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Sanskrit is the new craze among Mumbaikars


Fiona Fernandez

Chandrahas Halai is a man of many pursuits. He is a mechanical engineer, a mathematician, a travel writer and history buff. Tying these varied interests together now is a language that history seems to be in no interest to forget.

Last July, Halai signed up for a certificate course in Sanskrit that would eventually enable him to read the Samarangana Sutradhara. Written in Sanskrit by Raja Bhoja, the 11th-century ruler of Malwa region, this text is a discourse on civil engineering detailing the construction of buildings, forts, temples, idols of deities and mechanical devices. “I am interested in temple architecture.

In our country, temples 210 feet tall have been built in the pre-modern era. What was the sort of machinery that was used? How did the workers carry the stones to that height?” The answers to these questions, says Halai, lie in the 80 chapters of the book. And although translations exist, he fears much of the essence will be lost. Plus, he wants to avoid reading history from a Westerners’ perspective.

An interest in mythology borne out of a need to better a television script and a better left brain-right brain balance are some of many reasons driving Mumbaikars to Sanskrit classes. And, as is the case with Halai, it’s not in order to read religious texts.

Madhavi Narsalay, assistant professor and head of the department of Sanskrit at Mumbai University, says this year has seen 100 students enroll for the certificate course that runs over weekends. It’s full capacity. The numbers, she adds, have been at a high since 2000.

In between, the class average would be 50-60.

In 2013, she was asked to consult on the show by the producers of Mahabharat, 267 episodes of which were aired. “They wanted someone to provide them the exact story by reading the original texts and not translations,” says Narsalay, who has been with the department for 20 years. She would also be required to identify shlokas from the original text that would fit in when a certain character was introduced.

“For instance, for the entry of Draupadi who rose from the fire… I had to go back and read a lot of original texts,” she remembers.

Reading Sanskrit, however, isn’t everyone’s passion. Arjun Vyas, who greets you with a Namo Namah (he will make it a point to tell you that the greeting has nothing to do with the country’s Prime Minister), says he stumbled upon the class on a social messaging group and felt obligated to join. A few classes in, however, the 51-year-old industrial project consultant was hooked. “All my life I though Sanskrit was a difficult language, but it’s so easy,” he exclaims. Vyas attended the free of charge, 10-day, spoken Sanskrit camp conducted by Sanskrit Bharati in Bandra East this February. He recommends the class because it’s all about conversational Sanskrit: “Upanetram kutra aasti?” (where are my spectacles?)”. Which brings us to the tough question. Once they do learn Sanskrit, where do Vyas and his batchmates practise?

It’s a bit of an admission. “We would call each other and speak. Else, there are weekly sessions where people can come and practise,” he adds. Plus, he says, he now converses with his wife Snehal in Sanskrit. Snehal, 51, a breast cancer survivor says someone first asked her to start reciting Sanskrit shlokas in 2013 since it would help her tongue stiff from chemotherapy, recover. But, watching her husband speak the language fluently prompted her to join the class. “Part of the motivation was envy. How could he speak better than me,” laughs the manager at NIIT. Now, the two have found a code language to speak in, she says.

The lure of Sanskrit, says Malhar Kulkarni, who teaches the language at IIT-Powai, is that it’s free in order. “For instance, you can’t change the order of the words ‘tiger eats man’ in the English language without changing its meaning. In Sanskrit, this is possible,” says Kulkarni, who holds weekly classes for advanced-level students at Vile Parle, again free of charge.

Sanskrit, he says, also finds takers among software engineering students who want to use the language — considered to be the root of several Indo-European languages — to develop tools to analyse others languages and train machines to translate them.

Kulkarni emphasizes that the curiosity about the language crosses borders of religion and social strata. “It’s part of our psyche, everyone feels connected with it. Once I was walking in Vile Parle and came across two drunk men fighting outside an illicit bar. One, in a fit of anger, said to the other, ‘I will send you to the yama sadan!’ Not hell. But, yama sadan. That’s how much we’ve grown up with Sanskrit.”

