The fountainhead of knowledge?


While the interest to learn Sanskrit is waning in India, despite government support, over a dozen universities in Germany and the UK are offering courses in this Indian ancient language. Is that not a strong message for us, the anglicised folks in India? asks G.Venkatesh, who regrets not having learnt Sanskrit in his childhood.

Iuse the word ‘Fountainhead’, because I want to allude to the 1943 novel by Ayn Rand, which happens to be my favourite. Wipe the cobwebs, which have gathered over the centuries, over pristine, unsullied knowledge and gaze at the fount of all wisdom. If you can, that is, against the glitz and glamour of the post-modern era. There is a treasure trove to be discovered…seek, and it shall be revealed to you, as the Bible says.

Here is where the revivification of Sanskrit which was a medium of expression in ancient times, becomes indispensable. For the theists, it may pave the way back to Godhead. For the atheists, it may reveal the Truth. Conjectures, both these. The Vedas (meaning ‘knowledge’, Veden-(skap) in Danish, Viten-(skap) in Norwegian, Veten-(skap) in Swedish) compiled by our clairvoyant seers and sages, may hold cryptic clues to modern day challenges faced by humans. Homo Sapiens have been evolving over time, finding solutions to problems created by themselves in the first place…and with a miasma of challenges confronting them in the 21st century, perhaps reinterpreting the ancient scriptures differently (who knows, maybe the human mind has missed something?), may hold the key to sustainable development of humankind in the years to come.

With biofuels for transportation (which debuted in Germany in the 19th century) making a comeback, and ‘bioeconomy’ being the catchphrase nowadays in Europe, and solar energy finding its rightful place and recognition as the fount of everything on terra firma (the Germans again showing the way in this regard), the German initiative to go back to the roots, so to say, to find ways and means to cope with and understand the travails and trials and tribulations of humankind better, was ofcourse, quite expected. As the powerhouse of the EU (European Union) ventures into new areas of learning and new fields of endeavour, research and development, it is just a matter of time that the ‘Started in Germany’ tag inspires its neighbours to follow suit.

Personal reflections
Talk of Sanskrit and four things come to this writer’s mind.

  • As I had to choose between Marathi and French in school in Chembur in 1985, and I opted for Marathi in lieu of French, my father supported the decision, even though that would be a hurdle if I wanted to be higher up in the SSC merit list. However, he was sad that Sanskrit was not being offered as an option for the third language. He ordered reading material for me from somewhere in southern India, and encouraged me to learn Sanskrit. In addition to Tamil, English, Hindi and Marathi, I could have learnt a good deal of Sanskrit if I had organised my time well. I could not. I regret that now. I have managed to learn some European languages along the way, from 1985 till date, but my father would surely have been very happy if I had devoted time to learning Sanskrit in the 1980s.
  • In 2005, I happened to be discussing languages with a German friend of mine, Stephan, in Berlin. This was when I was trying to learn German. I remarked German and Sanskrit, both being Indo-Aryan (or Indo-Germanic) languages, had similarities which were at once observable, even if one did not have a keen eye. Some of the words I remember having pointed to, were ratha (chariot in Sanskrit), which has manifested itself as Rad in German; aksha (axle in Sanskrit) which is achse in German. What must also not be forgotten is the fact that both Sanskrit and German have three genders – masculine, feminine and neuter (I remember from my Marathi lessons in school that Marathi also has them).
  • In 2007, when I was learning Norwegian at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, and noted its relation to German, and thereby Sanskrit, my supervisor – Prof. Helge Bratteboe – reminded me of an incident from Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Europe and passage through what is Lithuania now. Gandhiji spoke Sanskrit and the Lithuanian statesman spoke Lithuanian and they could understand each other to some extent.
  • In 2014, in Trondheim in Norway, when I told a Norwegian acquaintance – Martin Michaelsen – that I speak three Indian languages, he asked me, ‘Sanskrit, Hindi and…?’ I felt a bit sad to admit that I did not speak Sanskrit.
  • Prof. Dr. Tor Anders Åfarli from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim (Norway) informs the author that Professor Sven Bretfeld, one of his colleagues has been interested in Sanskrit and introducing it in the university, but has not been successful as yet. Students at NTNU – very few for that matter – show interest in learning the so-called ‘dead’ languages – Latin, Greek etc. However, he asserts that there is a lot of purpose and value in learning old languages in the 21st century – “As a linguist, I would certainly support it. It provides students interesting insights into the etymology of words being used in the modern languages; and valuable knowledge about grammar and language structures.”
    The author would exhort the Indian Embassy in Oslo to take an initiative in this regard.

    German-Sanskrit ‘bhai-bhai’
    Michael Steiner, the Ambassador of Germany in India, writing in The Indian Express, not very long ago, observed that asserting and cementing Indo-Germanic closeness must not be left to the historians and philologists, but must be taken up by the bureaucrats and politicians in both countries. He wrote about the ‘linguistic and etymological affiliations’ between German and Sanskrit, despite the fact that the temporal distance between the two languages is thousands of years, and the geographical distance is thousands of kilometres! The acknowledgement of this nexus is not recent by any means. In 1791, Kalidasa’s Shakuntala was rendered in German and it appealed to intellectuals like Goethe. It will warm the Indian heart to read from a Danish treatise (written by Georg Brandes) that ‘Germany – great, dark and rich in dreams and thoughts – is in reality a modern India.’ In other words, this economic and technological powerhouse which has given the world, the best brains and minds over the years, has succeeded in gravitating closer to the via media…discovering the fount of knowledge and striving for the best of all worlds. Steiner wrote about the need for an ‘autobahn in both directions’. German is becoming popular in India for sure; with more students opting to study in Germany than earlier (it was USA by default till the late-1990s). India, unlike Germany is a veritable garden of languages – the diversity is a bit perplexing to Europeans when you explain to them how Indian languages have different scripts, (unlike the European languages which by and large rely on the Roman alphabet). Tamil may be the oldest of them all (though this is often disputed in academic circles), but Sanskrit can very well be considered as the fountainhead of most others. Hindi may be the national language, but knowledge of Sanskrit is likely to open up more and more of India, to the European mind and heart.

