Saturday Sanskrit Classes for Adults: Student Voices (3)
Posted on: 27/3/2018
David Stollar, former teacher at St James Senior Boys’ School and member of Sanskrit @ St James, has been offering Saturday-morning Sanskrit classes tailored to adult students. We are here featuring the feedback from some of David’s students. Should these pique your interest, read all about David’s new beginners’ class here.
My Tryst with the Sanskrit Language by Swati Yadav
I stumbled upon Sanskrit looking for an answer to the age old human question – ‘How can we discriminate between what is right and wrong?’. Working in the fast-paced, power-grabbing, pressurised environment of the UK civil service, I quickly realised that, as a leader, the highest skill one needs is that of ‘judgement’ – one’s ability to discriminate very quickly, in extremely trying situations, between right and wrong. Life experience has taught me that this difference gets extremely subtle and harder to make as you climb higher and grow older.
In my quest for answers I came across a Sanskrit text – ‘Vivekacūḍamaṇi’ (The Crown Jewel of Knowledge) by the great Indian philosopher Śaṅkarācārya. The book was saturated with words and ideas that I had never come across before. It seemed I had found my fountain-head and there was no looking back. I had to learn Sanskrit to drink more from this abundant fountain of knowledge.
You may ask: why particularly Sanskrit writings? There are many other cultures and languages which have grappled with this same question and come up with pretty profound stuff and have written prolifically on it – take the Greeks or the Chinese for a start. But I found that, unlike most of their literature and thought, Sanskrit does not limit itself to questions on morality, ethics or the design of an ideal society, it goes beyond these and lays more emphasis on the ‘truth‘ – the quest for it, understanding it, attaining it. Morality changes with society, with the times, but ‘truth’ never does. For example, in the Middle Ages, ‘chastity’ was one of the highest virtues but in today’s world, it is deemed an old-fashioned value, a choice left to an individual without the threat of ostracisation.
Let me offer you a Sanskrit word to elucidate my point further. ‘Dharma’, loosely translated as ‘the law’, duty, righteousness, justice, etc., a word that encapsulates a whole ‘way of life’ in its meaning. You will often hear Indian people speak of ‘living according to one’s dharma’. It is a concept that goes beyond moral or ethical judgements of the society or times one lives in. In fact ‘dharma’ is ever evolving with the ages and yet, in essence, its truth remains the same, which is ‘No one is above the law of the universe’ – everybody and everything naturally abides by it or perishes.
This may sound like stating the obvious but look closer and you’ll find there is more to it than meets the eye. It is a word so layered with subtleties that it is difficult to translate into another language, try as you might. Monier Williams’ Sanskrit-to-English dictionary provides a two page entry for the word, and yet it fails. So, to truly understand its subtleties one really does have to read Sanskrit literature, and fortunately the choices are varied and vast. There are the two great epics the Mahābhārata (The Great Story of the Bhāratas) and the Rāmāyaṇa (The Story of Prince Rāma) that use vivid, relatable characters and their stories through many generations to highlight the nuances of ‘dharma’; and then there are the more scientific works such as the Dharma-Śāstras (The Science of Law), which include the Manusmṛti (The Book of Manu’s Law), to name but a few.
But to illustrate my point on ‘dharma’ and discrimination, I would like to share with you the opening scene from the Bhagavad Gītā, in which Arjuna, a great warrior is faced with the dilemma whether to fight his loved ones (grand-father, teachers, cousins, uncles, grandsons, etc.) in a ‘war for justice’; yet anything he might gain in that war would be meaningless without these loved ones to share it with. Here, many of us would agree with him until we hear what his guide and mentor, Krishna, has to say. He reminds him of the importance of fighting for justice, fighting to establish the law, the ‘dharma’ of the universe. He asks him to fight not for personal justice or gain but to prevent the degradation of mankind, degradation of ‘truth’. Most of the eighteen chapters of the book comprise his response to Arjuna which unfolds the subtleties of ‘truth’ and ‘dharma’. Reading a translation is mind-blowing in itself but it can never match the depths of beauty and meaning gained from reading it in Sanskrit, relishing the mathematical poetry of its grammar, word-formations from their roots upwards, the symphony of its verse construction, etc. Readers of Homer will appreciate where I’m coming from.
Through reading and reflecting on literature such as this you realise that you have a whole lifetime, in fact that you need a whole lifetime to discover the depths of words such as ‘dharma’, ‘karma’, ātman’, by experimenting with life, living it, reflecting on it, etc. So every Saturday morning, bracing the brisk, fresh air, at times with eyes redolent of sleep, but with a sense of purpose in my heart, I head to St James, a place of knowledge far removed from the profit-chasing, power-hungry environments of our work life, to study Sanskrit. By 12 noon I am bathed in a sense of achievement, bliss of learning and a sense of joy in a shared experience with my ‘co-hungry’, ‘desirous of learning’ students from all walks of life, with different questions in their minds and yet somehow with the same quest for more meaning, more understanding and more shared joy in their lives.
Who better to guide you and lead you through this thick, myriad jungle of emotions, concepts, ideas, struggles, debates, but a charming teacher, David Stollar, who years ago as a 16-year-old young adult discovered his love for this language and the insightful ideas hidden in its folds. Since then, he has been passing on this joy forward to his pupils, sharing its depths of beauty and profoundness with anyone searching with a curious heart.
So come, I invite you, implore you, tempt you to join us in discovering Sanskrit. A whole new world awaits you at St James.