Thursday, 12 March 2015

Sanskrit in the Snow

Sometimes I feel that my original alma mater, McGill University, doesn't get enough love on this site, since I've written so many articles about Oxford, and only occasionally mention McGill in asides (apart from a brief article in 2008 and a link on the sidebar).

That's in large part down to the fact that I simply hadn't created this site yet back when I was attending McGill, and I've never been back there since (not having left Montréal under the best of circumstances).

Even so, McGill was a major, positive, formative influence on my life, and is a fantastic university (and perpetually under-rated, "Harvard of Canada" etiquette notwithstanding). While I'm not well-placed to tout its merits nowadays (the alumni network in France is strong, though, even if very Paris-centric), browsing the web today I came across this conference, which only cements for me my opinion of McGill as a damn cool place: an annual Sanskrit conference, encouraging the use of Sanskrit as a spoken language.

In Canada, of all places!

परोक्षप्रिया इव हि देवा: परोक्षप्रिया इव हि देवा: ।।


Sed quando poterimus eodem modo colloquium facere Latine?

Posted by jon at 7:35 PM in Sanskrit 
 

Saturday, 4 May 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक २०-२२

सर्वभूतेषु येनैकं भावमव्ययमीक्षते ।
अविभक्तं विभक्तेषु तज्ज्ञानं विद्धि सात्त्विकम् ॥
पृथक्त्वेन तु यज्ज्ञानं नानाभावान्पृथग्विधान् ।
वेत्ति सर्वेषु भूतेषु तज्ज्ञानं विद्धि राजसम् ॥
यत्तु कृत्स्नवदेकस्मिन्कार्ये सक्तमहैतुकम् ।
अतत्त्वार्थवदल्पं च तत्तामसमुदाहृतम् ॥

As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach (and the listing of all the articles in the series), see the introduction.



The next section of the poem cover nine shlokas, and they are conveniently grouped into three groups of three: goodness-passion-ignorance. I'll be structuring my blog articles in the same way. I mentioned briefly last time how, by presenting its philosophical concepts through the fun medium of poetry, the author is able to get his ideas across very effectively to a public which might not otherwise be inclined to listen. These three goodness-passion-ignorance cycles take that technique even further. The poet wants to get across a lot of information about goodness, passion, and ignorance, and he want his listeners to understand and remember the distinction. Rather than drone on about each one in succession, and risk losing their interest, he keeps the listener on his toes by instead offering one shloka on each, and then repeating the cycle two more times. (So instead of presenting his three themes A, B, and C with the structure AAABBBCCC, we have ABCABCABC, which is more engaging.) In a lecture such an approach would be hard to follow and confusing, but in a song, which one will listen to over and over again, such a device works well.

श्लोक २०

भूतेषु is a locative plural, which I haven't seen enough to recognise on sight yet. येनैकम् = येन + एकं was also unfamiliar, so I was off to a slow start. Finding the verb, ईक्षते, is as ever the key to grasping the sense.

In the second line, विभक्तेषु's case is already much easier to recognise! Otherwise this shloka isn't too difficult, other than in introducing new vocabulary. But it is fairly easy to spot सात्त्विकम् at this point, and frankly the vocabulary so far has been so repetitive as to almost become boring! So I almost feel like it's about time I learned some new words.

श्लोक २१

We know पृथक् from the first shloka of this book (and, as I've been reading cumulatively, I know the first shloka very well from this point), the त्व suffix seems to be an abstraction suffix (not a linguistic term, but I'm thinking of something akin to our -tion, like difference/differentiation), and all that is put here in the instrumental case.

Greek and Latin don't have an instrumental case; Russian, which I also know well, does, but it doesn't have an ablative. So while I'm used to ablatives and instrumentals, I'm not used to a language having both at the same time. Before I started Sanskrit, I was afraid this would make its noun morphology a bit of a mind-bender, but it isn't really, since the Latin ablative is used in so many instances that aren't stricto sensu, ablative in meaning at all (case in point). So, as far as the noun system goes, I'm finding Sanskrit to be less intimidating in person than it first appears on paper.

पृथग्विधान्, seems to simply be a longer synonym for पृथक्, of obvious metrical utility here. The second line is quite straightforward since we're now perfectly familiar with the locative, and all the vocabulary has already been seen. (I won't delve into the meat of the content here as it's a bit dense, I'll only get tongue-tied, and we have two more goodness-passion-ignorance triplets to go before we even have the full thought to work with.)

श्लोक २२

I ran into a bit of difficulty here, as my two main sources for studying the Gita, the word list provided here, and the dynamic Sanskrit parser here, disagree completely on how to parse this shloka. When confronted with a situation like this, a more serious scholar might delve into the problems inherent in the question, and produce a helpful synthesis here in his commentary.

What I've done, instead, is say, "I'm still a beginner, so I don't want to go all into all that. Let's just go with the word list version and keep going."

It all comes back to goals, and my goal here is just to work through the text, and build up some Sanskrit ability along the way. I'm not tyring to perfect my Sanskrit, either in the sense of being able to write my own Sanskrit verse or in the sense of developing an in-depth knowledge of its etymology and morphology. I just want to be able to read a chunk of the Mahabharata in the original and understand what it says. So I feel no shame in taking the path of least resistance, which is simply to assume that whoever wrote the word list was a capable Sanskrit scholar, and that the software parser, being a robot, is more prone to make accidental mistakes. (It's still 99% of the time immensely useful, since the word list does not parse the vocabulary, and the Reader Companion does.)

This is the first time I've come across a problem like this, though; if it crops up more often I may have to revisit this strategy.

Posted by jon at 11:01 PM in Sanskrit 
 

Monday, 29 April 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक १८-१९

ज्ञानं ज्ञेयं परिज्ञाता त्रिविधा कर्मचोदना ।
करणं कर्म कर्तेति त्रिविधः कर्मसङ्ग्रहः ॥
ज्ञानं कर्म च कर्ता च त्रिधैव गुणभेदतः ।
प्रोच्यते गुणसङ्ख्याने यथावच्छृणु तान्यपि ॥

As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach (and the listing of all the articles in the series), see the introduction.



श्लोक १८

Philosophically, we are still densely listing things, but linguistically, I enjoyed this shloka a lot. The word play of ज्ञानं ज्ञेयं परिज्ञाता and करणं कर्म कर्ते is interesting, and fairly easy to grasp. And, even though I don't usually care for Indo-European linguistics (as an end in itself), I do like how ज्ञानं is cognate to Greek words like γνῶσις.

I guess my preferences are blatantly inconsistent, then. (This is probably the reason why I've often commented on poetry in this site, and never philosophy!)