    On date, as reported in the press, 16 German Universities offer courses in Sanskrit (and about half a dozen in the United Kingdom), and Heidelberg and Hamburg have been specially named in this regard, the latter having an Indian faculty member for over a decade now, teaching Sanskrit. Prof. Dr. Alex Michaels is Senior Professor and Vice President of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities; and he responded to some queries addressed to him over the e-mail by the author (refer to the sidebar item for the Q&A). He told the author that he had interacted with Mr. Steiner about the ‘two-way autobahn’ idea, but feels that Sanskrit continues to be an exotic discipline in Germany and may not be able to compete with Chinese.

    Your sincerely chanced upon a sarcastic quip in the blogosphere about whether the Germans are interested in learning Sanskrit because they wish to unearth secrets from the Vedas and Upanishads, as this author has referred to earlier in this article. The quip went thus – So, you mean Volkswagen found out how to cheat the system in the USA, from Sanskrit texts? Sarcasm apart, there is always a reason why things happen and why some things are preserved and sustained – the benefits may not be evident at once, they may come over time, serendipitously, unasked for, unexpected.

    Small steps towards Sanskrit
    Well, before we advance upwards to saying ‘Suprabhatam’ in the morning, a small first step in that direction would be ‘Kaalai vanakkam’ in Tamil households, a ‘Suprabhat’ in Gujarati or Marathi speaking households or Shubh-prabhat in Hindi, Subhodayam in Telugu, Shuprobhat in Bengali, Suprabhataa in Oriya and so on….instead of the default ‘Good morning’! If we learn to say Guten Morgen (German) or Bonjour (French) or God morgon (Swedish), we feel elated. A similar elation has to be experienced with a ‘Suprabhatam’. Indian urbanites must first make it a habit to speak to their children in their mother tongue as much as possible, instead of considering it fashionable to lapse into English.

    Prof. Dr. Alex Michaels (AM), Senior Professor and Vice President of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Director of the Research Unit – Historical Documents of Nepal, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany, answered the writer’s queries over e-mail.

    GV: There is a close link between Sanskrit and German for sure. The courses conducted in Germany are of course international in nature and attract students from around the world. So it would not be right to say that it is just Germans who are keen on learning Sanskrit?
    AM: Yes. Nevertheless, Sanskrit in Germany is taught at 16 chairs of universities; in England, at about 4 or 6. Surely, Germany is a major hub of Sanskrit learning outside India.

    GV: Any statistics (till date) about the total number of students who have availed of Sanskrit education in Germany? Are there Indian faculty members also? How many, as a percentage of the total who teach Sanskrit?

    AM: I can just say that an estimated 200-300 new students apply to German universities to learn Sanskrit, every year. There are some Indian (or let me say, South Asian) faculty members, mostly on the lecturer-level.

    GV: Herr Michael Steiner (Ambassador of Germany in India) wrote recently that there has to be a ‘two-way autobahn’….do you foresee Sanskrit becoming as sought-after among Germans, as German is to some extent today among Indians (competing with French though)?
    AM: No this was Herr Steiner’s dream. I had discussed this idea with him in the recent past. But, if you consider the fact, Sanskrit studies remain an exotic discipline in Germany. It cannot compete with Chinese, and it will not be taught in German schools. Even in India, interest in learning Sanskrit at college level is decreasing despite a lot of impetus being provided by the incumbent government.

    GV: Would it be right to say that learning Sanskrit will open up the Vedas to Europeans…and thereby access to cryptic clues and solutions to problems of the 21st century?
    AM: No! The Vedas are interesting in understanding the past, but they cannot be the basis for the solutions to problems being faced in the 21st century. Why should they? The solutions for the future must be right and correct, and they do not need any ‘blessings’ from the Vedas, Koran or the Bible, in my opinion.

    Your sincerely and his brother used to speak only Tamil at home, English in school, Hindi on the playground, and Marathi while travelling out in Mumbai…four languages every day. Of course, Sanskrit could have been a worthy addition to make it a quintet! I did have friends who learnt Sanskrit in school and could very well have practised conversing with them. Alas, that was not to be. Perhaps, instead of regretting, I can start now?

    From the fount, to the fount
    Ending with a quote from The Fountainhead, attributed by Ayn Rand to the protagonist Howard Roark, “Thousands of years ago the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burnt at the stake he’d taught his brothers to light, but he left them a gift they had not conceived and he lifted darkness from the face of the Earth.” Sanskrit may very well be analogous to this fire! If the Europeans are keen on learning Sanskrit, is that not a strong message for us – the anglicised folks in India? As Prof. Michaels has observed, the interest to learn Sanskrit is waning in India, despite support and impetus provided by the incumbent government. Time to do something about that, don’t you agree?

    I wish I had retained the study material my father had ordered for me in the 1980s…

    G. Venkatesh

    G. Venkatesh is Associate Professor, Department of Engineering and Chemical Sciences, Faculty of Health, Science and Technology, Karlstad University, Sweden. He is also a freelance writer for several magazines around the world.