Sanskrit-Thai transliteration issues

This post is meant to elicit feedback, please leave comments below if you think something in this article is factually incorrect.

Common problems

Without going too far into history, Thai alphabet is part of a Brahmic family of scripts and as such, like Devanagari itself, was originally perfectly equipped for writing down Sanskrit. Many modern Thai words have Sanskrit origins, too. With time, however, correct pronunciation has been lost even though spelling in many cases remained the same. Pronunciation standards were not maintained and rather the way the common people say these words became official, and so modern Thai has many rules to regulate this “corruption”, for the lack of a better word.

In Hindi, for example, people drop final “a” so that Bharata becomes Bharat and Prabhupada becomes Prabhupad. Modern Thai goes further than that. Take Thai word for Lord Indra – พระอินทร์. First part is “Pra”, which is a honorific and doesn’t concern us here. “Indra” itself is อินทร์ – it has all the letters “i”, “n”, “d/t”, and “r”, but if you drop final “a” saying “Intr” becomes impossible so “tr” is dropped as well and pronunciation becomes just “In” – Pra In. In some cases full pronunciation is retained, however, like part of the official Thai name for Bangkok is “Mahintara”, which is basically “Mahindra”. In this case “dra/tra” is retained but a vowel is inserted in the middle to make pronunciation easier – “intara”. Sometimes it’s spelled “Inthara” – there are resorts and hotels with this name (to be fair, there’s also “Ramintra”).

Thus there are many cases where letters are part of the word but are silent and there are rules for when they are read aloud and when not.

Another way of simplification concerns final consonants – whatever consonant appears at the end of the word it must make one of the eight permitted sounds. Thus words ending in “r” actually end in “n” and words ending in “s” actually end in “t”. Sometimes, to an English speaker, this affects letters in the middle of words, too, like letter ล – “l” in the middle of ชลบุรี becomes “n” – ChoNburi. There are rules to govern these changes as well.

Implicit vowels – one of the first things to learn when reading Devanagari, are present in Thai but their pronunciation is not fixed. Depending on the position in the word they become “a” or “o”. In the word ถนน – which is written as “th-n-n” implicit vowels are read as thAnOn. There are rules to govern these changes, too.

Another major area is consonant clusters. In Sanskrit there are hundreds and possibly thousands of them but in Thai there are only fourteen. Any combination outside of these fourteen requires inserting a vowel, similar to “Intara” above. Every school child is taught English nowadays but without sufficient training and discipline even common words like “school” and “spa” (there’s spa on every street corner in Bangkok now) are pronounced as “sa-kool” and “sa-pa”. This rule isn’t fixed, however – proper pronunciation of fashionable words is a sign of social status so many Thais will say “blueberry” perfectly, but those who don’t care enough would still say “baluberry”. So, the rule for inserting “a” is there but it’s not applied when there’s a need for trying to sound like a foreigner. In any case, consonant clusters transliterated from Sanskrit need to indicate that they are, indeed, clusters and that inherent vowels need to be dropped.

In some cases Thai consonants become silent precisely because they are part of clusters that are difficult to say, notably in ศร combination which is important to us because it’s part of “Sri”. Second letter, ร, becomes silent and so words like Srinakarin are pronounced Sinakarin. Full Thai spelling is ศรีนครินทร์ – Srinakarindra, and “Sinakarin” is what is left of it after all the rules are applied.

Finally, and this is probably the biggest and the most obvious issue – some Sanskrit sounds have been totally lost. Five of them are in the “Gha .. Bha” group of Sanskrit letters, and there are no Thai sounds for ś and ṣ either. As there’s no Thai “sh” for Krishna, Thai speakers say “s” instead – Krisana (-sana because “sn” is not an allowed consonant cluster). These missing sounds need to be taught – how to make them, how to position one’s mouth, what they should sound like etc. This isn’t an issue with transliteration per se – because letters for these sounds still exists, but we need to teach people how to make totally new sounds and we need to include these techniques in our pronunciation guide.

Good news is that “sh” is common in English and so Thai people are very familiar with it already. Nobody has been a better teacher than “Share” button on Facebook. Otherwise, Thai pronunciation of “share” and “chair” is about the same – with soft “ch”.

A few words need to be said about “ch” as well – there appears to be confusion among Thai speakers whether letter จ should be written as “ch” in English (and so as “ca” in Caitanya). Bangkok’s most famous market is Chatuchak and it’s written like this on every map and in every travel guide, but when abbreviating many would write it as JJ market instead. “JJ Market” is also the name of a huge mall they built there. One English language newspaper in Thailand would write someone’s name as Chakrit but another would write Jakrit instead. However, all agree that Thai ruling dynasty should be spelled Chakri – not Jakri. I mention this because original Thai letters for “ca” and “ja” have been swapped from the time of Sanskrit and any possible confusion needs to be cleared.

Thai language also doesn’t have “v” and so “va” is pronounced as “wa”. In some cases this “wa”, which is technically a consonant, will be made into an official part of a diphthong – there are rules for that. As as result, “deva” will be read as “dewa” (or actually as “thewa” because of d-th sound shift). Words with “sva” will be read as “sawa” – because of v-w and insertion of “a” between “sv”.

When devising transliteration scheme we should keep in mind not only how to reverse all these rules but remember that many of the rules were often introduced specifically to accommodate wishes of common people. In effect, we have to go against what people want. Here’s a list of what needs to be accounted for:

  • teach production of new sounds
  • insist on pronunciation of consonant clusters
  • insist on pronunciation of correct final consonants when these sounds are not allowed in Thai
  • indicate correct vowel when a Thai speaker would instinctively read differently

We should also decide how strict we need to be with enforcing all these new rules. BBT standard for transliteration into English has been “100% accuracy” from the start and with so many ISKCON devotees studying Sanskrit it’s not going to be relaxed. In real life, however, English speaking devotees make no differentiation between na-ṅa-ña-ṇa, ta-ṭa, and da-ḍa groups of Sanskrit letters, for example. At most, they are aware of ś and ṣ but only vaguely about a and ā or u and ū. What seems important is “bha” type of sounds because every ISKCON devotee can make them and they form the core of our most common words like “bhakti”, “Bhagavan”, and “Prabhupada”. So, we need to decide which of these sounds and rules should be a priority and introduced forcefully.

Acceptance by Thai public is another area we should pay attention to. It can be of two kinds – impressions of people on the street and opinions of authorities when people ask for clarification. They are rarely the same, though eventually authoritative opinions prevail over initial public reaction. If the authorities (academics or influential monks in our case) do not approve of our selected method we will be allowed public space to preach whatever we want and even collect our own following but we will never be accepted as a genuine article by people who actually control Thai society. That will be ironic because these people spill gallons of blood to preserve old Vedic traditions against onslaught of modernization and new ideas. This is an important subject outside the scope of this article, but despite being known as a Buddhist country, Thai Royal court is governed by “Hindu” rules, Royal ceremonies are performed by caste Brahmins, and King’s main duty is to govern the country according to rules of “Dharmarajya”, making Thailand into a de facto last Hindu/Vedic kingdom in the world. These are the same principles that are promoted very heavily in our books so we should not be seen as a corrupting influence instead.

One final word – solutions to each of these challenges should include appropriate markup in the transliterated text and this could create an additional problem. I don’t think we can say that we’ve done a good job if our transliteration method cannot be used on digital devices like phones and computers and devotees cannot possibly type “Prabhupada” into their Facebook posts. Just imagine the outcry if every time English speaking devotees would try to type “Prabhupada said” and it would look like garbage on their screens or the screens of their recipients. They will quickly find a way around it and stop using our proposed transliteration. Then we will have no control if their workarounds are correct or how it affects their pronunciation. These days hardly anyone reads printed books and there’s little use for transliteration scheme that is good only for paper but is useless for computers, phones, and the internet. Our English transliteration is already affected by this problem, for example.

In the next section I’ll give an overview of several possible transliteration schemes.

