When I re-entered with a curious mind

In this personal story, water journalist and historian Sahana Singh reveals how she reconnected with nature and water through ancient Hindu texts she'd rejected as a child.

"Let’s try and chant this one more time," said my mother.

"na yasya deva rishayah padam vidur jantuh punah ko ‘rhati gantum iritum
yatha natasyakritibhir vicheshtato duratyayanukramanah sa mavatu"

I tried repeating after her but it was an exercise in futility. These Sanskrit shlokas were so hard to pronounce that my tongue was flailing about uselessly. I longed to be somewhere else. After a few tries, my mother lost her temper.

“What is wrong with you? Can’t you just hear what I am saying and repeat? You are not even trying. I am so ashamed of you! To think that you belong to a family of Sanskrit scholars and can’t even learn how to recite the simple Gajendra Moksha!”

That was it. I could not take any more of the routine. There was absolutely no need for me to sit with my mother and undergo this torture, I reasoned. After all, it was not a part of my school curriculum. It made no difference if I learned the Gajendra Moksha or not. I walked away defiantly.

“Come back!”

“No! You are mean! I cannot learn this. I am good at science, math, English, history, and everything else in school. Why should I learn this stuff? It’s not important. Let me finish my homework.”

And thus, I turned my back on an ancient language that forms the core of the Indian civilisation. My father told my mother to stop coercing me. When she ceased her attempts, I felt relieved. I could read my Enid Blyton books in peace.

Life went on. In the India that the British had left behind, Sanskrit was not necessary for acquiring an education. English was. I made my way through schools and engineering college, winning nationwide essay contests along the way, and worked at different jobs. Marriage and motherhood followed, and I got busy negotiating the myriad challenges of life.

Moving to a foreign country with my husband and bringing up a child meant that I had to frequently reflect on my identity. There were innumerable Hindu traditions and festivals, some of which I followed but my knowledge about them was rather superficial. The depth of rich traditions was palpable but I could never explain it to outsiders.

Meanwhile, those mysterious Sanskrit shlokas and mantras never stopped beckoning me to a deeper place. Like this prayer for togetherness between teacher and student.

Om Saha Navavatu
Saha Nau Bhunaktu
Saha Viryam Karavaavahai
Tejasvi Navadhitamastu Maa Vidvishavahai
Om Shantih Shantih Shantih

The English meaning offered was:

May we both be protected together
May we both be nourished together
May we both grow in knowledge and energy
May our study together be luminous
May we not hate or have discord between us.

It felt as if something was lacking in the translation but I could not put my finger on it. The sounds of the words in Sanskrit seemed to mean so much more. Pandits - Hindu scholars - told me it was pointless to understand shlokas or learn about Hindu philosophy without learning Sanskrit. There was just no shortcut.

Then, in 2014, came the news that Manjul Bhargava, an Indian-origin mathematician had won the Fields Medal - often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics. In an interview, he said his grandfather was a Sanskrit professor in Jaipur whom he visited every summer, and thus, he grew up learning the age-old works of Pingala, Hemachandra, and Brahmagupta in Sanskrit. The rhythms of their poetic mathematical and scientific treatises had inspired him to discover new ways of working out problems.

When he saw that Gauss’ famous 18th-century composition law on binary quadratic forms took twenty pages to prove, he wanted to make it simple and elegant like the ancient Indian mathematicians did. He hit upon a way of combining Brahmagupta’s theorems with the Rubik’s cube to write the solution of the problem in just a few lines!

I knew that many European scientists and philosophers from the 18th and 19th centuries had been fascinated by Sanskrit works but to learn of a modern mathematician being inspired by Sanskrit was hugely intriguing.

“By going back to the original you can bypass the way of thinking that history has somehow decided to take, and by forgetting about that you can then take your own path,“ said Bhargava in an interview. "Sometimes you get too influenced by the way people have thought about something for two hundred years, that if you learn it that way, that’s the only way you know how to think. If you go back to the beginning, forget all that new stuff that happened… you think about it in a totally new way, and develop your own path.”

“By going back to the original you can bypass the way of thinking that history has somehow decided to take, and by forgetting about that you can then take your own path."

Manjul Bhargava, mathematician

His words stuck. I wanted to go back to the beginning of it all.

I enrolled in a Sanskrit class to learn some basics. This was followed by courses in spoken Sanskrit and grammar. Even though it was all very much at the beginner level, I began to experience epiphanies as the dots began to get connected in my understanding of Hinduism. My mother watched my quest with immense joy.

At one wedding I was invited to, the sonorous mantras being chanted caught my attention. In the past, I only knew them vaguely as blessings being uttered for the couple. But now with my heightened interest in Sanskrit, I could understand many words and I realised that the Mahasankalpa must be the most concentrated desire for the happy union of a man and woman that has ever been expressed.

A hush fell on me when I became aware that the mantras were calling out to the entire universe with its galaxies, constellations, to every single Devata, or deity; to all the elements of nature, to all the mighty rivers and mountains on Earth, to all the major cities; and what is more, I even heard the specific names of countries like Nepal, Lanka (Sri Lanka), Gandhara (Afghanistan) and Kambhoja (Cambodia) being called out to witness the wedding and bless the couple. The entire geography of Greater India was invoked. Three generations of ancestors were called out by name to watch the wedding and shower blessings. Even the yet unborn-future generations were evoked. It was awe-inspiring poetry presented in all its acoustic glory.

Suddenly, I felt a greater sense of commitment towards my marriage than ever before. If today’s Hindus understood all these shlokas/mantras, they would enter into marriage with a greater sense of responsibility and cherish the marital bond more deeply. No legal contract can be more binding or powerful.

"Water was no longer a municipal service; it was a divine gift that I cherished every single day."

Sahana Singh

The more I connected with the myriad Sanskrit texts that have come to us from the sages down the millennia, the more I connected with nature. I acknowledged the morning rays of the Sun — the Surya Devata — and felt his energy transforming into my energy. When I showered, the shloka invoking the rivers of India would come to mind.

Water was no longer a municipal service; it was a divine gift that I cherished every single day. The moon ceased to be a mere disc that was a satellite of the Earth. Together with the Sun, it was a scientific marker of time, a reminder of life-affirming festivals, and an indicator of fasts that Hindus around the world would follow to cleanse their bodies and practise self-control. I noticed that the leaves, grasses, flowers, and fruits that were specified to be used in Hindu rituals had medicinal and nutritional properties. The brilliance of an ancient civilisation began to reveal itself to me.

I discovered that shlokas and stotras, with their words of sublime devotion to divine beings, were actually descriptors of qualities that devotees had to cultivate in their own selves. If I hailed the god Hanuman as the epitome of strength and fearlessness, I had to myself learn to shun weakness and fear. If I invoked Durga as the Invincible one, I had to gain control of my own mind and become invincible too.

As I re-entered the world of ancient Indian knowledge that I had run away from in my childhood, I realised that my attitude had changed. I was a new child. Wonder and curiosity had taken the place of recalcitrance. In fact, I felt immortal.

And then I came across this line

अजरामरवत्प्राज्ञो विद्यामर्थं च चिन्तयेत् ।

The wise man acquires knowledge and wealth as if he is never going to die.

About the author: Sahana Singh is an award-winning commentator on water, Indic history and current affairs.