Sanskrit: language of the gods part 1


I am in the process of reviewing old material relating to Advaita Academy as part of my background research for a 2nd edition of Back to the Truth. There are a number of essays, blogs and book reviews by myself and others which I will be reposting here over the next few months (they can no longer be found on-line at present). Here is the first of these – a two-part essay by Peter Bonnici, explaining why Sanskrit is so valuable and why a qualified teacher is necessary. Dennis

Sanskrit: language of the gods – Peter Bonnici

There are many who declare themselves to be students of advaita vedAnta but do not see the value in pursuing the study of texts in Sanskrit as they believe that the proliferation of translations and commentaries on texts like the Upanishads and Bhagavad GIta available in native languages are sufficient. Then there are those who have a working knowledge of Sanskrit who feel that, armed with a dictionary and other necessary tools, they can arrive at the meaning of texts by themselves.

Both are missing something, and for the same reason: namely, the enormous expressiveness, subtlety and flexibility of the language to express the precise meaning that the speaker or writer wishes to convey. (Most of the valuable teaching of advaita was passed on orally and the written form came later.) Not only is one missing out the subtlety of meaning by side-stepping the language, but one can also be lulled into a false sense of security by the book knowledge one has. An example of this can be seen when one compares translations. Here are three translations of the first verse of shankara’s DakShiNamUrti Stotra:

Continue reading

Peter Bonnici


असतो मा सद्गमय
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय
मृत्योर्माऽमृतं गमय

Lead me from the unreal to the real,
Lead me from darkness into light,
Lead me from death to immortality.

It is with great sadness that Advaita Vision has to announce the death of one of its founder members – Peter Bonnici. I first met Peter 2-3 years ago when he was recruited as a trustee for Advaita Academy but, since then, he had become a very dear friend and invaluable at helping with the site and discussing problems in Advaita. The new name for was his idea as was the basic redesign of the new site. He was also responsible for checking through and partially rewriting sections of my ‘Sanskrit for Seekers’ book which is about to be published. I have now dedicated this book to his memory.

 Peter’s presence on the site will be sorely missed – he was so good at explaining Advaita. His answers to questions from visitors were consistently clear and to the point, and could be relied upon for authenticity. If he was ever in doubt (rarely), he would consult his teacher, Swamini Atmaprakasananda for clarification. I was trying to persuade him to write a book. I think I would have succeeded eventually and it would certainly have been essential reading. Dennis Waite

Until recently, Peter was also secretary of Arsha Vidya UK and an announcement is also made at that website.

Most who knew Peter through Advaita will probably be unaware of his ‘worldly’ pursuits. His bio at D&AD reads: “Peter Bonnici is an Independent Branding Consultant with over 30 years’ experience. He started as an entrepreneur running his own design consultancy, then as Director of Creative Strategy in a WPP Group agency, and currently as Brand Guardian on the management teams of client companies and Consultant to others.

“He has written popular books on design: “Visual Language: the hidden medium of communication” and “Designing with Photographs”. Brand Positioning Strategist, hands-on Designer and Writer, Peter is also author of over 30 children’s books, Chairman of a dance company and Trustee of an educational charity committed to advancing the understanding of Indian philosophy.

The ‘Educational Charity’ was Advaita Academy, which Peter and I helped to establish and acted as trustees for its first two years. Kiran Vadlamani, its owner, comments: “He was a friend and advisor whom I respected a lot. I will remember him fondly for many things that we shared so passionately.

