We usually recite prayers by rote. But there are many devout who are keen to know the meaning of popular Sanskrit stotras and have little access to the language. With this independent study reader even someone with no knowledge of Sanskrit will be able to understand some of the most important Hindu prayers including Ganega Pancaratnam, Bhaja Govindam, Rudrastakam and Aditya Hrdayam. Recited as daily prayers or on specific occasions, these stotras are reputed to bring strength and peace in the minds and hearts of those chanting or listening to them.
Rohini Bakshi is a Sanskrit teacher and columnist. Oxford alumna, she returned to academics as a mature student after a successful career in advertising and PR spanning twenty years. She has an MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her articles can be read on Daily O and she can be followed on Twitter @RohiniBakshi.
Narayanan Namboodiri has a master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, and a diploma in Sanskrit from Rastriva Samskrita Vidyapeetha,Tirupati. He has been teaching Sanskrit in Bengaluru for more than six years. He is also active on social media in Sanskrit groups (@PnNamboo) and has been conducting online teaching sessions for Sanskrit enthusiasts.
In the West, several things are structured. This is true of music, where there is a system of writing down music through scores. Indian music is not like that. In the Indian music tradition, if I attend a performance by a musician today, and I attend a performance by the same musician tomorrow, even if the raga is the same, the rendition may be different. I think that wherever the British succeeded in imposing a structured and regimented system, they killed innovation and experimentation. Sculpture and painting are two obvious instances where we ended up aping the West and took a long time to recover. The exceptions are music, dance, poetry and cuisine. These survived because they could not be pinned down and structured. I am no expert in any of these, but that's the way it looks to me.
Sanskrit has a healthy tradition of छन्दशास्त्र. By the time it came to classical Sanskrit, there were more than 1300 different metres. That is the kind of figure I get from the University of Heidelberg, which has a collation. My intention is not to bring in Pingala and his work on prosody or to discuss these metres at length. I have a very simple question to ask. Since music, dance and poetry are so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, why don't we use these much more to teach Sanskrit?
अनुष्टुप्is one of these metres, used quite a bit in the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. This is the metre in which Valmiki composed the first shloka, grief-stricken that one of two curlew birds had been shot by a hunter. मा निषाद प्रतिष्ठां त्वमगमःशाश्वतीःसमाः।यत्क्रौंचमिथुनादेकमवधीःकाममोहितम्॥ The original structure of अनुष्टुप् was simplerअनुष्टुप्छन्दसि चत्वारः पादाः भवन्ति, प्रत्येकपादे अष्टाक्षराणि भवन्ति। There are our padas (quarters) and each of these has eight syllables (the best translation possible for akshara). Therefore, overall, we have 32 syllables. By the time it came to classical Sanskrit, अनुष्टुप् became more structured, with further restrictions on the use of laghu and guru syllables. Consider the following two shlokas. Many of us know these by heart. सरस्वति महाभागेविद्ये कमललोचने।विश्वरूपे विशालाक्षि विद्यां देहि नमोस्तुते॥ वक्रतुण्ड महाकाय सूर्यकोटि समप्रभ I निर्विघ्नं कुरू मे देव सर्वकार्येषु सर्वदा॥ Notice that both are in अनुष्टुप्.
I have always wondered about two issues. First, why do we Play havoc with the way students are taught Sanskrit? Why is there so much mugging up of grammar? That is not how you learn a language. You learn any language by conversing in it, making mistakes and correcting yourself. You don't learn a language by mugging up grammar tables. Sure, Sanskrit has a very logical and coherent grammatical structure. But one doesn't learn to appreciate and understand that logic until one has acquired some degree of proficiency in Sanskrit. Meanwhile, that act of memorizing takes away the fun from learning Sanskrit. Second, since music, dance and poetry are so deeply ingrained among all Indians, why aren't they used much more to teach Sanskrit? रामो राजमणिःसदा विजयते रामं रमेशं भजे।रामेणाभिहता निशाचरचम् रामाय तस्मै नमः॥ रामान्नस्तिपरायणं परतरं रामस्य दासोsसम्यहम्। रामे चित्तलयः सदा भवतु मे भो राम मामुद्धर ॥This is the Rama-raksha-stotra, composed by the sage Budha Koushika. It is composed in अनुष्टुप्. But what is more interesting is that it teaches third person singular cases (vibhakti).
There are formal channels for learning and teaching Sanskrit. Unfortunately, they are rigid and boring in the way they teach. They turn students off rather than encourage them. It will take a long time for the formal channels to mend their ways. Meanwhile, what is interesting is the evolution of informal channels, partly facilitated by the advent and use of information technology. A few years ago, a friend introduced me to Rohini Bakshi. Though Rohini is not mad, I must confess that I initially thought her idea was mad. She wanted to teach Sanskrit through Twitter. Thankfully, I have been proved wrong.# Sanskrit Appreciation Hour (#SAH) through Twitter now has a dedicated following and the number of followers increases day by day.
Also remarkably, teachers have been discovered through crowd sourcing, probably one of the more exciting ways to go. Teachers and students on #SAH are not full-time teachers or students. They find the part-time time, one hour every day, spliced with what can be called homework. This informal mode has attracted several people to Sanskrit. Students have got interested and teachers have discovered latent skills. To add to the excitement, teaching has used familiar stotras and mantras, breaking away from the confines of teaching grammar. But some of this material deserves to be put out in the form of a book, since it is also of great utility to those who haven't been able to follow #SAH. I think everyone who has been involved with #SAH, especially Rohini Bakshi, deserves to be congratulated.
This independent study reader has grown out of a social media initiative to promote Sanskrit. For some years now, a community of enthusiasts have rallied around a chassis called Sanskrit Appreciation Hour via what seems at first sight to be an inappropriate medium: Twitter. How could one possibly teach a language in 140 characters, and that too Sanskrit? However, the purpose of #SAH, as it came to be known, was never to 'teach' but to inspire. To do so, we took familiar yet complex chunks of Sanskrit and broke them down into easily digestible bits for beginners. Session hosts justified their translations on the basis of rigorous grammatical analysis, minimizing arbitrary interpretation.
We followed the traditional Sanskrit approach, beginning with a verse, dissolving the sandhi (vigraha), putting the words in prose order (anvaya), explaining each word (padaparicaya), and finally providing a translation. Appreciation is what we sought for Sanskrit, as a stepping stone to learning 'MU —in real life. Throughout the session participants could ask questions, clarify doubts as well as contribute. The exposition which unfolded before them tweet by delicious tweet included both Sanskrit and English grammatical terms in the belief that the knowledge of one but not the other should not be a limiting factor. Devotional verses seemed to strike a deep chord, often evoking childhood memories. We never tired of hearing 'I chanted that all the time as a kid! It's so wonderful to finally understand what it means.'
#SAH was a latecomer to social media. There was already a plethora of online resources one could turn to for bhakti and Sanskrit — blogs, websites, YouTube channels, Facebook pages and more. In fact, some of the resources are of commendable standard, and are included in the bibliography of this reader. So why another resource? Because discerning beginners continued to be as baffled as before — not quite understanding why something had been translated the way it had been. Exactly which Sanskrit word translated to a particular English rendition? And how were variant translations to be comprehended and reconciled? Why was varana translated as elephant' in one place and 'invincible' in another? Consider, for instance, verse 7 of Vaidyanathastkam and a translation from a reputed website:
I salute that God Shiva,
Who is the king among physicians,
Who removes all suferings [sic],
Caused by bad spirits, sorrows and fears,
By dip in his holy tank,
By the holy ash in the temple,
And by the mud below the neem tree of the temple,
And who is the personification of soul,
Occupying human body.
A beginner tagged me on this asking where the mud, the neem tree, the holy tank and the temple were in the verse. Which word indicated 'below', and which 'dip'? Which word meant 'human'? Which word indicated 'occupying'? And where was the word meaning 'suffering'? It was precisely this kind of confusion and distress that #SAH set out to address. And distress it is if one is a devotee and has chosen to communicate with their ista deva/ista devi in devavani, the language of the gods. Which is not to say that other languages are any less efficient at communicating with deities. Or that any language is needed at all. Just that Sanskrit happens to be your language of choice.
At #SanskritAppreciationHour beginners had access to experts who could answer every niggling query, both during and after sessions. Does kaladhara mean someone who is proficient in the sixty-four arts, or someone bearing a slender crescent moon? And how is the slender moon a kaki, anyway? What kind of compound is pitasesa ([water] left over after drinking)? Was vitrsna ardent desire, an abandonment of desire, or both? And why? At Ramdyana 1.1.1
was Narada asking Valmiki something, or was it the other way around? And how is a beginner to tell which adjectives go with which sage? Does the epithet bhaktapriya mean that Siva is dear to his devotees or the other way around? Or both? Sanskrit expertise on a tap — that is what #SAH as a hub began to provide.
But beginners did not come just for the Sanskrit. They came because they were made to feel welcome irrespective of gender, colour, nationality, sexual orientation, religious belief, political inclination or social outlook. The atmosphere was serious, yet light, with plenty of leg-pulling and Sanskrit-related humour. #SAH provided a safe environment where anyone could engage with Sanskrit vidvans and vidusis in a mutually respectful manner. The DNA of the platform quickly made itself evident — fiercely apolitical, inclusive and non-judgemental. We managed to bracket out the controversy and cacophony Sanskrit is sometimes prone to attract and focus simply on the language. Twitter tools informed us that, outside India, our followers were in Russia, Germany, China, the Ukraine, Australia, Poland, Italy, Spain and of course where the Indian diaspora was situated — in the UK, the USA, Canada, Mauritius and Fiji.
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