By Nithin Sridhar
“World Sanskrit Day” is celebrated every year on the full moon day in the month of Sravana. This year the full moon has fallen on 29-August, i.e. today. Sanskrit is considered as a mother of many of Indian languages. It is also called as “Deva-Bhasha”, the language of the Gods. Though, the usage of Sanskrit in daily life has declined over the last few centuries, yet its influence on Indian life, culture, traditions, art, religion, and practices are still alive and flourishing. Further, Sanskrit is used by various saints and priests to communicate with God, to practice devotion and perform rituals.
To know more about the importance of Sanskrit in today’s world, NewsGram spoke to Jeffrey Armstrong (also known as Kavindra Rishi), the founder of Vedic Academy of Science & Arts (VASA) and a well-known teacher of Yoga, Ayurveda and Bhagavad Gita.
Nithin Sridhar: What is the relevance of Sanskrit in modern day society? What role does it play globally in present times?
Jeffrey Armstrong: This is not the first time in recent history that Yoga and Vedic knowledge have left Bharat and are having a profound effect upon world culture. It is only we, who are unaware of the true history of the spread of language, knowledge, and culture on a global scale. Those who colonize other cultures and those who have founded the three Abrahamic religions have not been inclined to mention the sources of those from whom they have “borrowed” the knowledge and practice. This is the third time in the last 5000 years that Yogic wisdom has become a mass movement and reshaped the world.
The first was during the Persian Empire in Babylon from 1500-700 BCE during which time thinkers like Pythagoras (“Pitta Gurus”) were trained in Yoga and Vedic philosophy. The second was just before, during, and after the supposed time of Christ. It is a well-known historical fact that at least 150 ships per year were traveling back and forth between Rome and Bharat at that time. The ships were filled with products from both cultures on both legs of the arduous journey. They also carried language and culture and of course Yoga in all its forms.
For example, Sanskrit is definitely the Mother of Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and numerous European languages, concluding with English. World culture of the time was abundantly present at the great university in Alexandria, just down the road from where Jesus was supposedly in exile. This means that all three Abrahamic religions were formed surrounded by yogic knowledge. As a note, religion means re-ligare or bound by rules. So only these three qualify as religions. Vedic culture including the Buddhist version are properly called “Dharma Cultures”, since neither are bound by a single “rule book”. Buddha was a reformer of the Vedic culture and not the founder of a religion; the same is true for the Jain Dharma and Mahavira. You could think of the three Abrahamic religions as “people of a book”, whereas the Vedic people are the “people of a library”.
NS: How important is Sanskrit to the practitioners of Hinduism in US, especially to non-Indian practitioners?
JA: At this present moment, the first thing to notice is that no one has been funding the promotion of Yoga throughout the world. It is spreading as a live culture, like a healthy bacteria that is needed in the social body. There are at least 200 million neo-yogis worldwide who demonstrate clearly that the ancient culture of Bharat is alive and well. The same cannot be said for any other ancient methodology for self-realization. Yoga is fulfilling the modern needs for: healthy embodiment, a vegetarian and organic diet, a preventive and natural medical system, a male/female and healthy vision of the Supreme Beings, a view of Earth as a live entity who is sacred, a gentle and non-exploitive view of plants and animals, a many-lifetime world view rather than a fear-based one life perspective, as sex positive culture that sees the human body as a temple, as a practice that connects us to all life but leaves that connection in the hands of the individual, a freedom or moksha-based end goal which rewards individual effort without needless hierarchy and religious bureaucracy. These are just a few of the motivators for the millions of Americans who are adopting Yoga which again is rooted in Sanskrit.
NS: Tell us something about the relevance of Sanskrit in adhyatma (spirituality) and sanskriti (culture and tradition).
JA: A fair comparison would be to ask how relevant programming languages are to the performance of computers, culminating in their use for all forms of wireless communication. Similarly, Sanskrit is the foundation of adhyatma and sanskriti.
