Sanskrit: “More Perfect than Greek, More Copius than Latin”
Sanskrit was the major language used for liturgy, science, philosophy and literature for almost 2000 years over a vast geographical area stretching from Afghanistan in the west, to Indonesia in the east. Perhaps no other language in the world has enjoyed such a prominence over such a vast area for such a long period of time. Hindus consider Sanskrit as ‘Devabhāshā’ or the language of the gods, and most of Hindu sacred literature is composed in Sanskrit. India has perhaps 5 million surviving manuscripts, said to be the largest of any country in the world, and about 65% of these are said to be in Sanskrit.
The discovery of Sanskrit Grammar by European scholars revolutionized the study of grammars of European languages in the 18th century. Sir William Jones (1746-1794 C.E.) was one of the first scholars to notice the deep similarity between Greek, Avestan (the language of Parsi scriptures) and Sanskrit and proposed that these languages originated from a single ancestor. Subsequently, Sanskrit was noted to be related to practically all of modern European languages in the family of ‘Indo-European’ languages, and no other ancient European language has literature that compares in antiquity or extent to the Vedic literature.
The realization that Sanskrit was a very ancient language and related to several other languages of Europe demolished the Biblical myth once for all that Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, was the Universal Divine language given to mankind at the beginning of the Creation.
Phonetics: The word ‘Sanskrit’ means ‘refined’ or ‘made perfect’, and indicates the fact that Sanskrit is a very beautiful and a perfected language. Its phonetics (sound system) is much superior to most modern languages (such as English), and its sonorous quality makes it possible to sing even prose passages written in this language. The beauty and rhythm of religious verses composed in Sanskrit easily inspires devotion towards the Divine in the mind of the person who recites them.
Vedic Sanskrit, which is an older form of Sanskrit in which Vedic scriptures of Hindus are written, is an ‘accented’ language. This means that the different letters in the same word can have a different pitch, giving rise to different meanings. Even today, the Vedic scriptures are recited from memory by hundreds of Hindus together with their traditional accents! Hindus were probably the first to analyze the different sounds of speech and arrange them in a logical order, whereas even the modern Roman script (used for writing English) arranges the 26 alphabets in a very random and haphazard manner!
Grammar: Several Sages systematized the grammar of Sanskrit, and their efforts culminated in Sage Panini’s masterpiece named ‘Ashtaadhyaayi’ (around 450 BCE), a short book of grammar containing a little less than 4000 pithy rules (Sutras). The system of grammar taught by Panini is considered so perfect that the language bound by these rules was considered the best human language for use in fifth generation computers. It has been remarked:
“Panini should be thought of as the forerunner of the modern formal language theory used to specify computer languages. The Backus Normal Form was discovered independently by John Backus in 1959, but Panini’s notation is equivalent in its power to that of Backus and has many similar properties. It is remarkable to think that concepts which are fundamental to today’s theoretical computer science should have their origin with an Indian genius around 2500 years ago.”
Around 350 BCE, Sage Katyayana wrote an additional 4000 rules (called ‘Vaarttikas’) on Panini’s grammar, whereas Sage Patanjali composed a giant explanation, the ‘Mahabhashya’ on these two works combined around 150 BCE. These three grammarians are called the ‘Munitraya’ (the three Sages) of Sanskrit grammar, and the form of Sanskrit systematized by them has been considered the standard form of Sanskrit for the last 2500 years. There are very few languages in the world that have remained relatively unchanged for such a long period of time.
Prosody and Kāvya: In addition to having perfected phonetics and grammar, Sanskrit has very well developed systems of prosody (Chhanda) and literary theory (Kāvya). The latter achieved dazzling heights under the auspices of Dandin of Tamil Nadu (6th century C.E.), Anandavardhana of Kashmir (9th century C.E.) and Panditaraja Jagannatha of north India (16th – 17th century C.E.). The Sanskrit dramas of Kalidasa (4th century C.E.) are so exquisite that he is often termed as the ‘Shakespeare of the East’, although it would be more apt to term Shakespeare as the ‘Kalidasa of the West’ since the former lived more than a 1000 years later than the Kalidasa. The Natyashastra of Bharat Muni, originally composed more than 2000 years ago, might well be the oldest surviving treatise on drama and theater in the whole world!
Philosophical Literature: Sanskrit was used as it was the language in which Hindus, Buddhists and Jains wrote a lot of their sacred literature. Due to this fact, its philosophical and religious vocabulary is very well developed. Perhaps no other language has a larger storehouse of scriptures as does Sanskrit. Even though much of this literature has been lost, the surviving portion itself comprises several thousand titles – perhaps more than in any other classical language of the world. And even though many of these scriptures are now available in translation, reading them in their original language has the benefit of being able to understand the underlying ideas and principles more accurately. The Mahabharata, written in Sanskrit, is said to be the longest poem in the world. It is 8 times the length of the Greek epics Iliad and Odyssey put together. Even the surviving portion of Vedic literature is six times the length of the entire Bible – and much older.
Scientific Literature: Sanskrit has a vast storehouse of scientific literature that continues to draw attention of the modern man. Sanskrit treatises in architecture (Vaastushaastra), medicine (Ayurveda), Veterinary science of elephants and horses, horticulture and so on written centuries ago fare quite well when compared to modern books on these topics. Much of this literature still awaits publication because it lies in manuscript form.
Proverbs and Parables: Sanskrit also has a very extensive collection of maxims or proverbs (called ‘Subhāshitas’) that give good advice on various aspects of our religious and secular lives. Several ancient anthologies or collections of interesting parables and interesting stories teaching moral values exist in Sanskrit. Examples include the Pañchatantra of Vishnu Sharma, and Hitopadesha of Narayana Pandita. Many of these Sanskrit collections are know acknowledged as sources of stories occurring in the 1001 Arabian Nights stories and several other international collections.
Source of and Influence of other Languages: Almost 80% of the people living in the Indian Subcontinent speak a language that is derived from Sanskrit. It has also profoundly influenced the languages spoken by the remaining 20% of the population in the region. For instance, almost 20-45% of the vocabulary in non-Sanskritic languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada is derived from Sanskrit. Sanskrit has also loaned hundreds of words to S E Asian languages such as Malay and Thai. The Brāhmi script, which is the oldest known script in which Sanskrit was written, formed the basis of scripts used in many other languages such as Korean, Tibetan, Thai, Burmese and so on.
Is Sanskrit a Dead Language? Although just a few thousand people can converse in Sanskrit and a few hundred thousand can read and write in it, Sanskrit cannot be considered a dead language such as Latin, which is the religious language of Roman Catholics. For e.g., Latin is used only by Clergy of the Roman Catholic Church, whereas millions of Hindus recite Sanskrit hymns as a part of their daily worship. The important sacraments, such as wedding ceremonies, of most Hindus are still conducted with Sanskrit chants. Scholars still publish books, periodicals and articles in Sanskrit. A few news channels and other media programs use Sanskrit as their language medium. Organizations such as the Sanskrit Bharati are trying to revive the use of Sanskrit as a spoken language. Sanskrit is still classified as one of the ‘official languages’ by the Government of India.
Why Learn Sanskrit? The advantages of learning Sanskrit for understanding Hindu Dharma are well stated by a scholar in the following words:
“…the difficultly in bringing Hinduism to the West and having a language such as English serve as the prime carrier of the tradition, is that it becomes all too easy to import foreign concepts of religion into the tradition. Especially Christian and Jewish, and to a certain extent even Islamic, concepts are built into words like God, soul, heaven, hell and sin. So if one translates brahman as God, atman as soul, papa as sin, dharma as religion, one imperceptibly changes Hinduism. This is because the Sanskrit word brahman is not the same as the English word, God, atman is not equivalent to soul, papa is not sin, and dharma is much more than religion. The only true way to understand these terms is through Sanskrit, which means reading and understanding the sacred texts of Hinduism in the original language, Sanskrit. But if no one is reading these texts and if no one is teaching what these terms actually mean, it becomes inevitable that the Hinduism developing in the West is going to be reflected through the lens of Christianity, Judaism and Islam….”
Secondly, the use of Sanskrit in our worship is also advisable for the following reasons –
“The Sanskrit mantras used in religious rites and ceremonies have a special effect on the minds of those who hear them. This can be experienced by attending a religious ceremony where the Sanskrit mantras are properly recited by the priests who are specially trained to do so. The Sanskrit language has a musical, mystical, and meditative sound that is unmatched by any other language. The ancient sages revealed their truths in Sanskrit, so to use a different language would diminish the full meanings of the mantras.
The use of translations of the Sanskrit mantras into presently common languages during ceremonies are unable to produce the solemn and sacred atmosphere required for performing such holy acts…”
The Sanskrit language is thus a window to Hindu culture, civilization, religion and philosophy. It is the duty of all Hindus to acquire at least a rudimentary knowledge of this beautiful and sacred language.
In addition to Sanskrit, the second most important language that has made a very significant contribution to Hindu literature is Tamil, spoken in parts of southern India, northern and eastern Sri Lanka and amongst Tamil immigrants in countries such as Malaysia and Singapore outside the Indian subcontinent. Tamil has a literary tradition of over two thousand years. Hindu tradition states that the rules of Sanskrit as well as Tamil grammar were both formulated by Lord Shiva, and the latter were subsequently written down by Sage Agastya in the work Tolkappiyam. Just as Sanskrit is called the ‘Language of Gods’, Tamil too is credited with a Divine origin and is said to have originated from Lord Shiva himself. Some of the earliest written inscriptions in the Indian subcontinent are found to be in ‘Tamil Brahmi’. Many Sanskrit manuscripts were written in the ‘Grantham’ script, which is a slightly modified version of the Tamil script.
The Tamil speaking areas were the home of the Vaishnavite Alvar and Shaivite Nayanmar saints who wrote thousands of exquisite devotional Hindu hymns. Their writings are often considered at par with the Vedas. This region of India is acknowledged as the origin of the Bhakti movement that swept much of the Indian subcontinent in waves in the last 1400 years or so. Tamil devotional literature is sometimes considered the primary source in the composition of very popular Sanskrit scriptures such as the Shrimad Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Starting around 600 CE, the Shaivite saints Sambandhar, Appar and Sundarar and several other Nayanmar Saints wrote the 12 Thirumurais, the sacred Shaivite songs. The first 7 of these 12 are called the Thevarams and the 8th is called Thiruvachakam (and authored by Saint Manikkavacakar who lived in the 7th cent CE) and are especially considered sacred. The 12 Alvar (500-850 CE) Saints together composed 4000 songs collected in the ‘Divya-Prabandham’ collection. Within this collection, the 1000 songs of Saint Nammalvar are often considered the Tamil equivalent of the Sanskrit Vedas.
Another beautiful scripture in Tamil is the Kural of Sage Thiruvalluvar, who was a weaver by profession. The Kural contains beautiful teachings on right conduct and virtues and is believed to have been written almost 2000 years ago.
In the 12th century C.E., Tamil also produced the Kamba Ramayana, a beautiful rendering of Valmiki’s Ramayana, and also the Periyapuranam which contains the biographies of the 63 Nayanmar saints. A century later, Srivillipurthurar wrote the Tamil version of the Mahābhārata. In addition, there are numerous devotional works related to the Deities Shiva and Subrahmaṇya in the Tamil language from succeeding centuries.
The fusion of two sacred languages, Sanskrit and Tamil, produced the ‘Maṇipravalā’ language in which a lot of sacred literature of south Indian Vaishnava Hindus is written. In this language, the verbs are in Tamil but nouns and adjectives are Sanskrit words.
 Pandit, Bansi. 2004. The Hindu Mind. New Age Books: New Delhi; p. 241
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Vishal Agarwal is an independent scholar residing in Minneapolis (USA) with his wife, two children and a dog. He has authored one book and over fifteen book chapters and papers, some in peer reviewed journals, about ancient India and Hinduism. He and his wife founded the largest weekend school teaching Hinduism to students, and also a teenager organization to keep them engaged in Dharma. Vishal has participated in numerous interfaith forums, and has represented Hindus and Indians in school classrooms and in seminars. Vishal is the recipient of the Hindu American Foundation’s Dharma Seva Award (2010), the Global Hindu Academy’s Scholar award (2014) and service awards from the Hindu Society of Minnesota (2014 and 2015). He is very strongly engaged in the social and Dharmic activities of the Indian and Hindu communities of Minnesota, and has authored a series of ten textbooks for use in weekend Hindu schools by children from the ages 4-14. Professionally, Vishal is a biomedical Engineer with graduate degrees in Materials Engineering and Business Administration (MBA). His scientific and statistical training enables him to bring precision and a high level of rigor in his research – qualities that are very often missing in contemporary publications on Indology and in South Asian Studies.