How to teach Sanskrit

Sanskrit is reduced to a language, as if all ideas can be reduced to language. To teach Sanskrit in a civilisational sense is not to have to learn it

April 29, 2016 01:16 am | Updated September 11, 2016 11:24 pm IST

Human Resource Development Minister >Smriti Irani’s written reply in the Lok Sabha recently on teaching Sanskrit in the Indian Institutes of Technology has come in for criticism, with the Aam Aadmi Party asking her to choose between Java and Sanskrit, and so on. This is another case where the kernel of good intention (supporting serious scholarship on Sanskrit) has been lost in an ill-designed formulation.

The state of >Sanskrit scholarship in the country — in proportion to how important Sanskrit is to our intellectual heritage — is truly abysmal. While there are of course, individually, a few good scholars, there is very little by way of sustained intellectual achievement that would meet international standards. Unfortunately, people get to be defensive around scholarship in the culture and the humanities — no one will dispute that very little Nobel-quality physics is done in India, but anything to do with culture immediately has as its reflex an outpouring of claims as to India’s special spiritual genius.

No serious scholarship can know in advance what it seeks to achieve. If we already knew how great Sanskrit’s achievement was, what would be the need to simply confirm it? Serious scholarship will be able to discover both Sanskrit’s achievements and its blind spots. Beyond greatness, even the fact of pigeonholing Sanskrit to science and engineering is baffling — science in India, like anywhere in the world till the rise of the modern West — was never the centre of research or scholarly endeavour. Sanskrit, as an intellectual idiom, would not be able to disentangle “scientific” texts entirely from metaphysical, philosophical, literary or ethical traditions. One is fundamentally missing the point in looking for scattered scientific information, or thinking that one can simply excise the non-scientific parts from the scientific parts of a text. One risks misunderstanding both science and “non-science” (religion/philosophy/literature, etc), when, instead, one should look for a new meaning in both that should serve as new ways of negotiating contemporary dilemmas. It is only in this sense that the Sanskrit intellectual tradition can be a living, rather than dead history. Perhaps the concentration on Sanskrit science is to move away from the more controversial social aspects of the Sanskrit world (questions of gender, caste, etc). But this is foolhardy as there is no way science can be separated from the social, and there should be confidence that the study of Sanskrit can take into account the weaknesses of that world view, even as it celebrates Sanskrit’s great achievements.

Rekindling interest But the problem is deeper still. How does one get an average student (in today’s app-dominated world) who may be interested in science fiction, to be interested in Sanskrit culture too? The way Sanskrit is taught institutionally in India is essentially through syllabi that have been frozen for decades, and in an examination format that kills innovative thinking. To really make Sanskrit come alive, one has to ask questions that feed into contemporary intellectual questions — how might the sophisticated systematisations of doubt in Indian philosophy feed into similar questions being asked in Western analytic philosophy? How might the idea of mood developed so eloquently by Bhavabhuti relate to ideas of self in modern Telugu literature? What was the relationship between science, ethics and politics then, and how might this conjuncture relate to present dilemmas? While, ironically, scientists might be terrified at how to translate thermodynamics into Sanskrit, it is the humanities that can relate most meaningfully to the set of concerns that have been so ably articulated in Sanskritic formulations of the ethical life. Far from finding some ancient, obscure text that might have some misty relation to a European mathematical concept, the humanities can best treat Sanskrit as a contemporary language with the vital resources available for today’s world.

We are far from any of this happening, because we have failed to separate the wheat from the chaff. The aim is to teach Sanskrit not out of a mindless patriotism, but as it speaks to other disciplines — literature, or historiography, or science. This is by no means an easy task. To many, for example, Sanskrit literature is too ornate, and does not have the easy identification that, say, reading Greek dramatists might have. The aesthetics are difficult to appreciate — how many things can be endlessly and tediously compared to the lotus or the moon? The challenge of pedagogy is to be able to make this Sanskritic world interesting — and only those who have tried hard to teach it know how difficult this is.

Further, Sanskrit is reduced to a language — as if all ideas can be reduced to language. To teach Sanskrit in a civilisational sense is not to have to learn Sanskrit (a difficult language for most to learn, with its endless tables), at least in the early stages. Why would one be motivated to learn at all unless one has glimpsed at least some of its treasures by translation? But for this sense of wonder at that world, one must be able to have clearly experienced that world — translation itself may not suffice, and there would need to be a whole range of pedagogical and intermediate material explaining the special significance of Sanskrit ideas — be they in science or any other field. This is the work the government would do well to support and encourage — but, unfortunately, we do not yet have indication that their thoughts have travelled that far ahead.

Pride in our culture might be a necessary first step, but the real work (for scholars, government, private patrons, lay intellectuals) begins afterwards.

Nikhil Govind is the head of the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities, Manipal University.

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