I recently shared an article on Elephant Journal about Kirtan singing and how here in Southern California it seems like there is lack of authentic Kirtan singing. While writing about it, I also touched upon the topic of pronunciation and why it bothers me when I hear yogis not putting any effort into proper pronunciation. My main issue is not so much with someone not pronouncing a foreign language right but is with not trying, not learning, not taking time. I also got some comments saying that there is no universal way of proper Sanskrit pronunciation just like there are various different accents in English, so there are in Sanskrit. I partially agree to this- yes there can be slight difference in how we pronounce however it cannot and should not vary so drastically that the entire word and meaning changes. For example “Om Namah Shivaya” should be just that and not “Om Namah Shavaya.” Shiva is a deity and Shava means a dead body!
So today I thought I should share a bit about Sanskrit and my experience with it.
I started learning Sanskrit as a little kid through mantras and chants that my grandmother taught us. My formal training started when it was introduced in my school at grade 6. That particular year was a bit hard for me and my sister as we moved mid semester in the month of January to a new state. In India there used to be (maybe still is) a 3 language system in schools. English was the main language of instruction at my school, followed by Hindi, the National language and then a third regional language was taught- which varied by state. We were moving from Maharashtra where we were learning a third language called “Marathi” to Madhya Pradesh where “Sanskrit” was the third language. Since we had never studied Sanskrit before at all, it was extremely difficult. I sailed through in my exams and did not really pay much attention to it.
However when I moved to grade 7, I had a teacher who was very passionate about Sanskrit. She would go into details, narrate stories, spend time correcting our pronunciation and make it very interesting. Her enthusiasm and dedication rubbed off a bit on me and I slowly started liking it for its structure, words, sounds and its history. I knew that there were great literatures written in Sanskrit that could be only throughly understood and enjoyed if one knows Sanskrit. Translations are available but every language comes with words and sounds that have a certain feel and cannot be 100% mimicked by another language. Thus started my love for this language and today I would like to share a few things I was taught about this great language and its roots.
Sanskrit expands our consciousness – It is not just an academic language. It has 50 distinct sounds that are scientifically arranged to invigorate every nerve channel. That is the reason when we chant for an hour we don’t feel the time – it energizes the body and it recaptures the “prana” in the breath.– when we typically talk we expel our “prana”– but it is different with Sanskrit- it redirects the prana ( life force) into the body. These sound vibration becomes healing as opposed to draining our energy.
Sanskrit is an ancient language. The language is arranged in a very scientific manner with regard to its alphabet, grammar and vocabulary. The Sanskrit language is considered to be one of the Vedic Sciences—along with Yoga, Ayurveda and Jyotisha (Vedic Astrology) that date back to the Vedas in Ancient India. Although the antiquity of the Sanskrit language is still debated, it is thought to be at least 4,000 years old. Precise oral transmission was the sole means by which this knowledge of all the Vedic Sciences was passed down through the centuries. The Devanagari Script was eventually invented and the knowledge of the Vedas and other texts were then codified and written down in Sanskrit around 400 BCE. It is astounding to think that prior to this date the copious amount of information of the Vedas, Upanishads, the Epics, etc., were all memorized and transmitted orally.
Sanskrit, along with Greek, Iranian, Latin (all modern Romance languages), the Slavic Languages, the Germanic Languages (including English), the Baltic Languages, the Celtic languages, and other languages, are all descendants of a common “mother” language, Proto Indo-European (PIE) that linguists have postulated to have existed over 7,000 years ago. Sanskrit and English are thus both “daughter” languages of PIE and are distantly related to one another. Many of our words in English derive from Sanskrit roots.
For example, “Sanskrit” is the anglicized form of the word for the sacred language of yoga, Samskrta, consisting of two parts: sam and krta. Sam sounds like our English word “sum,” and has the same meaning of “total.” Krta has the same meaning as our English word, “created.” Together, the word samskrta means “created” or “made” out of the state of the “total,” or “unity.” The word Sanskrit “samskritam” literally means “perfected, refined, polished.
Samskrta is not just a word that has a symbolic meaning. It’s an expression of the structure of the material world that’s echoed in modern science. Quantum physics, for example, reveals in String Theory that everything in the objective, material universe is vibrating at its core. What seems solid and unchanging in our physical world is actually moving so quickly that it appears to be standing still.
This implies that if you were subtle enough in your awareness, you’d be able to “hear” and “see” those vibrations and replicate them with your voice. The theory that distinguishable and varied vibrations form the core of all created matter lies at the basis of the Sanskrit language. Most importantly, Sanskrit is a technology that achieves something remarkable: By replicating the subtle sounds of creation with the human voice, one becomes unified with all aspects of the physical and subtle universe.
The ancient sages of India (known as rishis or “seers of ultimate truth”) made this discovery of Sanskrit by attaining extraordinary states of intelligent perception through meditation. Their expanded consciousness permitted them to see and hear the subtle “strings of code” at the basis of creation. They recorded these arrangements of sounds in their speech, committed them to memory, and passed them down to their disciples to preserve them for posterity. The sounds they heard were combinations of the 50 Sanskrit syllables, forming the corpus of the Veda.
The word “Veda” comes from the same Sanskrit verbal root from which we get our English word, “video.” Just like a video is a projection of pixilations of light and sound, this world is a diversified array of vibrations, distinguishing themselves only by different combinations of sounds and rhythms.
The 50 letters and sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet are the key to understanding our true Self, “AAtman.” When we begin to utter the sacred sounds of Sanskrit, we begin to activate chakras and in turn clear any blocked energies in these chakras. Learning how to pronounce the Sanskrit names of the poses, terms, and mantras encountered in Yoga, provides us with the opportunity to experience total health in mind, body, and spirit.
According to ancient Indian belief, there exists a concept called Naama- Roopa, a Sanskrit phrase which translates as “name-shape or name-form”. It states that there is an interconnected relationship between the actual written word, how it is pronounced, and to the thought, idea, or thing it represents. For example, in Sanskrit the word for Sun is “Soorya” According to the science of naama roopa the actual “divine essence” of the Sun is energetically imprinted and encoded into the sound of the word itself! Whenever one actually recites the word “Soorya” in Sanskrit, one automatically and immediately connects to the “spiritual energy” embodied in the Sun.
This also holds true for the names of all the Aasanas encountered in the Yoga Tradition. When one recites the Sanskrit names of the poses while actually assuming the posture, one experiences not only the physical benefit of the pose but the actual inherent divine “essence” of that pose. So when you practice your yoga aasanas next time, take time to try using the Sanskrit name and when chanting or singing a mantra, try to get as close to the pronunciation as possible.