Why This Columbia Graduate Built a Spoken Sanskrit Start-Up

While studying for a masters in global thought, Abhinav Seetharaman, a keen linguist, decided to incubate an online venture teaching people one of the oldest living languages in the world — Sanskrit, the language of Bharat’s epics. He spoke to Grin about his venture Spoken Sanskrit and how it was actually co-founded with a Chinese student who has gone onto to a PhD in Sanskrit and Tamil literature.

sanskrit
Abhinav Seetharaman is an accomplished musician as well as a language entrepreneur. Source: grin.news

1. Why did you decide to start the Spoken Sanskrit venture?

For years, people have been intimidated and reluctant to learn Sanskrit due to their belief that it is too grammatically complex. Many have associated Sanskrit as being a rather mundane language, solely linked to prayers and ancient scriptures. However, Sanskrit’s scientific structure and immaculate precision is what makes it such a beautiful language in the first place. My goal when starting this channel was to break down this seemingly complex language in a way that makes it enjoyable to learn.

Moreover, I wanted to dispel notions that Sanskrit is a dead language when in fact, it is not. It has simply offered too much to the world — with its cultural density — to be neglected, and has stood as a major symbol of India and beyond for millennia. Starting Spoken Sanskrit Series was thus an ideal way for me to work towards achieving these goals.

2. Take us through your journey in learning Sanskrit. Why did you decide to start?

My journey with Sanskrit actually started with Carnatic music (South-Bharat’s classical music), as I play the mridangam (South-Bharat’s classical drum) professionally. Many Carnatic songs have been composed in Sanskrit, and as a mridangist, I usually provide percussion accompaniment to vocalists on stage. As I performed concerts, however, I never really understood the meaning of these songs that were so beautifully composed in Sanskrit, and I accompanied to the tune and beat rather than to the actual lyrics.

So I realized that by understanding the lyrics, I could become a more acute and sensitive accompanist. I started to learn Sanskrit with Samskrita Bharati USA through a 3-year intensive program — for high-school students — called “Sanskrit as a Foreign Language” (SAFL). I think it was a rather spontaneous decision to start learning Sanskrit at that particular point, and since then, it’s been an eye-opening journey for me.

3. How has Sanskrit changed your life?

I would be lying to you if I said that Sanskrit hasn’t developed in me a greater sense of appreciation and a deeper understanding of Bharatiya culture, its origins, and influences on the world. At a fundamental level, Sanskrit is a part of my heritage and has shaped my identity significantly. As a Bharatiya-American, it is all the more important for me to stay connected to my roots. As such, I feel that Sanskrit has empowered me to be a cultural ambassador, not only for the language but also — in the larger scheme of things — for Bharat.

4. You started this channel while at Columbia University along with students who were not Bharatiyas— tell us about that experience.

I co-founded the channel in 2016 along with my good Chinese friend Yang Qu (then at Columbia, now pursuing his PhD in Sanskrit and Tamil literature at Harvard). Incidentally, we first met through a class we both took at Columbia that year, after which we came up with the idea of starting a YouTube channel dedicated towards propagating Sanskrit in a manner that easily resonates with viewers globally.

Furthermore, by structuring it like a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), we figured we could play a crucial role in the Sanskrit Revival Movement. To see my peers from different ethnic backgrounds speak the language so beautifully made me realize that we are culturally connected in more than one way: in this particular case, through language.

5. What are your plans with this channel?

As I mentioned earlier, I hope to see the channel play a major part in the Sanskrit Revival Movement. So far, many viewers have expressed their brimming enthusiasm and desire to spread Sanskrit in their respective countries and regions, which has been extremely encouraging. Ultimately, the end goal will always be to have the channel continue to spread its wings and reach viewers in various pockets of the globe.

Through my world travels, I wish to see Sanskrit as a linguistic medium that enhances cultural sensitivity between the citizens and countries of the world. To introduce people to the language and to cultivate a sense of increased appreciation for Sanskrit would be the greatest victory.

(This interview was published on grin.news)


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