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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hmmm... Latin, best I can do.

असतो मा सद्गमय ।
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय ।।
मृत्योर्मामृतं गमय ।

Asato ma saad gamaya
Tamaso ma jotir gamaya
mritur ma amritang gamaya

(I really dislike writing Indian languages in Roman alphabet, I think it looks weird and ugly, but there's no other way for me to explain how it sounds.)

If you look closely at my profile picture here, you will see that it is a photograph of a cross-stitch of this prayer. It is something known as a Vedic prayer. Each of the Vedas opens with a short prayer in Sanskrit and this is my favorite one.

It means:
Lead me from the unreal to the real
Lead me from the darkness to the light
Lead me from death to immortality

I have a tremendous respect for the Sanskirt language. The way I grew up, it was seen as the holy language, the language of God. We were told that the laws of the universe could be found in Sanskrit grammar. If we learned the grammar, we would know how the whole world works (it is, by the way, the most difficult grammar I have ever encountered).

Sanskrit is what led my mother to join the organization I grew up in. She loved the puzzle of it, figuring out the pieces. She translates passages from the Upanishads frequently and her dining room table is always covered with Sanskrit dictionaries and grammars and other books and papers.

Throughout my childhood I took classes in Sanskrit, but not serious ones. We would learn the letters of the alphabet, but we learned the same stuff over and over and many middle-aged people in the school just continue to practice the alphabet for years, never actually learning it. I learned enough to chant a few prayers.

In college I decided to take a Sanskrit class and that was the hardest class I've ever had! It turns out that at college level you spend the entire first year doing nothing but learning grammar rules. You don't get to translating or reading until the second year. I barely passed one semester.

I switched to studying Hindi because I wanted a language I could use to communicate. Now there are spoken Sanskrit classes, but I was not aware of such a thing at the time and I'm not sure how many people one could actually communicate with using it. Sanskrit is more or less a dead language. There are holy men who still speak it and it is experiencing a revival, but I doubt it will ever take off in popularity.

Still, all the holy books are written in Sanskrit and if you wanted to have a deeper understanding of them it is worth studying. I depend on asking my mom the deeper meaning!

Even though Hindi grew out of Sanskrit, they are not mutually intelligible, so my mom with her thirty years of Sanskrit study cannot understand Hindi and I cannot with my one year of Hindi learning understand Sanskrit. However, the alphabet is almost the same, so we can each read the other, just without understanding what we're saying.

A little about Sanskrit:
1) The "a" sound is not said like in "ant," the "ant" sound does not exist in the language, so it should sound a bit more like "Saanskrit", the "a" is more of an "uh."

2) The grammar rules were codified in the 4th century by a man named Paanini and my dad likes to make sandwich jokes about this when we go to a deli.

3) It is on the Indo-European family tree of languages. This often surprises people, but Sanskrit is related to English and other European languages and we do have words in English derived from Sanskrit.

4) An example of the complexity of the grammar. It has ten classes of verbs. These all change according to tense and aspect, etc. Verbs also have "grades" and I don't even know what that means.

5) According to tradition, Sanskrit was spoken for thousands of years before it was ever written down. Many religious people believe it to be the first language in existence.

6) Sanskrit is still used in most ceremonies at Hindu temples and at weddings. Frequently only the priest knows what it means (sort of like Latin and Catholicism).

7) Not all of the hundreds of Indian languages are related to Sanskrit at all.

So, there's a little introduction to the "language of the Gods."

(The title for this post is from a movie called PCU where a character is selling pre-written thesis papers. A kid comes in and asks for one in Sanskrit and the guy says, "Sanskrit? You're majoring in a 5,00 year old dead language? Hmmm... Latin, best I can do.")

I'm thinking pretty soon I'll do a post on the sound "Om", what it is and what it means.


  1. I studied Sanskrit from grades 5 through 8 although I must confess that I have forgotten most of it. I don't think it is a dead language in the same mold as Latin. Agreed that there are very few people who could hold a conversation in that language. But so was Hebrew at some point in the past - look at it now. It is alive and thriving in Israel.

    There is a village in India, Mattur (population 5000), where almost everyone (yes everyone!) speaks in Sanskrit. The trick is in learning the language in your early years. No matter how daunting the grammar might appear to adults, it is no different than learning any other language for a child.

    Here are some links I found about that village in India:,curpg-1.cms

  2. Your post title made me laugh out loud because 'PCU' is one of my favorite movies!

  3. Good points, Arvind! It's true that for a child any language is simple because they aren't thinking about grammar, they're just doing it.

    And I think Hebrew is an excellent analogy for Sanskrit. I can't believe I didn't think of that.

    I will not be raising my children bilingual in Sanskrit, although my mom is taking one of those spoken Sanskrit classes so I'll see if I can get her to use it with them!

    And Mouse, it was a much funnier movie than I expected. I enjoyed it a lot!

  4. all sounds, yes all existing sounds in all other languages can be reproduced are possible in sanskrit
    ant is akin to eka lavya, evam etc. German umlaut as well.
    asatoma sadgamaya, tama soma jyothir gamaya, mrithyorma amrithanga maya

  5. appeal to all non native hindi(english)speakers pls dont put an extra "a" after every hindu(sanskrit) word and alter the real pronounciation some examples:
    veda-->should be ved(वेद)
    rama-->should be raam(राम)
    yoga-->should be yog(योग)

    its not that hindu words dont end with a like in gita or geeta "a" has to be stressed.

    actually if any1 wants to learn any forign/new language then he should first learn it to speak it.
    only the secondary goal should be writing/reading.
    as children learn to speak first then at a later stage read or write in this way theres no accent problem.
    hope everybody understand what i mean 2 say

  6. primary function of a language is speaking it{ for communication} not for reading or writing

  7. "it is, by the way, the most difficult grammar I have ever encountered"-->aamba said

    difficult huh? its difficult bcoz u truly believe in your mind that its difficult its bad to have notions in your mind before knowing or understanding it or ne thing