Sanskrit is not a dead language that is dredged up as an intellectual curiosity – Elena Jessup

“Sanskrit is at the heart of Indian philosophy because with the Sanskrit texts, you can find out for yourself what the sages really thought.” 

The presence of our readers here is much appreciated!

In today’s issue, readers will read an extensive interview, that deals with The language of God and its current relevance to the modern world. Yes, we are going to talk about Sanskrit, and we’ve interviewed a native New Yorker, Elena Jessup, who has been teaching Sanskrit to kids and adults for the last 25 years in the United Kingdom and she is one of the authors of the St James series of Sanskrit textbooks.  In 2008 she received a master’s degree in Sanskrit Literature from London University (SOAS) and is now a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. Elena is the founder of Modern Sanskrit Collective, which aims to promote Sanskrit in the wider community. Our site is featuring her perspective.

Elena Jessup
Elena Jessup

“The mindset of those who originated Sanskrit is that of deep wisdom; thus, when you study Sanskrit, you experience wisdom and beauty.  It’s as simple as that.”

— Elena Jessup

Elena has taught for many different studios and organizations, such as Indaba Yoga Studio, Mokshala Yoga Studio, A Fine Balance Yoga Studio, The School of Ayurveda UK, and Walking on Earth, and currently is a full-time Sanskrit teacher at St James School. Sanskrit is the center of her life and inspires her in many different ways. She hopes that inspiration is fully conveyed to her students in whatever way is right for them.

Check out this interview to learn about her perspective…


Q1- What significant difference did you find between Sanskrit and other languages that led you to study Sanskrit?

Elena: Using different languages puts you in the mindset of the people who originate that language.  For example, my mother is Cuban, and I half grew up in an environment where Spanish was spoken.  When I am in that environment, I experience the ‘Spanish’ mindset, which has its good and bad points.  The same is true of English, my native language.  With a worldly language, you get all the cultural accretions and limiting viewpoints.  The mindset of those who originated Sanskrit is that of deep wisdom; thus, when you study Sanskrit, you experience wisdom and beauty.  It’s as simple as that.

Q2-  The name of your site is Modern Sanskrit Collective.  We want to know more about the philosophy of modern Sanskrit in your words.

Elena: I chose that name because I feel that Sanskrit has a great role to play in today’s world.  It is not a dead language that is dredged up as an intellectual curiosity.  Many people from all over the world have a genuine interest in Indian philosophy that perhaps was not accessible to them in previous times due to lack of connection, social conventions, etc.  Hinduism and allied modes of thought offer a valid path for spiritual exploration for these seekers.  Sanskrit is at the heart of Indian philosophy because with the Sanskrit texts, you can find out for yourself what the sages really thought.  And let’s not forget about chanted and spoken Sanskrit.  Hearing Sanskrit at the present time, in the NOW, is an experience conducive to finer spiritual vibrations.

Q3-  You have taught Sanskrit to children and adults in the UK for over twenty-five years.  How has been your experience teaching Sanskrit?

Elena: It’s been a real privilege teaching Sanskrit.  Sometimes I can’t believe that when I go to work, I am so lucky as to have the inspiration from the world’s most incredible literature all day long.  I’m bathed in it.  And then there is the amazing challenge of writing textbooks and normalizing Sanskrit into what is essentially a Western curriculum.  It’s ground-breaking stuff!  Through teaching Sanskrit, I have met some really wonderful people, both young and old.  However, it’s also been challenging.  So often Sanskrit is overlooked by students in the general population who want something more conventional, easy, or flashy.  

  

Q4- Sanskrit is an ancient language of India.  It is used in spirituality, which is the true religion of India.  So, in this way, how can you define that as a spiritual language – Sanskrit is more important for the world today.  In addition, why do we need to bring this up now?

Elena: I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that spirituality is the true religion of India.  This very spirituality makes the Sanskrit texts so much more compelling than straightforward religion.  The philosophy goes right for the questions that sit in every human heart: who am I, in reality?  What is my relationship with the universe?  How can I find eternal happiness?  Having access to the answers to these questions and a clear spiritual path ultimately satisfies a person more than material gains.  Perhaps if more people were able to access spirituality through Sanskrit, they might not need to exploit our planet and other people, and we might not have so many difficulties in the world.  Certainly, I believe, there would be more happiness.

Sanskrit Mantras
Sanskrit Mantras

Q5  I believe that language is closely related to psychology, and language is helpful in the cultural formation of character.  Do you think that Sanskrit can positively characterize human psychology?

