Sanskrit has to be spoken – Dr. Sadananda Das
As you can read at the website of the university language institute of Leipzig, the Sanskrit Summer School with Dr. Sadananda Das this year has been taken place online – it is a pity, that students of all parts of the world couldn’t meet together personally in the nice Leipzig town, but at the other hand, I am glad that the Summer School has been taken place after the break in 2020. Here you can read an interview with the Sanskrit teacher Dr. Sadananda Das from the Summer School in 2019: Interview during the Summer School in Spoken Sanskrit at Leipzig/Germany, 22/08/2019.
dhyāna: How many of these summer schools have you already taught?
Sadananda Das: I started teaching such Summer Schools in India already in 1988. But they were short courses, every day two hours for ten days only. I have taught such courses maybe more than 20 within India. But I have been teaching these Summer Schools in Europe since 1996, when I came to Europe first time. Now this has been extended up to four weeks, six day a week and a full day teaching time i.e. from 9 am till 4 or 5 pm. This is very intensive. I have taught courses on spoken Sanskrit (now we call it summer school in spoken Sanskrit) in the universities at Vienna, Austria; Tübingen, Heidelberg and now Leipzig, in Germany; Bern and Lausanne, in Switzerland; Florence and Rome, in Italy; at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (an Indian cultural institution) in London, UK; in the Ukrainian Yoga Federation in Kiev and Kharkiv, Ukraine. I have also taught four summer schools at “The Australian National University, Canberra, in Australia. Besides some advanced courses in Varanasi and Goa in India, in Barcelona, Spain and in Florence, Italy. All together, I have taught more than 45 Summer Schools till now.
dhyāna: That’s a lot. Today you are well known as an excellent speaker and an experienced teacher in Spoken Sanskrit, so maybe you can tell me, what makes the difference. Why should somebody, who studies Indian philosophy and Sanskrit, learn to speak this ancient language?
Why should one learn Spoken Sanskrit?
Sadananda Das: This is a very interesting question which I should ask you. Why should one learn Spoken Sanskrit?
dhyāna: I am here for two weeks now and I just made the experience that I got deeper into the language. I made fast progress also to do translations. I’m getting familiar with the language. – You told me also in another conversation, that people feel a great help, when they go back after the Summer School, they feel a benefit, but which kind of benefit did they tell you, even if they won’t communicate any more in Sanskrit?
Sadananda Das: Sanskrit is an ancient language and it is not spoken in everyday life these days. That creates a great difficulty. When a language is spoken, one can learn it quickly, like any other language. But, People feel that it is an ancient language, it is a difficult language, one cannot speak in this language and some even says that it is a dead language. To make it clear, it is not a dead language. For me it is a dynamic living language. Like me for many people in India and also for many scholars outside India it is the same. It is as living as any other living language of the world. The thing is, since it ceased to be a spoken language in the course of time, now we don’t know the vocabulary in Sanskrit for our day-to-day conversation. Therefore, people think to converse in Sanskrit is difficult. This is an attempt to teach and train the students of Sanskrit, Indology, religious science, linguistics, and those who are interested in this ancient language, in conversational Sanskrit.
In this summer school, the participants learn how to converse in Sanskrit on topics of daily life by using classical and modern vocabulary. Active participation of the students and modern multi-media tools facilitate the learning process in the interactively designed course. Thus the participants and scholars overcome the perception of Sanskrit as a written-only language and enhance their confidence in actively using this language. In this summer school, the study of Sanskrit becomes a lively and creative experience for the students and participants and contribute to their understanding of the written language. It is a unique opportunity to learn and practice spoken Sanskrit in a dynamic environment.
When I am teaching the spoken aspect of this language, I have certain simple approaches, easy methods that can help the students to learn the spoken aspect of Sanskrit. It removes fear from the mind of the students, “that I can’t speak this language”. It makes them confident in the language. It makes them feel comfortable in using the grammar that they have learned in the classrooms before. Usually, they learn the grammar to translate passages or stories or to write their exams. But we put grammar into practice, so that they become confident to use grammar points in their day-to-day conversation. Whether they speak it in their day-to-day life or not, but these are the benefits, they get after joining the Summer School.
