Sanskrit: The Language of Hinduism & Sanatan Dharma

      Sanskrit is undoubtedly the liturgical language of Hinduism since the time early Vedas were composed and continues to be used as a ceremonial language for all things religious throughout all branches of Hinduism. Further, it has been the philosophical language of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Besides, Sanskrit has been a great scholarly language for literature, scientific work and philosophy of northern India since the beginning and going right into early part of second millennium post CE when it got side stepped by the regional emergence of several other vernacular languages, most of which got evolved only under Sanskrit's own umbrella.

This relationship has been established based on structure of alphabets, the arrangement and expression of vowels and consonants, usage of verbs, usage of nouns, reference to genders, similarity in syntax and finally widely shared common words. Experts conclude that so much similarity cannot be attributed to a matter of chance and no one doubts that there was a link between all these languages. However, the difference lies in place of origin. No one from India will ever agree that Sanskrit, the language of our Gods and Vedas is not original to its land of influence.
Sanskrit Language

      Sanskrit as a language is part of the family having distinct commonality with most other European languages namely Greek, Latin and Norse-Germanic languages (ultimately these languages contributed for origin of today's French, German, Italian, Spanish, English and all their other off-springs and cousins). Majority of Western language experts from European background indicate it to have originated from a place near Anatolia, Turkey (also called as Asia Minor). But Indian experts always maintained origin of Sanskrit on Indian soil itself. As the immediate family; Sanskrit is also attributed to have family links with Indo-Iranian group of languages being source of languages such as Avestan, Persian, Pashto and Iranian.

The Tree of Languages

      This relationship has been established based on structure of alphabets, the arrangement and expression of vowels and consonants, usage of verbs, usage of nouns, reference to genders, similarity in syntax and finally widely shared common words. Experts conclude that so much similarity cannot be attributed to a matter of chance and no one doubts that there was a link between all these languages. However, the difference lies in place of origin. No one from India will ever agree that Sanskrit, the language of our Gods and Vedas is not original to its land of influence.

      Many Indian experts argue that common proto languages were not different than proto Dravidian or the one spoken by people from Sindhu Sarasvati Civilization. Understandably, these arguments are not taken seriously by experts from outside India who, on the contrary; hardly find any commonality of Sanskrit with Dravidian languages of Indian subcontinent or with other languages of the region like Chinese, Arabian and Hebrew.

      Linguistic similarities in terms of common grammar, vocabulary; verbs, near common words for many objects, similar cluster of Gods etc. are all strong indications that Sanskrit with other European languages have originated, very initially, from a common ground. But having established that Vedic Sanskrit must have flourished to the level of being used for composing Vedic Hymns by 2500 BC, it is only more plausible that view of Indian experts is indeed valid that Sanskrit emerged on Indian lands and must have crossed to other destinations in usual course.

      Languages are known to go through a lot of permutations and combinations over short periods as these are known to both influence and get influenced from the developments in their surroundings. One certainly finds many examples where people move on from one language to another under some compelling or comforting situations. Languages move from one place to another both with and without its speakers and such movement is registered over short period of times. Migration of individual scholar, an ambitious warrior or a trading exchange or even a nomadic tribe moving from one place to another is enough to carry a language from its origin to new destination.

      If one is to accept, for a moment, the idea that Sanskrit arrived in India from outside, there are immediate questions of how and when. Sindhu Sarasvati, which is established to be part of the period when Sanskrit had emerged, refined, spread and used for composing mammoth proportions of compositions, is said to have started before 6000 BC and farming is found to take place ever since. Evidence suggests that around 4500 BC, the settlements of villages and urban areas have already started around Sarasvati River. If this was, by itself, one of the most advanced and prosperous civilization of its time, how come there is possibility of any import of a language into this area from outside? On the contrary; these are perfect credentials for a case of an export.

      One of the apparent reasons of western experts identifying originating source of Indo European languages to Anatolia hinges on the findings of archeological ruins of Catal Huyuk in South Central Turkey which indicate about a civilization which would have existed between 7500 BC and 5700 BC with best estimate of its full flourishing at around 6000 BC. But near home, recent excavations in Sindhu Sarasvati Region have also conclusively proved existence of a far more developed civilization than the one found at Catal Huyuk. This again indicates towards stronger reason of Sanskrit having originated at Indian soil itself and all other languages are likely to have emerged from Sanskrit.

