Vyasa Houston M. A.
The extraordinary thing about Sanskrit is that it offers direct accessibility to anyone to that elevated plane where the two —mathematics and music, brain and heart, analytical and intuitive, scientific and spiritual— become one.
hitehead's Modes of Thought speaks highly of language: "...The mentality of mankind and the language of mankind created each other. If we like to assume the rise of language as a given fact, then it is not going too far to say that the souls of men are the gift from language to mankind. The account of the sixth day should be written: 'He gave them speech, and they became souls."
But Whitehead's words are somewhat anbiguous, and may have created in readers as many different responses as there are readers. One may perceive his statement as a noble and inspiring truth. Another may react to the notion that a 'soul' could depend on language. Still another may be completely in the dark about what Whitehead is saying.
The quote will actually take on meaning according to context, and the context is largely determined by the meanings we attribute to words. This is especially so in this quote for the word "soul." According to Webster, "soul" can mean "the immortal part of a human being," or "the seat of emotional sentiment and aspiration," or simply "a human being." In addition to or apart from these definitions, each of us may bring our own religious or philosophical beliefs or experiences into the context, but the point is this: wherever we go in our interpretation of Whitehead, we use language. So the question arises, "Where does the soul exist other than in language?"
We have greatly underestimated the sacred power of language. When the power of language to create and discover life is recognized, language becomes sacred; in ancient times, language was held in this regard. Nowhere was this more so than in ancient India. It is evident that the ancient scientists of language were acutely aware of the function of language as a tool for exploring and understanding life, and their intention to discover truth was so consuming that in the process of using language with greater and greater rigor, they discovered perhaps the most perfect tool for fulfulling such a search that the world has ever known—the Sanskrit language.
This, along with the example of Whitehead's quote, points out what is perhaps the most important distinction we can make in the fulfillment of our lives: either language uses us or we use language. Either we think that Whitehead is right or wrong based on what our already-established definition of "soul" is, or we discover the relation of his use of words to our own use of words, which opens the doors to the possibility of seeing something that lies beyond both. Only in the latter do we actually communicate, free from the domination of unconscious memory dictating meaning.
Of all the discoveries that have occurred and developed in the course of human history, language is the most significant and probably the most taken for granted. Without language, civilization could obviously not exist. On the other hand, to the degree that language becomes sophisticated and accurate in describing the subtlety and complexity of human life, we gain power and effectiveness in meeting its challenges.
The access to modern technology which has been designed to give ease, efficiency, and enjoyment in meeting our daily needs did not exist at the beginning of the century. It was made possible by accelerated advancement in the field of mathematics, a "language" which has helped us to discover the interrelationship of energy and matter with a high degree of precision. The resulting technology is evidence of the tremendous power that is unleashed simply by being able to make the finer and finer distinction that a language like mathematics affords.
At the same time, humankind has fallen far behind the advancements in technology. The precarious state of political and ecological imbalance that we are now experiencing is an obvious sign of the power of technology far exceeding the power of human beings to be in control of it. It could easily be argued that we have fallen far behind the advancements in technology simply because the languages we use for daily communication do not help us to make the distinctions required to be in balance with the technology that has taken over our lives.
Relevant to this, there has recently been an astounding discovery made at the NASA research center. The following quote is from an article Sanskrit & Artificial Intelligence, which appeared in AI (Artificial Intelligence) magazine in spring of 1985, written NASA researcher Rick Briggs:
"In the past twenty years, much time, effort, and money has been expended on designing an unambiguous representation of natural languages to make them accessible to computer processing. These efforts have centered around creating schemata designed to parallel logical relations with relations expressed by the syntax and semantics of natural languages, which are clearly cumbersome and ambiguous in their function as vehicles for the transmission of logical data. Understandably, there is a widespread belief that natural languages are unsuitable for the transmission of many ideas that artificial languages can render with great precision and mathematical rigor.
But this dichotomy, which has served as a premise underlying much work in the areas of liguistics and artificial intelligence, is a false one. There is at least one language, Sanskrit, which for the duration of almost 1000 years was a living spoken language with a considerable literature of its own. Besides works of literary value, there was a long philosophical and grammatical tradition that has continued to exist with undiminished vigor until the present century. Among the accomplishments of the grammarians can be reckoned a method for paraphrasing Sanskrit in a manner that is identical not only in essence but in form with current work in Artificial Intelligence. This article demonstrates that a natural language can serve as an artificial language also, and that much work in AI has been reinventing a wheel millennia old."
