Sanskrit is Best Placed to Enhance Brain Function and Cognitive Abilities: Dr Rishi Handa

Dr Rishi Handa, Head of Sanskrit and Religious Studies, St James’ Senior Boys’ School, London teaches Sanskrit during the week and plays music with his brother in their band Flute that Groove during weekends. Born and brought up in the UK, he is the first British born Indian to this post. In his interview with CSP, Dr Handa talks about Sanskrit's sophistication and appeal.

How has your interest in Sanskrit shaped your understanding and connect with India?

My interest in my Hindu culture was there prior to my learning Sanskrit and was actually the reason for my studying Sanskrit; significant to this was immovably reading Amar Chitra Katha comics when I was little. As I got older, I wanted to be able to access the ancient literature in the originals. But what Sanskrit has done for my understanding of ancient India is to appreciate, more than I could have ever imagined, the genius of our ancient rishis and panditas. Having studied jyotisha, Sanskrit and an introduction to the six darshanas, I'm in awe of the genius of their minds, the level of their intellect and the depths of their sadhana and tapasya to produce the content they have. It simply doesn't seem possible that the mind could even deliver this profundity of knowledge yet it has. And this is arguably unparalleled in the world. We have become paupers looking elsewhere for riches not realising that buried under where we stand is more treasure than we can even imagine exists. I feel very blessed to belong to a culture that has inherited this, and that I have been able to study it.

We did a recent webinar on Mantras and Neuroplasticity. Researchers say Sanskrit is unique in the connect between language and cognition. What are your thoughts on this?

I am aware that Dr James Hartzell did his doctoral research on Sanskrit mantras and neuroscience where he demonstrated that mantras have a positively profound effect on the brain. But to show that Sanskrit is uniquely placed to do this would require a study of how, if at all, the brain is affected by liturgy from other languages. Unless I'm behind on the research I don't believe this has yet been done, and is necessary to determine Sanskrit's position on the matter.

In terms of language and cognitive development, all languages contribute since they work on certain areas of the brain. However, classical languages are better placed to be able to do that as they require higher order processing and a real attention to detail. As a teacher of mathematics, I see myself using the same analytical skills in approaching maths problems as I do with deciphering the syntax and grammar of classical languages when translating.

To take things one step further though, given how sophisticated and rigorous Sanskrit is, I would claim that it is arguably best placed to enhance brain function and cognitive abilities. Last year I taught Ancient Greek which is more rigorous than Latin, and while I enjoyed it, Sanskrit clearly has greater finesse. I could be seen as biased but a former Head of Classics I worked under who had studied Latin, Greek and Sanskrit to A level, and who was Greek herself, admitted to me that Sanskrit was clearly the most sophisticated. Even those students of mine who study Greek and Latin alongside Sanskrit see its superlative nature.

As the first British-born-Indian to head the Sanskrit departmet at St James Senior Boys’ School, could you tell us about the previous academics and their contribution to creating an interest in the language 

Mr Warwick Jessup is Head of Sanskrit at the junior school and Senior Girls' school; he has held this position for many years now. He and his wife Elena Jessup who also teaches there are a phenomenal duo and are not only great teachers but have produced some of the best Sanskrit teaching books ever written. These books are so accessible for children and also for adults, taking students to IGCSE level. I've learned so much from those books myself. They were so well received that they're now published by Motilal Banarsidass publishers.

My predecessor as Head of Sanskrit at the boys' school was a dear colleague of mine by the name of Dr Antonia Ruppel who is extremely learned in Sanskrit, Greek and Latin; she's like a walking textbook of all three. She has written the brilliant Cambridge Introduction to Sanskrit and many are now learning Sanskrit from this accessible book. When I joined St James Senior Boys in 2013, I replaced Mrs Miriam Stollar who taught Sanskrit there for many years with her husband and Head of Sanskrit, Mr David Stollar. They both contributed so much to Sanskrit teaching at St James that it is their legacy that I am honoured to be continuing. Having moved on from St James, Mr Stollar and Dr Ruppel still continue to teach Sanskrit. Finally, I was very privileged to have worked in my first year with Reverend Dr Stephen Thompson. Dr Thomas is a walking encyclopedia of Sanskrit and although in his 70s, he has more enthusiasm for teaching Sanskrit than I have seen elsewhere. His first doctorate was on Patanjali's mahabhasya and his second one is now on the Mandukyopanishad. I've been very blessed to know and have worked with such amazing Sanskrit enthusiasts, and it's humbling to see non-Indians have this much sacrificial love for Sanskrit.

You mention that St James was started because of Sanskrit. How so?

St James was founded by the School of Economic Science (SES), an organisation originally established for the study of economics but later focusing on Advaitic philosophy and meditation. The organisation is also called the School of Philosophy and Economic Science. When the late Mr Leon MacLaren, founder of the SES, encountered pujya Shankaracharya Swami Shantananda Saraswati ji of Jyotirmatha, he was moved by Swami ji's wisdom on advaita, Sanskrit and how children should be taught. This resulted in Mr MacLaren's establishing St James School which would have the Advaitic wisdom of the unity of Being as its ethos. The study of language was to be based on Sanskrit because he believed it to be full of profound concepts, and hadn't changed over millenia.

Meditation is a part of the school making the school decades ahead of its time as schools have been talking about mindfulness meditation only now. All lessons, meetings and assemblies start and end with a brief period of individual stillness followed by a dedication to the Absolute with the words Om paramatmane namah. The canteen is also a vegetarian one.

To add, for many years, mathematics was taught through Vedic maths methods, spearheaded by Mr James Glover who is Chair for the Institute for the Advancement of Vedic Mathematics.

How frequent are Sanskrit classes at St James? Is it optional. 

At the junior school, all pupils study Sanskrit from the age of five. Lessons used to be every day but for logistical reasons, it is now slightly less frequent. They also have Sanskrit assemblies in the morning. The students at the senior girls' school continue twice a week for two more years and then it's optional as they select their GCSE options. At the boys school, my experience is that Sanskrit hasn't been easy for all young minds and so for practical reasons, it is offered to the most able boys. They study it for two years twice a week and then make their GCSE choices. It's unfortunate that more students want to choose it for GCSE than actually do it, simply because it clashes with other subjects that they also want to pick. But it's great to see that there is such enthusiasm for the subject. Many of the boys hold Sanskrit to be their favourite subject.

Yoga and Ayurveda and other Indian traditions stand on the foundation of Sanskrit.  Has learning the language led to an interest in these traditions or vice versa?

I think vice versa. There is nothing more of a priority than one's health - physical and now mental - which is why people in the West move towards Ayurveda and yoga. As they engage with these, they cannot avoid the philosophy that underpins them, and this is conveyed through technical terms in Sanskrit. It is from there that they come to appreciate that their engagement with those subjects would be so much more meaningful by knowing Sanskrit.


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