Archive for the 'language' Category

Interview: A Maltese Gita


Dr Michael Zammit, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Malta, has just translated the Bhagavad Gita into Maltese.  He speaks to Venetia Ansell about the power of sound, working across different languages and his own philosophical poem.

25th March 2009

Why did you decide to translate the Bhagavad Gita into Maltese? 

Way back in my youth, when I was 16, I met a scholar who was reading English and Sanskrit at Harvard.  He was on holiday here in Malta.  He read some Gita verses to me in Sanskrit and the language had an effect, a strange effect, despite the fact I didn’t even know what it meant.  It was then that I discovered the power of sound, and the power of sound especially when controlled by grammar, language, poetry.  I grew interested not only in Sanskrit but in how poetry functions. 

I started to study the Gita and the philosophies it contains.  In time I made a game for myself where after reading the Sanskrit I would try to put it into the poetic language of Malta. 


So is this a poetic rendering of the Gita?

Indeed – it is a poetical re-writing of the Sanskrit, not a translation as such. I would spend time with each verse.  I would take each one and repeat over and over again until I had absorbed the sounds and recognised the meaning.  I would then translate each word and allow my mind to poetically transform it into a Maltese verse.  I couldn’t use the Sanskrit metre, Maltese just wouldn’t fit, so I allowed the Maltese to give me its own metre.  And in fact I began to truly appreciate the music of Maltese.  I am a firm believer in the idea and the practice of poetry as something to be experienced orally – to be read out loud and heard – rather than visually.  This is why I was so keen that the translated poem be recorded.  [Dr Zammit’s translation is being webcast on the University of Malta’s website:]


Is this the first translation of the Gita into Maltese?

Yes, this is the first ever translation.  There is a strong movement at the moment to translate the classics into Maltese, the Latin and Greek canons and so on.  Maltese was an oral language until 200 years ago.  When the British ruled Malta, the languages of culture were English and Italian – Maltese was a mother tongue used for everyday communication only.  So there is a need for such translations at the moment.

My publishers were very pleased when they saw that in creating the glossary for the Gita I had invented new words for several terms such as sattva, rajas, tamas, yoga and so on. English is able to assimilate foreign words very easily – I think you can even have ‘sattvic’ in English.  It is one of the many features that makes English so interesting.

I also came up with a neologism for ‘mantra’ in Maltese – a word that means something like ‘thoughts circling in your mind’ or ‘churning mills in your mind’. 


Is there much awareness of the Gita and other such texts in Malta?  I notice the podcast is named ‘The Indo-European epic’.

Yes the title was not my choosing – I wanted to call it the Bhagavad Gita, but this is a university website and they wanted a title that gave people an idea of what it was.  Sanskrit and its texts are not well known in Malta.  I am the one introducing this literature into the University of Malta. Two years ago I was given a free hand to create some new courses and I instituted a philosophy of Sanskrit grammar course, another one on the Gita and a third on Shankara.  I also started a class on Sanskrit grammar, reading, chanting and so on in which we also look at the concepts behind Sanskrit grammar – the Panini system – and how the language works in comparison to other languages. Maltese isn’t an Indo-European language but a Semitic language, like Hebrew or Aramaic – it functions in a totally different way to Sanskrit. 

The courses and class are becoming increasingly popular and are attended by students from several faculties, not just the philosophy department. 

You have written a philosophical poem yourself, do you think that philosophy is best presented through the medium of poetry?

It was while I was working on the Gita that I found my mind started to produce its own Maltese poetry and it led to the creation of another poem, a mantra-like poem in Maltese.  I realised that poetry is a way of coming to terms with the unknown, it is as if you are standing right on the edge of human understanding.  

Many say that Plato wanted to banish poets, but in fact I think that he had the same idea.  He didn’t want to banish them but rather send them to the edge of civilization in order to reach out to the unknown.  He wanted to send them to το περάς (‘end, extremity’), just as Socrates in The Republic goes to the edge of his known world. 

Poetry is a means of reaching out beyond what we know, not necessarily understanding it but at least coming to terms with the things that we don’t understand. 


To listen to podcasts of Dr Zammit’s translation, click here:

The book version is published by PIN Publications, Herbert Ganado Street, Pieta, PTA 1450, Malta

For his mantra poem in its Italian translation, click  here:

An interview with Professor Lakshmi Thathachar

Malleshwaram, Bangalore

25th January 2009

Venetia Ansell
“If America told us Sanskrit was great, India would love it,” says Professor Lakshmi Thathachar, “we love everything that comes from the West.”  Instead it is up to people like the professor to extol its virtues, which he does with a series of disarming smiles and rhetorical questions. 

