From December 13-17, 2015, I participated in an international workshop at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS) on the Edmond J. Safra campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The title of the workshop was "A Lasting Vision: Dandin’s Mirror in the World of Asian Letters". Here's the workshop website.
The workshop was about Sanskrit poetics, especially as detailed in the Kāvyādarśa (simplified transliteration: Kavyadarsha; Mirror of Poetry) of Daṇḍin (circa AD 7th c.), the earliest surviving systematic treatment of poetics in Sanskrit.
The participants were exceptionally learned, and included many of the best specialists in the world on Sanskrit poetics. I was impressed by their ability to recite Sanskrit, but what really astonished me was hearing Sanskrit spoken as though it were a living language. When Nagaraja Rao spoke extemporaneously and eloquently in Sanskrit, my jaw dropped. As I watched him putting together complex sentences, I could almost hear the brainwheels whirling in the background. It was a mind-boggling experience for me to hear Sanskrit spoken that way. I could only understand a small fraction of what was being said, but it was clear that the other participants (who were all Sanskrit scholars) could understood everything, or almost everything, that Nagaraja was saying.
The reasons why I was so astonished to hear Sanskrit being spoken this way were that I had always thought of it as long-dead, classical language and because, from having studied it for several years, I was intimately familiar with the extraordinary complexity of its grammar, which made me think that it was not suited for quotidian purposes.
In "Sanskrit resurgent " (8/13/14) I discussed the recent burgeoning interest in Sanskrit as a living language.
I concluded that post thus:
There's no danger of this ever happening with Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese), since it has not been a spoken language for two millennia, if ever.
Deeply curious to learn more about Sanskrit as a spoken language today, I asked several colleagues who are Indologists to describe it in more detail than I was able to glean from merely listening in. I am grateful to David Shulman, Whitney Cox, Frederick Smith, Shenghai Li, and Devin Patel for their responses, which I copy below.
Sanskrit scholars in India quite often speak Sanskrit among themselves; I have heard scholars from different parts of the country choose Sanskrit as the most efficient medium for them to communicate with one another (on the bus, in the street, and of course in academic settings). For a good Sanskrit scholar, Sanskrit is probably more useful and accessible in such meetings than English or Hindi. Spoken Sanskrit is, of course, a scholastic language, though there have been attempts in recent decades to generate new, modern words for various bits of modern life. There's a pretty good book, with conversations, published I think by the Kuppuswamy Sastri Institute in Chennai: there one finds discussions in Sanskrit about how to fix a flat tire on your bicycle, about going to political demonstrations, and other such contemporary topics. Sanskrit is very regularly the language of instruction if one is reading a classical text with a Sanskrit pandit.
Spoken Sanskrit uses the classical morphology (the verbal system perhaps somewhat reduced in its range), but its syntax often follows whatever spoken mother tongue the speaker uses. In this, however, it is continuous with medieval written Sanskrit which, despite what one reads in various primers and other works, is actually a left-branching language (like all other South Asian languages in the Dravidian and Indo-Iranian families), unlike Vedic, which is right-branching (like Greek, Latin, English, German, etc.). Also, medieval Sanskrit has the same profusion of modal and aspectual forms that we find in other South Asian languages, although these forms have largely gone unnoticed by scholars trained in the old Indo-European paradigms.
Whether this rich modality and aspectuality actually survive into spoken Sanskrit is a question worth examining empirically.
For a taste of this spoken scholastic Sanskrit, i recommend the set of lectures given by Prof. Arindam Chakrabarty (Univ. of Hawaii) in Tirupati– an introduction to Western philosophy for Sanskrit pundits in Tirupati. Some of these are available on YouTube. Arindam has also published the lectures as a book, in Sanskrit of course; you can read there very beautiful introductions to Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Kant. Arindam had to more or less invent an adequate vocabulary and style for these lectures; they were extremely popular in Tirupati, and well attended.
Despite all of the above, spoken Sanskrit is of course a very far cry from any of the mother tongues in terms of its expressive range. It's reminiscent of the way Latin was spoken until quite recently in Europe, among scholars.
Nagaraja Rao himself is the author of several novels in Sanskrit– they are wonderful to read. You can also hear the news in Sanskrit every morning on All-India Radio; it's called "Vaartaa," and tends to focus on the results of cricket matches.
For a fine essay on a modern play in Sanskrit, by Viswanatha Satyanarayana, the greatest of all the modern Telugu writers, there is Velcheru Narayana Rao's chapter in the volume called "Innovations and Turning Points: Toward a History of Kavya Literature" (edited by Yigal Bronner, Gary Tubb, and myself)– OUP Delhi, 2014.
I'm happy to pick up the thread of the conversation which we began over lunch in Jerusalem. There's been a great deal of discussion about Sanskrit as a spoken language, especially of the resuscitation of it in post-Independence India. A good point of reference here is the work of the anthropologist Adi Hastings at Iowa, but there's also more Indological discussion–including articles by Rich Salomon and Albrecht Wezler–on the longer historical trajectory (references here and here). There is also a very successful spoken Sanskrit course that has been run in the summer in Heidelberg for years now (here's the website).
As for your questions:
1. How often do Sanskrit scholars speak Sanskrit this way?
For classically-trained pandits, it is possible–indeed, in a way it is easier–to do Sanskrit teaching entirely through Sanskrit, rather than English or their vernacular. This is because Sanskrit provides such a robust set of meta-linguistic devices–e.g. techniques of analysis and glossing, extensive synonymy and hence substitutability–that it is often simpler to explain things intra-linguistically. The pedagogical method is similar to that of prose commentarial writing (regarding which I recommend Gary [Tubb] and Emery Boose's excellent book Scholastic Sanskrit); indeed, commentaries are in many cases probably the edited and heavily revised transcripts of viva voce teaching
2. Do they actually sometimes converse in Sanskrit among themselves?
Most definitely, and not only scholars: there is an international organization called Saṃskṛta Bhāratī that seeks to revive Sanskrit as a modern spoken language. I have had Indian-American students who have been taught in their programs turn up for classes at Chicago, only to come away disappointed that I wasn't teaching a Sanskrit-medium conversation course. As for scholarly or academic spoken Sanskrit, it is still very much alive as a social as well as a pedagogical medium.
I once heard a story (Yigal [Bronner] or Gary [Tubb] would likely remember the details) about the great 16th-century polymath Appayya Dikshita's wife, her ability to follow her husband's Sanskrit conversations and concomitant skill at making up for his occasional slips of the tongue. The story, of course, is likely not historically true, but it speaks to the wider domain of speaking competence that the language likely enjoyed in premodern times.
3. In what circumstances (e.g., academic workshops!) do they speak Sanskrit?
A funny anecdote: about ten years ago, I attended a conference at the University of Madras on paleography and textual criticism. It being an Indian university, the medium of presentation was almost entirely in English; however the conversations in the audience and during the chai breaks between papers was almost totally in Sanskrit. Also, the World Sanskrit Conference always includes one or two completely Sanskrit-medium sessions.
4. How does spoken Sanskrit differ from written Sanskrit? Are the differences substantial?
The Salomon and Wezler articles contain some interesting historical data on this question. For modern (non-pandit) speakers, the standard complaint from the Sanskrit-wallahs is that the language they speak is only sort-of/kind-of Sanskrit: things tend to be radically simplified, sandhi doesn't tend to be observed, only the participles are used for expressing past action, et cetera. To some skeptics, this makes it resemble an ultra-Sanskritized form of Hindi, instead of the thing itself. I honestly don't have too much invested in this debate–Sanskrit has always possessed a multitude of registers, from the straightforward to the baroquely complex. This is just one more aspect of that diversity. Of course, the proponents of modern spoken Sanskrit often hold political and socio-religious ideas with which I am in deep disagreement, but that's another matter.
H. V. Nagaraja Rao is one of the most versatile and literate Sanskrit pandits of the last half century. Practically no Sanskrit pandits speak as well as he does. Most of them do not resort to subtle or complex verb forms, but speak almost entirely in passive forms, with special emphasis on the past passive participle, for the simple reason that it’s an easy form in a complex language. It requires the agent to be in the instrumental, and the object to be the grammatical subject, thus in the nominative case. This is much easier than spinning out all sorts of complicated finite verbs. Much of the Sanskrit that I’ve heard spoken over the last 40+ years is either simplified in this and other ways, or just wrong. Often vocabulary is cut and pasted from Hindi or even Dravidian languages, modified with Sanskrit case endings. It’s definitely the case that Sanskrit is spoken in many situations among those so trained, including (a) classes at Sanskrit schools and universities; (b) formal debates among Sanskritists – usually pandits rather than scholars (although they do sometimes overlap), and generally in semi-religious contexts, such as debates between advocates of logic (nyāya, vaiśeṣika), Vedic exegesis (mīmāṃsā), and non-duality (Vedānta), or between adherents of various schools of Vedānta; or (c) within the context of Vedic sacrificial performances in which the priesthood consisting of individuals who have mastered different Vedic texts (Sāmaveda, Ṛgveda, Yajurveda) come from different parts of India. I have often been in the latter situation, where, for example, the Sāmaveda pandits come from Karnataka, the Ṛgvedins from Maharashtra, and the Yajurvedins from Andhra Pradesh or Tamilnadu. The only language they had in common was Sanskrit. I very much enjoyed those situations because what they discussed was crucial to what would happen in five minutes or the next day – it was not fixed or formal, nor was the quality of their Sanskrit evaluated by the others for its elegance – it was a real language of communication.
