Discussion of the language and its connection to Kṛṣṇa wouldn’t be complete without mentioning three levels of Sanskrit. I mean three levels of understanding each word or even each syllable, as taught by Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Ṭhākura.
There’s an understanding of fools, understanding of learned scholars, and understanding of enlightened beings. We want the last one, of course, but outside of our society we have to deal with only the first two.
The pure meaning comes only from a guru, on our own we can at most get the second one, vidvad-rūḍhi in Sanskrit, and that is if we know the language inside out. Those looking up words in dictionaries, like me, are fools and can only catch the ajña-rūḍhi.
Technically, there’s a system for deriving meanings in Sanskrit and it goes in steps. First one is a dictionary definition, usually the most obvious and direct, and it would refer to the root of the word. Words with suffixes and prefixes derive their meaning from the connection between parts and that’s the next stage. Furthermore, there is a metaphorical meaning and it should be used only when direct meaning is impossible. Something like “village on the river” is not assumed to be located ON the actual river but on river banks. Then it goes up and up and Sanskrit scholars and translators are supposed to know all these things. That’s what separates their understanding from ajña-rūḍhi of fools.
Scholar can argue about subtleties of meanings and translations and they can appreciate the beauty of the language and so on. It doesn’t get them any closer to the Absolute Truth, however, and for that reason we are not encouraged to learn Sanskrit. It’s that sundarīm kavitām that we are supposed to reject as per Śikṣāṣtaka prayers. It’s the kind of thing Lord Caitanya was very good at before He became a devotee.
Naturally, we think otherwise and whoever learns a bit of Sanskrit in our society expects praise and recognition. “He can read the originals”, we whisper to each other. So what? Millions and millions of people have read “original” Bhagavad Gīta and Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and it made absolutely no difference.
Why? Because academic learning does not lead to devotion, it rather obstructs bhakti because it builds pride and an illusion of omniscience. The more we think we know the further we move away from Kṛṣṇa because acquiring academic knowledge is like acquiring power and wealth, it’s us wanting to become little gods ourselves.
Tbh, I’m not averse to trying to screw out favorable meanings of Sanskrit ślokas myself but in my defense I would say that I’m not trying to construct the meanings but simply seek confirmations of what I already know from guru and śāstra. On that note, we should never ever consider the possibility of translations by some impersonalists being correct just because Sanskrit. Even if we look at their work we should skip past their meanings and use their translations to help reinforce our understanding instead.
We already know what the truth is and we read Bhāgavatam not to learn anything new but to confirm the “basics” again and again. It might be impossible at first but with practice we’ll learn to appreciate its simple beauty and then we could never have enough of it. Then we would know its real, transcendental meaning, and it won’t come from Sanskrit scholarship but, as I said, from our guru.
I don’t mean it literally, though. The guru can explain the verses in many different ways and apply bits of Bhāgavatam wisdom to every day situations and sometimes the guru might behave like a scholar himself, but it shouldn’t confuse us. It’s just fluff, things that embodied entities have to do while they are in the material world.
What I mean by learning from the guru is when Kṛṣṇa illuminates our hearts by guru’s grace. It might have nothing to do with anything the guru said or done at all. It might have, too, depending on circumstances. Sometimes we might remember words we heard many years ago and realize that it’s only now that we grasped their meaning. Sometimes the guru might be long gone and only the vague impression of his orders remains in our minds. Carrying out those orders might earn us Kṛṣṇa’s mercy and bring us transcendental knowledge. The orders themselves, btw, are just orders, not revelations of some hidden meanings.
That’s the most important part – language deals with forms but Kṛṣṇa’s mercy is independent of those. That’s why Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī spoke of Gauḍīya bhāṣā, the language used by our Gauḍīya ācāryas, which wasn’t Sanskrit but it carried the transcendental message in full anyway.
These days Prabhupāda’s English has become part of Gauḍīya bhāṣā, too. And even when translated into other languages it carries the same potency. Why? Because it’s the language of paramahaṁsas and everything coming from their lips is sacred and pure.
It isn’t our invention, btw. Yesterday I mentioned Tamil and Sanskrit mixture of Bhāgavatīya bhāśā of Śrī Vaiṣṇavas but that is not all either. Śrīla Madhvācārya talked about doctrine of viṣṇu-sarvanāmatva, that origin of every word is nothing but a description of Viṣṇu’s qualities and pastimes. That doctrine was accepted by Lord Caitanya, too, and in our tradition it was expounded by Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī, who spoke of dhvanyātmika-śabda as opposed to varṇātmika-śabda. Dhvani here means implied or original meaning and varṇa means colored, the one we see through the prism of the illusion, through rose-colored glasses, as they say.
Original, unadulterated meaning of every utterance is an expression of unalloyed devotion to Kṛṣṇa. What we observe here, otoh, are corruptions of these utterances for our own enjoyment. They could be in Sanskrit or Bengali or English or whatever, the principle still stands. For a paramahaṁsa every word that comes of everyone’s mouth is a praise of Kṛṣṇa and that’s the vision we should strive for.
In a sense it’s similar to our Bhāgavata paramparā which is sometimes independent on formal dīkṣā. Drawing tilaka on disciple’s forehead or chanting on his beads or throwing grains of rice into fire does not connect him to a parampara on its own. Kṛṣṇa’s mercy is still independent of all those externals. When Kṛṣṇa’a mercy is there a disciple becomes a part of the paramparā, when the mercy isn’t there no amount of rituals can make a person accepted into our gotra, our spiritual family.
This principle shouldn’t be abused, however. We can’t automatically claim spiritual connection when external symptoms are not there. As a society we had enough of these claims, one would hope, but one should always be vigilant anyway.
Bottom line here is that only a devotee can recognize a fellow devotee, only a pure heart can appreciate other pure hearts, there are no hard rules there. If somebody’s devotion doesn’t strike a chord with you it means it’s not there or you are not in the position to judge. However, if that person is trying to affect your life personally then his devotion should be felt in your heart, too, for then he would act as Kṛṣṇa’s order carrier.
On our part we need a certain level of purity, however, to tell the difference between inspiration coming from Kṛṣṇa and devotees, and influences of the modes of nature.
I think I’m getting off topic here, however, so I’ll stop now.