The Case for Sanskrit

Krishna and Arjuna in an illustrated Sanskrit text

This brief essay is to make a case for learning Sanskrit, not just by Indians, but by young and old everywhere, and not just at school, but also as part of self-discovery.

There are some misconceptions about Sanskrit such as it is for use only in religious worship, and it is hard to learn. While it may be a liturgical language in some traditions, it is, more importantly, a unique vehicle for reflection, meditation, and self-examination.

It is for everyone, from all cultures and backgrounds. One can be of any age to begin learning it. It speaks to the upliftment of the individual and of the society.

वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम्

vasudhaiva kuṭumbakam

The world is a family.

Sanskrit is humanity’s oldest living language, known in the same form that existed at least 4,000 years ago. It has an extraordinarily vast literature that has directly influenced many cultures across the world.

Some of its literature is available in translation, but much remains to be explored. Over a thousand years ago, Sanskrit scientific texts and story books translated into Arabic were communicated to Europe that prepared the ground for the scientific revolution. During the last three hundred years, its influence on Europe has been more direct.

At the other end of the globe, for a thousand years, there was a massive translation of Sanskrit texts into Chinese, in fields ranging from “philosophy, linguistics, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and virtually every other area of human endeavor.”

These translations were to greatly influence the semantic and syntax of medieval Chinese, requiring the invention of many words. The American scholar Victor Mair claims that this influence led to the “enlargement of the lexicon by at least 35,000 words, including many that are still in common use (e.g. ch’a-na from kṣaṇa), advancement of phonology as a science, [and] promotion of new modes of thought.” [1]

स्वस्मै स्वल्पं समाजाय सर्वस्वं

svasmai svalpaṃ samājāya sarvasvaṃ

A little bit for yourself and everything for others.

Scholars and travelers also took the language westwards towards Slavic lands and beyond. Nearly two millennia before this, starting 1600 BCE, the Vedic-deities worshiping Mitanni ruled northern Mesopotamia (including Syria) for about 300 years. They worshiped Mitra, Varuṇa, Indra, and the Nāsatyas (Aśvins) and their kings had Sanskrit names.

Across Western lands in the ancient world, the worshipers of Vedic gods were called Devayājñi (or Devayasni), or deva-worshiper, of which the terms Sanātana Dharma or Vedic Dharma are synonyms. [2] It appears that the Yazidi religion of Iraq belongs to the Devayasni tradition.

जीवेषु करुणा चापि मैत्री तेषु विधीयताम्

jīveṣu karuṇā cāpi maitrī teṣu vidhīyatām

Be compassionate and friendly to all living beings.​

But this essay is not to speak of the importance of Sanskrit to the historian, for that is clear enough. Neither is it an argument that people should learn Sanskrit for the beauty and breadth of its literature.

This essay is a case for Sanskrit for pragmatic reasons related to self-transformation and for a role in dealing with larger societal issues. Here are the five main reasons:

1. The Sanskrit effect

Chanting of Sanskrit mantras improves cognitive function. “MRI scans show increase in the size of brain regions associated with both short and long-term memory.” It is conceivable that this also protects against old-age diseases such as Alzheimer’s. [3]

Now it is possible that chanting in any language offers benefits, but Sanskrit is unique since it has the richest system of analytical categories going down to roots and combinations of sounds. Furthermore, Sanskrit chanting is musical, and it is known that “children who undergo musical training have better verbal memory, second language pronunciation accuracy, reading ability and executive functions. Learning to play an instrument as a child may even predict academic performance and IQ in young adulthood.” [4] The mantras have a resonance that seems to open the doors of intuition and the chants are inspirational.

आ नो भद्राः क्रतवो यन्तु विश्वतः

ā no bhadrāḥ kratavo yantu viśvataḥ

Let noble thoughts come from all directions.​

Some of the most successful business leaders, scientists and creative people in the world chant Sanskrit, and this could be a factor in their success. I am not speaking here only of Indians, but people from other cultures too.

For example, André Weil, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century, was a Sanskrit scholar, and the interest in this language of many of the pioneers of quantum theory is well known.

A true story: About three years ago I was invited to visit one of America’s most influential leaders and writers. He and his wife were great hosts and conversationalists. After an hour or two, they led me to the worship room upstairs. I was pleasantly surprised that they welcomed me using Sanskrit chants in a manner that I have rarely seen equaled even in temples.

2. Sanskrit and yoga and health

Yoga is everywhere and it is practiced by hundreds of millions for physical and mental health and wellness. The āsanas and prāṇāyāma have proven medical benefits [5], and now increasing number of practitioners are graduating to practices that control the mind with even greater promise for health and strengthening of the immune system.

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः

yogaḥ citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.

Given yoga’s general popularity, and the failure of allopathic medicine in dealing with many chronic conditions, one expects that the medical establishment will integrate its therapy much more comprehensively in both the training of doctors and treatment of patients. The next phase in the spread of yoga will be the use of its epistemology in the design of the curriculum in schools and colleges.

