Earlier this month, Union human resource development minister Smriti Irani created a stir by abruptly replacing German with Sanskrit as the third language in Centrally run Kendriya Vidyalayas in the middle of the school year.
Sanskrit has always been the focus in certain schools, however.
In 2012, Kolkata-based photographer Joydip Mitra was attending Janamashtami celebrations at a Krishna temple in Udupi, Karnataka, when he saw a few tonsured boys in white dhotis playing. He discovered that they were students of the Sanskrit Pathshala, a Vedic school.
“My first thought after speaking to these children was about their future,” says the 44-year-old photographer, who took the principal’s permission and stayed at the residential pathshala for five days to document life in the school. He interacted with teachers, students, and some of the parents. He learnt that most of the students were the youngest in their families; their elder siblings had studied in mainstream schools and had gone on to pursue conventional careers.
A typical day at school starts at 6am, with students studying the Hindu scriptures till 11am. After lunch, they get the time to play kho-kho and kabaddi, and have to clean their rooms. They don’t have access to TVs, cellphones or computers. In the evening, says Mitra, they are taught Kannada, science, math, history and English.
Obviously, since these schools focus on teaching the scriptures, proficiency in Sanskrit is essential. But the idea of teaching the boys some of the regular subjects, he later learnt, was to let them choose between continuing at this school or moving to conventional schools.
There are five such Vedic schools in Udupi; all, says Mitra, are affiliated to the state education board.
From Udupi, Mitra went to Majuli, in Assam, to visit some of the Vedic schools there. “There it was a different concept,” he says. The students, all boys, not only learn Sanskrit and the scriptures but are also trained in the classical dance form Sattriya Nritya. Some of them live at the Vedic school but study in the conventional schools and colleges from 11am-4pm. Some of the older boys have smartphones and motorbikes.
Mitra also visited a few Vedic schools in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh—all the students were Brahmins, unlike the schools in Assam and Karnataka. “There the students are taught more about rituals and less about scriptures,” he says. “The idea is for them to become professional priests, therefore they don’t teach any other language or subject.” The typical routine at these schools starts with puja and the study of rituals. It ends with the Ganga arti.
“I thought that these boys would be mature and more disciplined and have a certain monk-like air about them,” says Mitra. “But like any other child, they were interested in cartoons and comics.”
Mitra is now headed to Mattu village in Karnataka to visit yet another Vedic school.
Sanskrit language, (from Sanskrit: saṃskṛta, “adorned, cultivated, purified”) an Old Indo-Aryan language in which the most ancient documents are the Vedas, composed in what is called Vedic Sanskrit. Although Vedic documents represent the dialects then found in the northern midlands of the Indian subcontinent and areas immediately east thereof, the very earliest texts—including the Rigveda (“The Veda Composed in Verses”), which scholars generally ascribe to approximately 1500 bce—stem from the northwestern part of the subcontinent, the area of the ancient seven rivers (sapta sindhavaḥ).
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What is generally called Classical Sanskrit—but is actually a language close to late Vedic as then used in the northwest of the subcontinent—was elegantly described in one of the finest grammars ever produced, the Aṣṭādhyāyī (“Eight Chapters”) composed by Pāṇini (c. 6th–5th century bce). The Aṣṭādhyāyī in turn was the object of a rich commentatorial literature, documents of which are known from the time of Kātyāyana (4th–3rd century bce) onward. In the same Pāṇinian tradition there was a long history of work on semantics and the philosophy of language, the pinnacle of which is represented by the Vākyapadīya (“Treatise on Sentence and Word”) of Bhartṛhari (late 6th–7th century ce).
Over its long history, Sanskrit has been written both in Devanāgarī script and in various regional scripts, such as Śāradā from the north (Kashmir), Bāṅglā (Bengali) in the east, Gujarātī in the west, and various southern scripts, including the Grantha alphabet, which was especially devised for Sanskrit texts. Sanskrit texts continue to be published in regional scripts, although in fairly recent times Devanāgarī has become more generally used.
