Sanskrit, taught well, can be as rewarding as economics

There was a time when I used to believe like Diogenes the Cynic that I was a citizen of the world, and I used to strut about feeling that one blade of grass is much like another.

Now I feel that each blade has its unique spot on the earth from where it draws its life and strength. So is a man rooted to a land from where he derives his life and his faith. Discovering one’s past helps to nourish those roots, instilling a quiet self-confidence as one travels through life. Losing that memory risks losing a sense of the self.

With this conviction I decided to read Sanskrit a few years ago. I knew a little from college but now I wanted to read the Mahabharata. Mine was not a religious or political project but a literary one. But I did not want to escape to ‘the wonder that was India’. I wanted to approach the text with full consciousness of the present, making it relevant to my life. I searched for a pundit or a shastri but none shared my desire to ‘interrogate’ the text so that it would speak to me. Thus, I ended up at the University of Chicago.

I had to go abroad to study Sanskrit because it is too often a soul-killing experience in India. Although we have dozens of Sanskrit university departments, our better students do not become Sanskrit teachers. Partly it is middle-class insecurities over jobs, but Sanskrit is not taught with an open, enquiring, analytical mind. According to the renowned Sanskritist, Sheldon Pollock, India had at Independence a wealth of world-class scholars such as Hiriyanna, Kane, Radhakrishnan, Sukthankar, and more. Today we have none.

The current controversy about teaching Sanskrit in our schools is not the debate we should be having. The primary purpose of education is not to teach a language or pump facts into us but to foster our ability to think — to question, interpret and develop our cognitive capabilities. A second reason is to inspire and instill passion. Only a passionate person achieves anything in life and realizes the full human potential. And this needs passionate teachers, which is at the heart of the problem.

Too many believe that education is only about ‘making a living’ when, in fact, it is also about ‘making a life.’ Yes, later education should prepare one for a career, but early education should instill the self-confidence to think for ourselves, to imagine and dream about something we absolutely must do in life. A proper teaching of Sanskrit can help in fostering a sense of self-assuredness and humanity, much in the way that reading Latin and Greek did for generations of Europeans when they searched for their roots in classical Rome and Greece.

This is the answer to the bright young person who asks, ‘Why should I invest in learning a difficult language like Sanskrit when I could enhance my life chances by studying economics or commerce?’ Sanskrit can, in fact, boost one’s life chances. A rigorous training in Panini’s grammar rules can reward us with the ability to formulate and express ideas that are uncommon in our languages of everyday life. Its literature opens up ‘another human consciousness and another way to be human’, according to Pollock.

Teaching Sanskrit under the ‘three-language formula’ has failed because of poor teachers and curriculum. Mythological comic books such as Amar Chitra Katha and TV cartoons in Sanskrit with captions might at least catch the imagination of children. But the debate is also about choice. Those who would make teaching Sanskrit compulsory in school are wrong. We should foster excellence in Sanskrit teaching rather than shove it down children’s throats.

The lack of civility in the present debate is only matched by ignorance and zealotry on both sides. The Hindu right makes grandiose claims about airplanes and stem cell research in ancient India and this undermines the real achievements of Sanskrit. The anti-brahmin, Marxist, post-colonial attack reduces the genuine achievements of Orientalist scholars to ‘false consciousness’. Those who defend Sanskrit lack the open-mindedness that led, ironically, to the great burst of creative works by their ancestors. In the end, the present controversy might be a good thing if it helps to foster excellence in teaching Sanskrit in India.

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