Sanskrit: the mother of languages

“MOTHER OF ALL LANGUAGES” (how Srila Prabhupada referred to Sanskrit on a morning walk, Bombay Nov 20, 1975)

The children stare at the chart of Sanskrit written in Devanagari letters, which literally means “the script of the demigods”.  “Uh ahh, i ee, oo ooh, ay igh, oh ow . . .,” they chant.

As the students recite the Sanskrit alphabet, I recall that Krishna tells Arjuna, “I am the letter ‘a’.”   That Sanskrit letter, combined (sandhi) with ‘u’ to form ‘o’ and joined with ‘m,’ is the pranava, or omkara, which is also Krishna.  This Sanskrit letter ‘a,’ pronounced like the ‘u’ in ‘bus,’ a simple sound of breath without the use of tongue or lips, is the beginning of all language. (letter Hayagriva 68-10-07).

Krishna speaks all languages and accepts prayers in any one of them. Still, Sanskrit, which is the language of His own abode and the planets of the demigods in this universe, is especially suitable for understanding and glorifying Him.

So, when we started a gurukula, we first looked for a Sanskrit teacher.  Over many years, we had several teachers who used varying methods, achieving mixed results.  I suppose we included Sanskrit in the gurukula simply because Prabhupada told us it was compulsory (letter Gopala Krsna 76-06-24).

Then we couldn’t find a teacher.  Reluctantly, with great doubt as to possible success, I surrendered to Krishna’s clear demand: to learn some Sanskrit and teach it myself.

Immediately I faced, internally, the scrutiny to which I subject all details of all subjects we teach to our students: why?  Why Sanskrit?

What is perhaps most obvious is that knowing some basic vocabulary and grammar makes it easier to memorize verses because the verses make sense rather than being a string of unintelligible sounds.  (lecture 73 SB in LA)  Why memorize at all? Memorization helps knowledge to be internalized rather than dependent on always having a book on hand to consult.  Without some Sanskrit knowledge, verses are very difficult to memorize, or even read.  We can remember them so much more easily if we understand what we memorize.  And just learning the Sanskrit and English translation separately isn’t the same as being able to think of the meaning as one says each Sanskrit word.

When we can understand what we memorize, appreciation of the scripture deepens.  (garden conversation London July 25, 1973).  Just as an expert literature teacher helps the students analyze each important phrase or word, those who know even a little Sanskrit can immerse themselves in a depth of understanding little guessed at by simply seeing the surface of meaning.  As Prabhupada wrote Satsvarupa Maharaja, “As you begin to study the Sanskrit words, in each word you will find a treasure house of different understanding.”

After memorizing and deeply studying many verses, one can firmly know what is and is not a bona fide interpretation and application of the scriptures. (room conversation London, Sept. 11, 1969)  We can easily see how not understanding the original language can lead to serious problems; For example, some Bibles have “food” translated as “meat” so that the hapless reader, ignorant of Aramaic and Greek, thinks that a particular Bible verse sanctions meat-eating.  In the same way, there are many translations of the Bhagavad-gita or Srimad Bhagavatam that distort and misrepresent the actual meaning.  With some grounding in the original language, Sanskrit, one will know where to place their faith and be able to help those who’ve been misguided by twisted understanding.

Those with such an education in Sanskrit can preach effectively on the basis of scripture. (room conversation, London, Sept. 11, 1969) Anyone, even if illiterate, can have firm individual faith in a bona fide guru and Krishna just by chanting Hare Krishna.  But at least some persons should be prepared to preach on the basis of an in-depth knowledge of sacred texts.  At least we should give all our children the opportunity to become so prepared, even though only some will take full advantage of that opportunity.

Those who attain expertise in Sanskrit can read all the Vedic literatures.  (lecture SB 76 in VRN)  There are many wonderful devotional works by great spiritual teachers, acharyas, that are gradually becoming available through the work of such experts.

What of persons like me who never become so expert?  What of a spiritual practitioner who can’t even memorize more than a handful of verses?  Does Sanskrit study benefit him or her?  Even those persons who have little interest or ability in language can at least learn how to pronounce Sanskrit properly. Prabhupada said (room conversation, Toronto, June 17, 1976) that he could judge the progress of our gurukula students by how nicely they could chant and pronounce Sanskrit verses.  He wrote Pradyumna (70-04-05) that proper pronunciation would “be a great help for me . . .(as it) will be another effect of transcendental sound vibration.” When we adults who’ve been raised in the West mispronounce Sanskrit, saying for example, “Bhai Bobbee” (brother and sister-in-law) instead of “Vaibhavi”  (a great, glorious personality) a knowledgeable person may smile in understanding. After all, a native English speaker tolerates a foreigner saying “dessert” instead of “desert.”  But those who are born and trained in Krishna consciousness have every reason to learn properly from the beginning, just as the children of immigrants to American generally speak flawless English.  This is such an elementary principle of our children’s education that Prabhupada considered an education without it “a useless waste of time.” (letter to Aksobhya 74-09-03)

Finally, our society of devotees, as well as society in general, will benefit if at least our children learn Sanskrit, even if we can’t study it as adults. Formerly, the language of the educated was Sanskrit, whatever the local dialect. (lecture CC 1967 in NY)  There is ample evidence that Sanskrit was once spoken throughout the whole world. (morning walk, Bombay, Nov 20, 1975)  Prabhupada suggested that Sanskrit be the national language of, at least, India, if not the whole world.  That common language, which is so much a part of culture, will help to break down the barriers of nationalism, bringing people to the understanding that Krishna is the proprietor.  That would be the real United Nations. (room conversation, Bhubaneswar, Jan. 29, 1977)  If at least among educated people, there is one language, Sanskrit, and one culture, Vedic, then there will be no disunion.  (lecture CC 1967 NY) To a very small extent, the few Sanskrit terms that are fully integrated into ISKCON terminology represent this unity of culture in our world-wide movement. How much more would this language unify us if we pronounced it properly and with understanding?

It is essential that we remember, when considering the study of any subject that will help our Krishna consciousness rather than being the study of Krishna consciousness directly, that all such study is a means to an end. We don’t want to encourage every spiritual seeker or every child to be a Sanskrit scholar any more than we expect every person to be an artist or accountant, both of which talents can certainly be used in Krishna’s service.  Nor do we want anyone to become a scholar for its own sake, playing with grammar and word meaning as an intellectual exercise.  It is our duty to give all our children the basic knowledge of Sanskrit, as much or more so than it is our duty to teach them basic math or geography.  And those of us who start the spiritual life as adults can use the format of Prabhupada’s books with the word-by-word translations and pronunciation guide to at least gain some rudimentary familiarity with this divine and perfect language so loved by the Lord and saintly persons.

a great on-line Sanskrit course

Three quotes from Prabhupada