Thursday, February 24, 2011


“Sanskrit is learned by immersing yourself in its pure and ever blissful vibrations, and  seeing, only seeing, and hearing, only hearing, the consistent and symmetrical patterns of its grammatical structure…The enjoyment of play, while developing a love for the sounds and their rhythms, as well as their visual representation, is all that’s needed to learn the language.”
Vyaas Houston, “The Yoga of Learning Sanskrit.”

          During my student days, foreign languages were never my forte. Nevertheless, I dutifully studied Spanish for seven years from middle school through undergraduate college, then I did a year of French (reading only, not speaking) as the language requirement for my master's degree in Philosophy. It was always Sanskrit, though, the elder sister of Latin and Greek, that fascinated and attracted me most because since the late 1960s I buried myself in translations of classic works in Buddhism and Hinduism. Back then, I never dreamed I'd now be in my 13th year of Sanskrit study and translation.

The opportunity came in 1998, the year I received a MacArthur fellowship. My "present" to myself was a systematic and sustained study of this ancient language. My entry point was provided by the very effective approach utilized by the American Sanskrit Institute (an approach that united mind, body and spirit), which offers 3-day intensive study sessions around the country. (You can also do a month-long intense at places they operate back east, speaking only Sanskrit during that time.) My teacher was (is) Aja Thomas, a Vedic priest who operates the Atma Institute in Portland, Oregon. For many years, Aja drove up from Portland to offer two and three days of immersion in Sanskrit to our Seattle study group, which translated large chunks of the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Astavakra Samhita, and other texts.

The ASI approach is holistic; and one has to give up limited concepts of self to make progress. (We do not study for grades or degrees or to impress or compete with anyone, only because we love the beauty of this language and the role it has played for roughly 4,000 years in influencing cultures Western and Eastern.) The toughest part of learning Sanskrit is mastering case endings for masculine, feminine and neuter nouns and pronouns, and the tense and mood endings for verbs. Aja would write in Devanagari script (“that spoken by the gods”) a zloka (a verse of 4 lines, 8 syllables each) on the board before us. Even before we translated the four lines, everyone in our group (I was almost always the only male, the others being women who taught yoga) had to sing it (something I had to work up the courage to do in front of others---I’m no Marvin Gaye).  Then all of us sang it together. After that, we'd open our Sanskrit/English dictionaries (M. Monier Williams's, or copies of a 1,768-page dictionary by Vaman Shivaram Apte that a study group member secured for us during her trip to Delhi), and begin working through the zloka's vocabulary. After that, and with Aja's help, we'd turn to parsing the grammar, working through declensions, and the operations of sandhi (the way Sanskrit transforms vowels and consonants to harmonize sounds). With that transliteration done, we would then discuss the zloka's meaning, and conclude by all of us singing it again as a group. This process of working through four lines of Sanskrit in the Gita typically took about two or three hours, and required our complete attention “to the pronunciation of each sound, each word, and our watching vigilantly the visual construction of each letter as a moving point becoming lines interconnecting with new points and lines,” as Sanskrit teacher Vyaas Houston puts it.

In other words, the ASI approach amounted to being 2 or 3 days (eight hours a day) of focused meditation, with the emphasis being on experiencing maximum, uninterrupted resonance, perfectly blended syllables for the joy they bring, and recognizing visual symbols: speech as music. That is somewhat different from the more academic approach one finds at universities, which emphasize memorization and a competitive, “success/failure” model that detotalizes the learning experience. (According to Houston, “…at our highest centers of learning, the best universities, the drop-out rate for Sanskrit classes can be as high as 90%.”)

Over the last decade, I've developed a pretty extensive library on this language and its children, because Sanskrit shares much in common not only with the Celtic, Teutonic, Slavonic, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon languages but also Asian ones such as Pali, Hindi, Marathi and Ghandari. The oldest Buddhist manuscripts we have on fragile and brittle 2,000-year-old fragments of birch bark are in Gandhari, a dialect of Prakrit, which developed from Sanskrit; they were found in a jar in a cave in eastern Afghanistan, were written when Jesus was still alive, and are being translated by my colleague Richard Salomon and his team in the Dept. of Asian Languages and Literature at the University of Washington; see his 1999 work, with an introduction by the Dalai Lama, entitled  Ancient Scrolls from Gandhara: The British Library Kharosthi Fragments.

For ten years now, I've purchased and studied every book (and self-study course), tape and learning tool on Sanskrit that I've run across, academic and otherwise, and whenever I've needed a little help with some esoteric aspect of Sanskrit grammar, I've turned for clarification to Aja, or to Dr. Salomon (he is one of only a handful of Ghandari scholars in the world and speaks 12 languages), and his lovely colleague Collette Cox (I credit all three Sanskrit teachers in my book Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing). 

It should be clear by now that Sanskrit is my most serious intellectual and spiritual hobby, a language I will study until the last day of my life, especially because so many studies show that for older people language study keeps their minds sharp. (I will never consider myself to be an "expert," only an always avid student.) I use it when writing articles for popular Buddhist publications like Tricycle, BuddhadharmaShambhala Sun, and Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism. I end my meditation sessions by softly chanting Sanskrit mantras or lines I've memorized from texts that I love. Each line of Sanskrit is compressed, much like an equation, math or a calculus. The word itself, Sanskrit (Sanskrta) means “language brought to formal perfection.” (NASA discovered in its early AI research that Sanskrit is the only unambiguous language on Earth.)  As Vyaas Houston put it, “The extraordinary thing about Sanskrit is that it offers direct accessibility by anyone to that elevated plane where the two, mathematics and music, brain and heart, analytic and intuitive, scientific and spiritual become one.” 

 Its rewards seem endless. It is the language of mantras. It is the language of enlightenment, and requires the one-pointedness (ekagratha or “single-grasping”) of yoga. It demands a different way of seeing and experiencing the world. Whenever he was jailed by the British, Gandhi studied Sanskrit and the Gita. Writing in Devanagari is like drawing or doing calligraphy. The Buddhist texts I once studied in different translations, like the Dhammapada and Prajna-Paramita-Hridaya-Sutra, I have now translated myself, an exercise that reinforces the old truth that any translation from a foreign language (especially a "dead" one) can yield multiple interpretations. Speaking and reading Sanskrit, we find ourselves sensitized to the sound (guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental and labial) and music of language, so much so that when I was still teaching and turned to going over the English prose of my students after a Sanskrit study session (and playfully slipped into translating their sentences into Sanskrit as I do sometimes when reading news stories), I found my ear more finely-tuned to each syllable. And Sanskrit ever delivers provocative revelations. For example, the word upadēsha means “instruction.” More specifically, upa means “near,” and dēsha means “pointing.” Instruction is “pointing near.” In other words, when instructing others we can only point at the subject, never deliver it (Think of this is terms of the Zen trope of a finger pointing at the moon, but not being the experience of the moon itself.) Or consider the word loka, one of the Sanskrit words for “world.” The root of loka is luj, which means to “disintegrate,” a meaning that for every Buddhist will conjure the image of anicca or the impermanence of all things. And I always get a kick, of course, when I meet someone from India and discover that I probably know the Sanskrit meaning of their first and last names---and can write it for them in Devanagari.

For me, then, the study of Sanskrit is a privilege, a blessing, and a pleasure I try to enjoy for at least one hour every day.


  1. Great article, thanks. I look forward to studying Sanskrit myself some day.

  2. Give up exhausted, mentally and physically, cling to nothing, for you can take nothing with you. Then the gate of Zen will open buddhists houston