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Paavanii – A Dip In The Ocean Of Sanskrit

Shekhar Shastri

“Aham KalidasaH prakoshtham gatva vegen annapurna bhojnalayam agamishyami” (I shall go to my room and rush back to the Annapurna dining hall), a twelve year-old boy was telling his friend as he was running away towards a log cabin. He wanted to change into his costume for the evening program. The other boy replied, “Sheeghram Kuru (Hurry up!).”

Nestled in the green hills of the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts, almost eighty people had gathered for five days to speak Sanskrit, and only Sanskrit. The Yoga class in the morning was conducted in Sanskrit, the conversations over meals were in Sanskrit and even the games being played in the evening were in Sanskrit.

There were men, women, and children – many of whom had grown up in North America – who had come from different parts of the country for the Paavanii Shibiram (Camp Paavanii – “Paavanii” meaning pure in Sanskrit), over the Memorial Day weekend. This camp was conducted by the volunteers of Samskrita-Bharati, a global movement through which over three million people have attended “Sanskrit Speaking” courses. Shri Krishna Shastry, the founder of the movement was present at this camp - teaching and inspiring through his spellbinding speeches in the evening.

“My teacher, Shri Vithal Bhave, was very knowledgeable, and we studied the works of many Sanskrit poets. I met many people and the camp environment was very pleasant”, said Nitin Thaper, a Ph.D. candidate studying Computer Science at MIT. In fact, Mr. Vithal Bhave is an executive at a technology firm in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife, Shrimati Charuhasini Bhave, both started learning Sanskrit when they attended a “Speak Sanskrit” course taught by Shri Krishna Shastry in California. Now a few years later, they both have earned masters degrees in Sanskrit from Mysore University, and are delightful teachers of “Samskrita Sambhashanam” or Conversational Sanskrit.

The rustic camp environment was appropriately labeled with names such as Annapurna bhojnalayam (Dining Hall), Narada Gaana Sabha (Music Hall), and the rooms were labeled after well-known Sanskrit poets such as Kalidasah, Banah, Gargi, … Every day was packed with classes and activities, with each grade taught by an experienced teacher. As an example, the Vararuchi class was taught by Shrimati Sharada Varadarajan, a Sanskrit scholar who lives in Newton, Mass.

Prakruti, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University said, “I always wanted to learn Sanskrit. There was always a question how I was going to study, and Samskrita-Bharati showed me a way to learn it easily. This time every single room had either the roof or the floor or the door leaking in cold air but it was definitely worth it.”

“Before this camp, I had never been in a place where you live and breath Sanskrit, this is a total experience”, said Revathi Srinath of Dallas, Texas. “Even though I am a beginner, I can make up some Sanskrit sentences”, said Amisha Parekh, a University of Illinois student from Chicago.

A twelve year-old girl introduced herself as, “Namaste. Mam naam Pranayakeli. Aham Alachua nagare vasaami mam maataa api atra aagatavati. (My, name is Pranayakeli, I live in Alachua, Florida. My mother has also come to this camp.)”
Indira Prativadi of Gaitherburg, Maryland came with her husband and two college going children who all speak Sanskrit. She said, “The language is not hard, my children can speak Kannada, Tamil, and Sanskrit which they have been learning since an early age. My children grew up here and went to school and college here, and they are very proud of their Indian culture and heritage and they want to spread it with pride.”

There were six levels of classes, from beginner to advanced, each class named after famous Sanskrit grammarians – Panini, Patanjali, Vararuchi, Bhattoji, Nagesh Bhatt, and Arun. Except the pedagogy is novel – all through conversation, not through a rote grammar learning method that has created a misconception of the language being difficult.