There is a large corpus of literature in Sanskrit covering a wide range of subjects. The earliest compositions are the Vedic texts. There are also major works of drama and poetry, although the exact dates of many of these works and their creators have not been definitively established. Important authors and works include Bhāsa (for example, his Svapnavāsvavadatta [“Vāsavadatta in a Dream”]), who is assigned widely varying dates but definitely worked prior to Kālidāsa, who mentions him; Kālidāsa, dated anywhere from the 1st century bce to the 4th century ce, whose works include Śakuntalā (more fully, Abhijñānaśākuntala; “Śakuntalā Recalled Through Recognition” or “The Recognition of Śakuntalā”), Vikramorvaśīya (“Urvaśī Won Through Valour”), Kumārasambhava (“The Birth of Kumāra”), and Raghuvaṃśa (“The Lineage of Raghu”); Śūdraka and his Mṛcchakatika (“Little Clay Cart”), possibly dating to the 3rd century ce; Bhāravi and his Kirātārjunīya (“Arjuna and the Kirāta”), from approximately the 7th century; Māgha, whose Śiśupālavadha (“The Slaying of Śiśupāla”) dates to the late 7th century; and from about the early 8th century Bhavabhūti, who wrote Mahāvīracarita (“Deeds of the Great Hero”), Mālatīmādhava (“Mālatī and Mādhava”), and Uttararāmacarita (“The Last Deed of Rāma”). The two epics Rāmāyaṇa (“Life of Rāma”) and Mahābhārata (“Great Tale of the Bhāratas”) were also composed in Sanskrit, and the former is esteemed as the first poetic work (ādikāvya) of India. The Pañcatantra (“Treatise in Five Chapters”) and Hitopadeśa (“Beneficial Instruction”) are major representatives of didactic literature. Sanskrit was also used as the medium for composing treatises of various philosophical schools, as well as works on logic, astronomy, and mathematics.
Sanskrit is not restricted to Hindu compositions. It has also been used by Jaina and Buddhist scholars, the latter primarily Mahāyāna Buddhists. Further, Sanskrit is recognized in the constitution of India as both a classical language and an official language and continues to be used in scholarly, literary, and technical media, as well as in periodicals, radio, television, and film.
In its grammatical structure, Sanskrit is similar to other early Indo-European languages such as Greek and Latin. It is an inflected language. For instance, the Sanskrit nominal system—including nouns, pronouns, and adjectives—has three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), three numbers (singular, dual, and plural), and seven syntactic cases (nominative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, and locative), in addition to a vocative. However, a full set of distinct forms occurs only in the singular of masculine -a- stems of the type deva- ‘god’: nominative devas (devaḥ before a pause), accusative devam, instrumental devena, dative devāya, ablative devāt, genitive devasya, locative deve, and vocative deva.
Adjectives are inflected to agree with nouns, and there are distinct pronominal forms for certain cases: e.g., tasmai, tasmāt, tasmin (masculine-neuter dative, ablative, and locative singular, respectively) ‘that one.’
Verbs inflect for tense, mode, voice, number, and person. These may be illustrated by third-person active forms of pac ‘cook, bake’ (used if cooking is done for someone other than the agent), including the present indicative pacati ‘cooks, is cooking’; the proximate future pakṣyati ‘will cook,’ referring to an act that will take place at some time in the future, possibly including the day on which one is speaking; the non-proximate future paktā ‘will cook,’ referring to an act that will take place at some time in the future, excluding the day on which one is speaking; the aorist apākṣīt ‘cooked, has cooked,’ referring to an act completed in the general past, possibly including the day on which one speaks; the imperfect past apacat ‘cooked,’ referring to an act in the past, excluding the day on which one speaks; the perfect reportative papāca ‘cooked,’ referring to an act performed in the past, excluding the day of speaking, and which the speaker did not directly witness or is not personally aware; the imperativepacatu ‘should, must cook,’ expressing a command, request, or invitation to perform the act; the optative pacet, used in the same sense as the imperative; the precative pacyāt ‘may cook,’ expressing a wish; and the contrafactual conditional apakṣyat ‘if (he) cooked, if (he) had cooked, if (he) would cook, if (he) would have cooked.’ There are also middle forms (‘cook for oneself’) corresponding to the forms just cited: pacate ‘cooks, is cooking,’ pakṣyate ‘will cook,’ paktā ‘will cook,’ apakta ‘cooked, has cooked,’ apacata ‘cooked,’ pece ‘cooked,’ pacatām ‘should, must cook,’ pakṣīṣṭa ‘may cook,’ apakṣyata ‘if (I) cooked, if (I) had cooked, if (I) would cook, if (I) would have cooked.’ There is also a passive, as with the third singular present indicative pacyate ‘…is being cooked.’ Early Vedic preserves remnants of an earlier aspectual contrast between perfective and imperfective.