What makes a language sacred is how we use it. If a language is used to discover the sacredness of life, it becomes a sacred language. Whether or not a language is sacred is determined by who is using it. This in turn has a great deal to do with whether a language is being used consciously or unconsciously, whether we use language as an instrument to accomplish our real purpose in life, that is, wake up and find out who we are; or we are unconsciously programmed by language, to maintain patterns of a struggle for individual survival established by previous generations.
Most of us, most of the time, tend to be at the effect of the unconscious operation of language. To make the point, let me describe a language exercise that I have done with thousands people to date. I ask a group of people to listen to some very simple Sanskrit sounds, sung in a rhythmic sequence, and then individually duplicate the sounds, based upon what they heard. I also make it clear that this is not an exercise in which it’s important to get it right, and should anyone not remember a part of the sequence, he / she should simply make something up — fill in the blank. I also suggest that everyone should just have fun doing the exercise, and stay with the rhythm. Once we’ve been through several rounds, I ask everyone to describe what they were thinking, while doing the exercise, which was other than just simply listening and duplicating or making up sounds. Although I have done this exercise more than a hundred different times, in many different locations, I have always found the results to be practically identical. We are so completely consumed by the idea of “getting it right” and the approaching moment of “my turn” that there is little space left to actually listen and enjoy the sounds. This overriding preoccupation with getting it right is accompanied by an endless barrage of strategies, evaluations, comparisons, judgments, expectations, hopes, rationalizations and fears of consequences. By writing down this list of what everyone was thinking, the unconscious operation of language becomes visible. Most people are not aware they are thinking all this until they see the language of it written on a flip chart.
But this is just peeling away the first layer. There’s a still deeper layer of the unconscious operation of language where we have predefined who we are, based on whether or not we get it right. This can be seen by making a list of the apparent implications and consequences of getting it right and getting it wrong.
if I get it right . . .
* I am a smart person.
* I am a competent person.
* I am accepted and respected.
* I am likeable and lovable.
* I am a skillful person.
* I am a powerful person.
* I can make money.
* I am a success.
* I am a winner.
* I am better than others.
* I can be happy.
* I have choices and options.
* I am in control.
* Others cannot control and dominate me.
* I will not be abused, the victim of others’ cruelty.
* I will not suffer and die.
if I get it wrong . . .
* I am a stupid person.
* I am an incompetent person.
* I am unworthy of respect.
* No one could like or love me.
* I am a klutz.
* I am powerless.
* I am doomed to poverty.
* I am a failure.
* I am a loser.
* Others are better than me.
* I’m doomed to misery.
* I have no choice, no options.
* I am a victim.
* Others will control and dominate me.
* I will be abused, the victim of others’ cruelty.
* I will suffer and die.
The above is a perfect example of a non-sacred model of language. We could call it a “dominate and survive model of language” or simply a “survival language”. What is most striking about this model of language is that who I believe myself to be is determined by whether or not I get it right. The other most distinctive feature of a survival language is the utter falseness of the conclusions it is used to arrive at. It’s certainly not true that we are either smart or stupid because we do or do not get something right, let alone that we would live or die.
We are given every opportunity to simply have a good time, improvise, play with sounds. But instead we choose to take it as a test of survival. In other words, it’s more important to prove our capacity to survive than it is to have a good time. The hidden unconscious language that we base our lives upon, dictates to us that we must get it right or we will be dominated by others, and that threatens our safety, our well being and ultimately our survival. The first sign of a non-sacred, survival language is that it refers to “getting it right” as “smart”, as “success” etc. Such a language defines a person by the way he/she performs in a particular circumstance. The person is always at the effect of the language. If I get it right, I’m smart. If I get it wrong, I’m stupid.
The problems and conflicts that occur with a survival language are myriad. To be happy, I must get it right all the time. And my primary motivation for doing so is to prove that I’m not stupid so others won’t control me. My motivation for whatever I do becomes essentially a negative one. Since I can’t get it right all the time, I either have to have a strategy for getting better than others and than I have been previously — faster; or I must withdraw from circumstances which could potentially make me look stupid. The problem with “getting better” is that I become programmed to always be getting better, but it’s never good enough. Getting better is an endless proposition. This survival model of language has conflict and suffering woven into its very fabric.
