An Indian woman, clad in a cotton sari and clutching a baby to her shoulder, poked her head around the corner of the hallway.
“Suprabhatam, bhagini,” I called out to her. (Good morning, sister.)
Her face warmed with a smile. “Suprabhatam,” she replied. (Good morning.)
Her baby, Ganapathi, squirmed in her arms. He stared at me with wide eyes, completely dumbfounded by my presence. I laughed at his expression. And so my day, just like any other day I spent in a residential Sanskrit camp this summer, began.
It was a two-week immersion program organized by Samskrita Bharati, a nonprofit that propagates the ancient Indian language Samskritam (Sanskrit). And what better place to hold a Sanksrit immersion program than in its birthplace, India? So the camp took place in the Aksharam complex in Girinagar, Bangalore, Karnataka. It was also the culmination of Samskritam As a Foreign Language (SAFL), a course for high school students throughout the US with weekly classes over the internet and the phone. I, my two brothers and three other SAFL classmates attended the immersive camp in Bangalore, India the first time it was ever held. In short, we were Samksrita Bharati’s guinea pigs.
Needless to say, I was terrified. I’d studied Sanskrit before, sure. I’d been to residential Sanskrit camps in the US since I was a kid. But these were never long, maybe 4 days at the most. And they didn’t seem too “immersive,” maybe because I never knew enough Sanskrit to speak without using English. But 2 weeks? And in India? How was I going to survive?
When I first stepped foot in it, I realized that although Aksharam was a rather plain, ordinary building, its inhabitants were another story. Men and women who had dedicated their lives to Sanskrit lived in its small quarters. Some employees worked tirelessly on Sambhashana SandeshaH, Samskrita Bharati’s magazine; others created, translated and corrected Wikipedia pages in Sanskrit. The whole two weeks, I never heard a word of Kannada or English slip from the inhabitants’ lips, whether it was a scholar or the cook; everything was Sanskrit, Sanskrit, Sanskrit. Even children were fluent; my vocabulary was embarrassingly small compared to one of the seven year old’s.
Consequently, I spent the first few days at Aksharam like any self respecting guinea pig – out of place, awkward and very intimidated. Yoga started at 6 AM, followed by freshening up at 7 and breakfast at 8. My roommate and I managed to catch a few more winks of sleep before classes began at 9 and stretched well into the afternoon. Our classes covered various Sanskrit grammar topics as well as the play Kumarasambhavam (the story of the birth of Karthikeya) by Kalidasa. And yet, I thought to myself, what was I doing here? I could barely string a sentence together in Sanskrit. I was surrounded by Sanskrit scholars; here, I was an American girl whose Sanskrit was mediocre at best.
But as I spent my days at Aksharam, waking up before the sun rose, immersing myself in Sanskrit grammar, and watching the lives of the people around me, I began to think, “Maybe this isn’t too bad.” As I found myself laughing at jokes (in Sanskrit, no less), I began to think, “Maybe this isn’t that bad.” As I watched the baby Ganapathi sing snatches of the only song he knew, mahaa ganapathim manasaa smaraami, I began to think, “This isn’t bad.” And as I managed to hold a conversation with Ganapathi’s mother without stumbling over my words, I began to think, “This isn’t bad at all.”
But it wasn’t just what we learned within the walls of Aksharam that converted my mindset. The numerous field trips we took also made an impression on me, and there were indeed many. We saw a yoga university, two children’s schools, and a Sanskrit college. We visited an all-girls gurukulam, a traditional school in which the Vedas are studied, and a PaaTashaala, where they are memorized and recited. Lastly, and most significantly for me, we spent the night in the vedavijnanagurukulam, a gurukulam where boys from the age of 16 study the Vedas, Vedanta and more for seven years.
I was awed by the gurukulam. Boys chatted casually in Sanskrit; they even had their own slang. It was effortless for them. And their daily lives were so permeated by Hindu culture that I couldn’t believe it. I mean, they studied the essence of the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu texts. They were educated about Hindu philosophy. They studied in the most traditional and ancient way, immersed in one of the most ancient languages, and yet they lived in modern India. It was a beautiful paradox that opened my eyes to how very present Sanskrit is and remains.
I used to imagine dry grammar topics and incomprehensible paragraphs of words upon words upon words when I thought of Sanskrit. But now, when Sanskrit comes to mind, I picture Aksharam. I think of those men and women, sitting at their desks and reveling in the beauty that is spoken and written Sanskrit. I think of the students we met at the yoga university and the gurukulams. I think of cute Ganapathi, his baby voice somehow enhancing the little Sanskrit he knew. I think of what it was like to be a guinea pig at Medhaa, and I smile.
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