Descended from the one of the Melkote devotees of the great 12th century philosopher Sri Ramanujar,  Professor Lakshmi Thathachar was a Professor of Sanskrit at Bangalore University before setting up the Academy of Sanskrit Research at Melkote.  He now runs the nascent Samskriti Foundation which takes a holistic approach to the ideal lifestyle, combining sustainability based on the Sanskrit farming treatise of Rishi Krishi Paddati with an emphasis on fusing traditional knowledge systems with technology.  Sanskrit and the literature it has spawned are clearly his passion, but this brief biography does little to prepare you for a discussion which ranges from jokes about busy husbands outsourcing the production of children to TS Eliot to the reasons for the mental disorders of today’s youth (the lack of maternal attention and affection).  You may not agree with all he says but you cannot help but be fascinated.

“The modern world”, Professor Thathachar declares, “needs Sanskrit,” because Sanskrit is such a systematic and scientific language.  Lord Macaulay, the British politician who famously foisted an English-medium education system upon India, thought it a dead language.  Now that Panini’s grammar is recognised almost as a meta-grammar for the world by those such as the American linguist Noam Chomsky, the professor welcomes Sanskrit’s ascendant star in the IT era.  He has himself done much work in this field, developing computer programmes and languages for Sanskrit using Sanskrit.  “I never looked to the West, what would be the point?  Our systems are totally different.”  He advises those working on Indian regional language software tools to use Sanskrit too. “I admire English and am a great lover of English literature, but it is an illogical language.”  Why, he asks, do the ‘u’ in ‘put’ and ‘but’ not sound the same? Indians should not view their own languages through the prism of English, as many are now doing. 

But more than just the language, it is the “ocean of knowledge” present in Sanskrit literature that Professor Thathachar enthuses about.  According to a survey by the National Mission for Manuscripts there are approximately 1 million manuscripts in India.  Only about 10% of these have been documented and deciphered.  “There is so much information and we’re not using any of it.”  The professor has spent many years dipping into various texts to research unlikely things such as food technology.  He found 300 texts on metallurgy alone, and came across an interesting alloy in one treatise on aeronautical engineering.   Some texts may contain little or nothing useful for the modern world, but we should at least read them and check.  “Our predecessors wouldn’t have preserved things that weren’t worth preserving.”

Each manuscript takes two man years to properly preserve and document.  It is a gargantuan task and one that may fast become impossible as people lose their ability to read the scripts in which these texts are written.  He mentions a library in Jammu which houses several thousand manuscripts written in the Sharada script.  None of the handful of Sharada script adepts knows Sanskrit, so the manuscripts will stay there “until they disintegrate”.  The government made a law that any manuscript over 200 years old must be declared, but it is hard to see how the law will be enforced.  The professor was developing a speech recognition software which would allow scholars to read the texts out loud and then capture them digitally, reducing the time it takes by about 20%.  But, “there’s no money now”, he says cheerfully.

Professor Thathachar is also interested in the preservation of India’s oral heritage.  “The government wants to make everyone literate, but what does that mean?  If I have learnt to form the characters to write my name does that make me literate?  Does that make me more literate than a villager who can’t read or write but has by heart reams of folk songs?”  People need to be exposed to this literature, to imbibe it, whether via the written or oral tradition.  We discuss how translation, particularly into English, can help.  “I prefer the new Western term, ‘transcreation’.   Translation isn’t about the words but the thoughts of the poet.  To translate a poem you have to get into the heart of the poet, to understand exactly what he was trying to express”, for which the professor advocates reading a text “10, 15, 100 times”,  before translating it.  He cites a comment in a commentary which is itself a commentary on the Mahabhashya commentary on Panini’s Ashtadhyayi.  The author writes that his own commentary is useless if the reader knows the Mahabhashya, and if the reader doesn’t know the Mahabhashya then his own commentary is useless.  “Similarly, if you know the original you don’t need a translation and if you don’t know the original why would you want a translation?”  Despite this seemingly harsh judgment on the very concept of translation, the professor does value the reach it affords a text, and has translated several texts himself.   And he very much agrees that these literary works ought to be broadcast abroad, because “in England I don’t think you have a Mahabharata”.  But he closes with a shloka which, although intended merely to illustrate the virtuosity of Sanskrit poets, also demonstrates just how untranslatable Sanskrit poetry can be.  It would be unwise to attempt a translation, so suffice to say that each line of the shloka below can be broken up in such a way that it both asks a question and is the answer to that question. 