श्लोक १९

The lexical entry on गुण is rather unhelpful, but ironically the passage itself makes the intended usage explicit, by referring on the second line to गुणसङ्ख्याने, which makes it clear we're talking about the classification of attributes. Other than that this shloka isn't too difficult either—so long as you aren't thrown by the potentially unfamiliar sandhi that disguises the already-familiar imperative शृणु.

This is real poetry, and it's amazing how it manages to be so while still summarising very precisely important topics of samkhya philosophy. I don't particularly care about samkhya philosophy, but I absolutely love the way it's presented here, and that's part of what makes the poem such an effective way to transmit its ideas. I love the alliteration from the previous shloka's करणं कर्म कर्तेति त्रिविधः and I love how its structure is paralleled here by ज्ञानं कर्म च कर्ता च त्रिधैव.

I'll stop here before the poem launches into its next philosophical discourse proper, since it will go on for quite a few shlokas, making this cliffhanger as good a place to stop as any.

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Sanskrit 
 

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक १५-१७

शरीरवाङ्मनोभिर्यत्कर्म प्रारभते नरः ।
न्याय्यं वा विपरीतं वा पञ्चैते तस्य हेतवः ॥
तत्रैवं सति कर्तारमात्मानं केवलं तु यः ।
पश्यत्यकृतबुद्धित्वान्न स पश्यति दुर्मतिः ॥
यस्य नाहङ्कृतो भावो बुद्धिर्यस्य न लिप्यते ।
हत्वा‌ऽपि स इमांल्लोकान्न हन्ति न निबध्यते ॥

As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach (and the listing of all the articles in the series), see the introduction.



श्लोक १५

If you've been reading this articles in order, then you know that I had stopped for a while at this point, so it's a nice gift to me that this shloka recapitulates where we were in the argument. It's a pretty straightforward statement, and although the compound शरीरवाङ्मनोभि is a bit scary-looking, it's logical and easy to understand. (So long as you aren't thrown by the fact that sandhi can turn क् into ङ् anyway.)

One of the things I dislike the most about Indian philosophy is its penchant for lists. Theravada Buddhism is the worst offender (four noble truths, the noble eightfold path, the four immeasurables, the seven sets of thirty-seven qualities...), but Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain sutras all abound in lists upon lists of things. I don't see how memorising these long lists is an effective way to communicate a philosophy. Wouldn't it be more persuasive to demonstrate why there are five and only five types of causes? Moreover, why is it important? These sorts of texts are a big turn-off for me. I don't find them interesting, and so I suppose it's no surprise that I would have dropped off reading this text where I did.

Thankfully, the Gita is not a philosophical treatise, but a philosophical aside contained within an epic poem, and no sooner is the list of five causes given, than the poet gets on with the business of explaining the implications, and so we move on.

श्लोक १६

This is an interesting shloka. It's a bit more poetic, and even though grammatically and linguistically there's nothing too difficult about it, one could easily pass over the real sense of it, if one is not somewhat familiar with Hindu philosophy. That is, I might easily have read it as a generic statement, taking कर्तारमात्मानं as just an elaborate poetic synonym for सः, when in actuality it is to be taken very specifically as a core concept of Krishna's over-arching argument.

Remember the context of the Gita and the forceful speech Krishna gave in Book II: Arjuna is terrified and torn at the prospect of killing in the upcoming battle. His cause is just, but can that justify killing other human beings, many of whom are his own kinsmen? Krishna's answer, which I can't do justice to here, is based on the fundamental understanding that the individual doesn't exist as an independent agent in the universe. Krishna won't really be killing anyone, and his kinsmen won't really die, because they are not individuals with beginnings or ends. Their atoms will disperse from their current form and go on to become parts of other forms, and their souls will similarly continue on in other forms. Death is an illusion, reincarnation is inevitable.

It is to this argument that Krishna is alluding in this shloka: if one sees oneself as the individual agent of actions, then one is blind and ignorant.


श्लोक १७

This shloka continues to recap the argument of Book II, as I just described, so it makes more sense to comment on it here than to arbitrarily stop at two shlokas, just because it is my usual pace. (I need to catch up, anyway!). He restates in positive terms what was just stated negatively. This technique, unlike lists, does strike me as a useful rhetorical device. It lets the point sink in with the listener, who may still be in the process of taking in the idea, and not yet ready to follow the argument on to its next point.

The point is made even more explicitly here than in the previous shloka, but the same comments apply as above: without at least some familiarity with Hindu philosophy, the sense here might be hard to grasp. हत्वा‌ऽपि स न हन्ति "though he's killing, he does not kill"? What? Again, though, in the larger context of the poem, it becomes clear that one must distinguish between 'killing', as in stabbing someone such that they're not alive any more, and 'killing' as in ending someone's existence.

I'll just conclude by saying that, although I don't agree with the fundamental premise of this argument, I do admire how the implications of a belief are thought out, and new insights gained from the process. I may end up sounding like a broken record on this point, but the burden is on anyone holding contrary or incompatible beliefs to consider what the consequences of those beliefs are and what they lead to. Sometimes beliefs or belief systems, which may appear on the surface perfectly harmless, can lead in the long run to horrible consequences.

Posted by jon at 7:00 PM in Sanskrit 
 

Friday, 22 March 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ - The story so far

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८
अर्जुन उवाच
संन्यासस्य महाबाहो तत्त्वमिच्छामि वेदितुम् ।
त्यागस्य च हृषीकेश पृथक्केशिनिषूदन ॥
श्रीभगवानुवाच
काम्यानां कर्मणां न्यासं संन्यासं कवयो विदुः ।
सर्वकर्मफलत्यागं प्राहुस्त्यागं विचक्षणाः ॥
त्याज्यं दोषवदित्येके कर्म प्राहुर्मनीषिणः ।
यज्ञदानतपःकर्म न त्याज्यमिति चापरे ॥
निश्चयं शृणु मे तत्र त्यागे भरतसत्तम ।
त्यागो हि पुरुषव्याघ्र त्रिविधः सम्प्रकीर्तितः ॥
यज्ञदानतपःकर्म न त्याज्यं कार्यमेव तत् ।
यज्ञो दानं तपश्चैव पावनानि मनीषिणाम् ॥
एतान्यपि तु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा फलानि च ।
कर्तव्यानीति मे पार्थ निश्चितं मतमुत्तमम् ॥
नियतस्य तु संन्यासः कर्मणो नोपपद्यते ।
मोहात्तस्य परित्यागस्तामसः परिकीर्तितः ॥
दुःखमित्येव यत्कर्म कायक्लेशभयात्त्यजेत् ।
स कृत्वा राजसं त्यागं नैव त्यागफलं लभेत् ॥
कार्यमित्येव यत्कर्म नियतं क्रियतेऽर्जुन ।
सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा फलं चैव स त्यागः सात्त्विको मतः ॥
न द्वेष्ट्यकुशलं कर्म कुशले नानुषज्जते ।
त्यागी सत्त्वसमाविष्टो मेधावी छिन्नसंशयः ॥
न हि देहभृता शक्यं त्यक्तुं कर्माण्यशेषतः ।
यस्तु कर्मफलत्यागी स त्यागीत्यभिधीयते ॥
अनिष्टमिष्टं मिश्रं च त्रिविधं कर्मणः फलम् ।
भवत्यत्यागिनां प्रेत्य न तु संन्यासिनां क्वचित् ॥
पञ्चैतानि महाबाहो कारणानि निबोध मे ।
साङ्ख्ये कृतान्ते प्रोक्तानि सिद्धये सर्वकर्मणाम् ॥
अधिष्ठानं तथा कर्ता करणं च पृथग्विधम् ।
विविधाश्च पृथक्चेष्टा दैवं चैवात्र पञ्चमम् ॥

