There is a small but significant rise in interest in learning classical Indian languages. Classes draw IT professionals, retirees and people from different walks of life hoping to read ancient texts and attempt translations
Arjun Bharadwaj learnt Sanskrit as a child, listening to his teacher talk about the shubhashitas (epigrammatic poems and sayings). As he grew older, Bharadwaj followed the well-trodden path of engineering degrees and a masters abroad, but languages, especially Sanskrit, remained a passion. “I’ve learnt German, Italian, Latin and took a course on classical Greek in Zurich,” he says. “What I want to do now is to use Sanskrit aesthetics to examine Greek classics,” says Bharadwaj, who enrolled at the Karnataka Samskrit University in Bengaluru, and is working on his masters in the language.
He is not alone. There are IT company executives, engineers, the occasional doctor, and scores of students from pathashalas (schools) and mutts in search of a formal degree in Sanskrit. Over the past decade, there has been a small but significant increase in interest in learning classical Indian languages, especially Sanskrit. They might not yet form a corpus of expert translators – a lack of which was cited as the reason why the Murty Classical Library of India mostly uses foreign experts to translate Indian classics, a decision that was criticised by some Indian academics – but they are learning to enjoy the couplets and cadences written eons ago.
The tide could turn in the future. The Karnataka Samskrit University (KSU), set up in 2010, has 31 colleges that offer BA, MA and postdoctoral study courses, as well as a basic course via 354 traditional pathashalas across the state. “In 2010, there were around 12,000 pathashala students. Now, the student population is more than 22,000,” says Shrinivasa Varakhedi, professor and dean, KSU. Five years ago, the colleges had around 1,500 students, which has gone up to 4,000. The number of colleges has also gone up from 13 in 2010 to 31 now, and 90 students registered for MPhil and PhD programmes in the last three years. “Out of this, 22 have got their MPhil,” Varakhedi says.
At some level, the increased interest in Sanskrit seems to be a case of ‘If you build it, they will come’. “The formation of a university and the opportunity to get a formal degree has created a lot of interest,” says Varakhedi. A significant number of students come from mutts, or from groups who have traditionally learnt the language, but change is visible, especially if you happen to visit the KSU’s evening college centre in Bengaluru. “We started the BA programme three years ago and opened it to all. Now, we have working professionals, retirees and students,” says Varakhedi. When PG classes were offered at the same centre last year, the pattern repeated. “Some who work in IT companies start from their offices by 4pm, travel for a few hours to spend time at the class between 6pm and 9pm. Though the number is really small, just 11 students, the impact has been high,” he says.
The Rajiv Gandhi Kendriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha in Sringeri has also seen a steady increase in enrolment. “What decline?” asks A C Sachhidananda Udupa, the head of the institution.
“There has been a steady increase in interest in Sanskrit learning. We have students from 14 states enrolled here.
There are students who have quit senior-level bank jobs in Tamil Nadu and Odisha to learn Vedanta and Advaita. Others have stayed on to research the influence of Sanskrit on other languages and its role in the preservation of our cultural heritage,” he says.
The students come from a variety of back grounds. Niranjan, the son of a farmer in a village near Karwar, is a second year MA student who wants to see for himself what vedic science is all about. Swarna Man dara, the son of a medical shop attendant from Sholapur in Maharashtra, wants to specialize in kavya (poetics) and mimamsa (a branch of philosophy).
A search for meaning could also lead to Pali. The International Institute of Pali, Sanskrit and Comparative Philosophy, affiliated to KSU, has around 50 students for a six-month course in basic Pali that was started recently.
Some, like 54-year-old Ravi Sajjan, joined up to read the Dhammapada (a collection of Buddha’s sayings) in the original. For others, like Vijayakumar Bhogappa, learning Pali is the logical extension of a fascination with Dr Ambedkar’s impact on the arid Hyderabad Karnatak district.
Institute director Mallepuram G Venkatesh says he was surprised to see the number of students who showed interest in the course. The interest in Pali and Buddhism in north Karnataka is not just due to the historical links but also due to the Ambedkarite movement that has come in from neighbouring Maharashtra. “Language students hope to do comparative study of Sanskrit and Pali, which are ancient sister languages. There are also many interested in comparative history and philosophy,” he says.
The search to understand one’s history and heritage has also prompted an interest in learning Halegannada, or ancient Kannada, which dates back to the 5th century, and is the language of classical poetry and epigraphy. “I’ve been writing poetry from the time I was a child and wanted to improve, so I started reading Pampa’s verses,” says Ganesh Koppalatota, 26, a mechanical engineer who has been learning Halegannada with the help of a dictionary for the past few years. “Reading the classics in their original form brings me great personal joy,” he says. For Sudha Murty, chairman of Infosys Foundation, the introduction to Halegannada came during a diploma course on epigraphy. “I always wanted to study Kannada history and language but was busy with engineering, Infosys, children,” says Murty. “One part of the epigraphy course was Halegannada and I decided to pursue it further,” she says. Murty does about eight to 10 classes a month with her tutor and has read 22 mahakavyas (lyrical epics of Kannada) of 8th, 9th and 10th century poets in the last six years.
One of the challenges to learning a classical language is finding a good teacher. “The grammar is the same but much of the vocabulary is different and this is the struggle with learning it,” she says, adding that a knowledge of Sanskrit, which she learned as a child, made the going easier.
It’s easy to worry about the state of our classical languages -and indeed, there is cause for concern. “Young people are exposed to English and Hindi so much that regional languages are losing out,” says Vaddagere Nagarajaiah, a writer and member of the Karnataka Sahitya Academy in Bengaluru. “But knowing Halegannada, for instance, is a route into understanding your own history and about society, ideas and politics of the past. You can read original texts. There is so much to enjoy and learn from our poetry,” he says.”And you can also compare with and better appreciate all world classics in all languages.”
Sajjan talks about the sheer pleasure of reading the rhyming verses of Dhammapada, and hopes to learn enough to translate some of the lesser known Buddhist texts.
Though Murty began Halegannada purely for the love of the language, she’s found that it has helped her with her work. When the Infosys Foundation was restoring the 1,400-year-old Somanatheswara Temple in Lakshmeshwara, 40km from Hubli, she could read the inscriptions on its walls. “I could truly understand the history of the place we were working in,” she says.