Sanskrit is an ancient Indo-Aryan language that has for thousands of years become associated with religious teachings and beliefs, notably Hindu and Buddhist forms of thought. Its earliest use is associated with the migrating Aryan peoples who settled in north India and Iran and from whom several families of languages descended in various forms. Aryan means “noble” in Sanskrit. The long history of its use and the fact that so many religious and philosophical concepts are expressed in the language means it has become almost impossible to separate consideration of the language from the content it has most commonly been used to convey. Sanskrit remains an important language in religious expression in the modern world, although it is not spoken widely otherwise. Some religious experts and scholars are able to communicate in Sanskrit.
Vedic And Classical Sanskrit
Vedic Sanskrit is the oldest form of the language and was used to explain the Vedas (knowledge) that framed the first known forms of Indian religious expression. Vedic literature includes the Samhitas, which are four collections of texts: the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, the Atharva-Veda, and the Rig-Veda. The last three of these consist of verse forms used by priests in ritual chants. However, the Yajur-Veda may be divided into two parts, one of which—the Black, or Krishna, Yajur-Veda—contains both ritual verses (mantras) associated with sacrifice, as well as explanatory Brahmana, which detail meanings for mythological terms and concepts and also the derivations of some words. These works predate Buddhism and have been dated to c. 1000 b.c.e.
As the Vedic age continued, more literature was written in Sanskrit that was of a nonsacred nature. Panini, the earliest known writer about Sanskrit and its structure, considered the nonsacred forms of communication to be bhasa. Meanwhile, sacred texts included a growing number of sutras, or apophthegms. The Chanda texts and particularly the Brahmanas represent the foundations of the Brahmanical practices that spread across India and later Southeast Asia. The sacred Vedic Sanskrit texts were considered by Hindu believers to be in a mystical way at one with the universe and uncreated even by the divine gods. Since the language was universal and immortal, it follows that words expressed by it should be treated with respect, and it was particularly fitting for certain types of thoughts and concepts. Nevertheless, the language was also used for mundane and even profane communication. The fact that no definitive single script has been used for the language is an indication that meaning drift between different groups of Sanskrit speakers took place.
Subsequent development of the language meant that it became polished or crafted—more versatile for literary expression. Two of the great literary epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, were created in this phase of epic or classical Sanskrit. The Mahabharata details at some length the struggle between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, together with a large amount of additional religiomythical material. Contained within the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, which is an extended treatise on religious and human duties and forms a central strand of Hindu thought.
The Ramayana concerns the romance of Rama and was compiled according to tradition by the poet Valmiki c. 300 b.c.e. In the Ramayana, Prince Rama and his companions are instructed in virtue and duty and then suffer the loss of the prince’s wife, Sita, to the demon king of Lanka. Sita is ultimately recovered with the assistance of the monkey god Hanuman, but her trials continue, as Sita is made to demonstrate her fidelity to Rama, which she resents. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana constitute a basis of poetic expression and intellectual exploration that greatly expanded the mental vocabulary and reference material of all those people able to understand and converse in Sanskrit. To these were added a variety of dramatic and poetical works (nataka and kavya), together with narrative works. The language evolved considerably over the centuries, and this is evident in changes to pronunciation, word choice, and grammar.
Sanskrit was also used to create technical, philosophical, grammatical, and other scientific texts that were widely used throughout ancient and medieval Asia. It was used for Buddhist works in India and Sri Lanka, and these spread to mainland Southeast Asia where the language is known as Pali and formed the basis for educated discourse, as well as influencing the development of local languages. Chinese monks and pilgrims traveled to India in search of Buddhist texts to translate into Chinese, and they formed an important medium through which Sanskrit-expressed ideas entered into the Chinese world and its intellectual tradition. Sanskrit is also the language through which early Jainist thought is expressed.
Sanskrit In The Common Era
Sanskrit moved from being a spoken language to one that was better known for its use in sacred rituals and written literature. The great Buddhist king Ashoka, for example, followed Gautama Buddha’s teaching to use vernacular languages to spread religious teachings. Although religious and philosophical texts used Sanskrit, government-produced monuments and pronouncements employed other languages (Indo-Aryan) until the early centuries of the Common Era. A parallel development was for commentators to insist that only correct pronunciation in Sanskrit should be permitted and that this could only be achieved by studying the methods of the past. Sanskrit became separated from the masses, which were excluded from learning and mastering the language. Grammarians distinguished between words of Sanskrit origin and words influenced by Sanskrit. Sanskrit witnessed the importation of words from other languages, especially those necessary to describe new concepts or proper nouns.
Sanskrit also spread as a result of political and military change. The expansion of first the Persian Empire and subsequently the entry into northern India of Alexander the Great provided conduits through which the language could spread to the West. Contact with the Arab world in later centuries was also important in the transmission of cosmology and mathematics.
Sanskrit epics had tremendous influence on cultural and artistic production throughout India and Indian influenced societies. Some works, including the retelling of part of the Mahabharata by Nannaya Bhatta (1100–60 c.e.), took as their subject well-known tales of the past and brought them into contemporary focus both through the contrast between the heroic milieu and that familiar with the audience, and also by presenting existing characters with new encounters and events to face. This has begun a tradition of inventive mixing of the past and present that has led to a burgeoning form of popular culture in both oral and written forms. Some critics maintain that the use of Sanskrit has been a tool by which the central Indian state has sought to oppress local traditions and cultures. Sanskrit studies became popular in Europe in the early modern period both as a subject of scholarly inquiry and also as a source of spiritual sustenance. Its popularity has waxed and waned with interest in Eastern philosophies.
Structure Of The Language
Sanskrit has come most commonly to be expressed through the Devanagri script, although this is a comparatively modern invention. Sanskrit has a complex and highly mannerized structure, resulting from its origins as a deliberately created language. There are three genders and three numbers, with 10 types of verbs, eight cases, and 10 noun declensions. There are a variety of voiced and unvoiced aspirated sounds in the language and the retroflex sound that has been introduced and distinguishes Indian languages from the Indo-European family. The language is highly inflected and numerous suffixes, for example, govern different shades of meaning and emphasis. Expressions of time in verb tenses are also complex and contain various types of meaning embedded within them.
- Deshpande, Madhav. Samskrta-Subodhini: A Sanskrit Primer. Detroit: University of Michigan Press, 1999;
- Filliozat, Pierre-Sylvain. The Sanskrit Language: An Overview: History and Structure, Linguistic and Philosophical Representations, Uses and Users. Varanasi, India: Indica Books, 2000;
- McGrath, Kevin. The Sanskrit Hero: Karna in Epic Mahabharata. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill 2004;
- Narasimhan, Chakravarthi V., trans. The Mahabharata. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997;
- Sen, Amartya. “Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination.” Daedalus (v.134/4, 2005);
- The Ramayana. Translated by Arshia Sattar. New York: Penguin Global, 2000.