The primary characteristic of a sacred language is that the purpose for which it’s being used is discovering one’s own true nature. Sanskrit is so highly developed and refined as a tool for serving this purpose that even the task of learning the language seems “difficult” — unless the motive for learning is aligned with the function of the language, that is, to know oneself. When Sanskrit is approached with the humility and one-pointedness that is the trademark of a genuine search for truth, it becomes revealed. There arises a simple joy in all aspects of its study. Singing the alphabet is especially inspiring even when one has become proficient.
My teacher, Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, although a master of Sanskrit, with more than 60 years of study behind him, and his speech impaired by a stroke, still seems to find his greatest delight in leading a group of students through the alphabet. Perhaps, this says a much as anything about the nature of a sacred language.
(photo left: Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati)
We seldom hear anyone over seven years of age singing the English alphabet. Its not that these sounds aren’t enjoyable to sing. We do not have the same relation to the English language that adults and children alike who have learned Sanskrit have with it. That relation is a sacred one, based on the energy conveyed through sound, a love for the unique characteristics of each sound in engaging the mind, body, the breath, vocal resonance, the mouth, tongue and lips.
Because of the simplicity of life in ancient times, there was an acute awareness that all changes in life took place as a result of changes in language. As new discoveries occurred in language, there was an immediate and very noticeable shift in human beings’ interactions and in the way that they perceived their environment. The evolution of human awareness was inextricably linked to the development of language. It was natural that more and more attention should be given to its development as the single most important factor in changing the quality of human life. This eventually gave way to discoveries whose magnitude is inconceivable to us in modern times, where language tends to be taken for granted.
The discovery, development and refinement of Sanskrit must have taken place over millennia. Although Sanskrit along with its great power to elevate human consciousness to sublime heights, is often attributed to a divine source, we can also hypothesize that its properties were discoveries that took place as a result of human beings actively and intensively engaging in the discovery of their own divine nature. The most significant question that must have arisen to the ancients was how to continue optimizing the human instrument, the body and mind, as a vehicle for the expansion of awareness and happiness. Knowing that the operation of the instrument depends entirely on the language with which it is programmed, they worked on the refinement of language software. They scrutinized and experimented with the vocal instrument and the structure of the mouth and then selected only those sounds which had the greatest clarity, purity and power of resonance. They then organized these sounds in such a way that they could mutually enhance and brighten one another, and build upon each other’s resonance. They explored the factor of breath in creating sound, and discovered that by minimizing the breath with certain sounds and maximizing it with others, the language would induce in the instrument a state of relaxed alertness that could keep it operating efficiently and tirelessly for long periods of time, while expanding and building prana-energy. And as they did this, they became happier.
Furthermore, by coordinating the factors of purity of sound, enhanced resonance and breath, there also developed an awareness of the entire body as a resonating chamber through which sound could be transmitted. With increased vibratory power, the concept of the body as solid matter gradually became replaced by one of the body as the center of an energy field. In the process of transmitting sound energy, they observed subtle changes in the field and found they could expand it by following the sound waves. They had discovered that language has the capacity to convert the body and mind into pure energy. They began to feel joy.
It was further discovered that certain combinations of sounds would enhance the expansion of the field more than others, and this was experimented with, until sound combinations which could bring about this effect universally were revealed. Their joy expanded. These particular combinations became useful words for describing as well as feeling the state of consciousness they induced. In this way the breadth and depth of all that exists was explored. They looked and listened and experienced changes in the energy field, to see how the language could be further refined, what new distinctions could be made. Eventually, they fathomed creation and found their own identity at the very source of it all. Their bliss was boundless. When they spoke with one another in this language they established love and harmony.
Over millennia, Sanskrit was refined as an instrument of Yoga. By 500 B.C. it had reached a point where it was perfected, and ready to be laid down formally. The genius Panini was born for that purpose. So masterful, concise and comprehensive was his great work, Ashtadhyayi in formulating the Sanskrit language, that to this day, two and a half millennia later, no one has been able to improve upon his original work. For 25 centuries, the language has not only survived intact, but thrived through the love of countless enlightened sages, yogis and scholars, basically unmodified. Just imagine a language thriving with little change for 2500 years. In each century there have been spiritual geniuses, who immersed themselves in the blissful and timeless joy of Sanskrit. Many have elaborated or commented on Panini’s original work, but none have changed it or replaced it. Yoga has thrived side by side with Sanskrit, but through all the practice, experimentation and discovery that has taken place in that science, there has been little need to develop new language or modify the old language in order to measure or inspire progress. Sanskrit had been perfected by 500 B.C. as a tool for defining the ultimate pinnacle of human aspiration.
Questions tend to come up as to why Sanskrit has not been used more as a popular language, or why we are not now utilizing it more widely. The primary obstacle, as I see it, is that we have had difficulty in accessing Sanskrit in the way that it is designed to be used. Because of the strong belief we hold that we are our body/mind, our primary concern is what is going to happen to us individually. We see the possibility of change, being happy in the future. And we try to choose and do those things which will most certainly secure our future happiness or enlightenment. This equation is almost universally interpreted as “getting more and getting better”. The approach never works for learning Sanskrit, or for being happy.
