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From Ulsoor to Alaka – Learning Sanskrit

Written by Gaurav Kamath, 26th July 2020

My first memories of Sanskrit are rooted in rituals I’ve lost touch with. As a child, I found myself speaking the language every time Krishna Janmashtami rolled around; my grandfather would recite mantras, and my brother, my cousins and I would repeat after him line by line, biding our time until we could have a go at the confectionary-filled matkas hung outside. Naturally, I was more interested in the matkas than the mantras. But as the years progressed, it all faded into the background. I gained more and more distance from the rituals of my Brahmin forefathers, as I (for a number of reasons) drifted away from religion. Finally, one Janmashtami, rather than taking a place next to my younger, mantra-reciting cousins, I sat quietly with the other grown-ups in the house—too old to break clay pots with a cricket bat, too young to feel comfortable sitting with all those silent adults. And with that, all I had left of Sanskrit was the Gayatri Mantra, which I’d heard and recited too often to forget.

What set me further apart from the language was my own linguistic upbringing. My parents, who belonged to different lingual ancestry but both held a perfect command of English, spoke to my brother and I almost exclusively in the language these words are written in. Which meant that like many others in my demographic (we’ll get to demography in a bit), I came to think, speak, and write predominantly in English. Indian English, but English nonetheless. (It is—and perhaps will always be—my first language, my own language.) Thus I had none of Sanskrit’s lexical children in my private vocabulary; only its mangled Anglo-Saxon grand-nephews and nieces, and the dry, functional knowledge of its Hindi and Kannada-based progeny.

Another reason for that last bit has to do with where I’ve grown up: Bangalore. (Koramangala, Ulsoor, M.G. Road, not the pete areas or Malleshwaram or Basavangudi, Bangalore more than Bengaluru.) See, there are few parts of Bangalore that demand too much from you linguistically; it’s been cosmopolitan long before it was metropolitan, and most people have a high tolerance for lingua francas. And so, within a certain socio-economic bubble—this is the bit about demography—Bangalore’s children are especially Anglophone. I am one such child—not a magaa, not a bhai, just a bro. And bros aren’t exactly known for their cultural roots.

But as I write this, I’ve got a small stack of Sanskrit books on my desk, and spend a few hours each week on informal classes for the language. I now found myself deeply, deeply interested in learning the so-called devabhasha, and even attempt to speak it (or rather, type it) with one of my classmates. So what happened in the middle? What brought me—to refer to the title of this piece—from bro to bhoh, from Bangalore’s green suburbs to the mythical city of the yakshas?

Now, all this might seem like a prelude to some crescendo of ethno-religious pride. I might, for instance, proceed to go on about how I rediscovered my Brahmin heritage, and wax poetic on all that our ancestors discovered before their Western counterparts. Or perhaps I might say something along the lines of how vastu practices are scientific, and articulate the thought better than most WhatsApp forwards do. But I plan on doing no such thing. Because as much as I’ve been exposed in the past few years to the wonders of Ancient India, my attraction to Sanskrit has nothing to do with any grand, chest-thumping claims. In fact, it’s a far more humble reason that has me learning the ancient tongue.

When I got to college, I quickly abandoned my plans to graduate as an Economics major. Philosophy—Bernard Williams, Frank Jackson, John Searle, those were the ones that did the job—had me under its sway. And then, soon enough, I was exposed to Indian philosophy, primarily through the work of Shankaracharya and Madhavacharya. What I loved about them was that they read much like the analytic philosophy that first had me fall for the discipline—ruthlessly clinical, comprising just argumentation and counter-argumentation. So, in my final year, I enrolled in an introductory Sanskrit course, thinking it would better help me dive into some of those incisive texts. And then came the magic.

Image Credits CMAC

Friends of mine tell me they hated learning Sanskrit in school, on account of all the memorisation it involved (“Ramaha/Ramau/Ramaaha” and all that). But I was lucky enough to have a brilliant teacher whose pedagogy made that level of rote learning less tedious. So it wasn’t too long before the language revealed to me some of its wonders. I learnt that you could, for example, compress ridiculous amounts of information into just a few words; that you had access to nifty grammatical tools which the pragmatics of English, Hindi and Kannada barred; and, perhaps most importantly, that its semantic and syntactic features allowed for the most beautiful sentences. Soon enough, I was hooked. 

Then, gradually, came the literature. It trickled through, bit by bit—from the first images of peacocks heralding the rains, to the later cries of love-struck paramours. (All, of course, brought out with the most melodic, evocative language.) And like all good literature, it pulled at something within. It did something. Of course, I was only reading excerpts—even now, I’d take quite a while to get through any full-length text, that too with some assistance—but those fragments were enough to pull me further and further down a path which, only a few years prior, seemed wholly consigned to my past. As the classes went on, so too did my fascination grow, until I found myself where I am now—in love with a language I’m only just beginning to unravel.

So, to put it plainly: I learn Sanskrit for the same reason that people paint or sing—to get a taste of aesthetic bliss. Not as a tool towards uncovering a past, nor as a means of asserting my identity, but simply for the beauty of the language itself. And that beauty is abundant.

But of course, you do learn a lot else through a study of Sanskrit. You realise, for example, that for all its unique semantic devices, it isn’t quite ‘scientific’—the language has its own random quirks, and is just as warmly human as other natural languages. Conversely, you start to notice all the implicit semantic tools that help languages like English and Hindi operate smoothly. 

You also get a glimpse into ancient Indian life, and realise just how much has remained unchanged. As an example, there’s a scene in Kalidasa’s Abhigyanashakuntalam, where two cops accuse a fisherman of theft. (The cops, by the way, are the brothers-in-law of the police chief, who himself is the king’s brother-in-law. Nepotism, it would seem, is timeless.) The policemen show an appetite for cruelty that’s survived the ages; “Januka,” one says to the other, “my hands are itching to thrash him.” But the fisherman is never beaten up; his claims of innocence are proven to be truthful. And when he then hands the policemen an offering of peace (read: money), the chief of police declares him a friend, eloquently proposing that they now ‘let liquor be witness to their friendship’. 

Most importantly, through the course of such discoveries, you come to comprehend quite how much there is to Sanskrit beyond the rituals. It is, after all, far more than a language of method. Because over and above its religious and ritualistic use, Sanskrit was—and still is—a beautiful imprint of thought, culture, and experience. 

Image Credits CMAC

Of course, there are dark chapters to its past; as with many other things in this country, there’s no getting around the caste question. Sanskrit, after all, was only accessible to the savarnas for vast swathes of its history. (Which, ironically, probably contributed to its own demise.) And that connection to the varna system still lingers: the significant majority of Sanskrit speakers today are Brahmins who, like my grandfather, gained exposure to the language on account of their caste identity. But I would contend that languages are the witnesses to—not the perpetrators of—the wrongdoings of their speakers. So it is that we use English to speak against colonialism; so it is that we read classics in spite of their authors’ sexism and bigotry. Sanskrit is no different in that regard—devabhasha in name, but first and foremost a bhasha

To end this, I’ll return to those mentions of Janmashtami. Like I’ve mentioned, my interest in Sanskrit has nothing to do with any burgeoning religiosity. And so next Janmashtami—plague notwithstanding—I will still sit quietly with the adults at the back. But this time, perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of really understanding some of those ancient recitations I heard so often as a child.

Experience Further: While the song doesn’t feature any ‘Indian’ sounds, and is composed by two Americans, it mixes modern and classical sounds in a manner that I think is appropriate to the topic. It also became my personal soundtrack while writing this piece.

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