The Importance of Sanskrit to Hinduism

The relationship between culture and language is an intimate one, for language is the vehicle of human thought. Language determines a culture’s worldview. Vocabulary and syntax, with its subtle nuances and shades of meaning, determine how a culture interacts with the world. Language ultimately determines the shape of civilization.

Hinduism and Sanskrit are inseparably related. The roots of Hinduism can be traced to the dawn of Vedic civilization. From its inception, Vedic thought has been expressed through the medium of the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit, therefore, forms the basis of Hindu civilization.

As language changes, so religion changes. In the case of Hinduism, Sanskrit stood for three millennia as the carrier of Vedic thought before its dominance gradually gave way to the numerous pråk®tas or vernacular dialects that eventually evolved into the modern day languages of Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and so on. Although the foundations of Hinduism are built on the vocabulary and syntax of Sanskrit, these modern languages are now the primary carriers of Hindu thought within India. While the shift from Sanskrit to these regional languages forced a change in the meaning of words, and therefore a change in how subsequent generations interpreted the religion, the shift was at least within the context languages that were closely related to Sanskrit.

In the last century, however, a new phenomenon has been occurring. Hinduism has begun to emerge in the West in two significant forms. One is from Westerns who have come to embrace some variety of Hinduism through contact with a Hindu religious teacher. The other is through the immigration of Hindus who were born in India and who have now moved to the West. One of the first and most striking examples of the former scenario was Swami Vivekananda’s appearance in Chicago at the Parliament of World Religions in 1896. At the time, Vivekananda received wide coverage in the American press and later in Europe as he traveled to England and other parts of Europe. Along the way he created many followers. Swami Vivekananda was the trailblazer for a whole series of Hindu teachers that have come to the West and who still continue to arrive today. The incursion of so many Hindu holy men has brought a new set of Hindu vocabulary and thought to the mind of popular Western culture.

The other important transplantation of Hinduism into the West has occurred with the increase in immigration to America and other Western countries of Hindus from India. In particular, during the 1970s America saw the influx of many Indian students who have subsequently settled in America and brought their families. These groups of immigrant Hindus are now actively engaged in creating Hindu temples and other institution in the West.

As Hinduism expands in the West, the emerging forms of this ancient tradition are naturally being reflected through the medium of Western languages, most prominent of which, is English. But as we have pointed out, the meanings of words are not easily moved from one language to the next. The more distant two languages are separated by geography, latitude and climate, etc. the more the meanings of words shift and ultimately the more the worldview shifts. While this is a natural thing, it does present the danger that the emerging Hindu religious culture in the West may drift too far a field. The differences between the Indian regional language and Sanskrit are minuscule when compared to the difference between a Western language such as English and Sanskrit.

With this problem in mind, the great difficultly in understanding Hinduism in the West, whether from the perspective of conversion or from a second generation of Hindus originally born in India, is that it is all too easy to approach Hinduism with foreign concepts of religion in mind. It is natural to unknowingly approach Hinduism with Christian, Jewish and Islamic notions of God, soul, heaven, hell and sin in mind. We translate brahman as God, åtman as soul, påpa as sin, dharma as religion. But brahman is not the same as God; åtman is not equivalent to the soul, påpa is not sin and dharma is much more than mere religion. To obtain a true understanding of sacred writings, such as the Upa!ißads or the Bhagavad-gîtå, one must read them on their own terms and not from the perspective of another religious tradition. Because the Hinduism now developing in the West is being reflected through the lens of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the theological uniqueness of Hinduism is being compromised or completely lost.

Ideally, anyone attempting to understand Hinduism should have a working knowledge of Sanskrit. Ideally, all Hindu educational institutions and temples should teach Sanskrit, and all Hindu youth should learn Sanskrit. In reality this is not occurring, nor is it likely to occur. The critical mass that it takes to create a culture of Sanskrit learning is not here.

