Sanskrit in the digital era

Madras Sanskrit College embraces the Internet age with its new online campus project.

Published - April 30, 2017 05:00 pm IST

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 01/04/2017: Students at the Madras Sanskrit College in Mylapore, Chennai.
Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 01/04/2017: Students at the Madras Sanskrit College in Mylapore, Chennai. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The unassuming exteriors of the Madras Sanskrit College (MSC) — easily missed in the hustle and bustle of Royapettah High Road — belie the treasure trove of history cloistered within and the revolutionary changes it has been initiating.

In early March, the college unveiled a digital campus to expand the reach of Sanskrit through online courses, live books and live casts. “Students can register any time for the online courses, but they start only in certain batches, every two weeks. The fourth batch started on April 29, and the fifth will start on May 13,” says Ramesh Mahalingam, trustee of the college’s parent body, and great grandson of V. Krishnaswami Iyer, college founder.

Each batch lasts about four months, offering 30 modules at the beginner’s level. The first 10 modules provide a general overview, starting with lessons on the Sanskrit alphabet. Though the physical campus is a Sanskrit-only zone with daily conversations taking place in the language, the digital one has some of the teaching done in English, to ease beginners into the course.

“The syllabus is designed by the MSC faculty. After the overview modules, we have a section on the vibhaktis. There are lessons about verbs and how to use them. The rest talk about avyayani — indeclinables, and upasargas — prefixes and suffixes. And in the last one, students are taught how to parse a sentence; how to dissolve it into its components. The second online course, which is yet to be released, will take off from there,” explains Ramesh.


The online course sits atop infrastructure built by the college’s online partner, Classle, a digital learning and teaching portal. Students complete simple quizzes at the end of each of the 30 lessons, and need to pass a final exam (online) before they qualify for an official certificate from MSC.

In the few weeks since the inception of the course, the four batches that started have already amassed about 590 students globally, from Australia, the Middle-East and the U.S, besides India. “In the first 23 days, we registered about 20 a day. My target for the year is about 3000. We are well on the way to that number,” says Ramesh.

Online faculty include Principal, Dr. T.P. Radhakrishnan, Dr. Mani Dravid, and Dr. S. Arunasundaram. Dr Radhakrishnan chimes in, “With online, it is true that you get only one-sided learning; there is no interaction. But the advantage is that anyone and everyone can learn. So many people are benefiting because there are no restrictions, like in the campus classes.”

Ramesh attributes choosing this year to launch the digital campus to two things. First, the exponential growth of cloud-based learning and the Internet. “Soon, all education will be online. People will learn whatever they want to, at their pace — at least, this is my perception on how the world is going to develop. I want MSC to compete in that kind of scenario,” he says. Second, MSC wants to ensure that the wealth of knowledge available in the college doesn’t languish and go to waste, but instead, reaches their intended audience.

“Did you know that so far, we have only explored 7% of the Sanskrit works that have been left by our ancestors? That means, there’s another 93% which nobody has even opened. They are olai chuvadis (palm-leaf manuscripts) which are in somebody’s drawer, house or library. They are untouched by the human mind. Nobody knows what is in them. It would be a great disservice to future generations not to pass them on,” he emphasises.

Online past

Though the online course is a brand-new undertaking for the college, the Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute (KSRI) Library, housed on the same campus, has been innovating for years. Finding the existing library classification systems lacking or inapplicable to classical Indian texts, the librarians set up their own cataloguing, keeping in mind ease of access and wanting to implement time-saving strategies for readers.

“Among manuscripts, almost all here are older than 500 years. We have manuscripts in Tamil, Grantham, Malayalam, and even some from Indonesia,” notes J. Lalitha, senior librarian. “Of the 60,000 books, 53 books are between 200 and 250 years old; 14,000 books are between 100 and 200 years old. The entire library is computerised; — this has been going on for a long time, but only now the books are open to public, through the cloud. In the first phase, we recently digitised 1,400 of these books,” she adds.

Besides the online course, the digital campus initiative involves uploading versions of the texts housed at MSC to the same platform as live books. So far, eight manuscripts have been digitised. These are freely available. However, students will be charged ₹3,000 for the online course. Lakshmisa, student, says “I have some background in Sanskrit, but now, I would like to learn it systematically. After all, it is our ancient and divine language and it is appropriate for someone to learn, if such an opportunity presents itself.”

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