On a side note, spirituality is a confusing English word borrowed from the Greek language. The first problem is the use of the word God and many gods as also the word spiritual. The word “spiritual’’ is originated from the Greek word “Spiritus” which means “to breathe”. The English term God was originally a Sanskrit word taken from the Vedas and mentioned several times in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Hutam” or the smoke arising from an offering placed into a sacred fire ceremony. Hutam became “Gutam” in German, “Goot” in Dutch, and “God” in English.
Now the “God” word is the one and only cover word for the Supreme Reality in English. It does not have a specific meaning in English. What is mistakenly called Hindu religion should be referred to as Vedic Sanatan Dharma culture, meaning basically that they are involved with a body of learning which attempts to describe things that are always true. It is not just a book of rules, a blind-faith based club to join or an aggressive conversion based.
NS: In Hindu tradition, the letters (phonemes) of Sanskrit are believed to have been revealed to Panini by Lord Shiva which is popularly called as Maheshwara Sutras. How do you understand this? Should it be seen in a cosmic context as the very sound or shabda (word) being a manifestation of God, and Sanskrit a language which grew out of those phonemes as a language of the Gods?
JA: As I said God, religion and gods are not correct words to speak about Vedic Knowledge. Pannini did not receive the phonemes of Sanskrit, they were given to him in a specific order as 14 combinations which facilitated arranging the 4000 rules of Sanskrit grammar in the best possible arrangement to produce concise sutras. Sanskrit should be seen as the residence of the Devas who are really the various laws of nature. The Vedic idea of creation is that matter was “downloaded” from the realm of Brahman by sound vibration. Pannini said that he was the last scholar in the 50 generations of linguists working on perfecting the written rules of Sanskrit Grammar. That does not mean the letters, which are considered timeless and originated with Pannini.
NS: Why Sanskrit was used to impart Vedas and express other inner spiritual knowledge and experiences?
JA: The point of Deva Bhasa or Sanskritam was to use it as a programming language that does not “drift” or change over time. This would have allowed teachings to be passed on without loss or distortion over very long periods of time.
NS: Is it possible to convey the message of Hindu scriptures in its wholeness using languages like English? There are many terms in Sanskrit like Dharma, which cannot be translated into any single word in other languages. Please share your views about these “non-translatable” (a term often used by Rajiv Malhotra) words.
JA: No, it is not possible in English, German, Latin, Greek or any of the other languages which came from Sanskrit and are thus degraded forms of it. Groups of English words can be arranged to give a fairly accurate representation of those single Sanskrit words like Dharma. To do this requires deep scholarship in both languages. I am almost finished with a Bhagavad-Gita translation that has removed all Christianized English words and insists that the reader learn at least 200 Sanskrit words in order to express the many concepts that have never been explained by English words.
NS: What role has Sanskrit played in the propagation of Indic philosophy and way of life in history, not only in India, but across South Asia?
JA: Too big a question for this space but suffice it to say that if you dig beneath the surface in those cultures you will find Veda.
NS: In certain quarters of academic Sanskrit studies, Sanskrit is considered as being a language of hegemony and oppression throughout history and it is also alleged that Sanskrit was never a common man’s language and was always confined to the elites. What is your view on this?
JA: I believe what you mean is that in the academia created by countries like England, who colonized India and much of the world, extremely intelligent languages like Sanskrit are feared and have been suppressed by inventing the story that they were elitist and that they had been used to suppress others. The historical truth is that Bharat was the wealthiest country in the world when the British arrived. At that time, public education in Sanskrit and regional languages was free for all. That Sanskrit education was purposely destroyed by the British so they could enslave the people of Bharat and steal their wealth. It also explains why the British strategy to destroy India was to stop Sanskrit education of the masses.
NS: These days, Sanskrit is often considered as a dead language in many sections of academia, media, and even by the common people in India. Do you agree with this assessment? Is Sanskrit really a dead language or has it only declined over last few centuries and hence needs to be revived?
