'Why do we need to learn a dead language?' 'Where shall we ever use it?' 'Is Sanskrit relevant to today's world?' These are some frank questions that eleven to thirteen year-old students in our mixed-age middle school classroom raise at the beginning of every academic year. As someone who had found Sanskrit delightful from the word go, I used to find these questions very challenging. I engage with these questions in class, revisiting them through the year.
I speak about learning other languages—European or Indian— becoming easier when you know Sanskrit, and about how, like history, it helps us understand our past. Students are fascinated by the Indo-European language family and sometimes we even get into words (such as 'father', 'mother', 'daughter', 'brother' or the numerals) which are comparable across English, Latin, French and Sanskrit. Sanskrit words are also strewn about liberally in Tamil and Hindi, which they learn at school. We discover them regularly as we cover more ground and students never cease to be surprised at coming upon them. 'Wow, it's the same in Hindi (or in Tamil), Akka,' is an exclamation I hear often (a small list of these 'discoveries' is given in the box).
Since it is the language of rituals and chants, Sanskrit is often linked to, and even equated with, religion by many people. This is possibly why it often evokes strong feelings in any group. Amazingly, these young students, most of whom hardly follow politics or news, pick this up and it translates into a sense of discomfort regarding Sanskrit. I have found it useful to unearth this association and talk around it. I tell them that there are many books in Sanskrit on astronomy, mathematics, architecture, yoga, politics, music, dance, theatre, history, biography, logic, grammar, medicine and plants. Then there are the lovely works of poetry by Kalidasa and others, not to mention the captivating stories of Vikramaditya. Knowing Sanskrit would also help in the study of epigraphy or numismatics. Would it not be wonderful if any of these youngsters, who went on to study or research any of these various subjects, were able to read the Sanskrit treatises to enrich their work? I also recall that we particularly relished the shloka (epigrammatic verse) presented by one guest lecturer who addressed the middle school. It looked and sounded like any other invocatory verse, but was in fact a version of the Pythagorean theorem!
Poetry lends itself naturally to a mixed-age context. We have a variety of works in Sanskrit to choose from. The didactic verses, subhashitams, are easiest to start with, since they are simple and direct, as well as stand-alone. Over the year, students learn longer sets of verses for recitation at assemblies. Many of them rise to the challenge of memorizing these fully.
This brings us to one of the quandaries in teaching a language like Sanskrit, which traditionally places a huge emphasis on committing verses, grammar tables and almost everything else to memory. The issue is how much memorization should one demand. It is true that learning one's noun and verb tables by heart enables one to construct and decode text very easily, but it can often become mechanical and the uses of memorization are not immediately evident. However, when it comes to verses, children love the cadence that comes with a metre and, after some initial encouragement, they need little convincing to learn the verses by heart. The sonorous nature of shlokas makes for intense listening pleasure when there is a group reciting them with gusto.
But in this age of instant information, why does one need to memorize? Students enjoy it as an act of muscle-flexing, as a challenge, but are unwilling to accept that you do not really know something unless you can recall it at will. One subhashitam says 'the learning that remains in books (without committing to memory) is similar to your money lent to someone, in that, at the time of need, it does not help.'
pustaka-sthaa tu yaa vidyaa, parahastam gatam dhanam I
kaarya-kaale samutpanne na saa vidyaa na tad dhanam II
Students are bemused by this idea.
There have been interesting conversations around many other topics that come up during these classes. Subhashitams, which have an element of moral instruction, invite debates. One verse states that 'without wealth one would be friendless'—adhanasya kuto mitram. The students were up in arms against this. 'Friends are not made with money,' they insisted. They also questioned: Why would a son or daughter get a name based on a parent's name, like Partha (son of Pritha, another name for Kunti) or Janaki (daughter of Janak)? Why does the plural form of a mixed group of girls and boys have to be masculine? Their questions span changing social values, rigid stances regarding right or wrong, generalizations and gender biases. These discussions are humbling in that these young children are so quick to pick up dissonances in messages they receive and so fearless in raising them as questions.
One of the other challenges in teaching Sanskrit is that unlike English, Hindi or Tamil, students do not get opportunities to listen to it either at home, in the media or in the streets. So their level of familiarity is limited to what is acquired in class, and of course, what is reinforced by homework. (There are a few children who, however, do hear grandparents or others reading or reciting Sanskrit verses.) Moreover, enrichment activities like field trips, watching a play or picking up a simple storybook to read—these simply do not exist and would require a lot of work by the teacher. The effect of this can be felt especially after the term breaks, when there is a general slide in fluency and understanding.
In this context, the Sanskrit play staged by class 8 students in the third term is a precious opportunity. It provides a rich and real experience of using the language for all the students, those putting it up and those watching. The plays are selected carefully, sometimes adapted to suit the needs of a class of thirteen year-olds.
I see the primary role of a teacher of a third language as opening the eyes and minds of the students to what the language has to offer and enabling an appreciation of its idiom and beauty. I find it possible to do this in many little ways. While discussing grammar, we stumble upon interesting comparisons and differences among languages, mainly with English. Being vast and robust, Sanskrit grammar provides a definitive framework in which to understand other languages they know. Topics that come up for discussion include: subject-verb agreement, transitive verbs and numbers (singular, dual and plural in Sanskrit). The use of case endings instead of prepositions leads to a discussion on inflectional and non-inflectional languages, and on word order in sentences being rigid or flexible. Understanding how words change when they move from one language to another interests some of them (kshetram becoming khet, ratri becoming raat or iravu, for example). Basics of phonetics, such as when we discuss the 'place of articulation' of alphabet sounds, classifying them as 'gutturals', 'palatals', 'labials' and the like, intrigue them and whet interest levels.
Students also love understanding the common metres of Sanskrit poetry. There is a lot of syllable counting that accompanies the learning of verses, when they learn about anushtubh (8 syllables per quarter), trishtubh (11 syllables per quarter) and a few others. Sometimes, with volunteers, more intricate prosody is taken up, like alternating light (L) and heavy (H) syllables in special arrangements like in bhujanga-prayata (LHH-LHH) or totaka (LLHLLH) metres. Such verses are great fun to learn and chant.
In such ways, looking at an ancient language through the eyes of young students has been an invigorating journey of renewal and exploration. An indicative list of Sanskrit words with the same or similar words in other languages: