Learning the language of the Gods
Not sure whether it’s serendipity or destiny, I’m inclined towards the latter. Over the past few months, I have been thinking actively about learning Sanskrit. The reason is just one: having read almost every volume written in English, finally I want to be able to read and enjoy the Mahabharata and the Vedas in their own language, perhaps even attempt a translation of my own. It is difficult for me to call it the language of the Gods, but there is something magical in the power of its words.
Yesterday, a set of seven books landed on my desk. Targeted at the young, they are positioned as an introduction to learning the language. Broken into three parts, this set looks promising enough for me to finally take the plunge into the world of Sanskrit. The first part (Sanskrit is Fun is in three volumes) takes us till sentence construction. The second (The Story of Rama is in two volumes) and third (The Stories of Krishna) are in two parts each. Here, storytelling is merged into learning the language. You can find all seven books on this badly-designed page.
“By the time learners have completed these books it is expected they would have a good basic grasp of the Sanskrit language, its vocabulary, structure and grammar,” says Satya Vrat Shastri, honorary professor at the Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies at JNU. “These books may well dispel the notion that Sanskrit is a difficult language.”
My lessons begin tomorrow.
I’m clearly destined to learn this sacred language. Two days ago, this delightful piece landed on my Twitter. In Why I’m Studying Sanskrit, Justin Erik Halldór Smith talks about his adventures in learning this “month-long ultra-intensive spoken Sanskrit course at the University of Heidelberg”. His treatment of the subject is worthy of a person schooled in the guru-shishya parampara.
“Only in India will a Western philosopher find a complete and autonomous counterpart of his own tradition,” he wrote. “And yet, I have colleagues in Canada and America who still believe that there is no philosophy in India, that speculation about truth and being in India is merely superstition. In order to eradicate their ignorance, the West needs philosophers who are mediators. The West needs philosophers who are competent in both traditions. I would like to be such a philosopher.”
There is clearly a mantric quality to this language — you only need to listen to a pundit reciting shlokas correctly to feel the words move within you, become you. When done with correct intonation, I find the result very often to be something spiritual, they touch something deep within me. As a scientific language, the language carries a precision that goes beyond words. And spiritually, it towers over all.
“The Vedic Sanskrit represents a still earlier stratum in the development of language,” Sri Aurobindo wrote in The Secret of the Veda. “Even in its outward features it is less fixed than any classical tongue; it abounds in a variety of forms and inflexions; it is fluid and vague, yet richly subtle in its use of cases and tenses. And on its psychological side it has not yet crystallised, is not entirely hardened into the rigid forms of intellectual precision. The word for the Vedic Rishi is still a living thing, a thing of power, creative, formative. It is not yet a conventional symbol for an idea, but itself the parent and former of ideas. It carries within it the memory of its roots, is still conscient of its own history.”
If you want to understand this spiritual quality of the language, listen to some chants at Vedavichara to know how deep the words can sink. Warning: if it’s pop music you’re searching for or even melody, stay away; if it is a soul-stirring recital of mantras with qualities that go beyond the mind, this is your destination.
And yet, why is Sanskrit is close to extinction, with a few brave scholars still studying, researching or living this sacred language? Politics could be the reason. As the transfer of power moved from the entrenched to the downtrodden, and perhaps as a rebellion to the atrocities of the past that limited the language of the few, by the few and for the few, it lost its contact with the soul of India. Millennia later, the language is paying the price for its hijack.
In his outstanding treatise The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (you can read Chapter 1 here), Columbia professor of south Asian studies and former professor of Sanskrit Sheldon Pollock argues that Sanskrit was never the vehicle for memories or life experiences. Do read the book to get a political insight into the language.
“Sanskrit was never bound to the land, to the village, or to any specific regional community,” he writes. “Indeed, when Sanskrit was finally constituted as the vehicle for political expression in inscriptions, the business of land or village — the specifics of a grant or endowment or bequest — came increasingly to be done in non-Sanskrit languages, especially in south India and Southeast Asia. Given such traits, Sanskrit in precolonial India has sometimes been analogized to postcolonial English, as being in some fundamental sense “inauthentic” (a judgment with respect to consciousness) or “illegitimate” (a judgment with respect to class location).”
With politics changing and a transfer of power happening not only to the weak and vulnerable within India but from the West to the East globally, for any Indian scholar, writer or policymaker, learning Sanskrit becomes important to negotiate the emerging landscape — we can’t wade in the deepening and widening waters of global ideas without knowing who we are.