Besides this, the students of Sanskrit in Europe or America don’t have experience of reciting Sanskrit ślokas/verses. This is another benefit for attending the Summer School. We recite a lot of subhāṣitas, a lot of verses in different meters. We sing songs in Sanskrit. It gives you a taste of the beautiful aspect of this language. The recitation and singing aspects are missing in the normal university lessons. Here we are doing it. You see, that students in the summer school recite happily. All that makes you feel more confident in the language. Participants in previous summer schools have even said, that it helps them also afterwards in learning, translating other Sanskrit texts easily and those who study Buddhist texts, they also say that it helps them understanding Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit in a better way. Nevertheless, it helps the students to demystify their ideas, that Sanskrit is a dead language or a difficult language or it cannot be spoken.
dhyāna: In the preface of your subhāṣita book you talk about the moral education, that now-a-days has been lost. How do you think, that Spoken Sanskrit can contribute to the moral education? Did you make some experiences when you have taught young students in India?
Sadananda Das: I have taught spoken Sanskrit courses in high schools, colleges and universities, but not in primary schools or middle schools in India. Yes, spoken Sanskrit can contribute to the moral education. We learn subhāṣitas in my summer schools in the context of learning grammar. But besides learning grammar they also convey some important message. When we learn these subhāṣitas (su-bhāṣita, meaning well spoken, well said or good sayings), they carry certain good messages. There are many such verses in my Subhāṣita book which convey moral teachings. When we learn and memorize them in our courses they influence the minds and thoughts of the learners and have an impact on the behaviour and change their life in right direction.
dhyāna: And this idea of education, is it more for children, like to say, we should teach Sanskrit in every Indian school?
Children also should learn to speak Sanskrit
Sadananda Das: This idea of education should be for everyone in general, but for the children in particular. There is an idea, also a movement to introduce Sanskrit from the very beginning in the primary, middle and high schools. Now Sanskrit is taught in the high schools, starting from 8th or 9th standard, then in the colleges, in the universities, but what about the children? If we want to make Sanskrit a spoken language, then the children must learn to speak it. There are scholars who are engaged in preparing Sanskrit books which would be suitable for children to learn this language.
dhyāna: And do you have the idea that this could contribute to the moral education of the children?
Sadananda Das: Yes, it has a lot of reasons, that Sanskrit can contribute for moral teachings. As you see, every day in the Summer School we begin the class with a prayer and we also end the class with a prayer, with śānti mantra. And this has some effect on the mind of the learners. What does the prayer we recite teach? The prayer teaches for harmony between the students and the teacher and the effectiveness of our learning. Unless there is harmony between the students and the teacher, one cannot learn anything. If you have not a good feeling with your teacher, you can’t learn from that teacher. Therefore we pray, that we should not hate each other, we should love each other, we should cooperate each other. This is the meaning of our prayer. And then, to start with the prayer makes your mind concentrated. Otherwise, when we begin the class without any concentration, our minds are moving in different directions. There are a lot of examples of moral education through subhāṣitas. You have seen in the subhāṣita book, a lot of verses which also teach moral.
dhyāna: Often there is a deeper sense in these subhāṣitas. – In the yoga practice we use some mantra like OM, Soham. And what do you say, what is the difference, is there a difference between a subhāṣita and a mantra or can any subhāṣita be a mantra?
Sadananda Das: Well, any subhāṣita can be a mantra, if you take it in that sense. We have a subhāṣita, we might learn it in the coming days. It says:
अमन्त्रमक्षरं नास्ति नास्ति मूलमनौषधम्
अयोग्यः पुरुषो नास्ति योजकस्तत्र दुर्लभः
amantramakṣaraṁ nāsti nāsti mūlamanauṣadham
ayogyaḥ puruṣo nāsti yojakastatra durlabhaḥ
Which means: amantram akṣaraṁ nāsti – there is no syllable which has no mantric power, nāsti mūlam anauṣadham – there is no root of any plant which doesn’t have a medicinal effect. Ayogyaḥ puruṣo nāsti – there is no person, there is no human being, who is useless, but a coordinator is hard to be found, who can coordinate between them and engage them properly. Every syllable has a mantric power, but we need to realize it, we need to understand it. When you use mantras, you are using syllables, that we also are using in the classroom, a, u, ma, ka, namaḥ śivāya, sa, ya, va, all these syllables. So if you take a subhāṣita like a mantra, it would be helpful as a mantra. Subhāṣita means “well spoken”, it can be also a mantra, why not?
