Sanskrit: Introduction

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we introduce the Sanskrit language.

Objective

Understand the value and importance of Sanskrit as the language of original yoga texts.

Description

Define the word “Sanskrit” and review its origins. Explore how the language is unique and how it may impact those who use it. Consider reasons that teachers may wish to use Sanskrit in their teaching, and considerations for increasing effectiveness when they do.

Introduction

  • “Sanskrit” means “refined,” “perfected,” “polished,” “sanctified, “perfectly or entirely done.”
  • Often called “the mother of all languages,” Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages on Earth. (And a number of sources say it is the oldest language
  • It is the liturgical (public worship, services) language of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
  • Sanskrit is one of the 22 official languages of India.
  • Sanskrit is called a “sacred” or “spiritual language” and is regarded as a vibrational and healing language.
  • It originated from oral traditions and was developed to communicate spiritual insights. (Nicolai Bachman)
  • “It includes many words for spiritual experiences and concepts that have no equivalents in other languages.” (Russill Paul)
  • Nearly all Sanskrit literature is in verse. (Encylopedia.com)
  • “We need a language such as Sanskrit to capture the complexity of our deeper nature. It doesn’t make sense to use the language of the analyzing mind to cut through its own illusions, so we employ the discipline of sonic yoga to balance the limitations of our thinking, describing, analyzing mind.” (Russill Paul)

The “High” Language

The name Sanskrit means “refined,” “consecrated” and “sanctified.” It has always been regarded as the “high” language and used mainly for religious and scientific discourse – Esoteric Learning

Perfectly Done

The term ‘Sanskrit’ is derived from the conjoining of the prefix ‘sam’ meaning ‘samyak’ which indicates ‘entirely’, and ‘krit’ that indicates ‘done’. Thus, the name indicates perfectly or entirely done in terms of communication, reading, hearing, and the use of vocabulary to transcend and express an emotion. An extraordinarily complex language with a vast vocabulary, it is still widely used today in the reading of sacred texts and hymns… The language is believed to have been generated by observing the natural progression of sounds created in the human mouth, thus considering sound as an important element of language formation. This is one of the prime reasons why Sanskrit has been rich in poetry and its expressive quality of bringing out the best meaning through perfect sounds that are soothing to the human ear. Vedic Sanskrit also contains abstract nouns and philosophical terms which are not to be found in any other language. – Nikul Joshi 

Perfected, Polished, Refined

Sanskrit has been called the mother of all Indo-European languages. It’s considered to be one of the oldest languages on Earth, predating Greek and Latin, arising from the Proto Indo-European language spoken 7,000 to 8,000 years ago. The word “sanskrit” itself translates to perfected, polished or refined. And that translation is appropriate, given the healing power the language is thought to have. – Marget Braun 

Significant in India and Hindu Tradition

Even though it is not a spoken language, its significance is such that it is one of the 22 official languages of India. As an integral part of Hindu tradition and philosophy, Sanskrit is mostly used today as a ceremonial language in Hindu religious rituals. It is a required subject in many schools. – About World Languages 

A Spiritual Language of Millions of Awakened People

Sanskrit evolved to communicate and awaken spiritual experience… Sanskrit, as a spiritual language, has been accurately and uninterruptedly transmitted for at least four thousand years. The resonance of these sounds uttered by millions of people who have been awakened to spiritual reality assists us in our own use of the language. In other words, we draw from the power of numbers when we use Sanskrit; we connect our soul to numerous yogis and spiritual teachers who have employed this language in their own self-transformation…  We need a language such as Sanskrit to capture the complexity of our deeper nature. It doesn’t make sense to use the language of the analyzing mind to cut through its own illusions, so we employ the discipline of sonic yoga to balance the limitations of our thinking, describing, analyzing mind. – Russill Paul

History & Evolution

  • “Sanskrit is regarded as the ancient language in Hinduism, where it was used as a means of communication and dialogue by the Hindu Celestial Gods, and then by the Indo-Aryans. Sanskrit is also widely used in Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.” (Ancient History Encyclopedia)
  • The oldest form of the language in written form is traced back to the Rig Veda in the 2nd millennium BCE.
  • The oldest form is called Vedic Sanskrit. From Vedic Sanskrit came Classical Sanskrit.
  • Originally, Sanskrit was considered “a refined way of speaking, a marker of status and education, studied and used by Brahmins.” (About World Languages)
  • Sanskrit continues to be widely used as a ceremonial language in Hindu religious rituals and Buddhist practice in the forms of hymns and mantras.
  • There are a great many efforts being made to revive Sanskrit by various organizations around the world.

