It is a common refrain among many in India that Sanskrit, among the most ancient languages of Indian civilisation, is not cared for enough. There aren’t enough speakers, and efforts to make the language functional have not always been successful. The language is quite political too, with PM Modi even taking a dig at the ‘secularism brigade’ over the politics behind the use of the language in India.
A Chinese student and his Indian friend at Columbia University in New York, however, are so enamoured with the language that they have started an online course modelled on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to take it to a wider audience across the globe.
Meet Yang Qu and Abhinav Seetharaman, the Sanskrit enthusiasts who have started the Spoken Sanskrit Series - a video-tutorial initiative to “take part in the Sanskrit Revival Movement, and introduce the seemingly intimidating language in a very approachable and accessible way.” Yang is a student of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia, a biology-drop out who was inspired by Indologist and Sanskrit scholar Ji Xianlin and took to the ancient language. He is also the founder and president of the Columbia Sanskrit Society.
Abhinav is a 19-year-old Chennai boy who moved to the US at a very young age and was exposed to Sanskrit through Samskrita Bharathi. He is currently majoring in Economics and Political Science at Columbia, but is also concentrating on Sanskrit.
The idea for the series came from Yang. “I was amazed to find almost no one has done any MOOC series like spoken Sanskrit, and even at Columbia, the things you learn are basically religious texts. So I came up with this idea and emailed Abhinav,” says Yang. Abhinav, of course, was more than happy to be a part of this, “I thought it was a wonderful idea, aimed at a global cause,” he says.
“I had two primary goals in mind. One, to participate in the Sanskrit Revival Movement, and help spread awareness of this language and two, to help erase the stereotype that Sanskrit is just a religious language, and prove that Sanskrit can absolutely be a fun language to learn,” says Abhinav.
Abhinav is the Sanskrit expert in the team. So while Yang does the scripting in English and directing, Abhinav writes the Sanskrit part.
“The response has been overwhelmingly positive, Many people have said that they now have a renewed interest in Sanskrit, and that they look forward to watching many future episodes,” says Abhinav.
So why did Yang fall in love with Sanskrit? “Grammatically it is very complex but yet very logical and it is just like doing math, challenging and yet fun. Also, maybe it's because I've learnt Hindi before, I've grown a natural affection for the way that Sanskrit literature is written,” says Yang.
For the team, this is just the beginning. “We plan on making this into a series of different episodes, with each episode lasting around 5 minutes in length. We don’t have a set number of modules planned right now, however. Our teaching strategy is to use conversations (in Sanskrit) between video participants to teach the basic conversational fundamentals of Sanskrit to people,” says Abhinav.
You can watct the first in the series here.