A Conversation with Professor Varun Khanna

Professor Varun Khanna is a visiting assistant professor in the classics and asian studies departments at Swarthmore College. He joined Swarthmore in 2018. He specializes in spoken Sanskrit and Pāṇinian Sanskrit grammar. Courses that he teaches at Swarthmore include Introduction to Sanskrit, Reading in Sanskrit, and Mythology of India.

HS: You told us before that you were a pre-med student back in college. So what got you into Sanskrit? What made you decide to pursue Sanskrit teaching instead?

VK: As a pre-med student, I did a study abroad program in India in my junior year of college. I went to study the Ancient Indian medicine system called Ayurveda, thinking that it would augment my future medical practice. When I was there, someone told me that if I wanted to study Ayurveda, then I had to study Sanskrit first, since Ayurvedic texts are written in Sanskrit, so I took a two-week spoken Sanskrit crash course, then lived in places around India where they only spoke Sanskrit. Six months later, by the time I was about to leave, I was fluent in the language. 

I experienced this profound psychological transformation through studying Sanskrit which changed my way of seeing the world. In short, it was because Sanskrit words are made up of roots and suffixes and when you speak these words, you start to see the connections between the word and the object that you’re talking about. I’ll give you a couple of mundane examples to illustrate the point. The word for a chair is “asanda,” which is made of two parts, “asana,” which means posture, and “da” which means “one who gives.” So one who gives or protects your posture is an asanda, which gives you a sense of the function or value of the chair. The word for a tree or plant is “padapa,” made up of “pada,” meaning foot, and “pa,” meaning one who drinks. So one who drinks from its feet is a padapa. There is a word and meaning breakdown like this for everything, from such mundane examples to very profound philosophical concepts. 

Being surrounded by words like this, and coming to think in Sanskrit, I started to become aware of the value of everything around me in a new way from the sheer force of this linguistic shift, and my experience of the world became so rich and colorful. My behavior changed! I started to see even objects as my friends or deserving of respect. Then, I went back home after taking a spoken Sanskrit teacher training course — I now incorporate spoken Sanskrit into all my Sanskrit courses as well, which I find pedagogically very helpful. I later learned a bit about psycho-linguistics, how languages impact the way you experience the word, and that is when I realized there are already enough people going into medicine but not enough people like me studying Sanskrit. 

So, after college I went to this small town called Sringeri in India. I studied only Sanskrit grammar and Nyāya philosophy for a whole year before going to Cambridge for a Master’s where I gained some academic perspective. I had never been a humanities student before, and this completely transformed my thinking! Then I went back to India again to a place called Bilaspur. I studied and lived with a great Sanskrit teacher, Dr. Pushpa Dikshit for one year. I was the only student there and became part of the family in the traditional Indian way. She has developed this completely new approach to learning Sanskrit grammar, which is the method I now teach. I learned what I could from her and went back to Cambridge for my Ph.D in the study of consciousness in Indian philosophy. After that, I went back to study with my teacher, at which time she had a few other students with her. She would ask me to teach them while she watched on the side, which was a valuable teaching experience for me. I stayed in India for a few more years after that to teach in a university there before coming to teach Sanskrit at Penn and Swarthmore in 2018. Now I teach full time at Swarthmore and I love it here.

HS: What is the beauty of Sanskrit learning? Why should we learn Sanskrit?

VK: As I briefly touched on, Sanskrit is a language that is made of roots and suffixes. Unlike modern languages such as English where you have to dig in to actually see the roots that words come from, the roots and suffixes of Sanskrit are naked in front of your eyes. When you are able to construct and deconstruct words so easily, you are able to create an infinite number of new words on the fly to capture the vast variety of experiences that you have. You gain the ability to connect to the world around you in a new way — linguistically.

HS: This reminds me of the word vidyut-kosha that you told us about last semester in class. 

VK: Exactly. Vidyut-kosha which means “battery” can be literally translated to “pocket or container of electricity.” Of course people from thousands of years ago did not come up with this word, but because of Sanskrit’s property of infinite synthetic root-suffix-combination, we can construct a word that is native to Sanskrit for a battery, an AC, a computer, refrigerator, car, etc. When I speak to my friends in Sanskrit, I use words in every single conversation that neither I nor my friends have heard before but we all understand what is being said because of our ability to construct and deconstruct Sanskrit words into their roots in our heads. This ability has not only allowed me to learn Sanskrit but it has also strengthened my English! I’ve gained a better command over and understanding of the inner workings of language in general. 