Passed from God to Sage

The Sanskrit language was termed as Deva-Vani (Gods – language) as it was believed to have been generated by the god Brahma who passed it to the Rishis (sages) living in celestial abodes, who then communicated the same to their earthly disciples from where it spread on earth. – Nikul Joshi 

Profound History & Meaning

There is a deeply rooted faith among Indians that Sanskrit itself is the language of the Devas (Gods), which is why this language was known during the Vedic period (6,000 – 8,000 years ago) as Daivi Vak(the Divine speech)… Numerous important works from a cultural, spiritual and scientific standpoint were written in this ancient language. All of the classic literature of Vedic times was written in Sanskrit too, including the classical texts of yoga, Vedanta and other spiritual and philosophical schools of ancient times, as well as the historical texts in the great sciences of astrology, astronomy, medicine, architecture and the physical sciences. The language is extremely regular, almost mathematical in its grammar and formulation. It is considered a sacred and mystical language. – Sanskrit History and Use as a Writing System

Origin in Written Form: The Rig Veda

The origin of the language in written form is traced back to the 2nd millennium BCE when the Rig Veda, a collection of sacred hymns, is assumed to have been written after being continued for centuries through oral tradition and preservation of verbal knowledge in the Guru-Disciple relationship. – Nikul Joshi 

Evolution into Classical Sanskrit

Classical Sanskrit has its origin in the end of the Vedic period when the Upanishads were the last sacred texts to be written down, after which Panini, a descendant of Pani and a grammar and linguistic researcher, introduced the refined version of the language. Panini’s timeline is assumed to be around the 4th century BCE, when he introduced his work ‘Ashtadhyayi’, which means eight chapters, forming the only available foundational and analytical text of Sanskrit grammar. It is considered to be the only source of Sanskrit grammar and vocabulary today, because everything that existed before had never been recorded except via their mention in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. – Nikul Joshi

Previously, A Marker of Status & Education

Originally, Sanskrit was considered not to be a separate language, but a refined way of speaking, a marker of status and education, studied and used by Brahmins. It existed alongside spoken vernaculars, called Prakrits, which later evolved into the modern Indo-Aryan languages. – About World Languages 

Reasons to Consider Using Sanskrit

Sanskrit is the original language used to share the teachings of yoga. The situation today varies:

  • In some lineages, the use of Sanskrit continues to be a big part of the teaching, and it’s expected that teachers will use Sanskrit when naming poses and teaching yoga philosophy.
  • In other styles, it’s considered unnecessary or potentially a turn-off to students. It’s not used at all.
  • And in many studios and styles, it’s mixed: teachers make a personal decision about how interested and committed they are to using Sanskrit in their teaching.

Because Sanskrit is the language of yoga, understanding key Sanskrit terminology and its pronunciation can deepen a practitioner’s knowledge of the yogic path. – Nicholai Bachman 

Some of the reasons teachers and philosophers choose to use Sanskrit include:

  1. To honor, respect and endeavor to understand the culture, history and intention of the original sources of yoga teachings.
  2. To suggest to students that there’s more to yoga than the physical practice and to deepen interest in the philosophical teachings.
  3. To utilize a common language used by practitioners and teachers, no matter their culture or geographic location.
  4. To experience the vibrational quality of the language. “Each of the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are thought to have a sound frequency with a specific therapeutic benefit.” (Jay Kumar, Sanskrit scholar)

Introductory Considerations

Why go through the trouble of trying to roll that r in Vrksasana when you can just say “Tree”? … For one thing, Sanskrit provides 2,000-3,000 years’ worth of context for the yoga poses as we know them. Plus, studying the ancient language can be as invigorating for your brain as the physical practice is for your body. Let’s consider a few more reasons why studying Sanskrit can be valuable to you as a yogi. – Jessica Levine 

Inspirational & Practical Reasons

I’ve heard so many complaints over the years from both yoga teachers and yoga practitioners that learning the Sanskrit names of poses is just too difficult!…I actually think if you have the right mindset, learning the pose names is not as hard as you might think… Once you understand the logic behind the Sanskrit naming system, it becomes much easier to learn the names… Here are four reasons why I think you should open your mind to Sanskrit: 1) Sanskrit is the universal language of yoga! You can go anywhere in the world and understand it or be understood… 2) English names are inconsistent. For example, I’ve heard Uttanasana be called “Standing Forward Bend,” “Intense Forward Fold,” and “Ragdoll pose.”… 3) One day you may need your Sanskrit… I’m guessing you don’t want to keep sneaking looks at the others in the class to figure out which pose the teacher is talking about. 4) It’s good for your brain! Learning a new language is one of the best brain aerobics you can do for brain health. – Nina Zolotow 

A Thoughtful Perspective

The following is an excerpt from a longer post by Susanna Barkataki that we encourage you to read in its entirety.

