Op-Ed: In Praise of Sanskrit, India’s ‘Adi Bhasha’

Going strictly by numbers, it isn’t exactly the kind of function that sets the city on fire. Nor are the arrangements of the kind that is standard fare in most other functions. Barely 30-40 people gather in a temple complex in IRC Village on Gamha Purnima (Raksha Bandhan) day every year for a function that ends with an elementary ‘bhata-dalma’ meal. But in its significance, the ‘Sanskruta Sanskruti Divas’ organized by Pandit Amulya Kumar Pradhan, a man of modest means, at the Laxmi Narayan temple in N 1 area in IRC Village in Bhubaneswar certainly outdoes a whole lot of meaningless functions organized by individuals and organizations all the year round. The idea behind the celebration, a brainchild of Pandit Pradhan, is to popularize Sanskrit, a language that every Indian is proud of but very few know, use or understand.

I met Pandit Pradhan for the first time sometime in the mid-1980s while working in ‘Sambad’ and was immediately struck by his zeal and commitment to the cause he had chosen to espouse. It was initially funny listening to him conversing in Sanskrit with everyone, including vegetable vendors, rickshaw pullers and the like. But soon, mirth gave way to curiosity and I started following his interactions with people, including ‘Sambad’ staff. No one responded to him in Sanskrit, of course. But it was a revelation to find that almost all of them, including the vegetable vendors, understood him. I was beginning to realize why Sanskrit is called ‘the mother of all Indian languages’!

Every time I meet this person, I am reminded of my own tryst with Sanskrit while in school. Having just taken admission in MKC High School in Baripada upon my father’s transfer, I had a Hobson’s choice to make. I could either opt for a combination of Sanskrit and Hindi (50 marks each), which would involve a change of section, or 100 marks of Sanskrit which would allow me to stay on in Section D. Since I was already familiar with Hindi, I wanted to opt for the first, but the thought of parting with the few friends I had made in my section and moving over to another did not seem a welcome proposition. So, Sanskrit 100 it was and I did reasonably well in the first year primarily because of my familiarity with the Devnagri script in which our Sanskrit books were written. But by the time I reached Class XI (yes, there was a Class XI in matriculation), I had started dreading Sanskrit, mainly because of my inability (or was it unwillingness?) to learn by rote. And Sanskrit, as everyone who has studied it knows, involves getting a host of ‘shabda rupas’ and ‘dhatu rupas’ by heart. Years of neglect ensured that I flunked in Sanskrit, securing just 24 out of 100 marks, in the ‘test’ exams just a couple of months ahead of the big one: the matriculation exams.

Our Sanskrit teacher, a great soul named Pandit Brundaban Acharya, who had been quite fond of me since the time I joined the school because of my ability to read Sanskrit text without any problems (the others had a problem because of their unfamiliarity with the Devnagri script), was really concerned at this monumental fall of one of his favourite students. One day, the good Pandit accosted me and said, “Sandeep.  Why don’t you come to my place in the evening? Several of your hostel mates do.”

I followed his advice and started going for the ‘tuition’ – more to avoid having to give him an explanation than out of any desire to learn Sanskrit, I must confess. The first few days were embarrassing. Pandit Acharya would start his lessons by asking us to write five ‘shabda rupas’ and five ‘dhatu rupas’. Initially, my scores varied between 0-2 while other would routinely notch up 8-10. After being embarrassed on a daily basis for a few days, I finally started doing what I hated; memorizing the shabda and dhatu rupas. The effort started yielding results and my scores improved.

One day, I created a minor flutter in the tuition by scoring a Prefect Ten. Pandit Acharya took a long, hard look at me and then asked, “I hope you have not peeped into Guruprasad’s (the classmate sitting next to me) notebook and copied the answers!” I was hurt and immediately offered to blurt out any of the 10 shabda and dhatu rupas he had asked. The old man did not take the challenge I had just thrown at him and just smiled approvingly.

In just a month and half, my Sanskrit score leapfrogged from a shameful 24 in the ‘test’ exams to a respectable 76 in the final! [I remember ruing why I didn’t pay it the attention it deserved a little earlier).

The episode did two things. First, it helped me overcome my aversion to learning by rote. And second, it disproved my misconception that Sanskrit is a very difficult subject.

The second lesson has been further reinforced by what Pandit Pradhan has achieved through his tireless efforts to make India’s ‘Adi Bhasha’ the ‘Loka Bhasha’ over the last 35 years. How the vegetable vendor understands what he says in Sanskrit is no more a mystery. The 40 odd people, including women and children, who attended the function today, listened in rapt attention as speaker after speaker spoke in Sanskrit. I am sure they understood the crux of what was said even though they did not understand every word.

Almost of all of India’s knowledge, wisdom, science, mathematics, philosophy and religion was first codified/written in Sanskrit. What a pity one has to depend on translations in English or other Indian languages to read these invaluable texts, which are still eminently relevant.

I was ashamed that I was the only speaker today who did not – could not, to be more precise – speak in Sanskrit at the function today. But I returned from the event having made a resolve: to learn Sanskrit all over again and start reading the ancient texts in original.

I sincerely hope that the embarrassment I felt today does what another embarrassment did to me 42 years ago: rekindle my interest in the ‘Mother of All Indian Languages’!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).