By Priyadarshini Saha

What do you mean by Sanskrit?

Sanskrit is regarded as one of the most ancient languages of South Asia, and is commonly associated as a means of dialogue and communication with celestial Gods in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. The term ‘Sanskrit’ is derived from the conjoining of the prefix ‘Sam’ meaning ‘samyak’, which in English translation means ‘entirely’, and ‘krit’ meaning ‘done’. Thus as a whole, ‘Sanskrit’ indicates perfectly or entirely done in terms of communication, reading, hearing, and the use of vocabulary to express emotions. Sanskrit is an immensely complicated language with a vast diction and vocabulary, and is nowadays widely used in the reading of sacred hymns and texts, such as the Rigveda, Puranas, and Upanishads.

Sanskrit: A Brief History

Purity of Sanskrit as a Language

The Sanskrit language was termed as ‘Deva-Vani’ (Deva means Gods and Vani means language), or the language of Gods. During the periods of ancient India, Sanskrit was believed to be a language coined and generated by the god Brahma (in Hinduism, the creator of Mother Earth) who passed it to the Rishis (sages and gurus) living in celestial homes. The Rishis used this language to communicate moral, earthly disciplines, and ideas to their disciples and spread the language worldwide.

Origins and Development

Linguists have linked the origin of Sanskrit with Old Indo-Aryan languages of Central Asia and Europe. It is considered as one of the three ancient languages that arose from a common root language now known as Proto-Indo-European languages. Other Indo-European languages related to Sanskrit include archaic and classical Latin, Gothic (archaic Germanic Language), Old Norse, Old Avestan, and Younger Avestan. The closest ancient relatives of Sanskrit in the Indo-European languages are the Nuristani language found in the Hindu Kush region of northeastern Afghanistan and the Himalayas.

European linguists and scholars were astonished by the common resemblance of Sanskrit grammar and vocabulary with the classical languages of Europe, such as Latin and Greek. To explain the common features of Sanskrit with the Indo-European languages, the Indo-Aryan migration theory was developed. This theory highlights that the original speakers of what became Sanskrit arrived in the Indian subcontinent from Central Asia during the early 2nd millennium BCE. Evidence to such a theory includes the close relationship between the Indo-Iranian, Baltic, and Slavic languages. Unfortunately, the prehistory of Indo-Aryan languages which preceded Vedic Sanskrit is unclear and various hypotheses have been formulated but none is set in stone. However, it is a common belief by Indian linguists and historians that the Indo-Aryan language, which came with the colonization and migration of Aryans to the Indian subcontinent in the early 2nd millennium BCE, underwent rapid linguistic change and morphed into Vedic Sanskrit because the then Aryan language was incomprehensible by the indegineous Indians due to its difficult vocabulary and pronunciation. Consequently, the ancient Indian scholars simplified the pronunciation for facilitating communication between the Aryans and the Indians. From this arose Vedic Sanskrit which was mostly translated orally until the composition of the Rig Veda.  

The origin of the written language can be traced back to the 2nd millennium BCE  in a form known as Vedic Sanskrit with the Rig Veda, a collection of sacred  Hindu hymns, being the earliest known composition. However,in the ancient era, Sanskrit compositions were orally transmitted by methods of memorization with exceptional complexity, rigour, and fidelity. Resultantly, the Vedic Sanskrit was well-suited for oral communications among gurus and educated scholars, but did not offer a means of structured and simplified written communication and preservation for the common people and laymen. This delliema was addressed by the emersion of Classical Sanskrit in the mid-1st millennium BCE from the works of Panini. Classical Sanskrit is more refined dialect with a standardized and simplified grammatical form and pronunciation. This allowed the emergence of Sanskrit literature which encompassed a rich tradition of philosophical and religious texts, as well as poetry, music, drama, and the documentation of scientific observations.

Vedic Sanskrit

Vedic Sanskrit, in its most original form is found in the sacred texts of the Vedas, including Rig Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Veda, and Atharva-Veda, as well as the Puranas and Upanishads. The composition of the Vedas dates back to 1000 to 500 BCE, until when Sanskrit had a vigorous tradition of being used for oral communication and transmissions. Vedic Sanskrit is extremely rich in vocabulary, phonology, grammar, and syntax. It consists of 52 letters in total, 16 vowels and 36 consonants. The letters of Sanskrit have never been altered and have been purely constant since the beginning, which makes it one of the most perfect languages for word formation and pronunciation.

The language is believed to have been generated by observing natural progression of sounds created by the human tongue, thus making sound the most important factor for word formation. Sanskrit’s quality to bring out the perfect meaning through perfect sounds that are soothing to the human ear is one of the primary reasons why Sanskrit has been used extensively in poetry, drama, and music.

Classical Sanskrit

Classical Sanskrit has its origin in the end of the Vedic period when the Upanishads were the last written sacred texts, after which Panini, grammar and linguistic researcher and scholar, introduced the more refined version of the language. Like Latin in Europe, Sanskrit has been used to educate classes in India for literary and religious purposes for over two thousand years. This tradition and education reached its height around 500BCE when the grammarian and scholar Panini composed an intricate and complex description of the language in the form of quasi-mathematical rules in his book ‘Astadhyayi’, which means eight chapters that provide the foundational and analytical text of Sanskrit grammar.

Sanskrit is considered and accepted as the only sacred language giving rise to the only available sacred literature by all, even though India has a repository of more than 5000 spoken languages. Sanskrit as a spoken language is rare, but some rural Indian villages proudly claim it to be their first language. Additionally, Sanskrit is proudly mentioned as one of the 14 original languages of India by the Indian Constitution. Nevertheless, Sanskrit is largely used in Carnatic music in form of bhajans, shlokas, stotras, and kirtanas, all showcasing devotional hymns to various Gods.

Why learn Sanskrit?

Sanskrit is one of the most systematic languages of the world, which can instill systematic inquiry and health curiosity. Sanskrit opens the mind to a wide variety of concepts, making its learners liberal in their views. The vibrational quality and natural flow of Sanskrit is known to improve voice quality, self confidence, and brain functioning during meditation (during yogas or extensive meditations Indian monks, gurus, and sagas employ or chant Sanskrit shlokas to open their mind and attain inner peace). It also facilitates a better grasp of the mechanics of other related languages, such as Latin or Greek. The most practical value of learning Sanskrit lies in the fact that it trains the mind to think logically, while bringing clarity of expression, developing intellectual strength, and providing a keen insight to understanding words.