 “But, Do I Really Need to Speak Sanskrit? On Language, Legacies of Learning and Asking Ourselves, What Am I Committing to be a Student Of?

I’d love to reflect on a question I get asked a lot. “I practice and / or teach yoga, but do I really need to learn Sanskrit?” Sometimes this question is asked with an eyeroll. Or a moan. Or an addendum “…it’s such a hard language to speak…” 

And honestly, when asked this way, it can be painful and harmful. This actually becomes a racial microagressionThis is a racial aggression because our culture needs to be honored and respected, not ignored, downplayed or mocked. As we consider this question, it’s important to stop and ask ourselves: what exactly am I being a student of?When we consider this question of if we should learn Sanskrit when we practice and teach yoga I’d say unequivocally yes. 

For me, the answer is about honoring the roots of this practice. My answer is also personal, political, reverential and practical… Sanskrit is part of the fabric of yoga and lends important context to our yoga practice. When we learn and use the Sanskrit names for asana, pranayama, mudras or bandhas in yoga we not only deepen our practice, but we benefit from the thousands of years of codification that yogis past have offered on this subject. Through our exploration, we may understand the nuances of a shape better, or we may gain insight into yogic philosophy. 

Honestly, wecould be students our whole lives and still barely touch the surface of this immense ancestral wisdom stream… Some of my teachers say that Sanskrit is a sacred language where each sound vibrates with the harmonics of the universe… I’m not saying everyone has to do things the same, just inviting inquiry… To me, Sanskrit is a beautiful, vibrational and spiritual language. I have so much reverence for it and I will always be a student of it. – Susanna Barkataki

Neuroscientist Studies Brain & Mind Effects

The following is an excerpt from Scientific American, A Neuroscientist Explores the “Sanskrit Effect. It’s necessary to read the full article to understand the scope and limitations of the research; here we primarily introduce the author:

I spent many years studying and translating Sanskrit and became fascinated by its apparent impact on mind and memory. In India’s ancient learning methods textual memorization is standard: traditional scholars, or pandits, master many different types of Sanskrit poetry and prose texts; and the tradition holds that exactly memorizing and reciting the ancient words and phrases, known as mantras, enhances both memory and thinking. I had also noticed that the more Sanskrit I studied and translated, the better my verbal memory seemed to become. Fellow students and teachers often remarked on my ability to exactly repeat lecturers’ own sentences when asking them questions in class… I was curious: was there actually a language-specific “Sanskrit effect” as claimed by the tradition? When I entered the cognitive neuroscience doctoral program at the University of Trento (Italy) in 2011, I had the opportunity to start investigating this question…. What we discovered from the structural MRI scanning was remarkable… – James Hartzell

Cautions & Considerations

Using many Sanskrit words in class can overwhelm some students, particularly those who don’t have an interest (at least no current interest) in learning more about yoga. Therefore, in such cases, you may wish to “sprinkle” it in throughout class.

To avoid potentially sounding exclusionary or confusing, or otherwise “turning off” students, consider such strategies as the following:

  • Provide an overview of the language to students, explaining your respect for the history of yoga and other reasons for using it.
  • Use an inviting and open approach, avoiding any appearance of exclusivity.
  • Translate every Sanskrit phrase used.

Don’t Assume That People Learn the Way You Do

Every student learns differently, so if there are 30 people in a class, I assume there are 30 different classes going on. Don’t assume that people learn the way you do. Only 20% of people are auditory learners. The rest of us are visual and kinesthetic learners. – Diana Damelio

Alphabet

  • Since the late 19th century, Sanskrit has been written mostly with the Devanāgarī alphabet.
  • However, it has also been written using most other alphabets of India and with such alphabets as Thai, Tibetan and Latin.
  • The most commonly used system is the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration (IAST), which has been the standard for academic work since 1912.