The Bastion of Sanskrit
Dozens of traditional schools continue Varanasi’s long-held position of eminence in the language
KASHI RETAINS ITS ANCIENT FAME AS A center of learning. According to Jitendrananda Saraswati, the city has seven universities, 40 degree-granting colleges and 1,600 Sanskrit vidyalayas (traditional schools and colleges).
Banaras Hindu University is one of the largest universities in all of Asia, with 35,000 students, 5,000 teachers and a 1,300-acre main campus housing more than 140 departments. Sadly, despite its name, BHU does not promote Hinduism, and it has only a few departments directly concerned with anything Hindu. The Sanskrit and related departments have 1,200 students, according to Dr. Chandramauli Upadhyaya, head of the Department of Astrology. Courses include Vedas, grammar, literature, law and philosophy. His department has 32 students studying for a doctorate in astrology. The only other course offerings on Hindu subjects are introductory elective classes.
The largest of the Kashi schools dedicated to Sanskrit is the government-funded Sampurnanand Sanskrit Vishwavidyalaya, or Government Sanskrit University, which traces its origins to the Sanskrit College founded here in 1791 under the British East India Company. It has more than 2,000 students, 112 faculty, 22 undergraduate departments, 40 post graduate departments, 20 research centers and a library with 200,000 books, all on a campus of 67 acres. It runs on an annual budget of four million dollars. It is affiliated with more than 1,200 colleges and universities in India, meaning that it sanctions the degrees issued by each of them.
The university’s website (ssvv.ac.in) states: “Sampurnanand is a seat of traditional/Oriental learning. Its sole purpose is to preserve and enrich Shastras and produce specialized scholars in each and every discipline relating to classic texts.” Their course list includes the Vedas, Sanskrit and Pali languages, astrology, Dharma Shastras, philosophy (including Buddhist and Jain), history, economics, political science, linguistics and English. The university—and all the Sanskrit schools in Varanasi—engage a mix of traditional and modern teaching methods and subjects.
Dr. Devi Prasad, eminent professor of Sanskrit at Sanskrit University, told Hinduism Today, “Society is not attaching due importance to the study of Sanskrit, nor are its teachers accorded the kind of reverence and honor that was there for them in the past.”
Sthaneshwar Timalsina, a graduate of the Sanskrit University and now professor of religious studies at San Diego State University, California, expressed similar concerns: “Sanskrit has been turned to a subject of lip-service for short-term political gain by politicians across parties who consider the language merely as something needed to maintain priestly rituals. They do not recognize that it carries a philosophy able to give the world a new direction.”
Dr. Upadhyaya reported that 80 percent of Varanasi’s vidyalayas are on the verge of closure due to a steep reduction in government aid since the 1990s. Only those run by religious institutions or are otherwise independently supported continue to do well. Most have dozens to a few hundred students.
Unique among the vidyalayas is Shri Jigyasu Smarak Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya, which admits only girls. It was founded in 1971, at a time when society was not much in favor of women studying the Vedas. But over time, that attitude is changing. Hundreds of this school’s highly qualified graduates, women scholars and priests, are spread all over the world. In many parts of India they are running educational institutions and gurukulams, imparting Sanskrit education, teaching scriptures and priesthood to women. In some places they work shoulder to shoulder with male counterparts, who initially resisted their participation.
The school accepts members of any caste, putting them through a rigorous routine of study, including basic martial arts, which is meant to give the girls self-confidence. Detractors have diminished over the years as the girls have proven their scholastic acumen and ritual skill, always executed with devotion. The school runs on donations, with just token fees for the students, which number about 100.
According to Acharya Nandita Shastri, they have ambitious plans to build a modern, multistory international hostel on the Panini campus where girls from all over India and the world will be able to live and study.
Another small but respected school here is Dharam Sangh Shiksha Mandal, which was established by the revered saint Swami Karpatri (1907-1982). He specified that the school not be dependent on government money, which he felt would bring with it the government’s agenda. The school’s current head, Dr. Jagjeetan Pandey, said they now have one hundred students. Pupils start between age 8 and 11. The mandal teaches up to postgraduate level, but does not issue degrees, which the founder feared would lead to government interference. The education, room and board are entirely free for the students. Subjects include Vedas, grammar, literature, justice and more.
Sampurnanand: The bain building of Government Sanskrit University’s campus in Varanasi, largest of all Sanskrit schools
Pandey shared, “We believe in Sanatana Dharma and the concept of reincarnation. Lord Krishna sends some people into this world who are here to serve the Vedas and our other ancient texts, and do not pursue a degree in business or engineering. What is required by them can only be delivered through our traditional educational systems.”
Many of Kashi’s various institutions run a vidyalaya. Annapurna Temple started a school in 1916 that accommodates 250 students. They have trained hundreds of priests. Gyan Prakash, primarily concerned with preserving the traditional arts and crafts of Varanasi, runs a free three-year school for priests, ten students per year, alongside their secular education. Graduates are able to earn seven thousand rupees ($111) a month upon graduation. That’s $1,332/year for someone just entering the workforce, which compares favorably with India’s average yearly salary of $1,570.
The Vira Saiva Jangamwadi Math’s 50-student gurukulam imparts 12 years of instruction. Graduates go on to be priests in Vira Saiva temples. The Math, founded in the 6th century, is one of the sect’s five main teaching centers.
Sri Math, located at Panch Ganga Ghat, is a Vaishnava monastery in the lineage of the 14th century saint, Ramananda. It runs a gurukulam for 40 children and provides lodging for pupils studying at Varanasi’s major educational institutions. All told, Varanasi remains the grand center of education it has been for untold centuries.
Sanskrit Learning All Around
ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN MISHRA
Students of the gurukulam at Jangamwadi Mutt, a Vira Saivite institution; close up of pranayama part of chanting practice; Acharya Nandita Shastri of Shri Jigyasu Smarak Panini Kanya Mahavidyalaya lectures at the all-girls school; Panini’s martial arts program is intended to instill self-confidence in the girls.