Nîn o Chithaeglir lasto beth daer; rimmo nín Bruinen dan in Ulaer
When I first heard these words flow from Arwen’s mouth and then saw a gush of water engulf the malicious Ringwraiths of The Lord of the Rings, something about it struck me, something I still find hard to put into words. This feeling though, came back to me again when I started watching the Harry Potter movies, and first encountered:
“Are you talking about spells?”, I hear you saying as you read these tentative lines I have set out in the introduction, probably wondering what I am talking about. Yes, I too thought they were just spells, the kind of thing we expect in the genre of fantasy and magic. And thus this feeling, this deep sense of curiosity lay buried for years as I went about my life.
Fast forward to 2019 and I found myself standing at a Barnes & Noble store in New Jersey with Wheelock’s Latin in my hand. The years between Arwen’s spell and my encounter with this wonderful textbook were filled with many linguistic adventures of my own. I had completely switched my field and come into languages, I had learnt the grammar of Hindi, I had learnt how to read and write Urdu and also started on Persian. But the hallmark of these years was rediscovering Sanskrit.
When I started learning Sanskrit in the fifth grade, almost everyone around me seemed to be in agreement that it was somehow not a good thing. My friends thought it was too difficult and I had seen my sister struggle with it. Almost everyone complained about the horrors of memorizing the declensions balakah, balakau, balakah, and conjugations, paThati, paThatah, paThanti. We spent so many hours repeating them that they are now ingrained in our brains. A recent language meme captured this somewhat morbidly but succinctly:
(The guy with the knife is looking for the other guy who is hiding. He is a bit confused initially, doesn’t know how to draw the other guy out. But he is smart, thinks quickly on his feet, and starts reciting the conjugation of the root paTh, to study. He starts with the third person singular and dual forms and stops there and the guy hiding can’t help but complete the third person conjugation by saying aloud the plural form. Unfortunately for him, he probably gets caught in the process and…)
But not just in relation to my studies, this fame or rather mis-fame of Sanskrit preceded it everywhere I encountered it as a child. Except for my Sanskrit teacher in school, who, as I now realise, may have been deeply touched by all the Sanskrit shlokas and stories she knew, and a couple of inspiring pandits performing rituals, Sanskrit for me and for most of the children around me was not a subject that we could ‘have fun’ with or ‘intellectually engage’ in. And now more than ever I realise how dangerous and false such impressions that float about us are.
Like most people who eventually fall in love with Sanskrit, my circuitous journey started when I got older. Somehow all the negativity that I had witnessed towards the language had not seeped into me and I found myself pining to be able to understand and comprehend it. And when I finally made my way back into it, it was like falling into the rabbit hole, but in a good way. The world of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts is subtle and intricate, it is also hard to get into but when you do, there are no words to describe the intellectual, philosophical and spiritual treasures that await you.
Now, you must be wondering, what does Elvish, J.K. Rowling’s spells, Latin and Sanskrit have in common? A Japanese word Kotodama succinctly captures the idea: the power of words to influence and change physical reality.
It is a concept very hard to reconcile with how we look at the physical world today. Spells are a thing of fantasy, not reality and yet, this idea that words are not mere labels but can be used to influence matter, is widely held across many cultures either as a religious belief, cultural remnant or a popular myth. The God of the Old Testament just had to say a word to make things happen. Closer to home, Indian sages of the epics are well known for giving boons and curses that shaped entire histories of kings and kingdoms of the land. Words have been wielded as weapons, for as far back as we can see in religious and mythical lore.
But it’s not just about words or the meanings associated with them, it is equally important how they are enunciated. This was most adorably captured by the scene between Ron and Hermione, where she corrects his pronunciation of ‘Leviosa’. He, of course, doesn’t hear the difference, but she says it right and voila! Her wing starts flying.
The importance of correct enunciation was not unknown in the world of Vedic rituals too. In fact, people placed extreme emphasis on it and several ancillary texts were devoted entirely to it. In the Vedas, there are hymns and short phrases, called mantras, that kind of work like spells, but not exactly. Some people would say, that the entire foundation of Sanskrit grammar was laid to ensure that the sounds and proper pronunciation and tones are preserved.
