Sanskrit - The Mother of All Languages
Considered to be the oldest language in human history, Sanskrit is the progenitor and inspiration for virtually every language spoken in India. This article traces the origins and history of this venerable language.
Sanskrit is considered to be a key element in the Indo-Aryan language superfamily and holds the rank of a classical language, together with other languages such as Classical Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic Hebrew, Chinese and Tamil. The conferring of the title of a "classical" follows the fulfillment of certain requirements from the language in question :
Its origins must be established as having occurred over a long time ago.
It should possess an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own and not as an offshoot of another tradition.
It must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.Sanskrit fulfils all these requirements with ease, having a tradition going back at least 3,000 years and is the language in which every ancient Hindu text, devotional or otherwise, is written in.
Sanskrit has a similar position in India to that of Latin and Greek in Medieval Europe, and is a central part of Hindu/Vedic traditions. In its pre-classical form, called Vedic Sanskrit, Sanskrit is one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family. The oldest example of Sanskrit literature available is the Rigveda. However, while the age of 3,000 years is a very conservative estimate based on the dating on the earliest found manuscript written in Sanskrit, it has been postulated that an oral tradition was extensively used for several centuries before the penning of religious works like the Rigveda was undertaken.
The word "samskrata", in the strictest sense, means "purified, consecrated, sanctified". Sanskrit, usually referred to as "Samskrata Vāk", would mean a "refined language". Sanskrit has, by definition, always been considered to have been a language chiefly employed for religious and scientific discourse and is assumed to have contrasted with the languages spoken by the people. The oldest surviving example of the tabulations of the rules of Sanskrit grammar is Panini's "Astadhyavi" (literally translating to "Eight-Chapter Grammar") dated to have been written around the 5th century BC. The "Astadhyavi" is essentially a prescriptive set of grammarian principles, which defines (rather than describes) the correct usage of Sanskrit. However, it is replete with descriptive sections, chiefly to account for those Vedic forms of Sanskrit which had already phase out by the time Panini wrote the book.
It has always been believed that Sanskrit was created and then refined over many generations, typically over more than a thousand years, until it was considered complete and perfect in all respects. Sanskrit was not conceived as a specific language set apart from other languages, but as a particularly refined manner of speaking. This could analogized to the same relation that "Standard" English bears with respect to dialects of English spoken around the world. The current form of the language is believed to have evolved out of the earlier "Vedic" form of Sanskrit and certain scholars often classify Vedic Sanskrit and Classical Sanskrit as separate languages. However, both forms of Sanskrit bear remarkable degrees of similarity with each other, with points of difference occurring mostly in the areas of phonology, vocabulary, and grammar.
Vedic Sanskrit is titled so due to its usage in the Vedas, the earliest sacred texts of India and the foundations of Hinduism. The earliest of the Vedas, the Rigveda, is estimated to have been composed in the 2nd millennium BC. The Vedic form of Sanskrit existed as a primary language until the middle of the first millennium BC. It is assumed that Sanskrit made the transition from the state of a primary language to the form of a second language of religion and learning after this period, thus marking the initiation of the Classical Period in Sanskrit's history. Another form of Sanskrit that developed in the same period has been titled Epic Sanskrit and is evident in the language employed in the Mahabharata and other prominent Hindu epics. Epic Sanskrit employs a higher number of "prakritisms" (borrowed words from common speech) than from the more refined form of Classical Sanskrit. Another form of the language discovered by linguistic scholars is called "Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit". Essentially a Prakrit language form, the language is replete with Sanskritized elements, which are assumed to have been used for the purposes of ornamentation of the language.
The word "Prakrit" (Prakrta in Sanskrit translates to "natural, usual") refers to the broad family of the Indic languages and dialects spoken in ancient India. The Prakrits were literary languages, generally patronized by king. The earliest extant usage of Prakrit available are the inscriptions of Emperor Ashoka, with the various Prakritic languages intimately associated with different patron dynasties and kingdoms, along with different religions and different literary traditions.
A strong relationship is evident between the various forms of Sanskrit and the Middle Indo-Aryan "Prakrits" (in which, among other things, most early Jain and Buddhist texts are written), and the modern Indo-Aryan languages. The Prakrits are estimated to have been descended from Vedic Sanskrit and its other forms and there is evidence of a large degree of mutual interchange of terms, words and phrases between later forms of Sanskrit and that various Prakrits that evolved. Sanskrit has also exhibited reciprocal influences with the Dravidian languages, with the influences of Sanskrit imprinted in every Dravidian language that exists.
The methodology of modern-day linguistic research is largely derivative from the work carried out by the ancient Sanskrit grammarians like Panini. Linguistics widely credits its origins to these Indian grammarians who had attempted to catalog and codify the rules inherent to Sanskrit's proper usage. In fact, European scholarship in Sanskrit, begun by Heinrich Roth and Johann Ernst Hanxleden, preceded the proposal of the Indo-European language family by Sir William Jones, thus playing an important role in the development of Western linguistics. The foundations of modern linguistics employs many forms of the structures evolved in the works of Sanskrit grammarians, with several key terms for compound analysis borrowed from Sanskrit.