Pali Sanskrit

This method is the preserved writing scheme for the original Pali and Sanskrit and I will refer to is as PS.

Pros – 100% accuracy, official status and therefore full compliance with ISO standards and full support on all digital platforms.
Cons – reading rule is different from modern Thai, over a dozen letters sound differently from modern Thai, and so the text looks unintelligible to a reader without pronunciation guide.

As I mentioned earlier, originally Thai script was meant to write down Sanskrit perfectly. Over the time, however, pronunciation of many letters have changed and now many of original Sanskrit letters duplicate more common modern ones. This has made them obsolete even though they are still part of Thai alphabet and are taught to children in schools. Thai name for Bhagavad Gita, for example, is kept almost unchanged – ภควัต-คีตา now vs ภควทฺ-คีตา in PS, it still uses ภ letter in front but now instead of original “bha” sound it makes “pha”, and original ค is now not “ga” but “kha”, making it “Phakhawat” (ทฺ-d from PS was replaced by ต-t). Same holds for the word “Krishna” itself. In modern Thai it’s กฤษณะ and in PS it’s กฺฤษฺณ – all the core letters are the same but their pronunciation has changed (to “Krisana”).

Looking at the list of problems to overcome – first is the “new sounds” – in PS original Sanskrit sounds are there, part of the alphabet, and they can be found in a variety of sources, starting from Wikipedia, but many Thai Sanskritologists reportedly do not use them when speaking. In this transliteration scheme new sounds need to be taught in the way they were pronounced before. Techniques for adding “h” sound to “b” to make “bha”, for example, need to be invented and explained in the pronunciation guide and people need to be reminded which old letters they apply to.

The other three issues are dealt with automatically because PS does not recognize modern Thai rules at all. Take consonant clusters, for example – in Sanskrit they are indicated by ligatures merging two consonants together and there are hundreds of these unique combinations. No keyboard, however, can have so many letters. What people actually do is use “virama” extensively instead. When two consonants are meant to be merged “virama” is put between them and then it’s up to the font to display a correct ligature. In the first words of Bhagavad Gita – “Dhritarashtra uvaca”, there’s a consonant cluster ś-ṭ-r. It is typed as (using Devanagari symbols, of course) ś – virama – ṭ -virama – r. The font then merges these three into one ligature.

In PS it works the same way. Virama in Thai is Pinthu, a little dot underneath the consonant, but consonants do not need to be merged and so no ligatures need to be learned. That śṭra combination is typed as ษ-Pinthu-ฏ-Pinthu-ร. Pinthu is not displayed on its own so I didn’t type it here, but it is shown underneath and it becomes “ษฺฏฺร”. Here’s with a bigger font ษฺฏฺร

In PS letters sound always the same, there are no changes for any reasons applied in modern Thai and inherent vowel is always “a” so Thai rules for occasionally changing it to “o” are not applied either.

Consider example of the word “mantra” – มนฺตฺร (used more for something like “incantation” or “prayer”, for regular “mantra” there’s shorter version of the same word). Let’s try to read it. First is ม-m, there’s no Pinthu, so “ma”. Second is นฺ-n with Pinthu, so just “n” – “ma-n”. Then ตฺ-t with Pinthu, so “t” – ma-n-t. Finally there’s ร-r, no Pinthu, so “ra”. And now we have ma-n-t-ra.

What I demonstrated here is the only reading rule and pretty short one at that, but it needs to be taught. Without it people won’t know what to make out of the text. They know about existence of Pinthu in principle but not how it is used in PS. Good news is that people can google how to read Pali Sanskrit and there are plenty of pages explaining it. Bad news is that the way people parse their own language into words is very difficult to change and even if there’s only one rule to learn ignoring all the old ones is going to be difficult, plus there are about a dozen letters where sounds are different, too. Thai letter ช – cha, for example, is very very common but in PS it makes sound “ja” instead of “cha” and memorizing this change requires effort.

Switch to using PS also needs to be indicated in the text. In our English books most of the Sanskrit is put in italics but not always. There are plenty of Sanskrit words that appear as part of the normal text, usually proper names. Readers recognize them by the use of diacritics and if there are no diacritics, like in “Veda” or “yoga”, the words are still read the same way. In PS, however, there are only two symbols that could be considered as equivalent of English “diacritics” (Pinthu and Nikhahit – anusvara in oṁ) to indicate that reading rules have changed and without them the same word could be pronounced very differently. Even something as simple as “yoga” won’t have an expected “a” at the end and would look like a misspelling to a Thai reader – unless there’s indication that PS reading rule should be applied.

Good news is that we can use italics for all PS words, even in verse translations (where italics are never used in our English books). The bad news is that italics cannot be copy-pasted between many apps. Facebook does not allow them, for example, and none of the messenger apps like Line, Whatsapp, or Viber support them. Good news is that simply surrounding words with spaces would indicate to Thai readers that there’s something special about them (spaces are not used between words in Thai, only between sentences).

Regarding accuracy – it will become similar to English. All the information necessary for perfect pronunciation is there and it’s up to individuals if they want to differentiate between sounds like n, ṇ, and ñ in speech and writing. Even better than English – all the symbols needed for typing PS are on standard Thai keyboard and so Thai devotees will quickly learn and indicate the difference between “varnashrama” and “varṇāśrama” – the difference which is often lost on English speakers.

Regarding acceptance by the public – no academic could ever say that PS deviates from the tradition and for many of them it would probably be even closer to tradition that their own stands. General public will find it, at least at first, as cumbersome, but this is also their opinion of “Rajasap” – language used in the Royal court, which is so high class and  flowery that it’s incomprehensible to ordinary people. It is still accepted out of deep respect for the institution and it is not expected to change to suit the common taste. In this sense, we can argue that Bhagavad Gita should be no less respectable and deserve an effort to read it.

Modern Pali

There’s no widely known term for it but it’s the way Buddhist Pali texts are recorded in Thai and then used by monks and laymen for chanting prayers on all ceremonial occasions. It tries to address the same problems as we have with transliterating Sanskrit and it generates the same kind of conflicts – what’s correct? what’s better for the people? shouldn’t it be made easier? how strict should we be? etc. The situation there roughly as follows. The ideal is Pali Sanskrit I described above but it is deemed to be too difficult  and is hardly followed. Google search gives ten times more results for “Modern Pali” spelling of popular prayers than for their “Pali Sanskrit” spellings.

However, when I searched google for the first line of Tipitaka, the main Pali Buddhist text, number of results was roughly the same for PS and modern spelling. Interestingly, the same situation exists for our common prayers as well: “nama oṃ viṣṇu-pādāya” gives 500 results and “nama om vishnu padaya” gives 50,000 while properly transliterated ślokas from Bhagavad Gita easily outnumber their versions typed without diacritics. That is to say – scriptures are preserved in their correct form but common usage isn’t, and this demonstrates importance of the ability to use transliteration in our own typing. I bet not many devotees can answer whether correct spelling of “sh” in Vishnu is “ś” or “ṣ” because they have never had to type it themselves.

Anyway, top results for “Tipitaka” are sites that usually offer alternative transliterations for the readers and Pali Sanskrit is always there among the choices.

Pali is studied by every monk wishing to advance in the hierarchy – it’s part of their “bhakti-shastri”, so to speak, but old (and so correct) pronunciation is not part of the exam so very few monks pay attention to it even if it’s the same textbooks written by the same Prince Vajirananavarorasa who institutionalized Thai Buddhism. There are also two “advanced” Pali courses which are far superior in content and demand correct pronunciation but completing them does not give one any social advantages like adding a special honorific to one’s name or rights to royal cremation so even fewer monks take them. When Westerners transliterate these Thai Pali texts into English they invariably use correct pronunciation and invariably note that Thais themselves do not read them correctly. It’s a known issue.

