Sanskrit: language of the gods part 2


Here is the second of a two-part essay by Peter Bonnici, explaining why Sanskrit is so valuable and why a qualified teacher is necessary. (One of 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). Dennis


Sanskrit: language of the gods (Part 2) – Peter Bonnici

(Read Part 1)

The ability of Sanskrit to convey truth expressed through the vision of advaita is the holy grail pursued by Paul Douglas in ‘Language and Truth’. The explicit influences on Douglas’s understanding of Sanskrit come from two main sources: his spiritual guide, Shantananda Saraswati, one time AcArya of Jyotir Math in BadrinAth, and the linguist and grammarian BhatRRihari. In that sense it is a devotee’s book, a book that explores the language to validate the teachings of the guru, in particular, one of his statements: ‘The grammatical rules of Sanskrit are also the rules of creation’.

The book gives the general reader a good insight into the building blocks of the language and to the evolution of nouns and verbs from seed form (dhAtu) to fully inflected word in a sentence (pada). In clear, readable language we are given insights into the elements of Sanskrit that support the premise that the author wants to understand.

Having defined ‘advaitic principles’ as

Advaita is a Sanskrit word which translates as Non-duality. The Advaitic premise is that reality or truth is one, totally still, yet all- pervasive, pure, omniscient, partless, conscious and self-existent. The apparent multiplicity of the world is not real. In truth it is one.

we are told:

To identify how far a language has characteristics in tune with Advaitic principles of truth, we need to refer to the summary of those principles set out [above]. The ones that seem particularly relevant to language are, in no particular order of significance, unity, sound, lawfulness, consciousness, reflectivity and stability.

The book seeks to demonstrate Sanskrit’s superior ability to encapsulate the principles of unity, sound, lawfulness, consciousness, reflectivity and stability. It does so by comparing the language with English (which is a distant relation of Sanskrit) and Mandarin. And herein lie its strengths and its weaknesses.

In demonstrating these principles through Sanskrit grammar, the book is highly successful. It reveals the mind of the grammarians of old, it shows a vision of language and order that is unmatched. It is methodical and also readable. But where it fails is in trying to force an equivalence between the order of the grammar and the ‘principles of advaita’. This requires the use of a number of concepts that are not part of traditional vedAnta teaching. These include, right at the start, the list of linguistic qualities that are supposed to reflect the advaita teaching: unity, sound, lawfulness, consciousness, reflectivity and stability. (The words in italics are where the argument becomes forced).

The advaitic vision says nothing about sound. To understand Om as a ‘sound’ that vibrates is non-traditional. Om is a sound-symbol of the Lord. It is only symbolic, to indicate all sounds from ‘a’ to ‘m’ and between (represented by ‘u’). It is a way of saying ‘all words’, ‘all names’, ‘all things’, and not a vibration that starts the creation with a big bang. Here is the traditional view as expressed by Swami Dayananda Saraswati:

If you analyze what this entire jagat is, you find words, words, words, names within a name. The name ‘tree’ is one word. When you look into the word you’ll find many other words (trunk, roots, sap, etc). So every word requires to be inquired into. And when it is done, then you find more words: the first word is gone, it has no substance, it is a substance-less word. Take a word like ‘table’, for example, it has no substance: there is only wood; table is gone leaving the wood behind. And, if again you inquire into it, wood will be gone. And therefore, you find in one word, many words: a very bold statement! Only Vedanta can do that. When I first heard this, I was flabbergasted. To hear, they are all words, just words. And we are dealing with words… All the tangible things are words and words, just words and knowledge.

The whole world is knowledge, recognizable through individual words. That which is the literal meaning of a word is mithyā [yat śabda-vācyaṁ tat mithyā]. And that which is the implied meaning of a word is satyam [yat śabda- lakṣyaṁ tat satyam]. This is the truth. Therefore, there is no contradiction when we say, “It is beyond words” because the thing that is true [satya-vastu] is beyond words. And it has to be understood only through words because it is the implied meaning of the word.

