Tag Archives: sanskrit

Fork in the road

How Certain Are We About Uncertainty?

Certain and Uncertain

They seem to be separate antonymic words, but they are like Siamese twins. Their separate bodies, facing from opposite sides, are fused together, nurtured by the same sanguineous source. Their interdependence is the reason why they survive. If one dies, the other will follow, sooner or later.

There are many anecdotal stories in Indian, American, and global folktales that give a clear message of how we can be misled by confusion between certainty and uncertainty in real life. Heisenberg, a German physicist identified Uncertainty Principles even in Quantum Mechanics. But how do these considerations apply in our practical life?

Our Recent Pandemic:

Let us trace our own circuity of thoughts developing in the short span of this pandemic.

First, we thought it was a hoax.

Then we were certain it would be confined to China.

“It will pass away on its own.”

“No masks are necessary.”

“Masks are mandatory as advised by highly trained scientists.”

“Only old and previously diseased people die in this Pandemic.”

“Children can die too.”

“The virus kills by compromised respiration.”

“It can affect other systems too.”

“We should keep a social distance to prevent it.”

“No, We find distancing and masks to be an insufferable obstruction!” 

In short, we kept on lengthening and shortening our rubber band of the certainty-uncertainty spectrum while our rings were getting sparklingly shiny because of incessant hand washing! Washing hands was the only acceptable way out! The upcoming generation of children will put an end to this Pandemic’s uncertainties because they will know better by then. That will not stop them, however, from generating new uncertainties since the times, circumstances, and the strain of the virus are likely to alter when the next Pandemic strikes us.

Let us also look at our own selves

Some of the commonest phrases that we generously use every day are: ”Wait and watch,” “ I hardly can wait,” “I changed my mind,” “Are you sure?”, “ How can you be so sure?” etc. We always will be engaged in weaving a web of uncertainties as a modus operandi of our reflex habits.

There is a common aphorism in the Sanskrit language, “Tunde Tunde Matirbhinna,” meaning each head thinks differently. But even the same head can think differently at different times! One night we buy an item with absolute certainty, and the next morning it changes its appeal. Even in a vital matter like choosing a life partner, our certainty fluctuates until marriage seals it. In India, we often try to resolve this uncertainty by “matching horoscopes” to finalize our decision.

”Uncertainty is the very essence of romance,” said Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish author.

There are only two points that are certain in our tenaciously tethered life: Birth and Death. These two extreme points are fastened together by life itself, a miscellany of deep disappointments, Joi De  Viver, and  “delicious ambiguities”, a term coined by the famous actress Gilda Redner who succumbed to ovarian cancer at a very young age. 

 Perhaps we need to undertake a perceptive analysis of what constitutes certainty and uncertainty. 

A different approach to certainty-uncertainty complex

It helped me a great deal just by looking at the synonyms of these two enigmatic words:

Certainty: confidence, trust, conviction, faith, validity, dogmatism, clarity, composure, contentment, happiness, peace, security, calmness

Uncertainty: changeability, variability, anxiety, ambiguity, concern, confusion, distrust, suspicion, trouble, worry, dilemma, oscillation, lack of confidence

Although these synonyms depict uncertainty in darker colors, a closer analysis will reveal that certainty too, can have its drawbacks. It can push us to a blinding dogma impairing our vision. It will be judicious to build a bridge between these two extremes and skillfully traverse from one point to the other, navigated by an internal call, and cautiously master the shades between the two. It is true that the cautious seldom err, but it is also true that those who are excessively cautious seldom move. Many shades of grey connect the black and the white.

All uncertainties are likely to be experienced by someone at some time, but maturity is the capacity to endure and outgrow them. No progress or creativity is ever possible without uncertainty casting its alarming shadow on the road ahead. You pause, you ponder, you proceed, and prepare for an inadvertent result. “ Medicine is a science of uncertainty and an art of probability,” said William Osler, a mastermind of practicing and teaching medicine in this country. We all have no choice but to learn how to stay afloat in an ocean of uncertainty. 

