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Posted on: 29/12/2018

Studying Sanskrit in the Netherlands

As a Sanskrit student from the Netherlands I would like to tell about my experiences with the study of Sanskrit. I had been studying Sanskrit in the past, which brought me as far as learning how to read and write the Devanāgarī script and knowing the meaning of some words as well as some cases of nouns. Then, for a number of reasons the study of Sanskrit was completely dropped for several years. But when my son went to Primary School, a Sanskrit teacher from Groningen said to me: “Now that you have more time, why don’t you pick up the study of Sanskrit again?” When I heard that I immediately became enthusiastic and inquired what was the best way to proceed. So Mr. Jan Visser, a teacher in Amsterdam, advised me to study for the GCSE exams that were offered by the Cambridge Examination Board. He gave me the textbooks from ‘Sanskrit @ St James’ in London and I began to study them under his guidance.

The first two exams were held in the Netherlands and there were about 10 students that sat them. We all passed the IGCSE exam. Later, I studied together with another Dutch lady which was mutually inspiring. After the first two exams the examinations were no longer held in the Netherlands so for the higher exams we had to go to London.  Fortunately hospitality was offered to us by people who supported the study of Sanskrit and the St James Schools in London. So we could stay in their house for the duration of the exams which was great. So my study mate and I took the last 3 exams in London and it was a long but very worthwhile undertaking that eventually led to our passing the Cambridge International A level exam.

Sanskrit is such an inspiring undertaking!  First of all it is because the study of this language involves the human being as a whole: intellect, heart and physical activity.

What first struck me was the beauty of the sounds and the script. Hearing Sanskrit for the first time, without even knowing what it meant, brought back, as it were, a far memory, a touch at the emotional level. It gave an unknown and yet familiar kind of joy. It was like coming home. And still when I sound or recite or chant Sanskrit verses or invocations or prayers there is this deep joy which is hard to describe.

Then there is the beauty of the script. The letters of the alphabet are so harmonious and beautiful that when I write the letters and really do it with full attention, I become quite still and joy rises in me with a feeling of inner peace.

The Sanskrit language is built up very orderly. To begin with, the alphabet is constructed in a very precise way. It follows five positions of the mouth and tongue. Some of the ways the tongue must be held are not known in our language (neither in Dutch nor in English), so they need all the attention to pronounce them precisely. So it is again a good way to make the mind still and clear. Furthermore, the letters can all only be pronounced in one way and every sound can be written only in one way. There is a one-to-one relationship between the written letter and the sound. That makes the Sanskrit writing very precise.

Then there is the precision of the grammar, with its cases of the nouns that tell which role each word plays in a sentence, the conjugations of the verbs and the way verbs are derived from dhātus (roots). Nevertheless, there is an amazing freedom in the meanings of the words. One word can have a lot of meanings. Moreover, it is also similar the other way round: one Dutch (or English) word can be expressed in Sanskrit in a variety of ways. All this makes the Sanskrit language very poetical and very subtle as well.

It is said that Sanskrit reflects the laws of creation. During my studies I occasionally get a glimpse of this. For example the cases of the nouns tell about the relationships between the noun and the action that is being carried out. The six main cases are always present in every sentence, even if not explicitly stated. There is always someone who performs the action, there is always somebody or something to whom or to which the action is directed, always an instrument by means of which the action is being carried out and a purpose for the action. And the action always begins out of something and takes place at a certain time and place. All this is beautifully and lawfully expressed in the Sanskrit language.

Another reason why studying Sanskrit is so rewarding is that one gets access to a tremendously rich source of literature. There is great wisdom in texts like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gītā. And there are beautiful stories in the great epics like the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata. The Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is also a great source of beautiful and wise stories. There are also Buddhist texts available in Sanskrit like the Buddhacaritam, the life of the Buddha.

Why do exams?

Sometimes I find that people (certainly in the Netherlands) think it is a good thing to study Sanskrit but do not see the necessity to take an exam. I think that taking Sanskrit exams is a very helpful and even a necessary way to set about the study of Sanskrit.

First, because it helps tremendously if one sets oneself a clear purpose, something to work towards to. You know the date of the exam and then you can make an estimation of how much time it will take to prepare and so you can plan your study time accordingly.

Secondly it means that you have an obligation towards yourself. You have to do the best you can, because you know you will be tested. So it helps to build up a study discipline. In the beginning I had the feeling that I sat down to study “because I had to”, but soon the discipline had taken root and I sat down joyfully and eager to study.

Thirdly, when you prepare for exams, especially for the Advanced levels, you are in touch with the most beautiful texts from the Sanskrit literature.

Best wishes in your endeavours!

Johanna Smits




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