Category Archives: Sanskrit

What are the Vedas?

rig veda

On October 6th, 1969, in London, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada gave a lecture about the Vedas. He began as follows: “Ladies and gentlemen, today’s subject matter is the teachings of the Vedas. What are the Vedas? The Sanskrit verbal root of veda can be interpreted variously, but the purport is finally one. Veda means knowledge. Any knowledge you accept is veda, for the teachings of the Vedas are the original knowledge…”

The Vedas, Vedangas, Upangas and Upavedas

The Vedas are one body of knowledge divided into four, the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Veda. Each of the four Vedas has several, slightly variant recensions known as sakhas. In each of those sakhas there are three portions: the Samhita, Brahmana, and the Aranyaka.

The Rig Veda contains many Sanskrit hymns of praise directed to many devas or gods, in truth many aspects of the one, single divine. What in later ages became known as slokas, or metrical verses, were originally known as rigs. Each rig is a mantra and a number of such rigs or mantras make up a poem known as a sukta. The Samhita portion of the Rig Veda contains more than ten thousand rigs (10,170 to be precise) grouped into 1028 poems or suktas.

The word Yajur is derived from the word Yaj or worship. The word Yajna, meaning sacrificial worship, is also derived from this stem. The Yajur Veda spells out the ritualistic procedural details of worship whereby all the rigs of the Rig Veda can be employed.


The word Sama means to ‘make peaceful’ and the Sama Veda contains music to make the gods peaceful and pleased with the worshipper. In order to attain the grace of the gods who are being propitiated, the priest sings the rig mantras to the seven notes of the musical scale rather than the strict upward and downward notes of the Rig Veda chanting.

The Atharva Veda draws its name from the rishi named Atharva who revealed it. The mantras in this Veda are for protection.

The Vedangas are the various ‘limbs’ of the Vedas and include texts on pronunciation of the mantras (Siksha) texts on grammar and poetic metre (Vyakaran and Chanda) as well as a dictionary (Nirukti). Since Vedic yajnas or rituals have to be performed in exactly constructed arenas and according to the phases of the moon and stars there are also handbooks for mathematics, astrology and ritual detail (Jyotish and Kalpa)

The Upangas are the ‘subsidiary limbs’ and consist of texts that support the performance of ritual and the comprehension of their importance and intrinsic philosophical basis. They include Mimamsa, the ‘deep analysis of a subject worthy of reverence,’ Nyaya, the system of logical deduction and analysis of evidence; histories or Purana, and the Dharma Shastras, codes of living for civilised people.

The Dharma Shastras describe household duties, personal work, cleanliness, eating, and ceremonies related to life-cycle events such as weddings and funerals. There are 18 such texts, known as smritis, written by 18 rishis such as Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parasara, and the smritis all bear their names.

The Upavedas are texts dealing with corollary subjects important for organizing the various features and essential elements of civilized human society. Ayur-veda explains an elaborate system of medicine; the Artha-shastra describes polity and economics; the Dhanur-veda focuses on ethical warfare and the Gandharva-veda teaches music.



Filed under Ritual, Sanskrit

“Beautifully recorded and mixed voices surrounded by lush pianos and atmospheres, this album transports you to another, more serene and mysterious world” – Simon Gogerly, Grammy Award winner 2006 for production of U2′s album How to dismantle an Atomic Bomb – the album of the year.

This a new album of Vaishnava songs from England. It’s not manufactured yet – coming in about two weeks time – but its already got people talking. The musical instrumentation and engineering is a fresh approach to traditional bhajans. Some of the songs are well-known, some less so. I think you will like it. Please click through to the new site that explains more:



Filed under Journal, Music, Sanskrit, vaishnavism


Nice tilak, nice blue skin tones, but the Sanskrit misses the mark

I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve noticed the colourful billboards everywhere I go in London. AVATAR. Great title for a movie, of course, and some of the CGI art from the film is well done.

Any Sanskrit language coming into popular usage, let alone a Vaishnava word in enormous, mind-grabbing letters, will always get my attention. And my curiosity is definitely aroused at the sight of all that blue skin.

