"...if the Jews can revive Hebrew, why can't we revive Sanskrit?" -- Arvind Sharma
1. A blog entry by Dr. Arvind Sharma
2. A report in Washington Post.
Hebrew – What Has That Got To Do With Sanskrit? – Arvind Sharma
I was visiting my lawyer friend. As soon as he let me into the chamber I remarked: “Have you decided to grow a beard?” It was an obvious question for a man in his condition.
“You know,” he began, after he had offered me a seat and settled into one himself, “I am the member of a theatre group and my role requires a person with a beard. So my director suggested that I grow one, instead of wearing a made-up one.”
I began to muse why I hadn’t joined an elocution society, I am so dissatisfied at the way I make conversation, when I do, that is. My silent soliloquy ended as he resumed speaking.
“Have you heard of Yiddish?” he suddenly asked.
“A German dialect used by the Jews”, I ventured and then bit my tongue. Why didn’t I say sociolect? See, I do need those lessons after all.
“Only it was spoken all over – in Germany, Poland, Ukraine – kind of Jewish Lingua Franca”, he ever so gently corrected me. “It started along the Rhine around eleventh century. Has a vast literature.”
“Have you ever heard of Salinger?”
My thoughts went to a news item about an affair of a famous author with a younger girl – apparently dug out to show Clinton was not reinventing the wheel with Monica…he used my silence to fill the gap himself.
“He won a Nobel Prize”
I must have looked mildly surprised, for he added: “The only one awarded in Yiddish.”
If Yiddish was so well entrenched as a language among the Jews – why Hebrew then?
He read my mind.
“Hebrew of course was there as the language of ritual, but everything else was done in Yiddish. In 1908 a resolution was passed that Yiddish should be the language of Israel.”
Was Yiddish like Hindi? His talk flowed on regardless of my self-interrogation.
“Of course, for Theodore Herzl the language could only be German. But history marches to its own drumbeat. It was Hebrew which ended up being Israel’s language. It’s a miracle.”
I had long thought so - reviving a dead language. I finally said: “the first time I learnt of this was as a teenager. An Indian leader returned from a visit to Israel and said: if the Jews can revive Hebrew, why can’t we revive Sanskrit?” Then I let out a soft laugh.
“They also laughed when attempts were made to revive the Hebrew language. Then came the first family in which Hebrew was the mother tongue. Now when I hear people make baby-talk in Hebrew – it’s just unbelievable”
Ya – but in India people still laugh at the idea of Sanskrit.
ushma williams Says:
June 14, 2008 at 3:04 pm
as a recent student of Hinduism I have just started to learn Sanskrit. what I have over the years having gone through a english colonial education in India have just now realised, how much of the intellectual culture of India was unaccessible to me, and how regrettable that was.
All I know that India does not even realise her big loss by losing Sanskrit. the language and its people are so completely interlinked and the Indic worldview cannot be put accross in its entirety in English.
As i teach my own children and others Hinduism for their board exams we have to learn the religion through its Sankrit words, and it is wonderful to see British born childrens amazement at the language of their ancestors ,how proud it makes me to be of this heritage with its long intellectual and spiritual tradition and how easy Sanskrit makes it for me to understand this.Each word opens up the Indic philosophy so ably and precisely is amazing.
Summer Camps Revive India's Ancient Sanskrit
Effort Is Part of Bitter Debate Over the Role of Hindu Language in a Diverse Society
By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 15, 2008; A12
NEW DELHI -- Hemant Singh Yadav, a lean and sprightly 15-year-old, was sent by his parents to a summer camp to learn to speak Sanskrit, or what he calls the language of the gods.
He had studied the 4,000-year-old classical Indian language at school for six years. He knew its grammar and could chant the ancient hymns. But he could not converse in it. During a two-week course at the camp, Sanskrit Samvad Shala, he had no choice: He was forbidden to speak any other language.
"At first I thought it was impossible. The teachers and attendants spoke to us only in Sanskrit, and I did not understand anything," said Hemant, one of the 150 students gathered inside a Hindu temple on the outskirts of New Delhi. "I knew big, heavy bookish words before, but not the simple ones. But now Sanskrit feels like an everyday language."
