Sanskrit’s history and relevance to the modern Ayurvedic practitioner

By Jamila Colozzi 17 June 2019
Students of Ayurveda and Yoga are often drawn to the study of the Sanskrit – the ancient and slightly mystical mother language of the celebrated verses chanted during class or meditation. But where did this profound language come from, and what exactly does it have to offer an Ayurvedic practitioner today?

 

The origin of Sanskrit

Before you can understand the value of Sanskrit as a modern-day practitioner, it is important to be aware of its relevance in the history of Ayurveda, which is a product of the Vedic period of the Indian subcontinent. Sanskrit is an old Indo-Aryan language in which some of the most ancient documents known today, the Vedas were composed. It originated in the second millennium BCE. In the Indus Valley Civilization, where the natives were most likely earlier cousins of the Vedic people, a rudimentary form of Sanskrit was spoken with some Dravidian elements. The civilization began sometime around 6,000 BCE, and spread as far as the borders of modern-day Iran. The Indus culture was probably succeeded by the early Vedic culture around 2,000 BCE with Sanskrit as the principal language of communication, at least among the elite and ruling classes of the society. From the earliest verses found in the Vedas, we understand that Sanskrit had already evolved into a full-fledged language by the time they were composed.

Panini, a fourth century Sanskrit scholar, popularized the language with his systematic treatise, Ashtadhyayi. His inspiration made Sanskrit the preeminent Indian language of learning and literature for two millennia. The 14 sounds of the Maheswara Sutra are the most ancient known Sanskrit alphabet sequence. More than just alphabetical sounds, the Maheswara Sutra is a powerful mantra, and the vibrations of its utterance are known to have healing powers. The sounds of the alphabet are said to have originated from Lord Siva’s Damru, or drum, during the universe’s creation.

 

What makes Sanskrit unique amongst the ancient languages

Sanskrit is considered the mother of all languages with an influence as vast and deep as its spiritual associations. It belongs to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European family, and the oldest form is the Vedic Sanskrit. In India and Southeast Asia, the language enjoys a status similar to that of Latin and Greek in the western world. Literary researchers have identified Sanskrit as originating from the same source as Latin, Greek, and Persian. However, Sanskrit has its own wonderful structure. With exquisitely refined grammatical forms and verb roots, it is considered more “perfect” and copious than its counterparts. In its native Devanagari script, Sanskrit is known as Samskrta, which translates to “most refined.”

Sanskrit exerted a great deal of influence on all languages and cultures of the Indian subcontinent as well as beyond. The vocabularies of many Indian languages are heavily Sanskritized as a result. It is largely used today as a ceremonial language and in Hindu rituals due to its integral part of Hindu tradition and philosophy. Sanskrit language has also enriched many European languages, including English, and possibly many western philosophies. Modern Indian scholars of Sanskrit culture have often remarked that many of the new concepts of nuclear physics or modern psychology are easy for them to grasp, since they correspond exactly to familiar notions of Sanskrit terminology! Its versatility and power of expression can be appreciated by the fact that this language has 65 words to describe various forms of Earth, and over 250 words alone to describe rainfall.

Sanskrit’s connection with Ayurveda

Sanskrit is regarded as the language mother of all the universe, an explosive source of endless knowledge. The four Vedas, which document the knowledge of the Vedic period, are composed entirely in Sanskrit language. Ayurvedic knowledge is contained in the Upaveda of Atharva Veda. The ancient Ayurvedic philosophy, formulae, suggestions, herbs, herbal formulations, treatment methods, lifestyle management protocol and all medical instructions were first written down in Sanskrit. Since Ayurveda is codified using Sanskrit, a good knowledge of this language is crucial to properly understand the Ayurvedic texts.

Both Ayurveda and Sanskrit can touch you in a metaphysical way. A Sloka, or Sutra is the poetic form of the language used in the Ayurvedic root textbooks. Any form of Ayurvedic knowledge is a direct or indirect translation from the original Sanskrit verse. Learning Sanskrit language and Ayurveda together allows the student to truly embrace the best of both worlds: studying the source of nourishment and fullness of life in Sanskrit likewise offers the deepest possible access to Ayurveda’s wisdom. The ancient language embodies the principles behind Ayurveda, in its structure, sound and vibrations.

 

The value of Sanskrit knowledge for western practitioners of Ayurveda

A basic knowledge of Sanskrit is essential for understanding the essence of Ayurveda. It enriches the understanding of the classical textbooks as well as the commentaries. Ayurveda’s mind-body science has a rich heritage, and this ancient language is a direct route to get there. Sanskrit is also a verbal cleanser of the mind, enabling a practitioner to embody the balanced state from which he or she can best support the health of others.

A knowledge of Sanskrit benefits a Western Ayurvedic practitioner in the following ways:

  • Provides access for studying the root texts of Ayurvedic philosophy
  • Improves sense of learning Ayurveda and ability to follow lectures
  • Creates an overall more authentic learning experience
  • Deepens understanding of a Sutra’s more complex meaning
  • Aids in comprehension of the Mantras while doing meditation
  • Makes the learning process much easier
  • Enhances memory and retention with the power of the syllables
  • Helps the student make “quantum leaps” and learn more than initially expected
  • Calms the mind while learning the Sanskrit sutras
  • Enriches the learning experience with healing vibration
  • Increase connectivity and spiritual invocation