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Thu Jul 2 14:46:43 UTC 1998
The following article is taken from
AUTHOR, ETC.: Walker, George Benjamin, 1913-
TITLE: The Hindu world; an encyclopedic survey of Hinduism by Benjamin Walker.
IMPRINT: New York, Praeger [c1968]
(Typos are mine.) Comments from Sanskrit fans/scholars welcome.
SANSKRIT (samskrita, 'elaborated'), the principal of the post-Vedic
languages of India, is regarded by Hindus as a sacred tongue,
'currently among the gods' (I, p.20). Actually Sanskrit is a
comparatively late arrival among the ancient tongues, dating from about
300 B.C, while itd masterpieces were produced from some six centuries
later. As its name implies, Sanskrit was an artificially 'put
together' medium of communication, as opposed to the spontaneously and
natuarally evolved Praakrit. It constituted in effect an elaboration
of a decadent form of Vedic, built upon rules mainly fixed by the
grammarian PaaNini (c. 300 BC).
Four stages of Sanskrit are often distinguished, namely (I) PaaNinian
Sanskrit, after PaaNini who first codified the current rules governing
the language, (2) Epic Sanskrit, the language of the Mahaabhaaratha and
RaamaayaNa, (3) classical Sanskrit, the language of the kathaas,
dramas, kaavyas, histories, and PuraaNas, and (4) Medieval Sanskrit,
exemplified in the jargon of the monasteries, the 'dog Sanskrit' of
craftsmen's handbooks, and other variants (see Literature).
A comparison between Vedic and Sanskrit shows that in phonology the two
language did not differ much; while in accidence it might be called not
a development but a decadence from the Vedic system. Several Vedic
grammatical forms are lost in Sanskri, aprticularly in respect of mood;
one form of the infinitive has survived in Sanskrit out of fifteen
forms used in Vedic. A similar loss is found in tenses and prefixes.
Sanskrit however made up its losses by developing a technique of
coining massive compund words, rare in Vedic, and in a complex
grammatical and structural framework both in prose and verse. In
addition to the seven Vedic metres a score of other metres came into
vogue in Sanskrit, some of them hardly usable without verbal
The difference between Vedic and Sanskrit reflected the indigenous
'Hindu' milieu in which the latter language developed, as distinct for
the Indo-Iranian background of early Vedic. The Indo-Iranian triabl
communities gave place to new territorial kingdoms situated on great
rivers and the jungle retreats of the rishis. The old Iranian gods
faded in importance and were substituted by deities of new dimensions,
Brahmaa, Shiva, VishNu, KrishNa, the Naagas, the Linga. The
supernatural, the demoniacal and the grotesque invaded Sanskrit almost
from the beginning.
The development of Sanskrit was considerably modified by the infusion
of a large number of foreign words. The philosopher Kumaarila
commented on how foreign words were picked up and transformed into
Sanskrit by grammatical and phonetical alterations, often so cunningly
that the original wors were hardly recognizable.
Sanskrit thus had its roots in the decadent form of Vedic which gave it
its structural core. The peculiarly Indian characteristis as distinct
from the Iranian were due to the prevailing influences of the older
dialectical forms of Praakrit which itself had been modified by a
diversity of aboriginal linguistic influences in India. The word
borrowings give an indication of the areas in which these influences
The indiginous Austric 'ng' sounds are found in the name Gangaa (the
river Ganges) and the word linga, both Austric words. Many place-name
endings, like garh (e.g. Ramgarh) are aboriginal or Munda in origin.
Tibeto-Burmese or north-eastern loan words include Bhullam-buthur,
'making a gurgling sound', which became Sanskritized into Brahmaputra,
the name of India's largest river.
Similarly, Dravidian elements are strong in Sanskrit which derives much
of its intonation from native speech. The phonetics system of Sanskrit
is intermediate between Tamil and the Dravidian tongues on the one hand
and the Indo-Iranian languages on the other. Certain sounds, unknown
to the Aryan family of speech notably the cerebrals, found their way
into Sanskrit from the Dravidian languages (VIII, p.202), and it has
been pointed out by some scholars that teh syntax of Sanskrit, as od
all other Aryan languages in India is fundamentally Dravidian rather
than Aryan in character.
Words borrowed from the Dravidian tongues were sometimes arbitratily
changed and it is therefore not always easy to recognize the original.
But in many cases, especially in the Sanskrit of the South, Dravidian
words were taken over with scarcely any attempt at modification. The
following are a few such words: chayra, 'thief'; maala, 'garland';
paapa, 'sin';pooja, 'worship'; putra,'son'; vaira, 'hostile'.
Name-endings such as cheri, 'place' (e.g Pondicherry); naad, 'country'
(e.g. Tamilnaad); nagar, 'town' (Vijayanagar); pur, 'city' (e,g
Durgapur), are likewise Dravidian.
> From Iran came a wide vocabulary of Indo-Iranian words that were part
of the original inheritance of the Indo-Aryan period of history. In
later times important words like divira (scribe), kshatrapa (satrap),
lipi (writings) mudraa (seal), were adopted from Persian.