dhyāna: There is the practice of Japa Yoga, where one repeats very often a mantra. This method emphasizes the connection of sound and meaning, in Sanskrit called vāk and artha, which can be found in the Sanskrit language more than in other languages. I wanted to ask you, if I have to do a subhāṣita or a mantra in a way of meditation to feel this deep connection of sound and meaning or is it possible also to experience in your daily Sanskrit speaking practice?
Sadananda Das: Sound and meaning or sound and syllables?
dhyāna: In the sense of vāk and artha.
Sadananda Das: Vāk and artha. Speech and its meaning, are all connected. We don’t see syllables or speech separated from it’s meaning. That’s why we have this subhāṣita, that comes from Raghuvaṃśa, one of the major epics written by one of the famous authors of Sanskrit literature:
vāgarthāviva saṃpṛktau vāgarthapratipattaye,
jagataḥ pitarau vande pārvatīparameśvarau.
vāk and artha, they are always together. When you utter some word, the meaning is there, the meaning is not separated. And in Sanskrit there is an aikya, there is a unit between the sound and the syllable and the word and its meaning.
dhyāna: And do you experience this unit, when you are speaking Sanskrit?
Sadananda Das: Certainly you experience it in many cases. It is difficult to explain how you experience, but definitely one experiences on many occasions in the day-to-day conversation. For example: when you utter the word “kamalam”, its meaning “lotus” is there. Whether we understand it immediately or not, whether we know it or not, but the meaning is there. This is a small example of vāk and artha being together. And we pronounce it as “ka ma la” and we write it as ka” ma la” as well unlike some other languages where you write something and pronounce something else, some letters are silent or some are dropped.
“Sanskrit is the mathematics of Yoga”
dhyāna: The German Yoga master Heinz Grill says that Sanskrit is like the mathematics of Yoga. And the American indologist Vyaas Houston says, like the modern technologies wouldn’t be possible without mathematics, in the same way spiritual researchers cannot find the Higher Self without the knowledge of Sanskrit.
Sadananda Das: Absolutely right. Without the knowledge of Sanskrit, spirituality would be incomplete, because all the śāstras, all the original texts, they have been written in Sanskrit language. Take an example of the Yoga Sutras, the books on yoga, they are available in Sanskrit. Unless we have the knowledge of Sanskrit, how can we proceed in learning yoga? If we do not have the knowledge of sound and pronunciation, then we cannot speak, we cannot pronounce the names of āsanas correctly. We must know short and long, light and heavy syllables, we must know the different sounds of pronunciation, we must know the different places of pronunciation like guttural or, velar, dental, palatal, retroflex, labial etc., all these are places of pronunciation inside the mouth. Unless we know them, we cannot pronounce the names of āsanas correctly. Halāsana, if it is wrongly pronounced, then it can be hālāsānā, halāsānā or hālasāna and so on. This is a small example. There can be such other examples where you might be landing in a very strange situation or the word wrongly pronounced might give you a wrong meaning or opposite meaning or completely different meaning which is not intended in that context.
dhyāna: And what do you say, if we don’t pronounce correctly, we can’t understand the meaning?
