Expressions of Faith – Sanskrit and Sanskriti (Culture)

The 48 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. The language is extremely regular, almost mathematical in its grammar and formulation. It is considered a sacred and mystical language – “the language of the gods.” The script is called Devanagari, meaning “used in the cities of the gods.” Words are constructed from a number of roots, each considered to have an intrinsic quality that embodies the meaning itself, rather than being an arbitrary symbol. Sound is considered the subtlest of all five elements, and controlling sound can help manipulate matter, as through the chanting of mantras.

Hinduism is essentially a spoken tradition, and sound is the primary means of spiritual expression. Speech is personified as Vak, a form of goddess Sarasvati. As the deity of scholarship and the arts, Sarasvati (right) symbolises the intimate relationship within Hinduism between culture and religion, which until recently were practically inseparable.

There are 64 traditional arts, which comprise a wide variety of skills, crafts, and artistic activities including music, painting, sculpture, singing, cooking, architecture, creating colourful patterns, applying cosmetics, producing perfumes, flower arranging, and caring for trees. Their variety and the inclusion of practical crafts suggest art is an integral part of life, rather than a vocation aimed at pleasing the elite.These arts were part of the process of spiritual culture, of refining and uplifting the tastes, values, and sentiments of human society. The word for culture is Sanskriti, “refinement,” suggesting a means for extracting the spiritual essence of life (Brahman). “Sanskrit” similarly means “the most refined language.” The similarity of the two words reflects the close relationship between (1) religious scholarship and (2) culture as a vehicle of spiritual expression.

The four Vedas were written in ancient Sanskrit, perhaps the oldest Indo-European language. It was largely spoken by brahmanas and was less well understood by others, who spoke simpler variations called Prakrits, “natural languages.” All the main Shruti and Smriti texts were subsequently written in Sanskrit. Parallel to these texts, there developed a large body of literature in the Indian vernaculars, often written by non-brahmana authors and intended for ordinary people.

Goddess Sarasvati: with two hands she strums the vina, and with another holds a book. Her fourth hand fingers prayer beads, symbolising the need for spirituality in both academic and artistic endeavours.

The ancient rivalry between North and South extends to language. The North insists on the primacy of Sanskrit texts, and considers Sanskrit the only genuine “sacred language.” The South claims that Tamil pre-dates Sanskrit and that certain Tamil texts are equivalent to the Sanskrit Shruti. Ramanuja and other scholars tried to synthesise the two traditions, and in Shri Rangam the Tamil poems of the Alvars are still recited alongside Sanskrit hymns. As the bhakti traditions emerged, they replaced much traditional Brahmanism and a huge body of vernacular literature evolved. It is still developing today. Important languages include Hindi, Gujarati, Avadhi, Tamil, and Bengali.

Hindus have mixed opinions regarding the importance of their native languages. Some feel that without speaking Sanskrit, or another mainstream Indian vernacular, one cannot be considered a Hindu or properly study the tradition. Other teachers stress the universality of Hinduism and how the same truths can be expressed in any language. However, there are certainly difficulties in translation. English, for example, does not have equivalent words for some Sanskrit terms, such as dharma. Sanskrit therefore retains its importance as a language of religious expression, especially as the language of liturgy and scholarship.

Personal Reflection

  • How does our own consciousness affect our use of language?
  • Does language give any indication of a culture and its specific values?