A Linguistic Journey: Sanskrit

On December 9, 1867, Max Müller wrote to his wife[1]:

… I feel convinced, though I shall not live to see it, that this edition of mine and the translation of the Veda will hereafter tell to a great extent on the fate of India, and on the growth of millions of souls in that country. It is the root of their religion, and to show them what that root is, I feel sure, the only way of uprooting all that has sprung from it during the last 3,000 years.

Friedrich Max Müller was a German indologist and a Sanskrit scholar who translated the Rgveda and many other scriptures[2] into English. It was after this scholarly work that he wrote a letter to his wife stating its purpose.

Lord Macaulay who was responsible for introducing English education in India during the British regime made statements of similar kind.


On February 2, 1835 in his Minute of Indian Education:

… We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.

When I came across the above excerpts for the first time, I was shocked to know how translations can entirely misguide a reader whose intention is to understand a text as it. My Acharya’s words echoed in my ears, “Beware of translations! Never fall for them.”  That is when I decided that if I happen to develop interest in Hindu mythology, I am going to read original manuscripts only. Lo and behold! All of them are in Samskrtam! Though I had some familiarity with the language, I was not proficient enough to understand ancient literary works. In one of his discourses, my Acharya suggested to take up the four exams (Pravesha, Parichaya, Shiksha, Kovida) in Samskrtam and then read Valmiki Ramayanam. He also said that in due course, Ramanayam would show its way. I didn’t find much difficulty in preparing for the exams at home as the syllabus was simple. But, I wasn’t happy with the progress that I was making.

One day it struck to me, I speak better Kannada(my mother tongue) than English; why? The reason is that I didn’t learn the grammar first but learnt speaking first, and the grammar crept in automatically. Added to it, I used to read Amar Chitra Katha, Champak, Balamangala and other story books —all of them in Kannada. So, I got my answer— if I apply “the English learning strategy” to Samskrtam, it is not going to take me anywhere.

Luckily, there was an ongoing book exhibition at the Palace Grounds, Bangalore, and I went with a hope to find some simple story books in Samskrtam. What I found there, left me totally surprised and I returned home with one year subscription for Champak in Samskrtam! After a few months of reading, I could derive three observations:

  1. Samskritam is not a complicated language. It is complex but simple.
  2. I wasn’t that bad at it as I had thought. I could understand most of the stories in the book without a dictionary.
  3. My decision on learning a language naturally, was right.

Months later, I cleared first three of the four exams (fourth one is due), resorted to watching Samskrtam news in the national news channel and reading other monthly magazines.

Off late, Valmiki Ramayanam has cast a bewitching spell on me which is when I started reading the Gita press, Gorakhpur edition of the text.


The text is seemingly simple and can be understood by rearranging the words in the shlokas as prose with some elementary knowledge of the language. I will share one such homework that I did for the past few days.

In posts to come, I will share why reading an original text is important even for stories like Ramayana or Mahabharata and of what relevance it is in present day world.


[1] “The Life and Letters of Friedrich Max Müller.” First published in 1902 (London and N.Y.). Reprint in 1976 (USA)
[2] http://www.goethe.de/ins/in/en/lp/uun/mxm.html

Author: शिखा

A literature enthusiast with an inclination towards Hindu philosophy, mythology and music.

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