The following comments have been received from the other bloggers:

I am really grieved by this loss, so sudden and unexpected. I too felt much respect for Peter, not only on account of his knowledge and competence in explaining with great clarity and rigor difficult points of doctrinal advaita, but also for his attentive and respectful demeanor. My acquaintance with him has been all too short, but it developed into a kind of personal affinity, I think I can say, and affection on my part. As you know, we recently had an (unpublished) long exchange on ‘The Garden of Eden’, which included different aspects, such as mythology, non-duality, and alternative approaches, such as traditionalism (or perennialism). I learned a great deal from Peter and, sadly, was looking forward to a continuance in our dialogue, so fruitful for myself and, as you indicate, extensive to all of us. It is with deep feeling that I express these words in remembrance of him.” Alberto Martin Garcia

It is beyond words what I owe to Peter. I am immensely thankful to what we shared over the last two and half years. His death is a huge loss but his life has been a gift to me.” Sitara

Paula (Marvelly) used to write to me in high praise of Peter, but my own  exchange of mails with him had been only for the last year or so.  Even in this short time he leaves an impression of a close loving friend extremely humble and polite, and forever looking at the positive side of a situation. He was never arrogant or imposing in his interactions, and he was always eager to learn from everyone, though there was hardly anything for him to know anew. He undoubtedly ingested the philosophy he wrote about with inimitable clarity and he never lost a moment to put to test whether his own actions conformed to what our scriptures taught.

 “The potspace that had the name Peter is now permeating us all and I hope the vasana-s it carried will have a lasting influence on us all.” Ramesam

“I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of Peter Bonnici. I have known him for about two years and in this little time have shared a priceless rapport with him. We have communicated on topics like ‘How To Create Thumbnails’ to ‘How To Celebrate Christmas Holidays With Kids’ and not to mention the highest tenets of Vedanta. The communications I have had with Peter have left an indelible impression of him being helpful, forthcoming, optimistic, humble and pure at heart. He had a good insight of vedanta and lived up to the teaching.

 “His life was a gift for all those he directly or indirectly interacted with. Peter’s death is indeed a great loss. He will always be remembered.”  Meenakshi

The demise of Sri Peter Bonnici is a great loss not only to us, but to the whole community of sincere seekers. It is a great loss because there are only a few that I have seen that have his sincerity, open-mindedness and patience; his blogs and comments stand testimony to this fact. 

 Personally, I shall always remain grateful to Peter for identifying, introducing and encouraging me as a blogger in this esteemed site. In Peter I miss a resourceful satsaṅgi. 

 I sincerely hope and pray that Peter’s understandings of the teaching are with his family at this juncture, without which they will feel devastated.  Shuka

At first when I heard the news I was too shocked to write anything about Peterji.  It took some time for me to assimilate the fact that he had gone.  Death is a strange phenomenon in our world.  One minute the person is alive and available, and the next minute totally gone.

 I first ‘met’ Peter on-line in September of 2010, when I was at Swami Dayananda’s ashram in Pennsylvania.  Peter was in London organizing Swamiji’s upcoming visit and series of talks there.

 Peter and I had many wonderful Skype conversations during that time.  He urged me to come to London to attend Swamiji’s program, telling me that all of my needs would be taken care of, and I would only have to pay for the plane ticket.  Although I was very tempted to go, I didn’t feel that I could afford the air ticket, thus I missed my one chance to meet Peter in person.

 He and I had many long Skype conversations during our sojourn at Advaita Academy.  He helped me to compose the article I wrote on the subject of happiness for Yoga International Magazine.  It seemed to me, we worked so well together as a team that it would be fun to collaborate on other topics, but again and alas that never happened.

 Sometimes when I was in California I would see that Peter was on the computer because his Skype icon light was on.  When I figured out what the time difference was between our locations, I realized that it was the middle of the night in London.  Then I would send him a quick message via Skype saying, “Peter this is your mother.  Go to bed!”  He would write back ‘Yes, Mom.’  I don’t know if he went to bed or not, but his Skype light would go off.

 Dennis, Peter, and Paula (whom I knew quite well from her visit to California) would sometimes meet and have lunch at Peter’s club in London.  Those lunches sounded like a lot of fun, and really delicious, and I wished I could have been there with them.  Peter’s poetic description of the ‘bread and butter pudding’ served would make my mouth water, and I hoped some day to be able to go to his club and share some with him.  But again, alas, it never happened.

 As our involvement in Advaita Academy began to fall apart and become problematic, Peter and I often spoke by Skype.  When I got busy packing up and selling my house in California our conversations became less and less.