Here’s an example from Wikipedia, I won’t post Thai script, only transliteration of how it would be read. First line in Pali Sanskrit, second in modern Pali:

arahaṃ sammāsambuddho bhagavā
arahang sammasamphuttho phakhawa

The advantage of the second line is that every Thai speaker can read it right away without any training but it looks very different from the original. “Bha” has been replaced with “pha”, “d” and “dh” with “t” and “th”, “ṃ” with “ng”, but what is not immediately obvious is that long “ā” has been lost, too, and become short “a” instead.

Here’s another common prayer, this time I’ll post only Thai:

นโม ตสฺส ภควโต อรหโต สมฺมาสมฺพุทฺธสฺส
นะโม ตัสสะ ภะคะวะโต อะระหะโต สัมมาสัมพุทธัสสะ

Second, modern Pali version, has a lot of “ะ” which force the explicit “a” vowel and that’s how they solve one of the problems.

Consonant clusters are not as common in Pali as they are in Sanskrit but “sva” I mentioned earlier is very very popular and pronounced as “sawa” even if written correctly.

Pali has the advantage of being primarily oral and, more importantly, inviolable as language of liturgy, so monks can force what they think is correct pronunciation regardless of Thai rules, while people will learn to read it as they first heard it. Every Thai household has a book, a brochure, or a leaflet with these prayers somewhere around and they read them just as they heard the monks recite them.

I haven’t seen any enthusiasm among devotees for adapting these method, however. Nor will it sound anything close to what the rest of ISKCON devotees would expect.

Some new alternative

Our existing Bhagavad Gita is the obvious example here but the process would be the same anyway. New sounds (bha, sha etc) need to be taught and need to be indicated in the transliterated text. In English diacritic marks are used in printed books but almost never when devotees write or type themselves. So, if we introduce some new markings not easily available people won’t use them. In English it results in no difference between na and ṇa or śa and ṣa – it’s always na and sha, but in Thai there will be no difference between bha and pha and that wouldn’t sound right to an average ISKCON ear so new markings need to be not only taught in the pronunciation guide but also be usable.

For consonant clusters – Thai language has a character called Yamakkan to indicate beginning of the cluster but it is not included in common keyboard layouts and so impossible to use. The idea was that Pinthu, which is on every Thai keyboard, serves the purpose just as well.

I don’t know how correct pronunciation of final consonants can be enforced or indicated. One would just have to state in the pronunciation guide the rule that their sound never changes and hope people don’t forget to follow it while otherwise reading the text in their familiar way.

Inherent vowels can be made explicit and there are ways to achieve it in ordinary Thai, one of them is adding “ะ” after every consonant like the example above.

Here’s my analysis of the transliteration method in the existing Bhagavad Gita:

New sounds – bha, gha etc are taken care of by adding Pinthu or Nikkhahit above or below the consonant – wherever there’s space left. Ś and ṣ are not represented, however, and soft “ch” is used instead. Thus, the word “cakṣur” has the same ช for both “c” and “ṣ” – ชัคชุร. Same “cha” – ช is used in Kṛṣṇa as well whereas Thai word for Kṛṣṇa has “s” sound (but correct Pali Sanskrit ษ letter). “Va” vs “wa” is not mentioned.

Because Nikkhahit is being used to indicate “h” in “bha” group of sounds there’s no letter to indicate “ṁ” left so it’s simple “m” instead.

Consonant clusters are not indicated (partly because Pinthu has also been used for adding “h” to “bha” instead of its usual role) and so people would, reportedly, read kṣetre in dharmakṣetre as “ka-shetre”, or even “ka-chetre”.

Final consonants are not enforced so the word “cakṣur” would be read as “chakachun” (but with softer “ch” than in English).

Final ‘ḥ” is indicated by “ฮ”, which appears to be correct, but without giving the rule about its pronunciation it would be read as “ho” so that we have “māmakāhO pāṇḍavāś caiva” or “mucyante sarva-kilbiṣaihO”. It’s never used in this way in Thai but “ho” would be the expected sound at the end of words.

Inherent vowels are indicated properly – “man-manā” is มัน-มะนา. The way they are indicated differs for the first and second “a”, however. Long “ā” at the end is indicated by “า” so that’s been taken care of, too.

Regarding acceptance by the public – the first issue people notice is that spelling of “Krishna” is different from Thai, both modern or Pali Sanskrit (which have almost no difference between them). When someone asked about it on Pantip.com, the largest discussion board in Thailand, the answer was that Thai language still uses original Sanskrit but in our Bhagavad Gita it’s a transliteration from English – which is not the effect our books are supposed to produce. Beyond that, it needs to be investigated how an inquisitive Thai person will read transliterated ślokas after reading the supplied pronunciation guide (which explains only the production of “bha” sounds and not much else). Thai devotees have grown fond of this method, however, and do not see the need for any changes.

The prospects of adopting this method for the internet are bleak – because Pinthu and Nikkhahit are used in a way different from ISO standard for Thai language and any parsing software treats these combinations as invalid typing errors. How it displays these errors varies by exact combination and digital platform. On one end of the spectrum Chrome hides them all, on the other end iPhones and Apple software almost always  display them as clear errors. Typing these combinations is impossible on iPhones, possible on Android, and tricky on Windows – to produce “Prabhupada” one would need to type “PrabUHpada” and so enter symbols that go above and below “b” in a reversed order. They would still display as errors on iPhones, though. This is regardless of fonts or of whether it’s a website, an app, or an e-book – it’s considered an error on the level of the text parser itself.

Another consideration is that if we propose a new, non-traditional transliteration method people won’t be able to read our text online if they don’t have access to printed pronunciation guide. Traditional methods, on the other hand, everyone can google on the internet.

Finally, my personal opinion is that we should present 100% accurate Sanskrit transliteration and then leave it to people to raise their own pronunciation to this standard if they want.to. Robbing them of the opportunity to ever read Sanskrit correctly seems unfair. This has been done in English and it’s even easier to implement in Thai because it’s already present in the language itself. Not preserving 100% accuracy would also go against the spirit of “as it is” in the name of our Bhagavad Gita.

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Vanity thought #1683. Breath of Narayana

These days it’s very popular to rely on Sanskrit dictionaries to understand finer meanings of ślokas from Bhagavad Gītā and other scriptures. Everyone thinks he has the ability to check the translations before putting trust in the ācāryas. How does that work, exactly?

There are tons of English translations of Bhagavad Gītā and they come from a variety of sources. If one speaks some other language besides English there’s a good chance that there’s a variety of translations into that language straight from Sanskrit, too, bypassing English. In the end one can sit and look at about dozen different readings of the same verse and carefully compare them to select the best one. Do it with one verse, do with another, and pretty soon you’ll get a good picture of which translations can be trusted, which are more to your taste, which are more “authentic”, which are more academic or more devotional, or cultish. A couple of days of such “studies” and you can call yourself an expert.

When someone brings up some Gītā topic you can easily recall these different interpretations and if there are any discrepancies you can argue that your selected version is the best and any other reading is inferior. You can single out some words and refer to online Sanskrit dictionaries to argue that any other translation is biased. Take “paripraśnena” from BG 4.34, for example. In Prabhupāda’s translation it’s “submissive inquiries” but the word submissive is missing from dictionaries. Gotcha, right?

This is a very advanced case of arrogance that can’t be answered easily. First of all, a dictionary does not help in translation as much as one would hope. There are nuances of meanings that might not have direct equivalents in foreign language and there are cultural differences, too. Straightforward translation is “asking questions about something” but there could be many ways questions are typically asked. There are disciples asking their gurus, children asking their mothers, servants asking their masters, husbands asking their wives, and there are journalists asking politicians and politicians asking each other. There are students asking teachers and students questioning dogmas.

