I was interested in stories. Stories my mother and aunts told me at bedtime. That had led to my interest in Bengali literature, which in turn had prompted my interest in the language itself, its structure and style. This in turn kindled my interest in Sanskrit and Pali, the languages from which Bengali was derived. My Pali improved later when I became deeply interested in Buddhist texts, but at the moment all my enthusiasm was focused on Sanskrit. I studied Kalidasa and other literary figures in college, but my real zeal was centered on religious texts. I was fortunate to take lessons from two outstanding scholars who were exceedingly gracious to me despite my skeptical bent.
I had of course soon noticed earlier the mispronunciation, misinterpretation and general misuse of sacred texts at religious functions, but in a family that prided itself on its religious reputation and served eminent families and communities in their religious rites I hadn’t expected to encounter such misuse. I was inordinately disturbed. I felt that priests, no more than ordinary mortals, had the right to mutilate spiritual texts.
In earlier centuries, the Catholic church had adhered strictly to Latin for its liturgies that clearly went over the head of the laity. That strengthened the authority of the priests, their opportunty to explain the faith in the way they chose to their obedient and mystified listeners. It certainly did not produce better understanding of religion or greater observance of its principles. The Catholic church has wisely moved away from the practice and turned to local languages that ordinary people can understand.
Common sense should induce priests to use Sanskrit as sparingly as possible and, whenever they use it, to offer its accurate translation in a language that people in the community use. Not just translation, for often it is incomprehensible without some context. Priests, whose business it is to conduct a rite decently, in a way that people gain from it, mentally if not spiritually, owe it to their sponsors to learn their job and do it in a way that helps people.
The event was an immense success. People volunteered that, for the first time, they understood the full import of the rites and the accompanying words. It was a memorable experience of my student days.
I remembered the experience recently when I attended a program in Washington, in one of its plush Hindu temples. The priest, imported from India and well ensconced in the capital society, gave a singularly inappropriate talk. He not only pathetically misinterpreted a major religious text, his commentary was arrogant, narrow-minded and offensive for western listeners. When I tried to suggest him a different track, he became upset. It was clear to me that he didn’t know of well-known interpretations of the text, such as those of Gandhi and Radhakrishnan, both popular in India. I doubt if he was familiar with any of the major interpretations of the text which has been widely researched and discussed.
India is an ancient land with a wealth of profound literature, some of which have a sacred status. Sacred they may be, but they also offer incredible insights into our life and help us live a happy life that is also meaningful. Amazingly, they often provide a lesson in both human sensitivity and uber-human wisdom. I am sure there are teachers who can help us understand them better, despite a possible barrier of language. But there clearly are priests who find it in their interest to keep the texts abstruse and interpret it from an insufferably narrow point of view.
Even for the irreligious like me, religious literature has much to offer. The unfortunate mediation of priests, whose views often remain dated and obscurantist, makes for a formidable barrier to the average person’s quest for meaning and guidance in these hoary texts. A great pity.