An “Aha” or “eureka” moment may hatch after an incubation period spent in a meaningful, self-searching meditation. Many leading psychologists support this viewpoint.

In the end, I will quote our visionary poet, Robert Frost: 

I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence,

Two roads diverged in a wood and I– I took the one less traveled by

And that has made all the difference.


Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a priest, poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at bmajmud1962@gmail.com. 

Rhyme and Reason

Poetry as Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.

A lizard in a blizzard

Got a snowflake in his gizzard

And nothing else much happened, I’m afraid.

But lizard rhymed with blizzard

And blizzard rhymed with gizzard

And that, my dear, is why most poems are made.[1]

When I was young, I used to get a kick out of seeing words rhyme. Reading Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, I would enunciate the rhyming bits out loud for fun. Later in high school, I marveled at Shakespeare and his dexterous lines which stoked the imagination and inspired lofty notions.

Not marble nor the gilded monuments

Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme[2]

Poetry, in contrast to everyday speech, has an eye for beauty. She has a penchant for the pretty phrase, a fancy for things well said. With her, language is revered and words are caressed and carefully ensconced in a metrical mold which lends rhythm and musicality. 

While I was in college, I listened to a recitation of a narrative poem my grandfather had written in Kannada (my mother tongue). The tune was captivating, the story was beautiful, and it made an unforgettable impression. Never before had I experienced (or given much heed to) sound and sense so intimately connected in my mother tongue. As Alexander Pope describes poetry: 

‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,

The sound must seem an echo to the sense[3] 

Poet, Navaneet Galagali

Thereafter I began to realize – like the proverbial frog in the well – that other languages contained profound treasures of literature and poetry that my anglophone worldview wasn’t privy to. Unable to resist the siren call, I set out to learn my mother tongue.

A few years down the rabbit hole, I acquired Kannada and Sanskrit and delved into the literature with zest. When I moved to the bay area, I was fortunate to come across a poetry meetup group where I met some birds of the same feather. We started meeting weekly to partake in virtual poetry gatherings using the Facebook group Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, where I found encouragement and an outlet to share the poems and translations that follow.

The best romance poems employ a subtle art of suggestion; without being coarse, they indicate rather than explicate. In this Sanskrit verse from the 7th century, we see a poet’s tasteful portrayal of conjugal matters:

(The sweet-talk of newlyweds)

दम्पत्योर्निशि जल्पतोर्गृहशुकेनाकर्णितं यद्वचः तत्प्रातर्गुरुसंनिधौ निगदतस्तस्यातिमात्रं वधूः । 

कर्णालम्बितपद्मरागशकलं विन्यस्य चञ्चूपुटे व्रीडार्ता प्रकरोति दाडिमफलव्याजेन वाग्बन्धनम् ||[4] 

As the newlywed couple whispered through the night, their pet parrot overheard the words exchanged. The following morning, in the presence of elders, it began repeating what it had learned. Hearing this, the wife was mortified and she grabbed her ruby earring (which resembled a pomegranate seed) and thrust it into the parrot’s beak to silence it.

Here’s another verse in Sanskrit which makes a delightfully wry observation:

(A courtesan and her lipstick)

उपभुक्तखदिरवीटकजनिताधररागभङ्गभयात्।

पितरि मृतेऽपि हि वेश्या रोदिति हा तात तातेति॥[5]

A red color is left lingering on her lips from chewing betel leaves. When her father dies, that courtesan, not wanting to smear the red from her lips, cries “Taata, taata!” instead of “Pita, pita!” (both words mean father). i.e., Even while mourning the death of her father, she is mindful of her lipstick.