Then take ‘lawfulness’: it belongs to the jagat and not the Self. Ishvara is the sum total of every single tiny law of the creation – the known, the knowable. But even the status of being Ishvara is mithyA. Ishvara is the non-dual reality ‘together with’ everything. Remove everything to get to the absolute reality. There one finds no such thing as lawfulness. There one finds pure undivided consciousness (making ‘unity’ and ‘consciousness’ on the list valid features worth considering). But, then one asks: what is not a reflection of brahman? Answer: nothing. And can anything in the creation – including Sanskrit – be totally unchanging, totally stable? Answer: No.

If Mr Douglas had simply left it that among languages the most powerfully expressive is Sanskrit, and that the largest body of teachings about the non-dual self are in Sanskrit, that would be sufficient to do the job of linking this amazing language to an understanding of truth. Instead he feels the need to bring in mysterious concepts like the ‘natural’ language, tantric concepts of chakras and bodily locations for ‘para’, ‘pashyanti’, etc.

This is where non-traditional teachers fail their students. Most of the ideas about language that are taken at face value in this book are from BhatRRihari. They were transmitted piecemeal in disjointed conversations with Shantananda Sarasvati who spoke in Hindi. These conversations were simultaneously translated into English by a person who knew Hindi but was not familiar with the traditional teachings of vedAnta, so his choice of words in translation was a reflection of the limit of his own understanding. (And, as the recordings of the conversations were recorded over, we have no idea of what was originally spoken). These English words were then reflected upon and re-presented to students of the School of Economic Science by the other party in the conversation, Leon Maclaren, who was no linguist nor had been systematically taught vedAnta. The students then struggled with these alien concepts and formulated them into a Sanskrit course stretching out over several years, giving some of them time to learn the language in a more orthodox way. And some of these took their self-studies to a different level. Paul Douglas is one of these and his efforts need to be applauded.

When one considers, however, the twists and turns of the journey of the original teaching before it reached him, one can understand how non-traditional ideas get embedded. VedAnta is not really concerned with how the creation has come into being: that’s why there are so many different versions of this in the Upanishads. It is only concerned with proving the equation ‘tat’ = ‘tvam’. It is not interested in the ‘a-para jñAnam’ (into which category language falls) but is interested in teaching about the ‘para Brahman’ – for which it needs language. But language on its own is not enough: there needs to be a teaching methodology, a method of interpretation, of using the correct translation in the correct context. It needs the application of analysis and reflection.

On the other hand, if one takes BhatRRihari literally, one comes to the idea expressed in the book: “In this system the sentence is an expression of the unity, one indivisible whole, while the analysis of the parts of a sentence and of individual words is just to help with understanding. Close attention to pronunciation and grammar is necessary for appreciation of subtler levels of meaning and spiritual significance. With this close attention the all-pervading consciousness becomes more apparent”. Contrast this with Swami Dayananda:

Now if you look at self-knowledge: “I am ātmā brahman”; “this Self is brahman”; aham is brahman. It is dependent on the knowledge born of thought. But there is unknownness. Unknownness has to go. Confusion goes when unknownness goes. If a shell is taken for silver, there is unknownness of the basis, the shell. But I don’t remove silver, I am not removing any projection: I am removing the cause of projection. The cause of projection is ignorance, and that goes away the moment I see the shell. Then, along with it go all other projections.

Similarly, here, ātmā is not a doer and enjoyer. Whereas enjoyership is mithyā and doership is mithyā, the doer, however, is not mithyā. In the doer there is saccidānanda ātmā also. Therefore, we should not throw away the baby along with the bath water – this is another modern Vedanta mistake, which is why nothing works.

When you say ‘doer’, there is a being; when you say ‘enjoyer’, there is a being. ‘Doership’ is mithyā, enjoyership is mithyā. In other words, individuality is mithyā, the status of being the Lord is mithyā. But the thing that really exists is clear. And that needs thought – thought is necessary – and it takes place in the teaching.