This discovery is of monumental significance. It is mind-boggling to consider that we have available to us a language which has been spoken for at least 3000 years that appears to be in every respect a perfect language designed for enlightened communication. But the most stunning aspect of the discovery is this: NASA, the most advanced research center in the world for cutting-edge technology, has discovered that Sanskrit, the world's oldest spiritual language, is the only unambiguous spoken language on the planet.
In early AI research it was discovered that in order to clear up the inherent ambiguity of natural languages for computer comprehension, it was necessary to utilize semantic net systems to encode the actual meaning of a sentence. Briggs gives the example of how a simple sentence would be represented in a semantic net.
He further comments, "The degree to which a semantic net (or any unambiguous nonsyntactic representation) is cumbersome and odd-sounding in a natural language is the degree to which that language is 'natural' and deviates from the precise or 'artificial.' As we shall see, there was a language (Sanskrit) spoken among an ancient scientific community that has a deviation of zero."
Considering Sanskrit's status as a spiritual language, a further implication of this discovery is that the age-old dichotomy between religion and science is an entirely unjustified one. It is also relevant to note that in the last decade, physicists have begun to comment on the striking similarities between their own discoveries and the discoveries made thousands of years ago in India which went on to form the basis of most Eastern religions.
Considering the high level of collaboration required in uncovering the nature of energy and matter, it is inconceivable that it ever could have taken place without a common language, namely mathematics. This is a perfect example of using a language for discovering and designing life. The language of mathematics, being inherently unambiguous, minimizes personal interpretation and therefore maximizes opportunity for exploration and discovery. The result of this is a worldwide community of scientists working together with extraordinary vitality and excitement about uncovering the unknown.
It can also be inferred that the discoveries that occurred in India in the first millennia B.C. were also the result of collaboration and inquiry by a community of spiritual scientists utilizing a common scientific language, Sanskrit. The truth of this is further accented by the fact that throughout the history and development of Indian thought, the science of grammar and linguistics was attributed a status equal to that of mathematics in the context of modern scientific investigation. In deference to the thoroughness and depth with which the ancient grammatical scientists established the science of language, modern linguistic researchers in Russia have concluded about Sanskrit, "The time has come to continue the tradition of the ancient grammarians on the basis of the modern ideas in general linguistics."
Sanskrit is the most ancient of all languages. From its sisters, Latin and Greek, most of the modern European languages have been derived. Sanskrit use can be traced as far back as before the first millennia B.C.; the only preserved language to which Sanskrit was originally related is Vedic. The oldest extant example of the literature of the Vedic period is the Rig-Veda. Being strictly in verse, the Rig-Veda does not give us a record of the contemporary spoken language. Still it is believed that Vedic coexisted with Sanskrit originally as a living language.
The term "Vedic Sanskrit" is more appropriate to later Vedic prose which exhibits features that imply the influence of Sanskrit. The very name "Sanskrit" meant "language brought to formal perfection" in contrast to the common languages, or "natural" languages (Prakrita).
Although there existed an older form of Sanskrit utilized in epic literature—namely the Ramayana and Mahabharata—which was slightly less strict in its grammatical codification, the form of Sanskrit which has been used for the last 2500 years is known today as classical Sanskrit. The norms of classical Sanskrit were established by the ancient grammarians. Although no records are available of their work, their efforts reached a climax in the fifth or fourth century B.C. in the great grammatical treatise of Panini, which became the standard for correct speech with such comprehensive authority that it has remained so with little alteration until present times. Based on what the grammarians themselves have stated, we may conclude that the Sanskrit grammar was an attempt to discipline and explain a spoken language. The NASA article corroborates this in saying that Indian grammatical analysis "probably has to do with an age-old Indo-Aryan preoccupation to discover the nature of reality behind the impressions we human beings receive through the operation of our senses."
Until 1100 A.D., Sanskrit was without interruption the official language of the whole of India. The dominance of Sanskrit is indicated by a wealth of literature of widely diverse genres including religious, philosophical, fiction (short stories, fables, novels, and plays); scientific (linguistics, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine), as well as law and politics.
From the time of the Muslim invasions onwards, Sanskrit gradually became displaced by common languages patronized by the Muslim kings as a tactic to suppress Indian cultural and religious tradition and supplant it with their own beliefs. But they could not eliminate the literary and spiritual/ritual use of Sanskrit. Even today in India, there is a strong movement to return Sanskrit to the status of "the national language of India." Sanskrit, being a language derived from simple monosyllabic verbal roots through the addition of appropriate prefixes and suffixes according to precise grammatical laws, has an infinite capacity to grow, adapt, and expand according to the requirements of change in a rapidly evolving world.