Brevity is the soul of wit” runs the common adage. Taking it to heart, this nifty triplet in Kannada claims to encapsulate all love stories:

(A summary of all love stories)

ನಾನು ಅವಳನ್ನು ನೋಡಿದೆ

ಅವಳು ನೋಡಿ ನಕ್ಕಳು

ನಮಗೀಗ ಎರಡು ಮಕ್ಕಳು[6]

 

I looked at her,

She smiled at me.

Now we have two kids. 

Poetry – and by extension, Art – seeks to elevate the connoisseur from the clutches of the mundane. In the process, ordinary emotions are rarefied and become things of beauty. Love, compassion, anger, sorrow, or any of the palate of emotions when expressed through the medium of art achieve a sublime dimension and unequivocally yield aesthetic joy. The joy of course, is an end in itself and needs no further recourse.


Navaneet Galagali is a software engineer in the California bay area who slyly siphons away time for his excursions with literature and music. His present obsessions include Sanskrit and Kannada literature. He is also learning Hindustani classical vocal music and Tabla.

Sanskrit: Dead, Dying, or Dormant?

Hindus everywhere recite their prayers in Sanskrit, conduct all their ceremonial rituals in Sanskrit, and give Sanskritized names to their children. But what effort do we make to learn that language and keep it alive? In a wedding ceremony brochure, when I saw the name Vishnu distorted into Vish (meaning “poison” in Sanskrit!) and the turmeric-paste ceremony known as pithi spelt as “pity,” the outrageous neglect of our ancient, sacred language stood startlingly before me.

Language of the Gods

The significance of Sanskrit in Indian mythology, its religious and spiritual heritage, and its history cannot be overstated. It is the language of some of the most profound scriptures of the land. The spiritual knowledge it has espoused is timeless without ever being pulseless. Sanskrit (Sanskruta) is about 3,500 years old.

One reason it survived this long is its sacred status and its multifaceted enfoldments. Over centuries it has embraced many diverse components of human endeavor like religion, art, philosophy, spirituality, poetry and literature, history, complex and computable grammar, and multiple sciences. It was therefore aptly known as girvana or the language of the elite (devas). 

Sanskrit has flexibility of function and openness of space to accommodate new ideas, concepts, and vocabulary. This is because it does not erect a rigid building but provides building blocks, thus rendering it always contemporary and ready for remodeling. Besides being a complex and rich language, it is also a vehicle that is capable of conveying sophisticated thoughts.

Which other language contains about 60 figures of speech (alankar) and about 600 meters (chhanda)? 

Heritage 

Dara Shikoh

Ancient India was greatly influenced by the influx of many diverse languages and cultures. In retrospect, this was not entirely detrimental to our development. Among the Mughals, Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan and brother of Aurangzeb, was a great Sanskrit scholar and an avid follower of the Upanishads, which he translated into Arabic. 

Voltaire, the French philosopher, having been profoundly impressed by the Upanishads, translated these scriptures further into German, whereupon Germany became the nidus of Sanskrit language! The British also established Sanskrit schools in England, Wales, and Scotland. In fact, there are colorful stories of the penchant some of these Europeans had to learn Sanskrit. 

Sir William Jones was a great English philologist who mastered 28 languages mostly on his own. He failed to find a guru who would teach him Sanskrit, because of a religio-cultural barrier. Finally, a 90 year-old shastri (“scholar” in Sanskrit) agreed to tutor him, provided Sir Jones did not enter his house but kept perched on his porch (Social Distancing of those times). He was humiliated for every mistake he made while learning the language, sometimes by the guru throwing his shoes at him. But he learned the language nevertheless and produced some innovative research by drawing parallels between Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit and connecting their roots to Gothic, Celtic, and Persian languages.

In Need of CPR 

In the land of its origin, however, Sanskrit has lost steam.

During the colonial era, Lord Macaulay set in motion the introduction of English as the medium of administration, education, and a means for livelihood. Britain’s domination brought with it advances in technology and trade. India’s doors opened to the world at large, English being the global lingua franca.