Sanskrit literature is informally divided into several zones, as per the literary forms Sanskrit had undertaken both in structure as well as literature. The first period, called the Vedic Period, spans approximately between 2000 BC and 500 BC, Vedic literature forms the basis for the further development of Hinduism. The fours Vedas - Rig, Yajus, Sāma and Atharva, are considered to be keystones in the formation of Hindu philosophy and thought. The Vedas were not written in a stretch and have been compiled over several centuries by thousands of people through the ages. As a result, the Vedas provide an insight into the historical and cultural development of India during this period. In terms of content, the Vedas contain facets encompassing entirely different lines of thought and religious beliefs. The Upanishads form a part of the Vedas, and are firmly philosophical in grounding.
The period between approximately the 12th and the 2nd centuries BC saw the composition of two great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Both these epics are considered to be collective works, which were penned sometime in the 2nd century BC after continual evolution over centuries of oral tradition.
The Panchatantra was another great collection of stories penned around the year 200 BC. A collection of Sanskrit fables both in prose and verse formats, it is considered to be a political treatise created by the scholar Vishnu Sarma to instruct the young princes of Kashiin the intricacies of political science. Traveling all over the world through Persia and the Southeast Asian sea routes, this collection of fables is considered to be the oldest forms of stories existent in the world and is considered to be the source of many moralistic fables developed in virtually every corner of the world.
Another collection of stories that made an impact all over the world were the Jataka Tales. Although primarily associated with Buddhist traditions and written in Pali, the tales are believed to have evolved from related Sanskrit stories that existed prior to the penning of these tales. The Jataka Tales are assumed to have inspired several other stories in other parts of the world, notably the stories contained in Aesop's Fables, Sindbad the Sailor and The Arabian Nights.
A prime component in Hindu ideology is the Puranas. Traditionally attributed to Vyasa, modern scholars place the framing of this body of work to have initiated between 400 and 1000 AD. The Puranas are an important part of Hindu "Smriti", with comprehensive discussions on varied topics like devotion to God in his various aspects, traditional sciences like Ayurveda, Jyotish, cosmology, and concepts like dharma, karma, reincarnation, among others. Comprising of eighteen puranas divided among three categories titled Brahma Purānās, Vishnu Purānās and Shiva Purānās, they eulogize the three main gods in Hindu consciousness, Brahma the creator, Vishnu the Protector and Shiva the Destroyer.
India has a rich tradition of theatrical arts, which contrary to the beliefs of some scholars, was not born out of the Greek invasions of India. Theatre has existed as an indigenous institution at least since the Vedic period in Sanskrit history.
Vedic drama owed its origins to religion. The Yama-Yami episode in the Rig-Veda for instance presents one of the earliest forms of drama in Indo-European literature. Drama eventually developed into a tradition that was independent of religious ritual. Despite latter-day Hellenistic influences, Sanskrit plays often greatly differed from their Greek counterparts with respect to the nature of the plays, which ranged from tragedy to light comedy. Dramatists often recreated pre-existing mythological or historical themes to form new works.
Some of Sanskrit's most famous Sanskrit dramatists include Sudraka, Bhasa, Asvaghosa and Kalidasa. Some of Sanskrit's greatest plays are Sudraka's "Mriccha Katika" (assumed to have been written in the 2nd century BC); "Swapna Vasavadattam" and "Pratijna Yaugandharayaanam" by Bhasa, a playwright considered second only to Kalidasa; and "Vikramorvashiyam", "Malakavikagnimitram" and "Abhijnana Shakuntalam" by Sanskrit literature's greatest playwright, Kalidasa.
The writer Bharata composed a keystone in Sanskrit literature which laid down broad guidelines for the way the forms of music, dance, literature and theater are and should be expressed. Titled "Natyashastra", it also is credited with the establishment of the nine "Rasas", emotions that could find artistic expressions.
Several works of poetry developed between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD utilized the most creative forms of Sanskrit, in the most stylistic literary accents. The greatest works of poetry in the history of Sanskrit literature have been stated to be "Kumarasambhavam" and "Raghuvamsham" by Kalidasa, "Kiratarjuniya" by Bharavi, "Shishupala Vadha" by Sri Maagha and "Naishadiya Charitam" by Sri Harsha. In this period, the first novel in Sanskrit was also written by Bana Bhatta who titled his work "Kadambari".
Another significant work that arose in the 11th century was the "Katha Saritsagara" a poetic adaptation of an earlier work in the Paischali dialect titled "Brihat Katha". This work inspired several stories within "The Arabic Nights" and is best known to children across India for the "Vikram aur Betaal" stories this anthology contained.
After the 11th century, the development of Sanskrit literature considerably declined due to the rise of derivative languages like Hindi, Bengali and other languages. However, the influence of Sanskrit in the literary cultures in these languages is very evident, with earlier works in Sanskrit constantly undergoing reinvention and reinterpretation over subsequent ages.
Today, Sanskrit is mostly used as a ceremonial language, in hymns and mantras. But the evidences of Sanskrit still exists underneath the national consciousness of modern India. Bengali and Marathi still retain a largely Sanskrit vocabulary base. The national anthem, "Jana Gana Mana" is composed in an extremely Sanskritized form of Bengali. The national song, "Vande Mataram" originally a poem taken from the book "Anandmath" written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay is in pure Sanskrit like a tribute to the mother of all the Indian languages today.
In the present scenario, Sanskrit is considered by many scholars to be a dead language. But Sanskrit continues to display the same amount of persistence it had displayed across these many millennia. The Government of India actively promotes Sanskrit as a third language throughout the primary education system and modern scholars across oceans now have begun to study and encourage conversations in Sanskrit, among a steadily growing student community. It seems manifest that Sanskrit will endure and bridge across centuries to live on in the consciousnesses of future generations of humanity.
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