Rutger has been a teacher at John Scottus (JSS), the day school founded by the Irish School of Philosophy in 1986. Over the course of time spent in India, he has developed an ingenious system for teaching Sanskrit, a demanding ancient language with complex grammar. In recognition of his outstanding work, in 2021 he was awarded a prize. This ancient language has given him an extraordinary journey – read on.
Journey with Sanskrit
Rutger Kortenhorst, Dublin
As a college student I read the Yeats translation of The Ten principal Upanishads; it stirred a deep memory, a bit like meeting a long-lost friend. No other text has ever had such a profound impact on me. A year later I started studying ‘An Introduction to Vedic mathematics’ written by Tirtha Śaṅkarācārya. I noticed there were 16 sūtras to cover all mathematics, but they were written in Sanskrit; thus began my study of this ancient language.
The first Bhagavad Gītā verse I ever learnt (17:15) was on the discipline of speech. This is copper-fastened into my memory for ever. The sound of Sanskrit has a magical quality to warm the cockles of your heart every time. The other side of the brain enjoys detailed analysis, logic and precision which satisfies my mathematical mentality. Even the alphabet displays that immediately: it is ordered and carefully and consciously designed like no other language. I don’t like using the word ‘alphabet’ meaning just alpha, beta… We should call it by its name the varṇamālā which means ‘garland of letters’!
A Year in India
In 2000 John Scottus school was officially recognised by the Department of Education and I became assistant principal until 2008. We needed to look at Sanskrit in a fresh way.
At this stage I had been to India for four summers in a row, to the Gurukula (lit. teacher’s family) system near Bangalore. I felt very much at home there. They allowed me, a foreign Roman Catholic, to learn Sanskrit there. Normally you need to be a brāhmaṇa-caste to follow classes in Gurukulas. I soon started teaching English there; in turn students and teachers would teach me chanting, meaning and grammar.
A mutual trust has built up over the years. We decided I would stay in India for a year, mostly in the Gurukula, to develop a new system for teaching children at John Scottus. Someone took over my vice-principal job which I didn’t want back on my return one year later. I needed time and energy for setting up the new methods for teaching Sanskrit.
The year away was very eventful, because apart from being an inmate of the Gurukula, I also travelled to several ten-day conversation camps around India as well as a few fortnights with Dr Narendra in Pondicherry.
What was it like there?
My favourite local transport has always been the bicycle. This allowed me to go to the local village for a shave and head massage and buy a much-needed packet of biscuits now and then. Two rice-based meals a day for months on end without a lot of change can be a little tough. Although coffee is not really part of Gurukula life, I normally have one cup, especially brewed by Ananta the cook, in the kitchen each morning. When I come back from the city, I normally bring 80-100 Indian sweetmeats for everyone, as you cannot really single out some favourite friends.
The energy that arises from such discipline is something many of us have experienced during School retreats that extend over a weekend or week. So imagine that experience uninterruptedly for months on end! In India that means getting up at 4:30am and going to bed before 10pm, sitting on the ground a lot, eating meals with your hands, withstanding heat and cold, sleeping on a 1” mattress, with occasional power cuts and connectivity issues. But because of the company it is all absolutely worth it!
Bringing my friends!
Many students from the School of Philosophy (SPES) and also pupils from John Scottus have joined me for study/ wellbeing weeks in India. I’ve brought separate groups of boys and girls here.
We have had a few Upaniṣad weeks there with adults from SPES. Although the bootcamp element can be a little harsh at first, everyone always agrees in the end that it was enjoyable and uplifting, and that they made some good friends. This is the aspect of Sanskrit where you can experience it as a way of life, not just a language and literature course.
