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Sanskrit class reveals China' s growing fever with Indology, Buddhism

By Xinhua Writer Cheng Yunjie

HANGZHOU, May 15 (Xinhua )-- Classes on the ancient Sanskrit language are being resumed for the first time in more than a decade at the Hangzhou Buddhism Institute amid a national campaign to rejuvenate traditional culture.

Yogis, artists, college and doctoral students, Buddhist are among the 120 people regularly attending the two-hour lectures, which are held twice a week and taught by Li Wei, who holds a doctorate in Indology from the University of Mainz, Germany.

Professor Konrad Meisig, Dean of the Institute of Indology of the Mainz University, said he was surprised by the number of students attending.

"Normally, my Sanskrit classes comprise of no more than twenty students each year. I was quite astonished to learn from Dr. Li that he has such a large response from Chinese students," he told Xinhua.

The Hangzhou Buddhism Institute held similar classes in 2004, but were met with little interest.

"In 2004, we also held a Sanskrit Class for the public for free. In less than a month, students all quit. They thought the language was too difficult. This year, we selected 120 students from 380 candidates. It is the largest Sanskrit class in China," said Gang Xiao, a master with the Institute.

Meisig attributed the new interest in the world's oldest written language to Chinese people' s increasing interest in the outside world. "There is a huge amount of interest and craving for knowledge about foreign cultures in China," he said.


Li Yimei, who travels to the classes from Shanghai with her husband Du Fu, studied yoga in India. She said she was eager to know more about the Indian culture because Yoga and Indology were inseparable.

"An excellent Yogi must thoroughly understand the way of thinking of ancient Indian philosophers," she said.

With equal passion, Du Fu said he hoped he could read Buddhism scriptures in Sanskrit to see how the belief system influenced Chinese culture.

The classes also compare interpretations of Buddhism scriptures written in both Sanskrit and ancient Chinese.

For instance, the Chinese idiom for prostration, a submissive pose undertaken to show reverence for buddha, Wu Ti Tou Di had long been defined in Chinese dictionaries as a salute to Buddha requiring hands, knees and head on the ground. But a comparison study of the original Sanskrit and Chinese scriptures showed whenever the word appears in the Chinese version, the corresponding Sanskrit sentence is "throwing oneself down at Buddha' s feet like a chopped-off tree" .

Wei Xiuxiu, a graduate of the China Art Academy and a Sanskrit student, said this disparity revealed the necessity and appeal of understanding Sanskrit.

"Translation is like a piece of embroidery, with the original version on the front and the translated one on the back. Only those who can understand both languages well can recognize the thread residues and stitches on the reverse side. Accuracy is often sacrificed in translation" , said she.

A big fan of Swami Vivekananda, an Indian Hindu monk born in 1863 famous for introducing the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the West, Wei collected a dozen Chinese books on Indian philosophies, all translated from the English version.

"Why do we have to rely on English translations to know Indian philosophies? I hope one day I can read the original works and even do the translation," said the 24-year-old.

Wei clearly remembered the first Sanskrit sentence she translated into Chinese when doing homework: There is no greater sin than greed and no greater virtue than charity.

"Although these alphabets seem so distant and are so difficult to recognize, the moment I read it out loud, I could feel the power of the ancient words," said she.

Lee Sum Khor, a doctoral student from Malaysia studying linguistics at the Zhejiang University, said the Sanskrit class was filled with a pure love of the ancient Indian language.

"Utilitarianism plays a big part when my friends consider what to study. In this Sanskrit class however, people study passionately simply because they like the language. Isn't it inspiring?" said Khor.

Qian Xinyue, a fourth-grade student with the Qinglan Primary School of Hangzhou joined her parents to take the Sanskrit class twice a week. She said she loved to paint the Sanskrit alphabet "as it' s like painting a picture, but reading the words aloud is a bit boring" .


Unlike studying English or any other modern foreign language, Sanskrit students cannot practice conversation or do language exchanges with native speakers. All example sentences and vocabulary are hand-picked from Sanskrit classical works. Hundreds of grammar rules have to be memorized. It's not a language that one can learn in the heat of the moment, said Dr. Li Wei.

"If Sanskrit is taken up with the aim of doing research, there is simply no easy way to do it," said Dr. Almuth Degener, who works at the Institute of Indology at the University of Mainz.

In her eyes, Sanskrit fever in China has been deeply rooted in China' s long tradition in Buddhism as Sanskrit is one of the major Buddhist languages.

Fang Yixin, dean of the Center for Study of History of Chinese Language at Zhejiang University, said Chinese monks spent more than 1,000 years translating Sanskrit Buddhism scriptures.

"A lot more domestic scholars are now recognizing the value of these works," he said.

Abbot Guang Quan of the Lingyin Temple and president of the Hangzhou Buddhism Institute, initiated the free Sanskrit class in an effort to turn Hangzhou into China's Sanskrit Research center.

"We wish to facilitate domestic Sanskrit study to strengthen academic and Buddhism exchanges with India," said he.

Meisig advocated international cooperation in the study of Sanskrit works.

"My opinion is that East and West, Chinese, Indian and Western scholars should try their best to work together. We can learn from each other, especially in the study of Sanskrit, Chinese and Buddhist culture," he said.

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