If one comes from a vaiśṇava tradition and tries to convey the meaning to a westerner than adding “submissive” to stress that it should not be “challenging” is perfectly appropriate. Up until not very long ago “challenging” was not the way questions had been asked in the west, too, but nowadays challenging has become the norm, even if expressed respectfully. For modern people “question” is associated with “question everything and demand logical answers” but in spiritual inquiries we can’t comprehend the true meaning of rather simple answers for years. Unlike modern people we do not see ourselves as perfect recipients of wisdom ready to judge our teachers before they even finished talking because we already have figured it all out.

Besides that, what authority do dictionaries have anyway? Who compiled them and how? Modern people simply assume that dictionaries are correct without giving it a second thought. “Academics”, they say, but what does it mean?

In reality some Englishmen went to India and studied local languages from natives. Some pundits taught them Sanskrit, too. Armed with this rudimentary knowledge they tried to read scriptures and constructed their own understanding of what they all mean. Based on this understanding they noticed how familiar words were used in different contexts and so they thought they were ready to compile a dictionary. It wasn’t a translation of a transcendental vision but a description that would have made sense to a Britisher. That’s where we come to the breath of Nārāyaṇa thing.

Original Vedic sound was not meant to describe common items made of matter and relationships between them. It’s the language of transcendence, coming to us from the spiritual world. Our material elements arranged themselves under the influence of this vibration and so they are not direct equivalents but rather poor imitations of the original. It’s like tracks of ice skaters which do not fully convey the beauty of their dance but you can get a general idea that first they were in this corner and then when to that corner and then they rotated for a while in this spot. In case of Sanskrit, however, we have never ever seen the ice skaters, all we have is matter shaken up in various forms. We can learn the words left and right and turn around but we’ll never have a clue about the real beauty of the transcendental dance.

English academics might have put a lot of work into compiling and updating their dictionaries but it was all done through academic studies. To really understand the Vedic literature one must serve a proper guru, too. Without that component they never have had actual spiritual realizations so all they have is an empty carcass devoid of life. How can we accept them as an authority on spiritual inquiry then? It doesn’t make sense.

Why do they ignore numerous injunctions in the Vedas to go and serve your guru with full faith and devotion? This faith, coupled with faith in śāstra, will automatically reveal the spiritual import of Vedic literature. It’s very simple, isn’t it? Why don’t they try?

Because they don’t want to. They are studying Vedas not to learn anything but to appear learned, to please their own egos and to cement their own position as prominent scholars. The objective goal of their inquiries is self-gratification, not self-realization and so they get appropriate results.

There’s another aspect to “breath of Nārāyaṇa” concept – the Lord is the source of every bit of knowledge in this world and everything we ever learn is coming from Him. Why do we have contradictions then? Because they reflect our different relationships with Him.

His devotees stay faithful to His message and they interpret His words to increase their devotion. Those inimical to the Lord, however, add another flavor to the meanings and screw out different interpretations. We never get Kṛṣṇa’s words straight out of His mouth, they always come to us through somebody. Even the texts themselves are the product of Śrīla Vyāsadeva’s work, and He didn’t hear the Bhagavad Gītā directly either, only Arjuna did. Sañjaya might have been faithful to the message heard but he was speaking in front of Dhṛtarāṣṭra so some modifications must have been made on topics sensitive to his master, no matter how principled brāhmaṇa he had been. Some other people compiled Vyāsa’s Mahābhārata into classic Sanskrit and there are still slight differences in the current texts so someone must have left their own input. In our tradition we trust the intermediaries between us and Kṛṣṇa but that cannot be said about advaitins or academics.

In those traditions they interpret Kṛṣṇa’s words to fit their world view and express their relationships with the Lord – those of enmity, for example. Whatever Kṛṣṇa says, they are not going to surrender themselves to His will and would rather stress other verses spoken by the Lord. This attitude leaves its impression on their translations and that’s how we come to discrepancies – it’s a reflection of people’s different desires vis-à-vis the Lord.

And where did these desires come from? Forced on them by the modes of nature. When Kali yuga came Lord Śiva volunteered to help with giving people atheist philosophy, too, which led us to Ramakrishna and then Vivekananda who popularized this interpretation of Hinduism in the West. Western materialism had its own roots dictated by its own historical conditions, too.

At the end of the day – everything comes from the Lord and this world dances according to His will, producing a variety of the phenomena, some nice, some ugly, some pleasing, some frightening, some devotional and some academic. To increase our devotion we should seek parts of the world where devotional sentiments are prevailing and avoid those parts that are controlled by the lower modes. That’s all there is to it, really.

Vanity thought #1329. The way of Bhagavata

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.

Vanity thought #1328. Divine language

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.

Vanity thought #1327. Evolution of Sanskrit

Generally, this is one of the least comfortable subjects for me, and not simply because I know next to nothing about it but because Sanskrit is supposed to be perfect and complete, as the word itself implies, so how can we speak about the evolution here?

Truthfully, we shouldn’t, but it’s unavoidable if we ever pay attention to what modern scholars say about it.

In the beginning of our lives as devotees everything is simple. Sanskrit is the language of the spiritual world and it’s written in a script of the demigods – Devanagari. As we try to learn more about it, however, the picture becomes significantly more complicated.

Now we have to contend with existence of at least two forms of Sanskrit – Vedic and Classical, and Devanagari first appeared only a few centuries ago and it probably has nothing to do with demigods. What a disappointment.

A couple of days ago I mentioned that inscriptions called “Aśoka’s edicts” were written in Brahmi script, one of the precursors of Devanagari. Generally, it’s accepted that these are the earliest examples of Brahmi but they aren’t very old at all, 300 BC at the earliest. Brahmi later “evolved” into a number of regional scripts and some 1500 years later Devanagari emerged.

That’s a clear example of evolution here. What I assumed was the language of Gods has very humble earthly origins, and the first usage was done by Buddhists, too.

This takes a certain aura of sacredness away from the language. It means that Devanagari representation of Kṛṣṇa’s name or the mahāmantra is no different from writing it down in English or any other language. On one level we already know it’s non-different but we were also told about importance of Sanskrit but, apparently, it doesn’t matter when it comes to written representation.

We can only say that Lord Caitanya and our ācāryas used Devanagari but then Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote in English and his books have proven spiritual potency even when mahāmantra and Kṛṣṇa’s names are spelled using all kinds of world alphabets.

The spoken Sanskrit doesn’t suffer in the same way but it has its own evolution, too, and I’m not sure it evolves in the right direction. Let me explain.

Ṛg Veda is widely believed to be the oldest Vedic text and it’s written in what is now called Vedic Sanskrit. Well, it isn’t written per se but you know what I mean. Other Vedas and accompanying scriptures up to Upaniṣads are composed in Vedic Sanskrit, too. Then we had Pāṇini who introduced the school of grammar most widely used until today. That was an evolution of sorts.

Pāṇini’s wasn’t the first grammar either, he had mentioned nine grammarians preceding him and another famous grammarian of that age, Yaska, mentioned several more. Some of them clearly had very different ideas how Sanskrit grammar was supposed to work, ie they belonged to different schools.

It’s easy to talk about schools of grammar this way but think about it what it means – do we have any equivalent to this in English or any other contemporary language? I don’t think so. We have rules, we have dictionaries and spellings, and it’s all more or less uniform all across the world. How can we have different schools of grammar when talking about English? It’s inconceivable. Yet it’s possible in Sanskrit. How?

First thing we need to remember here is that Sanskrit is not an ordinary language. It doesn’t have rules, norms, and vocabulary which we can pick up by observing Sanskrit speakers. We can’t work it out, so to speak, like children work out the language of their surrounding culture, and it’s not simply because Sanskrit is a “dead” language like Latin that no one speaks anymore, it’s because Sanskrit is not meant to describe material phenomena.

It’s not the language that comes from describing the world so that we can see something new and choose a word to represent this object or action and gradually everyone else might adopt this new word and its meaning. Sanskrit words already have meanings, we just don’t know what they really are. We only know the objects and actions that are usually described by Sanskrit words. Sanskrit words had meanings even before there appeared objects to describe and so in each and every case we can only deal with approximations. We can only guess and never really know.

