Summer Camps Revive India's Ancient Sanskrit

Sanskrit teacher Vijay Singh uses everyday props such as light bulbs, combs and toothpaste to teach the 4,000-year-old language at a camp in New Delhi.
Sanskrit teacher Vijay Singh uses everyday props such as light bulbs, combs and toothpaste to teach the 4,000-year-old language at a camp in New Delhi. (Photo: Rama Lakshmi/Post)
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By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 15, 2008

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.

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