Years ago, my house was filled with the cries of, “Aham Bidaal, Aham Bidaal!” The Irish accent made it undecipherable to us. On questioning I understood that my 6-year-old nephew was chanting, ‘I am a Cat’ in Sanskrit! That was an eyeopener. My Irish nephew was displaying an ease with the language that was intriguing. He explained the reason. The credit went to his Sanskrit Teacher, Rutger Kortonhorst. That story stayed in my mind. I got a chance to refresh it when Kortonhorst was visiting India with a group of Irish children. They were at Maitreyai Gurukaulam and CSP got a chance to interview the man who is committed to Sanskrit and has made it is his life’s mission- Sankalpa to teach it to the Irish children.
Please tell us something about your childhood and education?
I didn’t know anything about Sanskrit till I was 20. After finishing my regular school in Holland, I came to Ireland at the age of 17 on my own and I finished my final exam of school. A few years later I joined university and I still didn’t know anything about Sanskrit.
How did you get interested in Sanskrit?
I was looking for some spiritual direction and that’s when it started. I went to the School of Philosophy – A Worldwide Organisation. They teach Advaita Vedanta. It was their practical philosophy that attracted me, and I loved it. I got interested in Vedic Mathematics. To learn it I had to read Sutras which were in Sanskrit! So, mathematics got me started on Sanskrit and very quickly I learnt Devanagari script. I joined a grammar group (Vyakarana) in the School of Philosophy. I was very young, and the group was of very old people, so I had to set the room and do the chores. But I learnt quickly and very soon I was teaching them!
But now in India I am a student again, hardly ever a teacher.
What brought you to India?
In 2005 I came to India to learn Sanskrit because I felt that English teachers taught me well, but they could not speak it properly. It was time for me to learn from Indians. My English teacher told me about a village called Mattur in Karnataka where everyone speaks Sanskrit.
At Christmas of 2005 I came to India with a friend. We could not find a room at Mattur as there was a big celebration going on, so we landed at Saṃskṛita Bharati at Girinagar, Bangalore. It was a very good place, there was conversation in Sanskrit and lessons in Bhagavad Gita. We stayed at the Akṣaram in Girinagar and visited the Vedavijnana Gurukula on the Magadi road. I immediately knew this was a special place worth visiting again and again. Since then every year in June, July and August I have been visiting the Gurukula.
It was whole new world, a big adventure and things are so different here, you come out of your comfort zone. I love it now, but it was tough in the beginning. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all rice based. Luckily, I have two meals a day and fortunately I like rice but it took some time to getting used to it. You have to get used to sitting on the ground a lot, eat with your right hand, much higher temperatures, sleep on a thin mattress, put up with power cuts, not able to follow many conversations fully because they are in Sanskrit or in Kanada...
Why does John Scottus School teach Sanskrit?
We are the only school in Ireland doing this language. There are another 8 JSS-type schools around the world that have made the same decision to include Sanskrit in their curriculum (they are all off-shoots from the School of Philosophy)
But the way we taught it initially was too academic and very boring. In 2008 the lady who was running the Sanskrit department was retiring and I was asked to take over. At that time, I was the Vice Principal of the school. I asked to resign as Vice Principal of the school and took a sabbatical to learn Sanskrit in India for a year. After the sabbatical year I asked not resume my post as VP and concentrate on running Sanskrit to students and design a curriculum.
Please tell us more about your Saṅkalpa to teach Sanskrit
In the Philosophy school we look for a higher purpose in life. Moksha is obviously the sole purpose of life and that is always at the back of the mind. Now in my life I feel the purpose is to get children to enjoy learning Sanskrit and it came to me as a calling. I had no doubt in my mind. It came to my mind when I visited India first and it has been flourishing since then. It has been more and more the right thing to do. We have started on this course since September 2009. and It has certainly put a smile on our pupils’ faces, which makes a pleasant change. I now feel totally confident that we are providing our children with a thorough, structured and enjoyable course. Our students should be well prepared for the International Sanskrit Cambridge exam by the time they finish –age 14/15- at the end of second year. We will also teach them some of the timeless wisdom enshrined in various verses. We also spend time explaining to them why we are doing this as they get a bit older and before they start challenging us with the question: – What is the use? Essentially we can tap into great wisdom from our Sanskrit source material and give them a taste of the power of Sanskrit which feels uplifting when you chant it accurately, as well as giving them access to learn other languages more easily, because this is the language with all the bells and whistles. As Sanskrit is constructed so perfectly, beautifully and scientifically this should rub off on their character-building.
What method did you practice to teach Sanskrit to Irish Children?
Now, let me explain for a few minutes, HOW Sanskrit is taught. To my surprise it is not taught well in most places in India. Pupils must learn it from when they are around age 9 to 11 and then they give it up, because it is taught so badly! Only a few die-hards stick with it, in time teaching the same old endings endlessly to the next generation. This is partly due to India having adopted a craving to copy the West and their tradition having been systematically rooted out by colonialism.
For learning grammar and the wisdom of the East, I was well-placed in a traditional gurukula, but for spoken Sanskrit I felt a modern approach was missing.
