If you are an Indian reading this essay in English, then it is likely that you are (a) not representative of the average Indian, and (b) alienated from your Indic mother-tongue. The 2011 Census shows that only 10.67% of Indians speak English as either their first, second, or third language. As English-speaking Oxford students and academics discussing Indic languages, we must remember that we do not represent the average Indian. This is because a majority of Indians attend non English medium schools i.e. schools in which non-language subjects such as physics, mathematics, and geography are taught in the student’s mother-tongue (“Household Social Consumption on Education in India”, p. 100). A good test of whether you are alienated from your Indic mother-tongue is to try to formulate your knowledge of Newton’s laws of motion, quadratic equations, and the physical characteristic of plateaus in your mother-tongue (without cheating by whole-scale borrowing of English words!). While the average Indian student educated in his mother-tongue can do this quite easily, English-educated Indians alienated from their mother-tongues (such as you and I) cannot.
Confronted with the growing status of English as an international lingua franca, however, more and more Indian parents are sending their children to English-medium schools. Furthermore, despite their statistical prominence, all Indian languages seem to be in a state of decline. This is shown by their dearth of innovative and impactful scholarly writing as well as by the influx of numerous English words in daily conversation.
Why study Sanskrit?
Having briefly described our current linguistic reality, especially the existential crisis facing all Indian languages, I will now discuss the reasons for learning Sanskrit.
Sanskrit was the lingua-franca of sciences such as mathematics, astronomy, and medicine in pre-modern India. To quote Field’s Medallist David Mumford’s review of Kim Plofker’s excellent book Mathematics in India:
“Did you know that Vedic priests were using the so-called Pythagorean theorem to construct their fire altars in 800 BCE?; that the differential equation for the sine function, in finite difference form, was described by Indian mathematician-astronomers in the fifth century CE?; and that “Gregory’s” series π/4 = 1−1/3 +1/5 − … was proven using the power series for arctangent and, with ingenious summation methods, used to accurately compute π _in southwest India in the fourteenth century?” (Mumford 385)
It is an indictment of our education system that most of these remarkable achievements are never mentioned in our textbooks, both in English and in Indian languages. If we want to gain an accurate understanding of the scientific and technological achievements of Indian civilisation, a knowledge of Sanskrit is essential since virtually all pre-modern Indian scientists such as Caraka, Suśruta, Āryabhaṭa, Varāhamihira, Bhāskara II, and Mādhava composed their scientific treatises in Sanskrit. Unfortunately, instead of celebrating these real scientists and their real scientific achievements, certain sections of Indian society continuously concoct fake achievements such as aeroplanes in the Rāmāyana and nuclear fusion in the Vedas. It is obvious that such nonsense is motivated by a deep insecurity about the past. However, as a response to these false claims, many English-educated Indians refuse to believe that there was anything resembling science in ancient India. Like Englishmen, many Indians have been ‘educated’ to view ancient India as a dark period of primitive superstition. If we reflect on this polarisation of opinion, we realise that a lack of knowledge of Sanskrit is the common denominator uniting people on both sides. A sound knowledge of Sanskrit would provide a student with the tools necessary to critically examine claims about Indian intellectual history and arrive at his/her own conclusions. This conclusion would inevitably follow the Buddhist middle-path (Pāli majjhimā paṭipadā): ancient Indians made numerous scientific advancements but were neither omniscient nor utterly ignorant. Teaching Sanskrit is the best way to expose students to the richness of the scientific, philosophical, and practical knowledge-systems of Indian civilisation.
