My learning of Sanskrit was inspired because of my Hindu background

Dr Rishi Handa, Head of Sanskrit and Religious Studies, St James’ Senior Boys’ School, London

I noticed a sudden explosion of social media posts boasting of learning a new skill or a language. It almost felt unreal when I saw many youngsters flaunting having learnt Sanskrit. The image though, of a Sanskrit class is rather conflicting as I think of our millenials learning this indic language!

Visions of a Gurukul setting of students chanting shlokas, adorning traditional attire and performing the yagna appear. In the COVID19 times, at best this might guise itself into an online session with a Sadhu or Sadhvi, wearing saffron or white clothes, speaking against the backdrop of the taanpura providing a harmonic bourdon. Amidst these images, appears the shock of seeing Dr Rishi Handa and his Sanskrit classes. What is even more fascinating is his own personal journey as someone who was born and brought up in England. He attributes his interest in learning Sanskrit to his being a Hindu. I decided, therefore to interview him and find out about Sanskrit learning in the West particularly for millenials who have little to do with Indic cultures or traditions of Bharat. Read on…

Tell us about yourself?

I was born and brought up in the United Kingdom. I am a teacher during the week and a professional musician with my brother on the weekends in my band, “Flute that Groove”. My parents’ families are originally from Punjab and came to UK in the 1960s.

Why and how did Sanskrit learning, then teaching happen to you?

My learning of Sanskrit was inspired because of my Hindu background.

As a young child, I grew up learning about Hindu culture, particularly through the plethora of Amar Chitra Katha comics that my brother and I owned and relentlessly read. Just after my GCSEs I felt I wanted to learn Sanskrit to go deeper into the indic traditions of Bharat. So at the age of 16 years, I walked into a local bookstore and saw a Hindi grammar book as well as a Sanskrit one. I bought both and while I devoured the Hindi one because of how well it was written, I didn’t resonate with the Sanskrit one at all because of quite the opposite reason. I looked for ways to learn, but with little luck; the internet was only taking birth back then. Now it’s much easier to find material, but I persevered for six years before I was able to properly start learning.

My undergraduate degree was in Maths with Theoretical Physics which as it may appear at the time, had nothing to do with Indic studies, a passion I was developing during my degree. When I did my MA in South Asian Studies, I took Sanskrit as one of my subjects taught by a brilliant lady called Anne Glazier.

In the two schools I taught Maths and Religious Studies, I also held lunchtime classes in Sanskrit for students interested. I then began teaching Sanskrit at St James Senior Boys’ School in 2013 that my knowledge significantly increased that I owe to the brilliant Sanskrit books written by my colleagues, Warwick and Elena Jessup from St James junior and senior girls’ schools. These are now published by Motilal Banarsidass. The books are well designed for children but excellent for adults too as they enable one to cover the grammar needed for the IGCSE exam.

Between 2015 and 2018 I sat the IGCSE, AS and A levels exams. I enjoy taking exams, particularly for languages as it disciplines you and compels you to achieve a certain standard, and you gain a meaningful amount of knowledge through a structured syllabus that you wouldn’t otherwise necessarily have acquired. I also took them to understand better what my students would experience so that I could teach them in a more informed way. Then back in 2018 I became Head of Sanskrit at the Senior Boys’ school and earlier this year, the Head of Religious Studies.

My online classes started this year, during lockdown and I’ve developed a fast-track course module to help students prepare to sit the IGCSE Sanskrit exam within a year.

Why Sanskrit? Who needs Sanskrit in the UK? 

Many have a limited understanding that the only value school subjects have is in their overt contribution to gaining employment because of their factual content. The reality is that this is not how subjects work. Not only does one forget the content, most subjects have little relevance in that way.

What is important is the cognitive skills that a subject develops and Sanskrit does this par excellence. It sharpens logic, reasoning, awareness, attention, and expression, to say the least. This is true for adults too. One of my adult students is a computer programmer who said to me that since studying Sanskrit, his approach to coding has become more lateral.

Added to this is the wisdom from the ancient Sanskrit literature which is much needed in the world today.

