abhinandanam, vasuvaj mahodaya.
---------- Forwarded message ----------
20th April 2008
Sanskrit is a notoriously difficult language. Where Latin and Greek were always the legendary bane of English schoolchildren, Sanskrit is for many Indian teenagers the millstone around their necks. Indeed, even scholars rate Sanskrit fairly high up in the difficulty league thanks to eight cases (where Greek has only five), sandhi (which can at times produce whole lines of text written without a word break), infinite synonyms and draconian rules. On top of this, Sanskrit writers have tended to revel in virtuoso demonstrations of their mastery of the language by constructing words, sentences and verses of inconceivable complexity.
But it needn't be so hard, says Sri Vasuvaj of Samskrta Bharati. Vasuvaj definitely doesn't approve of the simplification of Sanskrit - where you make away with the dual for instance - which would contravene the Paninian rules that define classical Sanskrit. Instead he espouses simple Sanskrit. Students at Samskrta Bharati are introduced to Sanskrit first by listening then by speaking - just as we learn languages as a child. The Indian school system's learn-by-rote method is dismissed as dull and ineffective. Ineffective because it starts at the third and fourth stage of language learning, that of reading and writing, and ignores entirely the more natural oral approach.
Does it work? Well, if Vasuvaj's twin three year old children are anything to go by, yes. Vasuvaj, along with other volunteers at this institution, has brought his children up in Sanskrit alone. It is their first and only language, and will be until they start school. Indeed, everyone here speaks Sanskrit, even the man who brings us tea. It is a bizarre and wonderful experience, and one which makes a convincing case for Sanskrit as a living, spoken language in Panini's time. Vasuvaj, unsurprisingly, is sure that Sanskrit was spoken, and not just by the educated male elite but by all, as it is here. Or rather by all except me. Despite an Oxford degree in Sanskrit, I am, rather tellingly, the only one unable to carry on even a basic conversation.
When Samskrta Bharati was set up in 1981, the original idea was to write and circulate a Sanskrit magazine. But its founders soon realised that without an audience who could read Sanskrit - and despite the compulsory Sanskrit lessons at school, very few Indians can understand the language - they wouldn't get very far. So, far more ambitiously, they decided to create a readership by teaching people to speak, read and write Sanskrit. They do now bring out a monthly magazine, with a print run of 10,000, and subscribers in 24 countries - a testament to the success of their campaign. The organisation also teaches the teachers - some of whom were shown up in class by upstart pupils who spoke Sanskrit to them - thus, hopefully, helping to change the way Sanskrit is taught in Indian schools. 3,200 school teachers will attend immersion camps across the country this year.
So Sanskrit is now being spoken once more, but Samskrita Bharati does not want to stop there. Their next project is Saraswati Seva - translating not from Sanskrit but into Sanskrit. Using their considerable network of Sanskrit-speakers, the group aims to translate 1000 books written in various Indian languages (including English) into Sanskrit. Harry Potter is now available in Latin and Greek, why not Sanskrit?
Naturally, though, there are some challenges in reviving a language that was once almost as dead as Latin. What, for instance, do you call a video? Citra-mudrikaa of course. Neologisms have thus been coined to describe the objects and ideas that were not around during the fourth century BC. This calls for another project, the Shabda-shaala, a forum of scholars who would devise new words based on the grammarians' rules - the idea being that a Sanskrit speaker who suddenly finds himself caught short when asking about the pressure cooker would take recourse to the forum's combined wisdom.
Of course, like every other modern language, Sanskrit is not averse to borrowing from English. 'Icchasi ice cream?' Vasuvaj asks his son.
The Second Annual East-Coast Spoken Sanskrit Residential Camp for Youth - Shraddhaa2008