But apart from grammar, there are other features of the language that are also really beautiful. In Sanskrit, word order is not that important because the placeholder of the word in the sentence is contained in the word itself, not in the syntax. And metrically speaking, you’re working with syllables rather than letters, which means that you can combine words in so many different ways according to their syllabic makeup to create hundreds of different meters, which of course are sung in so many different tunes, which feels like a whole universe in itself. That’s why there is an entire shastra, or field of study, dedicated to meters alone. One of my favorite things about learning Sanskrit is that there are countless layers for you to peel back. As soon as you think you’ve mastered one thing, another layer reveals itself, and you learn something new. I continue to learn new things even now, after studying Sanskrit for sixteen years.

HS: Yeah definitely. In our class, you have taught us a few meters, and you said that these meters often carry semantic value, which I understand to mean that a meter has a role to play in understanding meaning. How do these meters act as reflections of the cultural backgrounds that give rise to them in the first place?

VK: Great question! I think this can be perhaps best explained through a story, the story that Sanskrit tells of its own origin. Once upon a time, the ancient sages who were inquiring into the nature of the universe started to meditate. In their deep meditation, they realized that the universe is made up of vibrations. That means every experience you can have in the universe is connected to a vibration, and that vibration is a sound. Along the way some of the sounds they discovered in their meditation were recorded by them as the text that we now know as the Vedas. The Vedas became the source for creating the roots of Sanskrit, which they considered to be a divine language that was inherently connected to everything in the universe. They believed that when you speak in Sanskrit, you are able to produce an experience even without having the object you are speaking of in front of you. Over time, the language they had constructed started to evolve just like any language does, but the evolution of language meant that the language they were speaking was getting further and further away from the Vedic language. So they invested their time and energy into creating a system of grammar to codify the language of Sanskrit. 

For them, the evolution of language was not a neutral phenomenon like how we see it in English – we are, after all, not depressed that our language is different from Shakespeare’s – but instead it signified a process of degradation from the Vedas which they considered to be divine, and thus was catastrophic. Therefore, they devised a method of codifying the language so that it would no longer evolve. That is what we call Sanskrit grammar. They developed methods to systemize every part of the language, including poetics, so even poetry became a very regimented practice where they had predetermined meters with elaborate rules and tried to fit everything they were saying into the meter without deviation. Conformity was perfection, never breaking the rules. 

Going back to the question of the semantic value of meter, the reason why Chandas, or the field of metrical study, is so refined is because they tried to regiment every aspect of language, which was a result of the cultural history of believing that the evolution of language was a catastrophic thing. However, the result of this deep desire for Sanskrit to be regimented was the development of an insecurity about the language. They feared that Sanskrit would get into the “wrong hands.” In other words, in the hands of people who, not having learned Sanskrit properly, might use it and destroy the world due to the power they believed it had to construct reality. They developed a hierarchy of human beings that we now call caste, correlated with people’s proximity to or distance from Sanskrit, and only those who are closest to it had the power to learn it, chant it, speak it, and compose in it. They wielded Sanskrit’s aura and power to control society in a very regimented way (just like meter), and continue to hold an overwhelming proportion of powerful positions within Indian society even today. You have to understand this background to understand my current work, which has to do with understanding what social justice looks like in this context, something we will discuss in my course CLST 030: Caste and Power in the fall.

HS: Do you have a favorite Sanskrit text? If so, what is it?

VK: I’m a grammarian by training, so my favorite is the fifth century BCE grammarian Panini’s Sanskrit grammar, of course! It represents the origin story of modern linguistics. There is no end to its depth and I am amazed by it whenever I study or teach it. In a matter of 4,000 rules, which are like lines of code, Panini was able to codify an infinite language. The linguist Professor Emeritus George Cardona at Penn even asserts that Panini’s grammar is the greatest monument to human intelligence, and in my Sanskrit courses we spend our time understanding exactly why.

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