As I hinted at the end of my last article, I've started losing some steam in my New Year's Resolution (a fairly typical occurrence around this time of year, I should think).

In large part this is simply because a busy work schedule, combined with a bout with a cold, has not left me the energy to study Sanskrit much. That's a problem that should correct itself. But another factor can be that progress can seem discouragingly slow when one is in the early stages of reading.

For this reason, there is something to be said for standing back from time to time, simply to take stock of how far one has come. Looking at the first 14 shlokas together in one block, and being able to say "I can read that," is one way to remind oneself that one is making real progress, compared to where one was when one started the exercise.

Posted by jon at 12:05 AM in Sanskrit 
 

Thursday, 14 March 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक १३-१४

पञ्चैतानि महाबाहो कारणानि निबोध मे ।
साङ्ख्ये कृतान्ते प्रोक्तानि सिद्धये सर्वकर्मणाम् ॥
अधिष्ठानं तथा कर्ता करणं च पृथग्विधम् ।
विविधाश्च पृथक्चेष्टा दैवं चैवात्र पञ्चमम् ॥


As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach (and the listing of all the articles in the series), see the introduction.

श्लोक १३

Interesting that Krishna now addresses Arjuna महाबाहो, this was the same word Arjuna addressed him with back at the start of the chapter. I also mentioned, back at the first shloka, to look out for नि as a common prefix in Sanskrit; there it is again in निबोध.

The word साङ्ख्ये is troublesome to translate/understand. I've seen a few different translations out there that say "in the Vedic scriptures." That's obviously not what it actually says, though, since the word "Sankhya" clearly sounds nothing like "Veda".

Sankhya (or samkhya) is actually one of the six astika, or orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy that hold to the Vedas as authoritative. The oldest school, it was later absorbed into the Yoga school, which obviously is a major factor in the Bhagavad gita. So, the situation is somewhat like that of the term "Cartesian", sometimes used in English as a synonym for "rationalism", sometimes as a shorthand for analytic geometry, and at other times it's used in its proper sense, to mean the thought of René Descartes specifically.

So what does the word mean here? Samkhya philosophy? Is it a synonym for aspects of Yoga? Or are those other translators right in taking it even more broadly, as a synonym for the interpretation of the Vedas as a whole? Translators also have to deal with the fact that, if it is a more nuanced usage, then those nuances are likely to be completely meaningless to the typical English reader. This must steer the translator in the direction of taking it in its broadest sense, whether or not that's what the poet intended, because that is the sense that it is actually practical to translate appropriately.

This is why it is so much more valuable to read a text in the original. One cannot translate this line without butchering it, by either over-interpreting or over-simplifying. It's the difference between hearing that the Mona Lisa is a picture of a lady in front of a hill, and actually seeing the image. Yes, you do get the gist of the meaning through the description (or from an English translation), but you are not hearing the actual poem.

श्लोक १४

The last few shlokas have more or less been a breeze to read through, but this one is a doozy. It's the kind of sentence one always seems to come across just as one is starting to feel confident about one's ability with a new language: a long list of new words one doesn't know. Just the thing to remind you that, even if you are getting a feel for grammar and sandhi, there are a few thousand words left to learn before you can really claim to know Sanskrit.

The only thing to be done is to memorise all this vocabulary. I'll be taking this spot as a place to stop and make sure I can reread the chapter from the first shloka—it may be that there are some other vocabulary words I should put back on the list, before continuing on.

Posted by jon at 7:05 PM in Sanskrit 
 

Monday, 25 February 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक ११-१२

न हि देहभृता शक्यं त्यक्तुं कर्माण्यशेषतः ।
यस्तु कर्मफलत्यागी स त्यागीत्यभिधीयते ॥
अनिष्टमिष्टं मिश्रं च त्रिविधं कर्मणः फलम् ।
भवत्यत्यागिनां प्रेत्य न तु संन्यासिनां क्वचित् ॥

As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach (and the listing of all the articles in the series), see the introduction.


श्लोक ११

The key thing to catch in the first line is that देहभृता is in the instrumental case, being देहभृत् in the nominative. अशेषतः is an adverb. Finally, शक्यं is in the accusative, which is not what I would have expected at all. (I would have thought that a finite verb should go here.) This construction looks a lot like Hindi, to me (वह कर सकते हैं), which is a bit of an eye-opener as I have always considered Hindi's grammar to be sort of a pidgin compared to Sanskrit's; I didn't expected to find shades of the former within the latter.

(Lest anyone take that the wrong way, I would say the same thing about Latin and Italian.)

As for getting the sense out of the shloka, one only has to understand that it is contrasting, once again, the renunciation of कर्म in the first line with the renunciation of कर्मफल, in the second. It's a bit repetitive in that, but actually he's giving a new argument as to why: it's simply impossible for corporeal entities to renounce all action.

Pretty hard to argue with that, I would say. (My heart keeps beating no matter how immobile I am.) But this may be a deliberate stab at Jainism, which takes a very different stance towards duty and actions than what Krishna is espousing in the Gita. (The Jains have their own, extremely well-developed, arguments, for why their version of renunciation is correct, but I am straying much too far from the text.)

श्लोक १२

You have to love the poetry in अनिष्टमिष्टं मिश्रं च, that rhetorical triple that makes the most mundane thoughts sound profound. I like the order, too, as by listing मिश्रं last the poet prevents it from reading like a sequence. It's more like a musical key, where the listener's ear waits eagerly for the key note in order for the phrase to sound 'complete'.

