resulted in the loss of the rich
traditional knowledge. Macaulay killed the ancient
traditional education system of India. It created a land in
which we do not inherit our traditional knowledge," said Sri
Dr. Ashok Aklujkar of British Columbia, Canada, concurs. "I
am strongly in favor of the Speak Sanskrit Movement," he
told Hinduism Today. "However, it and other similar
movements will have only band-aid successes until Hindus
realize that they have to have a long-term, comprehensive
vision for their way of living and plan how to bring about
the desired changes in 50 or 100 years. The Indian education
system needs to change from the present three-language
formula to one which teaches the regional language, the
classical language (e.g., Sanskrit) and an international
language (e.g., English)." Aklujkar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is author of an innovative course, Sanskrit: an Easy
Introduction to an Enchanting Language.
(Sunder adds: I personally know
Shri Aklujkar. He is pretty knowledgeable on the
subject, although, there are not many *indians* around here
who are motivated enough to take up samskrit. It's sad to
see such a good resource underappreciated.)
Sanskrit, however, was not a pariah in Europe and America,
where its status as one of the most ancient Indo-European
languages was appreciated by Western academics and promoted
by Indian scholars in the West such as Aklujkar. Thus Indian
students studying in the West have found a more positive
treatment of Sanskrit than they can in India. Dr. Kamat, an
educator, told me, "Our traditional knowledge systems
flourish in the West because they are looking towards India
for wisdom. The Indian student, once abroad and out of the
claustrophobic clutches of Indian environs, starts looking
for his roots. That's how Indians abroad take to study of
our traditional systems and Sanskrit. There is a paradigm
shift in their thinking."
When I attended the Tenth World Sanskrit Conference, held in
1997 in Bangalore, I found a number of non-Indians who
presented papers on complex topics such as grammar, medical
literature and navigational terms. I met an Australian
professor who was an authority on Vishnu Purana, a topic
unknown to many Hindus.
Dr. Garry A. Tubb, a professor from Columbia University and
former professor at Harvard University, who was at that
conference, expressed regret that there is no systematic
Sanskrit education in India. "Indians should develop love
and respect for their ancient culture and rich heritage. If
they neglect the ancient manuscripts, the rich,
millennia-old knowledge will perish," he predicted. Dr. Tubb
has written a critique on Kalidasa's Kumarasambhavam as well
as a guide to Sanskrit teaching for Western students. Dr.
Rahul Peter Das of Martin Luther University in Germany
believes that "studying Sanskrit will help students
understand mathematics better." Dr. Das has studied the
Vedas from their original texts and is an authority on
Dr. Robert Goldman, head of the Sanskrit department at
Philadelphia University, says, "Learning Sanskrit and its
grammar will help one easily understand world civilization
and literature." Dr. Goldman, who has traveled extensively
in India, can recite the Vedas, Upanishads and mantras and
speak fluently in Sanskrit. He has also translated the
original Valmiki Ramayana into English.
Better teaching methods
Another factor that contributed greatly to the neglect and
"death" of Sanskrit was the treatment it received at the
hands of academics. "Nowhere will you find a language being
taught in a foreign language," says Sri Krishna Sastry. The
easiest and most effective way is the conversational method.
Ironically, Sanskrit was being taught through English and in
textbook fashion. As a result, students, instead of learning
the language and developing affinity, moved away from it.(anyone
remember, "Ramaha Ramau Ramaaha?" I remember a 'class
comedian' in my class made fun when "Mundakopanishad"
calling it 'munda-koduku-upanishad'. And ppl *laughed*
For seven years through high school and college I studied
Sanskrit through English and yet I do not know the language.
Many like me took Sanskrit as an optional language because
obtaining marks was easy. Without studying grammar, which
accounted for thirty marks, we would answer in English or
Kannada for the remaining 70 marks and still score well. Why
did we need to know the language when the focus was on the
marks? The need to understand the nuances of Sanskrit was
not emphasized. My children have been studying Sanskrit from
class five and are quite good at it-they know the language.
The teaching methods have been wholesome, with complete
focus on the language, including conversation.
The teachers have improved along with the method. "Sanskrit
teachers today are driven by the promote Sanskrit movement
and have a passion for the language. They are no longer seen
as tuft-growing men in dhotis," opines Mr. Uday Narayan, a
teacher. Decades ago Sanskrit teachers were looked down upon
as "pundits." They did not fit into the fashionable English
school environs. Today, an increasing number of educators
feel that teaching Sanskrit in schools will open up the
treasure house of traditional knowledge and wisdom to
Sanskrit versus science
Knowledge of Sanskrit is imperative for understanding
ayurveda, the ancient Indian medical science, not to mention
architecture, statecraft and the many other subjects dealt
with in the Sanskrit literature.
