The Secrets of Sanskrit
If you've ever started a yoga class with the sound of OM, you've spoken in the ancient language of Sanskrit. This language is the earliest Indo-European language that we know and is the basis for all Hindu mantras that you might be familiar with today.
While you may be aware that chanting OM seems to make you feel pretty good at the beginning or end of your yoga class, what you may not realize is that when you chant, you are speaking in what many consider to be the world's most perfect language.
Sanskrit is arguably the world's oldest language. Long before Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Indian poets composed ancient Sanskrit poems. And before it existed as a codified written language, Sanskrit was an oral tradition, passed on from teacher to student.
Before classical Sanskrit was codified into Classical Sanskrit, it was based on Vedic chanting, which has origins that go back as far as 1700-1200 BCE.
The ancient scholar Panini began laying out the grammatical foundation for classical Sanskrit in 500 BCE, and his work included almost 4,000 syntax and semantic rules for the codified language. The translation to Classical Sanskrit was always approached in a scientific and mathematical way.
Thinkers who codified oral Sanskrit into written language are the same thinkers who invented the concept of zero and the binary number system. The grammar of Sanskrit is so rigorous and specific in its semantic networks it has been compared to computer programming languages.
Sanskrit's phonetic accuracy plays a significant role in its perfection. Each letter has a distinct sound in Sanskrit that doesn't vary when used in different words and contexts. A in Sanskrit will sound the same regardless of the context. This is very different from English, where the sound of the letter a in apple will ring drastically different from the a used in autumn.
In the Sanskrit language, each letter or syllable makes a consistent sound and isn't affected by the letter before or after it. It always sounds exactly as it's been written, no matter the context.
The Sanskrit Effect
Many who study Sanskrit refer to something called "the Sanskrit effect," in which they notice that after learning, practicing, and memorizing the language, they experience what seems to be enhanced verbal memory and thinking.
A neuroscientist at the University of Trento in Italy was so curious about his cognitive experiences with Sanskrit that he, along with fellow students, investigated the cognitive effects of Sanskrit by comparing MRI scans of professional Sanskrit scholars to a control group.
They discovered notably more gray matter, specifically in regions of the brain that impact short- and long-term memory. While the real-life effect of this gray matter increase in vital parts of the brain has yet to be understood, it's possible that memorization exercises in Sanskrit could support cognitive function in aging adults.
When we chant in Sanskrit, we create sound vibrations that affect the energy points throughout the body. But just listening to mantras in Sanskrit will have a similar effect, creating vibrations in our bodies. The vibrations produced when someone else is chanting are good for you.
These sound vibrations can calm or energize you, depending on the sounds in the mantra.
For instance, many people are familiar with the OM sound that you often chant three times before or after a yoga practice. But did you know that OM is actually AUM? AUM comprises three Sanskrit syllables and is considered to be the primordial sound, existing from the beginning of time.
It is believed that every other sound comes from these three sounds, A-U-M, similar to how all colors are derived from the three primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. AUM is the universal sound — the sound of the cosmos.
Using AUM as an example, the vibrations are created in different parts of our body when we chant it. A is felt below the navel, U is felt at the chest, and M is felt above the throat. Try it for yourself — instead of just saying OM, sound out A-U-M and see where you feel each syllable in your body.
Meaning Matters, or Does It?
While many aspects of language impact us because of their meaning, Sanskrit's effects on us exist because of the ancient sound vibrations. Each syllable in Sanskrit can have a different effect on us. When we chant AUM, or OM, we are not seeking a particular meaning like when we speak in our everyday languages; we're hoping to receive an almost mystical effect from the vibrations created from the sound waves.
Chanting Sanskrit mantras can help calm the mind, reduce stress and anxiety, and create positive energy within and all around you. In yogic practices, the sound vibrations of this ancient language are said to heal the body through the divine vibrational frequencies, not through the meaning of the words.
We all know the entire universe is made up of energy. It's this energetic force that the ancients were very aware of when they began singing the ancient Vedic hymns in the old oral Sanskrit tradition. These divine sounds were believed to have originated in the cosmos and passed down as sacred sounds that could heal and effect the body and all the energy surrounding us.
Humans are meaning-making machines, but the meaning of Sanskrit mantras is secondary to the effects of the sound waves. When we practice mantra, or even listen to it, we can tap into the healing benefit of this primal and perfect language of the cosmos without putting meaning at the forefront of our minds.
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