One of the hardest doctrines of Indian religions (shared by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism), for me to wrap my head around was moksha. Why should the goal of life be to end one's cycle of rebirth? If the goal of life is death, if the goal of existence is non-existence, then I cannot be on board with that belief. Doesn't this very shloka also say that you can have इष्टं कर्मणः फलम् ? Why is that not a superior goal?

If we were talking about Buddhist notions of samsara and nirvana, I would leave it at that: I fundamentally do not agree that these notions are true. But some Hindu understandings of moksha are quite different: it is not absolute oblivion, but rather a loss of one's illusion of self-hood and rejoining the universal divinity (to phrase it roughly). This is not so very incompatible with Christian notions of theosis—with the major difference that the Christian soul, made perfect in God, continues to exist on its own. It becomes a perfectly transparent crystal, as it were, but that is not the same as disappearing.

The end result is that there is enough that I can understand in the Hindu notion of moksha, as union with the divine, that I can still identify with texts that speak of it. I see it as deep spiritual insight, oriented, as St. Paul would say, to an unknown God, whom Christians see made fully known in Jesus.

To be clear, I am not saying anything the least bit revolutionary here: there is a long historical precedent in Catholicism to seek out and preserve the best of pre-Christian spirituality, be it neo-Platonism in the West or Confucianism in the East. There is a great deal of wisdom here in the Gita as well, even if much of it (especially the crucial chapter II) relies on the idea reincarnation, something which clearly can't be reconciled with Christianity. But just because one disagrees with the Gita's arguments as a whole, does not mean that one cannot find a lot of spiritual insight in its various parts.

And, importantly, the very act of disagreeing with one of its tenets poses new, deeper questions to the reader: if I don't accept Krishna's answer to Arjuna of why he should fight, then how do I answer him? Should he still fight? If so, why? Shouldn't he? What are the consequences that logically flow from either argument?

Too many "new" atheists, in my opinion, (I mean the violently proselytising kind, that have become so prevalent in recent years) neglect that the logical consequence of denying an answer to a moral question, simply because that answer is "religious" (and therefore to be mocked venomously), is that one still needs to provide an alternative answer. Even taking the rather shocking position that "it doesn't matter whether he kills his family or not"—i.e., there is no answer—requires providing a justification as to why.

It is not sufficient to reject everything Krishna says, simply because one finds the idea of Krishna ridiculous. One must engage with the text, questioning at what points one agrees with its explanations, and at what points one disagrees—and then consider where the consequences of those points of disagreement lead.

Posted by jon at 7:15 PM in Sanskrit 
 

Thursday, 14 February 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक ९-१०

कार्यमित्येव यत्कर्म नियतं क्रियतेऽर्जुन ।
सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा फलं चैव स त्यागः सात्त्विको मतः ॥
न द्वेष्ट्यकुशलं कर्म कुशले नानुषज्जते ।
त्यागी सत्त्वसमाविष्टो मेधावी छिन्नसंशयः ॥

As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach (and the listing of all the articles in the series), see the introduction.


Bhagvad Gita

श्लोक ९

I said last week I'd take the time to learn the forms of त्यज्, and in doing so I've been quite surprised to see just how many parallels there are between Sanskrit verbs and Greek ones. The basic correspondences are all there: a vowel is prefixed to imperfect forms, reduplication signals perfect forms, even the optative is signaled by 'tweaking' the vowel of the ending. Knowing Ancient Greek turns out to decrease the learning curve of Sanskrit far more than I had imagined!

The avagraha, which makes its first appearance in our text in this shloka, is also the kind of thing that Greek puts all over the place, but that the Romans wouldn't have been caught dead with in their language. (Down that road lies French.)

This shloka basically sums up what Krishna has been saying. If this were prose, it would be the concluding sentence of a paragraph. Happily, though, it is most certainly poetry: I like the pithiness of just dropping in मतः to complete the thought; it shows that Sanskrit doesn't always have to resort to big flourishes like सम्प्रकीर्तितः.

श्लोक १०

This is a bit tricky because the subject phrase is in the second line while the active verb phrase is in the first, so if you're looking up lots of words as you go, as I was, then it's harder to reconstruct the whole sense until you've gone over it a few times. So I'd recommend reading the verses in reverse order the first time through.

That said, though, this shloka is actually quite a quotable little gem. If I agreed with what it was saying, it's the kind of thing I'd probably want to memorise.

This led me to ask myself why I don't agree with what it is saying. I'm a big fan of stoicism, after all—one of my favourite quotes is securius divites erimus si scierimus quam non sit grave pauperes esse. Why do I love that quote, which after all is underlined by a similar understanding of renunciation, more than this one, which is much more direct?

I think it is because Seneca's words come across more like 'worldly advice', as opposed to ultimate truth. It's a witticism, not a dogma. This matters because, at the end of the day, there are things I do believe one should be attached to—but worldly possessions are not among them.

So I can agree with, and benefit from, these philosophies, up to a point (for me, that is insofar as they help me to deepen my understanding of Colossians 3). But this shloka, to me, goes a bit too far in its claims.

Posted by jon at 7:00 PM in Sanskrit 
 

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक ७-८

नियतस्य तु संन्यासः कर्मणो नोपपद्यते ।
मोहात्तस्य परित्यागस्तामसः परिकीर्तितः ॥
दुःखमित्येव यत्कर्म कायक्लेशभयात्त्यजेत् ।
स कृत्वा राजसं त्यागं नैव त्यागफलं लभेत् ॥

As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach (and the listing of all the articles in the series), see the introduction.

श्लोक ७

I'm a bit disheartened to see that unicode can't display anything better than द्य without resorting to special fonts (or, I've belatedly noticed, द्ग in the title), but I can't use specialised fonts over the web, and I don't want to resort to using images, so I'll have to make do. But come on, where's the fun in writing words without spaces between them, if you can't enjoy crazy ligatures like these:

On second thought, looking at that again, I guess I shouldn't complain, as the frequent use of the virama online certainly makes some words easier, if less fun, to read.

The first verse is just restating the topic again (although it does make for a pretty good one-line summary of the Gita). I was proud of myself for recognising that मोहात् was the ablative case of मोह. Digging a little more, तामसः is clearly a nominative and परिकीर्तितः, logically enough then, is a past passive participle (which we've seen before, with a prefix). I'm not actually sure whether परित्यागस्तामसः is a compound word, or simply two nominatives in apposition (maybe there's no स् if it's a compound?), but frankly it would mean the same thing either way, and I don't want to get bogged down.

