Memories of my Sanskrit education


am slowly feeling the changes that are taking place in me due to living in the Dham. The main thing is a slow indifference to all things non-Vrindavan. I am quite far from that goal, but the lesson of the past couple of years has been just how far I am.

I think the lesson is humility. The best laid plans of mice and men, as it is said. I seem to have settled into a very nice place, sadhana wise, by virtue of being committed to an annual program, and moreover being committed to the Dham itself.

The best thing for me this year is that I have a class of 15 or more students to study Sanskrit. I have put a lot of energy into developing the course and it is very gratifying to have a small group of students who are willing to take this journey with me. It is very strange that this is really the first time that I have ever had a class of students like this, who are coming to learn something from me that is my own creation, in a sense, and to share my life's experience with Sanskrit.

I was talking about different methods of teaching Sanskrit the other day to my students and I kind of emphasized the original aspects of the course. It really represents my discovery of Sanskrit. I never really learned like Babaji did, i.e., by going through Hari-nāmāmr̥ta in a linear fashion.

As a matter of fact, my education has been anything but linear. Rather it has come about as a slow accumulation of discoveries. Sometimes in periods of greater or lesser intensity, sometimes with greater or lesser experiences of rasa. Most of the time in a state of deep awareness of just how small my knowledge. It is good for me to be in the company of Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji, who is just so far ahead in terms of immersion in the Sanskritic Gaudiya tradition as well as the wider field of traditional Sanskrit education.

When I first came to Rishikesh Swami Veda asked me to teach his Western students by the Western method. Well, my method is a "Western" method by virtue of the fact that it is English medium and because I learned Sanskrit as a foreign language. So that meant discovering it, bit by bit, like any other field of discovery.

It is all Prabhupada's inspiration of course, from the first time that I heard him quote Gita verses in his lectures. There was already a culture of learning verses when I joined Iskcon, but Prabhupada instituted the regular daily Bhagavatam changing of verses which is still part of Iskcon tradition.

Some Iskcon devotees can probably remember when that order was given. It must have been after the publication of the First Canto. I cannot, by the way, write these words without a sense of amazement at what Prabhupada's early disciples were able to accomplish, and so I bow down to them and roll in the Braja raja in memory of them, wherever they are today.

Anyway, I remember it because I started learning verses from the Bhagavatam at that time and also instigated serious attempts by others to learn the verses by heart also. Then in Dallas in the early, heady days of the Gurukula when we used to have Krishna book contests and Bhagavad Gita memorization contests. Imagine the whole school was desperately memorizing Gita verses so they could be the first to do all 700 verses. To my distress one of the girl students was way ahead of me.

I did finally memorize all the verses and recited them in one go in 1977 when we were in jail in Krishnanagar for three weeks. It was an interesting experience, there were eleven of us in our own private barrack where we stayed pretty much 24 hours a day. Luckily there were eleven of us and we got prasad and books whatever we wanted from Mayapur. So I spent my time just memorizing Gita and finishing what I always wanted to finish. Now of course I have forgotten everything other than a few important verses, and really even most of them are started to fade like incense smoke.

Then I taught Sanskrit in the Gurukulas because I was just a step ahead. I learned the alphabet by writing Krishna's names in the frosted windows of the Gerard Street temple. Then when Iskcon Press was trawling for candidates in getting trained up in Sanskrit I was sent to Brooklyn. That was 1972, not long after I had gotten married.

Brooklyn was not a particular big success for us as a young married couple since our arrival there coincided with the fatwa in Iskcon that married couples should not live together and have sex in the temple. It was not the way things were done in India said those who had seen the way the Gaudiya Math operated and Prabhupada agreed that householders should work outside and make money to support the temple. That went over like a lead balloon with all the devotees who were hippies and looking for a humane and joyful religious community. Anyway, the vibes changes big time in New York with that change.

My wife Sucharya had some background in education, though I don't think she ever got her B.Ed. Nevertheless, those were the days when the Gurukula was being set up in Dallas and they were looking for teachers.  Sucharya was not happy with the situation in New York and grabbed the chance. Then she told me they were looking for someone to teach Sanskrit. I still did not know much more than the alphabet at the time, but I was still a few steps ahead of the kids.

So when I got to Dallas I started first studying a bit more serioiusly. The girl who had been teaching gave me a copy of Antoine's book. Since I had a Roman Catholic education, I was a bit familiar with Latin and Antoine really follows the same procedure that I was familiar with from high school Latin.

Well we never got very far with the first students in terms of actually learning Sanskrit itself, but you see the problem, I did not really have a teacher. My approach now would be really polar opposite of Antoine. Sanskrit has a different psychology from Latin, though there are some common features. But compound words and the use of the passive voice and abundant use of participles are some characteristics of Sanskrit that need to be imprinted in the student from as early a point as possible. All those who follow one or another version of the Western approach, like Egenes, seem to superimpose European linguistic psychology on Sanskrit.