Usually the motivation for learning Sanskrit is the enchantment, inspiration, peace and deep sense of spiritual connection felt when listening to it. Or it may have been a pure childlike enjoyment in duplicating those sounds. Most people would have no difficulty learning Sanskrit, if they simply remained in the mode of what motivated them in the first place, their enjoyment. But something else usually happens. The desire to learn Sanskrit starts to be perceived as a future goal, which, when and if achieved, will represent the securing of the happiness which generated the desire to learn it in the first place. The goal is usually accompanied by an expectation of mastering a certain amount of material within a certain period of time. The problem here is the old conditioning, all past memories of happiness, present or future, being thwarted by difficulties and interruptions. Greatest among these memories is the loss of the simple joy of being a child and the pure direct perception of life we all experienced in our childhood.
The nature of a sacred language such as Sanskrit is the direct way that it models life, or accesses through the purity of its sound and rhythms, the perfection and beauty of life that we all experienced as children. On our first exposure to Sanskrit, we reconnect with that purity and joy, and then with the desire to secure that again in our lives, decide that we must learn the language. On a very deep level, it’s a decision to nourish our spirit, and reestablish our oneness with life. But it also at the same time brings us face to face with our existential pain, the entire sum of our conditioning, all that has kept us in a state of feeling alone and separate for the greater part of a lifetime, as well as our repeated failure in attempting to regain that happiness.
Once the task of learning the language is conceived, the criteria for achievement are unconsciously measured. Success is determined by comparing what one has managed to learn with what remains to be known and how much others know. Success also depends on the mastery of a certain quantity of information in a certain period of time. The universal question asked at the beginning, is “How long will it take me to learn it?” But the Sanskrit language is so vast and distinctly different from other languages and other learning tasks, that from the very outset, it becomes apparent that it is going to be very difficult to achieve the expected success in the expected period of time. In addition, there are many Indian speakers and scholars, one could never even hope to catch up with. This inevitably brings the conclusion “Proficiency is further away than I had believed.” Along with this assessment — automatically arise the words “too difficult”. Sanskrit is too difficult.
But the problem is not really the perceived difficulty based on the amount of information that exists in the Sanskrit language. The fact that there is more information actually represents more enjoyment. If one were offered a large collection of the greatest music of all time accompanied by a continuous flow of increasingly majestic and panoramic visions, one would not be disappointed because it would take too long to listen to. In other words, discouragement about being able to learn Sanskrit has absolutely nothing to do with Sanskrit. Sanskrit is an enjoyable experience at all stages. Working with Sanskrit increases and develops energy and clarity of mind. There are seemingly an infinite variety of euphonic sound combinations and rhythmic patterns to be enjoyed. Experiencing them expands the capacity of the mind to operate as the cosmic computer it is designed to be.
The only real problem that arises with regard to learning Sanskrit is forgetting why one decided to learn it in the first place — to feel the joy and purity one felt as a child. When the real purpose is forgotten, we automatically default to concerns about success and failure based on past programming. It is only in regard to this that the idea “too difficult” can arise. Once “too difficult” takes root, the usual result is giving up, because one’s image of oneself being proficient, seems too difficult to attain within the time limitations calculated as a factor in producing the necessary satisfaction.
Although such resignation is based on the fact of long-standing pain, it is not the truth. The truth is the original inspiration, the joy, the play, the heightened awareness. If Sanskrit seems too difficult, it’s doing its job perfectly. A sacred language must teach us to discover where the energy of being flows, and it becomes easy.
The obvious solution is to have no expectations whatsoever with regard to time or quantities of information. This is an approach which serves our original purpose — to enter into that timeless dimension. If concerns come up or it seems to be getting difficult, it’s merely an indication that we’ve forgotten our real purpose. The moment the idea of getting or adding “more” arises, we lose the direct absorption, the enjoyment, the sense of play. This is direct bio-feedback — “I am off course”.
I have not yet seen Sanskrit, or life, fit into anyone’s time calculations or strategies. Sanskrit is a play, a dance of energy in the eternal now. It, modeling life, is perfectly designed to take us beyond our expectations, our self images, our programming. But we must be ready to be in the role of a perpetual learner, a student of life, of the ancient, eternal wisdom, miraculously encoded in this sacred language. If we believe that by learning a sacred language, we will gain knowledge and power, then we look to a future goal which is by definition opposed to our true nature. The power of a sacred language is to immediately mirror this back, as if to say, NO ACCESS. A sacred language, is one which guides us to our own true nature, and every time we derail ourselves, reminds us in some way that we’re missing out on its real nourishment. If we are going to engage, it must be with our total being, one pointed awareness, free from the distraction of where it might bring us, or rather, we might take it in the future.
Sanskrit is the living heritage of great rishis who walked this earth thousands of years ago. It presents us with an awesome responsibility and a lifelong challenge, while it inspires us to remain fully engaged in exploring what’s possible for a human being. Learning Sanskrit is an opportunity to know directly for ourselves what the rishis discovered long ago. Most important, when approached as a sacred language, it makes us happy.
“On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the restless water is boisterous. On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances… Tempest roams in the pathless sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and the children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.” — Rabindranath Tagore
Article by: Vyaas Houston, M.A.
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.
(photo at top of article: Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati)