An ancient tongue, but not extinct
Scholar wants more people to study the Sanskrit language to better understand shared Indian-Thai beliefs
Chirapat Prapandvidya, the Sanskrit scholar who was awarded India's fourth-highest civilian award by the Indian president for his role in promoting the language in Thailand, wants more Thais to take up the language, saying it would confer lifelong benefits to its learners.
The Sanskrit scholar from Silpakorn University was recently invited to the Indian embassy in Bangkok after he was awarded the Padma Shri Award by the Indian government -- a civilian honour awarded to individuals in recognition of their distinguished service in the field of arts, education, industry, literature, science, acting, medicine, social service and public affairs.
The government announces the awardees on India's Republic Day annually -- along with recipients of the Bharat Ratna, the Padma Vibhushan and the Padma Bhushan awards, which are conferred to individuals who have demonstrated exceptional and distinguished service for India.
Asst Prof Chirapat was among the 107 individuals who were honoured with the Padma Shri award this year -- the list of which only contains 10 non-Indian citizens.
The Sanskrit expert received the award for his contribution in promoting the language in Thailand -- not only was he the founder of Silpakorn University's Sanskrit Studies Centre, he has also published over a hundred articles on Sanskrit and Indology.
In fact, he received the President's Award from the Indian government back in 2017 for his efforts to promote Sanskrit.
Speaking to the Bangkok Post after the event, Asst Prof Chirapat said he first began studying Sanskrit and Indology in 1960 at Silpakorn University.
He said Sanskrit is culturally very relevant to Thais, as Thais believe in many philosophical teachings which originated in the Indian subcontinent.
"We believe in rebirth, a belief which we came out of India a long time ago. We also share nirvana as our ultimate goal in life," he said.
"Many Thai names also were also derived from Sanskrit. As we can see, Sanskrit is deeply ingrained in our lives."
As such, he said, learning Sanskrit will help Thais better understand the origins of their culture.
"Hinduism and Thai Buddhism are both based on Vedas, though over time they evolved into separate forms. Learning the language will help one better understand our shared beliefs, and make us less prejudiced against others, as it teaches us to be humane," he said.
Asst Prof Chirapat went on to say that Sanskrit studies go beyond languages, as it often crosses over into the field of archaeology. Learning the language, he said, would therefore be beneficial to those employed as tourist guides.
"Without an adequate knowledge of Indian culture, you won't be able to satisfactorily explain other Southeast Asian cultures, as the region is deeply intertwined with India throughout its history," he said.
"If we do not know their origins, we would not be able to appreciate and understand cultural artefacts from both Southeast Asia and India."
He expressed his concern about the decreasing number of Sanskrit students in class, despite the increasing number of universities offering Sanskrit courses.
The reason, he said, is because the language is difficult to master and has little practical use.
That said, Asst Prof Chirapat still has high hopes for Sanskrit studies in Thailand.
"I'm trying to attract those with basic understanding of Pali texts, such as monks, to study the language, as it will be easier for them to take up Sanskrit in a relatively short amount of time," he said, adding an increasing number of retirees have expressed their interest in taking up Sanskrit to fill their free time.
Asst Prof Chirapat said he disagrees with people who say that Sanskrit is an extinct language, saying the language isn't "dead" because it is still widely understood in India.
"This language is one of India's official languages," he explained.