That’s why we can have several schools of grammar at the same time – they are just different ways to make sense of how Sanskrit really works and what it really means. We should also accept the fact that the exact meaning and exact rules will never be known at all.

The reason is quite simple – Sanskrit comes to us from the spiritual world and so unless liberated we will never be able to fully understand it as it is used there.

In every day use by millions and millions of people Sanskrit had to become more practical and people had to agree on words to describe their experiences and this need gave the rise to several Prakrits – adaptations of Sanskrit by general public. Aśoka’s edicts are written in Prakrit, btw, they are not in Sanskrit, neither Vedic nor classical.

Classical Sanskrit is the one that follows rules described by Pāṇini. His grammar laid out rules of forming words and sentences currently accepted by everybody and as a result not only we can have uniform understanding of the scriptures but we can also produce Sanskrit sentences ourselves and be confident that we will be understood by everyone else.

This is where I say that I’m not sure that Sanskrit evolution goes in the right direction. Before accepting universal grammar Sanskrit was the language of the Absolute but now it is used by everybody to express their everyday thoughts and experiences, and there’s nothing sacred about them. Universal grammar made Sanskrit not only universal but also mundane and who needs that?

Of course it also enabled our ācāryas to write books for devotees to follow but the rest of the modern Sanskrit literature is just garbage that brings no pleasure to Kṛṣṇa whatsoever. What kind of evolution is that and do we really need it? I’m not sure.

If I learned Sanskrit, for example, I would still have nothing to say but I would surely try and write something in it, thus contributing to the ocean of useless thoughts and sentiments.

Looking at Sanskrit from this angle it could be said that Pāṇini didn’t simply lay out a comprehensive grammar but he stopped further corruption of Sanskrit into Prakrit. An important achievement but less impressive when compared to the divine nature of the original language. That nature is gone now, it was untouchable but by internalizing Sanskrit we’ve contaminated it with our mundane vision of the world. We made purely spiritual language appear as part of the illusion.

Bearing this in mind, the best and really the only way to learn Sanskrit should be from books like Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī’s Hari-Namāmṛta-Vyākaraṇa, a book on Sanskrit grammar that links all the technical terms to their original spiritual meanings which are always in connection to Kṛṣṇa. I don’t know how practical that book is, though, I only like the idea.

Vanity thought #1308. Nam-e

Some insist on making the difference between the name and the person it refers to, between nāma and nāme. It’s a subject I feel utterly confused by. We are always told how Kṛṣṇa and His name are no different but the arguments for the difference are compelling, too.

If there was no difference then gopīs, for example, wouldn’t be able to talk about Kṛṣṇa without making Him immediately appear. Forget the years when Kṛṣṇa left Vṛndāvana, it would have been very inconvenient for making their usual secret plans. I mean they talk about Kṛṣṇa all the time but still have to go and meet Him in person, how could it be possible if there was absolutely no difference between Him and His name?

Or how about this. Gopīs meet Kṛṣṇa, somehow one of them utters His name, does it mean that the second Kṛṣṇa immediately pops up out of nowhere? Of course not. From all we know about life in Vṛndāvana, Kṛṣṇa Himself and the sound of His name are not one and the same, they act pretty much like in the material world, nāma and nāme are clearly different.

So what about the basic tenet of our philosophy then? Perhaps the difference is there but it makes no practical difference for us. In our conditioned state the name has enough power to accomplish whatever is necessary and nuances start to matter only in the spiritual world. I haven’t seen any of our ācāryas explain this matter so there might be another explanation, it’s a bit confusing, as I said.

I remembered this subject, however, when reading the currently most commented article on Dandavats. One devotee wrote about corruption of Rāma into Rāmo during kīrtanas. As far as I can see, everybody does that. There’s also the point that Śrīla Prabhupāda once interrupted such kīrtana and asked “Who is this Ramo?” There’s also the argument that while Rāmo might be a popular pronunciation in Bengal the mahāmantra is not Bengali but Sanskrit one. If it says Rāma in Sanskrit then that’s what we should sing.

Still, everybody does that, I can’t imagine we all got it wrong, including devotees who are quite strict about unauthorized mantras.

As far as I can remember, there are two counterarguments. One time Śrīla Prabhupāda said that pronunciation doesn’t really matter because Kṛṣṇa knows who we are calling.

Right, yes, He knows we are calling Rāmo, question is – does He know who that is?

This counterargument is totally unacceptable to me. It implies that we sing from the heart and our hearts are pure and so there’s no one but Kṛṣṇa there. No matter what we say, our sincerity will always evoke only Kṛṣṇa Himself.

That’s not how vaidhī bhakti works at all.

For any sincere practitioner on the stage of vaidhī bhakti it should be clear that our hearts are full of anarthas and cannot be trusted. We accept external instructions as superior, not the other way around.

“Kṛṣṇa knows” argument basically says that our hearts are pure and absolute and we can do no wrong while the instructions of guru-sādhu-śāstra are relative and subject to interpretation according to time, place, and circumstances. Quite a hellish attitude to possess.

Yesterday I mentioned that Śrīla Prabhupāda once stopped an extravagant kīrtana and said that it was simply singing for sex life, the infamous “Hari Bowl” competition in Māyāpura. I remember Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī making a similar comment, too.

Perhaps Kṛṣṇa knows who that “Rāmo” is – the god of subtle sex enjoyment! Maybe there’s no such god at all but it works – whoever sings his name gets fame and adoration as an expert kīrtanīyā and tons of female admirers.

Another argument for “Rāmo”, or at least against strict “Rāma”, is pronunciation. Śrīla Prabhupāda might not have sung Rāmo but he often pronounced only Rām, without the last “a”. As far as we, his followers are concerned, this should be accepted as legitimate. Can we explain it, however?

Hare Kṛṣṇa mahāmantra is said to have 32 syllables, if we cut the last “a” in Rāma we would also cut four syllables from the mantra and it should greatly reduce its potency. For all we know about Sanskrit, we have no freedom to mess with mantras and mistakes can lead to very unexpected and unwelcome results.

The only thing that comes to mind is that last “a” might not count as absolutely necessary to form a syllable. Unlike in English, syllables are not counted strictly by vowels in Sanskrit and a consonant might count as a syllable even if not explicitly followed by a vowel, I don’t know enough to state this with any confidence, though. “M” at the end of Rām is also last in the group of labial consonants, meaning that it can be made with lips closed, meaning you can make the sound without letting air out and thus producing a vowel anyway – looks like a syllable on its own to me.

Some say that if you listen to Prabhupāda’s chanting very carefully you’ll notice that there’s always a short “a” at the end of what initially appears as “Rām”. I don’t know, I haven’t tried myself. With these tests people tend to hear what they want to hear anyway, their brains automatically adjusting raw information coming from the senses.

Another part of the “pronunciation” argument is that everybody does it, it’s only an accent, and, in one case, someone said that Indians say “Devki” instead of “Devaki” and therefore this is correct. I beg to differ, we are not obliged to follow Indians in these matters, we are not Hindus.

Lord Caitanya made fun of East Bengali pronunciation, for example, it’s not sacred. We don’t even know His own accent because it has likely been corrupted through time, and there’s no one Bengali accent anyway, among the variations it’s impossible to say which one is authoritative as far as mantras are concerned.

As for the rest of Indians – they don’t speak Sanskrit, they have corrupted it first into Prakrit and later into Hindi. It’s safer to assume that whatever their pronunciation is, it’s NOT how the words were supposed to be pronounced originally. Hindi might be infinitely closer to Sanskrit than English but it’s still a different language so we can’t insist on accepting Hindi pronunciation of Sanskrit words just as we don’t insist on English “name” instead of Sanskrit “nāma” – clearly the same word.

By corrupted I don’t mean changing only the pronunciation but all sorts of corruption that happens when one deviates from unalloyed devotional service, which was well hidden even from Sanskrit purists. It’s not just the language they corrupted, it’s the service to the Lord, and therefore it should be unacceptable to us.