Elena: I live in hope, and that’s why I teach it to children.  But it’s hard to quantify.  I can only answer for myself – since I have been studying Sanskrit, I have experienced a refinement of thought, more subtle perception, and an opening to the spiritual world.   

Q6  Sanskrit is a spiritual language.  But, can a language spiritually influence a person’s mental and practical capacity?  The question is regarding the current mental health crisis around the globe and healing by spiritual practices.

Elena: I certainly understand what you are talking about when you mention the global mental health crisis.  Here I will bring in the Bhagavad Gītā, which basically begins with someone having a major depressive episode.  I teach sixteen-year-olds to read the Gītā in the original Sanskrit, so we really explore it in depth.  The first thing by which they are always surprised is how literature from c. 2000 years ago understands mental illness in such a modern way.  You would only understand this empathy from reading the Gītā in the original.  Additionally, the Gītā offers novel approaches towards escape from mental difficulty, and these themes are discussed in class.  So, through discussion, pupils acquire newer tools in their mental health toolkit than they might have had they not read the Gītā. 

In terms of adults, you hear so many people who declare “Yoga saved my life!  Yoga saved my mental health!”  But what has really saved their mental health?  Of course, the practice of āsanas and vegetarianism are all healthy, but I would maintain that it is the liberating ideas in the Indian philosophical traditions that are really at the source of their improved mental health.  And these philosophical traditions are originally expressed in Sanskrit, more or less.

Q7  In March 2022, you organized Chanting for Peace at Compass Chelsea, which was the live and online chanting of Sanskrit mantras designed to promote unity and appease the divine forces  Please explore this idea for our readers.  How can they connect with it?

Elena: No one can ignore the awful pain and suffering that the war in Ukraine is causing.  I wanted to offer something that would raise money and perhaps help promote peace on a deeper level.  My first hurdle was finding a venue.  The lovely people at Compass Chelsea Yoga Studio offered me their space for free, and from there I advertised the event both online and in the neighborhood.  In the end, we had a gathering of about twelve or so people (including a dog!) and we chanted Vedic mantras for an hour.  All the mantras were aimed at promoting unity.  Through the sounds of the mantras and the good intentions of the participants in the event, I hope that some positivity was experienced on deeper levels. 

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Elena Jessup

Q8 In your opinion, how powerful is it to chant Sanskrit Mantras?  Do you have any experience you want to share with our readers?

Elena: My experience of chanting Sanskrit is incredibly powerful, but it’s not the sort of external power that gets in your face and knocks you over.  Rather, it is subtle, and because of this subtlety, it is powerful.  It gets behind the external appearances of things.  It’s a process of refinement, and it’s the journey that matters with it, not the outcome.  Pronunciation and listening are of utmost importance.  I chant every day with my students at school.  We begin each lesson with five minutes of chanting.  The class could be in total disarray when you walk into the room, but after five minutes of Sanskrit chanting the atmosphere, clears and students are calm and ready for work. 

Q9 What do you think about the commercialization of Sanskrit?  What are the prospects of Sanskrit in the future market of languages?

Elena: Any time Sanskrit comes up in the media, it’s good news because it means more people get to hear about it.  So, I don’t want to deny the commercialization of Sanskrit because it’s a way for people to know about its importance. 

I suppose what is frustrating is when pop stars or authors only go so far with it and don’t bother to take it further.  I’m thinking here, for example, of Madonna’s Shanti / Ashtangi song from 1998.  It’s a pity that Madonna only pursued Sanskrit to the extent that it would make her music.  For myself, I think it is important to have an attitude of reverence towards all the great gurus in the Sanskrit tradition if I am getting paid to do some teaching.  “Śrīgurubhyo namaḥ hariḥ om“is an important phrase. I’m not sure about the prospects of Sanskrit in the future market of languages, and I wish I could be more optimistic.  I think that unless the general population sees its importance, its influence may wane, especially in the West.  For example, three years ago our UK Sanskrit A-level examination (university entrance exams for 18-year-olds) was terminated because there were not enough candidates.  Another example — I have tried twice to get Duolingo to teach Sanskrit on its app, and I’ve been rejected both times (I wrote them two letters in Sanskrit!) 

I suppose it’s thought Sanskrit isn’t a money-spinner, like Mandarin or Spanish. On the other hand, the pandemic opened learning Sanskrit to many Yoga practitioners.  But in the end, the question remains: are we, the human race, going to really pursue learning Sanskrit and enter into its spiritual tradition instead of just skating on the surface? ?  The answer remains to be seen.

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