Published: April 14, 2024

Name: Zoë McCafferty  
Advisor: Prof. Andy Cowell 
Class: LING 4420 Morphology and Syntax
Semester: Fall 2023
LURA 2024

 

Sanskrit is a language reveled for its complexity in many regards. It is grammatically very complex, has a rich phonemic library, and is considered to be one of the oldest documented languages in the world, dating back approximately 3500 years. Sanskrit is the language that the original sacred Hindu texts were written in including the Vedas, Rāmāyaṇa, and Mahābhārata so in this regard is a highly respected language for its position in religious text documentation. However, it is also recognized as the language of the privilege castes in India, so like all languages, its status and associations are highly contested in society.

A fascinating aspect of Sanskrit is that it is sometimes referred to as being non-arbitrary. How can this be? If you’ve ever taken a class that mentions semantics, you know that language is arbitrary in nature. In English, the word for the furry four-legged animal that runs around and barks is called “dog.” In Portuguese, it’s called “cachorro.” There’s no inherent meaning assigned to these two conglomerations of sounds, we simply attach meaning to these arbitrary units of language. However, when it comes to Sanskrit, there exists a language ideology that the sounds were “discovered” by people immersing themselves in deep meditation. Through this perpetual stillness, as the story goes, they were able to construct a garland of syllables that they felt matched the vibrational energy of the forms they were giving meaning to. In this view, Sanskrit was intentionally designed to have the sounds in the language match the vibration of what they represent. This is an interesting kind of language ideology in that the sounds don’t relate to their forms through processes such as onomatopoeia, or even sound symbolism in the way we think about “ding” relating to the sound of a bell. Instead, the language ideology leads those who connect deeply with this language and use it in their practice to relate to sound production on a deeper existential level. Is this why Sanskrit is often viewed popularly as a “spiritual language”?

Unlike English, which is typically not associated with spirituality, Sanskrit is viewed by many upper caste Hindus as an intentionally designed set of vibrational sound that would show people the truths of the universe, simply through being spoken. The cool thing about Sanskrit, for a practitioner of Hinduism, is that you don’t have to know the meaning of whatever mantra or text you may be reciting; the power lies in the sounds themselves.This is because of the supposed iconic connection created between the sound and the meaning of a form it represents. Singing or chanting in Sanskrit can activate these meanings for some because the forms of the sounds are seen to carry a direct relationship to the meanings they represent. In other words, these songs and chants show a different relationship between form and meaning than we might see in a typical conversation between two friends. Through language ideology, it is believed that Sanskrit can be used to heal and restore balance to one's mind and body; that is, the language was intended to elevate human consciousness, not simply to communicate with one another. Although there is no substantial evidence backing this claim, some people continue to advocate for it, which showcases the power of language ideology and how it influences the way we understand our relationship with language.

Sanskrit has 48 basic sounds in the alphabet (not including tone and other modifying factors.) Sir John Woodroffe, a British Orientalist who studied the Tantras and other Hindu traditions, discussed the Sanskrit alphabet as having the potential to generate all of the sounds in any spoken language, though this statement was later disproven. However, Sanskrit does have ties to roots in Hindi, Latin, and Greek, amongst other Indo-European languages, so it is certainly generative in this sense. There is no better example of language ideology surrounding Sanskrit’s sacredness and attempt to reflect the vibrations of the universe than the monosyllable “Om” (aum). In certain branches of Hinduism, this single syllable is considered to reflect the entire creation and destruction of the universe. The sound is said to encompass all spoken language because of the path of articulation it takes through the mouth to be produced. The initial sound starts all the way in the back of the mouth and ends with a bilabial nasal sound, which is the last place of articulation a sound can be made. This physical metaphor for the state of the universe is a little snapshot into the “intentions” of sound in Sanskrit. The the universe is created with the first introduction of this sound in the back of the mouth and is then destroyed with the silence that follows the final production of sound.

From the language ideology discussed above, Sanskrit emerges not only as a language, but also as a profound system of spiritual expression and desire for understanding beyond our humanness. Its complexity, phonemic richness, and intentional design to encapsulate the vibrations of the universe is seen to elevate it beyond a mere communication system. Many practitioners of Hinduism argue that through Sanskrit’s sound and structure, one can access deeper truths and higher states of consciousness, going far beyond the limitations of conventional language. From its roots in ancient Hindu scriptures to its reflection of human capability to create language, Sanskrit serves as a reminder to humans’ imaginative potential to intertwine language with facets that stem far beyond conventional uses. With a deep history that is fraught and heavily contested, Sanskrit is an example of how people’s association with the language they speak or, in this case, revere; goes beyond its structure. As a “spiritual language,” Sanskrit appears to be significantly different from languages like English. However, if we scratch the surface, we are able to see how people create their own interpretations and narratives surrounding the language and what it signifies.

 


Title Image Credit

https://celt.indiana.edu/portal/Sanskrit/index.html.

References

  1. “The Spiritual Aspect of the Sanskrit Language. (Indian Artwork - Buddha Statues & Hindu Books - Exotic India Art, ExoticIndiaArt, 25 Jan. 2022, www.exoticindiaart.com/blog/the-spiritual-aspect-of-the-sanskrit-language/.
  2. Jyoti, Akhand. “All WorldGayatri Pariwar.” Pixma, 2009, literature.awgp.org/akhandjyoti/2009/Jan_Feb/v1.8.
  3. Bhanu. Sanskrit: The Healing Language, himalayanacademyofsound.com/sanskrit#:~:text=There%20are%2048%20basic%20sounds,Co nsonants%20are%20dependent%20sounds.
  4. “Chapter 1 – The Nature of Sanskrit.” Sanskrit Chanting, sanskritguide.com/the-nature-of-sanskrit/. Accessed 4 Apr. 2024.