When I first went to Dr Shastri’s lectures on Vedanta and Yoga, one of the things that irritated me, as it puzzled me, was his habit of quoting a verse in Sanskrit first, and then giving the English translation. He would say, for instance: “The Gita says, in Chapter 13 Verse 30, Prakrityaiva ca karmani…..” and then a few more lines of incomprehensible Sanskrit.

Then he would give the English:

He sees, who see all actions
Performed by Nature alone,
And the Self not acting,

Then he would go on to explain what this meant in living actuality.

I used to think this was an incredibly pedantic habit. What was the point? He was speaking to Western people and none of them knew Sanskrit. So why quote Sanskrit? Why not simply give the English translation? I thought: suppose you wanted to study Relativity, you would not expect a lecturer or writer to keep quoting passages in German just because Einstein happened to publish his work in German. If the teacher wanted to site Einstein’s remark at the beginning of his original book on relativity, that it is not meaningful to speak of two events as being simultaneous, he would not find it necessary to give the German original before the English. What would be gained by it? It is the meaning that matters not the particular language.

It took me some 10 years to see that the cases were not parallel. If did finally get over the prejudice and know when I lecture I do occasionally

Give a Sanskrit original.

After several years of pondering I came to see that there were five main points:

(1) To quote the Authority in the original giving chapter and verse,
tells the audience that there is a definite reference in a traditional text, confirming that this Yoga embodies a tradition based on experiments repeated over many centuries;
(2) the reference given attests that the audience can if they desire check on the original text and look at the Sanskrit words;
(3) there are various translations of the Gita and the audience can look at them later, from the classical translation by the scholarly professor Edgerton to the freer but poetic versions of Sir Edwin Arnold’s Song Celestial and the more recent one of Mascaro.
(4) Some Sanskrit words such as Samadhi have no real equivalents in English, and it is inevitable that a number of them will become and international vocabulary of Yoga just as the Italian words such as Andante and Sonata have become an international vocabulary for music.
(5) The original Sanskrit is not merely beautiful and musical but has also  a special rhythm and pulse of its own. This is connected with the original doctrine of mantra, based on experiments with the effect of organised sound. It is held that some Sanskrit verses when recited with correct enunciation and intonation produce verifiable effects on the bodily and mental condition of the reciter and potentially wider effects also. These ideas are not dogmas but are intended to be a basis for experiment. However the practice of mantra generally needs supervision by a teacher.

© Trevor Leggett

Share This