Sanskrit – The oldest language in the world

Sanskrit – The oldest language in the world

Glorious Bhartiya Heritage – Part 5

Sanskrit – The oldest language in the world

Dr. Gauri Shankar Gupta

As stated in my previous article, Sanskrit is possibly the oldest language in the world with very rich literature consisting of the Vedas, hymns, philosophy, history, epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata), 18 puranas, poetry, mathematics, astronomy, sciences, grammar, theatres and dramas. Most of the important religious texts of the Hindus, the Buddhists and the Jains are found in Sanskrit.

There is no ancient language with literature comparable anywhere close to Sanskrit. The Sanskrit language has been one of the major means for the transmission of knowledge and ideas in Asian history. The Sanskrit language’s historic presence is attested across a wide geography beyond the Indian subcontinent.

Inscriptions and literary evidence suggest that Sanskrit language was already in use in Southeast Asia and Central Asia in the 1st millennium CE, through monks, religious pilgrims and merchants. Sanskrit texts reached China by 402 CE, carried by the influential Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hsien who translated them into Chinese by 418 CE. Sheldon Pollock has used the expression ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ describing Sanskrit as Lingua Franca of trade, international business and cultural promotions.

Therefore, Sanskrit is considered as mother of languages, since a large number of world languageeither have their origin in Sanskrit or have been considerably influenced by Sanskrit. Many ancient Sanskrit texts are found in Nagari script (with 14 vowels and 33 consonants), a predecessor of Devanagari. Historians and linguists have used different nomenclatures to describe this influence; Indo-Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Proto-Indo-Aryan and Indo-European.

For the purpose of our convenience we can divide the influence of Sanskrit in the following four geographical groups; India and neighbourhood, South East Asia, Central Asia and Europe.

1. India and Neighbourhood:

Sanskrit is the root language of many Prakrit andregional languages in India. These include; Hindi, Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Kumaoni, Garhwali, Nepali, Urdu, Dogri, Maithili, BrijBhasha, Konkani, Assamese and Odia. These are also called as daughter languages of Sanskrit. Sanskrit has also significantly influenced the grammar, vocabulary and phonology of Kannada, Tamil, Telgu and Malayalam. Scholars believe that Pali and Ardhamagadhi, two ancient Prakrit languages co-existed along with Sanskrit during the time of Buddha and Mahavira.  

According to Colin Masica – a linguist specializing in South Asian Languages the relationship of Sanskrit to the Prakrit languages, spans over a period of 3500 years. Looking at the vast amount of Sanskrit literature all over the Indian subcontinent, one can easily surmise that Sanskrit was the language of the ruling elite and those of ancient Indian scientists called Rishis, for thousands of years. In fact, Sanskrit, with its variants and numerous dialects, was the Lingua Franca of ancient and medieval India.

A section of Western scholars believe that Sanskrit was never a spoken language of people, while others and particularly most Indian scholars state exactly the opposite.

The very fact that a large number of ancient Indian scriptures including the Vedas were orally transmitted for thousands of years and the vast amount of Sanskrit literature was transmitted to a large geographical area surrounding India, implies that people did speak Sanskrit. Since Sanskrit is highly refined and sophisticated, many people must have found it difficult to learn and understand. Obviously,this gave birth to multiple daughter languages over a period of time which are called regional languages in India in today’s parlance.

2. South East Asia

According to a study undertaken by Ramesh Chandra Majumdar (Study of Sanskrit in South East Asia) by the beginning of the 1st millennium, Sanskrit had spread Hindu and Buddhist ideas to South East Asia. Another study undertaken by Charles Orzech,Henrik Sorensen, Richard Payne (Esoteric Buddhism and the Tantras in East Asia) Sanskrit literature was already present in East Asia by the beginning of the 1stMillennium.

In Tibetan Buddhism, states the Dalai Lama, Sanskrit language has been a revered one and called legjar lhai-ka or “elegant language of the gods”. It has been the means of transmitting the “profound wisdom of Buddhist philosophy” to Tibet (Sanskrit in Tibetan Literature). George Coedes, a French archaeologist in his work “Histoire ancienne des étatshindouisés d’Extrême-Orient” has confirmed the dominance of Indian culture in the region in the form of Hinduism, Buddhism, Ruling dynasties and Sanskrit literature beginning 1st century AD.

Thus, Sanskrit had already acquired a “supra-local” status as evidenced by 1st-millennium with epigraphy and manuscripts discovered all over India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia (Bali, Sumatra, Java), Thailand(Siam), Cambodia and Vietnam. Scholars have confirmed wide ranging and varying influence of Sanskrit on Thai, Bhasha Indonesia, Malay, (BhashaMelayu), Khmer, Burmese and Lao. Till date Ramayana remains the most influential epic in the region dominating the art and the folklore of entire South East Asia.

3. Central Asia:

A Curzon in his research article titled “On the Original Extension of the Sanskrit Language over Certain Portions of Asia and Europe; And on the Ancient Aryans (आर्य), Indians, or Hindus of IndiaProper” published in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 16 (1856), pp. 172-200 brings out considerable influence of Sanskrit on Persian, Armenian and several European languages. He cites hundreds of words of Sanskrit origin in these languages.

According to S. Benerji (A companion to Sanskrit literature) Sanskrit literature was already popular in Central Asia by 1st millennium. In this period Sanskrit was already accepted as a language of high culture. According to Michael C Howard (Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel) Sanskrit was the preferred language of the ruling class in this region.

According to Thomas-Burrow (The Sanskrit Language) It is quite possible to find verses in the oldest portion of the Avesta, which simply by phonetic substitutions according to established laws can be turned into intelligible Sanskrit. This explains the close relationship between Sanskrit and Old Persian.

Atharvaveda refers to Gandhari, Mujavat and Bahlika(Bactria) from North-West of India meaning Central Asia. Gandhari – wife of Dhritrashtra in Mahabharata was from present day Kandahar in Afghanistan. Trade and commerce through the Silk Route brought Central Asian societies in close contact with the Vedic civilization of India.

According to Alberuni’s India (2001) before Islam, many kings and nobilities in the Central Asian region often claimed direct descent from Lord Rama, Lord Krishna and Pandavas to strengthen their claim to throne. Many of these kings converted to Buddhism in the 3rd– 4th centuries AD. Two massive Buddha statues constructed in Gandhara Art Form in 6th century in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (destroyed by the Talibans in 2001) is a clear evidence of such influence.

(Writer is Former Ambassador/High Commissioner of India)

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