Even within the Hindu temples that are appearing in the West as a result of Hindu immigration, the demand for Sanskrit instruction is not there. And why should it be there? After all, these first generations of Hindu immigrants themselves do not know Sanskrit. Their Hinduism is through the regional languages. One may argue that Hinduism is still related closely enough to its Sanskritic roots through the regional languages. The problem with this argument is that even these regional languages are not being aggressively taught to the new generation. And if the history of other immigrant cultures to American is any gauge, the regional languages of India will die out after one or two generations in the great melting pot of America. This means that the Hindu youth of the second generation are gradually losing their regional ethnic roots and becoming increasingly westernized.
 I do not suggest that this means the end of Hinduism. In fact I see positive signs when Hindu youth come to temples for dar"ana and prayer and increasingly ask for Hindu weddings and other püjås. But it does suggest that the new Hinduism that is developing in the West will evolve in way that is divorced from its vernacular roots, what to speak of its Sanskritic roots, as Christianity in the West has developed separated from its original language base.

A solution to this problem of religious and cultural drift is to identify and create a glossary of Sanskrit religious words and then to bring them into common usage. Words such as brahman, dharma, papa should remain un-translated and become part of the common spoken language when we speak of Hindu matters. In this way, at least an essential vocabulary that contains the subtleties of Hinduism can remain in tact. To a limited extent this is already occurring. Words such as karma, yoga and dharma are a part of common English speech, although not with their full religious meanings intact. Here is a list of terms along with a summary of their meanings that I suggest should be learned and remain un-translated by students of Hinduism. These are terms taken primarily from the Bhagavad-gîtå and the ten major Upanisads.

brahman:- derived from the Sanskrit root brmh meaning to grow, to expand, to bellow, to roar. The word brahman refers to the Supreme Principle regarded as impersonal and divested of all qualities. Brahman is the essence from which all created beings are produced and into which they are absorbed. This word is neuter and not to be confused with the masculine word Brahmå, the creator god. Brahman is sometimes used to denote the syllable Om or the Vedas in general.

karma:- derived from the Sanskrit root kr meaning to do, to make. The work karma means action, work, and deed. Only secondarily does karma refer to the result of past deeds, which are more properly known as the phalam or fruit of action.

dharma:- derived from the Sanskrit root dh® meaning to hold up, to carry, to bear, to sustain. The word dharma refers to that which upholds or sustains the universe. Human society, for example, is sustained and upheld by the dharma performed by its members. In other words, parents protecting and maintaining children, children being obedient to parents, the king protecting the citizens, are acts of dharma that uphold and sustain society. In this context dharma has the meaning of duty. Dharma also employs the meaning of law, religion, virtue, and ethics. These things uphold and sustain the proper functioning of human society. In philosophy dharma refers to the defining quality of an object. For instance, liquidity is one of the essential dharmas of water; coldness is a dharma of ice. In this case we can think that the existence of an object is sustained or defined by its essential attributes, dharmas.

adharma:- the opposite of dharma. Mostly the term is used in the sense of unrighteousness, impiety or non-performance of duty.

guna:- quality, positive attributes or virtues. In the context of Bhagavad-gîtå and Såõkhya philosophy there are three gu!as of matter. Sometimes the gu!a is translated as phase or mode. Therefore the three gu!as or phases of matter are: sattva-guna, rajo-guna and tamoguna. The word gu!a also means a rope or thread and it is sometimes said that beings are “roped” or “tied” into matter by the three gu!as of material nature.

sattva:- the first of the three gunas of matter. Sometimes translated as goodness, the phase of sattva is characterized by lightness, peace, cleanliness, knowledge, etc.

rajas:- the second of the three gu!as of matter. Sometimes translated as passion, the phase of rajas is characterized by action, passion, creation, etc.

tamas:- the third of the three gu!as of matter. Sometimes translated as darkness, the phase of tamas is characterized by darkness, ignorance, slowness, destruction, heaviness, disease, etc.