Then I found a teacher from the International School belonging to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. His name is Narendra. He has developed a novel, inspiring and light method to teach grammar, which doesn’t feel like you do any grammar at all. He would help me in writing books and then I would go to Pondicherry, where he would proofread them until we publish the textbooks in Cuttack. It is cheaper to print books in India. We also want to teach the beautiful Devanāgarī script so we published workbooks called Paṭha Likha 1 & 2 with varṇamāla songs. The children love these Paṭha Likha books. The Saralam Samskritam series has 3 books at this stage, songs, stories, Vedic prayers, pictures and colours for gender: masculine word are blue, feminine words are pink and neuter words are yellow. If you have internet on your mobile you can play these songs anywhere by clicking on https://sanskrit.ie/sanskritam.php?q=Devotional or replace the word Devotional with Grammar, Fun or Script Songs.
Children start learning at the age of five when they join school. There is no reading or writing in the first two years. They only learn to sing songs, chant the wisdom, play games and learn to speak a little Sanskrit.
Problem is our teachers are not so fluent in Sanskrit, if we were ahead the children will learn much more, we are holding them back by our own lack of knowledge.
They learn two hours of Sanskrit split over a class of thirty minutes four days a week.
A lady from India called Jaishree has started helping the school. I have already tried twice to get teachers from India, but visas and work-permits are a problem. It is difficult to get work visa for teachers from India into Europe.
What do you feel about Sanskrit in Indian schools?
Schools in India ask me to give talks on why we are teaching Sanskrit in Ireland. It would help if teachers and students knew the benefits of Sanskrit. In India learning of śabda rūpāṇi and other memory work is perhaps overdone. Very few teachers also teach spoken Sanskrit, but more of that is needed. In this age memory work should be less and understanding more. If you can teach students a few grammar songs to sweeten the bitter pill of memorizing and explain how most of the noun endings rhyme with the personal pronouns and take care of a few exceptions separately, they can learn the language quickly and thoroughly. In Ireland students will not learn unless you give them a good reason. Otherwise they won’t accept learning. The other thing is they should experience joy in learning Sanskrit. If they enjoy the language, they will learn easily.
Why should one learn Sanskrit?
Little children are happy learning Sanskrit, you don’t have to explain much to them, they just soak up the material like sponges. As they are happy, they go back home singing the songs they learnt at home in the back of the car. Parents are pleased to see their children enjoying Sanskrit so they don’t question us much these days. In the beginning they questioned us: why we didn’t teach Chinese and French.
Later when they saw they are enjoying learning Sanskrit, they stopped challenging and obstructing the school. They still need to be informed. Sometimes we give talks to parents as to why we are doing Sanskrit. When the children are ten years of age and older, it needs to be explained. Up to the age of ten they don’t really want to know.
To answer that we need to look at the qualities of Sanskrit. Sanskrit stands out above all other languages for its beauty of sound, precision in pronunciation and reliability as well as thoroughness in every aspect of its structure. Therefore, it has never fundamentally changed unlike all other languages. It has had no need to change being the most perfect language of Mankind.
The qualities of Sanskrit will become the qualities of your child- that is the mind and heart of your child will become beautiful, precise and reliable.
Sanskrit automatically teaches the child and anybody else studying it to pay FINE attention due to its uncanny precision. When the precision is there the experience is, that it feels uplifting. It makes one happy. It is not difficult even for a beginner to experience this. All they must do is fine-tune their attention and like music you are drawn in and uplifted. This precision of attention serves all subjects, areas and activities of life both while in school and for the rest of life. This will give the child a competitive advantage over any other children. They will be able to attend more fully, easily and naturally. Thus, in terms of relationships, work, sport– in fact all aspects of life, they will perform better and gain more satisfaction. Whatever you attend to fully, you excel in and you enjoy more.
How do you make learning in Sanskrit, fun?
Language learning must be playful. We use drama, song, computer games and other tricks to make learning enjoyable. I have already told you about the Paṭha Likha workbooks and the Saralam Samskritam series which are available at Vedanta Bookhouse, Chamarajpeth, Bangalore.
Seeing their children enjoy, even parents have asked for classes in Sanskrit! A group of parents is learning Sanskrit one evening in the week.
In Ireland they sing and dance their way through the Devanāgarī lipi. What is the role of music in teaching Sanskrit?
In our school, Varṇamāla, Chants are set to Western Orchestra style composition. What we have noticed is that they don’t like it if it is too Indian sounding as it is not a part of their culture. Our music teacher composes the music to the words I give him. I am lucky to have Fran Dempsey. This year we did Vasudeva Kuṭumbakam. As it is only one shloka long, we made it twelve shlokas long.
Do the children understand what they are singing?
We are very interested that they understand what they are singing. We want the meaning to be very clear. When Prime Minister Modi was in Ireland, he commented that children are not singing some foreign language, they know what they are singing.
The meaning is very important, the whole experience counts. We spend a lot of time explaining and learning off the meaning. We also want them to experience it, practice it outside, discuss with us and come back with examples.
What is the Philosophy of the school?
