By Ramakrishna (Mark Jenkins, BA)
In the summer of 2015 I had the privilege of attending the Beginning Telugu intensive course at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Before this course my relationship with Telugu was one of struggle, frustration, and uncertainty.
For the three years before the UW course I had been teaching Elementary and Intermediate Telugu through an online course sponsored by Divine Lineage. There are several students that started from the beginning with the online course and are still continuing to study Telugu to this day. The biggest limitation of the course was the teacher, me. I could only teach what I had learned and many times I had to learn things in order to teach them! Not being a native speaker, however, there was very little that I could teach with certainty. We primarily followed a text book that was the best resource we could find.
For many reasons, there are very few resources that teach Telugu in a comprehensive, accurate way. My first attempts at learning Telugu began in late 2000 and the only book I could find in all of Bangalore that made any attempt to teach Telugu is still around. Its title is ‘Learn Telugu in 30 Days’. I remember how optimistic I was when I first got this book. I had some facility with languages and thought to myself, “30 days? I’ll finish this book in two weeks.” It was a mere 60 pages of double spaced writing.
Needless to say after finishing that pamphlet of a book, I was not fluent in Telugu. Furthermore, unlike Sanskrit, Telugu is not highly standardized. It is a fluid, poetic, and lyrical language. Because of its elasticity it has the ability to express multiple layers of depth and meaning. However this also means that if you ask a question to a person who lives in Penukonda, they may (and almost always did!) give a completely different answer than someone who lives just 20 kilometers away. As a foreigner trying to gain clarity and understanding, it was very frustrating. I would read a word in a book, learn that vocabulary, then try to use it around the ashram talking with different staff or locals. Invariably I would end up repeating the word 10 or more times and trying to explain what it was I thought it meant, only to be corrected with a different word. And when I would test out that word, I would meet with the same process. It was maddening. I had no way to know whether I was making any progress or not and after a short time, usually a few months, would lose my inspiration.
At some point or other Swami would again exhort us to learn Telugu, I would regain my inspiration and start again. If three or four months had passed, I would be going over the same vocabulary words and repeat the whole process again. Years would pass like this and instead of learning how to speak Telugu I had better success being able to listen to people speaking it and grabbing a few words and context. Any other way of learning was fruitless because there were simply no good resources for learning Telugu.
In case you aren’t familiar with the teachings of this lineage, they all come from palm leaf manuscripts that Sri Kaleshwar considered his life mission to share with the world. In this atmosphere, when he begged and pleaded and commanded his students to learn Telugu it created a huge pressure for me. I felt I had the ability to learn Telugu but simply couldn’t manage it. After 4 or 5 years passed in this way I remember telling Swami that personally I felt that without a teacher I had no confidence I could learn Telugu in any significant way. Swami eventually hired Telugu teachers to work with us. They were great people, dedicated and sincere, but being able to teach a language competently requires a special skill set. Needless to say, we went through three or four Telugu teachers with minimal results.
After Swami took samadhi in 2012 the students returned to their home countries. I was fortunate enough to live at the Divine Lineage Healing Center where daily life centers completely around the knowledge and practices taught by Sri Kaleshwar. With the Telugu resources available through the internet growing exponentially I wanted to create a Telugu study group of 8 to 10 people and sent out an email inviting anyone to be a part of it. Instead I got over 70 requests from students eager to learn Telugu. It wasn’t what I had in mind but since there was a real demand for it I felt that I could at least teach everyone to read and write and speak simple Telugu sentences, and that’s how Sacred Telugu was born.
Teaching Telugu was very difficult for me. I had pieced together whatever level of Telugu understanding I had over a 12 year period and from many different resources and experiences. Formalizing it into something that people could comprehend and digest was very challenging. I have to say I was not a good teacher for the first six months as it took so much time for me to create even simple handouts. And every month I would watch the number of students fall from 70 to 50 to 30 and eventually to 15. But that group of 15 was amazing. Their dedication and hard work inspired me to work hard for them. Together we did make headway and personally I learned a lot.