And what about Sanskrit? Today, only 24,821 Indians and 1,669 Nepalese people consider Sanskrit as their mother tongue! 

Historically, too, its elitism has cost some setbacks. Because of its complexity and precision that left no room for ambiguity, the language subsequently became exclusive to kings and the Brahmins. As an example, in the classics of Sanskrit literature, such as Shakuntalam, you see that King Dushyant speaks in Sanskrit, while his beloved Shakuntala, a forest raised maiden, speaks in Prakrit. 

As the use of Sanskrit passed into the hands of Brahmins and concentrated there, they exploited this advantage to gain power and money. Knowledge became a privileged commodity.

Characters like Shambuk in the Ramayana and Ekalavya in Mahabharata illustrate this discrimination. Brahmins, for their own benefit, imparted a religious hue to the language. This worked successfully in their favor in the effort to dominate the poorly educated masses of India. Subsequently, even Brahmins could not long retain the power and sophistication of this sacred language, which now was bereft of all its multiple facets. 

The tragic outcome of this degradation is evident in the prevalent belief of even educated Indians that only Brahmins can perform religious rituals and the medium of their expression should be restricted to Sanskrit—even if they do not understand it and have no way to know if the performing priest is sufficiently equipped with the required knowledge! 

Sanskrit grammar is extremely sophisticated, necessitating years of dedicated study. Lay people do not have that sort of time available nowadays. Does that mean we throw away the baby with the bathwater? 

Sushma Swaraj

Sushma Swaraj, the late Minister of External Affairs of India, delivered a stunningly erudite and penetratingly convincing lecture on the need to preserve Sanskrit as part of our valued heritage. Her lecture on the importance of Sanskrit language is a gold standard on the subject. 

While I do not see a possibility of Sanskrit reviving as a common colloquial language in the foreseeable future for reasons of its own, I do believe its other salient aspects should be preserved and revitalized. The language connects us not only to our own cultural heritage but also to the Mid-Eastern and far-Western components of human civilizations. The resuscitation team for this noble but gigantic enterprise should, therefore, be composed not only of grammarians but also historians, anthropologists, humanists, artists, linguists, philanthropists, and many others both from India and other countries, working as a team. It is an idea whose time has come. 

It is said of the Yiddish language that there will be an extended period between its dying and death. Of Sanskrit, I would say that it will never die because it is deeply seeded in almost all 16-plus regional languages of India. A plant that has sprouted conceals its seeds, rendering them apparently invisible, but the seeds themselves will reappear in its fruits.

Sanskrit needs to be rejuvenated by a process of CPR—Consistent Persistent Revival. 

My hope is that the Sanskrit word ajaramar—never aging and never dying—perhaps best describes its timeless quality. 

Revitalizing Sanskrit 

For Indian/non-Indian children:

Simplified translations of stories curated from Panchatantram and Hitopadesham, enlivened with attractive illustrations, along with interactive discussions that link these animal tales with contemporary situations may be helpful. These ancient stories can also be choreographed as Indian dance items for performing and viewing by children. Learning Sanskrit can also be a good lingual exercise for children. Many European children have been known to master the difficult phonetics of Sanskrit with great accuracy. 

For adults:

Adult education in Sanskrit through evening/ weekend classes should be made available. Many Indians could be persuaded to learn the language so as to understand the meaning of the daily prayers they recite unmindfully. Sanskrit also contains a vast store of timeless truths—Subhashitani—or practical aphorisms to inform our daily lives. In an interactive setting, such nuggets of wisdom can generate lively and profitable discussions. Temples and religious institutions can open their doors to initiate and stimulate this vital core of our culture. 

For scholars:

Sanskrit offers a gold mine to a variety of subjects in science and liberal arts. We should invite, encourage, and fund scholars from various disciplines to dig our ancient well and excavate the rich treasure hidden underneath.

Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at bmajmud1962@gmail.com. 


This was first published in Khabar Magazine, Atlanta, Georgia.