The silent renaissance of Samskritam

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Who says Samskritam is a dead language? Far from it.

The usage of Samskrit declined dramatically after the British annexed India. Historically, we blame the British for the near-demise of Samskrit and that blame is well deserved. The Mughals, in their 600-year rule over India, did what they could to subdue Samskrit, but I believe the British did a far better job of it.

That the British were extremely efficient in destroying India’s economy, culture, educational system and language is historical fact. To quote Shashi Tharoor, “In Power, the British were, in a word, ruthless”.

But that is history. To quote Tharoor again, “History is neither for excuses, nor for revenge”.

It is time we stopped blaming our former rulers for the plight of Samskrit, time we moved on, time we accepted the responsibility of preserving our own culture and language.

Thus, I took it upon myself to learn Samskritam. Since I am quite fluent in both Hindi and Marathi, and can read Devanagari script easily, I found it reasonably simple to learn the basics of Samskrit. In the past six months, I have picked up sufficient Samskrit to be able to appreciate some of its nuances, and to be able to dispel the myths associated with it.

First of all, it’s not pronounced Saanskrit or Senskrit. It’s Samskritham or Samskrit, if you will. Pronounced as “Sum-skri-tham”.

The very word means “refined speech“. That indeed was the defining characteristic of those who used Samskrit through our country’s history – they were refined in their manner, refined in their culture, refined in their philosophy.

Myth 1: Samskritam is a very difficult language to learn.

Have you ever heard of an ‘easy’ language? Each language has its own syntax, rules and structure. Each language poses its own challenges to novices. Try learning Mandarin or Japanese. Then you’ll know.

For most Indians, Samskrit comes with a built-in advantage. If you know any Indian language, and it is likely that you know more than one, then you already know several Samskrit words and are already familiar with the basics of Samskrit grammar. Over the past thirty centuries, Samskrit has contributed directly to the evolution of almost every Indian language currently in use.

Try listening to the Samskrit news on Doordarshan and All India Radio. You’ll be surprised at how much of it you can understand, even if you have never formally learned Samskrit.

So don’t you worry about how difficult you think it will be to learn Sanskrit. You are already using Samskrit without knowing it. You do not need to know Devanagari script, although it is preferable that you do. Samskrit speakers use Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Bengali and just about any Indian script they are comfortable with. Remember, Samskrit has always been a phonetic language, with much more emphasis on correct pronunciation than on the script used.

And, it’s not as if you are expected to study Samskrit for decades and become a Vedic scholar, though you can if you wish to. For most of us, even a working knowledge of Samskrit is enough to enjoy the richness of the language, for which just a few months of study will suffice. Since you know one or more Indian languages, you already have a head start.

Myth 2: Samskrit is meant for certain castes only.

Bullshit.

Myth 3: Samskrit is a boring, ancient language and is only about old scriptures and mumbo-jumbo.

Once again, bullshit. That’s like saying that English is only about Shakespeare and the Canterbury Tales. There is no shortage of modern Samskrit literature, scientific publications, articles, fiction, non-fiction and poetry. No matter what your field of interest is, you will find a modern Samskrit publication in that field.

Myth 4: I’m not a Hindu. Samskrit is not my language.

So what if you’re not a Hindu? You’re still an Indian, aren’t you? Samskrit is not a “Hindu” language. It’s an Indian language. In fact, it is the Indian language, the progenitor of all other Indian languages. If you speak any Indian language, including Urdu, you are using Samskrit without knowing it, no matter what your religion is. So what’s the big deal about learning it formally?

I haven’t come across any Samskrit institution that turns away anyone who wishes to learn.

Myth 5: There is no practical use of learning Samskrit. What do I gain from it anyway?

Ah. The million-dollar question. What’s the point, what’s the use, what’s the benefit?

For starters, one does not learn a language solely in order to make money out of it. Not necessarily.

That said, even if you want to learn Samskrit merely for personal gain, you will not be disappointed. No matter what troubles you – business, finance, management, science, philosophy, work, personal life, health – you will find the answers you seek in the Samskrit works of India.

So don’t bother about the material benefits of learning Samskrit. They are already available to you.

Myth 6: There are very few institutions that teach proper Samskrit.

Now that is so not true. There are many institutions that can teach you Samskrit, on-line and otherwise. From a basic working knowledge of Samskrit to PhD programs, you will find top-quality institutions across India, and in some countries outside it.

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My Samskrit class, in session

My new friends in Samskrita Bharati have been teaching Samskrit to all sections of society since 1970. Check out their website here, and choose whatever course suits you. You will be taken aback at the absurdly low fees they charge. Samskrita Bharati regularly conducts 10-day courses in conversational Samskrit, utterly free of cost. That would be a good starting point for your journey into the world of Samskrit.

Across India, a silent renaissance is going on, in case you haven’t noticed. Thousands of Indians have committed themselves to the learning and propagation of Samskritam. And that includes Yours Truly.

