Why the study of Sanskrit is no easy task, demands cold discipline, yet, is the need of the hour.
आश्चर्यवत्पश्यति कश्चिदेनआश्चर्यवद्वदति तथैव चान्य: |आश्चर्यवच्चैनमन्य: शृ्णोतिश्रुत्वाप्येनं वेद न चैव कश्चित् ||
"Ascaryavat pasyati kascidenamAscaryavad vadati tathaiva canyahAsryavaccainamanyah sronotiSrutvapyenam veda na caiva kascit "
Someone perceives this as a wonder,
Another declares this as a wonder,
Still another hears of this as a wonder;
But even having heard of this, no one knows it.
- Bhagavad Gita, Book II, Verse 29 (Winthrop Sargeant)
My journey into the world of Sanskrit
I first heard the primordial chanting of the Nasadiya sukta in the Doordarshan TV series based on Nehru’s book The discovery of India. It was a mesmerising chorus of male voices singing a very deep hymn of creation.
That human thought at the dawn of civilisation was capable of reaching such incredible heights was amazing.While most other civilisations were concerned with who created the world, here were some thinkers who were asking more fundamental questions about who created the creator.Whether the creator himself knew the answer or not?
This triggered my curiosity about the language in which the hymn was written — Sanskrit.
Many years would pass before I acted on my curiosity.
An offering to my ancestors
In a sense, my attachment to Sanskrit was like an offering to my predecessors. Unlike my father, who was shaped by the tumultuous 1940s to the 1960s in Kolkata turning him into a staunch Marxist and militant trade unionist, my reverence for Indic culture and its fountainhead language only grew with time.
I knew from my father and my uncles that many of our preceding generations made their living from the language.
I learnt that we trace our ancestry to one of the Kanyakubja clans that were invited into Bengal by Raja Ballal Sen in the 12th century. Their knowledge of Sanskrit allowed them to perform sacred rituals at the royal household and elsewhere. It moved me to think all my ancestors were connected with each other through this invisible thread of a ritual language.
The banker who renounced wealth seeking knowledge
Having finally decided to seek a Sanskrit teacher, I found myself with my ex-business school batchmate in an Edwardian London flat. I had come to meet his elder sister who had given up a lucrative career in banking to pursue a study of Sanskrit and Indian astrology.
This bespectacled, diminutive lady had forsaken the life of quick money and bankers bonuses to settle for a life of reflection and quiet study of Sanskrit scriptures. She pointed me to the Sanskrit language course in one of the premier academic institutions in London and I was off.
Hollywood star with a double life as a Sanskrit pundit
I enrolled quickly in the autumn term. Our teacher was a chain-smoking polyglot who had studied and acquired expertise in multiple languages including Sanskrit, French, Latin, Greek and modern Indian languages amongst others. It also turned out that this language teacher’s vocation was but merely a double life. As our esteemed professor also had a career in Hollywood, having appeared in several Hollywood productions including Guardians of the Galaxy. I readily recognised him as the linguist teacher of Michael Fassbender’s character in Ridley Scott’s dark science fiction tale Prometheus.
My fellow seekers
My fellow seekers in the evening Sanskrit classes were a motley bunch. I was pleasantly surprised to run into a former B-School batchmate and his better half. But even more surprising was to find myself amongst Russians, Bulgarians, Baltic speakers, Italian students, Norwegian and Indonesian Yoga teachers, a Malaysian Chinese person, a Cambridge tripos in Latin and Greek languages and a middle eastern Arab speaking person.
They constituted roughly half the class size.The motivations were varied. The Baltic and Russian speakers were drawn by the parallels and similarities of word etymology and grammar.
The Yoga teachers wanted to dive deep into the spiritual meaning of the Yogasutras.
The Latin scholar wanted to further move forward his study of classical languages.
The other half of the class were Indians — some like me and my B school batchmate born and raised in India and the others were Indians born and raised here in the UK who were still driven by this overwhelming impulse of travelling to the core of their parents’ cultures in which they were born.
Origins of Sanskrit — sparring with the professor
The first few classes saw energetic debate about the origin of the language.
By looking at Sanskrit in the context of other Indo-European (IE) languages, we discovered astounding similarities both in the sound as well as the system of grammar. The Latin word “Jupiter” which must have had the same common ancestor word- *dyeu-peter (god-father) as the Persian “daeva” and the Sanskrit “Deva”.
Hindi/Sanskrit words like “Lakshmi”, “Lakh”, “Lakshya” share the same origin as the word for Salmon in other IE languages-Lax, Lachs, Losos in Swedish, German and Russian respectively.
With examples like this, it was clear that Sanskrit and the other IE languages had evolved from a common source-the theoretical proto Indo-European (PIE) language. However, passions rose as we debated the direction of spread of PIE and the IE languages.
This was connected to the contentious topic of the migration or non-migration of IE speaking people into the Indian sub-continent. The alternate point of view that PIE originated in India was gaining ground in today’s polarised India even though there is little linguistic and archaeological evidence so far. The classroom reflected this ideological battle as some students challenged the established views.
