The Power of Prayer | The Ancient Languages of Sanskrit and Hebrew

When I was a student in Jerusalem, I learnt both modern and biblical Hebrew. I underwent the Ulpan–an intensive course designed to teach adults the language skills necessary to integrate as quickly as possible to their new environment. Language is a living, breathing, ever-changing system of communication. As you can imagine, modern Hebrew varied significantly from biblical Hebrew.

At the many Jewish holidays I’ve both celebrated and observed, I always found myself unexplainably allured by the prayers that are either spoken or sung for the various occasions. A particular Hebrew prayer that has tattooed itself in my mind is the blessing for the lighting of the Shabbat Candles. I can barely recall the English translation; but those words sung in Hebrew at sunset each Friday have engraved themselves in my memory and in my heart.

Sanskrit

I was raised in a Hindu household. Growing up, I was taught many prayers in Sanskrit. Even after living abroad for some 12 years where I was immersed in various cultures, the immortal prayers of my ancestors come back to me instantaneously as though I had never left home at all. There are some roots that no amount of time or distance can rip out.

Sanskrit is one of the three earliest ancient documented languages. It arose from a common root language now referred to as Proto-Indo-European. Today, an estimated 46% of humans speak some derivative of an Indo-European language. The most widely-spoken of which are: English, Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian.

Sanskrit’s linguistic ancestry harks back to the Aryans. Most scholars currently subscribe to the hypothesis that the original homeland of the Aryan people was somewhere in central Asia. From there, they migrated to the south and east sometime in the 2nd millennium BC.

One of the oldest surviving and dated Sanskrit palm leaf manuscripts from the Indian subcontinent (828 CE)

Whilst many Indo-European languages have their roots in Sanskrit–the modern usage of the language is largely restricted to religious ceremonies. Vedic Sanskrit, in particular, is the language used in religious hymns that were composed from early-to-mid 2000 BCE. Despite its limited use as a modern vernacular, Hindus continue to utter these same words that were immortalised millennia prior. And yet, the true meaning of these ancient words elude us; and the translations themselves don’t seem to do the original work justice.

In a world where languages that were once the lingua franca are relegated to the history pages never to be used again; how did these Sanskrit hymns survive and why do we continue to call on them when we pray?

Ancient Prayers for a Modern World

For Diwali this year, I decided to do the Sanskrit prayers for the chopda pujan myself. In the year prior, I had engaged the services of a priest to perform the prayers. Since that personally momentous occasion, I have been listening to these Sanskrit hymns and perfecting their pronunciations and slowly growing to appreciate the intricacy of the language. The ideas, philosophies and concepts embedded in a single word possess a certain depth and nuance that is difficult to translate into English.

Our ancient ancestors did not live in a world of buzzwords and endless noise on social media. To them, words were powerful and potent. They could be used to communicate directly with the divine, they could be used to evoke the entities that reside in the non physical realm, and they could be used to focus our attention on a particular intention.

The power of the spoken and written word to harness, to heal and perhaps even harm was not a responsibility to be taken lightly. As a writer, I often sheepishly stop to contemplate how much we have harmed ourselves by speaking untruths, by being duplicitous and by downright lying to others and perhaps even ourselves.

Words have the power to do that.

Lost in Translation

When I was a student in Jerusalem, I had the privilege of learning how the Tanakh Old Testament had been misconstrued and misrepresented through countless translations that have taken place since the book came into existence.

The same is true for the Vedic texts. I have read the various translations and they are at best estimations of what the original text was trying to communicate. In the absence of any primary source to verify our doubts on the meaning of these words; the best we can hope for is to discover–and rediscover–them for ourselves.

Learning any new language is never easy. It taxes and frustrates the brain. But Sanskrit felt familiar, potent and perfect in its composition. Whilst I managed to recite–or should I say sing–a few hymns at Diwali this year; my knowledge always feels incomplete. But then again, knowledge itself is not–and will never be–my quest.

The joy is in discovering this knowledge, asking unanswerable questions till all my doubts and queries have been sufficiently satisfied; and to finally arrive at a place of faith. My faith isn’t blind. I neither subscribe to dogma nor popular opinion. I arrive at my incomplete understanding of the world each day as part of my journey on planet earth.

To seek to know the unknowable is folly.

I do wish to know. I wish simply to seek and embrace my life as a great adventure.

Author: Dipa Sanatani

Publisher | Mith Books | Author of The Little Light and The Merchant of Stories

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