जीवेषु करुणा चापि मैत्री तेषु विधीयताम्

jīveṣu karuṇā cāpi maitrī teṣu vidhīyatām

Be compassionate and friendly to all living beings.​

Sanskrit is the language for yoga and Ayurveda texts and the knowledge in these disciplines has barely been scratched and, therefore, one can hope to discover important material of relevance to modern life.

3. Sanskrit and science

Science is going through a crisis. It has turned out that gravitation cannot fully explain the observed motion of stars in galaxies and, therefore, invisible “dark matter” has been postulated; likewise, current theory cannot explain why the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and so “dark energy” has been proposed as explanation. No evidence exists either for dark matter and dark energy that together are believed to constitute 95% of the observable universe, with another 4.5% being intergalactic dust that is left out of equations that model the cosmos.

How can we claim that we are near understanding reality if our theories are validated by only 0.5% of the observable universe? We may have to question assumptions about the very nature of space and time to move ahead. This may also allow us to see interactions in the atomic world in a new light.

चरन्मार्गान्विजानाति

caranmārgānvijānāti

The traveler finds the path.​

It appears further breakthrough in the field may emerge by giving a more significant position to the observer. The Sanskrit scientific tradition considers the ideas of space and time to be dependent on observations and it appears to have insights that will help in further research.

4. The science of consciousness

Although consciousness requires the brain to function correctly, science cannot tell us how it emerges from the activity in the brain. If consciousness is not a property of matter, it must reside in a dimension that is different from our familiar space-time continuum. Many scholars believe that these difficulties are interrelated and consciousness as the issue at the very foundations of science; it is also connected to the problem of free will.

The question of whether computers of the future will be conscious is also a central problem of science and society. In the worst case, computers, if they became conscious, may exterminate humanity.

My own belief is that computers will never become conscious. But even then they will replace humans at most jobs. That will lead to massive job losses, creating a dynamics leading to the shrinking of the world population. But before a stable point is reached, there will great trouble and turmoil in the world.

The world needs a deeper understanding of reality for people to cope in such a world. Perhaps most people will subsist on government dole in the post-industrial state. But one cannot expect people to find happiness in this dystopia.

The idea of consciousness is central to Indian thought and it is understood in a manner that seamlessly stitches the outer and the inner realities. Indeed, the Vedas describe themselves as ātma-vidyā, or “science of consciousness”. These texts have been studied primarily by philologists who did not have understanding of the subtle issues related to consciousness. There remains much to discover in these texts, and some of this material could offer the insights that we need to move ahead.

5. Sanskrit sūtras of wisdom

Apart from the literature and the sciences, Sanskrit has material on the inner sciences and on wisdom.

Sanskrit sūtras facilitate reflection and offer many ways of embracing past wisdom making it easy to deal with the inevitably bitter aspects of the life experience, and to maintain calm and equanimity.

Contrary to any simplistic ideology, life at a deeper level is about experience that has opposites woven into it. Paradox is the deepest intuition [6].

परोक्षप्रिया इव हि देवाः

parokṣa-priyā iva hi devāḥ

The gods love what is paradoxical.

Anyone can jump on the Sanskrit bandwagon. Sanskrit knowledge is universal and encourages each individual to see goodness in others. We can see any number of nuggets of wisdom in the Upanishads, the Gītā, and the Sūtras.

There is nothing about harming anyone. All beings have the same ātman, and one seeks happiness for all.

लोकाः समस्ताः सुखिनो भवन्तु

lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino bhavantu

May all the worlds attain happiness.

The eyes see only what the mind is prepared to comprehend. The technology-induced isolation fostered by modern life dulls the mind. The chains of habit have become so strong that the only way to break them is through the magic of wisdom.

Sanskrit leads us to an enchanted garden, and as we breathe and feel its beauty, the scales that cover our eyes fall off.

References

1. V.H. Mair, Language and script. In The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press (2001)

2. S. Kak, The Vedic Tradition: Cosmos, Connections, and Consciousness. SVYASA University (2022). https://www.academia.edu/78378108/The_Vedic_Tradition_Cosmos_Connections_and_Consciousness

3. J. Hartzell, A neuroscientist explores the “Sanskrit effect”. Scientific American (2018). https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/a-neuroscientist-explores-the-sanskrit-effect/

4. E.A. Miendlarzewska and W.J. Trost, How musical training affects cognitive development: rhythm, reward and other modulating variables. Frontiers of Neuroscience (2014). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3957486/

5. I. Stephens, Medical Yoga therapy. Children 4(2) (2017); T. McCall, The benefits of Yoga. Yoga Journal (2021). https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/health/womens-health/count-yoga-38-ways-yoga-keeps-fit/?utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&utm_campaign=onsiteshare

6. S. Kak, The Prajñā Sūtra: Aphorisms of Intuition. DK Printworld, 2007. https://independent.academia.edu/SubhashKak/Books

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