I'm just taking तामसः to mean "darkness", but after having seen it translated on one site as "tamasic", I discovered that one can read quite a lot into this term. That's interesting to find out, but even so I still want to keep reading it simply as "darkness" (well, reading it as तामसः—one musn't translate when one reads—but I know what I mean!). I do so because there are multiple schools of Hindu thought, and so interpreting the Gita with one of them in mind would necessarily colour my understanding of it (just as reading the letters of St. Paul with a Calvinist outlook in mind leads people to completely different understandings than when Catholics read them). Even if I decide that the "historically correct" philosophical lens with which to approach the Gita were, say, theistic Samkhya, I still wouldn't want to bring too much outside baggage to the text, nor lose sight of the fact that there are other schools out there, who interpret the text in different ways. So I am deliberately sticking to a broad, face-value reading. As a friend pointed out to me, Hinduism is an open-source religion.

श्लोक ८

At this point, I've decided that I should take some time and study all the forms of त्यज्. With so many Gita word lists out there, it's easy to get the gist of what every word means, and move through the text that way, but to do that inhibits any chances you might have of, you know, actually picking up the language. One has to parse one's verbs, and doing that efficiently means first getting to at least the plateau where one can recognise the basic grammatical category (in Greek, being able to pick out a present, aorist or perfect stem, and active and passive forms, on sight). I still can't do that in Sanskrit, because with ten verb classes and the challenges of internal and external sandhi, simply memorising conjugation tables hasn't seemed like a practical way to approach it, to me. But the only practical way to progress is to start somewhere, and gradually build on it from there. Given how many times we've seen forms of त्यज् so far, I'm fine with making it my arbitrary starting point. I'll master that conjugation, and when at some point I keep butting against an unfamiliar form from a verb I keep running into of a different class, I'll learn that one when I get to it.

I'm not thrilled, poetically, that the loss of त्यागफल is viewed as a bad thing, when we're supposed to disregard फल in our actions, according to Krishna. Now, one can simply make a distinction between कर्मफल and त्यागफल, but it seems unfortunate to me to use the word फल in both, regardless. I was also curious to see whether राजसं त्यागं was turn one of the three aspects of त्याग alluded to in 18:4, or whether it's just a throw-away phrase here. (Consulting the commentaries revealed it to be the former.)

लभेत् sure looks cognate to λαμβάνω (aorist root λαβ), although I admit I couldn't be bothered to check whether it actually was. I never cared much about reconstructed Proto-Indo-European forms. Understanding how language evolves is interesting to a certain extent, but I just don't see it as an end in itself. To me, the attraction of learning ancient languages was more about being able to decipher an ancient parchment or inscription, regardless of whether the language shared a common ancestor with anything. It was about opening the doors to the literature of a different civilisation, not about reconstructing the probable grammar of a language that has no literature. Even so, though, I do appreciate it when insight into linguistics lets me spot similarities that make learning vocabulary easier!

Posted by jon at 9:54 PM in Sanskrit 
 

Sunday, 27 January 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक ५-६

यज्ञदानतपःकर्म न त्याज्यं कार्यमेव तत् ।
यज्ञो दानं तपश्चैव पावनानि मनीषिणाम् ॥
एतान्यपि तु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा फलानि च ।
कर्तव्यानीति मे पार्थ निश्चितं मतमुत्तमम् ॥


As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach (and the listing of all the articles in the series), see the introduction.

श्लोक ५

At this point, I should think anyone who's translated the first four shlokas ought to be able to read this one more less on sight. The only word that hasn't already been seen, not counting the basics like एव and तत्, is पावनी. But it is one of those sentences that is a bit harder to parse than it is to understand. We've already seen यज्ञदानतपः before, but why does that become (followed by च एव) यज्ञो दानं तपश्चैव? Obviously the end is just sandhi at work, but where's that ओ coming from? It's on the sandhi chart too, of course, but why didn't it come in on the previous line? Both are nominative phrases, so it's not a case issue.

I eventually figured out that the words are in a compound word, यज्ञदानतपःकर्म, on the first line, but individual words on the second. This wasn't immediately apparent, of course, because words are not separated in Sanskrit, but it should have been more apparent to me if I'd noticed that there was no sandhi of going on, that it must be a compound.

I knew that compound words are a big part of Sanskrit (and apparently their over-use makes late Sanskrit literature fairly intolerable). I think that developing a sense of how they fit into proper Sanskrit style, and when it sounds right as opposed to separating the words, is the kind of thing one can only do over time. So at this point I'll just make a mental note of this shloka, and try to catch similar instances in the future.

श्लोक ६

There's nothing hard grammatically about this shloka, but it still took me a while to get the sense, being thrown off, if you can believe it, by the च. So I thought he was saying to avoid actions and their fruits, while in the very next verse he says to do actions out of duty. Obviously, that can't be right, and I'll need to remember that च can be used a little differently than the Latin -que. Here it seems essentially metrical, and to go with अपि तु, so only फलानि is the object of त्यक्त्वा, and कर्माणि must just be in apposition.

I'm deep enough into the poem now that I'm starting to get a feel for the poetry of it, to "hear the music", as it were, of the poet choosing to end this shloka with इति मे पार्थ निश्चितं मतमुत्तमम् । In fact, I find myself reading the Gita in a sing-songy voice, something that I've never caught myself doing in Latin, and only very rarely in Greek or English (and with the latter, it typically occurs with limericks, nursery rhymes, or Alexander Pope). That's pretty astounding for a poem that doesn't rhyme and is written in a language I can barely read!

Sanskrit poetry in general is feeling much more like Greek than I would have expected. Perhaps that's because the Mahabharata, like Homer, comes from an oral epic tradition (as opposed to the more artificial Roman epics). But then, even so, I would have expected the Gita to have a much more "composed" feel than the rest of the poem. So I think it is simply that Sanskrit's "personality" is much closer to Greek's than Latin's.

Sandhi and unfamiliarity still make the language somewhat time-consuming for me to parse, but I can already see that, when I get there, I will enjoy reading these epics a lot.

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Sanskrit 
 

Friday, 18 January 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक ३-४

त्याज्यं दोषवदित्येके कर्म प्राहुर्मनीषिणः ।
यज्ञदानतपःकर्म न त्याज्यमिति चापरे ॥
निश्चयं शृणु मे तत्र त्यागे भरतसत्तम ।
त्यागो हि पुरुषव्याघ्र त्रिविधः सम्प्रकीर्तितः ॥

As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach, see the introduction.