People are heavily preoccupied with the objective world and the objects of experience; in that I include the mind. Their sole aim is happiness which they identify as pleasure – it’s all about dopamine boosts. But how many identify happiness with contentment, and surrender to the present?

The Sanskrit literature is filled with wisdom about instead directing one’s attention to the subject of experience, that is, consciousness or awareness, and gives many means of doing this, which we call yoga. This wisdom facilitates inner peace and many around the world are realising this. Of course, one doesn’t need Sanskrit to gain this knowledge but awareness of Sanskrit if looking at Vedanta, allows a subtler insight into the texts and teachings. I have often heard Sanskrit being called ‘the conscious language’, that too by westerners.

Who are your students and why are they interested in learning Sanskrit?

The St James Schools’ Sanskrit students are of all backgrounds and persuasions. I’m often asked by surprised Hindus as to why the non-Hindus take Sanskrit lessons! This question is rooted in the misunderstanding that Sanskrit is a religious language, which is perhaps why many modern Hindus don’t give Sanskrit any value. It’s sad that this is so while there are non-Hindus who absolutely love Sanskrit; many of my school students hold it to be their favourite subject.

The idea that it is a religious language is rooted in the Colonialist narrative of the binary pair that is the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular. When such divisions didn’t exist in pre-modern Bharat, then how can one classify what is religious and what is secular? Is the Arthashastra, a Sanskrit treatise on statecraft, economics and politics a religious text? The question is irrelevant. So this misunderstanding is based on the modern Hindu experience of Sanskrit being used only in the ritual sphere.

At St James, we teach the three sister languages – Latin, Greek and Sanskrit – with Sanskrit being one of the reasons for the birth of St James school in 1975. Incidentally, I’m the first Indian/Hindu teacher of Sanskrit there upto as recent as 2013!

Sanskrit was only taught by Westerners who are devoted to the language. An ethos of advaita (non-duality) and Sanskrit are two of the school’s key pillars. The students don’t have any prejudice towards Sanskrit and see it as a classical language like they do Latin and Greek.

Sanskrit gives the industrious students a challenge and they love the rigour and beauty of it. Those few individuals who study all three of these sister languages happily accept the superlative nature of Sanskrit in terms of beauty and rigour and look forward to lessons. They see Sanskrit as sharpening their analytical skills and memory. The IGCSE also covers a section on the teachings and cosmology of the Hindu texts and because it is philosophically rooted in advaita, the students are fascinated by it.

The key to learning a language is to continue to practice it. How do you and your students do this?

I don’t just see myself as a teacher but also someone who is into pedagogy and andragogy.

In other words, I have a deep fascination with how the human mind can learn most efficiently. Other than homework, my students take on board the strategies I implement. A key well-known approach is that of ‘little and often’, and in Sanskrit, I make students meet vocabulary frequently, I get them to use the Quizlet app which is digital flashcards, I make them recite words and tables after me, and I get them to go through the course books at least twice. The course is not a spoken one so we only focus on reading and writing.

What according to you is the biggest threat to Hindu Sanskriti today?

The Hindus’ own disregard for their rich culture and heritage.

My English teacher of jyotish (Vedic astrology) once said to me that although we’re born in this culture, we don’t value the gems we have. I replied that I certainly do which is why I’ve spent all of my life on learning about our heritage in personal study and in my MA and PhD, but I recognise what he says in many others.

Hindus are the last of the polythiestic and nature-based civilisations and the dominance of monotheism around the world plus the impact of colonialism has left Hindus very insecure and apologetic about their identity and heritage. They need to begin looking at their own philosophies and customs on their own terms, not by the yardstick of Protestantism and modernity, and they’ll start realising what they have in their own home as it were. Many westerners look to Hindu wisdom and spirituality while Hindus look elsewhere.

The Hindi proverb ‘ghar kī murgī dāl barābar‘ says it all, although as a vegetarian, I’ll stick with dāl. A Panjabi one says ‘ghar dā jogī jogṛā, bāhar dā jogī siddh.

Those interested in Dr Rishi Handa’s Online Sanskrit classes may reach him on:

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