Years ago I would have become very happy to see that maybe someone, somewhere, was drawing on Sanskrit philosophical terminology – and maybe Vaishnava art – to use in a major Hollywood film. I might have imagined that we were at some cultural/spiritual turning point in western society. I was a bit younger, and a good deal more idealistic, back then.

Whilst it’s true that the diverse cultures on our small planet are mixing more frequently as people travel and learn more; and while it is true that we’re borrowing words and mind-sets from older cultures when we need to, the fundamental perspective of much of the world – east or west – is unerringly materialistic. I say that not in a disparaging way, from any imagined lofty spiritual watchtower, but as a philosophical reflection based on the symptoms.

The word avatar has a very specific meaning and it is one of the frequently used terms in the theology of Vaishnavism. It means ‘one who descends’ and indicates the appearance of Vishnu, or God, in one of many forms. Although often translated as the English term ‘incarnation’ there’s no exact English equivalent for the word. ‘Incarnation’ is derived from the Latin in carna and describes the act of an incorporeal being becoming flesh; the spirit coming into an earthly frame, a material body of blood and bones.

Vaishnava theology explains that no such thing happens in the descent of the Lord. It is not that God is an incorporeal Being who then comes down to inhabit a body on earth. He is fully formed, fully spiritual, and fully personal, before His descent; and full in every way both during and after the period of His avatar. As souls we therefore incarnate – come into bodies – but Vishnu does not. We re-incarnate many, many times, and normally because we are forced to do so by the laws of nature. Vishnu comes simply because He wants to.

In Bhagavad gita we find that God describes why He comes – to uplift and restore the good and remove evil – but He also declares that fools always think that He has become a human while He’s doing it. Whilst the same fools teach that human society is sentimentally anthropomorphic for imagining that God looks like them, the actual fact is that we humans are ‘theomorphic,’ we look the way we do because God looks the way He does. And this world provides us with a temporary opportunity to have a body that resembles the form of God so that we can attempt to enjoy like He does – but without Him. But the Kingdom of God – the world of bliss or nirvana – doesn’t quite work without God and our attempts to enjoy down here without Him come to nothing. So the Lord descends from the plane of Absolute Reality to save souls stuck in the plane of Virtual Reality. That is His infinite compassion and His unending love for us.

And if you miss that simple, yet essential point you won’t quite get the meaning of the word avatar. The word has been used for at least ten years to indicate the virtual identity of a player in a computer game, or in extension from that, any virtual identity.

The problem is that – philosophically speaking – we are already stuck in a virtual reality game from which we cannot extract ourselves. It’s a game we can never win. Like the character Neo in The Matrix we have to look beyond our apparent situation and make some effort to escape it. That’s the way we’ll be able to attain our true identity and be happy forever. There’s no point at all when someone already caught in a virtual reality creates another virtual identity. That’s not an avatar at all; it’s just an illusion within an illusion.

The real Avatar comes down into our time and space to set us free from all illusion, and does it many times throughout history. He invites us personally to leave this world of repeated birth and death and to accompany Him to an eternal world, the Paramapada – the Spiritual Sky. And while it’s true that we do have to acquire a new form to do that, it’s one that we can easily develop through the daily spiritual activities of Bhakti.


Filed under Sanskrit

Emotionally Charged Sanskrit?

I was interested to see the hits and comments my slightly provocatively titled piece attracted yesterday and today. I wrote to highlight just one area where I feel some attention is required.

My concern is that it is slightly illogical to have an entire generation of adult children – born to Vaishnava parents – with names straight out of the pages of the Vedic scriptures; and yet to have tens of thousands of practising adult Vaishnavas with names straight out of the Holy Bible.

Danavir Goswami commented that Srila Prabhupada introduced the terms ‘Bhakta’ and ‘Bhaktin’ as titles for uninitiated devotees. This is something we’ve been doing – on Srila Prabhupada’s orders – for 40 years. Bhakta is a beautiful Sanskrit word meaning ‘one who has bhakti’ and is therefore a perfect description of a devotee. (It does provoke smiles in some quarters, however, for someone to be introduced as ‘Bhakta Muhammad.’)