श्लोक ३

Still losing no time, Krishna goes straight from defining renunciation to making value statements on it. At this point, though, he stops speaking so directly; one starts to notice that isn't speaking for himself, only giving definitions and now opinions of lesser beings—beings he nonetheless approves of, speaking of them in positive terms. We start to wonder, why is Krishna speaking of what others say, instead of just giving his say on the matter?

त्याज्यं sends us into future participle territory, so I'm glad to see that Sanskrit has this useful grammatical form, which I've always found elegant. (Carthago delenda est.) I've read that इति, contrary to what one reads in dictionaries, in epic Sanskrit is often best understood as though it marked direct speech. एके is the key for understanding the first verse, even though at first one is struck by the unexpected way the sentence begins. (It sounds like a Top Gear introduction for the Stig. Some say...)

Then, in the next line, it stands in opposition to अपरे, but why is it in opposition? Usually you'd expect "some say A is good; others say A is bad", but this shloka's structure is "some say A is bad; others say B is good." Okay, but there's no direct contradiction between the two, is there? I'll return to this point in a moment.

Some translations take एके adverbially, to mean "only", and thereby make a contradiction out of two viewpoints, but I think clearly the correct reading is "ones" (i.e., "some"), in opposition to अपरे "others". So it's only taken me three verses to run into erroneous English translations—clearly the effort to read this in the original will not go to waste! (Not that, given that the original is poetry, and English translations are anything but, there was ever any doubt about that!)

श्लोक ४

We see now that the two statements are indeed not contradictory, and if there wasn't something to both views, then Krishna wouldn't be calling both sides मनीषिणः. Now at last we see why Krishna begins by giving the sages' views. Wise men have discovered this side of the truth, while others have discovered another truth. (We'll pass over why exactly one should think it true that actions should be avoided as evil...) One physicist declares that similarly charged subatomic particles repel each other, another tells us that the helium nucleus contains two protons that stick together. Each agrees that what the other said was true. Where is the synthesis that ties this all together? What is the reality that underlies these two seemingly different views?

It is an answer that can only be given authoritatively when the whole truth is known. When it comes to the whole truth about karma, it is the avatar of Vishnu who can declare the whole truth authoritatively. That's what Krishna now sets out to do: to rule on the matter with his knowledge of the full truth.

It is on this level that reading the Bhagavad Gita differs from reading Plato: Socrates makes the reader conclude that a given belief is true by getting the reader to say it, being led by a line of questioning. The Gita, though, claims revelation from the supreme God as its authority, leaving the reader only to assent or dissent with what is presented. (Though I suppose Socrates does claim to be prompted by a δαιμόνιον himself.)

I should say that anyone reading chapter 18 in isolation might be more put off by Krishna's authoritative manner, than someone who has read through the book from the beginning. This speech takes place after he has displayed his Vishvarupa to Arjuna (see picture above). So in context, there's nothing he could say that could be considered "arrogant" at this stage of the poem.

(The only other remark I have about this shloka is that पुरुषव्याघ्र joins πτολίπορθος on my list of coolest epithets!)

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Sanskrit 
 

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ श्लोक १-२

अर्जुन उवाच
संन्यासस्य महाबाहो तत्त्वमिच्छामि वेदितुम् ।
त्यागस्य च हृषीकेश पृथक्केशिनिषूदन ॥
श्रीभगवानुवाच
काम्यानां कर्मणां न्यासं संन्यासं कवयो विदुः ।
सर्वकर्मफलत्यागं प्राहुस्त्यागं विचक्षणाः ॥

As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As a Catholic, I am reading the text for its literary merits alone, although I do engage with its ideas, just as I would with any classical Greco-Roman text. For more on my approach, see the introduction.

श्लोक १

We start off with a lovely first sentence for plunging into Sanskrit again. We get a vocative, a present active verb with infinitive, with a direct and indirect object. A teacher couldn't construct a better first sentence for a student. (Well, I suppose the vocabulary choices might be simpler than संन्यासस्य, which with its prefix and alternate spelling, सन्न्यासस्य, is rather difficult to look up. But then, that's a word the text is going to be defining for us, as well.)

सम् is cognate to Greek συν, नि means down (I remember this with neath, although I didn't check whether they're truly cognate), and the verb root is अस्. Before going too far trying to decypher the etymology's nuances though, I think it's worthwhile to remember that our English word renunciation has a fairly complex etymology itself—one that we pay no attention to whatsoever when using the word. I think it's important not to lose sight of the fact that we need to let the poem tell us the difference between संन्यास and त्याग, not the etymology.

If I don't think it's important, from the text's perspective, how the word came about, I do think its placement in the line is significant and worth noting. It puts the focus immediately on the theme for this book, helping readers and listeners to get into the right frame of mind for the interesting discussion that is ahead. Not for nothing does its synonym त्यागस्य lead off on the second line.


Lord Krishna layeth the smackdown
on the Keshi demon

We also get, from the first shloka, that mainstay of epic poetry, the epithet, with both महाबाहु and हृषीकेश being used to refer to Krishna. Then we get केशिनिशूदन, which had me heading to Wikipedia for a little background on the mythology. This is what I'm most worried about when reading the Mahabharata—unlike Greek mythology, which I've been steeped in my whole life, so many of the allusions and references in the Indian epics will be unfamiliar to me. On the other hand, learning these new stories is an enticing prospect—I just hope I'll be able to remember them all!

श्लोक २

Now the philosophical discourse begins. It's good structure, that Arjuna frames the question before we dive into the abstract thought, it makes it easier to follow and brings up the reader's interest. Rather like a Platonic dialogue. (Indeed, I would say that there are a lot of parallels, for a Westerner, between engaging with Plato and engaging with the Bhagavad Gita.)

I won't say too much about Krishna's speech yet, as it goes on for most of the book, and hasn't really gotten started yet. But I do like how Krishna answers so directly, giving definitions of संन्यास and त्याग right from the get-go. He then goes on to expand on the theme, rather than taking a long time to get to the point.

A real professor of Sanskrit would probably use this entry to give background on the philosophical concepts behind desires, actions (karma), and the effects thereof. Maybe in the course of reading this I'll reread some of my books on Hindu thought, but that's not really how I want to approach this. For now, I just want to read the text for what it says, and just let कर्मन् be "actions" and फल be "fruit", and leave it up to Krishna to say what he wants about them here. If I were to cross-reference every term with the rest of the poem and the Upanishads, I'd never get any reading done! Instead, I'll just have to read on to find out what the learned and experienced think of renunciation, and why they are interested in it.

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Sanskrit 
 

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

भगवद्गीता अध्याय १८ - Introduction

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As my reader-selected New Year's resolution for 2013, I am reading Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit.