This particular phenomenon is defined in the Yoga Sutras as avidyaa, the fundamental lack of awareness which is the root klesha, or subtle cause of all suffering. The definition of avidyaa is:
anitya-ashuci-duhkha-anaatmasu nitya-shuci-sukha-aatma-khyaatir avidyaa
Avidyaa is an identity with a self which is not the self; with happiness in what is actually suffering; with purity in what is really impurity; and permanence in what is really impermanent.
Avidyaa perfectly describes the nature of a survival language. A survival language is steeped in avidyaa. As long as who I am, is defined by such a language, I remain the victim of an endless vicious circle.
The question is — why would we choose a language which keeps us in perpetual self-judgment. The fact is that we never chose the language. It has always been around, and as children, we were given no other options. As long as we do not consciously redesign the way we use language, we remain at the effect of the past, conditioned by the very language of the past to repeat the patterns of the past, again and again.
As long as this survival model of language is in effect, it seems virtually impossible for people to learn Sanskrit. This is to a large degree due to the fact that Sanskrit is a perfect model of a sacred language, and a sacred language cannot be learned by means of a survival language.
This is not to say that English or any other language could not be used as a sacred language. In fact, it has to be, to begin the study of Sanskrit. Conversely, Sanskrit could be used in a survival mode. It’s just that in the design of most languages, there is very little safeguard against them being used as survival languages. And in the design of Sanskrit, there is every conceivable feature built in to keep it operating as a sacred language.
The single most outstanding difference between a sacred and a survival language is the definition, orientation and usage in the language of the word “I”. “I” or its equivalent is the source of language. Without I, there is no you, he, she or it. The evolution of the word “I” into a complex language is a process of creation. In the development of a sacred language, the process is a conscious one; language is an emanation, a creation, an instrument of “I”. In a survival language, “I” is an effect of the cultural patterns already unconsciously established by the language. In Sanskrit, even the sounds which make the word for “I” are consciously selected. AHAM. “A” is the first spoken sound, as well as the first sound of the Sanskrit alphabet. It can be discovered by breathing, in and with the mouth slightly open, releasing the breath with sound that requires the minimal effort. It naturally arises in the throat before the articulation of all other sounds. “HA” is the last letter of the Sanskrit alphabet. After all the systematic patterns created by the movement of the tongue and lips have produced in perfect order all the other letters of the alphabet, the final sound is “HA”. It also is the only consonant sound that moves by the power of the breath alone, and the only consonant in exact proximity to “A”. The final letter “M” is the very last sound produced in the mouth, because it occurs due to the closing of the lips. In Sanskrit, AHAM is the beginning, the breath of life which brings forth creation, and the end. And this is expressed not just symbolically by the letters A-H-A-M, but physically, based on their location in the mouth.
The other most important attribute of a sacred language is that each of its individual sounds are regarded as sacred. Anyone can feel this by getting relaxed and repeating the AHAM, over and over, and while doing so, feeling a complete all-encompassing expression of self. Then, becoming silent, continue to feel “A” as the inhalation and HAM as the exhalation. “A” is the only sound which is truly internal. “HAM” is the most complete expression possible, arising directly from “A”, and closing after passing through all the positions of all other existing sounds. The design of a sacred language is such that the sounds perfectly express the vibrational essence of that which they describe. In this way, words establish knowledge and understanding directly.
The next stage of establishing a sacred language is an intimacy with the other sounds of the language, becoming familiar with their exact location, savoring their delicacy, feeling their force and power, and the unique way they vibrate the body and atmosphere. This is simply a matter of enjoying sound without inhibition, as we did when we were children. In the process of learning the Sanskrit alphabet, one discovers that all sounds are encompassed in “AHAM”. As other words are created, the sounds which compose them become the means by which “I-AHAM” establish my relationship of unity with, rather than separateness from, all existence.
Vyaas (Tuck) Houston is the founder and director the American Sanskrit Institute. After teaching Sanskrit and Yoga for more than 15 years, he discovered in 1987 a successful method for teaching Sanskrit based on the yoga model of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. His Sanskrit Training has provided thousands of people with the opportunity to discover their own unique relationship with Sanskrit. Vyaas Houston is the author of Sanskrit by CD and the Sanskrit Atlas 1.0, and has recorded and translated many Sanskrit classics.
by Vyaas Houston, M.A.