I could not see any viable reason to not learn the language of the Gods – and several reasons why I should.

So stop making pathetic excuses and get off your backside, will you?

Pathatu Samskritham. Vadhatu Samskritham.

Cheers … Srini.

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Diwali … get your fundas right!

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I’ve always wondered … why do most of our festivals celebrate somebody’s death?

It’s usually about some demon who obtains special powers or advanced weaponry by propitiating various Gods. He then goes on a global killing and looting spree, thereby becoming a major nuisance to the general public and incurring the wrath of the same Gods who gave him all those powers in the first place. Invariably, a mighty battle follows between said demon and said Gods, and our unfortunate demon is decapitated, eviscerated and dismembered, as a stern example to other demons with divine ambitions.

And we mortals rejoice, abandon our work, release malodorous fireworks into the atmosphere, eat and drink lustily, burn a lot of money, and generally celebrate the triumph of ‘good’ over ‘evil’.

Yet, most people won’t even know the name of the demon whose death they celebrate.

So it is with Deepavali.  When asked, most of my friends give me a vague reply.  Something to do with Lakshmi puja or Lord Rama or something, they tell me, before rushing off to buy Chinese firecrackers at cheap rates – and stocking up on booze.

If you wish to celebrate a festival, then do it right.

Herewith then, some Diwali fundas …

Diwali is always celebrated during the last six days of  Ashvina and the first day of Kartika, these two being the sixth and seventh months in the Hindu calendar. This corresponds to end-October/early November.

This year, 2016, that period is between Oct 26th and November 2nd.

The Hindu calendar is based on the waxing and waning of the moon. There is one full moon day every month as you probably know. Therefore, each month has two halves – the earth moon phasefortnight before a full moon and the fortnight after it. The fortnight before the full moon, i.e. the waxing period is called Shukla paksha – the bright half, Shukla meaning white in Sanskrit. The fortnight after the full moon is called Krishna paksha – the dark half, Krishna meaning black.

Diwali is perhaps the oldest of the Indian festivals. In some form or the other, India has celebrated Diwali since the past five thousand years at least.

Diwali is not one festival.  It commemorates six separate events from Vedic history.  Over the ages, these six festivals merged into one major festival.

OK, here goes:

The 12th day of Ashvina-Shuklapaksha, is Govatsa Dwadashi. As you can figure out from the name, this day is dedicated to cows and calves. Those who celebrate Govatsa Dvadashi perform a puja for their cows and do not consume milk products on this day, This year, Govatsa Dvadashi falls on ThursdayOct 27th. 

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Dhanvantari, at Art of Living Ashram, Bangalore. Note the leech in his right hand.

The 13th day of the dark half of Ashvina, i.e. Krishnapaksha Trayo-dashi, is the birthday of Dhanvanatri, the celestial physician who appeared during Sagaramanthan, the churning of the ocean. Hence it is called Dhantrayodashi.

People up North also believe that Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth,  is in a benevolent mood on this particular day. People light lamps through the night, in the hope that Lakshmi pays them a visit. For this reason, this day is also called Dhanteras.

This year, Dhanteras falls on October 28th, Friday.

Medical professionals who consider Dhanvantari as their patron god may perform a Dhanvantari puja on this day.

Some others prefer to gamble on this day, in the belief that if they win on Dhanteras they keep winning through the year. They usually lose heavily.

In some parts of west and north India, it is believed that evil spirits are at their strongest on this night, and some perform a Hanuman puja.

– The 14th day of Ashvina-Krishnapaksha, i.e. Chatur-dashi, commemorates the death of Narakasura. The son of Bhoodevi (Mother Earth) and Lord Vishnu in his Varaha (boar) incarnation, Narakasura became a nasty warlord due to special boons given to him by Vishnu himself.

He had to be slain by a later incarnation of Vishnu, i.e., Krishna, or in some versions of the legend, by his wife Satyabhama. Apparently, just before he died, Narakasura requested Krishna and Satyabhama that his death should not be mourned by his subjects, but celebrated with a lot of light and colour.krishna_and_narakasura_ack99

Since he was slain just before sunrise, Naraka Chaturdashi is celebrated with bright lights and a lot of noise in the wee hours of the morning – unfortunately.

Narakachaturdashi, or Choti Diwali as it is called up North, falls on October 29, Saturday.

There is a belief that anyone who has a bath-cum-oil massage (or Abhyangsnana) before sunrise on Narakachaturdashi will avoid going to hell. Now you know why your grandma would haul you out of bed at an ungodly hour and dunk your head in hot water.

Well, if you so believe, the correct time for avoiding hell is 04.58 to 06:15, on October 29.

The 15th day, i.e., No moon day or Ashvina Amavasya, marks the day on which Lord Rama returned to Ayodhya with Sita and Lakshmana. Rama slew Ravana on Vijayadashami. After handing over Lanka to Vibhishana, he returned to Ayodhya eighteen days after Vijayadashami. Since it was Amavasya, the darkest night of the month, the residents of Ayodhya lit up the whole city with oil-lamps.