Now, many people have started talking about words and their vibrations and how these vibrations interact with us and our surroundings. I find this idea very intriguing.
But what is even more intriguing for me is that, when we are looking for such ‘power-packed words’, we either go back to classical languages, or mix those with our modern languages, or invent a new language altogether. Some etymologists and Sanskritists of the spiritual bent say that in a language like Sanskrit, the names of things and the labels we put on them are not just a matter of convention or general agreement. There is a strong acoustic and vibratory link between the thing we name and its name itself and when we use Sanskrit names for things, we are able to touch these things at an acoustic level. Maybe that can explain the power of spells to some extent.
I would completely skirt round the whole issue of whether spells and mantras can or did at any historical point work or not. Mantra Saadhna is a well known practice in India and has been so for years, and many people from personal experience say that it has an effect. I too have had a mantra handed down to me by one of my aunts through my mom and I have chanted it during my moments of nervousness before exams and I am not sure how it works but it worked almost always.
But recounting personal experiences is not scientific and has not really been the point of my interest in these languages. I just want to know for now, what makes a language like Sanskrit or Latin an effective medium to interact and influence our mental and physical worlds.
Given how fantastic, in a very literal sense, this whole idea of spells and mantras is, I can but only muse. But through that I hope I can capture some of my own experiences learning these languages and how I think they continue to have an overpowering influence on me. The first thing that comes to mind, with respect to Sanskrit especially, is the word order. Classical languages are heavily inflected which means that sentences like…
Boy sees girl.
Girl sees boy.
…are not dependent on the word order. Certain suffixes will attach themselves to ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ to tell you who is the subject and the object. This has huge advantages when one is contained by a metre, because the metre after all sets the mood of the words and if you can switch the words around and make your lines scan, you can preserve not only the meaning but also the mood.
The second thing that strikes me about classical languages is how the structure of the language itself is almost clearly visible. This is especially true for Sanskrit–Sanskrit grammarians put in a lot of work to derive words from verbal roots, with the result being that you not only can explain most of the words in the language with a simple prefix+root+suffix formula, but also invent new ones. It is not something modern languages can boast of, our vocabulary usually grows by borrowing words from other modern languages or these classical languages. No-one is stopping us from making our own words and I indulge in that pastime often, but it’s very different from being equipped with a list of two thousand verbal roots and hundreds of suffixes and prefixes and rules for their combination.
And that brings me to the last thing that I think could be relevant to our discussion here. Mastering a language like Sanskrit with all its intricacies takes years and years of work. Even if someone already knew the language because they were raised with it, which is rare these days, understanding the language inside out, its grammar, etymology, prosody–it would all still take years to learn and that learning in itself is a transformative process.
It is now well known that learning a new language changes the brain physically. What would be interesting to see is whether learning a classical language leads to a more specialised kind of mental refinement. This brings me back to my Sanskrit teacher, a quiet and reflective lady, very different from the others around her. It may have been her natural disposition but more and more I am beginning to think that her association with Sanskrit played a part in that. The question to ask is, when people spend years perfecting a language and meditating on it, does that change the way they use words and language in general?
But, I hear you saying, what does any of it have to do with interacting with the physical world. And I hear you and I am sorry to disappoint you, in that, I don’t have a fool-proof explanation of how Wingardium Leviosa might have worked for Hermione.
In my own experience with learning Sanskrit and now snatches of Latin, I feel that words, how we use them and say them, is an art and, perhaps, a science that should be looked into. While today we only look at language as an aid to description and expression, there is a case for also looking at it as a tool for realising our wishes and desires. We already have the intuition for it, when we search for the perfect words to express our love, when we pray and ask for our wishes to come true, when we get angry and swear and in that moment everything around us seems to start collapsing–there are innumerable instances in our life when we wish we could make things come true just by saying them. The question to ask is–is there some truth to it, and if so, how do we harness this power of words?
(Image Credit: From the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)
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