On Sound and Speech

Sanskrit, by a peculiar fidelity to its origins, presents us with a true primary form of speech, in which the vocabulary indeed is late,—a new structure of word flesh & tissue,—but the base of the structure is primitive, reveals the roots of its being and betrays the principles of its formation. (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 14, p. 524)

…speech must have started from what we in India would call the guna of sound, some natural property of particular sounds to create under given conditions a particular kind of impression on the mind which, constantly associated with that sound, became the basis of a number of special intellectual significances, called by us the meaning of words, much more variable, much less fixed than the basic mind-significance. Afterwards the intellect playing consciously with the sound, by association, by analogy, by figure, by metaphor & simile, by transference, by a number of means, may carry the intellectual significance far outside the bounds of the original mental impression. (CWSA, Vol. 14, p. 528)

In India, at least, with its great psychological systems mounting to the remotest prehistoric antiquity, we cannot easily believe that regular and systematic processes of Nature are not at the basis of all phenomena of sound and speech. (CWSA, Vol. 14, p. 548)

By going back thus from the artificial use of a developed speech in modern language nearer to the natural use of primitive speech by our earlier forefathers we gain two important points. We get rid of the idea of a conventional fixed connection between the sound and its sense and we perceive that a certain object is expressed by a certain sound because for some reason it suggested a particular and striking action or characteristic which distinguished that object to the earlier human mind. Ancient man did not say in his mind as would the sophisticated modern, “Here is a gory carnivorous animal, with four legs, of the canine species who hunts in packs and is particularly associated in my mind with Russia and the winter and snow and the steppes; let us find a suitable name for him”; he had fewer ideas about the wolf in his mind, no preoccupation with ideas of scientific classification and much preoccupation with the physical fact of his contact with the wolf. It was this chief all-important physical fact he selected when he cried to his companion, not “here is the wolf”, but simply “this tearer”, ayaṁ vṛkah. The question remains, why the word vṛkaḥ more than another suggested the idea of tearing. The Sanskrit language carries us one step back, but not yet to the final step, by showing us that it is not the formed word vṛkaḥ with which we have to deal, but the word vṛc, that root of which vṛka is only one of several outgrowths. (CWSA, Vol. 14, pp. 561-562)

The Sanskrit of the Veda

there is… in the Vedic use…a deliberate employment of the “multi-significance” of Sanskrit roots in order to pack as much meaning as possible into a single word, which at first sight enhances the difficulty of the problem to an extraordinary degree. For instance, the word, aśva, usually signifying a horse, is used as a figure of the Prana, the nervous energy, the vital breath, the half-mental, half-material dynamism which links mind and matter. Its root is capable, among other senses, of the ideas of impulsion, force, possession, enjoyment, and we find all these meanings united in this figure of the Steed of Life to indicate the essential tendencies of the Pranic energy. Such a use of language  would not be possible if the tongue of the Aryan forefathers obeyed the same conventions as our modern speech or were in the same stage of development.

But if we can suppose that there was some peculiarity in the old Aryan tongue as it was used by the Vedic Rishis by which words were felt to be more alive, less merely conventional symbols of ideas, more free in their transitions of meaning than in our later use of speech, then we shall find that these devices were not at all artificial or far-fetched to their employers, but were rather the first natural means which would suggest themselves to men anxious at once to find new, brief and adequate formulae of speech for psychological conceptions not understood by the vulgar and to conceal the ideas contained in their formulae from a profane intelligence.

I believe that this is the true explanation; it can be established, I think, by a study of the development of Aryan speech that language did pass through a stage peculiarly favourable to this cryptic and psychological use of words which in their popular handling have a plain, precise and physical significance. (CWSA, Vol. 15, p. 49)

Even in its latest and most literary form it is lavish of varieties of meanings for the same word; it overflows with a redundant wealth of synonyms. Hence its extraordinary capacity for rhetorical devices which in any other language would be difficult, forced and hopelessly artificial, and especially for the figure of double sense, of śleṣa.

The Vedic Sanskrit represents a still earlier stratum in the development of language. Even in its outward features it is less fixed than any classical tongue; it abounds in a variety of forms and inflexions; it is fluid and vague, yet richly subtle in its use of cases and tenses. And on its psychological side it has not yet crystallised, is not entirely hardened into the rigid forms of intellectual precision. The word for the Vedic Rishi is still a living thing, a thing of power, creative, formative. It is not yet a conventional symbol for an idea, but itself the parent and former of ideas. It carries within it the memory of its roots, is still conscient of its own history. (CWSA, Vol. 15, p. 54)

Sanskrit Literature

The  poetry of Kalidasa satisfies the sensuous imagination without enervating the virile chords of character; for virile energy is an unfailing characteristic of the best Sanskrit poetry… (CWSA, ,Vol. 1, p, 179)

Sanskrit poetry, even when it clothes itself in the regal gold and purple of Kalidasa, or flows in the luscious warmth and colour of Jayadeva, keeps still a certain background of massive restraint, embanks itself in a certain firm solidity…. (CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 616)

The ancient and classical creations of the Sanskrit tongue both in quality and in body and abundance of excellence, in their potent originality and force and beauty, in their substance and art and structure, in grandeur and justice and charm of speech and in the height and width of the reach of their spirit stand very evidently in the front rank among the world’s great literatures.

The language itself, as has been universally recognized by those competent to form a judgment, is one of the most magnificent, the most perfect and wonderfully sufficient literary instruments developed by the human mind, at once majestic and sweet and flexible, strong and clearly-formed and full and vibrant and subtle, and its quality and character would be of itself a sufficient evidence of the character and quality of the race whose mind it expressed and the culture of which it was the reflecting medium.” (CWSA, Vol. 20, pp. 314-315)

A Vivid Continuity between the Living Past and Uncreated Future

… the vital question is how we are to learn and make use of Sanskrit and the indigenous languages so as to get to the heart and intimate sense of our own culture and establish a vivid continuity between the still living power of our past and the yet uncreated power of our future, and how we are to learn and use English or any other foreign tongue so as to know helpfully the life, ideas and culture of other countries and establish our right relations with the world around us. This is the aim and principle of a true national education, not, certainly, to ignore modern truth and knowledge, but to take our foundation on our own being, our own mind, our own spirit. (CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 421)

Sanskrit ought still to have a future as a language of the learned and it will not be a good day for India when the ancient tongue ceases entirely to be written or spoken. But if it is to survive, it must get rid of the curse of the heavy pedantic style contracted by it in its decline with the lumbering impossible compounds and the overweight of hair-splitting erudition. (CWSA, Vol. 1, pp. 612-613)

Editor’s note: The editors thank Dilip Kumar Roy for his help in compiling some of these quotes and passages.