108 Facts about Sanskrit you didn't know
There is a great revival of interest in the Sanskrit language. In India, this revival is due to the realisation that our ancient heritage has come down to us through the medium of Sanskrit; that almost all our languages owe their being, either directly or indirectly, to Sanskrit; that there is a tremendous amount of literature available in Sanskrit for us to enjoy; and finally, that we need a language other than English that we can call our own and take pride in.
Outside India, this revival is due to the realisation that Sanskrit, as the earliest of the Classical languages, has contributed immensely not only to the other Classical languages, but also to the current languages; and so, a study of these languages and of the civilisations in the world will not be complete without a good understanding of Sanskrit.
However, there is no handy book that gives readers a simple but broad introduction to the language. Of course, there are many learned books on the grammar, on semantics, on reinterpreting our ancient books etc., but nothing simple that covers all these aspects in one book. This book hopefully addresses this concern.
Sanskrit is the Mother Tongue of India. The author has tried to establish this through the sections and ‘facts’ of the book. By its contributions to the other languages of India, by being the bearer of Indian culture and by being the vehicle for carrying the religious liturgy of India, Sanskrit is truly our Mother Tongue.
This book, “108 Facts about Sanskrit you didn’t know”, is an attempt to bring to Indians and others, the great treasure that is Sanskrit.
The objective of the book is to give readers an overall idea of what the Sanskrit language is: specifically,
· how ancient the language is;
· what its contributions to the world are;
· what the origins of the language are and how it is related to the other languages of the world;
· how it evolved into the currently spoken Indian languages but still continued to be India’s lingua franca;
· the great amount of literature available in the language;
· an idea about the structure of the language
· Sanskrit during the Vedic period
· how to analyse and appreciate the language; and
· how we, in the modern era, can reclaim the language for ourselves.
The book is presented in 9 sections with the 108 “facts” spread unevenly across these sections.
Excellent book describing history and grammar of Sanskrit
PrefaceThere is a great global interest in the revival of the Sanskrit language.
However, there is no handy book that gives readers a simple but broad introduction to the language. Of course, there are many learned books on the grammar, on semantics and on reinterpreting our ancient books but nothing simple that covers all these aspects in one book. This book hopefully addresses this concern.
Sanskrit is the Mother Tongue of India. I have tried to establish this through the sections and ‘facts’ of the book. By its contributions to the other languages of India, by being the bearer of Indian culture and by being the vehicle for carrying the religious liturgy of India, Sanskrit is truly our Mother Tongue.
This book, 108 Facts About Sanskrit You Didn't Know, is an attempt to bring to Indians and others the great treasure that is Sanskrit.
The objective of the book is to give readers an overall idea of what the Sanskrit language is: How ancient the language is; what its contributions to the world are; what the origins of the language are and how it is related to the other languages of the world; how it evolved into the currently spoken Indian languages but still continued to be India’s lingua franca; the great amount of literature available in the language; how to analyse and appreciate the language; and how we, in the modern era, can reclaim the language for ourselves.
I do not presuppose any knowledge of Sanskrit for readers of this book but it will do no harm if readers have a bit of background knowledge.
It is intended for people who have wondered what Sanskrit is and are keen to know the whats, whys and wherefores of the language. People of all ages–from high-school children to senior citizens–can read and enjoy the book. Once you finish reading the book, you will get a general picture of what Sanskrit is. It is thus intended to be a “popular” book on Sanskrit.
It will be of interest to note that I have not only covered Classical Sanskrit but also Vedic Sanskrit in this book.
The book is presented as 108 facts in nine sections. The sections pertain to the history of Sanskrit, the basics of the language, the greatness of the language, the structure of Classical Sanskrit and Vedic Sanskrit, the syntax of the language, analysis and appreciation of the language and reclaiming Sanskrit for use as India’s National Language. I have also added a few ‘facts’ on having fun with Sanskrit.
I have theorised and speculated a bit in certain areas (such as the antiquity of Sanskrit) but I hope the facts that I have used to buttress my theories are sufficient to lend my theories some level of sanity.
It has been a great desire of mine to write such a book, ever since I started my project on Sanskrit lessons on my website, oursanskrit. com. I have used a great many sources (some of which are listed in the bibliography) but it is impossible to remember or acknowledge an idea born out of a chance remark. But there are many such instances of a “fact” growing out of something I heard in passing or saw on a website while I was searching for something else.
Except in the section on Vedic Sanskrit, I have represented Sanskrit words in the Latin script. In the section on Vedic Sanskrit, I have used both the Latin script and the Devanāgarī script, so that readers can appreciate accent markings in Sanskrit. The Latin script equivalent of the Devanāgarī letters is presented in the “fact” on the Sanskrit alphabet.
I thoroughly enjoyed writing this book. I hope you enjoy reading it too.
