When I met Amma in 1989, I didn’t know anything about Eastern spirituality and I had never heard of Sanskrit. Months later, I attended a one or two day workshop focused on learning the sounds of the Sanskrit letters. I have no memory of where I heard about the workshop or why I went. I do remember one other Amma devotee there, so maybe he invited me to go, or perhaps a group of devotees attended. Many of the bhajans (devotional songs) Amma sings are in Sanskrit so it may be I wanted to learn to pronounce the words of the songs correctly.
The workshop leader, Vyaas Houston, taught us the sounds of the letters through music; i.e. we sang the alphabet! He told us that by the end of the workshop few, if any, of us would be able to sing the whole piece by ourselves, but as a group we would sing it well. He was right. I thought it was a powerful display of the power of group process.
My writing the first two paragraphs of this post brought back another memory of that time. In the first weeks after I met Amma, I bought a cassette tape at East-West Bookstore. It was called Jai Ma. When I played the tape the first time, I had an experience that astounded me. As I listened to one song, I burst into tears. During the next song, my body flooded with joy. Yet another tune filled me with peace. How could that be? After all, the songs were in Sanskrit and I had no idea what the words meant.
Later, when I told one of my co-therapists what had happened he responded, “Of course, in Sanskrit the feelings are imbedded in the sounds.” This therapist was very logical and science oriented, as opposed to being interested in spirituality, yet he said this in such a matter-of-fact way. I was intrigued, but not enough to start in-depth study of Sanskrit.
After the weekend workshop, I made flashcards to teach myself the meaning of some of the Sanskrit bhajans. I also wanted to learn Malayalam, Amma’s language, so even though the word on the flashcard above is Sanskrit, the letters are in Malayalam script. (The meaning of the word is on the other side of the card.) Over the years, I attempted to learn Malayalam several times but without a teacher it seemed impossible. I didn’t make any significant progress so eventually gave up the endeavor.
Amma has always worked to bring back India’s traditions, e.g. traditional dances, traditional music, traditional values. There was a period when Amma started encouraging the ashram residents to learn Sanskrit. I remember a time about five years ago when Amma asked some of the brahmacharinis (female monks) to stand up and speak to everyone present in Sanskrit. Amma looked so happy as she listened to them talk.
Watching Amma’s joy piqued my interest in Sanskrit again, but I knew learning on my own wouldn’t work well. In 2011 my desire began to grow. When I went to Amritapuri in November of 2011 for my annual visit to Amma’s main ashram in India, one of the first things I saw was a friend of mine, Meenamba, sitting by herself studying Sanskrit! I sat down beside her and told her I also wanted to learn. She offered to give me the books she used when she first started learning the language.
Soon thereafter, I received a group email from a devotee in Seattle named Madhavi. She was offering to teach our satsang (a group of Amma devotees) how to say and understand the Sri Lalitha Sahasranama Strotram, a spiritual text Amma asks us to chant daily. I had met Madhavi before but she was new to our satsang so I didn’t know anything about her.
Her email certainly caught my attention. I responded, commenting that learning to read the chant was not my goal; I wanted to learn spoken Sanskrit! I asked if she would be willing to correct my homework as I worked my way through the books I had been given.
Madhavi replied that she had been teaching spoken Sanskrit for seven years! She said I could learn the letters and their sounds in the class she had advertised, and that she was willing to expand the curriculum so that those of us who were interested in learning spoken Sanskrit could do so. I marveled at the synchronicity of all that was occurring. This was certainly a major turning point in my Sanskrit journey
Madhavi’s class started in February of 2012 and I have been studying Sanskrit with her ever since. That first summer I also took a Samskrita Bharati three-day intensive, and did that again in 2013 and 2014. While Madhavi’s classes focused on reading, writing, and grammar, Samsrkita Bharati’s classes focused exclusively on spoken Sanskrit. In fact, that group resists speaking any English during the summer camp and they also discourage students from taking written notes. Luckily, they were willing to relax the rules a little with me since I need some things clarified in English. But each year I attend the camp I can see my progress.
When I went India in November of 2012, I studied with Meenamba for a month. During Amma’s Seattle programs in the summer of 2013, members of Madhavi’s Sanskrit class went together to receive Amma’s blessing. In November 2013, I attended Meenamba’s Sanskrit class during my visit to Amritapuri and just before I returned to Seattle we also went as a group to be blessed by Amma. That time each of the students said a sentence in Sanskrit to her! Amma beamed.
In May of 2014, our Seattle Sanskrit class organized and performed a skit in Sanskrit for Amma. That autumn, I started attending a weekly Samskrita Bharati class as well as Madhavi’s class. All but two students in the new class were Indian. The Indian students learn so much faster than I can. That is largely due to the fact that their native languages contain a lot of Sanskrit words so vocabulary isn’t as much a problem for them as it is for me. I found that I had learned enough of the fundamentals of Sanskrit in Madhavi’s class though, so that even if I still couldn’t understand conversations in Sanskrit, I could usually understand what was being taught. I’ve had to learn to be patient with myself and be okay with what I can and cannot do. But I do see myself moving forward and that is what is most important.
Last winter, a brahmachari (male monk) was teaching a Sanskrit class when I came to Amritapuri so I attended his class. I appreciate how each of my instructors have used a different style of teaching. I have learned so much by experiencing the various styles.
As Amma’s 2015 summer tour approached, I decided I wanted to again speak to Amma in Sanskrit, but this time I wanted to say more than a solitary sentence! I had the opportunity to do that last Thursday when I attended her programs in Dallas. Speaking Sanskrit, I thanked Amma for the new satsang that recently formed in the Seattle area. I told her I was very happy there and that I was leading bhajans every week. I added that I loved studying Sanskrit and asked her to help me learn to speak it. Her smile got bigger with every sentence I uttered, which of course filled me with joy!
I believe this week has been yet another turning point on my Sanskrit journey. I think this will be the year that I will be able to build my vocabulary enough to finally be able to participate, at least to a limited degree, in Sanskrit conversations. I am excited and ready to do whatever it takes to make that happen!
Written for Dungeon Prompts: The Turning Point