From the standpoint of the real content of the word, even though we use some special word like satyam, jñānam, ānantam [existence, knowledge, limitlessness], we need to understand that we are using them to negate our conclusions. Three words are used to indicate self: sat, cit, ānanda [existence, consciousness, fullness]. We need those three words because we have three conclusions about ourselves: I am insignificant, I am ignorant, I am a mortal. I am a limited person, an experiencer of pleasure, an experiencer of pain. These conclusions are negated by sat and cit and ānanda.

If you take any one word in any language or dialect, and stay with it, you will end up with satyaṁ Brahman – that from which words return. Words have their own limitations, and the words we have are colored from our knowledge of the world. Pot, table, chair, cup and saucer: these are all our words, but what we are talking about is not available for any one word, or many words. Because, while all these are Brahman, Brahman is not any of these.

Sadly the chapter on ‘Sound, Word and Meaning’ misses an opportunity to bring home the true value of Sanskrit in the pursuit of self-knowledge by side-stepping the importance of meaning by talking around it. And resorting to new-age type statements like: [one needs to sound] language in such a refined and precise way that it creates ‘extra spiritual significance apart from meaning’.

Whilst there is mention of levels of meaning identified by Dante, it misses the incisiveness of the Vedantic teaching that meaning exists at two fundamental levels: the vAcyartha level and the lakShyartha level – literal and implied. And that, when statements of scripture appear to conflict, we need to look beyond the literal to get to what’s implied. When ‘tat’ in no way resembles ‘tvam’ we need to let go of all the conflicting aspects of both words and retain only the essence implied by them: pure consciousness.

This is not possible by self-study of words using pANini’s grammar and the Sanskrit-English dictionary. It needs the sampradAya, the traditional teaching methodology, handed down from qualified teacher to qualified student. No amount of refined or precise sounding will get one there. To be fair, Mr Douglas knows this, as evidenced by his summing up of the chapter on meaning. He knows that holding on to fixed concepts is not useful – but nevertheless holds on to the literal teachings of Sri Shantananda: in this way he rides two horses. Here is his conclusion on meaning:

Meaning by nature is fluid, and fixing it turns it into something else, having more of the quality of the material world. Water is by nature fluid. When frozen it is no longer water. We call it ice. The same happens with meaning. When frozen it is no longer meaning. We may call it memory. More often we make no distinction between meaning in the moment and fixed meaning. When we are experiencing the world through a veil of fixed meanings, it may seem ordinary and flat, or highly charged and evocative. When we do not hang on to meanings, they are fresh and immediate. The world really is meaningful in the present.

Finally, after given the reader a masterful overview insight into the laws of Sanskrit grammar, and after a heroic attempt to equate them – uniquely – to the laws of creation, the book concludes:

However fine and complete a reflector a language may be, it can never express the truth. Truth has been described at the beginning of this book in the following words: ‘one, totally still, yet all-pervasive, pure, omniscient, partless, conscious and self-existent. The apparent multiplicity of the world is not real. In truth it is one.’ Language is the most powerful tool used by man, but cannot by definition be equal to what has just been described. In fact, realisation of the truth involves transcending language… The penultimate step of the seven steps on the way of knowledge in Advaita teaching is called padarthAbhAvnI, which translates as ‘beyond word and meaning’. Nevertheless, without a language which reflects the laws of the universe the previous five steps would be far more difficult to take. This book has explored some of the features of the Sanskrit language which support its ability to do this.

After all is said and done, ‘Language and Truth’ is well worth the read. It will enthuse readers about the amazing nature of an amazing language. In line with the advaitic methodology of arriving at truth, keep what’s useful (which is plenty) and leave the rest.

Language and Truth: A Study of the Sanskrit Language and Its Relationship with Principles of Truth, Paul Douglas, Shepheard-Walwyn (Publishers) Ltd., 2010. ISBN 978-0856832710.

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