Even in the last two centuries, due to the rapid advances in technology and science, a literature abundant with new and improvised vocabulary has come into existence. Although such additions are based on the grammatical principles of Sanskrit, and mostly composed of Sanskrit roots, still contributions from Hindi and other national and international languages have been assimilated. For example, the word for television, duradarshanam, meaning "that which provides a 'vision' of what is far away" is derived purely from Sanskrit; whereas the word for motorcar, motaryanam, borrows from the English.
Furthermore, there are at least a dozen periodicals published in Sanskrit, all-India news broadcast in Sanskrit, television shows and feature movies produced in Sanskrit, one village of 3000 inhabitants who communicate through Sanskrit alone (not to mention countless smaller intellectual communities throughout India), and schools where Sanskrit is fostered. "Contemporary Sanskrit" is alive and well.
Although the Muslim invasion seems to be the ostensible historical cause of the decline of Sanskrit as the lingua franca of India from 1100 A.D., it seems important in the context of this article to consider some other possibilities. By the great body of philosophical, religious, literary, scientific, and linguistic knowledge that was held by succeeding generations with increasing reverence, the qualifications for being a learned man became more and more consuming, especially considering the great emphasis in Indian culture on the memorization of entire texts. This fact could easily have contributed to the decline of Sanskrit as a language tool for the discovery of the nature of reality, which was the real source of its own perfecting.
Apart from historical contexts there is one obvious explanation for Sanskrit's decrease in popular use. Its function gradually became more and more mechanical as its practice increasingly served the purpose of only reviewing the discoveries of the past. When the esteem for knowledge as the mastery of what had already been learned replaced the thirst for new discovery, the widespread usage of Sanskrit declined. At the same time, this need not imply any detraction from the value and inspiration derived from a thorough knowledge of the great works of antiquity; it only helps to explain the decline of Sanskrit as a living language. But the striking lesson to be learned from the example of Sanskrit may be well worth the 2000 years it has taken. The attempt to recapture the truths discovered by the ancient Sanskrit explorers by the mere repetitions of their formulas actually may have destroyed the spirit of investigation and ended up dulling the language instrument. If this were not so, there is no imaginable reason for the discontinuation of such a perfect language as the lingua franca of India or its utilization by other civilizations throughout the world. The benefits which a language like mathematics affords in scientific investigation, or even English in economic advancement, are today sought from every corner of the globe. Therefore the consideration of what might bring Sanskrit to life as possibly the most valuable tool we have for optimum global communication and spiritual unity requires that we learn from the miscalculations of the past.
The linguistic perfection of Sans-krit offers only a partial explanation for its sustained presence in the world for at least 3,000 years. High precision in and of itself is of limited scope; like mathematics, it generally excites the brain, but not the heart. Like music, however, Sans-krit has the power to uplift the heart. It's conceivable that for a few rare and inspired geniuses, mathematics can reach the point of becoming music or music, mathematics.
The extraordinary thing is that it offers direct accessibility to anyone to that elevated plane where the two—mathematics and music, brain and heart, analytical and intuitive, scientific and spiritual—become one. Great discoveries occur, whether through mathematics or music or Sans-krit, not by the calculations or manipulations of the human mind, but where the living language is expressed and heard in a state of joy and communion with the natural laws of existence.
Generating clarity and inspiration, the Sans-krit language is directly responsible for a brilliance of creative expression such as the world has rarely seen. No one has expressed this more eloquently than Sri Aurobindo, the twentieth-century poet-philosopher:
"The ancient and classical creations of the Sans-krit tongue both in quality and in body and abundance of excellence, in their potent originality and force and beauty, in their substance and art and structure, in grandeur and justice and charm of speech, and in the height and width of the reach of their spirit, stand very evidently in the front rank among the world's great literatures. The language itself, as has been universally recognized by those competent to form a judgement, is one of the most magnificent, most perfect, and wonderfully sufficient literary instruments developed by the human mind, at once majestic and sweet and flexible, strong and clearly-formed, and full and vibrant and subtle, and its quality and character would be of itself a sufficient evidence of the character and quality of the race whose mind it expressed, and the culture of which it was the reflecting medium."
