King’s College London is due to start offering spoken Sanskrit evening classes this month. Dr Will Rasmussen, who will teach the course, came to Sanskrit from a Classics background – he read Greats at Oxford and taught Latin and Greek at a London secondary school where he wrote textbook which drew on Panini to help explain some of the more elusive elements of Greek grammar. He specialises in Greek, Indian and modern Western philosophy and is currently the Matilal Lecturer in Indian philosophy at King’s. Dr Rasmussen spoke to Venetia Ansell on a recent trip to Bangalore to brush up on his spoken Sanskrit with Samskrita Bharati and the Sringeri Math.
Aksharam, Samskrita Bharati
28th August 2008
First of all, the most obvious question: who will join a spoken Sanskrit class in the heart of London? Dr Rasmussen admits that it’s hard to know how popular it will be. He anticipates a mix of old and young, but predominantly those of Indian origin. Samskrita Bharati recently organised its first ever UK Sanskrit camp in Leicester, where about half were under 24 and the rest were over 50. Dr Rasmussen and one other woman formed the non-Indian constituent.
Dr Rasmussen will also be teaching the course in a rather different way to the normal Western university method – by speaking rather than reading and writing. “The traditional Indian way was to learn to speak the language first, then you had to learn to recite the Paninian sutras and finally you were taught how the sutras, and thus the grammar, work.” This is of course how most of us learn our mother tongue – you speak it first then learn to identify its different elements to understand how it fits together.
Dr Rasmussen reflects on the Sanskrit verb ‘path’. In origin, this means to recite, but it is also the principal word used to denote reading and studying. There is no word which exclusively means ‘read’, because reading meant reading out loud – reciting – and studying meant hours of recitation. Dr Rasmussen recalls a friend whose son attended a gurukulam – the traditional Indian schooling system which is enjoying something of a revival – for several years. By the end of it he could recite the Rg Veda for 52 hours – “not continuously, of course”. The professor’s students will learn to recite parts of the Gita, although perhaps not hours’ worth.
Dr Rasmussen acknowledges that the promotion of Sanskrit as a spoken living language is not well received by all. “Sanskrit is not a modern language, of course, but I’d contest that it is living.” He notes that many critics believe Sanskrit fails to qualify as a living language because it is no longer evolving. “This is incontrovertible. To be Sanskritic is by definition to abide by the principles of Panini, which means that the language has been frozen since about the 4th century BC.” But Dr Rasmussen prefers to come at it from a different angle. For him, a living language is defined as one that is used in everyday life. “A language of communication, a language that you think and speak in.” And by this definition, as five minutes at Samskrita Bharati’s centre or the Sringeri Math will prove, Sanskrit is most certainly a living language.