On the very first day we are being told that Sanskrit is the divine language and is unlike any other. We are told that simply repeating Sanskrit ślokas purifies the whole atmosphere even if we don’t understand their meanings. Every Bhāgavatam or Gīta class must have generous repetition of Sanskrit.
We also learn about mantras and how properly pronounced Sanskrit words are non-different from their meanings, and, of course, about the Holy Name itself. When we chant we chant in Sanskrit and we do not need to vocalize the translations, Sanskrit sound itself is more than enough. We might have a discussion of the meaning of long bhajanas but we do not let it interrupt the singing itself, nor do we bother with translations of all our daily programs. Meanings are something that we should simply know and the most important part is Sanskrit itself.
Coming from a non-Indian background all these things are accepted without question but there are also distinctions within the various languages used in India, too.
We don’t sing or chant in Hindi or Tamil, only Sanskrit and Bengali. Why? Because Bengali was the language of Lord Caitanya and most of our ācāryas. Does it mean that we should treat Bengali as sacred as Sanskrit? How sacred Sanskrit is anyway?
Yesterday I said that Pāṇini’s grammar allowed practically everyone to learn to express himself through Sanskrit. Contrary to what we assume during our first days in Kṛṣṇa consciousness, most of the Sanskrit literature is non-devotional and has been composed by all kinds of people for all kinds of purposes. Out of the entire Vedic corpus we read only Bhāgavatam and Gīta anyway, and maybe a few books by our Gauḍīyā ācāryas, like Bhakti-Rasāmṛta-Sindhu.
Śrīla Prabhupāda, btw, didn’t bother to translate the latter in the same way as he translated Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, he simply retold it in English and so all Sanskrit from it we remember is a few often quoted verses.
Bengali demonstrates this approach even better. We have a couple of Lord Caitanya’s biographies and a couple of devotional songs that we use in our daily service and the rest of the language might as well not exist or die out. We don’t care. As long as Caitanya Caritāmṛta is still there we have all the necessary Bengali, too.
The truth is that what makes language truly divine is its connection to Kṛṣṇa. Words spoken about non-devotional matters cannot be considered divine even if they look like absolutely perfect and flawless Sanskrit or Bengali.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī was probably the first and so far the only ācārya who tried to deal with the proliferation of all kinds of languages in a systemic way. His father, Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura didn’t pay much attention to this particular aspect of preaching. He just wrote the books in whatever language he could without any concern for any innate sanctity of the medium and whatever he said always came out perfectly.
Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta, otoh, went about it scientifically. First he observed what was going on. Sanskrit used to be the only language of spiritual discourse but the general public was getting dumber and dumber every year and preachers who insisted on using Sanskrit as the only medium had lost access to a large swathe of the population.
Bengali was spoken everywhere by everyone in that part of India but Bengali of the intelligentsia was heavily influenced by English, the language of colonial masters. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura mastered all three – Sanskrit, Bengali, and English, and its his usage that had become golden standard for Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta who further developed it for the preaching purposes.
He preserved the gravity of Sanskrit and the simple charm of Bengali of Caitanya Bhāgavata and Caitanya Caritāmṛta, and the need for communication in English. The result was a unique combination that actually neither. Here’s a quote from Śrī Bhaktisiddhānta Vaibhava:
Although a brilliant wielder of several languages, Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī did not speak merely to impress. His use of words was wholly transcendental, saturated with the spirit of service to Kṛṣṇa, and from an entirely different platform than that of materialists. Thus his diction was not of this world, but from beyond it. Once when he was discussing elaborate philosophical topics in English and seemed to be groping for suitable words, a gentleman present suggested that he speak in Bengali. Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī responded, “I am conversing neither in English nor Bengali, nor any other language. Please hear attentively what I say.”
Sometimes his Bengali was so heavily Sanskritized that it was understandable to South Indians who couldn’t follow Bengali of ordinary people. His English was out of this world, too, hard to follow but also rich in meaning and layers, and wholly transcendental in purpose, completely devoid of any mundane considerations. He meant his language to be hard so as it could cut to pieces the knot of material attachments in one’s heart. In his own description, it was a play on the dual meaning of the word hard – difficult to understand and opposite of soft, too.
The result was what he, and his father before him, called Gauḍīyā bhāṣā – Bengali of Gauḍīyā vaiṣṇavas. It was different from colloquial Bengali and was similar in purpose to Bhāgavatīya bhāṣā of Śrī Vaiṣṇavas, which was a combination of Tamil and Sanskrit.
He also insisted on using Vaiṣṇavocita bhāṣa, the language of vaiṣṇavas. There were no words for birth and death or for being sick there, for these things do not happen to vaiṣṇavas. Instead he insisted on appearance and disappearance and the pastime of displaying illness. Now we do this in English, too, thanks to Śrīla Prabhupāda.
When we listen to our devotees giving classes it’s easy to notice how our English is different from the language outside. Many of our devotees can’t read a newspaper, for example, but are very fluent in presenting Śrīmad Bhāgavatam. The vocabulary, sentence composition, grammar etc are very different and, perhaps, it’s fair to say that we have our own ISKCON English that allows for a variety of accents, certain freedom in grammar, but no ambiguity when it comes to the transcendental purpose of the topic.
We also easily weave in various Sanskrit and Bengali terms as we see fit and we don’t even pause for explanations. People unfamiliar with our internal usage are very likely to get lost after just a few minutes of listening to some of our speakers. And yet our presentations to outsiders are extremely simple – soul, body, death, return to God’s abode.
We also use our own meanings of the words like soul, mind, and intelligence which are different from Christian terms, for example. And we also have the “false ego”, a term meaning of which most people would find it hard to guess.
All these things are not just our idiosyncrasies but a special form of language – the one that used for no other purpose than to glorify the Lord. In this sense even our English is divine.