10/12/2012 02:46 pm ET Updated Dec 12, 2012

Is Sanskrit (In)dispensable for Hindu Liturgy?

Another good question that Hindus, especially North American diasporic Hindus, ought to ask themselves concerns the indispensability of Sanskrit for Hindu ritual and prayers, basically for Hindu liturgy. Though it is true that vernacular languages have played a significant role in regional and devotion forms of Hinduism, the version that has developed in North America are founded on the centrality and indispensability of Sanskrit in temple rituals, home services (sacraments such as marriages etc.) and in prayers.

But how many practitioners understand the Sanskrit that is being recited? How many devotees (and potential devotees) are disenchanted or alienated because they do not understand the purport of the ritual or of the prayer? (Alternatively, how many are mesmerized by this?) Should Hindu temples in North America change their liturgical language to English? or to the majority language of the congregation (Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati etc.)? or should the liturgy still be in Sanskrit and interested devotees can obtain helpful "translations" or play-by-play guides in the vernacular language of their choosing?

The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church addressed and rectified a somewhat similar problem in Sacrosanctum Concilium 36, where it was recognized that "the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people..." Is this, then, the direction that Hindu temples in North America ought to take? Would it be beneficial if the liturgy were in the vernacular?

Such a scenario, to use the vernacular, may, prima facie, seem like a good idea. But several critical questions would need to be answered: Is there something about Sanskrit itself that would make a non-Sanskrit liturgy inefficacious? Would the gods/goddesses propitiated be "deaf" if the propitiation were not in Sanskrit? Would the gods/goddesses be unable to understand non-Sanskrit reverence (i.e. it's all Greek to me)? Would imploring Shri Ganesh, the elephant-headed deity, for example, in English, not provide the desired results? And is Sanskrit translatable? Could the purport of the liturgy in Sanskrit ever be accurately conveyed in English, Telegu, Chinese or any other vernacular? And if translation were permissible, then who would do the translation, and, more importantly, who would authorize it? While this issue was addressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium 36 ("Translations from the Latin text into the mother tongue intended for use in the liturgy must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned above"), is there a credentialed governing Hindu group in North America (or elsewhere) who would have such power? And from where would such a group derive its authority?

These are just a few of the sort of questions that would arise should Hindus ask about the in/dispensability of Sanskrit in Hindu liturgy. It may be a critical time for Hindus, especially diasporic Hindus, to reflect on this. After all, many second-generation diasporic Hindus are neither familiar with Sanskrit nor with the vernacular language of their parents and may, consequently, opt to jettison their Hindu identities.

What do you think?