Sadananda Das: We cannot understand the meaning correctly. For example, maṇḍūkāsana, the frog posture. – If we don’t know what maṇḍūka is, and how it is written and how it is pronounced, we don’t understand correctly. Or uṣṭrāsana, we do it like the posture of an uṣṭra (camel). Or sarpāsana (serpent pose), śīrṣāsana (headstand), or any other āsana. So we must understand, what does the name or a particular āsana mean, what is its root, its meaning, how is this word formed and so on. This all helps a lot in understanding certain concepts, ideas, postures and the importance of those postures also. Therefore I think, it is important for any spiritual knowledge, particularly for yoga to understand the words, their sounds and meanings in the right way.
dhyāna: To take part at the Sanskrit Summer School is only possible for persons, who did already two years of university studies of the Sanskrit language. What do you recommend to these thousands and millions of people who practice yoga all over the world, how can they get familiar with the Sanskrit language as a philosophical base of their practice?
Sadananda Das: That’s a very good question. Theoretically to learn Sanskrit, like any other language, one does not need any prior knowledge of grammar. Because one learns a language naturally like a baby learns, however, it will take time as it takes a long time in the case of a baby. But this summer school is organised for a specific time like four weeks. It won´t be proper to follow that approach here. Therefore, we have certain criteria to join the summer school. Here we learn how to speak in Sanskrit. We don´t teach grammar or explain grammar. Babies learn a language by observing others, listening others which is difficult in the case of adults, but it is not impossible. We have to create an atmosphere for such a different method of teaching and learning which is quite natural. And then we do not need any condition for learning a language.
dhyāna: By speaking.
Sadananda Das: One can also learn Sanskrit in that way. But since we are adults, our mind always moves in the direction of grammar. The moment, we hear some words or sentences, our mind immediately tries to analyse, what is the suffix, what is the root, what is the prefix, what case is there, why is it not like that. Therefore it is put in that way, that basic understanding of grammar must be there. In European or American universities, generally two years or four semesters are prescribed to finish the basic grammar of Sanskrit language. Before coming to this place, you already know, what is gacchati, gacchāmi, what is grāmaḥ, gramam or grāmeṇa, all the cases, vibhaktis, all these grammatical forms you already know. So we apply all this in our speaking. Therefore, understanding of grammar is prescribed. Otherwise, theoretically one doesn’t need grammar. But that would be a completely different approach, like learning a language like a baby. You listen, you speak, like a baby does. He doesn’t already understand a lot of grammar, so he doesn’t ask you, weather you are telling accusative or instrumental or present tense or past tense.
dhyāna: Maybe this could be a way for the yoga classes, to have some subhāṣitas, some mantras, some yoga terms and to learn the pronunciation, to learn the meaning. It could be a first step of getting familiar with the language.
Listening, speaking, reading, writing
Sadananda Das: Yes, definitely. You could hear in this class: listening, speaking, reading, writing. All the methods are applied. But I give first preference to listen and to speak. I don’t give much importance to reading and to writing. You can speak properly, when you listen properly. Therefore, śravaṇam (listening) is the first step, saṃbhāṣanam (speaking) is the second step. Third and fourth are paṭhanam (reading) and lekhanam (writing). I think, you have never heard before so much Sanskrit speaking. When we don’t listen to the sound of the Sanskrit language spoken outside, our ears are not used to grasp the sound. And here, every day from 9.00 to 17.00, we listen to each other, we listen, listen, and listen so much in Sanskrit which was never practised before. Thus you learn correct pronunciation, correct sound etc. It is important, to listen carefully, then you try to speak the same sentences, the same words. You are learning like that.
And the good thing, what I want to tell you is that: I have been teaching this Spoken Sanskrit course in so many places and many of yoga practitioners have been coming to my Summer Schools. You may know, that there is a Yoga Federation in Ukraine. There are 50-60 or more people, who are teaching yoga, practising yoga, are also doing research in yoga. They have invited me twice and in one of the Summer Schools there have been 40-50 Yoga teachers. In the evenings they had their yoga classes and from the morning to the evening, throughout the whole day, they were in the class to learn Spoken Sanskrit. They had a great interest in it.
In Australia, I had three Summer Schools and in every class there were some yoga teachers. So they find it interesting, they find it useful. That’s why I think, every yoga learner must have some knowledge of Sanskrit, recitation, pronunciation, and some knowledge of grammar also. Speaking helps a lot, when you are speaking in a language, it shows that you are good in using the grammar. You put the subject or the object, the adjectives or adverbs; at the right place, you know the use of such words properly. When we speak the language, then the grammar, that we have learned in the classrooms, becomes useful.
dhyāna: Yes, it comes to life.