Anyway, the next step was coming to India. The Varnashram College experiment was a washout where I was concerned. Sankirtan hysteria resulted in the Varnashram College coming to a rather uncelebrated pause after Christmas 1974 and we all returned to Dallas to figure out what to do next. My morale was not high. My wife was pregnant with Madira and we started living together in a house near the Dallas temple.

The next wave that washed through Iskcon was the preparations for the temple in Vrindavan opening in 1975 and Prabhupada wanting as many foreign disciples as possible to be present, to make a big splash. So my students, the older boys, all wanted to go and their parents also wanted them to have the chance to do so. So I asked to be sent along so that I could supervise them.

I was very excited to go to India. I picked up a book for learning Bengali. At that time we had little idea of Bengali, which was not given quite the kind of status that Sanskrit was. At any rate, coming to India and starting to learn Bengali as a living language was a huge boost to my understanding and getting a feel for Sanskrit.

So we had some Sanskrit with the Mayapur Gurukula. Remembering back then, when we had classes in the grass hut at the entrance to temple, in front of where the new temple is being built. We would chant the akaranta Krishna shabdah. Don't know where I picked that up. I remember us chanting the verses from Haribhaktivilasa that tell you how many times you are to wash yourself after you pass stool. Those kids were in need of toilet training, let me tell you, and so I tried to dovetail learning Sanskrit with teaching them how to use a toilet.

This was mostly my Bengali learning period, but like I said, that was a big help in intuiting the meaning of words, which otherwise required puzzling over lists of possible translations in Monier Williams.

When I left Iskcon and started living in Nabadwip town itself, I entered a different realm of experience. Almost total immersion, since I was there with Madhusudan Dasji, and we still enjoyed certain privileges due to our white foreign skin, but they were minor compared to other kinds of prejudices. But whatever the case, it was a time when I really started to study the Goswamis shastras, like the plays of Rupa Goswami and Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu and Ujjvala-nilamani. I even undertook a course at the Government Sanskrit College, but did not get very far, though I had a good teacher.

While in Iskcon I also once tried to start studying Harinamamrita with Nikunja Bihari Das Brahmachari of the Devananand Gaudiya Math. He is a sannyasi now, but I don't know his name. A big friendly man. But I was a poor student, mostly because our communication was somewhat hampered by lack of knowledge of our mutual languages. All these things just mean that I am a slow learner and have a hard time adhering to any system that requires consistency of commitment.

So then I go back to Canada and end up getting a PhD in Sanskrit for going through the Gopala Champu and doing a bit of "experiencing" it, as it were, with whatever accumulated knowledge of Sanskrit poetics and theology, etc., to make some educated appraisal of it as a work of literature and so on.

But after that I don't think I made much progress, especially after Mystic Poetry was published. I was doing translations for Mandala and that gave me a bit of freedom to explore and do research. The Grantha Mandir started at this time. Also on-line discussion groups, which culminated for me with Gaudiya Discussions started around this same time.

GD was a sign that there was an interest in a more critical analysis of Gaudiya Vaishnava history, but at the same time an interest in other aspects of Vaishnavism, those that were closer to the authentic tradition as it exists in Bengal and India. So even though in actual fact I am an ignorant fool I shared what little I knew. But when there are clever people who are learning the same things that you know, it is clear that knowing facts is relatively irrelevant. Application is more difficult.

Well I won't go on too too much. When I got to Rishikesh, though, I started teaching Sanskrit again. So I really used verses a lot there also. The basic structure for the course was first conceived there. It is still a work in progress. But I am very happy to say that the group of students who have stuck it out through the first lesson and are still there give me faith that we are going to make good progress this year in entering into the world of Sanskrit, which I have been meddling with for nearly fifty years.

The so-called advanced course has less followers. In the beginning the beginners tagged along and some still do, but most found the going difficult and not helpful. So that is okay, though it gives me great pleasure when the verses in the Brihad Bhagavatamrita are already grammatically accessible to beginner students.

Anyway, the boon for me is that, according to the truism that in order to learn something one should teach it, and I am finally getting that opportunity. But that means doing a lot of work in developing the course materials.



Prem Prakash said…
What a great and inspiring post. Thank you, Jagatji.

These first person accounts are such an important part of history and the transmission of Bhakti. Thank you for sharing yourself so honestly.

There can never be any one historical document that describes the development of ISKCON because it is a tale of thousands of personal stories. Because you were involved is so many ways in the initial stages of the organization, it is valuable to have your recollection in print for the record. I wish more of the early devotees would share their stories with such candor.
Hema Chunilal said…
Thank you Acharyaji for sharing with us so honestly and with such humility your journey with
Sanskrit; and with Iskon. You might not be like other teachers like Babaji ; so linear
but in the few weeks I’ve been in your class ; you truly inspire me to continue my
Sanskrit learning and not give up . So thank you Acharyaji. I look forward to class and after reading your journey with
Sanskrit it’s obvious I need to be very patient as it’s going to be a very long long journey. I pray that I develop such love for Sanskrit as you have .
Jai Shri Radhe.

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