The Power of Language

Methodology Dec 25, 2020

Growing up, I was always surrounded by Sanatana Dharma. From a young age, I was introduced to my mother tongue Kannada, other children who also were eager to learn the language, and the vast expanse of culture my ancestors had contributed to. As I grew older, the more I learnt of the intricacies of Hinduism and the more I followed the words of the “guru” we were following during that time, I was empowered by my own culture and grew out of my shame for my own background in a society that often suppresses diversity. As I encountered obstacles, I always held the belief that I had God by my side. I felt invincible.

This quickly fell apart, all at once, a couple years into high school. I was told that the “guru” I had believed was next to God, the man who I had trusted for more than a decade of my life, was a false prophet. Everything I had set my religious and spiritual foundation on, everything I had believed would allow me to overcome anything in life, came crashing down. I was faced with the harsh reality that no human being could be considered a perfect entity, and everything I had taken in by following someone else’s words may or may not have been false; Doubt was now cast over what I had built my values and ideals on. My trust in religious leaders, in anyone who proclaimed to have read, understood, and preached about Sanatana Dharma had vanished. My feelings of invincibility soon turned to distrust, anger, confusion. I questioned my foundation of values and ideals; How could I rebuild this after so ardently following one way of thinking for the majority of my life?

My introduction to Sanskritam came incredibly soon after this, by my mother. We joined the non-profit organization, Samskrita Bharati, aiming to spread the ancient language of Sanskritam, and began to learn and teach the language to those from our own organization, Vidya-Niketanam. My distrust in the self-proclaimed “gurus” turned into a quest for me to learn for myself what they had been preaching. As Sanskritam came into my life, I realized I had finally found a way to uncover what my ancestors had built without being tainted by the agenda of others.

Through this self discovery, I uncovered the power of language, and the danger of bias. We all experience life in very different ways based on every decision we make and the stimuli we are exposed to. One altered decision, one altered stimuli, and the course of our life is completely different. This can be related to what is often called “the butterfly effect,” the theory that even one small change in one instance can have paramount effects much later in the future. The different ways in which we view life affect the lenses with which we see the world. A simplified version of this concept can be explained through the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. Each man touches a different part of the elephant, and creates their image of an elephant based on this one part. Although many morals can be extracted from this story, one is the understanding that the ways in which we see and interpret the world are based on the context of our own experiences.

As I began to understand this concept, I realized the underlying bias and “agenda” that underpins many of the interpretations we read of Sanskrit texts. Some who have always believed and continue to believe Krishna or Shiva to be the ultimate form of God interpret all texts to refer to these entities. It’s not as if many consciously have some sort of agenda. Most of the time, it is implicit, based on their exposure, that result in them interpreting the text in a certain way, completely different than the person next to them. My interest in the language rose as I realized I could use the language as a vehicle to understand the texts on my own, analyze them according to my own interpretations, untainted by those of others. Sanskritam was how I was going to restore my faith, my ideals, my values, my morals, and my pride. I felt assured knowing I had found a way to feel the safety in a set of values I trusted again.

It has been close to six years since I began this journey, and I have encountered many obstacles along the way. In the beginning, I rejected any words of translation and interpretation from anyone, adamant on creating my own. However, as I envisioned the road to the destination of being able to read the Vedas on my own, it was much longer than I had originally anticipated (quite naively, I will add). I realized, as I gathered the tools to be able to reach this destination, I needed to read the interpretations of others, but this time would be aided with a critical eye, acknowledging the implicit biases intertwined in the text. I still wanted to continue on my spiritual journey as I concurrently armed myself with the tools to discover the words of my ancestors on my own.

Along with this self discovery, Sanskritam introduced me to an entirely new family. Each summer at Shraddhaa, the week long residential summer camp for students of SAFL (Samskritam as a Foreign Language, a three-year course in Sanskritam from Samskrita Bharati), I came into contact with others so similar to me - Indian American Hindus who grew up in America and were adamant and eager to learn about their own culture. Some of my best friends, to this day, I had met through Sanskritam, a community I wouldn’t trade for any other.

Sanskritam also allowed me to discover my love for teaching. As I learned Sanskritam, I was given opportunities to teach the language, whether at the weekly Vidya-Niketanam sessions, SAFL, or various summer camps. Although I had always had an inclination towards teaching, as an Indian, I was pushed towards pursuing the holy trinity (now expanded to include IT, as well): medicine, law, or engineering. I can distinctly remember the turning point, after which I was adamant on pursuing pedagogy as a career. The summer before my senior year of high school, I was in a classroom, teaching in a Sanskritam camp in Virginia. One of the latter days of the camp, I was telling a story in Sanskritam, enthusiastically acting out the scenes and trying to keep each student engaged. The amount of contentment, happiness, and overall joy I felt in those moments was unparalleled, pushing me to defy the trinity and pursue education instead. I am, and will forever be grateful to Sanskritam for allowing me to discover my inner love for teaching, and giving me the opportunity to pursue it now as an education major.

In college, my various experiences of Sanskritam serve to shape me into the person I want to become. Much like the other Indian girls growing up in this country, I had learned Bharatanatyam, an ancient Indian art form, from the age of four. Going to dance class was always a chore. Being dragged by my mother to spend an hour to two hours of my Friday nights sweating profusely in a hot room with other girls my age, body aching, was not how I wanted to spend my time. As many other dancers, however, I grew an appreciation for the art form, serving as a way to not only relieve the stress of my academic life, but also uncover the various mythological and spiritual aspects of Sanatana Dharma. As my toolkit of Sanskritam grew larger, my understanding of what I was dancing to, and the appreciation of the art form grew as well. It is one thing to dance to a song you do not completely understand, relying completely on what your guru says is the meaning and interpretation of the lyrics.  It is a completely different one to understand what you are dancing to and be able to convey your own interpretation, based on your own experiences, bringing out a unique life to a dance. As I now dance with a group of women, all equally enthusiastic and motivated to create pieces rich in beauty and meaning, I am empowered by them and the art form we have the opportunity to protect and pass on.

As I look back on my experiences with spirituality, I realize the ways in which Sanskritam infused itself into the major aspects of my life. From allowing me to begin the process of restructuring my foundational values and views of spirituality and religion, using it to inform  my views as a dancer as well, to affirming my love for pedagogy, Sanskrit has done much to shape me into the person I am today, and the person I will become in the future.

Lekha Tantry is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in Mathematics and a minor in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. She is currently pursuing her master’s in Secondary Math Education from UMD, and is concurrently teaching at Paint Branch High School. She has been learning Bharatanatyam since the age of four, and was on UMD Moksha, UMD’s collegiate competitive classical dance team. She has been learning and teaching Sanskritam since the age of 14 through Samskrita Bharati.

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Lekha Tantry

Graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in Mathematics Pursuing her master’s in Secondary Math Education Learning and teaching Sanskritam