îsa:- literally lord, master, or controller. ˆ"a one of the words used for God as the supreme controller. The word is also used to refer to any being or personality who is in control.

bhagavån:- literally one possessed of bhaga. Bhaga means fame, glory, strength, power, etc. The word is used as an epithet applied to God, gods, or any holy or venerable personality.

påpa:- literally påpa is what brings one down. Sometimes translated as sin or evil.

punya:- the opposite to påpa. Punya is what elevates; it is virtue or moral merit. Påpa and punya generally go together as negative and positive “credits.” One reaps the reward of these negative or positive credits in life. The more punya one cultivates the higher one rises in life, whereas påpa will cause one to find a lower position on life. Punya leads to happiness, påpa leads to suffering.

yoga:- derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, to join, to unite, to attach. The English word yoke is cognate with the Sanskrit word yoga. We can think of yoga as the joining of the åtma with the paramåtma, the soul with God. There are numerous means of joining with God: through action, karma-yoga; through knowledge, jñåna-yoga; through devotion, bhakti-yoga; through meditation, dhyåna-yoga, etc. Yoga has many other meaning. For example, in astronomy and astrology it refers to a conjunction (union) of planets.

yogî:- literally one possessed of yoga. A yogî is a practitioner of yoga.

jñåna:- derived from the Sanskrit root jñå, to know, to learn, to experience. In the context of Bhagavad-gîtå and the Upanißads, jñåna is generally used in the sense of spiritual knowledge or awareness.

vijñåna:- derived from the prefix vi added to the noun jñåna. The prefix vi added to a noun tends to diminish or invert the meaning of a word. If jñåna is spiritual knowledge, vijñåna is practical or profane knowledge. Sometimes vijñåna and jñåna are used together in the sense of knowledge and wisdom.

kåma:- wish, desire, love. Often used in the sense of sexual desire or love, but not necessarily so. Kåma is one of the four purusårthas or “goals of life,” the others being dharma, artha and moksa.

moksa:- liberation or freedom of rebirth. Moksa is one of the four purußårthas or “goals of life,” the others being dharma, artha and kåma.

artha:- wealth, not to be understood solely as material assets, but all kinds of wealth including non-tangibles such as knowledge, friendship and love. Artha is one of the four purusårthas or “goals of life” the others being dharma, kåma and moksa.

nirvåna:- blown out or extinguished as in the case of a lamp. Nirvåna is generally used to refer to a material life that has been extinguished, i.e. for one who has achieved freedom from re-birth. The term Nirvåna is commonly used in Buddhism as the final stage a practitioner strives for. The word does not mean heaven.

sånkhya:- calculating, enumeration, analysis, categorization. Modern science can be said to be a form of sånkhya because it attempts to analyze and categorize matter into its constituent elements. Sånkhya also refers to an ancient system of philosophy attributed to the sage Kapila. This philosophy is so called because it enumerates or analyses reality into a set number of basic elements, similar to modern science.

bråhmana:- a member of the traditional priestly class. The bråhma!a was the first of the four var!nas in the social system called varnåsrama-dharma. Literally the word means “in relation to brahman.” A bråhmana is one who follows the way of brahman. Traditionally a bråhmana, often written as brahmin, filled the role of priest, teacher and thinker.

ksatriya:- a member of the traditional military or warrior class. The kßatriya was the second var!a in the system of var!å"rama-dharma.

vaisya:- a member of the traditional mercantile or business community. The vaisya was the third varna in the system of varnå"rama-dharma.

südra:- a member of the traditional working class. The südra was the fourth varna in the system of varnåsrama-dharma.

varnåsrama:- the traditional social system of four var!as and four asramas. The word varna literally means, “color” and it refers to four basic natures of mankind: bråhmana, ksatriya, vaisya and südra. The asramas are the four stages of an individual’s life: brahmacarya (student), grhastha (householder), vanaprastha (retired) and sannyåsa (renounced).

satyam:- truth. The word satyam is formed from sat with the added abstract suffix. Sat refers to what is true and real. The abstract suffix yam means “ness.” Thus satyam literally means trueness or realness.

purusa:- man, male. In såõkhya philosophy purusa denotes the Supreme Male Principle in the universe. Its counterpart is prakrti.

prakrti:- material nature. In Såõkhya philosophy prakrti is comprised of eight elements: earth, water, fire, air, space, mind, intellect and ego. It is characterized by the three gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. Prakrti is female. Purußa is male.

deva:- derived from the Sanskrit root div meaning to shine or become bright. A deva is therefore a “shining one.” The word is used to refer to God, a god or any exalted personality. The female version is devî. purusottama–comprised of two words: purusa + uttama literally meaning “highest man.” Purusottama means God.

by Shukavak Dasa

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