Sadananda Das: It does not remain as passive, it becomes active. In the universities we have learned Sanskrit in a passive way. You sit down, write down, take notes and the professor goes on speaking. You have no chance of speaking or you do not feel the need of speaking. But here there are both ways. If the teacher speaks, you also speak. All the participants are actively participating. Speaking, thinking, composing sentences, making sentences understanding, the use of different types of grammatical forms and they are actively involved in this learning process.
dhyāna: May be this is a kind of your message, that by speaking you take part with your whole person. – So it will have an impact on yourself, meanwhile, if you have only the intellectual university way of working, it may not touch your person, you can study everything, but with your person you can remain in another place. So by speaking the Sanskrit language, you have to unify your person with the language.
By speaking Sanskrit, we are influenced by the thoughts of the great sages.
Sadananda Das: That’s absolutely true. When you speak English or any other language, you also understand the behaviour, the way of thinking of English people or the people who seek that language, their culture, their way of speaking and similarly, when you speak Sanskrit, you also understand the way of thinking, behaviour, culture and other aspects of the society and the people who spoke and still speak the language. You understand the impact of the sound and the language on the person. And certainly when you speak any language, you are influenced by the culture, by the śāstras, by the tradition of that language. Therefore, when you speak Sanskrit, I am sure, you are influenced by the thoughts of the great seers and the śāstras of the language. That is important.
dhyāna: Sanskrit is a spiritual tradition, Indian culture was always a spiritual one, a religious culture, so the language may have this impact on the speaker.
Sadananda Das: Yes. And in India we never considered Sanskrit language just as a medium for communication. It is much more than that. There are even ślokas, where we say, vande saṁskṛta mātaram. Sanskrit is regarded as mother. And also the alphabet of Sanskrit, the letters are called mātṛkās, like mothers. As a mother plays an important role in the life of a child, in the same way, these letters play a very important role in our life, in our person.
dhyāna: Because it is the word, that creates the object.
Sadananda Das: Exactly. In a Sanskrit grammar class we learn certain vocabularies from grammatical point of view. But the same vocabularies have a higher sense, if we consider from the philosophical point of view. For example: the Sanskrit alphabets are called mātṛkās, i.e. mothers in Kashmir Shaivism. One can have a long discussion on this topic separately. And the word visarga: if we understand from the point of view of grammar, they are only two dots, nothing else. But the word visarga is a highly philosophical word. Visarga means this varied Creation, it is derived from the root sṛj, to create, to emit. Sarga means Creation, Visarga is this varied or diverse Creation. Guṇa and vṛddhi are two other such words. There are many more such words.
dhyāna: So this vowel “ḥ” is the vowel of creation.
Sadananda Das: Visarga and bindu, these two words are very significant words in philosophical texts. Bindu is a dot and visarga consists of two dots. When you start to create anything, whether a painting, a letter or any other thing, you start from a dot. That is how a dot (bindu) or two dots (visarga) are the basic of any creation. If you analyse it deeply, you will see that the same applies with the creation of this world as well.
Another point which might be fitting to your precious question: In Kashmir Shaivism, so’ham, consists of two words: saḥ and aham. In the grammar class, you learn them as pronominal adjective and a personal pronoun meaning “he” and “I”. But saḥ-aham, so’ham, means I am He, I am That. When you are sitting in a philosophy class, you learn the philosophical meaning of these words, you learn these words from a different angle. When you are reciting a mantra, so’ham, so’ham, so’ham, or ahaṃ saḥ, ahaṃ saḥ, I am That, your person, your thoughts are uplifted to that level. When you are reading it from the opposite, then it is haṃsaḥ, haṃ-saḥ, ahaṃ saḥ, it is called ‘haṃsa-mantra’, it is also known as ‘ajapā gāyatrī’, ‘ajapājapa’ (automatic recitation), which means, one does recite it unknowingly and constantly, without any interruption. When you recite a mantra, you know, that you are reciting a mantra. But this mantra you recite without knowing. It is automatic. It is recited every moment by every being. There is a long discussion on it and you can read more on it in the Vijñānabhairava Tantra.
dhyāna: By breathing.
