Arguably the most influential and important language of South and Southeast Asia, Sanskrit has been hailed by many people, including kings and historians, as the ‘language of the Gods’, and ‘the mother of all languages.’ Like the Ganges River, Sanskrit has flowed across India for time immemorial, and has been one of the vital cores forming the basis of South Asian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. It has a vast amount of literature and carries a large group of works on spirituality, poetry, metaphysics, drama, mythology, and philosophy. At its peak, Sanskrit existed as a means of daily communication between people of several kingdoms in the Indian subcontinent. Yet today, the ancient language is merely a shell of its former self. It is a dying language, and has experienced a gradual loss of speakers over the past few centuries. And the problem doesn’t just lie with people in India failing to take up and learn the language; many Indians living abroad too are completely unaware of what the language has to offer. As Indo-Americans, we often cease to realize the true importance and value of this matr-bhāshā (and even our own respective mother tongues), the very language that once united the entire Indian subcontinent for several millennia.
We are symptomatic of the biggest problem facing the global Anglo-Indian community: tradition is slowly dying out. In the United States, a growing number of Indo-American youth are labeled as being “Americanized,” as they assimilate entirely into the western culture at the expense of their original ethnic roots. And so there is definitely a loss of “Indian–ness” occurring in them. This inversely proportional correlation between passing generations and cultural maintenance essentially causes a cultural dilution, with the result being that the youth tend to lose important ties to family and other community members. More importantly, their perception of the value of their culture and heritage certainly diminishes. Hence it becomes all the more vital for them to stay connected with their roots. And what better way to do that than by learning Sanskrit?
Sanskrit is a soul-sustaining power. Studying Sanskrit as an Indo-American youth brings a sense of spirituality and essentially grounds one to his/her core values and beliefs. India is a melting pot of cultures and languages, with spirituality as its backbone. And so the effects of an Indo-American youth taking up the initiative to learn Sanskrit can be huge. This chiefly inculcates a feeling of cultural efficacy — the belief that one has an important role in the development or revival of a culture — in the youth. Thus, Sanskrit strengthens the traditional roots of Indo-American youth, and in turn, almost always ensures that many of these roots will be passed on to future generations.
For those of us who are looking into furthering our knowledge base of Sanskrit, opportunities abound at institutions of higher studies in the United States. The increasing availability of Sanskrit and Sanskrit-related courses, coupled with the opportunity to major in the language, serves to augment growth and learning in Indo-American students.
During times of personal challenge, Sanskrit is a particularly beneficial factor. By referring back to the dharmic principles (as laid out extensively in the Bhagavad Gita by Lord Krishna), we, the Indo-American youth, learn to continue treading the path of virtue, courage, and wisdom, and are often able to maneuver our way through these obstacles. The simplest illustration of this is in cases of peer pressure. It is during times like these where we “return to the fundamentals” of our dharma and travel down the path we know is right.
We are away from our motherland. Here in the United States, where Indo-American children are growing up, cultural learning doesn’t usually happen through diffusion and osmosis as it does back home in India. Through the learning of Sanskrit, we the youth inculcate all these roots of our ancient and rich heritage, blended with words of wisdom that have been passed on through generations.
Sanskrit has the capacity to illuminate not only ourselves, but also others around us. It has stood strong as the thick roots to the large tree of Indian culture and tradition, and yet it is often ignored. But through my studies, I can see the language still has so much to offer to modern society: so many stories, so many lessons, such a richness of color and culture. It is as Indian as it gets, and is a source of pride for us Indo-American youth to learn this language that was once spoken by the Gods themselves. Going forward, the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the younger generation to carry the baton, spread awareness of, and inspire fellow Indo-American youth to take up and revive this language of the gods for all the merits that it renders and the greatness that it upholds.