Vanity thought #674. Beware of Sanskrit

Every devotee dreamed of learning Sanskrit at some point of their lives. Some have gathered and impressive vocabulary, some remember an extraordinary number of verses, some learned the script, some haven’t done anything in particular, but knowing Sanskrit is automatically assumed to be a plus.

When a devotee giving a lecture on Srimad Bhagavatam goes deep into intricacies of the language and proves his point with different translations and references there’s no substitution for the feeling of awe and appreciation for his wisdom.

Personally, last time I thought it’d be better to learn Bengali because it’s a much easier language and we have a lot of Bengali literature that is still awaiting translations.

The recent posting on, however, warns us about some real danger coming with these aspirations. It’s a story told by Rameshvara Prabhu and I suspect it comes from his interview with Satswarupa Dasa Goswami taken for Prabhupada Lilamrita about thirty years ago. Perhaps I need to investigate this further because some of what Rameshvara said in that interview is being used against ISKCON and particularly BBT by our erstwhile enemies. I’ve heard that nothing from that interview was used for Prabhupada Lilamrita itself.

Anyway, the key quote from this story is this:

“… a little Sanskrit knowledge is very very dangerous.” Men who know a
little Sanskrit consider themselves to be more intelligent than anyone else.
Prabhupada said, “This disease will ultimately culminate in these men
thinking that they are more intelligent than their spiritual master.”

What an astute observation!

Lets admit it – we want to learn Sanskrit because we want to understand shastra better and because we think that what we learn from Prabhupada’s books and from our own gurus is not enough for our desired level of shastra comprehension.

Following this line of thought we make a cardinal mistake – we think that Krishna and devotional service can be conquered by our mental efforts. We think that all we need is a little more intelligence, a little more knowledge, and gates of Vaikuntha will come crashing down, trembling before our superior mental power.

What a delusion.

We also think that shastra is only a collection of letters and words and so the clue to spiritual progress is deciphering their meanings. This is an interesting point because shastra is indeed a unique combination of letters, or rather sounds, and just as Krishna is non-different from His name letters and sounds in shastra are non-different from true spiritual knowledge.

Well, Krishna might be nondifferent from His name but understanding Him is not the matter of knowing syllables, consonants and vowels that make the Name audible to us. We say “Krishna” many times per day without any externally visible effects whatsoever, the true Name remains hidden from us. What makes us think that studying Sanskrit would open the hidden spiritual treasure of the shastra?

Anyway, once we got on this Sanskrit train it’s natural for us to judge everybody else by our own level of knowledge. Thus it might appear that Srila Prabhupada has made mistakes, or that previous acharyas were not up to scratch, too.

Notwithstanding the modern examples of such thinking (they do not yet deserved to be named) there are two particular Sanskritists mentioned by Rameshvara – Nitai and Jagannath. I don’t know who Jagannath is, quite possibly he is now known as Jagat.

Jagat’s own story leaves some room for such confusion – he was a Sanskrit editor, and at the time of Rameshvara interview he had already left ISKCON and, perhaps, his new name, Jagadananda, got corrupted.

Or maybe it was a different devotee altogether. Jagat’s life story, however, in many ways proves Prabhupada’s point. I don’t know if Jagat has ever thought himself as being better translator that Prabhupada, but he abandoned his guru anyway and ended up as a “babaji”, smoking pot and having sex with a Sahajiya woman. He is a bit more presentable now but he still insists that those experiences were defining points in his devotional life. Whatever.

The point is – it’s not very difficult to spot errors in Prabhupada’s translations, he himself had editors to check them, knowing full well that a material mind has a tendency to make mistakes. I think we’d be wiser not to make a big deal out of this, either declaring everything he has ever said as absolute truth or thinking that he was a product of his era and thus his teachings are conditioned and temporary in nature.

I’m not going to delve into this right now, however. My mind is not big enough to understand the intricacies and implications of this subject. I’m not particularly keen on learning Sanskrit either. I don’t think I’ll live long enough to master it anyway – Prabhupada said it takes about twenty years.

By Krishna’s grace my mind has been engaged in philosophical speculations about His nature without knowledge of Sanskrit, why would I want to make it any more complicated? I’d rather see the need for these “vanity thoughts” disappear altogether, waiting for the day when just chanting Hare Krishna would be enough.

One comment on “Vanity thought #674. Beware of Sanskrit

  1. Pingback: Vanity thought #679. And don’t forget the Sanskrit | back2krishna

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