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How German scholars are preserving and promoting the Sanskrit language


The word Sanskrit comes from sáṃskṛta which translates as “refined” or “elaborated”. The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, with the language of the Rigveda being one the oldest. It is one of the 22 official languages in India, which also holds a great place in Nepal. In the past, even the core thoughts of Buddhism were in the Sanskrit language. So, to better understand the genesis of oriental philosophy, history, languages, sciences, and culture, it is essential to read the original Sanskrit texts as these are some of the earliest thoughts and discoveries. Such is the importance of the language that in Germany some of the top universities teach Sanskrit, where the majority of students come from the UK, Italy, the US and the rest of Europe. Unable to cope with the flood of applications from around the world, the South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, had to start a summer school in spoken Sanskrit in Switzerland, Italy and unbelievably in India too.

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The first German scholar of Sanskrit was Heinrich Roth (1620-1668) who mastered the Sanskrit language during his stay in India. Friedrich Von Schlegel (1772-1829) was another Indologist who got inspired to study Indian languages, literature and the systems of philosophy. This deep interest in India and its culture finally led to the foundation of the study of Indology and comparative linguistics in German universities. His brother, August Wilhelm Von Schlegel, in 1819, became the first Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Bonn and therefore, the founder of Indology in a German university.

Interestingly, Bhagavad Gita accompanied by a Latin translation done by Schlegel himself was the first Sanskrit book printed around 1820 in Europe. Another Indologist, Georg Forster (1754-1794) translated the famous 5th-century drama by Kalidasa Shakuntalam into German. Due to this translated drama, it triggered an interest in Germany to know and study the Indian culture and languages. Max Mueller (1823-1900) is amongst the renowned Indologists and possibly the most talented Sanskrit scholar of all times. He is credited with the German translation of the holy Hindu texts, the Rigveda. In his honor, Goethe Institutes in India are referred to as “Max Muller Bhavan”. Today, Indology is taught in 12 German universities and some of the faculties are over two centuries old.

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A medical student, Francesca Lunari says, she is interested in psychoanalysis and wants to know how human thoughts came from cultures, societies, and texts. Due to which she wants to learn Bangla, which is another Indian language which too has its roots in Sanskrit. Doing so, she could understand the original works of Girindra Sekhar Bose, who was an oriental psychiatry pioneer.

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The head of the University of Heidelberg’s modern South Asian languages and literature department, Dr. Hans Harder, said that Bangla, like Sanskrit, must be preserved or it could become endangered due to the onrush of English. He added that a good part of the global cultural heritage might become extinct if major Indian languages become affected by Indian English, which had become poorer based on his observation. He said Sanskrit is a living language, and there are still so many things to be discovered including the details of the civilization in the Indus Valley through Sanskrit.

This is an amazing act by the German scholars to not just study the history but also preserve it along the way and in fact, Globalize it. It should be an inspiration to us and also a wake-up call to too learn this ancient yet amazing language and unravel the mysteries of the past.

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