“I studied Sanskrit at the university for a semester and had a real bad experience. It seems that today in America, Sanskrit is not really taught at all, instead they talk about Sanskrit, they teach about Sanskrit. They have another language, i.e. they speak in English, they translate into English, and they are very committed to stopping Sanskrit from taking on its own form. Sanskrit is a language that has so many riches, and I think it is worthwhile spending 5-6 years or however long it takes to learn it, and to learn it well– not through grammar or translation but through speaking Sanskrit, by living in it, and letting the language live itself. I have had a very positive experience at the Camp as you can tell and I recommend it to all”, said Ahmad Bashi, a student at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I have taken instruction in Sanskrit in the past. I had good teachers, but the way of teaching was through the old fashion grammar way, which was not very useful because you forgot everything the moment you walked out of the class, because you learnt things intellectually. I found this to be like a family. It is a beautiful experience. I felt very much at home. A lot of exercises through interaction with other people in speaking Sanskrit were very striking. It is a very well organized group and from the very beginning to the end every aspect was well managed logistically. ‘Mam anubhavam samyak aaseet’ (My experience was great!)”, said Roberto Schprejer, a native of Argentina.

The camp location was very pleasant with a big lake surrounded by trees bursting to express themselves on a rain-drenched weekend. Sitting next to the lake, I found Prof. Kaladhara Rao, a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, sitting and composing a satirical Sanskrit verse on the camp experience: “Poori Madhuram, Chhole Madhuram, Sheetam Adhikam, Tailam Adhikam…”, indicating the sweet Gujarati flavor in the sumptuous vegetarian meals served, and the accompanying cold weather.

It was only through dedicated workers such as Krishna Kumar, Giri Bharathan, Sivaram Kondamudi, and Pallamraju Duggirala that this amazing event came together. All these volunteers are entrepreneurs in various high technology areas, and this was a production of their love and joy for ‘Samskrita Bhasha’ – which is termed the “Amrita vani” or the “Stream of Nectar”.

Phalgun, a medical student from Maryland said, “… it is an opportunity to immerse yourself in language, culture and tradition. It has been a beautiful experience that I can take away with me and it will stay with me for a long time.”

The high point of every day was the “Evening Entertainment Program” – all of which was conducted in Sanskrit. The young campers and the older ones alike were working diligently every moment to write a poem or compose a song, or a skit. The urge to create something new in Sanskrit language was probably the best exercise that the campers could have aimed at. Groups could be seen huddled and in tense moments before the show but invariably the performances were hilarious and a festival of laughter.

One day, I saw youngsters, Sai Tenneti of Billerica, MA and Kartikeya Shastri of Lexington, MA quibbling loudly over their skit, next to the lake – which I later discovered, ended up in both throwing each others’ shoes in the lake. While acting as a movie actress being interviewed on TV, Smitha Raghunath of Fishkill, New York was heard saying, “… aham Bond calanacitre nAyikAyAh pAtram AishwaryAyai tyaktavatI (I passed over the Bond girl opportunity, to make room for Aishwarya).”

“Many people think that Sanskrit only means the Mahabharata and Ramayana but there is no aspect of literature which has not been captured in Sanskrit. Sanskrit is necessary for not just scriptures but for the arts, the Natyashastra, Sangeetashastra, Ayurveda, and Yoga. The way Krishna Shastryji connects Sanskrit with Sanskriti (culture) with a life of dedication is a great inspiration”, said Lakshman Thakur, a Professor of Business at the University of Connecticut.

“I cannot express my joy. I taught the ‘Bhattoji’ class here and it was very satisfying to see the joy in people’s eyes that they could actually converse in Sanskrit even though they had never learnt it earlier. At home these days we speak Sanskrit and if you were to call our home and reach the answering machine you will hear our message in Sanskrit”, said Dr. Govinda Rao, a biotechnologist who came from San Jose, California.

Ramachandra Kamath, a financial analyst based in New Jersey said, “Every moment at the Sanskrit camp has been enjoyable. Those who think that Sanskrit is a dead language, I am here to tell them that it is very much alive, and it is dead only in their minds.”

In one of his lectures, Shri Krishna Shastryji said, “Pratyekasya hrudaye Samskrita deepah jvalatu. prtyekah deepen anyaht deepam prajjvalaytu, (Let everyone here carry a Samskrita lamp in his heart. Let each lamp light many more lamps.)”

Shekhar Shastri is an entrepreneur and co-founder of Meru Education Foundation, based in Lexington, MA.

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