A Scholar of an Original Language
Kajalie Shehreen Islam
In a world where education has become more and more job-oriented, the popularity of a classical language like Sanskrit may seem to be dwindling. But the importance of this language from which our own mother tongue Bangla has evolved cannot be underplayed, according to Dr. Narayan Chandra Biswas, a scholar who has recently been awarded the highest honour for his contribution to keeping Sanskrit alive.
Dr. Narayan Chandra Biswas
The phone call came as a surprise to Dr. Narayan Chandra Biswas, professor of Sanskrit at the University of Dhaka. He had never worked with or been in touch with the Purbanchal Academy of Oriental Studies. But, seeing his years of work, they, in association with the Ministry of Human Resources Development, Government of India, recently awarded him the Lifetime Achievement Award -- Vidyalankara -- for his outstanding achievement and contribution to the field of Sanskrit education. Chanting mantras, they draped him in a shawl and presented him with a fruit-laden brass kula bearing the prestigious certificate honouring his work.
Narayan Chandra Biswas grew up in his hometown in Ramdia in Kashiani thana, Gopalganj, where he completed school and college. His interest in Sanskrit grew from his courses there. In 1967, he started his Honours degree in the subject at Dhaka University and completed his Masters in 1973, soon after which he joined as a faculty of the department. Biswas's main interest has always been in Sanskrit drama and Vedic literature and he later did his PhD. from Pune University in “Intrigue in Sanskrit Drama”.
“Sanskrit is not as popular a subject as it used to be, simply because its market value is so low,” says Biswas. “Even history and philosophy used to be more popular before,” he says, “when there weren't all these subjects like journalism, etc. But now, one has to think about what they will do once they pass out of university. But we still get many students, with around 70 enrolling every year.”
Having a background in Sanskrit is an advantage but not a prerequisite when getting admitted into the Sanskrit department at Dhaka University. A degree from the Bangladesh Sanskrit and Pali Education Board is a major plus point, but students having studied Hindu religion or even those with good grades in Bangla are also accepted.
Many Sanskrit graduates go into government service. Others teach their subject at government and non-government colleges. Some teach Hindu religion at schools around the country.
“Sanskrit is a literature,” says Biswas. Accordingly, the curriculum at the university includes grammar, poetry, Vedic and Puranic literature, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Indian philosophy, and integrated Bangla and English courses.
The decline in the apparent importance of Sanskrit is obvious, says Biswas. “When Dhaka University was established in 1921, the subject was called 'Sanskrit, Sanskritic Studies and Bengali'. Then it became 'Bengali and Sanskrit', followed by the separation of the two departments in 1937. Around the time of our Liberation, it became the department of 'Sanskrit and Pali' and, this year, these two also separated to make it, currently, the Department of Sanskrit."
But, our language being rooted in it, Sanskrit remains a vital subject of study, no matter how the branches of knowledge may grow, stresses Biswas. “Many subjects such as law and philosophy are rooted in Sanskrit. Bangla grammar and rhetoric are heavily dependent on it.”
“I refuse to call Sanskrit a 'dead language',” says the scholar, “for it is still very much alive.” Even for technical words in science, like 'physics', 'chemistry', 'psychology', 'microscope' and 'telescope', the Bangla words are derived from Sanskrit. “Fifty percent of the Bangla language is directly derived from Sanskrit, and 70 percent with some modifications.”
“It is very important as a research subject,” emphasises Dr. Biswas, “especially for scholars of Bangla.” It makes things a lot easier to understand, he says, and one does not have to depend on translation, which is not always perfect anyway. “Knowledge of Sanskrit is also necessary to learn about ancient society, for most of the literature is in Sanskrit, and literature is the greatest document of any time.”
Sanskrit is currently taught at Dhaka, Chittagong and Rajshahi Universities and at some government and private colleges at the HSC and BA level and at BM College in Barisal at the MA level. However, Dr. Biswas thinks that Sanskrit should be made a compulsory classic language at the school and college levels. “It is studied at many European and American colleges,” he says. “It was also dying in India, but the Indians eventually realised the importance of the subject and began to revive it by creating research funds.”
Similar funds can be set up in our own country, says Biswas, to encourage students and to provide job security. He is, however, sceptical. “Our basic education system is flawed,” says the professor, “expecting measures to be taken to revive Sanskrit seems a lot to ask for. Only a government with foresight will take it up.”
“People keep coming back to Sanskrit,” says Biswas, “whether to learn the roots, meanings or correct spellings of words, or about ancient rituals, the Hindu religion, pujas, gods and goddesses. One cannot study grammar without referring to Panini's Astadhyayi, the main Sanskrit grammar book.”
The Bangla word for 'convocation', shamabarton comes from Sanskrit, says Biswas. It means, to return home, after years of learning and gaining knowledge, far away from home in the forest. This is also when the teacher addresses his pupils (convocation address) and the latter are metaphorically “bathed” in knowledge -- snatok from the word snaan.
But there is no end to gaining knowledge, believes Biswas. After writing, editing and translating a few books on Sanskrit and poetry, the scholar knows that there is still much work to be done. Though languor often gets in the way of work, he has many plans for the future. “There are many books that need to be translated, much research and writing that have to be done,” he says.
“Svadhyayanma pramadah,” quotes Biswas from the Taittiriya Upanishad -- “learning is a continuous process; it has no end.”
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