Full text of Abhinav Seetharaman’s talk: The Beauty That Is Sanskrit atTEDxYouth@BrowningSchool conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here:
Abhinav Seetharaman – Musician and a Language Entrepreneur
So I’d like to begin by asking you all a question. How many of you have heard of Sanskrit in the first place?
Okay. So that’s pretty impressive. Most of you raised your hands.
I once tried to interview a friend of mine in high school for a project, and asked him what his thoughts were on Sanskrit.
His response, “Oh, you mean sand-script. Is that a language that’s written on the sand?”
I decided it wasn’t worth continuing to interview after that.
So now I’d like for you all to visualize the following situation, as it unfolds before you.
Allow the power of narrative to enter your minds and create compelling scenes with imagery and detail. Let your imagination take over.
We’re now in the great Silk Road, the ancient hub for trade networks and cross-cultural interactions. Specifically, we’re in the Southwestern route of the Silk Road, very close to modern day India.
Markets are popping up throughout the region, offering a wide variety of goods, ranging from gold to spices, such as cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves.
Merchants and travelers flock from the West to not only conduct trade with the Indians, but to also learn an enchanting new language. A language that is so grammatically perfect, a language so rich in color and culture, a language called Sanskrit.
Now, as these merchants and travelers, here’s Sanskrit being spoken between the Indians. They notice many similarities to their native languages of Latin and ancient Greek.
And in fact, some of them do decide to venture further down the South, into the Indian subcontinent to learn more about Sanskrit.
As they sojourn, they notice that Sanskrit is widely spoken amongst the Indians, especially across the Northern and Central regions of India.
And as these travelers are able to pick up all these similarities to their native languages, they are absolutely fascinated. And soon days become weeks, and weeks become months.
Having a good grasp over spoken and written Sanskrit at this point, the travelers then return back to their respective native home regions and spread what they’ve learned through personal narratives and experiences.
Soon, Sanskrit rapidly gains popularity in the West, and is known all over, just like Latin and Greek.
Fast forward to today: Everyone’s heard of Latin. Everyone’s heard of Greek.
So why haven’t as many heard of Sanskrit?
This is the situation that we currently face: the dilemma of a seemingly esoteric language.
Now, I’d like to think of Sanskrit, Latin and Greek as a “Big Three”. Three languages that have brought so much good to the world over the past several millennia. They share so much in common, much more than anyone would expect.
For example, let’s take a look at the table here. Table depicted here shows the three fundamental words with similar roots and pronunciations in Sanskrit, Latin and Greek.
So for the first word we have father in Sanskrit, the root is ‘pitra’. In Latin, it’s ‘pater’. And the same applies for ancient Greek.
For mother, we have ‘matr’ in Sanskrit. ‘mater’ in Latin. And ‘mater’ in ancient Greek.
And for three it’s ‘trayas’ in Sanskrit. ‘treis’ in Latin. And ‘tres’ in ancient Greek.
So Sanskrit, specifically speaking, has been instrumental in unlocking a wide variety of knowledge and research in areas such as psychology, linguistics, medicine, mathematics, philosophy, and history and even other cultural traditions such as music and dance.
There’s a cultural and linguistic backbone of the Indian subcontinent and has significantly influenced South Asian, Southeast Asian and East Asian traditions in addition to a variety of other global practices.
It forms the base for most Indian languages and even has direct ties to other languages around the world.
Take Sanskrit and English for example: these are just a couple of the English words that have been directly derived from Sanskrit. Many of which are commonplace in everyday conversation.
So learning Sanskrit establishes a strong linguistic foundation that can manifest itself in a variety of ways to provide different benefits:
Sanskrit necessitates the use of all parts of the mouth to create different words and syllables. And because of this, you become equipped to handle the vast majority of words thrown at you, no matter what the language.
Imagine this scenario. Your friend has been struggling to pronounce this word correctly: Otorhinolaryngologist.
He comes up to you and asks, “Hey, how do you say this word? I’ve been trying for over 10 minutes, but have not had any success.”
He barely finishes and you calmly respond, “Otorhinolaryngologist”
“Wow, how’d you do that so easily”
“Dude, I learned the Sanskrit.”