Sans-krit is the language of mantra—words of power that are subtly attuned to the unseen harmonies of the matrix of creation, the world as yet unformed. Vak (speech), the "word" of Genesis, incorporates both the sense of voice and word. It has four forms of expression. The first, para, represents cosmic ideation arising from absolute divine presence. The second, pasyanti (seeing), is vak as subject, seeing which creates the object of madhyama-vak, the third and subtle form of speech before it manifests as vaikhari-vak, the gross production of letters in spoken speech. This implies the possibility of having speech oriented to a direct living truth which transcends individual preoccupation with the limited information available through the senses. Spoken words as such are creative living things of power. They penetrate to the essence of what they describe, and give birth to meaning which reflects the profound interrelatedness of life.
Although it is a tantalizing proposition to consider speaking a language whose sounds are so pure and euphonically combined, the basic attitude towards learning Sans-krit in India today is "It's too difficult." Actually it is not difficult, and there are few greater enjoyments than learning it. The first stage is to experience the individual power of each of the 49 basic sounds of the alphabet. This is pure discovery, especially for Westerners who have never paid attention to the unique distinctions of individual letters such as location of resonance and position of the tongue. It is arranged on a thoroughly scientific method, the simple vowels (short and long) coming first, then the diphthongs, followed by the consonants in uniform groups according to the way in which they are pronounced.
The unique organization of the alphabet serves to focus one's attention on qualities and patterns of articulated sound in a way that occurs in no other language. By paying continuous attention to the point of location, degree of resonance, and effort of breath, one's awareness becomes more and more consumed by the direct experience of articulated sound. This in itself produces an unprecedented clarity of mind and revelry in the joy of language, as every combination of sound follows strict laws which essentially make possible an uninterrupted flow of the most perfect euphonic blending of letters into words and verse.
The script used is known as devanagari or the "city of the gods." The phonetic accuracy of devanagari compares well with that of the modern phonetic transcriptions. Once the alphabet is learned, there is just one major step to take in gaining access to this unique language: learning the case and tense endings. The endings are what make Sans-krit a language of mathematic-like precision. By the endings added onto nouns or verbs, there is an obvious determination of the precise interrelationship of words describing the activity of persons and things in time and space, regardless of word order. Essentially, the endings constitute the "software" of the basic program of the language, and once a pattern has been noted, it is a simple exercise to recognize all the individual instances that fit the pattern rather than see the pattern after all the individual instances have been learned.
Learning the case endings through the chanting of basic pure sound combinations in musical and rhythmic sequences is a perfect way to overcome learning inhibitions, attune to the root power of this language, and access the natural computer-like efficiency, speed, and clarity of the mind. What may be the greatest immediate benefit of learning by this method is that it requires participants to relinquish control, abandon prior learning structures, and come into a direct experience of the language. But one thing is certain — Sans-krit will only become the planetary language when it is taught in a way which is exciting and enjoyable.
Vyaas Houston has dedicated his life to teaching
Sans-krit, and he has developed a technique that makes
it easy and natural.
Perhaps the greatest hope for the return of San skrit lies in computers. It's precision play with computer tools could awaken the capacity in human beings to utilize their innate higher mental faculty with a momentum that could inevitably transform the world. In fact the mere learning by large numbers of people in itself would represent a quantum leap in consciousness, not to mention the rich endowment it would provide in the arena of future communication.
Vyaas Houston has been a student of Sri Brahmananda Saraswati, learning Sans-krit and practicing spiritual life for 17 years. He also has an M. A. degree from Columbia University. He teaches at Columbia University. He teaches a corrrespondence course, and personnaly offers "immersion" weekend sessions throughtout the U.S., demonstrating his unique approach to learning the language. For information call or write: 73 Four Corners Rd., Warwick NY 10990 (914) 986-8652.
1. The Mother on Sans-krit by Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry, India.
2. A History of Sans-krit Literature by Arthur A. MacDonnell, M.A., Ph.D., Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi, 1962.
3. A Short History of Sans-krit Literature by H. R. Aggarwal, M.A., P.E.S., R.D.E., Munshi Ram Manohar Lal, Delhi, 1963.
4. A Companion to Contemporary Sans-krit by Hajime Nakamura, Motilal Banarsidas, Delhi, 1973.
5. Sans-krit by V. V. Ivanov and V. N. Toporov, Nauka Publishing House, Moscow, 1968.
Reprinted from Clarion Call with permission