      The literal meaning of Sanskrit is linked to the root 'samskar' i.e. completely formed, refined, advanced and highly elaborated. Thus, Sanskrit means a refined and well-formed language. This goes to suggest that there would have certainly been a language not so refined. Linguists call that group of language as Prakrit Language meaning natural language of the inhabitants of the area. It requires small imaginations to visualize the presence of some simpler spoken dialect or a group of dialects from where Sanskrit would have emerged as a superior refinement. So it is not the very first language of its time but refined from many others. Sanskrit has a unique feature of grouping vowels and consonants, detailed coverage of all vowels to represent all types of human sounds and groupings of consonants in neat categories like all dental consonants of t, th, d, dh and n being grouped together. Combinations of k, kh, g, gh, gy and p, ph, b, bh, m are similar other examples of this greatness.

      On the other hand even most developed European languages of today have not been able to even segregate vowels and consonants, forget about their sequential classification. Sanskrit has been having its phonetic conditions without any dilution for over five thousand years, no mean feat. The art and science of Sandhi and Sandhi Vichchhed (combining words and segregating them) is yet another great unmatched feature of Sanskrit since Vedic days. After studying complete and scientific grammatical mathematics of Sanskrit, one can only laugh out on people who try to equate Sanskrit with other languages of its time and conclude that all these originated from some unknown common source. As an Indian I am proud to feel that Sanskrit indeed is first most developed and advanced language of entire humanity and most other languages have their association with Sanskrit either at their origin or during their evolving phase. Partial similarity of such languages with Sanskrit is a clear proof behind such conclusion.

      There have been many efforts to decipher the signs found of seals from Sindhu Sarasvati excavations to establish some conclusive link between that period and Vedic Sanskrit used for composing Hymns but without any acceptable success. But this is also a fact that Sanskrit remained a language of words and was transmitted orally for a very long time. Actually, Sanskrit was not to be reduced to writing during Sarasvati period. There are hymns in Rig-Veda clearly prohibiting passing on the secret knowledge of Vedic Hymns to anyone who is not eligible and emphasis was always on preserving phonetics of the mantras so that their power was not reduced.

      It is universally recognized about Sanskrit that it is one of the most magnificent, the most perfect and wonderfully sufficient literary instrument. It is accepted as the most scientifically constructed language ever. The other adjectives attached with it are sweet and flexible, strong and clearly formed, vibrant and subtle etc. There has always been great importance attached to correct pronunciation for each vowel and consonant and that has not changed a bit over so many thousands of years. On many of these facts, Sanskrit certainly scores over other languages clubbed as part of its family.

      Sanskrit may not have been used for common parlance or for communication within ordinary folks. Being a language of elite, Sanskrit didn't allow use of slangs or imperfect versions. Undoubtedly, there would have been one or more Prakrit languages taking care of common communication. It will be difficult to visualize small children playing in a village comer and speaking Sanskrit or a house lady instructing her washerman in Sanskrit. Sanskrit was used only by Brahmin adults only for liturgical purposes.

      And these Brahmin males must have been bilingual and maintained normal communication with their parents, wife, children, servants and neighbours on the other side of the road by using other spoken language while using Sanskrit for their composition and other liturgical works. This interaction with other natural or vernacular dialects and languages resulted in expanding Sanskrit on one side and allowing others to peep into Sanskrit on the other side. Many words and traditions found in later writings of Sanskrit literature are a clear proof of inter language interactions.

      Unlike other languages of its time, Sanskrit didn't have a script to begin with as it was originally a language only for verbal use. The Vedas poems composed in the early times were preserved only through oral traditions for over 2000 years. Due to strict emphasis on phonetics/sounds of Vedic hymns, Vedas did not allow to get consigned to writing. Some ancient Sanskrit texts, however, are found in Brahmi script. Brahmi scripts are common to all other Indo European, Dravidian, Tibeto-Burman, Mongolic and Austroasiatic languages and have many versions. The medium for writing was Birch bark and palm leaves. Both of these were very perishable in nature and require rewriting for preservation. Indians have never preferred using leather etc. for it was always considered immoral to handle skin of dead animals for any thing religious.