The evolution of Sanskrit received further stimulus during the period
of foreign (barbarian) domination of the north, starting fromt the
Greeks who brought to bear on Indian life and culture fresh influences
deriving from Alexandria and the Mediterraean Greek world. Evidence of
the Greek heritage is found in the Sanskrit vocabulary of mathermatics,
astronomy, numsimatics, warfare, the theatre and medicine, for
example: harija (from horizon); hridroga (Greek hudrochoos); kendra
(kentron); lipta (lepte); leya (leon, lion); parthona (Parthenos);
trikona (trigonon); kona (gonia, angle).
Inevitably further mutations of Sanskrit speech continued throughout
the centuries of foreign domination and, as Kumaarila observed, many
loanwords from the Kushaans, Parthians and Sakas were picked and
assimilated (I,p.274). Seed-beds of foreign influence enjoying great
celebrity in academic matters were places like Taxila and
Pushkalaavatee, and it was in this fertile soil of classical Sanskrit
was first developed (VIII, p.258). The use of Sanskrit for profane as
opposed to sacred writing was to a great extent due to the initiatives
of Mongolian Saka amd Kushaan satraps of Western India during the
second century AD, one of whom, Rudradaaman, is responsible for the
first official inscription in Sanskrit throughout.
Its so-called final and present form was fixed during the braahmanical
revival whose vehicle was the Sanskrit language. This period saw the
development of a characteristic feature, those strange linguistic
monstrosities, the lumbering sesquipedalian compounds which reached
their fulfilment in the kaavya and gadya forms of writing.
Sanskrit is capable of wonderful and varied sound effects because of
the alternation of the softer sounds with the drumming effect of the
aspirated consonants. There is therefore much scope for verbal melofy
of a rather harsh type. It is like the Indian elephant with a heavy
plodding rhythm fo alternating cadences. It permits the formation of
long compounds whose sounds are juxtaposed in extraordinary confusion
that requires a precise knowledge of grammatical rules to sort out. To
the ear unattunated to its heavy cadences it would appear harsh and
lacking in sweetness.
Because of its extremely complicated grammar it is highly improbable
that Sanskrit was ever a widely spoken language, current among the
general populace, and some scholars are inclined to think that literaru
works in Sanskrit never had any real life at all, but were altogether
scholastic productions. Much has been made of the incident recorded in
Patanjali's Mahaabhaashya, where a charioteer is represented as holding
a discussion in Sanskrit with a grammarian on the derivation of an
obscure word. Charioteers were court bards and their familiarity with
the priestly tongue does not necessarily indicate an acquantance with
it on the part of the general public.
The man in the street did not understand Sanskrit, and those who wished
to reach the common people resorted to the Praakrit vernaculars. When
Buddha preached his doctrine he advocated the use of dialects of the
common folk. Asoka used the language and scripts current in his
domains to spread the Gospel of the Good Law. Tulseedaas, great
scholar of Sanskrit though he was, preferred to write in the
vernacular, defending his wise choice with the statement that his
language was an earthen vessel containing ambroisa, while Sanskrit was
a jewelled cup of extreme beauty which held poison. Kabeer, the great
reformer, likened Sanskrit to the water of a well, and the language of
the people to a running stream. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine
that the artificial, stilted forms of Sanskrit grammar could ever have
been used as medium of popular expresion in India. In his *Loom of
Language* Frederick Bodmer discusses Sanskrit in a chapter entitled The
Diseases of Language.
Modern Hindu reformers have frequently reiterated the same plaint, and
have advoacated the abandonment of Sanskrit as a vehicle of thought
expression. As Raammohan Roy put it,
' The Sanskrit language, so difficult that almost a lifetime is
necessary for its acquisition, is well known to have been for ages a
lamantabel check to the diffusion of knowledge, and the learning
concealed under this almost impervious veil is far from sufficient to
reward the labour of acquiring it'.
Contemporary scholarship has given similar appraisal of Sanskrit and
the Sanskrit classics. The Indian epics, the work of Kaalidaasa, the
aphorism of Bhartrihari, when they first became known to the West,
aroused tremendous interest, for they represented a huge corpus of
writings till then unknown to the Western world. These and other works
even today 'keep alive a certain superficial sympathy for Indian
literature', as Max Muller expressed it; but the first flush of
enthusiasm has passed, and scholars have considerably revised their
opinion of its merits. Primarily the early writings retain their
significance in the study of the history of mankind in the primitive
stages of its development, but it were rash to go further in extolling
their merits. That great advocate of Sanskrit studies. Max Muller
declared. ' I do not claim for the ancient Indian literature any more
that I should willingly concede to the fables and traditions and songs
of savage nations. I simply say that in the Veda we have a nearer
approach to a beginning, and an intelligent beginning, than in the wild
invocations of the Hottentotes and Bushmen'. Serious students 'while
gladly admitting their claim to be called pretty attractive, could not
think of allowing Sanskrit literature a place by the side of Greek,
Latin, Italian, French, English or German'. Harsh as this would appear
to be, current scholarship would not greatly modify this opion.
I. Chakravarthi, P.C. "The Linguistic Speculations of the Hindus", 1933.
II. Chandrasekaran, K. and Sastri, B. H. S. "Sanskrit Literature", 1951.
III. Frazer, R. W. "Literary History of India", London, 1898.
IV. Keith, A. B. "Classical Sanskrit Literature", 1924.
V. Keith, A. B. "A History of Sanskrit Literature", 1928.
VI. Krishnamachariar, M. "History of Classical Sanskrit Literature", 1937.
A few more of the references are on the next page which I did not photocopy.
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