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May 11, 1998


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Madonna has Varanasi pandits preaching her on Sanskrit

Pop diva Madonna's quest for spiritualism by weaving in Sanskrit mantras into her songs has impressed the pandits of this holy city but they want her to learn a little more of the language before reciting the hymns.

The pop icon, in her latest album Ray of Light, has taken verses from the Yoga Taravali, a Sanskrit classic authored by Adi Shankara on Hatha Yoga.

As Sanskrit scholars lay great emphasis on the correct pronunciation of the Deva Bhasha (language of the gods), they have been quick to notice a few errors in Madonna's rendering of the shanti-ashtangi as a single word in the album.

Some pandits are surprised why she should have chosen to labour on the Yoga Taravali, which in 29 verses defines the techniques of purifying the nerves for attaining a vibrational unity with the ultimate reality. The text, according to them, is not in vogue even among Sanskrit scholars.

The hymn recited by Madonna goes thus: 'vande gurunam charanarvinda sandarshita swatma sukhavabodhe, nihashreyse jangalikayamane, sansara halahala-moha shanti' (I worship the lotus feet of the guru, which are the source of eternal happiness and self-realisation and work like an antidote to the lethal poison generated by worldly indulgences).

But there is some consolation for Madonna that she is not the only one to err in Sanskrit. Pandits of Benares recently detected not one but two mistakes in a Sanskrit verse recited by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in his address to the nation.

Acharya Vageesh Shastri, a Sanskrit professor, has sent a letter to Vajpayee advising him to learn Sanskrit properly as he was heading India, the birthplace of the mother of most of the world's languages. His contention is that Vajpayee recited the verses in a Hindi accent, distorting the meaning of the shloka. ''Two errors in a single shloka are too much,'' he says.

Some feminist scholars wonder why Madonna, a post-modern feminist, has now turned around to tell womenfolk about the glory of motherhood, beside practising the most difficult form of Yoga -- breath control.

Is it yet another trick to market herself by using an esoteric text and Yogic postures or a real urge to reinvent or transform herself, some scholars ask.

Commenting on the mispronunciation, Dr B N Chaturvedi, a Sanskrit scholar, says, ''How could the shanti-ashtangi bring peace to Madonna and her audiences when she pronounces 'shaanti, shaanti ' as 'shantee, shantee.'

It is one thing to make a mistake in ordinary conversation but quite another to chant a mantra incorrectly, the scholars say. The famous instance from the scriptures tells that priests of the demon king Vritrasura had recited mantras in an incorrect manner at a ritual aimed at ensuring victory of the demon against Deva king Indra. The backlash empowered Indra to demolish Vritrasura.

Acharya Vageesh Shastri is somewhat kinder to Madonna, saying it was but natural for a Westerner to make mistakes while reciting Sanskrit shlokas. Unless trained properly, they cannot utter Sanskrit letters like Tha, Ta, Da and Dha etc.

He invited Western learners, including Madonna, to come to Benares and improve their language skills.

For sociologists, the album Ray of Light adds yet another dimension to the already complicated problem, termed by Western social scientists as 'the MP' (the Madonna Phenomenon or Madonna Paradigm).

A scholar at the Women's Study Centre of the Benares Hindu University, said her songs gave new identities to sub-cultural groups and legitimised the role of misfits in Western societies.

No wonder that Madonna instantly appeals to the Afro-Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, who form a major chunk of her audience. Now she is attracting the Non-Resident Indians by using Indian symbols, Yogic body postures and Indian philosophic fervour, he said.

Dr A K Joshi, a sociologist, feels that Indian audiences will certainly be happy to see 'Om' on Madonna's right palm and a 'bandhan' (sacred thread) on her left wrist.

Her song It does not matter whether you are black or white, a girl or a boy has a distinct political message too. Madonna, like a political strategist, challenges the hegemonistic dominant culture in the United States while giving an expression to the sentiments of the sub-cultural groups, Dr Joshi pointed out.

Recent studies on feminism have noted that the Madonna phenomenon serves as a touch-stone for theoretical discussion of issues of morality, sexuality, gender relations, gay politics, multi-culturalism, feminism, race, racism, pornography and capitalism.

And above all, while the rest of the world is trying hard to discover 'the real Madonna', the lady suddenly decides to undertake a spiritual journey, destination India.


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