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Meaning-Making in Sanskrit

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 26, 2009 2 Comments

One of the most fascinating aspects of my ethnographic work in a orphanage in a Hindu ashram in a satellite town of New Delhi, India, is the multilingual setting. The kids, to recap quickly, are first language Bengali speakers, second language Hindi speakers, attend an English medium school, and take part in mandatory 4 hour devotional singing and prayers in Sanskrit. I have observed the site over the last two winter breaks, and have been struggling to understand how the complex multilinguality of the site plays out in terms of identity and identification issues, signalling of membership(s), language socialization, and understanding language learning as an embodied process, among other things.

The ritualistic, devotional role of Sanskrit in the community is something that has fascinated me from the onset. As a language that is technically classified as an ecclessiastical, “extinct” language, it is a special case, distinct from the roles that the other “living” languages play in the setting. The kids study it in school, do assigned Sanskrit homework during the evening study hours, and sing in it, and most regularly take part in extended prayers that are conducted almost entirely in Sanskrit. When I asked the kids which languages they knew, they would mention the other three, but only a fraction counted Sanskrit as a “known” language. Not having had time for extensive follow ups, I don’t know yet exactly how they understand “knowing” a language, though that it a concept I intend to tease out of them over time.

But this post is not about that. In all this time, I have mostly tried to frame the kids’ take on Sanskrit as if it was “theirs,” as if the experience of dealing with a “dead” language was something they understood, and I was trying to understand. It was only recently that it came to me: I had lived this experience myself in some ways. I didn’t immediately remember that as a child I would recite prayers in Sanskrit daily, running to the Pooja room at the sound of my mother ringing a small brass bell (to mark the start of prayers). I would kneel, and recite a short prayer from memory, and the words and syllables would bleed into each other. I wouldn’t care because, I think, the syntax and semantics of Sanskrit were immaterial; it was the syntax and semantics of communing with God that mattered. And those escaped language.

Then there were times during certain Hindu festivals when my mother would read out stories in Sanskrit (a little disclosure here: my mother has a PhD in Sanskrit), and then translate them, big chunk by big chunk, so we absorbed the sacrally pregnant sounds of Sanskrit and were immersed in them before we got to what the words meant. I wasn’t impatient to get to the meaning, as I am now; there was moral instruction in that holding off, a teaching in that anticipation. Those experiences of Sanskrit were somewhat amputated from the experience I had in learning the language in school over many years. The latter was primarily, if not exclusively, an academic exercise, whereas the former was a more “ethical” exercise. Sanskrit words, at their most meaningful for me, were in some ways semantically “empty,” in that the individual words signified nothing to me; I could not “define” most of the words I uttered in prayer. Yet the sound stream, the exercise of uttering the language of devotion, the swaying motion that accompanied the prayer, the ritualistic setting, the ethics of Hinduism that framed the whole speech event, charged each word with meaning that could never be captured in a dictionary. And now, as I think back, I see that Sanskrit was semantically charged in ways I don’t ordinarily notice: its sacredness was the “meaning”, it wasn’t a (mere) vehicle for it.

But this post is not about that either. I was just thinking, how strange it is that in observing the kids, I never really thought about my own experiences as a Sanskrit learner. I wonder why?

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2 Responses to “Meaning-Making in Sanskrit”

  1. daveski on: 27 February 2009 at 6:30 pm

    That’s funny….I read this post, all the way up to the last short paragraph, as almost a meditation on your Sanskrit, not quite as dead as a dodo? post from about a year ago…do “extinct languages” continually need to be revived, even when they appear to be alive?

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 27 February 2009 at 7:00 pm

    I was totally revisiting that post. I kept thinking why it was that I didn’t remember that I “went through” the prayers at home myself: I mentioned the festivals, I mentioned the academic setting, but my own experiences at home, of living the sacredness of Sanskrit through DAILY prayers, didn’t strike me in that first post, or until a couple of days ago. I am struggling with this issue, and I will keep coming back to it.

    I like the word meditation…it very nicely describes what I was thinking. 😉

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