Vedanta is a philosophy that explains everything. There is little bit of Sanātana dharma in every religion. I am a Catholic by birth, but because of Vedanta I can understand my religion much better. Vedānta is the overarching philosophy, if you take that then it explains all the other practical and spiritual traditions. Students are invited to take dīkṣā to start on the path of meditation. A lot of the students take dīkṣā some as young as ten years old. They enjoy meditation when they are young. We see no problem in children taking dīkṣā for meditation. Baptism may be part of our local tradition, but meditation can be taken up by anyone as it is not a religion. Some continue meditating into their adult life and some stop.
Please tell us more about other courses being offered at John Scottus School?
There is course in Wellbeing for the 12 to 14-year olds. It is based on Ayurveda and Yoga sutras. They have to practice good habits like leaving their cell phones out of their bedrooms or remember being Santoṣa no matter what. As one of the verses from Yoga sutra says ‘Contentment is the highest form of bliss’. They keep a journal for a month and record their good habit and their level of wellbeing on a daily basis. Later they share their experiences. Some amazing observations come to light and they learn something useful, something that will support them for life.
The First and Second years have to do this. Primary school has a course in Sanskrit and the Secondary school does a course in Wellbeing, which is now a part the Irish School Curriculum as an exam subject. The Irish Department of Education has noticed that self-harming is becoming common in teenagers. To prevent self-harm, teachers are encouraged to teach Mindful practices. I thought this was good time to put a course together based on Ayurveda and Yoga Sutras. The department has approved the course and it has now become a part of our curriculum and any other school wishing to take it up.
Please tell us something about the students visiting Maitreyī Gurukula currently?
Five girls are on school trip to Maitreyī Gurukula for two weeks during the Christmas holidays. They are Second Year students aged 13 and 4. So far three such groups have come to India. Because of the cost we cannot bring more students. They are here for a course in Wellbeing. The Indian students at the Gurukula are extremely happy, their wellbeing levels are so high that they are a good example. They are also able to look after themselves, looking after plants, animals, guest, proud of their nation and spiritually rooted. They learn Vedas and everything else through Sanskrit. These children are cheerful, and they have a huge capacity for giving. It is not so easy for our girls as they are struggling with a much hotter climate, getting up earlier, sleeping on the floor, sitting on the floor, eating with their hand and having a full program from 7 a.m. to dinnertime. It feels a bit like a spiritual boot camp in a very different culture. They learn to chant some simple Sanskrit verses, join in with farm work, dance, do yogāsana, stick-fighting, the art of rangoli and spoken Sanskrit.
Once they go back, they are happier and more positive and they’ll probably claim that they had the best holiday ever. We also visited Shringeri Maṭha and Prabodhini Gurukula in Hariharapura.
What has been your personal journey like?
For me learning of Sanskrit was very difficult at the Gurukula as the Indian students went very fast, at a much higher level and through the medium of Sanskrit. I couldn’t learn through Sanskrit being European and would break out in English. So, I had to get one-to-one teaching. Since then I have come along way. I can converse in Sanskrit to a level and I became more comfortable when I started teaching back home. I now teach English in the gurukula to give back a little.
As far as my personal growth is concerned, I am very content, it very hard to make me unhappy, the ego is slowly getting demolished which is a great experience and I have grown in confidence. And the expectation is the same will happen to the students. I notice that by the time they are eighteen, when they do their final exams they are much nicer people. They mature into nice young adults and they are very comfortable with themselves, well able for some adversity.
Please tell us something about your own sādhanā?
I was given a bīja mantra by our guru. I chant Upaniṣads and do japa for half an hour each morning and evening. Śrī Śāntānanda Sarasvatī of Jyotir matha was the guru for the School of Philosophy. Śaṅkarācārya have never visited Ireland. There are maybe eight thousand students in the School of Philosophy, but only Mr MacLaren and Mr Lambie, the past and present leader of the School of Philosophy, the translator and a few others have met him. We have no physical contact with our gurus but we study the conversations they have had when there has been an audience, typically lasting for about a week every second year. We now have contact with the former Śaṅkarācārya’s successor, Śrī Vāsudevānanda Sarasvatī from Prayag. Yet, we have a very deep connection with every word from the Conversations between our leader and him and we take it very seriously.
What scriptures have you read?
Mostly Upaniṣads, Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavadgītā. It is very different reading the Bhagavadgītā in Sanskrit. Each year we have a Sanskrit conference in Ireland when we study one Upaniṣad, grammar, chanting and Sanskrit conversation to make the philosophy practical in our daily lives. We use verses from Bhagavadgītā in our teaching.
What has been the experience of your students with Sanskrit?
There has been mixed reaction. Some of them have studied Sanskrit deeply, one student is now following Buddhism and some have claimed that learning Sanskrit helped them in their job interviews! Some of them have gotten Tattoos in Sanskrit, some love the beautiful lipi. It is rather difficult to pinpoint the effect. The more lasting impact is on a deeper level, on their Samskára. It is bit subtle, the effect on the deeper level of their being, it is awakens the spiritual journey and it’s healing.
I would wish that by taking sanātana dharma seriously and making it part of our lives, by living it rather than just talking about it, we will contribute to making a happier and more harmonious world for all.