कंसंजघान कृष्णः।



कंबलवन्तनबाधते शीतम्॥

Wordplay and Monier Williams

Sanskrit Language: Has It Been Tampered With?

An article by Richard Stoney

The object of this essay is to “suggest” the possibility that A Sanskrit-English Dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams has words and their definitions embedded within its own pages for the purpose of wordplay. The wordplay derives from and can be found in various Hindu writings, as will be shown. For this to happen, a person or persons unknown would have had to invent words and placed them into earlier Sanskrit dictionaries. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary itself does mention 35 occurences wherein a word was invented primarily to explain one or more of its inflected forms. But I suggest the possibility that some words from earlier times (e.g.,Rigveda, Atharvaveda) had connotations added to them at a later date, and that these new connotations have a common theme, resulting in wordplay.

To explaijn this claim, I may as well start at the foggy beginning. I was doing research on some now-forgotten topic and entered A Sanskrit-English Dictionary to find some now-forgotten word, which I could not find despite my best attempts to do so; actually I did not and do not believe the word was there. As I remember the matter, it occurred to me that the definition of this word had something to do being absent, disappearing or missing–wordplay? I made a mental note of this but never did write down the word or its definition, attributing everything to coincidence.

Now we come to a second, more-concrete example of wordplay. In her book on the Hindu goddess Kundalini, Lilian Silburn states that Kundalini is closely associated with Ahirbudhnya, “serpent of the depths”: “During a vedic ritual the sacrificial seat of the brahmin priest [=brahma], endowed with ‘unfathomable knowledge’, is thus addressed: “Thou art an all-encompassing ocean…, Thou art the serpent of the oceanic depths'” (Silburn, p. 16). Now first consider these Sanskrit words which will soon be used to create wordplay based on the name of Ahirbudhnya:

–root ah, “to address, call (by name)”;
–root Ir, “proclaim”;
ahir/ahi, “serpent”;
–root buD, “cover[s]. The single letter transliterated as dh is replaced by D;
nya, “an ocean in the Brahma-loka” [“Brahma’s-place”]. This defintion will be broken in two pieces thus: “an ocean” and “the Brahma’s Place” (i.e., his seat).

Now secondly, by rearranging the order of the above definitions, one obtains wordplay which copies the paragraph above about the brahmin:

“address, the brahma’s place, call by name, proclaim, [that] the serpent, cover[s], ocean”.

To see much more wordplay associated with Kundalini, go to “Shiva and Kundalini: A ‘Whale’ Allegory”. In one particular example, the root-word plu will have many radically-different meanings.Coincidence? Probably not.

Here is another example of wordplay. In 2006 and 2008, I was doing research on the elder tree. It dealt with the fact that it had beneficial, medicinal properties and that it was hollow, to be used for making flutes. Also of importance was the fact that the German language has 3 words which refer to the elder; Two of thise words translate out as “beneficial bush” and “hollow bush”. Then eventually I focused on its taxonomic nomenclature, Sambucus. Its currently-accepted etymology involves Latin sambuca and Greek sambuke, “harp; some type of stringed instrument” because the instrument was believed to be made of elder wood. Pliny the Elder (elder…get it?) is quoted as the official source for all this.

I did, however, come up with this better etymological solution, made of two Sanskrit words:

shambhu, “beneficial”
khaH/kheH, both “a hollow”.

The reason for any etymological misinterpretation regarding this error can be found in this Sanskritic “shambhu-kha/khe” wordplay:

sama, “same”;
bukk, “to sound”;
buka, “laughter”.

I admit that this theory needs more examples of wordplay. I am just putting forth the idea so that other researchers are aware of it and will find more wordplay. Where are they? I do not know, but finding words with widely-differing definitions may be a start. Try to determine their common themes.


American Heritage Dictionary, The, second edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.

Breul, Karl. A German and English Dictionary., enlarged. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1906.

Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon,

Dusty Strings. Email. [Online] Available 2006.

Hoffmann, David. The New Holistic Herbal. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1990.

Hylton, William H., ed. The Rodale Herb Book. Emmaus: Rodale Press Book Division, 1974.

Horton, Diana, University of Iowa. Email.

Kowalchik, Clair and Hylton, William H.

Monier-Williams, Monier. A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1960.

Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs. Emmaus: Rodale Press, 1987.

Silburn, Lilian. Kundalini: Energy of the Depths. translated by Jacques Gotier. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Simpson, J.A., and Weiner, E.S.C. The Oxford English Dictonary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Wichmann, K. Taschenworterbuch der Deutschen und Englischen Sprachen. Philadelphia: David McKay Company, 1946.

This article was first published on and the author, Richard Stoney of Orleans, CA, reserves all rights.  Readers are invited to read more of the author’s articles at the link given above. The author can be contacted at

King’s College London – Spoken Sanskrit

King’s College London is due to start offering spoken Sanskrit evening classes this month.  Dr Will Rasmussen, who will teach the course, came to Sanskrit from a Classics background – he read Greats at Oxford and taught Latin and Greek at a London secondary school where he wrote textbook which drew on Panini to help explain some of the more elusive elements of Greek grammar.  He specialises in Greek, Indian and modern Western philosophy and is currently the Matilal Lecturer in Indian philosophy at King’s.  Dr Rasmussen spoke to Venetia Ansell on a recent trip to Bangalore to brush up on his spoken Sanskrit with Samskrita Bharati and the Sringeri Math.   

Aksharam, Samskrita Bharati


28th August 2008

First of all, the most obvious question: who will join a spoken Sanskrit class in the heart of London?  Dr Rasmussen admits that it’s hard to know how popular it will be.  He anticipates a mix of old and young, but predominantly those of Indian origin.  Samskrita Bharati recently organised its first ever UK Sanskrit camp in Leicester, where about half were under 24 and the rest were over 50.  Dr Rasmussen and one other woman formed the non-Indian constituent.  

Dr Rasmussen will also be teaching the course in a rather different way to the normal Western university method  – by speaking rather than reading and writing.   “The traditional Indian way was to learn to speak the language first, then you had to learn to recite the Paninian sutras and finally you were taught how the sutras, and thus the grammar, work.”  This is of course how most of us learn our mother tongue – you speak it first then learn to identify its different elements to understand how it fits together. 

Dr Rasmussen reflects on the Sanskrit verb ‘path’.  In origin, this means to recite, but it is also the principal word used to denote reading and studying.  There is no word which exclusively means ‘read’, because reading meant reading out loud – reciting – and studying meant hours of recitation.  Dr Rasmussen recalls a friend whose son attended a gurukulam – the traditional Indian schooling system which is enjoying something of a revival – for several years.  By the end of it he could recite the Rg Veda for 52 hours – “not continuously, of course”.  The professor’s students will learn to recite parts of the Gita, although perhaps not hours’ worth.

Dr Rasmussen acknowledges that the promotion of Sanskrit as a spoken living language is not well received by all.  “Sanskrit is not a modern language, of course, but I’d contest that it is living.”  He notes that many critics believe Sanskrit fails to qualify as a living language because it is no longer evolving.  “This is incontrovertible.  To be Sanskritic is by definition to abide by the principles of Panini, which means that the language has been frozen since about the 4th century BC.”  But Dr Rasmussen prefers to come at it from a different angle.  For him, a living language is defined as one that is used in everyday life.  “A language of communication, a language that you think and speak in.”  And by this definition, as five minutes at Samskrita Bharati’s centre or the Sringeri Math will prove, Sanskrit is most certainly a living language.

B Mahadevan on Sanskrit

B Mahadevan, an Indian Institute of Management (Bangalore) professor, gave a talk at the Indian Institute of World Culture at the invitation of the Sri Tirunarayana Trust on 10th August 2003.  Selected excerpts from his speech:

Try to host a discussion on the role of the Sanskrit language in contemporary society.  It will be just a matter of time before the discussion gets out of hand.  It will be very easy to predict alternative perspectives that are likely to emerge from such a discussion.  Politicians take alternative positions on the subject.  One group claims it as a convenient way of saffronising this society, while the other group claims it as an important step in rediscovering our lost heritage and cultural roots.  A third group brands any attempt to promote Sanskrit as an effort to merely glorify our past.

To read in full, please click here: Sanskrit Language – B Mahadevan

Language discussions

This section is dedicated to current discussions on Sanskrit’s status as a language in India and abroad.  It will cover the often controversial promotion of Sanskrit as a living language.  Readers are invited to post their comments and to submit longer contributions to the moderator at

To get the ball rolling, here’s a PDF of a talk I gave recently at a seminar in Bangalore: rebranding-sanskrit

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