Sanskrit as a spoken language is still taught in Sanskrit colleges, such as the Maharaja’s Sanskrit College in Mysore, and a few places elsewhere. There has also been a rather soft movement to develop spoken Sanskrit by an organization in Bangalore called Samskrita Bharati, which has dedicated itself to the perpetuation of spoken Sanskrit across India and even among NRI’s (non-resident Indians) in the US, UK, and elsewhere. This is the highly simplified form of Sanskrit, and requires very little knowledge of grammar, and is conveniently taught to Indians because of a core vocabulary that’s familiar to them, and which they can then set into a few sentence paradigms (almost always in the passive). This is a rather stumbling movement, although this organization claims that they have taught everyone in one town (Mettur, in Shimoga district of Karnataka) to speak Sanskrit on a regular basis. I have visited this town and found that it’s a false claim. At best, some of the ordinary people can ask for a kilo of tomatoes or onions in Sanskrit. That’s about it.
I wrote the following in a blog entry and as a note to myself 8 years ago, so it doesn't take any effort for me to share it with you.
I went to learn Spoken Sanskrit because a teacher that I wanted to study with in India does not speak English. I can also attest that Spoken Sanskrit is used in classrooms in places such at Maharaja Sanskrit College in Mysore. Many of my teachers could use it to teach when I requested them to. I must say that I could only understand lectures on Buddhist contents well if I prepared beforehand; I am not good with general speech or classes not dealing with Buddhist subjects.
I came to Ak.saram, the Bangalore branch of Samskrita Bharati.
I was there for a month, attended three different kinds of classes and a shibiram (a kind of intensive Sanskrit camp), and I also benefitted from the interaction with the volunteers, all of whom converse in Sanskrit. I was told that the daily one-on-one class that I was given is what Ak.saram would offer to all Sanskrit learners who come to Ak.saram and ask for it. During this class the instructor and I went through the first of the four levels of a correspondence course (each level consists of about 12 booklets) which the organization has developed. While the grammatical aspects were not new to me at all, the materials (at least what we covered) did contain a very substantial Spoken component. Also helpful were the discussions I had with my instructor on saralasa.msk.rtam, or simple Sanskrit, which the organization promotes. At this point I am not completely clear about the position of Samskrita Bharati in relation to other elements of the Spoken Sanskrit movement, but I get the sense that it is a major force, if not the major force, with nation-wide influence. Nor am I clear as to what other varieties of Spoken Sanskrit there are, although from my limited experience elsewhere I get the sense that something akin to the kind of simple Sanskrit which Samskrita Bharati promotes is used by other Sanskrit speaking people as well. I will have more to say about simple Sanskrit below.
One week after my arrival, a month-long beginning Spoken Sanskrit course for school children also started, which I attended for about two weeks. The grammatical part again moved very slowly and repetitively, but the class was conducted in Sanskrit, which certainly helped. I also sat in on the last class of a 2nd level weekend course. There a volunteer came and spoke to the students. At that point I only got the sense of what the talk was about, but a fellow in the class told me that average students understood 70-80% of the talk. This really persuaded me to persist in the kids' class. The other thing which spontaneously happened was a class given by a young man. He was perhaps a little less than 20, and was brought up speaking Sanskrit as his mother tongue. The class was requested by a group of MA Sanskrit students who were trying to pass their exams, and it dealt with philosophical and literary texts. The class gave me a chance to get exposed to a kind of learned oral Sanskrit commentary. But it stopped after about 10 days. While in Bangalore I also visited a Sanskrit school in the city and a Sanskrit gurukula in the suburb, both of which however were not in session till the beginning of June. I knew there was much more I could explore. I feel that Sanskrit is strong in Karnataka (there is also a Sanskrit village in the state), and given that the state is also a stronghold for Tibetan learning, I wondered if there was any attempt to link the two kinds of resources together.
