Pray, cuss, debate, court and charm in Sanskrit

Sans the Sacred

And if Dandi’s advice goes south, too, maybe it is time to pray in Sanskrit. After all, it is the language of the gods.

The twentieth-century writer Krishna S Arjunwadkar, who satirized all the great Sanskrit poets, wrote in Sanskrit verse, “There are those who believe that the holy temple of Sanskrit will be sullied if women, shudras, and foreigners touch it, and so they keep it safely locked up. Good riddance to them! If everyone uses Sanskrit to cuss, pray, debate, court, and charm, I will send up a special prayer to god in thanks…”

Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, Sanskrit is still perceived as a stuffy old language filled with prudish writing, to be admired from afar in blind belief and preserved by a select few, rather than to be savoured from up close by all lovers of language.

But pick up any collection of Sanskrit verse, and you will see over half of it dedicated to romantic poetry. You will also see general witticisms, flattery of kings, and powerful verses that might just convince you to renounce the world. Entire genres in Sanskrit are dedicated to debating philosophy, and these works are peppered with jibes taken at thinkers from the opposite camp.

I hope to work my way through swearing, ad hominems, and prayer over the next few columns, but how about a teeny glimpse into the world of Sanskrit romance today? Or to start with, just endearments in Sanskrit. After all, English endearments seem most ill-fitted to Indian romance. I am reminded of the hilarious instance in RK Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets, where Jagan, the middle-aged protagonist is utterly bemused when his foreign-returned son Mali addresses the woman who came back to India with him as ‘Honey’, after introducing her to Jagan as Grace. “What should I call her?” Jagan wonders, “Grace or Honey?”

Turn to Sanskrit, and there are a million ways to call your significant other. You can call your partner ‘lotus-eyed’ and ‘moon-faced’ and compare the arch of their eyebrows to the mighty bow of the god of love. In other words, every glance they throw at you is an arrow shot straight from Cupid’s bow, piercing your heart and leaving you pining. You can pay them a compliment about their radiant smile and their intoxicating eyes or remind them they have a special place in your heart. All of this, just by using the right word to address them! The Kamasutra gives plenty of tips on how to win someone over with subtlety and charm, or with bizarre potions that I dare you to try (but I dare not mention). But who needs those when you have the choicest of Sanskrit pick-up lines?

There is a joy in using words well, of course, and a good vocabulary is ammunition in the battle for love. But if that fails, the poet Dandi teaches us about poetic grace in unrequited love. “Saying ‘I love you, why don’t you love me back?’ is mundane and will not win you hearts. Instead, say, ‘This wretched god of love is very cruel to me, but he causes you no such trouble’, and that might get you somewhere.”

And if Dandi’s advice goes south, too, maybe it is time to pray in Sanskrit. After all, it is the language of the gods.

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