Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji
Note: This article originally appeared in the Times Of India Delhi edition
Sanskrit is called deva bhasha, language of gods. It is regarded as a divine language. Sanskrit letters are called akshara, imperishable. They are neither created nor destroyed. When they are pronounced, they are not created; they become manifest. According to the Bhagavata Purana, the Sanskrit letters manifested from the mouth of Brahma with divisions such as svaras, vowels, and vyanjanas, consonants, according to the pronunciation.
It is from the sound of these letters that the world was created. There are 33 vyanjanas, which represent the 33 devas, namely, 12 Adityas, 11 Rudras, eight Vasus, and two Ashvini Kumaras. The ﬁrst 25 vyanjanas beginning with ‘k’ are grouped in ﬁve sets, each having ﬁve vyanjanas. They represent the ﬁve sets of mahabhutas, material elements; ﬁve karmendriyas, working senses; ﬁve jnanendriyas, cognitive senses; ﬁve tanmatras, subtle elements, and ﬁve vishayas, sense objects. The 16 svaras represent 16 types of creative energies, also referred to as 16 kalas. Therefore, every Sanskrit word has a speciﬁc energy, vibration, attached to it.
Modern science has proven that matter is energy, vibration. Therefore, it makes sense that the world was created from the sound vibration of Sanskrit letters.
This is also why sages who had perfected the science of mantra could bless or even curse someone. Their words could create the corresponding objects. According to Sanskrit vyakaranam, grammar, there is an eternal relationship between a Sanskrit word and its meaning. For example, by chanting the mantra related to a speciﬁc deity, one can experience that deity, because the deity of the mantra and the mantra have an inseparable relationship. In the Bhagwad Gita, Krishna says that if one leaves one’s body while reciting the divine sound of ‘Aum’, then one will become free from material conditioning. This is so because although ‘Aum’ appears to be an ordinary sound, it is actually the name of the Absolute Reality and carries all powers in it of the Supreme.
Traditionally, before the study of Sanskrit grammar, one has to study the science of pronunciation. In Sanskrit, proper pronunciation of a word is given a lot of importance. It is true of Vedic words that have an intonation. The meaning of a word can change with the change in intonation. Recitation of stotras, prayers and chanting of mantras are important parts of Hindu practice as they are believed to yield spiritual beneﬁts. Even those who do not understand the meaning can derive beneﬁt just by reciting them. But, if one translates these stotras and mantras into English, then one cannot get the beneﬁt of reciting the translation.
Sanskrit words have an inherent potency in them, which is not available if it is translated into English. Also, if translated, the words lose their original sense. For example, the word ‘rishi’, in Sanskrit means, ‘rishayah mantradrishtarah’ – one who sees the mantra, or one who has direct experience of the truth. But if we translate rishi as sage, then the original sense of the word rishi is lost. According to the dictionary, sage means, ‘A profoundly wise man, especially one who features in ancient scriptures or legend.’ The exact meaning is lost in translation.
The writer, a Vaishnava scholar, is founder, Jiva Institute of Vedic Studies. He has co-authored ‘Sanskrit Non-Translatables’ with Rajiv Malhotra (Amaryllis)