The best thing I had in Bangalore, however, was a 6-day shibiram which Ak.saram offered toward the end of my stay. This was a sheer coincidence because it was planned to take place elsewhere, but the other venue suddenly had problems with its water supply, and the event had to be moved to Bangalore. During those six days (there are also 10 day ones, and "you can speak Sanskrit in 10 days" is Samskrita Bharati's slogan), everyone in attendance was supposed to speak Sanskrit only, and of course the day-long classes were all in Sanskrit. The shibiram simply moved my Spoken Sanskrit to the next level. What I particularly liked were the talks given by many guest speakers. I am of course not saying that I understood that much, and I feel that my fellow students always understood more than I did, and in my mind this simply has to do with the fact that their native languages are filled with Sanskrit words, and simple Sanskrit might particularly favor that shared vocabulary. I was encouraged by the fact that I understood better the talks which were more scholastic. During some talks I felt I might have understood as much of 50% and I had a good sense of what was being said. So if you are a Sanskrit student who likes to learn the spoken language, I would certainly recommend that you go to Ak.saram (by the way, Bangalore is where Samskrita Bharati started). I also had a good experience with Samskrita Bharati people from Delhi and Chennai, but those two places are hot in the summer). You should communicate clearly that you want to have the one-on-one class, and by all means schedule your visit so that you can attend one of the shibirams, and besides these two hopefully you will stumble upon something else by accident. There is a three-week Sanskrit course planned for this coming July-August which is specifically designed for English speakers. But having had years of Sanskrit, doing the shibiram with Kanada speaking people worked fine for me. In the shibiram that I attended, there were three levels – beginning, advanced, teacher-training. I was recommended to attend the second one since I had spent some time there before the shibiram started.
The next thing I want to write about is saralasa.mskrita, this is the part you want to skip if Sanskrit or Spoken Sanskrit is not your thing. Why learn Spoken Sanskrit? Perhaps the teacher you want to study with happens to share no other language with you. Or that you want to tap into the resources of Sanskrit panditas who didn't bother to learn English. And if you don't know any other Indian language, this is the chance to experience India through one of its own languages, or rather its best.
A disclaimer: I haven't checked the spellings of Sanskrit words used below.
[VHM: The content of the next two long paragraphs is mainly for those who are actively engaged in learning Sanskrit.]
There is a whole philosophy, and a whole strategy, of Samskrita Bharati that you will learn only by being there and going through their materials. Samskrita Bharati distinguishes between saralasa.msk.rta, or simple Sanskrit, and saraliik.rtasa.msk.rta, or simplified Sanskrit. Simplified Sanskrit implies changing grammar, e.g., it allows for forms like pitusya ("father's" instead of pitu.h), and this is what Samskrita Bharati opposes. Simple Sanskrit functions within the bounds of Paninian grammar and recommends the use of simple words, e.g., janaka as apposed to pit.r (father) if the vibhakti forms of the latter are too complicated (although I have heard at least the 1st case pitaa used). And simple Sanskrit is supposed to be a means and not the end. Simple Sanskrit occurs both in the substantive and verbal forms. In both cases, the dual forms are not recommended, the simple form encouraged instead is dvayam (a pair), which allows the use of singular in both the substantive and verbal forms concerned, e.g., gurudvayam gacchati. In the substantives, the form ta.h (tas) is recommended to take the place of fifth vibhakti-s (in all numbers). There is also talk of using k.rte (and artham, according to my observation) to replace fourth case forms, although this seems to be applicable to only limited uses of the fourth case.