We discussed several hypotheses including the Anatolian and the kurgan hypothesis. The anomaly of the Tarim basin mummies (blonde Caucasian people in a region primarily inhabited by mongoloid peoples) and their connection to the now extinct Tocharian language.
This is difficult to explain by the current west-to-east migration theories supported by academia — as Tocharian existed in an area in present Xinjiang province in China which is northeast of PIE’s proposed point of origin.
In today’s changed India, a deep sense of nationalism and anti-colonial resentment is fuelling a narrative with little evidence or scientific basis. We accepted that the current theory of Indo-European languages moving west-to-east through the Steppes and through Iran to the Indian subcontinent may not be the final answer to this complex question. However, that’s the best way to put the puzzle together, given current archaeological, documentary and anthropological evidence.
Any theory that is a challenger must also be steeped in science.
Another learning for me was correcting my wrongly held assumption that the current crop of modern north Indian languages stretching from Gujarati in the west to Assamese in the easts are descended from Sanskrit.
They are, in fact, descended from Prakrit, which naturally evolved as a spoken language in India. Sanskrit on the other hand was an artificial construct, carefully voiced and hand crafted with an elegant grammatical logic.
The grammar also made it impossible for the language to evolve further naturally. It’s a language frozen in time, bound by the golden chains of its grammar, effectively preventing any future development.
The science behind the sounds of Sanskrit
Though Sanskrit is written in many Indian scripts, notably Bengali and Malayalam, it’s primarily written in Devanagari.
This writing system has 25 consonants, 4 semi-vowels, 4 sibilants and 13 vowels.
The consonants are organised based on which part of the human mouth is used to produce the sounds i.e. throat (guttural or “kantha”), palate (palatal or “talavya”), cerebral (or “murdhanya”) lips ( labial or “Ostha”), teeth (dental or “Danta” etc and whether breathing is stopped while producing the sound or not).
So, based on these criteria, the sounds are organised into a 5X5 matrix.
Unlike English and many other languages, there is absolutely no confusion about the pronunciation.
How the sounds are to be produced is almost mathematically laid out. And as I would learn later as the lessons progressed, the implications are quite far-reaching in the grammar.
The impenetrable towers of Panini
The initial debates subsided after the first few classes as we were inexorably drawn in to beautifully constructed edifice of Sanskrit language and grammar.
Having learnt English, Bengali and Hindi in the ICSE course where grammar was always light touch with language taught based on usage, I found the going tough.
There were hundreds of elaborate rules in Sanskrit regarding nouns and their declensions, different classes of verbs and how they are formed from their roots, the abundance of past passive principles and gerunds.
For example, in English, the order of words would tell you the subject and object in a sentence. Sanskrit in contrast grammatically marks the subject and the object which in turn predetermines the case endings of pronouns and verbs.
The presence of three genders (male, female, neuter), three numbers (Singular, Dual and Plural) and eight cases (nominative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, locative and vocative) makes the noun declensions quite complex.
In addition, the way verbs are formed from their roots are defined in the ten verb classes.To make it even more complex, the ten verb classes could be conjugated in two voices – the active or परस्मै पदम् (parasmai padam) and the middle or अत्मने पदम् (ātmane padam).
The exclusivity of the language, its grounding in scientific thinking and the emphasis on memory is obvious.
There are rules even defining when a dental n “ña” (dantya na) should become a cerebral n “ņa”(Murdhan na) within a word depending which phoneme precedes it.
My hopes of learning to read the Mahabharata or the Mrichchakatikam in their originals were very quickly dashed. I found myself crashing to the ground and surrounded by tall — seemingly impenetrable towers of Sanskrit grammar.While my familiarity with the Devanagari script was helpful, the classical language demanded total dedication to understanding the rules of its syntax and speech. There was no short-cut to Kalidasa without first laboriously climbing through the towers of Panini.
My knowledge of my mother tongue Bengali and my familiarity with Hindi was both a boon and a curse. I knew the script and I could intuitively tell the meaning of many Sanskrit words as Bengali is a heavily Sanskritised language.
But there were important differences. For instance, the explicit use of the “Virama” symbol to stop the voiced aspirate of the last phoneme of a word was missing in both Hindi and Bengali.
Once the realisation dawned that that I do really need to immerse myself in the grammar, I did make progress, encouraged by a very patient teacher. As we moved through from the autumn term to winter and then on to the spring term we progressed through the Panchatantra tales.
The Panchatantra tales have moved from the simple mongoose and Brahmin to the more complex constructions of the blind vulture and the cat.
Now we venture into ultimate reward — into the Bhagavad Gita, the summation of all wisdom of the Vedanta, while Kalidasa beckons from the distance.
In a matter of months, I had swung from my initial naïve expectations to a painful recalibration of my goals with Sanskrit. The layer upon layers of careful construction of the language have only started to reveal themselves.
My rendezvous with Sanskrit has brought home the importance of teaching this language to the next generation. It is essential for our children to form a proper understanding of their culture, literature, history and science. If properly taught, it will instil a true confidence in their Indianness as opposed to either the shrill hollow nationalism gaining ground in India today or the mindless aping of Western culture among sections of English-educated youth.
‘A traveller ultimately finds the path’. ( Adiparvan, Mahabharata)
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