The Importance of Sanskrit
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Sanskrit are inseparably related. The roots of much of Hinduism
can be traced to the dawn of Vedic civilization. From its inception,
Vedic thought has mainly been expressed through the medium of the
Sanskrit language. Sanskrit, therefore, forms the basis of Hindu
As language changes, so religion changes. In the case of Hinduism, Sanskrit stood
for millennia as the carrier of most of Vedic thought before its dominance gradually
gave way to the vernacular lanuages that eventually evolved into the modern day
languages of Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada, and so on. Although
the foundations of Hinduism are largely 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 of languages
that were 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 Westerners
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
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 institutions 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 afield. The differences between the Indian regional languages
and Sanskrit are minuscule when compared to the differences 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, 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, atman as soul, papa as sin, dharma as
religion. But brahman is not the same as God; atman is
not equivalent to the soul, papa is not sin and dharma is
much more than mere religion. To obtain a true understanding of sacred writings,
such as the Upanisads or the Bhagavad-gita,
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 darsana and
prayer and increasingly ask for Hindu weddings and other pujas.
But it does suggest that the new Hinduism that is developing in the West will
evolve in a 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. In the right hand column 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-gita and the major Upanisads.