Be Modern and Use Sanskrit to Decolonize Your Mind: Oscar Pujol

Oscar Pujol is a Catalan Indologist. He spent 17 years at BHU, Varanasi, taught Spanish there and obtained a Ph.D. in Sanskrit. He has written numerous papers on many aspects of Sanskrit language and philosophy. Amongst his many contributions to India and Sanskrit is a Sanskrit-Catalan dictionary containing around 64,000 entries, which took him around 12 years to complete. After having worked as Director of Education Programmes at Casa Asia, Barcelona, he is now setting up Instituto Cervantes at New Delhi.

Oscar Pujol with the King and Queen of Spain


I read that you found a copy of the Gita in a hotel room and liked the 3rd chapter. Why did the chapter appeal to you?

What really appealed me about that chapter was the concept of Karmayoga. I always felt uneasy with the idea that you have to be a renouncer to reach nirvana. External renunciation is not enough. You can nominally renounce everything, go to the forest and still be plagued by all kind of desires. The idea that what really matters is inner renunciation, and not the outward and perhaps superficial, renunciation of external action, is very powerful. The Gita says that not by merely renouncing action one is able to transcend all action, because even when we are motionless, sitting, activity continues to take place inside us, especially in the form of mental processes. This is a very deep insight that shows the subtleness of the Gita.

You have compiled a dictionary of Sanskrit. Is it Spanish to Sanskrit and Sanskrit to Spanish? How did you select the words? Was it based on usage?

The dictionary is Sanskrit to Spanish and it has more than 64,000 words. The selection was made according to use and frequency, taking into special consideration the Vedas, the Upanishads, Itihasa-purana, Kavya, the philosophical systems like Nyaya, Vedanta, Yoga, Sankhya, some Tantra and Buddhism too. The dictionary has encyclopaedic articles about Mythology, Philosophy, Grammar and Yoga for the general reader and not only for the student of Sanskrit.

You have traced the influence of some words in Sanskrit on some Western languages. How did you conduct that research?

Well, actually I took this information from the two etymological Sanskrit dictionaries of Manfred Mayrhofer, the great German scholar. If you want to known the relation of Sanskrit to other world languages, not only Western, but also to Indian languages like Tamil, these two dictionaries are a must.

The real novelty of my dictionary is to put side by side two kinds of etymologies: the comparative one of Western Philology, as recorded by Mayrhofer, and the Indian one belonging to the Paninian tradition of grammar. It is the first time that this is done.

What are your plans in the near future now that you have moved to Delhi?

If time permits, I would love to publish a new English translation of the Yogasutra along with a commentary. The edition will include a word to word translation into English to help the reader to relate the English terms to the original Sanskrit. The aim is to help Yoga teachers and practitioners to get more familiar with the Sanskrit language and to understand, at the source, the import of the sutras.

Every single job application or academic application today while asking for languages known mentions French and Spanish. Never Sanskrit. How do you think we can change that? Make Sanskrit both ancient and modern?

Well, I gave in a recent article in Swarajya magazine a list of recommendations to that effect. The most important thing is to understand that Sanskrit is still relevant to the modern world. It has many things to say in fields like Aesthetics, Psychology, Linguistics, Hermeneutics, Political Sciences, Medicine, Consciousness Studies and of course yoga and meditation. Take for instance the whole phenomena of mindfulness and how it is used in hospitals and at the workplace. The original concept comes from Sanskrit and its daughter language, Pali. Sanskrit gave birth to such important ideas as non-violence (ahimsa) and compassion (karuna). Sanskrit is a wonderful tool to liberate our mind from the two of the most pressing problems of the modern world: addiction and depression. Sanskrit is an analytical and a holistic language. It is both argumentative and sacred. It is good for singing and reciting. Be modern and use Sanskrit to decolonize your mind.

Moreover if you speak an Indian language, there are now methods to learn Sanskrit in an easy and pleasant way. Indian people, irrespective of their religion or ideology, should be very proud of having such a national treasure. It is a paradox that many foreigners feel attracted to it, while many people in India still consider it as dead language and an oppressing one, representing a backward way of life.

Who are the people from Spain who are interested in learning Sanskrit? Are there many?

We should speak not only of Spain, but include all the Spanish speaking countries. Sanskrit is taught in Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, etc. Traditionally the interest for Sanskrit in the West was confined to the Academia. Now there is a much broader interest related to yoga, meditation and Indian philosophy.

In absolute terms, perhaps, the number of people is not so big, but what is relevant is that Sanskrit is cultivated by small groups of people all over the world.

Certainly there are big challenges on how to make Sanskrit more accessible to Spanish speaking people. There is a lack of teaching materials and we need to devise better methods to teach Sanskrit to make it easier and more palatable. The publication of the Sanskrit-Spanish dictionary is one step in that direction. Sanskrit is taught at several universities and also privately.

Many Indian musicians are travelling to Spain and jamming with Spanish musicians. Do you find similarities in our music?

Yes, there is a connection because of the gipsy roots of Flamenco music. Gipsies came from India and both Flamenco and Shastriya Sangit are modal forms of music, where the compositions are centred on a set of notes of a particular scale giving the distinctive flavour of a raga. It is said that some Indian ragas, such as Bhairavi, are also used in Flamenco. Some forms of jazz are also modal and that’s why jazz combines very well both with Flamenco and Indian music.

LIVING IN INDIA

What was the most memorable part of living and learning in Varanasi?

Well for me the most memorable part was to have the privilege of learning Sanskrit with the pundits. In the morning I attended my classes at the Banaras Hindu University and in the evening I sat at the feet of my masters and learnt in a more traditional way. I had two outstanding teachers: Vagish Shastri and Shri Narayan Mishra. The difference between the western method and the traditional Indian one is that in the West knowledge is accumulated, while in India it is interiorized and made part of oneself. In the modern West knowledge is performative, in India transformative.

Besides, at least at that time, Banaras had a very vibrant cultural scene. There were lots of concerts and performances, seminars and conferences. Of course it was all about Indian culture, but that was the reason why we were in Banaras. We did not go there to attend a Western classical music concert or an exhibition of impressionist French painters.

Was it difficult bringing up your child in Varanasi?

Not at all, my son Vasant was born in Banaras on Vasant Panchami and he spent the first 12 years of his life there. On the contrary, he was very sad, when we had to go back to Barcelona. In the beginning he missed his Banarsi life and friends. In the course of time he adjusted very well to the life in the West and now he feels at ease both in India and in Europe. He was a bilingual speaker of Hindi and Catalan and after he learnt Spanish and English.

What does your wife find most appealing about Bharatanatyam?

Well, she always says that it is an integral form of art. You have sangit, you have sahitya, you have dramatic performance and you have dance. It is a body, mind and soul experience. When you dance you have to attend simultaneously to the motion of the feet, the hands, the arms, the eyes, the eyebrows and convey rasa through your facial movements. It is sacred beauty in movement.