Sadananda Das: There is a very interesting mantra in Vijñānabhairava Tantra :
sakāreṇa bahiryāti hakāreṇa viṣet punaḥ |
haṃsahaṃsetyamuṃ mantraṃ jīvo japati nityaśaḥ
A jīva, a living being, recites this mantra nityaśaḥ, constantly, always as haṃsa, haṃsa (haṃsaḥ haṃsa iti amuṃ mantram), it is sounding haṃsaḥ, haṃsa and how it is: sakāreṇa bahir yāti – when the breath goes out, i. e. when you exhale (breathing out), it produces the sound ‘sa’, hakāreṇa viṣet punaḥ – when you inhale, it produces the sound ‘ha’, (breathing in), so this is haṃsaḥ mantra. And nobody is aware of it. When you are breathing, you are not aware of it and therefore, it is aptly called ajapājapa. This is very interesting, haṃsaḥ, haṃsaḥ, which is also so’ham, so’ham, I am He, I am That – which means, I am Shiva. ‘Ha’ in this mantra represents Śakti and ‘sa’ represents Śiva and anusvāra (.) represents Nara or Jīva, the leaving being. Thus it is also known as Trika mantra.
dhyāna: And we say, repeat, recite it with every breathing.
Sadananda Das: We express this with every breathing, but we are not aware. If we do this with full awareness, we will become Shiva. The problem is, we are not aware. We need to be aware, conscious.
dhyāna: And for this, we can study Sanskrit language?
Sadananda Das: Certainly, to realize this, to go deeper into it and in order to realize every sound of it we need to study Sanskrit language and to speak this language. Besides this language means, it has to be spoken. So if Sanskrit is a language, it has to be spoken. As we see it is not an ordinary language, it is a very beautiful language, very significant language, so by evidence it has to be spoken. When we speak in this language, we understand it’s importance, we understand the sounds, the vocabulary, so it is very useful for us.
dhyāna: What are you looking forward? Next year there will be two summer schools on beginners level, one in Leipzig and one in Australia and from time to time an advanced level summer school is also organized. And you do this effort of teaching these summer schools in addition to your regular university teaching. So what is your motivation to do this effort or what is your wish for you and for your students?
Sadananda Das: Well, I love teaching. That’s my passion. That’s why I teach my regular classes at the university and besides this I do teach the Spoken Sanskrit Summer Schools. So wherever and whenever there is a possibility, there is interest among people, they invite me and I do it. Teaching is my passion. Second thing: I want to promote Sanskrit for those, who want to learn this language. I see, there is a need of learning Sanskrit in many countries of the world. That’s why people are interested in learning Spoken Sanskrit. So I teach Spoken Sanskrit to let everybody learn this beautiful language, let everybody be benefited by this beautiful language and let everybody explore the hidden treasure in this language. I am happy, if people are interested in learning Sanskrit and in whichever way I can help them in learning, I am doing it in my capacity as a Sanskrit lecturer.
dhyāna: You spread Sanskrit all over the world?
Sadananda Das: Yes, I spread Sanskrit all over the world. I am only a medium, Sanskrit spreads by itself.
dhyāna: Thank you very much for the interesting interview and I hope, we will meet in the next advanced Sanskrit class.
Sadananda Das: You are welcome.
(Beitrag aktualisiert am 12.12.2021)
Sanskrit Summer School: https://www.spracheninstitut-leipzig.de/kurse/sanskrit/1316-sanskrit-summer-school-1316
Online Sanskrit-English dictionary: http://spokensanskrit.org/index.php?mode=3&script=hk&tran_input=saras&direct=au
Bildquellennachweis (21-02-17): Spracheninstitut Schillerstraße Leipzig-Bild von Christian Hüller auf www.spracheninstitut-leipzig.de