Tradition in Transition: Sanskrit Education in Varanasi, India

Article excerpt

Assembled under a colorful canopy in the open courtyard of Chandra Prakash Lada's palatial home, thirty lightly clad Hindu boys solemnly recite an ancient Vedic oath of studenthood:

"Mama brahmachara kamavada, Kamobhakshanadi dosh nirasana.

Guruvata upanayo Vedarambha."

(I speak of my studenthood,

as one who devours all desire and casts away all evil.

I come to my guru to begin study of the Vedas and eternally praise the Lord.)

The boys are undergoing their upanayana (student initiation), a ceremony marking the beginning of their lives as brahmacharis, (students of the Sanskrit language and traditions). Lada, a successful businessman and devout Hindu, annually hosts an upanayana here in his house in one of Varanasi's growing upper-class colonies.

From an upper veranda I observe this rite of passage with members of the Lada household. What unfolds below me is an ancient scene imbued with an atmosphere thick with the aroma of ritual incense, the sounds of clamoring bells, and the chanting of the half-naked students.

In the distance, the pulse of modern disco and the sensous voice of a Hindi pop singer can be overheard: "My lover has come to my house." The modern music infiltrates the solemnity of the religious event below, oddly blending with the ancient Vedic meters and Sanskrit words in an almost melodious way. As an outsider, perhaps overly sentimental about traditional "purity," I find this juxtaposition of musical forms incongruous, even absurd. Yet it does not seem to affect the crowd attending the ceremony.

Finally, at the close of the four-hour ceremony, the young initiates stand tall. They sport freshly painted red swastikas on their newly shaven heads, are clad in simple handspun cotton dhotis (long loincloths), and carry staffs and begging bowls. When they take their final vows of brahmacharya (commitment to the discipline), they are sanctified as seekers of truth, prepared to return to the world to carry out this two-thousand-year-old tradition on a secular stage.

Yet, unlike those who have gone before him, the new brahmachari can no longer stay apart from the stream of contemporary life in India. The sound of the devotee's wooden shoes and incessant recitation of mantras is drowned out by popular culture extolling sensual love. His vow of celibacy and simple living is shaken by the modern frenzy on the streets and the social push toward mass consumerism. I find myself wondering whether the brahmachari's devotion to an ancient religious tradition can find a companion in the scheme of modern India.

Practicing the paramapara

Over the course of a year, I posed this question to many pandits (traditional teachers of Sanskrit) and brahmacharis in Varanasi, which is situated along the sacred Ganges River. Thriving with classical culture, Varanasi draws students from all over the globe. They come to study its great traditions, from Indian music and dance to the Sanskrit language and medicine. I myself am a beneficiary of its classical music and language traditions, having studied for a decade under the guidance of highly skilled teachers.

Elements of modern culture are equally pervasive: Lottery vendors now outnumber the once highly esteemed temple priests, and movie posters plastered on every available signboard advertise the latest films. The temples and ashrams themselves embrace modem culture: Loudspeakers blare nonstop religious music and chanting at a decibel that could shatter the eardrums of the gods themselves. Students of the increasingly fashionable English medium [i.e., English as the language of instruction] schools gather for morning assembly. The schools have prestige, though the quality of education is uneven. Dressed in suit coats and ties--reminders of the British colonial system--the pupils recite ancient Vedic hymns. The continuity of tradition amid change is a dynamic social phenomenon permeating every corner of Indian life. …