How cool would that be?
2. Language learning and comprehension:
Because of its scientific nature and precision, Sanskrit is extremely beneficial when it comes to learning new foreign languages. And I can speak from personal experience on this too. It’s helped me gain a tremendous advantage in this front.
For example, I visited Japan last summer and as I started to pick up more and more Japanese, I noticed linguistic patterns that were very similar to grammatical sequences I learned in Sanskrit.
So learning Sanskrit had essentially created a visualization technique in my mind that enabled me to fit these linguistic and grammatical pieces together, just like a puzzle.
And in less than a month, I was able to get around Tokyo speaking only in Japanese. Hence learning foreign languages has become that much easier.
Furthermore, I noticed connections between Sanskrit and East Asia from a cultural standpoint. Let’s take a look at these two images on the screen.
The image on the left is of Yama, the God of the underworld as represented in Hinduism and several regions of South Asia.
While the image and the right is of Yama, the God of the underworld, the God, or a King of the underworld as represented in certain East Asian regions and sects of Buddhism.
3. A further view of the world:
Studying Sanskrit offers an expansive view on human nature and its role in creation. The language has precision for thought and consciousness as there are many words in Sanskrit that describes states of consciousness, thinking and mentality.
And in this era of unprecedented change and uncertainty, it can be a valuable tool to assess and look fresh at society. Playwrights and poets have skillfully crafted the language to offer timeless benefits and insights into the human mind.
Just like most other cultures and traditions, they’re traditionalists and non-traditionalists that make up both ends of the innovation spectrum. Conformists will say that studying Sanskrit should only be restricted to the ancient scriptures, sacred hymn chantings, and prayer recitations.
However, to believe so, and to follow through with this is to be naïve.
Just like most projects or tasks, innovation often arises from breaking constraining boundaries. It’s no different for Sanskrit. Change necessitates the reshaping of pre-existing cultural and societal norms.
I’m a proud member of the current global Sanskrit revival movement and constantly look for methods to promote the language in ways that are not only approachable, but are also accessible for all – kids, teens, and adults alike.
Life’s all about finding that ideal key to unlock your potential and discover new spheres of knowledge and information. Likewise, the key to the Sanskrit revival movement lies within the ability to learn or at least appreciate conversational Sanskrit.
A few initiatives have been established already with this end goal in mind. Such as Spoken Sanskrit Series – a YouTube channel that I co-founded, aimed at teaching the basics of Sanskrit conversation in an enjoyable and casual manner.
Additionally, the Sanskrit departments at various universities, such as Columbia, Brown, University of Texas and the University of Pennsylvania, just to name a few, have all done a remarkable job in offering related research and course opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students.
Schools across Britain have started to include Sanskrit as part of their foreign language curriculum. For example, the Saint James School in London has supported and promoted the teaching of Sanskrit for the past 35 years, stating that the language is a perfect tool for the awakening of young minds and will prepare them for the challenges of an increasingly global society.
‘Sanskrit fever’ if I may put it that way, has gripped Germany as well, as there are currently 14 German universities offering the language through both conversational and literature based courses to students from all over.
And the demand for these courses has skyrocketed in recent years. With schools being flooded with applications from all around the world. And because of this, schools are forced to innovate, to cope up with this new influx in student interest and demand and create additional programs such as summer schools and workshops.
So how do we bring that same level of student interest and demand to not only New York, but to also the United States?
Here in New York City, which accepts people from all different cultures and backgrounds, we incredibly value diversity.
With that being said, let’s learn a few introductory phrase in Sanskrit, shall we?
So I’ll start by reciting each phrase and have you all repeat after me. So we’ll start off with the basic.
(In Sanskrit) namō namah
‘How are you?’
(In Sanskrit) Bhavan katham asti
And, ‘I am doing well.’
(In Sanskrit) Aham samyak asmi
Every one of you guys is a pro already at this.
So that wasn’t too difficult; was it?
Let’s keep this message of diversity through language in mind and learn from one another. Let’s help develop ways to help each other and facilitate collaboration and cooperation.
And let’s spread the beauty of Sanskrit through innovation.