Peeling Back the Layers of Sanskrit and Vedic Chanting

06/18/2011 10:25 am ET | Updated Aug 19, 2011

Frigyes Karinthy may have come up with the idea of "six degrees of separation" -- that every person is a "friend of a friend" within six relations -- but I'm convinced that for Ahmedabad, the Indian city of 6 million in the state of Gujarat, and its diaspora, the degrees that separate are only three.

Case in point: this past weekend, my family had the privilege of spending a relaxed, yet intellectually exhilarating evening with renowned Sanskrit scholar, Dr. Lakshmesh V. Joshi, a professor emeritus and former head of Sanskrit at Gujarat University with numerous publications, awards and recognitions to his name. Last year, my mother-in-law, Charugita Shukla, a classical dancer, poet and Director of Gitamrutam Vedic Arts, had consulted Dr. Joshi in Ahmedabad to gain a fuller understanding of Purusha Suktam for an upcoming music and dance production on the same. The Purusha Suktam is a chapter, if you will, from the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedas, that describes the beginning and nature of Creation. It turned out that Dr. Joshi was also a colleague of my mother-in-law's father, a Sanskrit scholar in his own right.

Fast forward to four weeks ago: someone sends to Dr. Joshi's son, who happens to live in the Twin Cities, a link to "The Great Yoga Debate,"a back and forth on the Hindu roots of yoga between Hindu American Foundation co-founder Dr. Aseem Shukla (and also my husband) and the famed Deepak Chopra. The son sees that Aseem is based in the Twin Cities, so reaches out by email. One reply and a phone conversation later, we quickly realize that this "chance" virtual meeting has connections that go back two generations.

But discovery of these few degrees, while entertaining, were inconsequential in comparison to the conversations we enjoyed with the professor. In India, Dr. Joshi's time and expertise are in high demand -- meetings are secured by appointment only. But while he's visiting his son in the Twin Cities, life's pace is slow and a summer evening over a homemade Indian meal brought forth a rare Vedas 101.

Sanskrit words are often translated rather simplistically (or mistranslated), especially by many Western scholars of religion or linguistics who have gained only a cursory knowledge of Sanskrit. But each word in the Sanskrit lexicon, Dr. Joshi explained, has a much subtler, almost poetic meaning -- an understanding that can only emerge from full immersion in the language. He gave us the example of a basic word, shakha. Shakha is commonly translated as "branch," like a branch of literature or a physical branch of a larger organization. But delve deeper into the word, he explained, and one will find that shakha is the derivative of several roots -- kh means "sky," khe to kha then is "in the sky." Sh or shete means "that which lies down or flat across." Shakha is therefore, "that which lies flat across the sky." In this breakdown exercise of just one word, not only did our respect for Sanskrit grow another tenfold, but we gained a possible reason, aside from malintent and Freudian lenses, as to why we see so many translations of Hindu scripture from "experts" in unions like the American Academy of Religions that are completely divorced from their emic understandings.

The true gem of the evening, though, was learning about Jatapatha. Jatapatha is a complex combination of the individual words of mantras from the Vedas. The Vedas, Hindus believe, contain eternal truths received or heard by the ancient rishis (seers) through Divine revelation and after years of meditation and contemplation. There are four Vedas, the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. These four tomes, in turn, consist of four sections, namely Samhitas (mantras or hymns), Brahmanas (methodology of ritual), the Aryanakas (special rituals) and the Upanishads (philosophy).

Totaling 100,000+ verses, the Vedas, for thousands of years, have been transmitted orally from one generation to the next. In that vein, one could argue that the Vedas that we hear today, may not be the same as the original. But such an argument is moot because the ancient rishis foresaw this very potential of alteration, said Dr. Joshi, and came up with a built-in mechanism to prevent exactly that. And the way in which they did so can be described only as sheer mathematical ingenuity. To ensure that the Vedas remained unchanged in content, intonation, and inflection, a number of techniques of recitation with increasing complexity and difficulty were developed, including Jatapata.

The first is Samhita, the simplest form of recitation that approaches the mantra as it is, for example,"the sky is blue" (abcd). Next is Padha, where each word is broken down, as in, "the/sky/is/blue" (a/b/c/d). Krama, the third technique, adds the first real level of difficulty into the recitation through a pattern of "the sky/sky is/is blue" (ab/bc/cd). Jatapatha, the first of the more challenging, alternates between a repetitious interposing and transposing of words to create a pattern of "the sky sky the the sky/sky is is sky sky is/is blue blue is is blue" (abbaab/bccbbc/cddccd). Between Jatapata and the last technique are six other techniques (called Mala, Shikha, Rekha, Dvaja, Danda and Ratha) that again are built-in combinations and permutations that have ensured that the order and words of the Vedas remain unchanged. The ultimate and most complex technique is called Ghanam. Its mind-boggling backwards and forwards pattern is, "the sky sky the the sky is is sky the the sky is/sky is is sky sky is blue blue is sky is blue" (abbaabccbaabc/bccbbcddcbbcd).

By the end of the evening, I was both inspired by the ingenuity of the Ancients and exceedingly overwhelmed. As a second-generation Hindu American immersed in English, though raised bilingually, how could I ever hope to fully comprehend the detailed knowledge found in the Vedas and other Sanskrit texts? Being fluent in my parents' native language, Gujarati, which evolved from Sanskrit, perhaps there will be a time when I can lose myself fully in the Mother of all languages. In the meantime, I'll continue to strive toward studying, practicing and living the essence of Hinduism's eternal teachings, knowing full well that there's infinitely more beauty waiting to be discovered.