The attempts to bring these ancient sciences into prominence
in modern India are not without difficulties. Take ayurveda
as an example. It used to be that ayurveda students knew
Sanskrit. However, in an apparent attempt to upgrade the
status of ayurveda, the Central Council for Alternative
Systems of Indian Medicine, which administers and manages
ayurvedic colleges across India, made a new rule. They said
only students with modern science as majors would be
admitted to ayurvedic courses. At the same time, the Central
Board for Secondary Education made Sanskrit an optional
subject up to class 12 for students of science.
As a result, students with a science background who study
ayurveda at the college level haven't learned Sanskrit,
resist studying it and insist upon using translated texts.
Sanskrit, which was compulsory for all the five years during
the ayurveda course, was reduced to only one year of study.
Now science students are protesting even this one year of
The communal issue
Sanskrit still draws resistance from certain castes,
especially the economically weaker sections and backward
classes. They feel the language is difficult to pronounce
and believe it is only for the upper castes, not for them.
"The problem of our Dalit brethren is not just economic
disparity but also cultural disparity. Providing knowledge
of Sanskrit gives them this cultural equality and brings
social harmony. But the most important factor is how the
language is taught and how the teacher motivates," says
Krishna Sastry. It is worth noting that great Sanskrit works
were written by non-brahmins, such as Vyasa, son of a
fisherwoman and editor of the Mahabharatha; Valmiki, son of
a hunter and author of Ramayana; Kalidas, a shepherd and
poet; and Jabala, an outcaste and author of the Jabala
Still, Sanskrit was branded a brahminical language and
tainted "communal," contrary to its true nature. "Sanskrit
is the only language that has a secular policy. See the
Bhagavad Gita. It gives a global or universal message. It
does not say worship one God alone. This is not so in
scriptures of other faiths. India's secular nature is
because of the Sanskrit culture, which is the very culture
of this land," states Sri Krishna Sastry. "The secular
policy practiced by our politicians and so-called
secularists has done everything to keep the language out."
Courts rescue the language
The central government wanted
Sanskrit to be removed from the higher secondary syllabus,
arguing that by allowing Sanskrit, other classical languages
[Pali, for example] must be included, and citing the secular
policy of the government. In 1994, the Supreme Court came to
the rescue, noting the importance of Sanskrit for nurturing
our cultural heritage as a nation.
Similarly, in 1994, the Madras High Court held that
"Sanskrit is not a dead language," and observed that the
reasoning of the Tamil Nadu Government that Sanskrit had
ceased to be a language in use "is nothing but ignorance of
reality." Justice S. S. Subramani referred to a Supreme
Court decision which said Sanskrit is the mother of all
Indo-Aryan languages, and it was this language in which our
Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads had been written, and in which
Kalidas, Bhavbuti, Banabhatta and Dandi wrote their
classics. The judge also said that the teachings of
Sankaracharya, Ramanuja, Madhvacharya, Nimbarka and
Vallabhacharya would not have been woven into the fabric of
Indian culture if Sanskrit had not have been available to
them as a medium of expressing their thoughts. Dr. Karan
Singh, son of the last Maharaja of Kashmir and a prominent
Indian statesman, said, "The ancient language has kept our
samskriti (culture) alive. We are India as it is today
because of Sanskrit."
In 1990, bharata natyam exponent and long-time Delhi
resident Justin McCarthy made an impassioned plea for
Sanskrit in the Indian Express. He wrote, "Sanskrit is not
dead, nor is it merely a language. It is a science and art,
and insofar as it is a compendium of a people's
consciousness, it is a microcosm of all that is essentially
Indian. It is more precise and profound than any of the
world's tongues. In literary terms, the expressive power of
Sanskrit is unparalleled in multi-dimensional subtlety. My
desperate plea for the preservation of Sanskrit may seem to
many to be unwarranted. But India's identity as unique
amongst the world's nations is at stake. What is that
uniqueness? This is a country whose citizens are living
descendants of a vibrant past, a tradition which still
colors the lives of most Indians today. It is a tradition
which, in its ideal state, affords a fertile, holistic
approach to living even in the hyped-up, commercial age,
inspiring all those, both Indian and foreign, who are at all
touched by it."
Checkout Sample pages of Samskrit magazine: