Sanskrit and linguistics
The roots of modern linguistics trace back to a lecture delivered in Calcutta in 1786. Sir William Jones, a British judge serving in India, hypothesized that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin must all have sprung from a common source – what today we call Indo-European. In the mid-nineteenth century, Jacob Grimm explained how German phonology systematically differed from the sound systems of such languages as Latin and Sanskrit. Soon thereafter, the Junggrammatiker (neogrammarians) created a linguistic research agenda for comparing languages in the Indo-European family, predominantly focusing on phonology. By the early twentieth century, linguistics had largely become the diachronic study of Indo-European sound systems.
Baron, Naomi S. "Linguistics." The International Encyclopedia of Communication. Donsbach, Wolfgang (ed). Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Blackwell Reference Online. 29 July 2009
Sir William Jones, a comparative philologist holding expertise in more than fifteen languages including Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew, was struck by the linguistic affinities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. He hypothesized that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin must have originated from one linguistic source – the Proto-Indo-European language, which has been lost to us forever. Efforts to reconstruct the mother of Indo-European languages have proved futile. In his annual lecture delivered before the Asiatic Society on the history and culture of the Hindus 1786, he described Sanskrit and its relationship to other Indo-European languages as follows:
The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family. (Quoted from Readings in Early Anthropology by James Sydney Slotkin, Routledge 2004, page 240)
Almost a hundred year later in 1877, Sir R.G. Bhandarkar delivered a series of lectures on Sanskrit in which he further mapped developmental phases of Sanskrit, analyzed its relationship with several north and central Indian languages including Pālī, Prākrit, Hindī and Marathi. These lectures laid “the foundations of linguistic studies of Indo-Aryan family of languages.”
In modern linguistics, Sanskrit has been recognized as the ancestor of modern Indo-Iranian languages spoken in North India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Moreover, Sanskrit is also a language of the learned and served on Indian subcontinent as the major interlingua. Even Dravidian languages spoken in South India have a high percentage of Sanskrit loanwords. Because of Sanskrit’s rich linguistic and textual contributions reflected in India’s social and cultural continuity, the Indian constitution lists it among the three national languages of India, the other two being Hindī and English. In the last census in India, about 50,000 thousand people claimed that they spoke Sanskrit. since been esteemed as one of the earliest Dictionaries and thesauri are instrumental in the field of comparative linguistics because the latter relies mainly on the knowledge of extensive vocabulary from different languages. While it is difficult to establish the existence of comparative studies in ancient Sanskrit texts, they have a long tradition in lexicographical studies. For instance, Nighantu, a very small text consisting of Vedic words organized according to their meanings, is perhaps the earliest thesaurus available today. Yāska, an etymologist and grammarian, wrote a commentary titled Nirukta on Nighantu. Sanskrit has also preserved the earliest work on quantitative description of texts. Śaunaka, a Sanskrit grammarian who lived around 300 BCE, counted and referenced all syllables, words, and stanzas in the Rigveda. In the sixth century, Amarasiṃha composed his dictionary/thesaurus of classical Sanskrit called Amarakośa.
Scholars of Indian studies – both in India and abroad – have expressed serious concerns over politicization of Indian languages on religious lines. Linguistic politicization inevitably resulted in even more pronounced communal separatism because peoples’ ways of interacting with each other became indicators of their communal identities. For example, Hindi and Urdu have become indicators of different communal identities, i.e. Hindus speak and write Hindi but Muslims use Urdu. Similarly, Sanskrit has been linked exclusively with Hindu religious identity because it is the language of Hindu religious and philosophical literature. At its best, such an argument is grossly misleading, if not incorrect. The fact is that early Indian literature – be it religious or secular – is composed in Sanskrit. Moreover, even within Indian tradition, all languages – including Sanskrit – are believed to be incapable of describing religious or spiritual experiences. In Kenopanishad, for example, an experience of Brahman is described to be beyond speech. The fact is that Sanskrit was the language of the learned and its literature includes secular texts as well, such as literature, history, art, sciences, engineering, medicine, surgery, archaeology, astronomy and architecture. In fact, religious literature is comparatively less than non-religious. Practical applications of Sanskrit learning like Ayurveda and architecture still survive in Kerala. Moreover, there is a long tradition of Buddhist and Jain texts composed in Sanskrit. It was through Sanskrit literature that India’s scientific knowledge travelled to Greece and Arabic countries.
It is true that Hindus have used Sanskrit as a language of religious rites and rituals, but this argument is not limited to Sanskrit. Muslims all over the world have used for centuries Arabic as a language of religious experience, but we do not attach religious identity with Arabic as we do with Sanskrit. Just as in the case of Arabic, language came first and the scripture – the Qur’an – later, Sanskrit language existed before the Vedas or other religious texts came into existence. The fact that the early Sanskrit texts consist of religious and spiritual beliefs that are considered by adherents of other religions, especially by followers of Islam and Christianity, does not make Sanskrit a religious language. Because in pre-Islamic era, even Arabic speakers held beliefs that prophet Muhammad denounced later. In such situation, should we consider the Arabic language a language of Pagan beliefs or of Islamic beliefs? It is absurd therefore to call Sanskrit a Hindu language.
Let’s free this beautiful ancient language from politicized religious identity, enjoy its long literary tradition of poetry and sciences.
The Report of the Sanskrit Commission states:
34. It has been wrongly averred that the study of Sanskrit is only sacerdotal, and is mainly confined to the various ideologies, institutions, cults and practices of orthodox Hindu religion. According to this view, Sanskrit can only help to make people reactionary in their attitude to life-make them shut their eyes to the actual conditions of life and merely hark back to an ideal past age. It must, however, be pointed out in this connection that all literature in Sanskrit can by no means be said to be purely religious or sectarian in character. As indicated elsewhere in this Chapter, there is in Sanskrit a considerable amount of technical, scientific and secular literature. Works on polity like the Arthasastra of Kautilya or on architecture like the Manasara, the Samarangana-sutradhara and the Aparajitaprccha, as also many other treatises relating to the Kalas, can certainly not be characterised as religious. We must also not forget, in this context, the pure literature embodied in the various types of Sanskrit drama and poetry. It must be further pointed out that the large mass of literature in Sanskrit was not produced by any particular community. Several instances can be quoted of non-Brahman and non-Hindu authors who have made significant contributions to Sanskrit literature. It is definitely wrong to assume that Sanskrit represents only the religious literature of the Hindus.
35. This aspect of Sanskrit, that it was not exclusively religious, was appreciated even by some of the Muslim rulers of India, who patronised Sanskrit literature, and, in some cases (as in Bengal and Gujarat), had their epigraphic records inscribed in Sanskrit. It was the scientific and secular aspect of Sanskrit literature that made the Arabs welcome Indian scholars to Baghdad to discourse on sciences like Medicine and Astronomy, and to translate books in these subjects into Arabic. The Ayurveda system of medicine, until recently, was the truly National Indian System, which was practised everywhere, and access to this was through Sanskrit books, which even Muslim practitioners of the Ayurveda in Bengal studied. The study of Sanskrit is not productive of a reactionary spirit, any more than the study or continuance of English in India is a part of a plan to bring back the Englishmen as our rulers. What better instances can we have of a refreshingly liberal and rational outlook in our greatest Sanskrit writers from early times than the sentiments expressed by Kalidasa, Varahamihira and Sankara: puranam ity eva na sadhu sarvam ("All that is old is not gold" Kalidasa); mleccha hi yavanas tesu samyak sastram idam sthitam rsivat te’ pi pujyah syuh ("The Yavanas are Mlecchas, but this science is well-established among them; and they too deserve our respect even as our own sages"-Varahamihira); na hi purvajo mudha asidity avarajena’ pi mudhena bhavitavyam ("Because one’s forbears were ignorant, it does not follow that we also should remain ignorant"-Sankara)? One of the basic things in the Indian mind is its approach to all matters through the intellect. The highest Vedic prayer, the Gayatri, is a prayer to God for stimulating man’s thoughts (dhiyo yo nah pra codayat). Even an atheistic and materialistic philosophical system like that of Carvaka or Lokayata found its expression. in Sanskrit. In the Nirukta, Argument or Discussion (Tarka) has been described as a Rishi or Sage, to be followed by men in their intellectual pursuits’. Even in the present age, among Sanskrit Pandits, we have instances of a conspicuous clarity of mind and urbanity of behaviour which cannot be the result of a reactionary or a blindly orthodox mentality, which Sanskrit is alleged to engender.
36. In this connection, one would do well to understand clearly the two main characteristics of Sanskrit culture. In the first instance, the Sanskrit world presents, so to say, a remarkable Unity in the midst of a bewildering Diversity. As F. W. Thomas, in his Presidential Address before the Ninth All-India Oriental Conference held at Trivandrum in 1937, put it: "Every State, City or Shrine manifested some individuality in rite, usage or mentality. Nevertheless, they were all, linked by a common origin and tradition, and thus the Aryan world was, as it were, a firmament studded with innumerable luminaries of the same order, but each insisting upon shining to some extent with an individually tinted light". Pointing out the second characteristic, Thomas continued: "The Indian Man, partly by reason of the antiquity, and partly in consonance with the complexity of his social conditions, as well as through deliberate cultivation of reflexion, has been more of a thinker than are other men. Even for the head of a department of State in the old days, we have such terms as dharma-cintaka, etc."
The Report of the Sanskrit Commission states:
47. Our Modern Indian languages, both Aryan and Dravidian, are in the same boat. They have been, all of them, under the aegis of Sanskrit. The Modern Aryan languages were all born in the lap of Sanskrit; and as for the Dravidian languages, ever since their ear- liest literary use, they have been nurtured by Sanskrit. Even in the case of Tamil, although early Tamil literature, as in the Sangam texts, ‘shows certain special Tamil characteristics which are perhaps unique for Tamil, it is fully within the orbit of Sanskrit. As Siva- jnana-munivar has said in his commentary to the Tol-kappiyam, the oldest grammar of Tamil : "the nature of Tamil will not be clear to those who have not learnt Sanskrit" (vadanul unarndarkkanrit –Tamil iyalpu vilangadu: I Eluttalikaram, sutra 1). Tamil of the oldest Sangam texts shows a very good number of Sanskrit words, and the number goes on increasing with the centuries. The ideas in early Tamil literature as well as in that of later Tamil, and in all literatures in the other Dravidian languages, are the reflexes of what we have in the Sanskrit world. Words of Sanskrit also have been taken over along with these ideas. The best intellects, among the peoples speaking South Indian languages have by and large adopted Sanskrit for the expression of their ideas in the domains of serious thinking, as, for example, in Philosophy. As a matter of fact, neither the languages of the South nor of the North were used for the expression of higher thought by eminent authors of the land. It was to Sanskrit that they first turned, and, only after that, to the mother-tongue.
The following is an excerpt from the Report of the Sanskrit Commission 1956-1957.
6. Sanskrit as an Official Language
21. From what has already been said, it would be clear that Sanskrit has the best claim to be the Official Language of India.The Sanskrit Commission is not considering this question merely out of enthusiasm. nor are we the first to pose this matter. Distinguished Indians among whom are Intellectuals and Scientists like Dr. C. V. Raman and Congressmen and Administrators like Shri Sri Prakasa and Dr. K. N. Katju, have expressed the opinion more than once that they would prefer Sanskrit as the Lingua Indica. Many witnesses, including some leading thinkers, writers and publicists, wanted this question to be viewed in the light of the undesirable differences that have been created
1*Professor J. Filliozat of College de France, Paris, informs the Commission that the possibility of the use of a kind of simplified or basic Latin was recently examined in France (Congress of Avignon, July 1956) with a view to establishing a common means of scientific expression.
2*This work can go hand in hand with the Sanskrit Lexicon which has been undertaken by the Deccan ‘College Research Institute of Poona under the sponsorship of the Government of India.
owing to the two major decisions of the Government the Linguistic Reorganisation of States; and the Imposition of Hindi on a country not yet ready for it and, in a considerable portion of it, unwilling to take it. These witnesses proposed that the Constitution might even be amended on this question. It is not as if we are in total agreement with them, but we feel obliged to refer to the concern and the strong feeling which a large body of persons such as we interviewed-scholars and writers, university-men and intellectuals- have on this question.
22. As already indicated, the Constituent Assembly did not give a smooth-sailing to the Bill on Hindi as the Official Language. The majority which decided such a vital issue was one of the narrowest. During the few stormy days of the Constituent Assembly’s discussion of this question. the impasse was sought to be solved by some members by proposing Sanskrit as the Rastrabhasa; and the late Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, who as the Law Member, was piloting the bill, was also re- ported to have favoured that-proposal. In the course of the discussion on this question in the Assembly, several members, including some ardent protagonists of, Hindi,. paid due homage to Sanskrit. Apart from all this, the only other Indian language for the adoption of which as the Rastrabhasa a regular amendment was moved, and discussion on which took a good part of the time of the Assembly, was Sanskrit.
23. As Shri Naziruddin Ahmad, advocating Sanskrit put it on the floor of the House, a language that is adopted for the whole country, where so many languages are spoken, should be impartial, a language which is not the mother-tongue of any area, which is common to all regions, and the adoption of which will not prove an advantage to one part of the country and a handicap to all other parts. The late Lakshmi Kanta Maitra, who moved the amendment seeking to replace Hindi by Sanskrit as the Official Language, observed in the Assembly, that, if Sanskrit was accepted, "all the jealousies, all this bitterness will vanish with all the psychological complex that has been created………. there will not be the least feeling of domination or suppression of this or that"’. Thus, neutrality (or not being the spoken language of any section) has been urged as the first criterion of a National Language. That is why efforts were being made to create in Europe quite a new language like Esperanto,, to be used as the International Language. When We already have in Sanskrit not a tour de force, like Esperanto, but a rich language perfected for this very purpose of all-India use through all these centuries, why throw it away? The neutrality of Sanskrit is not a mere negative quality; it is also the positive virtue of having grown by incorporating into itself elements from all other languages of
1*A P.T.I. message, dated 10th September 1949, said that among the supporters of the amendment sponsoring Sanskrit as the Official Language were, in addition to Dr. Ambedkar, Dr. B. V. Keskar, India’s Deputy Minister for External Affairs, Mr. T. T. Krishnamachari, Member of the Drafting Committee, Dr. P. Subbarayan (Madras), Mrs. Durgabai (Madras), Mr. V. S. Muniswami Pillai (Madras) , and six other members from Madras, besides several from West Bengal.
the country. In this respect again, Sanskrit, which, as his been pointed out elsewhere, is a synthesis of the best in all the cultural constituents of India, can truly, claim to have been developed and enriched by every part. of India.
24. The second criterion relates to sentiment, historic importance, cultural significance, inherent richness and potentiality, and, above all, universal acceptance as the symbol of the country. Sanskrit possesses all these characteristics, and it is needless to labour this point. No apology is needed for asking the country seriously to adopt Sanskrit.
25. The third criterion is the developed character and the provenance of a language. Here Sanskrit is certainly not worse off than Hindi. In fact, its position is superior, for Hindi, which is still not much developed, hopes to become so only on the basis of Sanskrit. It is to Sanskrit that not only Hindi but all the languages of India look up for replenishment and growth. The linguistic and literary resources of Sanskrit have already been referred to. The proposal for Hindi itself carried with it the recognition of Sanskrit. If Hindi required a particular length of time to be able to take over from English, as the Official Language, Sanskrit would require a shorter time to do so. Regarding the question of provenance, English, which has now come to be widely advocated, is confined to about 1 % of the population and that only in the higher classes, the intellectual elite who give lead to the people. A numerical majority is claimed for Hindi; but without underrating this, we would like to point out that both scholars and enthusiasts cannot afford to ignore the fact that at the back of ‘Hindi’ are so many dialects and even distinct languages with distinct names (all of which together are called ‘Hindi’). Sanskrit is prevalent in all parts of India, and is the real G. C. M. of Indian languages. Its teaching is already provided for all over India. and in most of the modern Universities. With English, it enjoys an International prestige and recognition. To assign to Sanskrit’ this pan-Indian role is only to reinstate it in the position which it had been occupying down the centuries*1.
26. Above all, this Commission would urge upon all statesmen and thinkers of the country to reflect calmly on the growing fissiparous tendencies and linguistic parochialism which are jeopardising the political unity of the country and are rocking the very foundations of our freedom. If all such resources as can make the whole country rally round in unity are to be explored and exploited, Sanskrit. the Supreme Unifier, should be, first of all, exploited by making it the basis of a country-wide loyalty.
1*Even in the twelfth century, when the modern vernaculars had come on the scene, communications between people of different parts of India were carried on in Sanskrit. Cf. Naisadhi va-carita, X 34
"Among the Kings who had come from different parts of the country, and who, out of fear that their mother-tongues ‘would not be mutually understood, were-carrying on conversation in Sanskrit…."
27. Sanskrit has been recognised as one of the fourteen languages of the Union, and the Constitution (which has been put also in Sanskrit) gives the right to an Indian citizen to address the Government on any matter, in Sanskrit. Since Sanskritised Hindi in the Devanagari script is already declared as the Official Language of the Union, and since, for its general development, Hindi will have to depend mostly on Sanskrit (as the recent trends clearly indicate), nothing new is really asked for by pressing for the recognition’ of Sanskrit as an Additional Official Language. While for all administrative and ordinary day-to-day purposes, some pan-Indian form of Hindi may be used, it appears inevitable that, in course of time, the prospective All-India Language-Bharati Bhasa-at least in its written norm, which would be acceptable to all regions of India, especially in the higher reaches of education and literary activity, will be a form of simple and modernised Sanskrit.
28. As we have already mentioned, the, recognition of Sanskrit as the primary source of Hindi places on the State a great responsibility towards Sanskrit; and this responsibility can, in the opinion of the Commission, be adequately fulfilled only if two things are done: first, if Sanskrit is declared as an additional Rastra- bhasa, particularly in respect of ceremonial, educational and cultural purposes; and, secondly, if, under the Special Directives in the Section of the Constitution on Official Language, a special addendum is included that it shall be the duty of the Union to promote the study of Sanskrit throughout its territory, as Sanskrit is the source of Modern Indian Languages, including Hindi; is the ancient repository of the cultural heritage of the country; and is of primary significance in the present context as a potent means of promoting national solidarity and as a bond of friendship with the entire Far East and South-East Asia which had long been, through Sanskrit, culturally related to India.
29. There is nothing out of the way in having more than one Official Language: many Western countries have two, three and even four official languages. In, all International bodies and conferences-cultural, scientific or political-two or three languages figure. The delays or costs of translations and duplications are nothing compared to the ill-feeling and permanent harm caused by insistence on unilinguism; multilinguism is, in fact, the. principle of Panca-sila applied to the language question’.