Such camps, run by volunteers from Hindu nationalist groups, are designed to promote a language long dismissed as dead, and to instill in Hindus religious and cultural pride. Many Sanskrit speakers, though, believe that the camps are a steppingstone to a higher goal: turning back the clock and making Sanskrit modern India's spoken language.
Their endeavors are viewed with suspicion by many scholars here as part of an increasingly acrimonious debate over the role of Sanskrit in schools and society. The scholars warn against exploiting Indians' reverence for Sanskrit to promote the supremacy of Hindu thought in a country that, while predominantly Hindu, is also home to a large Muslim population and other religious minorities.
"It is critical to understand Sanskrit in order to study ancient Indian civilization and knowledge. But the language should not be used to push Hindu political ideology into school textbooks," said Arjun Dev, a historian and textbook author. "They want to say that all that is great about India happened in the Hindu Sanskrit texts."
One of the oldest members of what is known as the Indo-European family of languages, Sanskrit is a beleaguered language in India today, caught in a web of widespread apathy and questions about its utility.
Mainstream Indian schools teach the 49-letter language unimaginatively through tedious grammar lessons, and children learn by rote. Many parents see little use in encouraging their children to pursue a language that is not in any official use.
"Some people are constantly saying that Sanskrit is a dead language. It cripples our psyche to hear that, because we are nothing without Sanskrit," said Vijay Singh, 33, a teacher at Sanskrit Samvad Shala. "In the name of so-called secularism, it has become fashionable to attack any attempt to promote Sanskrit."
In January, government funding for a major Sanskrit program in schools was abruptly cut, prompting the program's managers to allege that officials were biased against the language.
The program, which encouraged immersive methods and developed computer-aided teaching tools and games, had been set up in 2003 by a Hindu nationalist government. One of the recommendations of the project included translations of English nursery rhymes such as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "One, Two, Buckle My Shoe" into Sanskrit.
When a new government was sworn in two years later, it ordered a massive review of the program, as well as other initiatives that were seen as being infused with Hindu supremacist rhetoric.
"The Sanskrit project was initiated by the previous government. They had their own priorities. The project was so-so. How many people really speak Sanskrit in India?" said Ramjanam Sharma, head of languages at the National Council of Educational Research and Training, a government body that designs school curriculums. Defending the decision to cut the funding, he said it was not appropriate for schools to teach children how to converse in Sanskrit. "We cannot replicate the teaching methods of traditional religious schools in our mainstream schools."
Although Sanskrit is one of the 22 official Indian languages, census figures show that only about 14,100 people speak it fluently, in a nation of more than a billion people. Still, it is prevalent in the hymns and chants at Hindu temple rituals, as well as at birth, marriage and death ceremonies. Not unlike Latin in the West, Sanskrit was long the language of intellectual activity in ancient India.
"Some people oppose anything that promotes Sanskrit because of its association with Hinduism. We were just trying to make the language a fun experience for students," said Kamla Kant Mishra, a Sanksrit professor and a member of the government project.
"To talk about Sanskrit is very political in India today," Mishra added. "That is the plight of the language."
The Indian government funds many colleges and universities that teach Sanskrit literature and scriptures, but it is not uncommon for even PhD students in the language to be unable to speak it. State-run schools offer a choice between a regional Indian language and Sanskrit. Many private schools offer Sanskrit, French, German and Spanish.
"I tell my students to opt for French, because it is useful if they choose to work in the hotel industry, or fashion or legal field. But there is no tangible use for Sanskrit except that they will learn an important part of our culture," said Vishakha Sharma, 40, a French teacher who teaches fifth- through eighth-graders in a private school. She said her school begins each morning with a Sanskrit chant. "It feels good to the ear, but students don't understand the meaning."
Meanwhile, some scholars are developing computer programs for Sanskrit and translating its rich repository of children's stories online. Last month, an alliance of international scholars from the United States, France and Germany was formed for Sanskrit computing.
"Sanskrit is very suitable for computing, because its grammar is complete with 4,000 rules and has a regular structure," said Girish Nath Jha, assistant professor of computational linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
At Sanskrit camp, a 19-year old undergraduate said that Sanskrit is in her blood.
"When I learn any language, I learn about its history and its literature," said Jaya Priyam. "But when I study Sanskrit, I learn who I am. It is my identity."