Śrīla Prabhupāda said lots of good things about Indian culture but it’s still only somewhere half way between our total degradation and Śrīla Prabhupāda himself as a pure devotee. They are better than us but not as good as our ācāryas, any lessons we take from them must be taken with a grain of salt and run against the standards set by our sampradāya.

So, is it okay to chant “Rāmo”? I think not, but as long as we are not doing it to impress others it would not be the end of the world. Is it okay to chant “Rām”? I think it should be generally acceptable, following Prabhupāda’s example is the safest way for us and he, apparently, sometimes said “Rām”.

Vanity thought #1057. A Piece of PIE

Ukrainian conflict got back into the news over the weekend, apparently Ukrainian army scored a major victory and captured some key cities while Russians say that all their fighters got out safely and were freed from being tied to defending the indefensible.

This is a mysterious conflict that can only be explained by Kali Yuga – these people share the same history, they worship the same gods, speak the same language, and yet now they are at each other’s throats. Official line of thought is that it’s murderous, Hitler-like Putin who wants to restore Soviet Union to its old borders but I don’t think general public buy into this anymore.

To understand what’s going on there one must look into region’s history, and the first look at history reveals that there’s no consensus there whatsoever. Western sources just quote local textbooks and Russian and Ukrainian versions are simply incompatible to make any conclusions with any degree of confidence.

The whole story lasted several hundred years with Austrians, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Tatars, Turks, and Russians ruling the area at one time or another. Ukrainians, naturally, view it as their struggle for independence. There are lots of dates, names, and places that one must forget even before understanding who or what they were, unless you live there and have a personal stake that somehow influences your devotional life it’s all garbage.

There is one interesting topic there, however – the ancient history of Ukraine. It doesn’t have any bearing on the current events but listen to this – Ukrainians claim that they are the original Aryans who then spread all over the world, including India.

To fully appreciate the impact of that statement – they are convinced that Noah, Jesus, and even Buddha were originally Ukrainians. Obviously they weren’t born in Ukraine but they were born in the families of Ukrainian descent, the true Aryans.

With Buddha they argue that while the word itself means “enlightened” he wasn’t the only one called “Buddha” in the family and that tells us that the name indicates their family origins rather than achievements. There are several possible locations where Buddha’s family might have emigrated from: Seredyna-Buda or Budy, or Budi, take your pick.

With Jesus they argue that Galilee was a place inhabited by emigrants from Galicia, the heartland of the modern Ukrainian nationalistic movement. They also say that he was blue eyed, tall, blond, and muscular, like Ukrainians are, and that before dying he spoke a strange language that was actually Ukrainian.

Ancient Ukrainians are also the ones who invented the wheel, fire, and taught Egyptians to build pyramids.

What is truly amazing is that it might actually be true.

Current theory is that Sanskrit and Aryans were people of PIE – Proto-Indo-Europeans, they had their language, culture and religion that then spread all over the world. Most popular location for these PIE people is not far from Ukraine, in the vicinity of Volga River in Russia, and Ukraine was probably the first place they migrated to.

Ukraine has the remnants of the same Kurgan culture, huge burial mounds left by PIE people, it’s just a matter of whose kurgans were built earlier.

Language wise it should be noted that Jesus in all languages but English begins with sounds “i” or “y”, not “j”, and so “Yesus” sounds close to Ukrainian/Russian “Yasny”, which means bright and clear, or Sanksrit “Yaśa”, which means fame and reputation, which is supposed to be spotless, I guess.

Ukrainian Budy or Budi means “wake up”, “awaken”, which is so close to “enlightenment” it’s uncanny.

For arm chair etymologist like me it’s pretty clear that all those languages came from the same source, and aryans riding chariots is not an unfamiliar image either (hint – cover of Bhagavad Gīta).

Doesn’t it contradict our view that Sanskrit was the original language and India was the birthplace of Aryans? Not at all, there is plenty of leeway for compromise here.

First of all, I saw Śrila Prabhupāda himself talking about Iran as the land of Aryans, that’s what everyone else accepts now, too, but it doesn’t mean origin of Aryans for us and it doesn’t mean origin of Aryans for historians either. We say the culture was spread all over the world since time immemorial, which means for millions and millions of years.

When Ukrainians talk about Aryans living there in ancient times they are absolutely right, it simply doesn’t mean that Aryans originated there. It could also be possible for those proto-Ukrainians, or Proto-Russians, whoever claims to be the first, to spread from there to Iran, Europe, Turkey etc. Should not bother us.

I think it’s reasonable to accept that Aryan culture deteriorated unevenly across the world and that it’s possible that there were movements from one dying Aryan country to another and that there were local religions and languages sprouting in different places that grew isolated from each other.

What about relationships between this PIE and Vedas? I think that we should remember that “Vedas” is a relatively recent invention – Kali Yuga started five thousand years ago, it took time for Śrīla Vyāsadeva to notice deterioration of people’s memory, get down to work of dividing Vedas, pass them on to his disciples for development, and get everything eventually written down. Considering that Vyāsadeva is immortal and sages working on Vedas do not die easily either, a thousand or two thousand years is no big deal, which is when historians think Vedas first made their entrance.

That was an important point, of course, because it cast Vedas in stone, so to speak, but it doesn’t mean that language used by Aryans for thousand years prior to that was exactly the same. Sanskrit wasn’t the same before Panini’s grammar, no one denies that. Written form requires written rules, and we also know that Sanskrit wasn’t the language used by general population then, for general purposes there was Prakrit, and so who is to say that PIE people didn’t speak Prakrit, too, so that modern languages’ roots come from Prakrit and not from Sanskrit proper. We don’t even know what Sanskrit was like before written Vedas, don’t forget that.

Come to think of it, if Sanskrit was used for transmitting transcendental knowledge then it didn’t have to be fixed – English works just fine for us, for example. If it was used for conducting ceremonies and sacrifices we can’t be sure that in previous eras same mantras could have been far more sophisticated and sounded differently then those written down by Vyāsadeva for usage in Kali Yuga. It’s not the form that is important, after all, it’s whether language serves its purpose or not. Possibility of minor differences that do not affect the outcome should not freak us out.

Yes, there are examples of one little change in pronunciation completely changing results of a yajña but that doesn’t mean that brāhmaṇas who knew their craft inside out didn’t have multiple ways to achieve same results. Uniformity is very useful for us, people of Kali Yuga, because we have no clue what we are actually saying and just hope that our sounds carry real power, but those who called demigods to appear before them on a daily basis could have easily done that in different ways and make no mistakes at all.

The most important point, however, is that our spiritual progress depends on our performance NOW and not on authenticity of our roots. We know our method works regardless of where Aryans lived ten thousand years ago. We don’t need to trace our roots back to them or to anyone else. Lord Caitanya is as far back in history as we ever need to look.

Many of us, and especially Indians, are very eager to prove supremacy of Vedic culture but ask yourself – why should it change anything in the way we practice devotional service now? It would make us feel safer and more confident but those are not really spiritual arguments. Our progress does not depend on what we do or do not know, it depends on our sincerity and simplicity. And we already know more than enough, so searching through history does not help us at all. It’s still a fascinating subject, though, can’t stop myself.

I’ll leave with the painting of Russian version of their Vedic times, there’s a whole series of those here:

Vanity thought #968. Mistranslation

Every now and then a scary thought goes through my head – what if Śrila Prabhupāda indeed mistranslated some of the verses, what if our understanding of Vedic literature is totally wrong?

It’s a silly thought, of course, one that can easily be chased away, but it’s persistent. We can say that Śrila Prabhupāda is in agreement with our previous ācāryas and that this is the proof that his translations are good, but this can bring a string of objections of its own.

Vedic world is very big, it accommodates all sorts of views and everybody is convinced in his own interpretations of the truth. There are yogīs, there are māyāvādīs, there are worshipers of Śiva, and even among the vaiṣṇavas there is a great variety of views. What if we are wrong and they are right?

