Keeper of the Fading Word: Muslim champions Sanskrit

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Sep 5 16:45:43 UTC 2005

Keeper of the Fading Word

This Muslim from Solapur learnt Sanskrit in a village school and became an
unlikely champion of an ancient language

Mrinmayee Ranade

Mumbai, September 4: As the taxi winds its way to the Junglee Peer Dargah
at Worli, you pass numerous men in skull caps and women in burqas. It is
not a place you expect to find a renowned master of Sanskrit, also the
honorary organiser of the state governments Standing Committee on
Sanskrit.  You get off at the base of a hillock and climb the steep
incline for a minute to reach the masters three-room house in a chawl. A
henna-haired woman in her 60s takes you to his room. On the way, you
almost step on a cat lazing in the kitchen.

Ghulam Ali Birajdar (70) is sitting on a bed in a white shirt and pyjamas
and welcomes you in impeccable Marathi. Conspicuous in his huge library is
the Sanskritam Kuranam (the Kuran in Sanskrit). A farmers son, Birajdar
grew up in Akkalkot in Solapur district but left the village for Solapur
town in the late 1940s. The place he arrived at had no land for him to
till, so he worked as a coolie at the railway station. It was during this
time that he heard the sounds of chanting coming from a nearby village

He went in and said he wanted to learn whatever they were chanting. I met
my first teacher, Vitthal Deekshit, there. Though I am a Muslim, he
accepted me as his disciple and my lessons in the Vedas began. It was
after nearly two years that I realised I was learning Sanskrit, he
recollects, with a twinkle in his eyes. Birajdar learnt all the Sanskrit
the school had to offer and came to Mumbai in 1958. With help from a
family friend, he became a teacher in the Maratha Mandir High School at
Worli. He retired in 1993. The turning point was 1969, when the new
national education policy was announced.

The new policy intended to drop Sanskrit from the school syllabus. So some
friends and I travelled the country, explaining the greatness of Sanskrit.
Today, it continues to be taught in schools nationwide, he says. We are
privileged to have Birajdars expertise available to us. We intend to use
that to preserve and promote this important language, said state Education
Minister Vasant Purke. Birajdar reminds you hes not the first Muslim to
love Sanskrit.  Shahistekhan, who got his fingers chopped off by Shivaji,
Mehmood of Gazni and former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir Shaikh
Abdulla were great fans of the language too, he says.

And he firmly believes the language is far from dying. It will live on,
but we have to keep using it. There is so much knowledge it has to offer.
Is it as simple as he makes it? You can learn basic Sanskrit in 10 days,
he insists. Birajdar has built a research centre in Akkalkot, to locate
verses having similar meaning from the Kuran, the Hadis, the Puranas and
the Vedas. He plans to publish a collection of such common verse from both

Even as he talks, he is planning a trip to Hyderabad for more awareness
meetings and campaigns across the city for the Language of the Gods.

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