I have said that dual forms of the verb are not recommended (the other explanation I heard is that Siddhaantakaumudii (818) provides for the use of plural forms in place of dual ones in phrases like puna.h milama ("let's meet again") when there are only two persons involved in the conversation). The second person forms also tend to be avoided through the use of the respectful address bhavat and bhavatii, which requires 3rd person verbal forms. (I have heard mothers using 3rd person verbal forms to their babies, which implies the use of respectful address bhavaan or bhavatii). In terms of tenses and moods, in the present tense the present indicative (la.t, e.g., bhavati) is of course used. In the past tense, perfect (li.t) and aorist (lu.ng) are certainly avoided, because li.t is distant past, and lu.ng is simply too complicated (and perfect as well for that matter ). Even the simple past (la.ng, e.g., agacchat) is not recommended. The explanation I was given is that it makes the speaker feel that it is negative because it begins with the augment "a." However, the confusion–if it is a confusion at all–rather appears to me to be a psychological one than a theoretical one. The past form really recommended is the k.rt pratyaya, or what is called past active participle, tavat (e.g., khaaditavaan in 1st person, singular, masculine). The simple past forms of the verb to be (as (e.g., asiit) and bhuu (e.g. abhavat)) are nevertheless used. Of course, the paraphrastic future forms are not recommended, the l.r.t forms like bhavi.syati are used. Two more forms are in common usage. One is imperative (lo.t, e.g., gacchatu) (I have elsewhere heard that the passive aatmanepadin form is recommended because only the third person singular form is needed, but I have heard this only once–diiyataam (used by a respectable man from Delhi)–at Ak.saram, the more common forms I've heard there were the active ones, e.g., dadatu). The other form that is used to some extent in my experience is the optative (vidhi li.ng, e.g., bhaveyu.h).
In terms of vocabulary, effort is made to use only a particular sense (out of many) of a certain word. The other recommendation is to use the vocabulary which is in common with the vernacular languages. This, for me, is what makes simple Sanskrit so easy to learn for Indians. I also get the sense that usually only one (or a very limited number) out of a large number of synonyms that mean the same thing is used. This was confirmed by my instructor in our conversation.
All in all, I feel I got as much as I could have gotten in one month at Ak.saram (I also spent perhaps 7 to 10 days on my project proposal). The volunteers at Ak.saram were friendly and helpful. And it is certainly an honor for any Sanskrit lover to be with people who are so dedicated to the cause of Sanskrit — many of them are full-time or even life-long volunteers who only get their basic expenses covered but nothing else materially.
I asked my colleague, Deven Patel (who was also at the IIAS workshop) about a certain aspect of Sanskrit that, in its spoken form, is regularly omitted. One of the conference participants, Thibaut d'Hubert, had told me about it, but I couldn't remember the name for it, other than that I thought it began with an "s". Deven replied:
Perhaps Thibaut was referring to "sandhi" (the euphonic coalescence of sounds) which is often left out in Spoken Sanskrit (or "sambhaashana-samskritam"). Even the pandits often undo sandhi in spoken Sanskrit. Another feature often left out is the dual forms in spoken Sanskrit. Questions are often uniformly asked with the "vaa na vaa" construction at the end of a sentence. "vaa na vaa" literally means "or, not or" but holds the general interrogative sense in modern forms of spoken Sanskrit. The pandits won't do this.
I should mention that Deven can communicate in spoken Sanskrit and, when he used to teach introductory Sanskrit, he would include a spoken component as well.
So far as I understand the relationship between them, "spoken Sanskrit" is not the same thing as "simple Sanskrit". The two concepts, though obviously related, are not coterminous. "Simple Sanskrit" is a transitional, simplified form of Sanskrit that may be used during the initial stages of learning the language. It does not require learning all of the paradigms of the classical language and may be used as a bridge from the modern vernaculars to Classical Sanskrit. "Spoken Sanskrit" may either be of the "simple" type or the "classical" type (with or without certain adjustments). In any event, that is how I understand the relationship between "simple" and "spoken" Sanskrit, but I am willing to stand corrected.
A final word: witnessing the free exchange of Sanskrit in the meeting hall at IIAS was one of the privileges of a lifetime. At times I felt as though I was in a roomful of living computers. I used to feel that way in the presence of my old colleagues, Ludo Rocher and George Cardona, but it has been a while since those early days when I became a member of the Oriental Studies Department at Penn. It was good to hear Sanskrit spring to life again, and in a most formidable fashion.
sāṃskr̥tabhāṣā ciraṃ jīvatu!
saṃskṛtaṃ ciraṃ jīvet
"Love live Sanskrit" would be something like ākalpaṃ saṃskṛtaṃ jīvatu (अाकल्पं संस्कृतं जीवतु). The ākalpam ("until the end of the eon") is not strictly necessary, but I think appropriate given the sentiment. [From Whitney Cox]
[Thanks to Lawrence McCrea and Luther Obrock]