Simple ways to teach children Sanskrit and Music
Srila Prabhupada wanted our children to learn English and Sanskrit so that they could study his books deeply. In a Srimad Bhagavatam lecture in 1974 he said:
“Our students specifically, they should take care of reading Srimad-Bhagavatam. We have therefore prescribed in our school at Dallas, that let them simply learn Sanskrit and English, because English translation they will be able to read, and the Sanskrit verses are there. And from the very beginning, if they begin education with Bhagavad-gita and then come to Srimad-Bhagavatam and read the whole literature, then they will be more than M.A., Ph.D. The knowledge will be so advanced.”
Srila Prabhupada did not want the children to study Sanskrit simply to become grammarians or scholars. Rather he wanted them to learn Sanskrit and English so that they could read his books deeply and teach them to others.
Often when devotees approached Srila Prabhupada with the desire to learn Sanskrit, he engaged them in preaching instead. He cautioned them that little knowledge is a dangerous thing we can become proud and lose our focus on devotional service. To learn Sanskrit properly, one has to study grammar diligently for at least 12 years.
But Srila Prabhupada encouraged Sanskrit as a subject in the gurukula, since children can be properly trained in the language from an early age. In this way, they can understand the meaning of the scriptures more deeply and use that knowledge in practicing and preaching Krsna consciousness. He said that when we study the Sanskrit verses, in each word we will find a treasure-house of meaning.
A good example was set by Lord Caitanya when he opened his Sanskrit school in Navadvipa at the age of sixteen. In this school, He would simply explain Krsna, even in readings of grammar. Later, Srila Jiva Goswami, in order to please the Lord, composed a Sanskrit grammar book called Hari-namamrta-vyakarana in which all the rules of grammar were composed with holy names of the Lord. Thus, anyone who learned the rules would be reciting the names of Krsna and in this way receive immense spiritual benefit.
Srila Prabhupada said the Sanskrit verses in his books are meant for our understanding and memorization. We repeat the verses again and again so that we can memorize and recall them when there is a need. He said that every word in Sanskrit literature has a particular meaning, particular thought. Therefore, the language is called sanskrta, refined and purified.
How to Teach Sanskrit
The best way to learn Sanskrit is to find a local devotee who can teach your children on a regular basis. In Boise, we were fortunate to have a Sanskrit teacher, Gary Thomas, who is a self-taught Sanskritist. In fact, he is an expert linguist and knows more than 10 languages. He diligently taught my sons once a week for several years. He always made it fun and challenging and sometimes they would be absorbed for two or three hours. He used Kusakratha Prabhu’s grammar and Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita as his main textbooks. Gary is now preparing a home study correspondence course for children, and is already trying it with a few students from different parts of the country.
Rote (Memorization through Repetition)
For those of us who do not have a Sanskrit teacher we can teach our children Sanskrit through the Bhagavad-gita and the Srimad-Bhagavatam. We can help them repeat, memorize, and understand the shlokas and their word meanings. They can also write the verse for the day on flashcards so that reviewing it later is fun and easy. They can make a project to learn one verse a week (or day!) until they learn an entire chapter of Bhagavad-gita. One home-schooled boy in Boise did this as a summer project and then recited the entire Bhagavad-gita at a special event in the temple!
Rote is a very important part of home schooling. In ancient Vedic education, there was no book. A child would be educated simply by hearing from the guru. Therefore, the Vedic literature is known as shruti. Memorization makes the mind strong and sharp. Children can memorize practically anything very quickly, and they will never forget the verses they learn as small children. Learning verses is also a lot of fun for children, especially if we give them opportunities to use and recite them.
Children have a natural desire to sing and play musical instruments. If we don’t direct them towards Krishna conscious music then later in life they will experiment with all kinds of sense gratificatory music. Srila Prabhupada taught us that art, music, dance and all human talents should glorify the Supreme Lord. In one lecture he said, “Now, here, the bhakti-yoga system is that if you stick to the hearing of Hare Krishna and the music, melodious music of khol, karatala, then naturally you become detestful for hearing other songs. So this is practically indriya-samyama.”
Music provides a wonderful way for children to express their creative side, and it is something they will value throughout their lives. Right from the beginning of a child’s life, we can introduce the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra and have devotional music playing in the house. This will not only create a wonderful environment but will also make the child musically inclined. In the early years, we can have our children use simple instruments such as clackers, tambourines, triangles, cymbals, and small drums instruments that do not require complex musical training. We can encourage them to gradually play on beat by taking their hands in ours and showing them how others are playing. Prabhupada encouraged his disciples to use these simple instruments in the early days before they knew how to play mrdanga and harmonium. He taught them the beat 1-2-3, and the “swami step” to dance.
For my children, for the first five years we used these simple instruments and clapping. I had little musical abilities, so after they turned six I took them to a piano teacher since we did not have a harmonium teacher in Boise. They learned how to play piano for about three years. Then His Holiness Ganapati Swami, who would visit Boise regularly, suggested that the children try to play the harmonium by ear, by putting on a chanting tape and finding the notes on the harmonium. It actually worked and gradually they improved and were able to play more complicated tunes by ear. Because he was two years younger, Gopal did not have much piano training, but he did very well on the harmonium by ear. So you can try either way or both. Some amount of training in piano is beneficial, because they learn the music notes, chords, scales, and timing, which are common to many other instruments. Also, an important thing to remember is that the children need a lot of encouragement while they practice and we should try to make it fun and challenging.
I remember some of the most enjoyable times in our home schooling were when we did music together chanting and playing musical instruments. They learned how to play karatalas by practicing during kirtanas, and mridanga from a mridanga guide book available from the BBT. When traveling devotees came through Boise, they would learn a new beat and practice in kirtana.
Aruddha Devi Dasi is a disciple of His Holiness Gopala Krishna Goswami Maharaja. She home-schooled her two children. Her older son, Radhika Ramana Dasa (Dr. Ravi Gupta), holds a Ph.D in Hinduism from Oxford. He entered Boise State University at the age of 13, where he completed dual B.A. degrees in Philosophy and Mathematics with highest honors. Her second son Gopala Hari Dasa (Gopal Gupta) is currently working towards his Ph.D in Science and Religion at Oxford University. He entered Boise State University at the age of 12 where he completed a bachelor’s degree and M.Tech. in Electrical Engineering with highest honors.
Readers interested in learning more can join her internet group www.krishnahomeschool.com