Many of the foundational stories of Indian civilisation which still delight us today have their roots in Sanskrit literature: the story of Rāma and Sīta in the Rāmāyana, the fratricidal tragedy of the Mahābhārata, or Kṛṣṇa’s childhood and his love-affairs with gopīs in the Bhāgavatapurāṇa. If religion and science isn’t your cup of tea, despair not! Most of Sanskrit literature is actually descriptions of beautiful sunrises, terrifying wars, and sweet love-making. Consider, for example, the lament of a yakṣa separated from his beloved:
tvām ālikhya praṇayakupitāṃ dhāturāgaiḥ śilāyām
ātmānaṃ te caraṇapatitaṃ yāvad icchāmi kartum |
asrais tāvan muhur upacitair dṛṣṭir ālipyate me
krūras tasminn api na sahate saṃgamaṃ nau kṛtāntaḥ ||
(Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta verse 2.45)
I paint you, angry with affection, on this stone using minerals as colours.
As soon as I seek to add myself, fallen at your feet, to the picture,
My eyes become smudged with incessant tears.
O, how cruel is fate,
Since it does not allow the two of us to unite
Even in a painting!
Sanskrit literature is filled with millions of such verses: verses which capture the deepest and most secret feelings of the human heart. Besides these tender verses, Sanskrit literature possesses rare examples of literary genius. For example, the 12th century poet Kavirāja’s Rāghavapāṇḍavīya simultaneously narrates the stories of the Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata using Sanskrit’s seemingly infinite possibility for punning! If students wish to make this rich world of feeling, beauty, and literary genius a part of their life, then they must learn Sanskrit.
Sanskrit is a grammatically perfect language with ten verbal-classes, eight cases, three numbers, and three genders (Jones 28). Sanskrit is one of the most well-structured and concise languages in the world. Consider the following English sentence: “I went to the shop to buy sugar”.
The prolixity of this eight-word English sentence is evident in the use of filler words such as ‘to’ and ‘the’. Expressing the same thought in a modern Indian language such as Hindi, one would say: “मैं चीनी खरीदने के िलए दुकान गया ।”
Though this Hindi sentence is one word shorter than its English counterpart, it is equally prolix. Suppose one were to express the same thought in Sanskrit: śarkarāyāḥ krayāya vipaṇim agaccham.
We need only four words! In addition to its intrinsic grammatical beauty, a knowledge of Sanskrit will help a student learn other Indian languages more easily since most Indian languages, including Tamil, borrow a large number of loanwords from Sanskrit. I am reminded of my north-Indian friend’s hilarious attempt to order hot water at a restaurant in Karnataka. When he asked for ‘garam pānī’ in Hindi, everyone was baffled. However, as soon as he asked for the Sanskritic ‘uṣṇa jala’, he got what he wanted! Besides aiding in the comprehension of Indian languages, Sanskrit constitutes ideal preparation for those interested in learning Greek and Latin. This is because these Western classical languages share not only grammatical structure but also numerous cognate words with Sanskrit. Thus, Sanskrit is not only grammatically beautiful but also an ideal gateway to learning other Indian and Indo-European languages.
Having (hopefully) persuaded you of the beauty and relevance of Sanskrit, I must now turn to three intractable practical questions: (i) How should Sanskrit be incorporated into our school curriculum? (ii) How should Sanskrit teaching deal with the controversies surrounding Sanskrit? (iii) How can teachers make Sanskrit learning easier and more enjoyable?
As far as the first question is concerned, National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 hits the nail on the head:
“Sanskrit will thus be offered at all levels of school and higher education as an important, enriching option for students, including as an option in the three-language formula.” (NEP 2020: 14)
It is significant that NEP 2020 does not argue that Sanskrit should be made compulsory. Any attempt to impose Sanskrit on students is doomed to fail since many students prefer learning another Indian language instead of Sanskrit. However, as NEP 2020 states, Sanskrit should be made available as an option that can be chosen as one’s second or third language. In this respect, NEP 2020 significantly improves on NEP 1986 which, unfortunately, said virtually nothing about the role of Sanskrit in Indian education (NEP 1986. Furthermore, NEP 2020’s explicit mention of the importance of other classical languages such as Tamil and Kannada shows its commitment to preserving and re-invigorating the classical in these dreary post-modern times (NEP 2020 14-15). However, good intentions do not change the world unless accompanied by concrete action. Sanskrit is currently not offered as a language option in most private and government schools, including in the school of this essay’s author. Indeed, most of my Sanskrit-speaking friends actually learnt Sanskrit from traditional paṇḍitas outside the formal academic system. Though Sanskrit should not be made compulsory as a language, all students should be exposed to Sanskrit literature and knowledge-systems in translation. This will expand the student’s horizon beyond the confines of modern languages.
