The Pope giving his Easter blessing. Would a Pope ever speak in Sanskrit?
I was watching the Pope give his Urbi et Orbi Easter address the other day. As he spoke in Italian from the balcony of St. Peters Basilica, thousands of followers packed the concourse below him in the brilliant Rome sunshine. Delegations from different countries were indicating their presence to him by waving their country’s flag. In reciprocation, and after giving them a blessing in Latin, the Pope offered his Easter blessing in many different languages, much to the delight of the crowd.
One form of speech even older than ancient Latin is Sanskrit. It might be quite some years before the Pope offers an Easter blessing to the faithful using it – if ever – but Sanskrit is far from being a dead language.
Children are learning it today as their mother tongue, and around 100,000 in southern India can use it for regular conversation. The revival in spoken Sanskrit has been going on for some years and was well overdue. During centuries of subjugation in India the language of the Vedic scriptures and the philosophy it described was not highly ranked by either Mogul or British rulers. With independence and a post-modern approach by at least some Indian intellectuals, the value of Sanskrit is being increasingly recognised.
I was once in Andhra Pradesh on a walking pilgrimage and while our party was resting, a local Brahmin approached us and began his conversation in Sanskrit. We being garbed in Brahmin’s cloth and forehead tilak he had imagined that we could also converse fluently in the ancient tongue. We wished it were so. Sanskrit has a huge vocabulary with which to render even the most abstract of philosophical and psychological concepts. The phenomenon of religion itself is explained very well in Sanskrit. Of course, the speech of ISKCON devotees is already liberally sprinkled with Sanskrit. Various ideas, expressions, and entire verses find inclusion in our day-to-day jargon. Besides, wouldn’t it be nice to speak like the gods?
It doesn’t actually take long for a once dead language to be revived and adopted by an entire community or cultural group. Hebrew, the national language of Israel, was once a language confined to 2,000 year-old manuscripts and a few thousand religious scholars. The efforts of mainly one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries brought about the revival of this once forgotten language and, through it, a national identity based upon religious values. Unfortunately, it must be said that there are Israelis today using Hebrew to order their non-kosher hamburgers, so revival of a religious language does not necessarily guarantee pure restoration of a religious tradition.
Srila Prabhupada did not encourage his followers to become language scholars as such, and certainly made no mention of conversational Sanskrit being a pre-requisite for the restoration of Vedic culture. For him it was more important to see that the most essential Sanskrit writings were translated into all the modern languages of the world and that intelligent people read them. His Bhaktivedanta Book Trust has now rendered them into more than one hundred languages. I was personally involved in publishing the Swahili and Ethiopian Amharic translations of some of his works years ago, and there is always a great feeling of satisfaction to see his writings available to people in their country’s language.
And yet wherever ISKCON devotees congregate, and no matter what their mother tongue, when the subject of the conversation turns to philosophy, as it mostly does, you will hear them launch into Sanskrit in order to support their points of view. Srila Prabhupada did the same, naturally; and that’s why we do it. Our founder-acarya was not only an expert in the delicate nuances of Sanskrit, but he had a vast vocabulary and encyclopaedic ability to make the correct reference to substantiate any point he was making.
It’s easy to become attracted to Sanskrit. Not simply for the deep theological meanings captured in its words, but the very sound of the words themselves. The speaking and especially the singing of Sanskrit is a beautiful sound, and one which seems to be gaining favour with musicians in this part of the world. Perhaps it’s because the beauty of Sanskrit is reflected in the cadence of the Celtic languages of western Europe, still spoken in Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
This April we have already had a major theatrical play staged in London which featured the operatic rendition of verses from the Bhagavad-gita. Satyagraha was a work by the noted composer Philip Glass which pleased even the hardest critics. This is being followed by a new dance-drama version of The Mahabharata with music by Nitin Sawhney and dance choreography by Akram Khan, both famous in the UK for bringing their respective arts to fresh young audiences. The eight-year dream of Gaura Lila Das from Switzerland together with fellow producer and ISKCON member Kalapi Jani, the production will be staged at the prestigious Saddlers Wells Theatre before going on tour around the country. Again, Sanskrit will feature in the score, with excerpts from the Bhagavad-gita.
So will the Pope ever speak in Sanskrit to the faithful? We shall wait and see; the Sanskrit Bible is already available for him if he wishes. And all of Srila Prabhupada’s books are there in the Vatican library, already well-read by Catholic scholars.
Shubh Dinam Astu
(Have a nice day!)