But it must be said that words do change in meaning slightly over many years, and they especially change in meaning when they are used incorrectly; and they take on different definitions through abusive usage. Words can also be invested with such emotional charges that we collectively go in search of more emotionally neutral words for the same thing.

It would be good, wouldn’t it, if we could all use the term ‘bhakta’ as a term of recognition for a practising Vaishnava. But I don’t think this is a universal practise.

Sanskrit is the language used in the ‘cities of the gods’ and can be extremely descriptive and precise. Over the years – in careless hands and loose lips – even those precise Sanskrit words can become the very opposite of the reality they actually convey.

ISKCON has done wonders at preserving an ancient lexicon in a modern world. But we have also done our fair share of redefinition of a classical vocabulary and awarded words with meanings they just didn’t deserve. Mataji, guru, ritvik, sankirtan, isthagosthi, gurukula, sannyasi – may all have an extra ‘edge’ to them according to the experiences you’ve had. And some words take on entirely different meanings when the prefix ‘ISKCON’ is added, as in ‘ISKCON men’ or ‘ISKCON gurus’ and ‘ISKCON sannyasi.’

This kind of thing happens in the English language all the time, of course. And we’ve done our fair share of mangling that too. Sitapati commented – for the second time – that he doesn’t feel comfortable with the word ‘congregation’ but much prefers the word ‘community’ because of the different meanings implied and the social paradigm it suggests. I am not going to disagree with his choice of word, but I want to suggest that the word, for me at least, is still sufficiently ’emotionally neutral’ to be useful. But I am aware of my age, and that my own word usage may consequently be dated.


Filed under Sanskrit

Sanskrit and The Matrix


Recording the Sanskrit choral piece for the film Matrix Revolutions

One of my blog visitors, after reading ‘Would the Pope ever speak Sanskrit’ wrote to tell me that the choral music in the final battle scene in The Matrix Revolutions is in Sanskrit.

I’m quite happy to hear that because Sanskrit, of course, is the lingua franca of Vaishnavism and there are many words and expressions in that language which will help people in general to understand the philosophical basis of our life.

I thought that Crispian Mills, the singer from Kulashaker, was very brave to incorporate Sanskrit into his songs. Who could imagine that he would find popularity from a song entitled “Acintya Bheda Bheda Tattva?” I saw Crispian at a function recently. He is back on the road with Kulashaker with a song about the mind called “Second Sight

As far as films go, previously I had only noticed Sanskrit in the beautiful score to “A Little Princess” a rather nice film with many visual links to The Ramayana. Very popular with my two daughters when they were younger. The choral score features om namo bhagavate vasudevaya interwoven with the poetry of William Blake.

On the Matrix Revolutions film, the final fight scene between Neo and Agent Smith is scored with a Germanic opera piece called Neodammerung except its not in German, its Sanskrit. And very philosophical Sanskrit too. All from the Upanishads.

The Upanishads are corollary literature to the four Vedas and deal with helping the reader distinguish between matter and spirit, between the true self and the vehicle of the self – the body. Don Davis and his directors, Larry and Andy Machowski, felt that the ideas expressed in the Upanishads perfectly expressed the themes within the Matrix trilogy.

Their first selection from the Upanishads was from the Brihad Aranyaka (1.3.28) and is a very common prayer uttered at religious ceremonies: “From delusion lead me to Truth, from darkness lead me to Light, from death lead me to Immortality”

The other quotes, sung with full Wagnerian force by a choir accompanied by a large brass section, were from the Isha, Mundaka, and Katha Upanishads.

All these books are well worth a read. However, for an Upanishad with a commentary that you will understand and find very helpful, may I suggest Sri Isopanisad by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada? He translated this book very early on in his mission to bring the Vedas to the English-speaking world and as his followers we used to regularly recite the verses from this book – and still do – at important ceremonies.


Filed under Journal, Sanskrit

Would a Pope ever speak Sanskrit?


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!)





Filed under Christianity, Sanskrit, Uncategorized