 Luckily just this past April, after I had moved to Maui, we had another one of our long marathon Skype conversations lasting over an hour.  I’m glad we had the chance to touch base one last time.

 I always valued Peter’s clear knowledge about Vedanta, as well as his sense of humor, his recall of Shakespearean quotes, and his constancy as a friend.  He was always there for me in whatever way was needed at the time, and I am very sorry that he is gone.  

 I don’t know what else to add.  The teachings help us in many ways.  They give us the self as the stable base of all changing experience, a safe place to rest and abide in.  May Peterji always know and rest and abide as That.  May he ever be free from all sorrow.  Om!

I am shocked to learn about the sudden demise of Peter. We were in frequent touch after he responded to my query about Ishopanishad. We exchanged emails on many topics and I was impressed by the depth of his knowledge on Advaita. He was keen that I should meet Swamini Atmaprakashanada and reminded me recently that as she was to leave for India on 24th June and would be away for a while, I should get in touch with him so that he could arrange an appointment.  However, due to my many preoccupations, I could not phone him before that date. I thought he would be less busy after her departure and was thinking of phoning him one of these days to arrange a meeting with him to learn more about him and  the organisation of which he was Secretary. I found him kind, very helpful  and erudite. i was eagerly looking forward to meeting him. Sadly, that was not to be. I would like to join you and others in paying my tributes to a lovely man, who was snatched away far too soon. Please convey my condolences to his family.  Gurudas Bailur

Below is, as far as I know, Peter’s last written communication, on 19th June, in answer to a question regarding the varNa Ashrama and whether a shUdra was qualified to study Vedanta:

If you accept that the castes can be spoken of at three levels – birth, occupation and temperament (guṇa) – then it should be clear to you that a person who, by temperament, is primarily tamasic, secondarily rajasic and with sattva weakest is going to find it difficult to apply him or herself to study (as Dennis has pointed out too). This guṇa balance is given the name’ śūdra’. I’m sure we will all agree that, with this understanding of the term śūdra, you will have little quarrel with the assertion that a ‘śūdra’ mentality is unqualified for the very subtle teachings of śruti.

But, as you point out, Śaṅkara appears to be referring to the social designation of śūdra by bringing in the matter of the upanayana ceremony, saying that only those that have gone through this ceremony are fit for knowledge. And, as the śūdra has not gone through this ceremony, he/she has no competence for knowledge.

But here is a commentary to 4.2.3 from my copy of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad where the story of Jānaśuti and Raikva occurs:

According to Śrī Śaṅkara and the Brahmasūtra (1.3.34-35) the word ‘śūdra’ is to be taken in the etymological sense, meaning one who is affected by sorrow (śucā) and runs towards Raikva (ādravati) on hearing the glory of Raikva, or one who hastens (to Raikva) because of sorrow. Or (Raikva calling Jānaśuti a śūdra) may express displeasure at the king having come to him for acquiring knowledge through gifts only and not through service; or at his having come with little wealth thus behaving improperly like a śūdra. So Jānaśuti is not a śūdra by caste. According to Śrī Śaṅkara he was a kṣatriya king for he has a kṣattā (charioteer) under him.

( Chāndogya Upaniṣad, translation and annotation by Swami Swahananda, Sri Ramakrisna Math publication, p226)

The main point, however, is to be like Alexander the Great who just sliced the infamous Gordian Knot in two with his sword, unlike others who struggled to undo it by hand (and failed). Why break one’s head over answering these questions? All one can do is pursue one’s own sādhana as best one can and leave others to argue about such matters as whether or not a śūdra is fit for knowledge.

I, for one, have not been through the upanayana ceremony and yet my teacher, Swamini Ātmaprakāśanandaji, who is very, very traditional in many respects, has no problem in accepting me as her student. So, may you have the good fortune to find a teacher who can guide your understanding and lead you out of the self-ignorance that holds all of us under its oppressive grip.


A poem by Alberto Martin Garcia, re-worked and translated in memory of Peter:

Are our lives like the life of a flower – A promise A hope A passing beauty?