This article was first published at

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India Needs to Improve its Educational Outcomes to Catch up with China

To catch up with China, India needs to lay emphasis on improving its educational outcomes

The Article 30 of the Constitution gives religious and linguistic minorities “the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice.”
India needs to improve its educational outcomes to catch up with China. Pixabay

By Amit Kapoor

Both China and India started building their national education systems under comparable conditions in the late 1940s. Different policies and historical circumstances have, however, led them to different educational outcomes, with China outperforming India not just in terms of its percentage of literate population and enrollment rates at all levels of education, but also in terms of number of world-class institutions in higher education, and greater research output.

The roots of China’s successful education system date back to the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which unintentionally expanded access to the primary education through democratising the schooling system, which was previously elitist in character, thus addressing the problem of mass illiteracy.

In contrast, India continued to focus on its higher education system since independence and only realised the importance of basic education in 1986, keeping it behind China and many other countries in Asia in educational development. In terms of enrollment, China reached a 100 percent gross enrollment rate (GER) in its primary education in 1985, whereas, India attained that level only in 2000.

In terms of secondary school enrollment, India and China both started at the similar rates in 1985, with about 40 percent of their population enrolled in secondary schools. However, due to a wider base of primary school students, the rate of increase in China has been much faster than in India, with 99 percent secondary enrollment rate in China and 79 percent in India in 2017.

India is closing in on the Chinese rate in terms of access to education, but on the literacy level front, there is a huge gap in the percentage of literate populations in the two countries. In the age group of 15-24 years, India scores 104th rank on literacy and numeracy indicator, compared to China’s 40th rank.

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses after every three years the domain knowledge of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, science and finance, revealed that students in China performed above the OECD average in 2015. Moreover, one in four students in China are top performers in mathematics, having an ability to formulate complex situations mathematically. Further, China outperforms all the other participating countries in financial literacy, by having a high ability to analyse complex finance products. For India, the comparable data is not available as it was not a participating country in PISA 2015.

abroad, study
Representational image.

However, in India, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2017 provides data for rural youth, aged 14-18, with respect to their abilities to lead productive lives as adults. According to this survey, only about half of the 14-year-old children in the sample could read English sentences, and more than half of the students surveyed could not do basic arithmetic operations, like division. For basic financial calculations, such as managing a budget or making a purchase decision, less than two-thirds could do the correct calculations.

With regard to the higher education system, both India and China dominate the number of tertiary degree holders because of their large population size, but when it comes to the percentage of the population holding tertiary degrees, only about 10 per cent and 8 per cent of the population possess university degrees in China and India, respectively. By contrast, in Japan, almost 50 per cent of the population holds a tertiary degree, and in the United States, 31 per cent of the population hold a tertiary degree.

In terms of the international recognition of universities, the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Ranking for 2019 places seven of the China’s universities in the top 200, compared to none for India. The global university rankings, which are based on various performance metrices, pertaining to teaching, research, citations, international outlook and industrial income, shows progress for several of China’s low-ranked universities, largely driven by improvements in its citations.

In fact, the Tsinghua University has overtaken the National University of Singapore (NUS) to become the best university in Asia due to improvements in its citations, institutional income and increased share of international staff, students and co-authored publications.

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While India has progressed in terms of massification of education, there is still a lot which needs to be done when it comes to catching up with the China’s educational outcomes. China’s early start in strengthening its primary and secondary education systems has given it an edge over India in terms of higher education. Moreover, Chinese government strategies are designed in line with the criterion used in major world university rankings, especially emphasis is on the two factors which weigh heavily in the rankings — publications and international students.

The relentless publications drive, which is very evident in China, is weak in India and has led to a growing gap in the number of publications contributed by the two countries. Further, China enrolled about 292,611 foreign students in 2011 from 194 countries, while India currently only has 46,144 foreign students enrolled in its higher education institutions, coming from 166 countries. The large number of international enrollments in China is a reflection of its state policies granting high scholarships to foreign students.

To catch up with China, India needs to lay emphasis on improving its educational outcomes. Massification drive for education has helped India raise its student enrollments, but a lot needs to be done when it comes to global recognition for its universities. Further, it needs to focus on building the foundation skills which are acquired by students at the school age, poor fundamental skills flow through the student life, affecting adversely the quality of education system. (IANS)