Why this text


The Bhagavad Gita is without a doubt the most famous text in Sanskrit, so it is natural enough to turn to it before setting my sights on anything else. I first discovered this book when, as a teenager, a practising Hindu who was invited to speak at our church urged us to read it. "It's a short book, and it covers every aspect of life. If there's anything you need guidance on, you can find it in the Gita." That was a strong recommendation, and Hinduism is so vast that I was happy to have a clear focal point for understanding what it was about.

Why chapter XVIII, then? Chapter II is usually considered the core of the book, the equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount, which could have recommended it as a choice instead. But XVIII is the last chapter of the book, and is basically a recap of what was said in the first seventeen chapters. That makes it a good choice in and of itself, and I also hope that this will mean that it will make reading the other chapters easier, when one day I decide to tackle them. (Hopefully, I'll have seen some of the vocabulary from everything.)

At 78 shlokas (or 'couplets') long, though, it is also the longest chapter of the Gita. I am not a master of Sanskrit by any stretch yet—I could not even begin to dress out a sandhi table from memory, and my knowledge of the noun declensions and verb conjugations is very superficial. Still, with a year to get through 156 lines of verse, it shouldn't be too difficult, learning as I go. (I do at least have a solid grasp of devanagari, and the basic grammar and vocabulary.)

An MBA blogging about Sanskrit?


This does seem odd at first glance, granted, but I am in fact joining a long tradition of unlikely Bhagavad Gita Sanskrit commentators. Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhatten Project physicist, also taught himself Sanskrit and read the Gita in the original. His most famous quote, speaking of at the first nuclear test, "now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds," comes from Gita 11:32a:
कालोऽस्मि लोकक्षयकृत्प्रवृद्धो लोकान्समाहर्तुमिह प्रवृत्तः ।

Although I did not know this until after my poll had ended, the Gita's stock is rising in the Western business community as well, as BusinessWeek reports. I don't know what to say about this, other than, if the Gita is now the 'hot new thing' instead of Sun Tzu or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, then I guess that is a positive development. (The business community could certainly use a little more dedication to duty, and a little less attachment to gain.)

Approach and Beliefs


I am sensitive to the fact that, in talking about this text, I am, for those who believe in Krishna, dealing with their equivalent of the Gospel of St. John. Yet I am approaching the text completely differently, as the equivalent of a section of the Iliad: one of the greatest literary works in the history of mankind, of great antiquity, and containing many truths and insights of use to us today. To me, Vishnu is no different from Apollo—I'm interested to hear what they say and do in the story, but I do not consider them to be real beings.

Quite unlike Apollo, though, Vishnu claims to be the supreme, "big G", God. Not the king of the gods, like Zeus, but the actual source and creator of all existence, lesser deities included. This means that, when the Gita has something to say about the nature of God or the universe, I must take it much more seriously, than when I hear that the gods live on Mount Olympus. This because, I'm not just reading about what a character did in a story, with the only point of contention whether that character be real or fictional. A claim about Ultimate Truth is a universal claim. It's a claim about the universe I exist in, and so I have to seriously consider whether I believe that this or that statement of viewpoint is a reflection of ultimate truth. Like Ptolemaic epicycles, I can acknowledge that some systems of thought offer a compelling explanation for reality, even if I am convinced that the actual underlying explanation is different.

So, while the Gita is not going to influence the content of my religious beliefs (explicitly defined here), it is going to say things about God, about life, and about morality, that I will need to examine in the light of my own beliefs, my own life, and my own morals. So, while I won't be taking the text seriously for dogmatic value—to me it is mythology—that does not mean that the text will not engage me spiritually.

That is not to say that I assume the Mahabharata to be completely fictional, either. I don't—and I don't consider the Iliad to be. Archæology shows with increasing certitude that the Trojan War actually happened, and I find it very plausible that the Kurukshetra War did too. In both cases, some of the kings' names and general aspects of the narrative may well be historical. Individual dialogues, gods' personal interventions on the battlefield, and many more narrative additions are pretty certainly literary in nature only. I respect the beliefs of those who believe differently with regards to Arjuna and Krishna; I only ask them to respect my beliefs as well.

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Posted by jon at 12:00 AM in Sanskrit 
 

Thursday, 13 December 2012

On Sanskrit

जोनाथन् क्रेवन् संस्कृता वाक् च

Looking back over this blog, I see that I only once make passing reference to my (rudimentary) knowledge of Sanskrit. There are two reasons for this: one is discretion. It seems like a pretty hipster thing to do, telling people about how one is studying Sanskrit. It just doesn't come up. Secondly, my own attitude has always been that Latin and Greek should be studied and mastered in preference to it. But if one mentions "Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit", most people will focus in on the more exotic language of the three, the one I least want to emphasise.

There are many benefits to studying ancient languages (I've written about some of them here, here, and here), but those benefits vary in proportion to that language's literature and lasting influence. (You're just not going to get as much out of knowing Hittite as you will from knowing Latin.) While Sanskrit has a massive body of literature, and is a prerequisite for the in-depth study of Hinduism or Indian history, this culture simply cannot compare—I am speaking in terms of influence on the modern world, not of subjective merit—to the cultures that formed Western Civilisation. So while I do feel Sanskrit is one of the most important ancient languages to learn, it is still not in the same league as its Greco-Roman cousins.


I am nothing like this guy, so
why am I learning Sanskrit?
With those disclaimers out of the way, I'd like to share some of my personal experiences and reactions with learning Sanskrit. To begin with, if I am not a hippie motivated by a vague attraction to all things "Eastern", then why did I take up Sanskrit in the first place?

The fact is, I love classical epic poetry. Really love it. And (somewhat arrogantly, as I still haven't gotten around to actually doing this), I assumed that I would fairly quickly read through the Iliad, Odyssey, and Æneid, and be hungry for more. At that point, there will still be some interesting things to read in Greek and Latin (in particular, an Argonautica in each), but there's an argument to be made that one would find greater epic poems elsewhere. (Beowulf, the Kalevala, and the Eddas all come to mind.)

However (although I do intend to read Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon one day), nothing comes close, after Homer and Virgil, to the great Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. In addition to their influence and literary merits, they also have the advantage of being huge poems: the Ramayana is over four times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey put together, and the Mahabharata is four times longer than that. I figured I would probably run out of time on this earth before I ran out of epic poetry to read, should I learn Sansrkit.

That was my original thought process, then: I wanted to read the great Sanskrit epics, for their literary and historical value, after having similarly savoured the great epics of the Western world. Now I'd like to talk a bit about what learning Sanskrit has been like, for me.



