Why I chose to study Sanskrit

Why I chose to study Sanskrit

Studying a language has always been an advantage. I know scores of people studying French, German, Mandarin, even Japanese. But I decided to study Sanskrit.

People scratched their heads. “Why,” they asked me.

There are several reasons for it.

The bookstore at Panini Mahavidyalaya of Sanskrit books

I come from the school of whimsy. I don’t come from the school of thought that everything I invest time has to be of practical use in life. (namely work and to earn money, people contend) Sanskrit will help me in the school of life.

Allow me to explain. I’ve wanted to study Sanskrit for a while. Though I had studied the language for three years in school, I didn’t remember much. As a student of Vedanta since the past five years, I’ve been studying shlokas in Sanskrit. And, when you want something, the universe shows the way. I found not only one, but two great teachers in Sanskrit, and I could study sitting at home.

Grammarian Panini wrote Ashtadhyayi in the 5th/6th century BCE. It’s a summary of the 4,000 sutras and the science of phonetics and grammar that had evolved in Vedanta. But I have no illusions of becoming a grammarian. In Adi Shankaracharya’s Bhaja Govindam extols grammarians to embrace the path of Bhakti, saying when the end is near, it is not knowledge of grammar, but our devotion to god that saves us.

I can tell you learning and speaking and reading the language is not going to happen completely in this lifetime. The grammar in Ashtadhyayi has been compared to the Turing machine, an idealised mathematical model that reduces the logical structure of any computing device to its essentials. I haven’t learnt a language in years, and rules annoy me. Wren & Martin used to be my bete-noire in school.

My ultimate aim is to try and understand the texts I read, imperfectly at the beginning, but intelligently, rather than have eyes glaze over and rush to read the meanings. In a language with so many rules, the nuances are easy to miss. Some parts can be easily memorised, but applying what you’ve learnt when reading texts composed by the rishis, poets, seers and scholars is entirely different. But I’m happy that I’m learning to listen, to write and to read.

A glimpse of Panini Mahavidyalya where students study Sanskrit free of cost

I have another reason that connected me to the language. Ninety years ago, my great grandfather Ram Lala Kapoor started a trust in Lahore and created the Panini Mahavidyalaya that would teach students Sanskrit language free of cost. After the partition, it moved to Benaras, and now is in Haryana, where over 50 scholars have been studying. Three of the Acharyas of the school have received the President’s award for their scholarship. Many books in Sanskrit, including this, are published at the Ashram, a treasure trove of knowledge. I visited it a few years ago for the annual day, it was a glorious experience, embracing the legacy I’m so lucky to be a part of.

I hope to continue on this fulfilling journey, and see where it takes me.