Publishing Sanskrit text books
In my spare time in India, I normally prepare for the next publication of a book and the following year’s Sanskrit retreat at Townley Hall near Dublin. We have published the books in India and sent them mainly to Ireland to help children learn Sanskrit. When I am in Pondicherry, Narendra teaches me his system to make Sanskrit available in a novel, systematic and fun way to children and, of course, adults too. At this stage we have developed a new way of teaching reading and writing in a series called Paṭha Likha 1 & 2. These are little workbooks which children soon zip through as if it were a race.
Colours & Songs to aid learning Sanskrit
The Saralaṃ Saṃskṛitam course has three books at present and needs at least one more book to complete the course. We use colours to deal with the gender of nouns. Songs work well because they enter into long-term memory which we know from any songs we have learnt in childhood. So, if there is an important point of grammar or some piece of wisdom to impart, singing it into one’s being makes a lot of sense.
The other difference in this course is that the smallest unit of understanding is the sentence, so we don’t learn isolated words or paradigms in isolation, but always with context. As Sanskrit is highly inflected, it could take an eternity before you know all the rules and endings. We tackle this problem head on by teaching a little rhyme that is immediately applicable in sentences, moving from the known to the new and the particular to the general.
Small children are automatically drawn to the spiritual content. A little of the best is what works well. They memorise quickly without wanting to know much about meaning, but from 10 years old, they need explanations and reasons. They love working it out mentally and have deep philosophical questions arising from the material.
Sanskrit as a great friend
What fuels this work is the depth, beauty and reliability of Sanskrit. Shri Shantananda Sarasvati described Sanskrit as ‘a great friend, good companion and the best guide’. He promised that if we stick with it, the path will be simple and sure. This has been proven over and over again.
When each day offers so many more discoveries and uplifting moments there is not much interest in sleep! In fact, I need to go for walks and cycling trips in the mountains to burn off extra youthful energy. I’m lucky that all these are so accessible from Dublin. Gardening is another passion I’m cultivating especially because of all these lockdowns.
Prize in Sanskrit
The World Sanskrit Prize 2020 from the Indian Council of Cultural Relations, associated with the Indian Government, was a bit of a surprise, and definitely not merited for scholarship as far as I am concerned. I only know some basics and it is mostly by standing on the shoulders of giants that I got anywhere at all. My respect and gratitude goes to all my teachers: Indian, English, Australian and Irish. Perhaps the award was more for enthusiasm, passion and love for the language, the country and the people. My vision is to give students, both young and mature, easy access to this language of treasures.
Practical Philosophy goes hand in hand with this study. We are blessed that Leon MacLaren (founder of the School) opened the door to Sanskrit for us. With the careful guidance of so many teachers on the one hand and one’s own efforts to wake up, confidence in this teaching is ever-growing, in knowing what to follow and what to share with whoever is interested.
Covid opportunity: Sanskrit here too!
It became evident last summer, because of Covid lockdowns, that I could not go to India from June to August. This really worried me as it meant being deprived of guaranteed sattva-energy for 3 months! The only solution was to bring that energy to my own residence in Dublin. It took the form of translating the Bhagavad Gītā from scratch.
As there was already a website for Wellbeing for John Scottus Secondary School (see below) it made sense to extend it with a new Gītā heading. The wellbeing course is based on āyurveda for physical and yogasūtras for mental wellbeing. The Irish Department of Education approved it as part of the Junior Certificate, a public exam for 15-year olds.
Each year new opportunities and projects present themselves. Although at 65 this should be my year for retirement, I feel I have only lived half my life. Apart from teaching Sanskrit, maths, philosophy and wellbeing, there are a few more projects in progress: a third improved edition of Saralaṃ Saṃskṛitam 1, a YouTube video on the Four Great Statements of the Vedas and the Īṣopaniṣad on the website. A whole team of people from India with great knowledge of grammar, culture and philosophical understanding keep the Sanskrit and its interpretation authentic.
My little heart glows with delight when I see East and West meet and we put back some of the meaning of the important things that got lost on the way.
See the Wellbeing and Gītā website: https://sanskrit.ie
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