There is an incredible number of synonyms for the word ‘elephant’ in Sanskrit.
That single word, says Melbourne yoga teacher and Sanskrit student Shyamala Benakovic, changes depending on context: it could mean ‘mad elephant’, ‘elephant charging’, ‘trumpeting elephant’ or ‘how did the elephant die’.
A single seed word can generate a family of words running into hundreds, just by the addition of prefixes and suffixes. There are over 30 words for agni, or fire, for example.
Little wonder, then, that the word Sanskrit means ‘adorned’, ‘cultivated’ and ‘purified’.
Belonging to the Indo-Aryan group, this 4000-year-old classical language is the mother tongue of India’s greatest epics from the Ramayana to the Mahabharata, the language of classical Indian art, music, dance and religion, and key to India’s intellectual heritage from philosophy to astronomy, science and medicine.
Shyamala, chief executive of Yoga Australia, was exposed to the language through childhood prayer sessions at home in Malaysia featuring Vedic Sanskrit, the pre-classical form of the language and the liturgical language of the Vedic religion.
“You learned it from following and rote learning but there was no writing of the alphabet or understanding the meaning behind it,” says Shyamala, who spoke Tamil at home to her parents as well as English and Malay.
“You just learned it and chanted it in prayers. It was very melodic.”
In 2007, keen to get a deeper understanding of the history and philosophical roots of yoga, she enrolled in an advanced diploma in yoga teacher training which exposed her to basic Sanskrit terms.
It felt like a cultural homecoming, a return to her roots, she says, sparking a further desire to learn more of the beautiful, complex words she recalled from childhood.
It was hard, however, to find a Sanskrit teacher unless she went to India.
When she learnt that Sanskrit was being offered as an online course at the Australian National University, she jumped at the chance.
Now in her second semester, she’s found it a rewarding experience.
Shyamala wanted to be able to read the great classics of Indian literature in their original language - not just the sacred tomes such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana or the yogic texts like the Bhaghavad Gita and Patanjali Yoga Sutras but the works of the so-called Indian Shakespeare, Kalidasa, the Sanskrit poet and dramatist who flourished in the 5th century CE.
Taught by Sanskrit scholar Dr McComas Taylor, the ANU course is academically rigorous but student-focused with songs, role-playing and games. The first year is devoted to the study of grammar, chanting and singing, introductory spoken Sanskrit, and easy prose texts. Content delivery is via an electronic textbook, The Joy of Sanskrit.
In the second and third years, they are introduced to extracts from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, Kalidasa, Vedic and Buddhist texts.
“If you’re based in Canberra, you can attend classes and also do summer schools.
“But the online environment is done very well. You have to attend a live lecture or live session once a week at least, with weekly work. You are assessed in the spoken language as well as the written language and the translation of Sanskrit to English and English to Sanskrit.”
The student body is diverse. “It’s very global, actually. There are a few yoga teachers but it is mainly language students. You might get people from Russia or Cambodia learning the language, or historians who are looking at the language because its roots are Indo-European. “
The key challenges? The incredible complexity of the language. The phonics of Sanskrit, for example, consists of 48 sounds.
“And a lot of the sounds don’t exist in English. Although I was a Tamil speaker, Sanskrit is very different. I think the pronunciation is the biggest challenge – it’s all about where you place your tongue in your mouth… it doesn’t come naturally.”
She’s pleased with her progress, however: she’s mastered simple words and structures. “And then there’s the conversational side – ‘hi, how are you, where do you study, what do you, colours, what are you wearing’.”
She’s seeing the benefits in her yoga practice as well. “It certainly helps in terms of pronunciation of the Sanskrit terms, what it means, so you’re clearer when you’re delivering a class.”
She loves the fact that it is treated as a living language, not as a language of dusty textbooks and research.
“It’s done as language-based course, rather than as further studies to yoga or Vedic chanting. It includes all that, but they’ve done that in a nice way as if Sanskrit is still a spoken, living language which is lovely.”
Although spoken by less than 1 per cent of India’s 1.25 billion population, Sanskrit is enjoying a revival, incidentally - not just in India but worldwide.
As English philologist Sir William Jones wrote in 1786, “the Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.”
Little surprise: it is a language lover’s paradise, she says. The root of many Indian languages, it has intrinsically shaped how we communicate today. So much of English, for example, owes a derivative debt to Sanskrit: think of words as diverse as three, calendar, nose, navigation, mother, father, cow, serpent, no and many others.
“It wasn’t until I did this course that I started to understand how and where else this language is being used.”
ANU offers 16 Asian and Pacific languages that give students the skills and knowledge to succeed in the Asian Century. Nine of these languages – Burmese, Hindi, Mongolian, Sanskrit, Tetum, Thai, Tibetan, Tok Pisin and Vietnamese – can be studied entirely online via Open Universities Australia. Enrol now to start studying in 2020: open.edu.au/online-courses/australian-national-university