JS: In Bharat or as the colonizers called Her – India, there are news broadcasts in Sanskrit listened to by millions of people. Is that also true for ancient Greek, Latin, or Egyptian? Sanskrit is not only alive and growing but the 200 million non-Indian Yogis in the world are beginning to learn it as a part of their Yoga curriculum.
NS: What should be done to promote Sanskrit?
JA: Bhagavad-Gita says: “Yad yad acharati sreshtas tat tad evetaro janaha say at pramanam kurute lokas tad anuvartate.” It means: whatever actions are performed by great persons, other people follow their example. Similarly, whatever standards thought leaders set, others also pursue. Through technological science we now have a universal language of working with matter. That science had its roots in the Vedas. What the world needs badly and is hungry for is a universal language of timeless philosophy that helps us to unify with each other around truths that are for the benefit of all. The Sanskrit vocabulary is filled with concepts and words that will help the world cooperate and find a way to avoid fighting and harming life in all its forms.
NS: Do you want to convey any other message to people, especially the Sanskrit enthusiasts on this World Sanskrit Day?
JA: I would like everyone to realize that Sanskrit is the Mother of our modern languages and hope that by this knowing, they will think of Sanskrit as a universal resource for all beings, and not just as an ancient language or as an Indian language. Sanskrit is a universal language meant to steady our progress as human beings inhabiting this beautiful planet. Words and we ourselves are on a long journey of trying to understand.
Like so many words in English, the word “God” is an acquisition of a constantly colonizing culture, too busy trying to look grown up and sophisticated to bother giving credit to anyone else. This would be less problematic if the dogmatic branches of Christianity had not used the word so abusively, behaving as if they were the first and the only tradition to have a single source conception of the Supreme Reality or a name for such a Being.
The historical truth is that God began His journey as a part of the process of Vedic Yajna, wherein there are various components: the Kratur or Vrat – the vow or intention for the lighting of the fire; then there is the Svadhaa – Sva means “one’s own” and Dha means “intention or offering”; then there is Aushadam or the herbs and medicines which create a healing effect upon the environment including one’s own body. This word is rooted in two Sanskrit words, Ayus and Prashadam; next is the mantra which must be intoned correctly, and then of course comes the Aajyam or the all-important Ghee to be placed into the mouth of Agni, the Deva of fire into whose mouth all this is being placed; and finally, the Hutam or oblation poured into the fire and arising as smoke skyward towards Svarga loka, the realm of the Devas. This Hutam travelled via German as Guta (which it still is in Dutch) and then into English as God stinging the eyes as a minor irritant in the larger atmosphere of theological discourse. Therefore, God is the smoke arising from the offering in a Vedic Yajna.
Alright so now you know that the Christians, while all along decrying the Vedic tradition as Pagans (i.e. Bhagans or followers of the one Supreme Being – Bhagavan), have actually borrowed Hutam now slightly distorted and yet useful Sanskrit name, which they have promoted worldwide as God – the only and true word for their idea of the only true conception of Divinity (see Veda, Vide, Viva and Latin Uiedean).
But, all these Sanskrit words pertaining to God and the Yajna are simply a rudimentary explanation of Chapter 9 verse 16 of the Bhagavad Gita – “I am the ritual, I am the sacrifice, I am the offering, I am the medicinal herb, I am the sacred text, I am the ghee, I am the fire and I am God (oops), I am the smoke arising from the oblation.”
The point I am trying to make is, if you look carefully at English you will see Sanskrit hidden everywhere! Like an archaeological dig, the evidence of our ancient common root and connection with each other is in the languages we speak every day. Sanskrit, Samskritam or as it is translated: the perfected language is a linguistic tool to help us remember our universal relationship with each other. It is everyone’s language and its revival will give us more tools to work together with for a future we will all be proud of and pleased to leave to our children.
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti, may peace and discernment spread everywhere.