That of course, is why it is called Deepavali.

On this day, the goddess Lakshmi is worshipped, specifically during the evening hours, or Pradosh kaal.

Diwali and Lakshmi puja this year are on Sunday, October 30. For those of you who are serious about Lakshmi puja, the correct time is between 18:50 to 20:19.

The next day is the first day of the bright half of Kartika, i.e. Prathami-Shukla paksha. This day is celebrated as Govardhana Puja, to commemorate Krishna’s feat of lifting the entire Govardhan mountain on his finger, to protect his villagers from Indra’s wrath.

In North and West India, this day is also celebrated as Bali Padyami, believed to be the day on which Raja Bali returns from the depths of the underworld and visits his kingdom on earth. In Kerala however, this day is celebrated during the festival of Onam.

Usually, the Gujarati new year also falls on this day or on the day before. Traditional Gujarati businessmen close their account books (or Chopda) and open a new Chopda, with a Chopda puja.

The second day of Kartika, i.e. Kartika Dvitiya is celebrated as Bhau Bheej or Bhaya bhaubeejDuj. According to our scriptures, Yama, god of death, visited his sister Yami on this particular day. Brother and sister were very happy with the visit, and Yama assured his sister that any brother who visits his sister on this day will be blessed with long life.

Hence this day is also called Yama Dvitiya.

For those brothers who are unable to visit their sisters (as am I), prayers offered to Yama by the concerned sisters will suffice.

This then is the six-day festival of Diwali.

Note however, that nowhere and nowhere in the scriptures, does it specify that Diwali must be celebrated by intense air and noise pollution, extreme drunkenness, rowdy behavior and by a vulgar exhibition of wealth.

Have a happy Diwali everyone. And let me have a peaceful Diwali – for a change.

Cheers … Srini.

Acharya Devo Bhava … Salutations to the Guru.

Image source: mustseeindia.com

The scriptures tell us that if you see your Guru and God together, then fall at your Guru’s feet first. This is because your Guru shows you the way to God. And that is why the word ‘guru’ means ‘remover of darkness’.

The 15th day of the month of Ashada is celebrated as Guru Purnima, and this year, that day falls on Tuesday, July 19th. In Buddhist tradition, this was the day on which Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon at Saranath, after he attained enlightenment. Since Gautama set the wheel of Buddhism in motion with this discourse, it is known as the Dharmachakra pravarthana sutra.

This day marks the birth of Veda Vyasa, revered in our scriptures as the Guru of all Gurus. Vyasa was born to the sage Parashar and a fisherman’s daughter, Satyavati, the same Satyavati who later wed King Shantanu, father of Bhishma.

Veda Vyasa is one of the most important personalities in Vedic history. He is the author of the Mahabharata and the progenitor of the Kuru race.

Vyasa systematically organised the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas, and made it much easier for ordinary people to appreciate our ancient scriptures. After splitting the Vedas into four sub-Vedas, Vyasa first imparted that knowledge to four of his disciples, thus creating the guru-shishya tradition. This system of teaching is unique to India.

Nowhere else in the world was the relationship between a guru and his disciple worshipped as it was in Vedic India. The relationship between a Guru and his disciple was considered sacred, above and beyond material considerations. It was purely spiritual and totally selfless. The Guru gave to his disciple all that he knew and he expected nothing in return. The student accepted his Guru’s teachings with humility and reverence. The Gurukula was not a school. It was regarded as a sacred abode, in which the Guru and his disciples lived together as one extended family. The term ‘Gurukula’ itself means ‘Guru and his family’. For years, the Guru and his disciples would live as one, until the Guru deemed it fit for the student to take his place in the world.

The student, before taking his Guru’s leave, would offer him Gurudakshina, in acknowledgement of his gratitude for his Guru. No Guru asked for money or for objects of desire, and no student was expected to insult his Guru’s teachings by offering him money as recompense. The Guru usually asked his student to perform a task for him, as did Dronacharya when he asked Arjuna to capture King Drupada. Arjuna promptly set forth, defeated Drupada after a mighty battle and presented him before his Guru. Drona generously gave back Drupada his freedom but retained half his kingdom, not for personal gain, but to let Drupada know that he was his equal in all ways.

More often than not, Gurus in ancient India took nothing at all from their students. They would consider their students’ success in the world as their Gurudakshina.

Even in modern times, our reverence for our teachers remains. Even in the age of the Internet and even with all the on-line courses available today, there is no substitute for the guiding presence, the motivation, the inspiration, the dedication and the selfless love that a student gets only from a real teacher.

So this Guru Purnima, do not forget to seek your teachers’ blessings – and to show them your gratitude.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”   William Arthur Ward, 1921-1994.

Cheers … Srini.