By 2015 I wasn’t so much a teacher as a guide and touchstone for our classes. I was also learning new concepts and when anyone asked even a simple question it would sometimes take me 2 or 3 or 5 hours of research to be able to answer it. We were for the most part all intermediate level students and I knew it couldn’t continue this way as we had reached the limits of my Telugu ability and we were wholly reliant upon the text book we were following.
Believe me when I say I had exhausted every avenue to becoming more fluent in Telugu that I could find. I had many pen pals, and not one of them ever answered one of my questions in grammatical way. I had come to understand that most people who speak Telugu have no grammatical understanding of the language. Many kids today born in Andhra Pradesh can speak Telugu fluently but can’t read it. With the focus on getting good jobs they spend their time instead learning English. This is completely true. The only competent Telugu teacher I had ever come across was a retired university professor and her rate was $75/hr!
I mention all this to give you some background on what it is like to learn Telugu today. The language itself, it turns out, is really not that hard to learn. Until we met Afsar Mohammed at UW Madison, I had not idea this was the case because I never knew how deep the Telugu waters were or where I was in my learning. Perhaps you can imagine my relief and joy to attend that course. What took us nearly 2 years to learn through my online class we learned in about 8 weeks, with more clarity and depth of understanding because Afsar is not only a renowned Telugu poet and scholar, he had also been Editor-in-Chief of the largest Telugu newspapers in India. When he answers a question, he can identify the confusion and answer explicitly and support it through multiple examples. While we expect this kind of thing from our teachers in the States, perhaps you can now understand how incredible and rare this really is. When you add to that his ability to bring people along so fast it is literally unbelievable, brand new students were speaking simple sentences by the end of the first week, then hopefully you can grasp the real value of these intensive courses at UW Madison. Simply stated, there is nothing like it anywhere for foreigners who want to learn Telugu.
As I write this I am in Austin, Texas. Dr. Afsar teaching the summer course in Wisconsin but he started the Telugu program at UT Austin and this is where he teaches during the academic year. I moved here just one month back in order to take advantage of this valuable resource. I plan to audit classes at UT Austin beginning in the fall. Just today I went to his office and spent an hour with him. We are starting to create an advanced Telugu course and I have the honor of helping him to do it. As I am living and able to study with him here in Austin it didn’t make sense to me to spend the significant amount of money it takes to send each student to the UW program, which is the only reason I am not also planning to attend the intensive UW Intermediate Telugu course this summer. If money were not an issue, I would go anyway because there is simply no better way to learn Telugu than to have 22 hours of class combined with 25 to 35 hours of Telugu studying every week while being guided by this remarkable teacher. Progress is swift and sure.
Attending the UW program last summer has opened so many doors and opportunities. Our group also had the effect of inspiring Dr. Afsar to create heretofore non-existent advanced Telugu programs that he will offer at UT Austin and UW Madison. Our group showed him that there is a demand for Telugu here in the US and in Europe beyond what he had imagined.
The list of benefits of the UW course goes on and on. So many critical intangibles that can’t be expressed. Again, I am sharing this so that you can have a more accurate understanding at just how gigantic a leap has happened in our student kingdom in the last year only because we attended the intensive summer course at UW Madison last summer.
Before the intensive Intermediate Telugu course can be offered at UW, the Beginning Telugu course must happen the year before. Our 2015 Beginning course has now made it possible for UW to offer the Intermediate Telugu course. We now have the chance to send Sri Kaleshwar students to the 2016 Intermediate Telugu intensive this summer and, please know this to be true: Without your help, it will not happen. We simply don’t have the resources to do it ourselves.
If you want to be a part of pushing Swami’s mission forward, his desire to share the ancient teaching of the palm leaf manuscripts that already have made a real difference in many thousands of people’s lives, supporting this campaign by donating money will make a direct and significant difference. Please please donate whatever you are able to make this happen.
In Love and Gratitude,
Ramakrishna (Mark Jenkins, BA)
first met Sri Kaleshwar in 1997 and soon after moved to Penukonda, India to study and practice the ancient knowledge shared by Sri Kaleshwar. Ramakrishna teaches Beginning and Intermediate Telugu online. He is certified by Sri Kaleshwar to heal, mentor, give shaktipat transmission and teach the ancient enlightenment techniques.