“Learning another language is not only learning different words for some things, but learning another way to think about things.” Flora Lewis
Is Sanskrit is getting popular because of yoga? Words like mandala, मण्डल, manthra, मन्त्र, dharma, धर्म, karma, कर्म, avataar, अवतार and many more have found their way into main stream English.
‘Sanskrit’ is an anglicized pronunciation of the language, Samskritham, संस्कृतं (Sum-skr-thum). Samskritham, संस्कृतं is an ancient language, considered to be more than 6000 years old. Researchers continue to be uncertain about the exact period of its origin – speculating in a wide range – 1200BC- 6000 BC.
The word Samskritham means “joined together, refined, and decorated”. The language is also referred to as Devabhaasha, देवभाषा (they-va-bha-sha) language of the Gods because it is made of all primordial sounds originating from AUM, ओम्. ओम् is mostly recognized by its symbol ॐ.
ओम्, AUM is considered to be ‘The Word‘ made of three sounds – A, U and M, joined together in a specific Sandhi, सन्धि, a grammatical rule to make the sound OM. This sound is said to have no source, emanates from nowhere and is present everywhere. Each primordial sound corresponds to a specific aspect of the Absolute. Hence, this language is considered as the sacred language of Vedic India. Many of the ancient hymns and scriptural texts in this language are chanted even today.
Since knowledge was passed down orally from generation to generation, Samskritham never had a script. Vedic wisdom was taught orally and therefore memorized by those who lived in the gurukula, गुरुकुल, and aashram, आश्रम. Sage Paanini, पाणिनि, a grammarian was asked to refine and preserve the language using Devanaagari, देवनागरी, the script, before the language became degraded and extinct at the beginning of Iron Age, Kali Yuga, कलि युग – the so called ‘bad’ period where humans succumbed under the influence of Maya, माया, Delusion.
Each Samskritham alphabet also has a vibrational component to it that relates to the Chakras, चक्र, wheels of energy situated along the spinal astral body. The letters of the alphabet is said to be inscribed on the ‘petals‘ of the lotuses. The chakras – one through six have 4, 6, 10, 12, 16, and 2 petals respectively. The 50 alphabets are on these 50 petals. Chanting the entire set of alphabets reverberates through all the chakras and their areas that they correspond to within the body creates physical and psychological healing.
Also, the ancient rishis, ऋषि, sages of India discovered since the Samskritham sounds originated from AUM, the primordial sound, their combinations when chanted can remove negativities from the mind. And, when they meditated upon these sounds – as mantra, it resulted in the channeling of Prana, प्राण, life force. They perceived divine effects on their mind and psyche, leading them or any aspiring student to the ultimate Union, Yoga – योग, which is also referred to as Samaadhi, समाधि, Moksha, मोक्ष or Nirvaana, निर्वाण. They advised people to add chants to their yoga practice and accrue the spiritual benefits of the primordial sounds in their daily lives.
Origins of yoga date back to 5000 years ago, perhaps around the same time as Vedic Hinduism. Again, Hinduism is a word coined by western scholars which referred to the religious way of life being practiced around 6000 BC in the region which is now Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. This way of life was called Sanaathana Dharma, सनातन धर्म, Eternal Living, where Samskritham, संस्कृतं was also a spoken language, not only a scriptural one.
Around the same time, Rishi Patanjali,ऋषि पतञ्जलि, codified the practice of yoga into Yoga-sutra, योगसूत्र, using Samskritham as the medium of instruction. Now, with the popularity of various types and styles of yogaasana, योगासन, practice in studios and gyms, and many teacher training programs using Yogasutras to teach yoga philosophy, योग दर्शनम्, Samskritham has worked its way back to the forefront as a language for yoga.
Every language has it own structure, sound combinations and sound omissions. As a speech language pathologist, I meet people from many countries wanting to change or improve their pronunciation in English after enduring ridicule and stereotyping. Completely understandable because I was one of them. Especially when mispronunciation resulted a change in the meaning and miscommuncation.
For example ‘van’ sounds like ‘ban’ when spoken by a person whose native language is Spanish. There is a sound substitution of /b/ for /v/ completely changing the meaning of the word. However, in another example ‘water’ sounds like ‘vater’ when spoken by a person whose native language is Hindi. Here, while the accent is affected, the meaning remains accurate. These types of substitutions may happen in Samskritham – English misprounciations as well.
However, this does not mean the rigorous training to reduce the accent in Samskritham, संस्कृतं is essential to learn and teach yoga. Most of us realize that who we are – is partly tied to our culture where language plays a significant part. Changing accents according to some people may mean one is asked to change themselves. Of course, this is only a perception. Understanding the influence of the native language on any adopted or new language, whether Samskritham-English or English and any other languge is key to helping manage – not erase – an accent.
Still, accent becomes relevant for those attempting to pronounce the names of poses, asanas, आसनानि (asanAni -plural) while instructing students in class. Also, while discussing certain terms in yoga philosophy, योग दर्शनम्, Samskritham pronunciation becomes critical to preserve the correct message.
The effect of English accent on Samskritham can cause miscommunication. For example, the anglicized Samskritham words like ‘shaakra’– शाक्र (related to Indra – god of rain) changes the intended meaning of Chakra– चक्र (chuck-ra) the wheels of energy. Similarly, ‘haatha‘- हात (abandoned) for Hata हठ (hut-a) a type of yoga or ‘annamaayaa kosha’ अन्नमाया (delusion of food) for ‘annamaya ‘ अन्नमय (made of food): unfortunately, these words are still accepted as the ‘correct’ pronunciation.
Just like we hear different English accents around the world and they are all accepted, English accented Samskritham is accepted as well. However, take care to place the intonation, i.e. stress, on the correct syllable. Be careful not to substitute sounds like /sh/ for /ch/ as in chakra, which alters the meaning significantly. Siddhartha Gauthama, the Buddha, बुद्ध (the Enlightened One) says we become what we meditate upon; while anglicized asana names are fine, you do not want to be meditating on a word with a wrong meaning.
Learning chants in childhood meant just reciting them on autopilot. I was introduced to this wonderful language in highschool which I promptly forgot through college and professional life. Now, wanting to understand the Yogasutras correctly, I began to explore the options of relearning Samskritham. I have found wonderful teachers who have made the study interesting and inspiring.
Join me in learning this beautiful language. I am offering my services to help fellow yogis; to share whst I am learning, – a small part to play in preserving Samskritham. We have ESL for foreign speakers; why not SSL – Samskritham as a Second Language? Yoginis and yogis – if you are interested in learning Samskritham, check out this link or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the final analysis, Rumi’s words are the best – “Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.”