Sanskrit echoes around the world

The rise of India's economy has brought an eagerness to learn the ancient 'language of the gods' – and a great-great aunt to English.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Deep inside the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a Wednesday evening recently, a class of about a dozen students were speaking an arcane ancient tongue.

"It is time for exams, and I play every day," says one.

"Perhaps, you should study, too," counters another at the conversation table. The others laugh.

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No, this isn't Latin 101 – that would be easy. This is Sanskrit, a classical language that is the Indian equivalent of ancient Greek or Latin.

Today, spoken Sanskrit is enjoying a revival – both in India and among Indian expatriates in the United States. There is even evidence of Sanskrit emerging in American popular culture as more and more people roll out yoga mats at the local gym and greet one another with "Namaste."

Soon, the conversation at the MIT class turns to plans for the summer. Most of those attending are graduate students. Lavanya Marla, working toward a PhD in transportation engineering, says the informal setting is a good break from science. "Plus, the homework is easy," she adds.

Among the other attendees are a French post-doctoral physics candidate (who attended out of sheer curiosity at first, then stayed), and an eleventh-grader from Lexington (Mass.) High School. Another is a self-described "old Yankee" from Salem, Mass., who has diligently taught himself Sanskrit script as well.

Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago, among others, have long offered Sanskrit courses to undergrads. But the demand for these classes is growing beyond academic settings. A decade-long economic boom has brought Indians some measure of prosperity, and with it a sense of pride in the nation's past. In large part, however, the revival is the result of the efforts of a private group, Samskrita Bharati, headquartered in New Delhi. The volunteer-based group's mission: Bring the pan-Indian language back to the mainstream and lay the groundwork for a cultural renaissance.

"There were many reasons for the decline of Sanskrit," says Chamu Krishna Shastry, who founded Samskrita Bharati in 1981, "but one of the foremost was the unimaginative way it was taught since [British] colonial times." Later, in a newly democratic India, the language associated with upper-caste Brahmin priests held little appeal to the masses. The present movement to revive Sanskrit aims to teach the "language of the gods" to anyone who cares to learn it.

In India today, Sanskrit is mostly known as the written language of religion and metaphysics. Hindus – who make up 80 percent of the population in India – typically know some Sanskrit prayers by heart. Those who marry by the ceremonial sacred fire recite their vows in Sanskrit. Traces of the ancient language can be found in nearly all of the 15 modern languages spoken in India. (Hundreds of pure Sanskrit words are present in English as well. )

"To dispel the notion that the language was nonliving and difficult to learn," Mr. Shastry says in a phone interview, "we decided to teach basic spoken Sanskrit in 10 days and to teach through Sanskrit only."

An eager network of volunteers experimented with this new method, teaching groups in villages, cities, and abroad through Indian expatriates. "We now hold classes even in prisons," Shastry says.

When the movement began, there was no money for printed flyers to advertise the classes, so publicity was strictly via word-of-mouth. Volunteers performed sidewalk skits about social themes using Sanskrit to draw the attention of passersby.

"[People] saw that Sanskrit need not be confined to rituals and prayer," says Pallamraju Duggirala, a part-time

Samskrita Bharati volunteer (and full-time space physicist) who has been teaching the free classes at MIT since September 2003.

In 25 years, an estimated 7 million people have attended spoken Sanskrit classes offered by Samskrita Bharati in India and abroad, says Shastry. There are 250 full-time volunteers and 5,000 part-time teachers in the United States and India, and their numbers are growing.

Samskrita Bharati has chapters in 26 of India's 28 states. There are also groups in such places as San Jose, Calif.; Seattle; Pittsburgh; Buffalo, N.Y.; Dallas; San Diego; and Chicago. Requests are coming in from other US cities as well.

Like Latin and Greek, Sanskrit eventually became only the language of scholars as dialects spread in medieval times, notes David Shulman of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem in an e-mail interview. When the British Raj began in 1757, English slowly replaced Sanskrit.

Yoga practitioners in the US are seeking out the authentic Sanskrit names of various poses such as "downward dog" or "spinal twist" and the philosophy behind the practice as spelled out in the Yoga Sutras – the original treatise on the subject written in Sanskrit thousands of years ago.

Science-history buffs see old works in Sanskrit as treasure troves of ancient knowledge of astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, and metallurgy. When Copernicus announced that the sun was the center of the universe in 1543, it was a defining moment for Western science. In Samskrita Bharati's recently released "Pride of India" – a compilation that offers a glimpse into India's scientific heritage – Sanskrit scholars point to calculations from AD 499 that indicate astronomer Aryabhatta's underlying concept of a sun-centered planetary model.

"This knowledge tradition is what we hope to revive through the spread of Sanskrit," says Shastry.

You speak a little Sanskrit

Linguistically, Sanskrit belongs to the ancient Indo-European family – a "sister" of Old Greek, German (Gothic) and Latin – and is thus one of the ancestors of English. More like a great-great-aunt, perhaps. This helps to explain the coincidence of words that sound and mean the same in Sanskrit and English, such as bratha and brother, says Michael Witzel, Wales professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University.

Hundreds of pure Sanskrit words became permanent fixtures in English through cultural interactions between the East with the West since the Middle Ages, he adds.

Some of the pure Sanskrit words in English you know include: avatar, karma, guru, juggernaut, pundit, mantra, and nirvana.

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