Stages of Sanskrit: Excellence Refined

      Sanskrit can be easily classified into three distinct age groups. To begin with, we have ancient Sanskrit used for composing Vedas, Brahmanas and all Upanishads. Then comes the Panini version with its own grammar and vocabulary (approximately around 400 BC) called Classical Sanskrit. Bulk of the literature available on date has been written in Classical Sanskrit. The last step in growth of Sanskrit came in early centuries of the first CE millennium when the script got upgraded to Dev Nagri, the grammar got refined and teaching and learning of Sanskrit acquired prime importance. At this time, Sanskrit has also acquired the status of official languages for many kingdoms within the heartland. It was in this period that bulk of the literature got written and is still available partly.

      Being a language of elite, all upwardly mobile people engaged in education, in rituals for kings, philosophers, those engaged in trade and commerce and composers were all using Sanskrit. This was probably the time where one has to learn Sanskrit to prove himself in any part of socio economic spectrum. But strict grammar and elite attraction continued to result in a situation where it became the language mainly for writing purpose unlike of other Prakrit languages which were used for oral communications.

      By this time, writing has become very popular; issues relating to scripts have been settled. Perhaps, it will not be out of place to compare Sanskrit in India around 200 BC to 400 CE with the status of English of India of 2000 CE where most all higher education, all legal works, most works in research and every other works for pan Indian appeal uses only English in spite of so many other complete languages available.

      We have to remember that the earliest inscription of Ashoka period found have used Prakrit or Pali and not Sanskrit. Ashoka ruled India in 265 BC until 232 BC and he ruled on the largest part of India. Clearly, Mauryan Dynasty did not take Sanskrit as its official language. However, inscriptions found belonging to other periods starting from 150 CE and later have used Sanskrit written in Dev Nagri script in plenty.

      Sanskrit has also seen great work by its Grammarians who did excellent job in refining and enriching the language continuously. This has enabled Sanskrit to enlarge its vocabulary matching with developments in other human spheres. As a result, Sanskrit kept growing in its stature as a source to feed most other vernacular in the main land of its influence as well on its peripheries.

      Most certainly; Sanskrit has provided major influence over most other vernacular languages that took form in eastern side on India mainly Bangla and Oriya. In fact, due to continuous and ongoing exchange in all spheres of public life between north and south India ever since Gupta dynasty, Sanskrit also started influencing Dravidian languages especially through Brahmins in south India also learning and writing in Sanskrit. I read some one comparing influence of Sanskrit on other languages of the subcontinent by comparing it with the way Mahout directs the elephant to move forward and for course correction any time it deviates, off course, Sanskrit occupying the driving seat.

      Sir William Jones, an Anglo Welsh philologist and an authority on Indo European languages who lived between 1746 to 1794 and founded Asiatic Society of Bengal said in 1786 during the annual meeting of the society at Calcutta (now Kolkata):

"Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a strong affinity, both in the roots and verbs, and in the form of grammar, than could possibly would have been produced by accident; so strong indeed that no philologist could examine them all without believing to have sprung from some common source which perhaps no longer exist."

Sanskrit's Literary Treasure: Broad Classification

      Great sages of India have been creating literary masterpieces since the Rig-Veda time although the content and emphasis have evolved in line with social changes around. Total volume of such creations was much more than what is currently available. The losses are attributed to lack of proper media for storage of the literature created. Initially, there was no writing of Vedas and Brahmins have preserved these only by oral traditions who laboured for generations to carry over the Vedas with sheer memory and recitations. Later, the media for writing was limited to birch bark or palm leafs and these had but very limited self-life. Proper preservation demanded rewriting of the material all the time. We can easily assume the gigantic resources required in terms of writers and material to continuously rewrite literature coming over for centuries along with literature getting created by new generation. As a consequence, substantial portion of earlier literature could not be saved and got vanished.

      We will attempt to have a broad look at whatever remained salvaged. In order to get a clear picture, proper classification of the available Sanskrit literature will help in better comprehension. But we must remember that the whole volume available today is composed and compiled over millennium and consists of distinct types. The categorization of such volume itself has its own challenges and that is why there is no consensus among literary circles about a final categorization. But like many other things, Hinduism doesn't get scared from consensus and multiple categorizations are well accepted as normal. Thus one will always come across situations of marginal overlap and we must be open to live with the fact that as it is with such a great volume of literature, it is next to impossible to fit it in tight categorizations.

      Indeed the whole developments of Sanskrit literature has so evolved that overlap is unavoidable. Reader is advised to keep this caution at the back of his/her mind and is better advised to refrain from taking it as a gospel truth. However, some categorization is always better than not having one.

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