Given the divisiveness of our times, the teaching of Sanskrit will undoubtedly involve numerous controversies. The two most obvious points of contention are the content of the syllabus and the socio-political history of Sanskrit. One can mitigate the first difficulty by insisting on a curriculum grounded in the reading of original Sanskrit texts rather than secondary scholarship. Instead of presenting students with a particular narrative of Indian history, students should be allowed to develop their own understanding of the past through a careful reading of Sanskrit texts. With regard to the alleged discriminatory and elitist nature of Sanskrit, NEP 2020 constitutes a wonderful anti-dote. If successfully implemented, NEP 2020 will open up the study of Sanskrit to interested students from all religions, castes, races, and cultures. It is imperative that students from diverse social backgrounds are made to feel welcome in the modern Sanskrit classroom.
As far as Sanskrit pedagogy is concerned, the need of the hour is qualified teachers who can make language learning enjoyable. Too often, learning Sanskrit involves drowning in a sea of meaningless paradigms to be memorised. This approach ends up detracting students who would have otherwise enjoyed reading Sanskrit texts. Like other Indian languages, Sanskrit should be taught using a combination of everyday conversation and textual study. Crucially, teachers should treat Sanskrit as a language of daily life rather than as a dead language of ancient manuscripts. Such an approach will make students internalise and cherish Sanskrit instead of merely treating it as a scoring subject to achieve better grades. And, hopefully, this study of Sanskrit will create modern Indians who feel proud of their heritage and strive to live up to its demanding ethical ideals:
manasi vacasi kāye puṇyapīyūṣapūrṇās
tribhuvanam upakāraśreṇibhiḥ prīṇayantaḥ|
paraguṇaparamāṇūn parvatīkṛtya nityaṃ
nijahṛdi vikasantaḥ santi santaḥ kiyantaḥ||
(Bhartṛharı̍’s Śatakatraya verse 1.79)
Filled with pure nectar in mind, speech, and body,
Pleasing creatures in all three worlds by continuously helping them, Transforming another’s atom-like good quality into a mountain,
Always blossoming in their own hearts,
How many such good people are there?
“Bhartṛharı̍’s Śatakatraya.” Göttingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages (GRETIL), http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/5_poetry/5_subhas/bh….
“Household Social Consumption on Education in India.” National Statistical Office, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, July 2017-June 2018. http:// www.mospi.nic.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/ Report_585_75th_round_Education_final_1507_0.pdf.
Jones, Sir William. Discourses delivered before the Asiatic Society: and miscellaneous papers, on the religion, poetry, literature, etc., of the nations of India. Printed for C. S. Arnold: 1824. “Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta.” Göttingen Register of Electronic Texts in Indian Languages (GRETIL), http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/5_poetry/2_kavya/meg….
Plofker, Kim. Mathematics in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. Page of 4 5 Mumford, David. “Mathematics in India: Reviewed by David Mumford,” Notices of the American Mathematical Society vol. 57, no. 3 (2010): 385-390.
“National Education Policy 1986.” Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. https://www.education.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/upload_docume….
“National Education Policy 2020.” Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India. https://www.education.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/NEP_Final_Eng….
“2011 Census.” Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, 2011. https://censusindia.gov.in/2011Census/Language_MTs.html.
Suggested Citation: Shree Nahata. 2021. ‘The Importance of Sanskrit in Indian Education’, Think Pieces Series No. 16. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.web.ox.ac.uk/).