This thought doesn’t come on its own but is usually triggered by seeing something in translations that looks like it could be interpreted in a different way. There are people who specialize in finding faults in Prabhupāda’s translations, they can point great many “mistakes” very easily. I won’t repeat their exact allegations here but generally they have something to do with introducing “Supreme Personality of Godhead”, or “devotional service”, or “devotees” in verses that do not have such terms directly.

If sometimes I see a verse that talks about loving relationship between the Lord and His devotees but none of these words are actually in the verse I might have a moment of doubt. It’s not coming from my head but is a reaction to something I see (or don’t see) in Prabhupāda’s translation. This makes it look as if I am blaming him and not myself for my apparent lack of faith but actually I’m just pointing out the trigger of the problem, and it’s not Prabhupāda, it’s my assumptions of what would construe a correct translation. If these expectations are not met, I might have a reaction.

So the answer to this problem is to adjust my attitude, not for BBT to re-edit the books even further.

The attitude, the undue expectations, come from misunderstanding of what our books actually are. Everybody says they are translations of Bhagavad Gītā or Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, everybody calls them translations including ourselves and various scholars whose quotes we put on the jackets.

This is wrong. Prabhupāda’s books are not translations, not in the common sense of the word.

When ordinary people talk about translations they assume that there’s a source, which is perfect, and there’s the translation of that source in another language which is NOT the original and cannot maintain one hundred percent fidelity even in theory.

Next assumption is that by studying different translations and critically comparing them one can understand the source in full, exactly as it was intended. According to this logic the more different translations you read, the better you understand, the close you come to the original. You also get to see weaknesses and strengths of each and every translation which by then clearly become inferior to the source AND to your own understanding.

When we use words like “transparent medium” we are not helping here because the purpose of such critical study is to find imperfections and see how each medium is less than transparent – we practically invite criticism, and no medium can’t be fully transparent even in theory. Transparency itself is achieved through numbers – the more mediums you have, the more imperfections you can isolate and remove from your understanding, the clearer it becomes.

Another aspect of this approach is that translator is presumed to be a mere helper, the actual truth and knowledge lie only at the source, you need to understand the source and after that translation becomes unnecessary and even distracting.

For this reason people assume that reading Sanksrit eliminates the need for translation, one can access the source directly and then interpret it for anyone who is interested. I’ve never seen an excess of modesty in such interpreters, they are always accompanied by a thick fog of superiority and unquestionable confidence in their abilities. They are not meant to be challenged, they have read the originals, they know the truth.

All this is completely natural and logical, that’s how our western knowledge acquisition works and actually it’s pretty uniform across the whole materialistic world.

From the Vedic POV, however, it should be already clear that these assumptions about the role of translators are wrong and should be avoided.

In a sense one should always be on the lookout for translating errors but our default mode should be complete and unquestionable trust in the words of our guru.

Yes, there’s a corpus of Vedic literature that our guru draws upon but, spiritually speaking, for us it does not exist. Our guru is our only eye and our only ear to perceive Vedic wisdom. He is not the translator and he is not the interpreter, he speaks the truth directly.

He is not a medium to understand something else – there’s nothing there for us to understand but the words of our guru. When we say that guru is a transparent medium it doesn’t mean it’s a medium for us to reach the Supreme, it’s a medium for the Supreme to reach to us. It’s not bidirectional in this sense.

We naturally assume that translation approximates the original but the words of our guru are complete and perfect on its own, we do not read translations to understand Bhagavad Gītā, we read them to understand translations themselves. Bhagavad Gītā might mean this or it might mean that, we would never know, we only know how our guru presents it and HIS presentation is true while our own understanding is false.

We assume that if we could read Sanskrit we wouldn’t have a need for translations anymore but no one can approach the Supreme directly – Bhagavad Gītā is non-different from the Lord, just as Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is Lord’s manifestation, too – we cannot read and try to comprehend them on our own, without a guru. It will always lead to a wrong understanding as a matter of principle.

Scriptures must be heard from a guru. If he uses language other than Sanskrit then technically we can call it a translation but spiritually it isn’t. Spiritual potency of our books does not depend on external language they are presented in. There’s no such thing as translation of spirit, it never changes, it cannot be transformed and it does not depend on the material medium.

So, when we say “translation” we must remember that it appears as such only on a material platform while the spiritual potency and spiritual transmission of knowledge is completely independent from external appearance and external separation of the “original” and the “translation”.

Moreover, transmission of spiritual potency does not depend on the accuracy of translation but on purity of our guru and our devotion. Śrila Prabhupāda might write completely outrageous things in his translations but accepting his words as that of the Supreme would give us spiritual knowledge while sticking to dictionaries and ordinary correctness will give us nothing of spiritual value.

Not to mention that this idea of “I need a guru only until I learn to read Sanskrit myself” is decidedly māyāvādīan. We should shut our ears and scream Kṛṣṇa’s names to drown out such an evil voice in our heads.

That’s why these doubts are so scary – giving in to them might lead to a spiritual suicide. So far the best way I see to deal with them is to understand where they come from and how they are fundamentally wrong. We should not treat Prabhupāda’s books as ordinary translations, they work in a completely different way

Vanity thought #854. Reason to rhyme

I was wondering why almost all Vedic literature is in the form of poetry. Not all of it rhymes but all of it adheres to some kind of meter. Actually, the best kind of poetry does not have to rhyme, too, and in that sense Vedic literature might be a lot more sophisticated than appears on the surface.

Without knowing Sanskrit we can’t appreciate it, sadly, but properly composed verses have so many characteristics that Western poetry doesn’t stand a chance. I think. There was an article on Dandavats where some devotee demonstrated how he composed a verse glorifying Srila Prabhupada according to the rules of Cakra-bandha. It’s impressive, to say the least. Now think of kavis who could blabber off hundreds of such verses on the spot without the help of any kind of diagrams or visual aids.

This should give a deeper meaning to sundarim kavitam rejected in siksashtaka, we just don’t know how attractive it could be, lucky us. For us the equivalent could be giving up composing Twitter messages or texting, if we appreciate squeezing our thoughts into short, concise statements, or giving up facebooking if we just love talking and appearing smart.

It’s this push to comply with the rules what interests me today, however. Proper poetry is extremely expressive, just as intelligently constructed tweets, but very very few people can master such skill. Srila Prabhupada, for example, didn’t even try to write in meter though he did compose poems before coming to the West.

The problem is that, in general, prose is far more descriptive and precise. Even if you manage to pack all the shades of the situation in verse most people will fail to extract them back, something will always be lost. First it will be lost when you encode your message to follow the rules of poetry, then something will be lost when people fail to decode the original meaning.

Why bother at all, then?

Srila Rupa Goswami was composing his first plays for months, maybe longer than a year, and when he left Puri for Bengal he still wasn’t finished. Maybe later he mastered a way to write books faster but it’s safe to assume that simply telling the stories in prose would always be better. Or maybe stories of Krishna’s pastimes can’t be told in prose, for originally every step there is a dance and every word is a song.

Okay, but what about Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami? In Chaitanya Charitamrita he was describing events that didn’t look so poetic in real life, yet the entire book is poetry, and a very beautiful one at that. When native Bengalis recite Chaitanya Charitamrita it sounds so sweet no westerner can copy them ever. Yet it often deals with topics where simple narration would have suited better. Was it justified? Was something lost when putting straightforward description to verse and making them rhyme? All Chaitanya Charitamrita verses rhyme, btw, which is not the case with Bhagavad Gita or Srimad Bhagavatam.

Should we try to reconstruct the original situations from those verses? Should we try to find details that were discarded to fit the rules of poetry? Were there any such details?

I think it would be a fascinating mental exercise. Srila Prabhupada’s translations and purports are not poetic so he already did half the job, can we take it further? Can we try and reconstruct the episode with Amogha, who chided the Lord for overeating? Why not? There are many details in Krishnadasa Kaviraja’s verses that, when put together, would form a fuller picture than straightforward reading. We already do it when retelling these stories to others and it’s a totally legitimate practice, no one every complained about it.

