What I Learned in India

By Jeremy Henkel
2006 J. Watumull Scholar
Ph.D. Student, Philosophy


In my application for the J. Watumull Scholarship, I indicated that spending this summer in India would help me accomplish two things: improve my knowledge of the Sanskrit language and help me understand the environment in which Buddhist thought originally developed.  By these two measures, my trip this summer was a huge success.  Between my arrival in Pune in June and my departure two months later, I learned more about the Sanskrit language than I would have in a full year of study at an institution in the United States. 

While participating in the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) Advanced Summer Language Program I spent four hours per day in class, with different classes dedicated to grammar, vocabulary, textual reading and translation (both literature and philosophy), listening skills, and oral presentation skills.  I also had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a tutor, reading a text of my choosing.  We read the Nyāyabindu of Dharmakīrti, a primer of Buddhist logic.  At the beginning of the summer, I struggled to work through a verse even with a dictionary.  During one particularly good day near the end of the program, I found I was able to sight-read and translate eight consecutive verses without assistance either from my tutor or from my dictionary.  This is precisely the sort of Sanskrit improvement I went to India seeking, and I`m thrilled that I was able to accomplish it.

Classes at AIIS were conducted in Sanskrit, and students were expected to speak in Sanskrit while in class.  These requirements reflect a different understanding of the nature of Sanskrit learning than one finds in the United States—an understanding of Sanskrit as a living language, which can be used to communicate contemporary ideas and not just as a means of accessing the writings of pre-modern Indian thinkers.  Recognizing the Sanskrit language as part of a living culture rather than as an artifact is an important step toward what I expressed as my second goal of traveling to India.  AIIS arranged for program participants a field trip that took us to an ashram about 500 kilometers from Pune, where we were allowed to watch an actual Vedic ritual sacrifice[1].  It was fascinating to witness firsthand the intricacies involved in a ritual that dates back several thousand years.  But perhaps the most interesting part of the whole experience occurred when we first entered the ritual area—and saw the head priest speaking on his cell phone.  That more than anything else drove home that this is a living tradition with real implications, and not merely a reenactment of what was real for people generations ago.

The program participants, with the help of AIIS officials, took it upon ourselves to organize a second field trip, as well, this one to the ancient caves at Ellora and Ajanta.  Ajanta is a horseshoe-shaped gorge where over 30 caves were carved into the rock to serve both as temples and as living quarters for monks.  But calling them `caves` is an injustice.  They have immaculate carvings on the pillars, the walls, the ceiling.  Images of Buddha and others cover nearly all the surfaces.  The level of detail is startling.  When the carving was done, they plastered the pillars and walls, and then painted them—many of the paintings survive today.  They even carved paths in the rock to guide water into cisterns so they would have fresh, clean drinking water year round.  They lived in these temples that they had carved into the rock. 

While all the caves at Ajanta are Buddhist, Ellora boasts Hindu and Jain caves as well.  And since Ellora was carved later than Ajanta, the artisans there learned from what their predecessors had done.  Kailasa Temple is the culmination, and definitely one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.  They actually carved a full temple out of the mountain.  The pillars in front are 17 meters tall, and the temple is taller than them.  It is estimated that they had to remove 200 tons of rock to leave what they left.  Life-size elephant guardians.  Intricate carvings on the walls depicting scenes from the Mahabharata.  We explored this one temple for over two hours and left before we had seen everything.

One of the things that fascinates me most about Ellora and Ajanta, however, is the fact that there was no slave labor involved in their construction.  The earliest Buddhist caves at Ajanta were community volunteer projects.  The later ones, as well as the ones at Ellora, were sponsored by various kings or other patrons who desired to accumulate merit, and thus hired the artisans who were involved.  There is, I feel, a lesson to be learned from the stark contrast between this story and the story behind, for instance, the Pyramids in Egypt.  Great things are achieved through cooperation, rather than through the violent imposition of one`s will. 

During my summer in India, I learned many things.  Some of them are things that will help me complete my studies in philosophy at UH.  Some are things that will alter the way I perceive the world around me.  And some are things that I will think about only when I tell people about the first time I went to India.  But all of them were made possible by the J. Watumull Scholarship for the Study of India.  And I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude to the Committee for awarding me the scholarship, and thus the opportunity to have the experiences I had this summer.  Thank you.

[1] Note: This was not an animal sacrifice.  It was rather a sacrifice of ghee, or clarified butter.

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