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Monday, 5 August, 2002, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Sanskrit struggles to survive
Girls at a school in India
Students say Sanskrit offers no job prospects

One of the oldest languages in the world, Sanskrit, is in danger of becoming extinct in India, the country of its origin.

Although most Indian languages still use the basic grammar of Sanskrit, no more than a few thousand people in a country of more than one billion can claim to read, write and speak it fluently.

What was once the language of the elite in ancient India, Sanskrit no longer enjoys the exalted status it once had.

Poor job prospects

In Bombay's Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, one of the city's oldest and biggest education institutions. students recite Sanskrit shlokas.


We, at our own level, want to be refined, to be cultured, to be a better person and this is here, we need Sanskrit

Sanskrit scholar Girish Jani
Only 150 students come here to learn this ancient language - a very small number if you compare it with the tens of thousands of students who go out every day to the city's schools and colleges.

So why are so few students coming to learn Sanskrit?

The school's principal, Narendra Kumar Singh says there are very few jobs for anyone studying Sanskrit.

A Hindu priest
Some get jobs as priests
"At most, they can become a teacher in Sanskrit schools, Sanskrit colleges so their salaries are also very meagre."

"The other opportunity for them is to perform [religious] rituals for some rich people," he added.

Lacking relevance?

The other reason why Sanskrit is losing out is because it was never really the language of the masses.

It was the language of the elite used for correspondence amongst royalty and for composing classic prose and poetry.

There are some who opt for Sanskrit because it is regarded as a subject in which one can get high grades and can help improve one's overall grades.

But most students learn the language to know about the past.

Indian students
Some study Sanskrit to improve their grades
There is a school of thought which believes that teaching and learning Sanskrit is a complete waste of time and resources, especially as most Sanskrit colleges are publicly funded.

Critics of Sanskrit say government-funded colleges should be preparing students for the real world and offer only vocational and employment-oriented courses.

However, Sanskrit scholars like Girish Jani rubbish this approach.

"Why should we read Shakespeare? Why should we read Sartre? Are they connected really with the life in the first attempt? No.

"We, at our own level, want to be refined, to be cultured, to be a better person and this is here, we need Sanskrit."

Scholars like Mr Jani do have a point and there is logic in their argument about Sanskrit being a language of cultural refinement,

But the sad reality is that Sanskrit is fighting a losing battle in the country of its origin.

See also:

02 May 02 | Country profiles
08 May 02 | South Asia
19 Feb 02 | Boston 2002
10 May 01 | South Asia
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