Could it be said, then, that our reconstruction offers a better, more complete narrative than what we can see in Prabhupada’s translation and purports? After all, this is what we get when we listen to Bhagavatam classes – ever expanding, ever fresh stories of Krishna lilas. They all come from a few limited sources – Bhagavatam, purports, and Krishna Book, but the number of renditions is potentially unlimited.

There’s a danger lurking there, however. Imagine we constructed a complete picture of some episode from Chaitanya Charitamrita. We learned the context, we learned backgrounds of all the participants, we learned of their relationships and their individual aspirations, we also know how the story developed and how it ended and so we know who was right and who was wrong all along.

Then we say something like “In this verse Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja didn’t mention the fact that…” and in the end we make the whole episode look and feel somewhat different, which we call “complete”. You know, it’s poetry, can’t put every detail in the verses, right? Is it complete, though? And what does it mean to know the full story?

There were lots of people who knew the whole story as it unraveled in real life, knew it much better than any of us, but their opinions don’t matter. Why? Because we only want to know how pure devotee like Krishnadasa Kaviraja understood it. We need to know only the details and angles that increase our faith and devotion, not what somebody was wearing or how glamorous someone looked. If Krishnadasa Kaviraja didn’t include some details in this particular verse, it’s for our own benefit.

Similarly, there were many things happening in the world in Prabhupada’s time. World War II, Moon landing, the march of science, the birth of feminism etc. We can learn about them from books or, more likely, documentaries on History channel, but what is really important for us is to learn what Srila Prabhupada had to say about them. All other opinions combined don’t come even close in value to Srila Prabhupada’s observations. Of course they matter if you want to pass a test or show off your knowledge on r/AskHistorians or become a wikieditor but for our spiritual advancement they are all garbage.

Similarly, among all the renditions of Lord’s pastimes we hear in classes or in Ramayana/Mahabharata seminars only those that come from the tongues of pure devotees can really affect our lives. There are good storytellers that keep their audience captivated and enthralled but it will be of no spiritual benefit if their devotion is polluted.

Therefore I’m always skeptical about really engaging Bhagavatam classes, I’m afraid of the polluting effect of too many external, non-spiritual decorations that make someone’s speech from dull muttering into exciting storytelling. Intonation, rhythm carefully places pauses, sound effects – it all sounds nice but we listen to classes not to please our ears but to purify our souls. These two things are not mutually exclusive but there’s also no guarantee that they are always present together.

Therefore I don’t see much value in looking beyond what is said in Prabhupada’s translations and purports, especially if it changes the mood of the story.

Therefore I’d rather appreciate the sentiments Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami selected to express through meters and rhymes, for they are quintessence of devotion and not quintessence of useless descriptions.

Vanity thought #786. Frog in a well

It’s our famous metaphor to go to when appraising efforts of modern day scientists, how they can’t possibly imagine the powers of the Lord when creating and maintaining material or spiritual worlds. In our version we compare well to the ocean but we can also talk about the vastness of the sky comparing to the little portion the frog can see from the bottom.

More importantly, we can apply this metaphor to ourselves when we try to apply Vedic principles to our lives.

Obvious example is interpretation of the shastra. There are very few devotees who can read and understand Sanskrit but they immediately become stars when being asked to compare their translations with those of Srila Prabhupada. It becomes so easy for them to pontificate on nuances of meanings but usually they spoil everything right form the start: “There’s no mention of Krishna in this verse, Prabhupada added it on his own.”

They might not be critical of Srila Prabhupada in a sense that they understand his justification and accept it, but what actually happens is that they dismiss Prabhupada as one of possible interpreters, and not a very faithful one. They imply that Srila Prabhupada falsified the meanings for a good cause. How generous of them!

They don’t stop on Prabhupada either, with little knowledge of Sanskrit they question everything and everyone in our parampara. That’s what they call being “independently thoughtful”.

Then there’s a trove of literature produced by Six Goswamis. No one in our sampradaya can argue against Six Goswamis but very few can read them directly so anyone with access can easily become an authority and an “authorized representative”. By the dint of their little knowledge they claim the position of authority on what is legitimate siddhanta and what isn’t. They feel no shame in reinterpreting Goswamis and comparing their own conclusions with those of later acharyas.

They might still show outward respect to Srila Prabhupada but as far as knowledge is concerned, they don’t need him anymore. Well, that is not true, they need him as their whipping boy because they spend a lot of their time proving how he was wrong. How Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was wrong, and how Bhaktivinoda Thakura was wrong, too.

Then they generously offer a compromise – there’s no way Prabhupada would disagree with Six Goswamis, so we would do him and his movement a great service if you readjust your philosophy to fit with our views. Of course they don’t say “our views”, they say “Goswamis’ views” instead, but who appointed them to speak on their behalf? Nobody, they think that knowing little Sanskrit has qualified them already.

Well, has it?

This is where we come to “frog in a well” situation. These people can’t imagine the vast knowledge of our acharyas, they see them as ordinary humans with ordinary intellectual powers, and by ordinary they mean ordinary for this day and age. Maybe a little better, just a little, to show a semblance of respect, or actually to claim greater victory when they “defeat” our acharyas in a battle.

Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati was a radical reformer. Gaudiya Vaishnavism was redone completely – in practices, in rituals, in appearance, in everything. Considering that all traditional Gaudiya had their own quotes to justify their standards the clash of interpretations was inevitable, and this clash can be replayed over and over again. There are clear departures from Hari Bhakti Vilasa in some aspects of Gaudiya Math and ISKCON – we wear orange clothes instead of white, for example. And we do this and that differently and those things are not in Hari Bhakti Vilasa at all, and it’s all one major deviation, they say.

Well, the critics quietly walk around the fact that Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati knew Hari Bhakti Vilasa inside out, as well as scriptures and practices of other vaishnava sampradayas, and so he made his choices intelligently and in line with shastra. The critics simply do not give him this much credit, they can’t imagine the breadth and depth of his education and experience. They forget that by the time he started Gaudiya Math he was way over forty years old and he didn’t spend these years lounging about, he studied shastra and vaishnava culture all his life.

Our modern, self-appointed Sanskrit scholars have been at it for a few years only, while Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati knew Bhagavad Gita by heart at the age of seven, and lets not forget his work on Surya Siddhanta which he completed while still a teenager. Sanskrit scholars in India were a dime a dozen at that time but Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati’s erudition was exemplary even by Indian standards. Most people couldn’t comprehend his speaking even in native Bengali, so scholarly it was.

And here we have a few upstarts who claim to understand scriptures better than him and who are no shy to correct his conclusions.

Six Goswamis have written a lot of books and they had lots of books as references, too, that kind of puts them on the same footing as us, with our internet and all the literature stored in digital format, ready for scanning in mere seconds. With a setup like this we can forget how vast their memories were and how much they knew without any extraneous help.

Take Krishnadasa Kaviraja Goswami, when he wrote Chaitanya Charitamrita he was very old and was going blind, yet his book is full of quotes from all kinds of shastra. There’s no doubt he had them all in his memory rather than taking them from manuscripts. Most of the time the quotes are also ascribed to other people, not given from himself. He quotes what this person said and what other person said and he puts shastric references in their mouths.

We can wonder how Lord Chaitanya was quoting from Bhakti Rasamrita Sindhu, for example, but the fact is that Krishnadasa Kaviraja had it all in his memory one way or another.

What I mean to say is that erudition of our acharyas is unimaginable by our standards, but some of us think that with little Sanksrit we can become just like them, at least intellectually, and that we can study their thought process and spot their errors and correct them. We would know how we ourselves could have made those errors so we think acharyas were just as imperfect.

Needless to say, this is the road to hell. From well to hell, bypassing sky and oceans altogether.