Bringing a "Dead Language" Alive

by Zoë Slatoff


अभ्यासात्कादिवर्णानां यथा शास्त्राणि बोधयेत् ।
तथा योगं समासाद्य तत्त्वज्ञानं च लभ्यते ॥

abhyāsāt kādi-varṇānāṃ yathā śāstrāṇi bodhayet |
tathā yogaṃ samāsādya tattva-jñānaṃ ca labhyate ||

Just as from the repeated study of the alphabet,
One may come to understand teachings of wisdom.
So, too, by means of Yoga,
One may attain knowledge of the real truth.

- Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā 1.5

In a time when everything is continually new and we rely more and more upon machines and less upon our own minds, there is all the more value in studying a “dead language.” The traditional method of passing on texts was originally oral transmission and then as texts began to be written down on palm leaves, scribes would be hired to copy them every hundred years or so to keep them from being eaten by ants. There is tremendous value in putting pencil to paper and writing out a verse you’d like to translate, while simultaneously reciting it out loud - joining eyes and ears and understanding.

There are many reasons to study Sanskrit. One of my professors used to tell the story that one day while he was still a mathematics student, he was in the library and a Sanskrit book literally fell off the shelf and changed the course of his whole life. I, too, left my engineering degree to go to Mysore and study with Guruji, which drew me to study Sanskrit.

When I first started I had a feeling of discovering a mystery. I can remember the joy of writing out the alphabet over and over again my first trip to Mysore, similar to the first time I did sūrya namaskāra. A feeling of tapping into something special and magical. When I watch my students first learning the alphabet it is a similar feeling, it is remarkable to get to feel like a child again, as you begin to scratch the surface of a whole new language and philosophy.

The study of Sanskrit is a practice - it is a meditation, a contemplation, a way of focusing the mind. The level of concentration required creates a form of dṛṣṭi (drishti), of one-pointed attention. One becomes immersed in the sound, the meaning, the characters themselves. These days, when we can find any information we want in a moment in a Google search, the value of slow contemplation is all the more important. Reading the texts, puzzling over how to make sense of them within our modern lives, we become part of a living, breathing tradition that can help to liberate us from the mental patterns that enmesh us and lead us towards a greater freedom of living...