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Why Is Sanskrit So Special?

Sanskrit header - Asatoma Sad Gamaya

Q: I am starting to read on the new website at the introductory section, particularly Soham Yoga, but cannot help wondering why words and sounds cannot be in our own language ( in my case English)? What is special about the words, sounds and names used that they must be in Sanskrit?

Long ago in India the science of creative sound was developed. Verbal sounds were discovered which could create desired effects when applied correctly. The meaning (if any) was only secondary. Sound was understood as one of the fundamental powers accessible to the human being. Many effects were found to be possible if the sound formulas known as mantras were correctly applied. Simply reciting an affirmation in any language cannot produce the full effects of a Sanskrit mantra.

Sanskrit is itself a mantric language, though everything need not be in Sanskrit. But there are many words which have no equivalent in other languages. Karma, samskara–even yoga for example–are necessary to express concepts that exist only in Indian philosophy. There is no branch of knowledge that does not require its own vocabulary.

Two selves

I well remember how tiresome it was in the beginning to keep looking at a glossary or dictionary when studying a text on Indian philosophy or yoga. But I persevered and it was worth the trouble, because I was able to understand concepts that simply had no equivalents or expressions in Western thought and language. For example, “Atma(n)” is always translated “Self.” A Brief Sanskrit Glossary defines it:

“Atma(n): The individual spirit or Self that is one with Brahman. The true nature or identity.”

But I grew up hearing “self” used as the equivalent of ego and egotism. “Conquer self” and “deny self” were continually used in religious context. There was even a song addressed to God that said: “May all self be slain till naught remains but Thee.” So knowing the word Atman was essential for me, even though I often use the capitalized word “Self.”

Effect and Understanding

After over half a century of working with mantras I can assure you that their form and pronunciation must be adhered to in order to gain the full, intended effect. And the many technical terms specifically coined to express the concepts of both Indian philosophy and yoga are very necessary to avoid misunderstanding and ensure a fully correct and practical understanding of those ideas.

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