And what are that promise
And that hope?
How do they find fulfillment –
Their time being ever so short?

As to beauty, does ours fade away
Like the beauty of the flower?

Fear not, for time is not involved:
The Beauty and Essence of the flower
And of our Soul
Are timeless, Infinite.

Q.345 – The Purpose of Life, part 2

Go to Ramesam’s answer to this question

Part 2 – Peter’s answer to this question

 Q345: What is the purpose of life?

 If, as stated in Advaita, we are actually in a state of sat-chit-Ananda and we are actually this ‘Self’ already, why have these ‘illusions’ and this ‘ignorance’?

 How can we believe in lila? What could be its purpose? There is no convincing answer – I am sure you will concur.

This then raises my more fundamental query. This ‘Self’ on which reams have been written – what is the proof that such a ’Self’ exists?

 The root problem is that in the end, even Advaitic teachings finally rely on ‘blind faith’ to put their point across. There’s nothing wrong in having faith. All religions ask for blind belief in the almighty to get you your promised ‘Kingdom of God’. It’s only in Advaita that folks try to push their case by saying: “No, it’s not pure faith, it’s by reason and discourse that we reach the truth etc”.

 To quote Gaudapada in his Mandukya Upanishad kArikA, “That which is stated in the scriptures ‘and is supported by reason’ is true  and nothing else”. The ‘reason/discourse’ argument for following Advaita is pure bunkum, in my opinion. It relies on blind faith not on a deity, but in an obscure ‘Self’.

 And even if reality is non-dual, why this seeming duality? Why does this mithyA of life exist? Continue reading

Why two lifestyles don’t mean two paths (2/2)

iStock_000017914736XSmallIt might seem difficult to accept the Vedāntic assertion that knowledge is the one and only direct path to mokṣa. It might be difficult for some to accept that meditation isn’t a direct path to mokṣa, that yoga isn’t a direct path to mokṣa, that living a devotional lifestyle with prayer and hymns and attending temple / mosque / church isn’t a direct path to mokṣa. Too much has been invested in following these practices. So hearing that knowledge alone is what ultimately frees one from self-ignorance is something that raises resistance, because what’s meant by ‘knowledge’ is usually misunderstood. ‘The path of knowledge’ is seen as a dry undertaking that is suitable only for scholarly types, characterised by the need to understand Sanskrit, to follow convoluted arguments and study countless obscure texts. Continue reading

Why two lifestyles don’t mean two paths (1/2)

josie picOne enduring misconception about enlightenment is that there are different ‘paths’ for different temperaments. This is not supported by Śaṅkara’s vision. Below the argument for the single ‘path’ is presented.

1. All problems of life are due to an erroneous assumption about who one is. The solution to the problems of life, therefore, lies in correcting this erroneous assumption. Advaitins in the Śaṅkara tradition would agree with this.

2. Common observation supported by scripture shows that, when one’s aim is split, the goal is unlikely to be reached. So for seekers who are split between an avowed desire for self-knowledge and ‘compelling’ ties to the world in the form of emotional entanglements to people and places, unfulfilled duties, ambitions and the like, attaining the goal of self-knowledge is unlikely – their minds being impure (i.e. distorted by subjective likes and dislikes) or unsteady (unable to remain single-pointed for any length of time). The compelling pull of likes and dislikes that arise from duties and entanglements and ambitions is known as mala. And the flickering of the mind from one worldly demand to the other is called vikshepa. Continue reading

Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (4/4)

who am I 4We started this enquiry into identity by employing a simple piece of logic: you cannot be what you observe. From this point of view, the things we normally take ourselves to be, starting with the body, were systematically discounted because they turn out to be objects of perception, as covered in the first three parts of this series. Despite this reasoning, the tendency to believe our identity with the amalgam of body, senses and mind tends to remains very powerful: we continue to believe that we are these individuals bound by skin, with an experiential history and an instinctive, habitual mindset through which ‘I’ filter the world.