Learning any ancient language is difficult. Grammar is inevitably more intricate and complex than in modern languages, and the source material, coming from such a different world, is less easily accessible. I immediately decided never to use transliteration, and learned devanagari straight away. I believe that this was the right decision, as that writing system—considered by many the most perfect representation of human speech ever devised—is tailor-made for the Sanskrit language, and so using it helps one to "think like a Hindu", and become accustomed to the language more easily.

However, I did run into problems, precisely because devanagari is so exact. The letters ट ठ त थ all sound to an English speaker like our letter T. ण, ङ and न are all, to an English-speaker, N. (The way they are transliterated into English as ṇ, ṅ and n is not particularly informative either.) Yet our English N masks sounds that are actually different. If you notice where your tongue is when you make the n sound in "anger" you will notice that your tongue touches a spot farther back in your mouth than when you pronounce the n in "nice". So while we think of both as being the same sound, our mouths actually do two different things. Sanskrit makes this explicit by calling the first sound ङ and the second न. This made it difficult for me to learn vocabulary properly, as I might remember the approximate pronunciation of a word, but not which of the various options for "T", "D", "SH", etc. was the correct one. It takes time for all this to sink in (and I still frequently confuse ष and श—essentially the sh sounds of "fish" and "sheet", respectively).


This guy pronounces Ancient Greek
completely differently from Homer
I've had a similar problem when confronted with how to pronounce Greek, since the Byzantine pronunciation, used in Eastern Rite churches, would seem the most useful to learn—since a Greek Catholic Mass would be about the only place I would hear Ancient Greek spoken, and it would be useful to understand it by ear. However, that pronunciation masks so many important spelling differences (I can't imagine not being able to distinguish ι υ and η!) that I have always stuck to the Erasmian pronunciation, simply because it is the only hope I have of remembering how words are spelt. (In contrast, I always use Roman pronunciation for Latin, and abhor reconstructed classical.)

With Sanskrit, the problem wasn't that different letters were pronounced the same, but that the nuances of what made their pronunciations different were too subtle for me to learn out of a book. Because of this, I remained quite hindered in my progress until I went to Oxford, where I had plenty of Hindi-speaking classmates who patiently put up with me asking them to repeat ता and टा over and over again until I could hear and remember the difference. (Fortunately, the pronunciation of devanagari has not undergone the same level of radical change as the Greek alphabet has, as it was important for the Brahmins, for religious reasons, to keep the pronunciation intact.)

Learning some basic Hindi got me back on track with feeling comfortable with devanagari, and, ironically, made me miss Sanskrit again. Hindi is a much, much easier language to learn, but it is linguistically almost unrecognisable compared to its noble ancestor. (The gap is about as large as from English to Latin; the grammar is simply completely different, and über-simplistic in the modern language.) Hindi is also not that much more useful than Sanskrit (to me), since so much of India's intellectual class (and all of them who are focused on the international scene) use English. That makes the language only useful for its cultural fruits, and Sanskrit's literature is far more interesting than Hindi's. (Though Hindi still has the lead in film!)

So, that's about where things stand with me for now. As far as how I find the language itself, it's perfectly pleasant. Whereas I wrote before that Latin and Greek are linguistically complementary, Sanskrit falls somewhere in between (which to me suggests it has a low Sapir-Whorf value—though I may come to revise that opinion as I learn more). I do think I'm able to understand it more easily by having a grounding in Homeric Greek (seeing how different word roots combine and so forth), and seeing how that transformed into Attic. If I had not already been exposed to that, I imagine that I would find sandhi incredibly difficult/annoying. It's an interesting language—it hasn't gripped me immediately the way Russian and Persian did, but I'm looking forward to discovering more of its nuances in the course of my reading.

जगत्पतिं गोकुलजातमर्चितुं विपश्चितः संचरतो निनाय या |
पुनश्च काव्याध्वनि मे विराजतां समुज्ज्वला सैव शुभाय तारका ||
Posted by jon at 7:00 PM in Sanskrit 
 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The results are in: Announcing my remedial Sanskrit book club

When I posted my poll question, What should Jon read in 2013?, the choices I listed were all works I genuinely wanted to read, but which, due to the source language and/or serious nature of the text, it would be something of a chore to read too. So they have all been languishing in my "pile of shame." Therefore, a New Year's Resolution would be just the thing to kick me into action and get it done.


Reading between the lines, the poll choices reveal a great deal about how comfortable I am with the languages listed. The winner, book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita, is a Sanskrit text of 78 shlokas, meaning 156 lines of verse. I can get through that many lines of Homer in under an hour, so it's pretty obvious that I feel a lot more comfortable reading Greek than Sanskrit! At the further extremes, the Russian and Latin options are thousands of pages long, whereas the Chinese and Aramaic options are essentially just learner's texts. (The Schottenstein Talmud is so heavily annotated that you can begin to study it with only what I assume to be bar mitzvah-level Hebrew and still be reading functionally in no time.)

With the Gita, however, I will be essentially building my reading knowledge of Sanskrit as I work through the text. Two shlokas a week will be a leisurely enough pace to make this possible as a casual hobby. I'm going to hold myself to the same standard I have when I read Homer: "Reading" the text does not mean producing a translation (that's a whole different sport, and to me one that entails taking away what makes the text special, as opposed to noticing and appreciating it). It means learning the vocabulary and parsing the text until I can read through it in the original, understanding everything. (When necessary, I put glosses in the margin so that, when I return to the text later, I will again be able to read it without resorting to a dictionary.)

Thus, while I'll be advancing at a rate of two shlokas per week, the reading is cumulative: first I'll read shlokas 1 and 2, the next week I'll read 1 through 4, the next 1 through 6, and so forth. Such that, at the end of the year, I'll be able to pick up Book XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita and read it straight through, with full comprehension. Or, listen to it sung, and in half an hour, review a year's worth of Sanskrit study:

Still, because the volume of text is low enough, and because it will be a learning experience to read it, I think I will turn this resolution into a series of blog posts. A sort of advanced beginner's Sanskrit book club that moves at two shlokas a week. As usual with my literary posts, though, I won't be providing too much in the way of translation help: I intend to point out interesting linguistic or poetic features as they strike my fancy, and engage with what the text is saying. There are plenty of commentaries out there on the Bhagavad Gita, but most are Hindu religious commentaries, written by Indians (or flower children). I hope that the thoughts of an American-European Catholic engaging with the text for its literary merits might provide an interesting and different perspective to share with the world.

(NB—Because writing a blog post, and finding nice illustrations for it, can be a time-consuming endeavour, I make no guarantees that the posts will go up weekly as I read the text. There may be some lag from time to time.)

Posted by jon at 12:00 PM in Sanskrit 
 
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