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Fwd: Article from The Hindu: How Sanskrit should be taught?

From: Ram Chandran (
Date: Wed Aug 29 2001 - 02:47:31 PDT


This scholarly article on "How Sanskrit should be taught" by ARVIND 
SHARMA Birks Professor of Comparative Religion, McGill University
to every reader who has keen interest in the preservation of Vedas and 
Vedic Philosophies.  By learning Sanskrit we can bring unity 
because the most of the thoughts spelled out by the sages and saints 
in Sanskrit. If we determine to teach our kids the Sanskrit language 
starting from early ages, we can bring unity and we can preserve our 
cherished culture and traditions.  

warmest regards,

Ram Chandran
This article is emailed to you by Ram Chandran ( rchandran@c... )
Source: The Hindu (

How Sanskrit should be taught

IF ONE assumes that Sanskrit should be taught, as indicated by 
some recent moves by the government, then the question arises: 
how should it be taught?

It is an axiom in some schools of Indian philosophy that a 
question can be fully addressed only if it is approached 
negatively as well as positively. This means then that a 
consideration of how Sanskrit should not be taught is integral to 
a discussion of how it should be.

My experience suggests that Sanskrit should not be taught as it 
is traditionally taught either in India or the West, when 
instruction in it is extended to the general curriculum. In the 
traditional mode of teaching Sanskrit in India, grammatical 
(Panini) and lexical (Amarakosa) learning precede its actual 
deployment in conversation (if ever). It is taught as an 
`eternal' language rather than as a contemporary language. By 
contrast, in the West, it is traditionally taught as a ``dead'' 
language rendering posthumous service to historical linguistics, 
rather than as a living language. But treating Sanskrit as an 
eternal or a dead language is really just two ways of killing it!

A living language

However, I hear the reader object — is Sanskrit a living 
language to be treated as such? I offer three responses to this 
question: (1) that Sanskrit is a living language inasmuch as it 
is recorded as such by the Indian census. It is true that only a 
few thousands cite it as their mother tongue — but the fact 
remains that some tribal languages, considered living, have even 
fewer speakers. (2) More significantly, Sanskrit lives through 
the regional languages whose vocabularies, in varying degrees, 
overlap with Sanskrit. This means that the teaching of Sanskrit 
should proceed in tandem with that of the regional languages. (3) 
Just as by treating a language as a dead language one can kill 
it, by treating it as a living language one can bring it back to 
full life. The resurrection of Hebrew is a case in point. It may 
be hard to believe but even as one reads this somebody is 
actually reading a Sanskrit newspaper, listening to a Sanskrit 
news broadcast and making one's first acquaintance with another 
Indian in Sanskrit. This has happened to me twice within the last 
week when I met an engineer from Haryana and a social worker from 
Kerala through the medium of this language here in the U.S.

In the matter of Sanskrit then the assumption cannot be divorced 
from the outcome.

Sanskrit should be taught as a living language and not merely as 
a classical or historical language. Instruction in its grammar 
and vocabulary should succeed and not precede its active use by 
students. Numerous initiatives have demonstrated the viability of 
this approach, e.g. Volunteers from 
such organisations might even enable the government to minimise 
its outlay on such a programme.

Liberal elements of culture

What should be taught is also a crucial part of how Sanskrit 
should be taught. The liberal elements of Sanskritic culture 
should constitute the examples and the exercises in the 
curriculum. Unlikely as it might seem on the face of it, Sanskrit 
can spark a social revolution through what is taught. One problem 
this culture faces is the negative stereotyping of the position 
of women and lower castes in its presentation. I provide below 
some samples in English translation of the kind of material which 
could form part of the textbook, and which could undo such 
unfortunate portrayal:

A high caste male should emulate the praiseworthy conduct of a 
woman or a person of low caste.

(Manusmriti II.223)

One should obtain knowledge of supreme dharma even from a dalit.

(Manusmriti II.238)

All the four yugas result from the conduct of the ruler. The 
ruler is (the shaper of the) age.

(Manusmriti IX.301)

Sudras of good conduct are entitled to the Sacred Thread.

(Paraskara Grihya Sutra 2.6)

Women should study the Vedic texts.

(Gobhila Grihya Sutra 1.2)

That spiritual knowledge which nervous men take a year to acquire 
confident women acquire in twelve days.

(Jayadratha's Commentary on
Abhinavagupta's Tantraloka)

There is no differentiation beyond the human race.

(Bhavishya Purana 1.40.21)

Other citations with a contemporary application could be added on 
such themes as terrorism (``One terrorist can intimidate a 
hundred intellectuals'', Chandogya Upanishad VII. 8.1) and 
charity (``Beings crowd around the fire sacrifice like hungry 
children around the mother'', V.24.5)
This is also true of other reading materials such as stories. 
People who read the Mahabharata will realise how empowering it 
can be for women. In it, not only does Savitri choose her own 
husband Swayamvara style, Sakuntala virtually gives herself away 
in marriage!

Indic tradition

One final thought. The question of how Sanskrit should be taught 
is also intimately related to who teaches it. Instruction in 
Sanskrit should be imparted by women and by men belonging to all 
the castes and communities in equal measure. The Indic tradition 
has suffered by functioning in a situation in which knowledge of 
Sanskrit tended to get confined to an elite circle of first male 
members of the higher varnas and then to a priestly circle of 
Brahmins who made ritual use of it. The last two aphorisms of the 
Apastamba Dharma Sutra identify two constituencies by whom the 
tradition may be shaped: (1) by male members of the three higher 
varnas or (2) by all the members of the community, male and 

The Indic tradition has sometimes erred in the past in choosing 
the first option. It is now time to try the second, and what 
could be a more effective way of doing this than by drawing 
Sanskrit instructors from all communities, including all their 
male and female members. In this way the Sanskrit language, which 
is often perceived as an impediment to social progress, will 
become its greatest stimulant.


Birks Professor of Comparative

Religion, McGill University

Copyrights: 1995 - 2001 The Hindu

Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are 
prohibited without the consent of The Hindu
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