Identity with the body is evidenced by the vast cosmetic surgery industry today. People feel better with fewer wrinkles, larger breasts, drug-induced libido, less fat, etc. That’s the extreme end, but coming closer to the average person, we think of ourselves as too tall, too short, too hot or cold. If the body is in pain, we say: I am in pain. We really do mean ‘I’ when we say: I am hot, cold, ugly, beautiful, too short, too fat, too old. By employing the incontrovertible logic of ‘I cannot be what I can observe’, it does not take long for us to realise that the body is an object of perception: ‘I’ can experience my body using my five senses. We then ask: Who is observing the body? Continue reading

Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (3/4)

Who I am 3When we analysed the world of objects in the waking state we came to the understanding that our experience of the variety of objects is due to the variety of corresponding mental impressions (covered in Part 2 of this series). If there isn’t a mental impression ‘this is a pot’ then, despite fully-functioning senses, the pot will be as good as non-existent. The perception of ‘is-ness’ is the single, unchanging common thread in all our worldly experiences. This perception is given the name, ‘consciousness’.

When we analysed our dream state experience we realised that the same observation holds true for the dream universe as for the universe we encounter when awake. This experience gives an added dimension to our understanding of consciousness: not only is it the one, unchanging basis of the varied, changing objects (gross and subtle), but now we see that it is also continuous through the changing states of experience. The ‘I’ that is awake is the same ‘I’ that dreamt: ‘I am awake, I had a dream’. Continue reading

Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (2/4)

who am I 2In the first part of this enquiry we saw how, by discriminating between the seer and what’s seen, we arrive at the understanding that ‘I’, the seer, am not the body, not the sense powers, not the thinking faculty, not even a combination of all of them. They are all objects of my perception and I am the perceiving subject. And I, the subject, cannot be what I can perceive as an object. In this logical way we arrived, step-by-step, at a final ‘knower’, which is given the name ‘pure consciousness’. This pure consciousness is what remains after thoughts, (which are the subtlest objects of perception), have been dismissed as the ultimate ‘I’. We know there’s something there but it is still a bit hazy. We now need to test the robustness of our new working conclusion that this ‘pure consciousness’ is the ‘I’ we are searching for and sharpen the understanding.

For this we need to understand the nature of consciousness and its relationship, if any, with ‘I’. A question might arise at this point: If ‘I’ is the pure consciousness that remains in the absence of vtti-s (thoughts), and no cognition is possible without vtti-s, then how can I ever know what I am? How do we go further with this enquiry if there are no thoughts? Continue reading

Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (1/4)

maskAt some time or other in every person’s life the question of identity arises in some form or other. For most people, the answer seems pretty obvious: I am a unique human being, a man/woman, in this body, with these parents, these siblings, and these ideas. I am defined by my wealth, my social class, my education, my tastes, my network of contacts, my race. I am shaped by my biology, my physiology, my psychology. Anything beyond this is ‘philosophy’, and one thing I am not is a philosopher!

If, however, people knew the life-changing value in finding the true answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ they might be prepared to dig a bit deeper for that truth. Vedānta gives us a very good reason to pursue the question. It says that because we do not know the truth of who we are, we take ourselves to be an amalgam of the body and mind (thus pretty much confirming the majority view). The inevitable consequence of identifying with something that is as changeable, limited and vulnerable as the body and mind, is that ‘I’ is also taken to be changeable, limited and vulnerable. And it consumes a whole life of sweat and slog in trying to build up adequate self-protection. Continue reading

Discovering oneself: Part 2/2

creationSo how do we know how Brahman is? The teacher says that each object of experience has 5 aspects: asti, bhāti, priyam, rūpam, nāma. Asti = ‘is’. You know the meaning of the word ‘cat’, but not pay attention to the meaning of the word ‘is’, which means ‘isness’, which means ‘existence’. When you say ‘cat is’ you mean that the existence of the cat is. Any object of experience you can name is.

Existence is the intrinsic nature of Brahman, the Reality. In what form is Brahman? Continue reading