Some time ago I was on a long-haul flight from Sydney to Vancouver. In the row in front was a young mother with two little boys. The flight attendant announced that no peanuts would be served on the flight as these boys had a severe peanut allergy. The whole way to Vancouver this mother provided her children with carefully pre-prepared food. She made sure the boys were occupied, answering their questions, resting when she could. It was very impressive.
And, of course, Sanskrit immediately came to mind. What has this got to do with Sanskrit you might ask. I’ll get to that.
First, let’s ask what is Sanskrit? It is an ancient language, some would say timeless. It is described as the language of the Universe, and a Mother of Languages. These are grand claims to be sure, so let’s look at Sanskrit on two levels.
First, Sanskrit is a written and spoken language. It has grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure and so on. As a Mother of Languages, Sanskrit is an etymological matriarch of the Indo-European family of languages. This family of languages includes Latin, Ancient Greek and the Indian, Romance and Germanic languages. English, of course, is an Indo-European language.
The relationship of Sanskrit to English is easy to demonstrate. Let’s take a very important English word: ‘mother’. The dictionary definition of ‘mother’ is: A woman in relation to her child; female parent: also used of female animals in relation to their offspring. It’s a start, but does it help us to get an insight into what was happening on that flight to Vancouver? Does it provide a doorway to real understanding?
The English word ‘mother’ is related to the Sanskrit word mātri - written as मातृ in the beautiful Devanāgarī script - so whether we’re aware of it or not, when we use this, and many other common English words, we are directly connected to Sanskrit meanings which can take us to deeper levels of understanding. So to get an insight into the care shown by that young mother taking her boys home to Canada, let’s look at the power, energy and inner meaning of mātri.
To do this we need to consider a second, deeper level of Sanskrit, beyond the world of grammar and dictionaries, of spelling and syntax.
The word ‘sanskrita’ itself means ‘purified and perfectly formed’, and this deeper second level of Sanskrit, therefore, connects us to a world that is pure and perfectly formed. It is not just a language but a doorway to deep meaning.
The first level of the Sanskrit language - written, grammatical, used for communication and interaction between people - is the closest reflection we have of that inner perfectly formed language.
The mechanism by which the first Sanskrit, a grammatical language, connects to the second Sanskrit, the pure language of the universe, is through an intricate system of verbal roots. The Sanskrit term for these verbal roots is dhātu (धातु). We will need to take a moment to examine this dhātu system, but stay with me, it opens up a whole new exciting way of seeing and experiencing the world.
Each dhātu gives rise to a myriad of words, and is the source of the core meaning of all those words derived from it. And the fact that these roots are verbal is the key to the system.
Verbs are ‘doing’ words, they are actions, they contain energetic empowering force. Actions are a form of energy. Words in Sanskrit, therefore, carry the core energy of the meaning of their dhātu, their verbal root. This dhatu system is one of the astonishing and exceptional features of Sanskrit: that meaning is conveyed and discovered in action, in experience, in doing, not merely in the form of objects and concepts.
Perhaps an illustration will help. Let’s take a ‘table’ as a simple example. When we see a table most of us think of it as a thing, an object. We usually think of it as an inert object made of wood or metal and glass. We don’t tend to experience it in terms of the service it is performing for us, we don’t usually see the ‘act of tabling’.
In Sanskrit, by way of contrast, the meaning of something is found in what it does, in the action it performs. So a ‘table’ is, in fact, the action of providing us with a dependable horizontal surface at a convenient height. If a so-called ‘table’ ceases to perform the act of ‘tabling’, if it loses a couple of its legs say, if it ceases to provide us with a surface upon which to put our dinner, then it is no longer a table.
So what is the Sanskrit word for ‘table’ and what does it tell us of the deeper meaning of a ‘table’?
The word phalaka means a flat board or bench, a surface for writing or painting. In other words – a table. The word phalaka also means ‘fruit’ and comes from the dhātu – the verbal root – phal. The meaning of phal relates to a whole host of actions like splitting, cleaving, bursting forth and bearing fruit.
So phalaka, a humble word for an ordinary piece of domestic furniture, carries within it both the means of its production – the splitting or cleaving of wood, which is how we get a table; and also its function - the bearing and presentation of food, specifically fruit, in an abundant ‘bursting forth’ way. Isn’t this a rich and abundant way of experiencing a table?
Now let’s go back to that flight to Canada. Consider that Sanskrit word ‘mother’ —mātri. It draws its meaning from the dhātu, the verbal root mā (मा). Mā means ‘to measure’. So, the essential meaning of ‘mother’ is the act of measuring.
A mother - mātri - cares for and nurtures the body, mind, heart and spirit of a child. She provides everything just in the right measure, perfect for the time and place. The measures of what a child needs change all the time, but a mother is perfectly designed to give the child what is needed when it is needed. She measures out love, encouragement, discipline, boundaries, knowledge, food, what to wear in the winter or summer, the list is endless. Different measures are needed to care for a baby, a young child or a teenager, but the act of measuring is the constant factor.
The knowledge of this measuring is innate and arises in response to the child. It is not a theory or a concept. It is known and expressed in the moment, in the very act of mothering. The true meaning of ‘mother’ is in the action and the experience. Any woman, whether they have given birth to a child or not, has the potential to express this natural and innate power of measuring or mothering in the presence of a child. The greater the level of presence and awareness in the mother, the more precise the measure is. That was certainly evident on that flight to Canada.
Just to round this off, the word ‘father’ is derived from the Sanskrit pitri. It comes from the root pā meaning ‘to watch, keep and preserve’. The meaning of pā is discovered ‘in the act of guarding, watching and protecting’. So a father is a biologically male parent, of course. But it is in the act of guarding, watching, and protecting that he fulfills his role.
So the question now is how to make this wisdom of Sanskrit practical and available for those of us who have not made it a special study. What can someone who wants to deepen their understanding of the spiritual dimension of meaning do? It’s actually quite simple.
The fact that sanskrita means ‘purified and perfectly formed’ gives us the first key. That key is to connect with the perfection of things. And the second key is that Sanskrit meanings are based on action, the core energy of each word.
These two keys come together in a simple question that you can ask any time, any place, in any circumstance about anything:
What is this thing designed to do when it is working perfectly? How does it fulfill its purpose flawlessly?
Let’s take a few examples.
Take a clock, a road, a cloud or love. Ask the question – what is each of these designed to do - and see what answer comes:
- A clock measures out the time accurately.
- A road provides a safe easy way for people to travel from one place to another.
- A cloud stores water, provides shade, gives rain.
- Love warms the heart, unites, soothes and comforts.
And with those answers, the next easy step is to feel the activity. We then experience the gift that each of these things provides, without ever asking for anything from us in return.
The next time, for example, you are driving along a road, feel the generous activity of the road as it provides a safe, solid surface upon which you can travel from your point of departure towards your destination.
Delving into the deeper meaning of words and objects in this way is very beautiful. The meaning we experience connects us to the ceaseless service that everything in the universe provides to everything else. The timeless wisdom of Sanskrit, the connection to the perfection that surrounds us, can help us redefine, clarify and realize new meanings, which can have a powerful positive impact in our life.