Hinduism and Sanskrit are inseparably related. The roots of Hinduism can be traced to the dawn of Vedic civilization. From its inception, Vedic thought has been expressed through the medium of the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit, therefore, forms the basis for much of Hindu civilization.
As language changes, so religion changes. In the case of Hinduism, Sanskrit stood for millennia as the carrier of Vedic thought before its dominance gradually gave way to the vernacular languages that eventually became the modern day languages of India: Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Telugu, Kannada, and so on. Although the foundations of Hinduism are largely built on the vocabulary of Sanskrit, these modern languages are now the primary carriers of Hindu thought within India. While the shift from Sanskrit to these regional languages forced a change in the meaning of words, and therefore a change in how subsequent generations interpreted the religion, the shift was at least within the context of languages that were directly related to Sanskrit and within an intellectual and social context that was largely Hindu. In other words, the change was slow and organic.
In the last century a new phenomenon has been occurring. Hinduism has begun to emerge in the West, and as Hinduism expands into the West, the emerging forms of this ancient tradition are naturally being reflected through the medium of Western languages, the most prominent of which is English. But as we have pointed out, the meanings of words are not easily moved from one language to the next and the more distant two languages are separated by geography, latitude and climate, and so forth, the more the meanings of words shift and ultimately the more the world view shifts. While this is a natural thing, it does mean that the emerging Hindu religious culture in the West is changing radically from its Sanskritic and even vernacular language roots. The differences between the Indian regional languages and Sanskrit are minuscule when compared to the differences between a Western language such as English and Sanskrit.
The “Christianization” of Hinduism
With this problem in mind, the difficultly in bringing Hinduism to the West and having a language such as English serve as the prime carrier of the tradition, is that it becomes all too easy to import foreign concepts of religion into the tradition. Especially Christian and Jewish, and even Islamic concepts are built into words like God, soul, heaven, hell and sin. So if one translates brahman as God, atman as soul, papa as sin, dharma as religion, one imperceptibly changes Hinduism. This is because the Sanskrit word brahman is not the same as the English word, God, atman is not equivalent to soul, papa is not sin, and dharma is much more than religion. The only true way to understand these terms is through Sanskrit, which means reading and understanding the sacred texts of Hinduism in the original language, Sanskrit. But if no one is reading these texts and if no one is teaching what these terms actually mean, it becomes inevitable that the Hinduism developing in the West is going to be reflected through the lens of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which ultimately means that the theological uniqueness of Hinduism is going to be changed or even lost. And few people will even know!
I do not suggest that this means the end of Hinduism. In fact, I see positive signs when Hindu youth come to temples for darsana and prayer and increasingly ask for Hindu weddings and other pujas. But it does suggest that the new Hinduism that is developing in the West is evolving in a way that is divorced from not only its Sanskrit roots, but even from its vernacular roots, in the same way that Christianity in the West developed separate from its original language base.
It is therefore important that Hindu institutions in the West, such as temples, teach Sanskrit. Ideally Hindu youth should learn at least a little Sanskrit. This will connect the next generation to its foundations and give a basic understanding of the roots of Hindu culture. Centers of Sanskrit and Hindu scholarship should be established at major universities. Wealthy Hindu patrons should endow chairs of Hindu studies at established universities. Jewish and Christian communities have been doing this for generations. We do not expect the majority of Hindus to become Sanskrit scholars or anything near that, but at least the facility should be available to those who wish it. A culture of Sanskritic learning must be created.
In addition certain key words of Hindu theology should be identified and a glossary of Sanskrit religious words should be created. Words such as brahman, dharma, papa, and atman should remain un-translated and become part of the common spoken language when we speak of Hindu matters. In this way, at least an essential vocabulary that contains the subtleties of Hinduism can remain somewhat intact. I therefore include, as a part of this site, a glossary of Sanskrit religious words along with an explanation of their meanings that I suggest should be learned and remain un-translated by students of Hinduism. These are terms taken primarily from theBhagavad-gita and the major Upanishads and they are used throughout this site. If measures such as these are undertaken then there can be a healthy growth of Hinduism in the West.