First of all, I need to thank my late father, K.H. Nambudiripad, who instilled in me an interest in Sanskrit. In school, I had taken French
as my second language; so, my father insisted that I learn Sanskrit at home. He therefore went around trying to engage a Sanskrit teacher. I resisted at first, thinking it would be boring. But when my cousin, K. Savithri, who was staying with us and going to college, offered to keep me company in this venture, I agreed. Thank you, Savithrietti.
The most important person I have to thank is the teacher engaged by my father, the late Raman Master of Calicut. He was already around eighty when he came to teach us. He taught us for five years–from my eighth standard through my pre-degree years–till I went to IIT for my engineering. Some of the lessons he taught us are still fresh in my mind. Thank you Master.
While I was in school, in the ninth and 10th standards, another cousin of mine, K.V. Krishnan, was doing his pre-degree and he had taken Sanskrit as his second language. He had to study a few shlokas of Kālidāsa and he used to quote them aloud to us and one particular favourite of his was, verse 6, act 4 of Abhijñānaśākuntalam, “yāsytyadya śakuntaleti hr̥dayaṃ saṃspr̥ṣtamutkaṇṭhayā...” His frequent quotations of these shlokas made me determined to take Sanskrit as my second language in my pre-degree. Thank you, Krishnetta.
During those days, another person who kept my interest in Sanskrit going was our family purohit, the late C.P. Kuberan Nambudiri. He was a great scholar of Sanskrit and the Vedas. Thank you, Sir.
During my pre-degree days, my two Sanskrit teachers were the late Prof. Eswara Warrier and the late Prof. Devasia Thakadiyel. Thank you, Sirs.
Once I finished my pre-degree and joined IIT, Sanskrit took a long break. Except for occasional discussions with some friends or the occasional looking at a book, Sanskrit was almost forgotten. Later on, when I was working in Bengaluru, I used to occasionally go to the Motilal Banarsidass bookshop and look at a few books. But that was it.
But one day I picked up the book A Rapid Sanskrit Method by G.L. Hart and started going through the contents. This rekindled my interest in Sanskrit and there was no looking back. This is a good book to restart our Sanskrit learning. This, and Lanman’s Sanskrit Reader. I developed interest in Vedic Sanskrit when I was researching the Vedas for material for my first novel, The First Aryan.
I got the idea about writing this book about three years ago. There are many people whose contributions have to be acknowledged.
My colleague and friend S. Gopalan, who was my Tamil consultant and provided inputs on various Tamil words in the book; other colleagues and friends, S. Sivaguru, S. Sivakumar and J. Veeraraaghavan, also supported me in the writing of the book. A. Narasimhan, who is himself a Sanskrit scholar, was a source of encouragement. Narasimhan also reviewed the book and made some suggestions for improvement. Thank you all.
My wife’s cousin, Vineetha Kurur, my friend Vandana Malaiya (and her mother), my colleagues and friends, Milind Rummade and Zafar Ahmad, provided inputs on Hindi words and usages in the book. Vandana also reviewed the book. Thank you all.
My old friend and classmate from IIT, Rajeev Srinivasan, was an early supporter of this work. He reviewed the book and suggested many changes to improve the content. He introduced me to the works of Dharampal. He also later recommended that I publish the book through Garuda Prakashan. Towards that end, he introduced me to Sankrant Sanu. Thank you, Rajeev.
Other friends and classmates from IIT also reviewed this book and gave many suggestions for improvement: K.V. Bapa Rao, P. Narendran and Sukumar Muralidharan. Another friend and classmate, Arun Bahulkar, is a great supporter of my endeavours. Thank you all.
I would also like to thank my nephews Satish Nambudiripad and Dr. K.V. Arun. Arun is a great supporter of my work. A question Satish asked me prompted me to write the “fact” on the interchangeability of l and r. Thank you both.
I would also like to thank Subhash Kak, the great linguist and Indologist, for reviewing my book and writing an endorsement for it. Thank you Subhash, for your encouragement.
And, the unflinching support of my family was crucial in the writing of the book. My wife Preeta, daughter Arya, son-in-law Athul and son Jayanta have all been of great support. I had many discussions about the book with them. Jayanta also reviewed some parts of the book and made some suggestions. Thank you all.
And thanks are also due to my publishers, Sankrant Sanu, Ankur Pathak, Prashant Pandey and the editors. Thank you all.
And many thanks to V. Subramaniam (Legal Mani) and S. Kalayanaraman, my colleagues and friends, for reviewing the contract with Garuda Prakashan and suggesting changes. Thank you both.
I hope I have not missed out thanking anyone who helped me and supported me in writing and publishing this book. Indeed, there are so many people who have given me suggestions and ideas in passing. Thank you all.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak, in his book The Orion, or Researches into the Antiquity of the Vedas, has shown, based on internal evidence (using astronomical references) of the Vedas, that the R̥ g Veda and some of the portions of the Yajur Vedic Samhitas are at least 6,000 years old. The language of the Vedas, called Sanskrit, is highly refined and sophisticated. (In fact, Saṃskr̥tam ‘Sanskrit’, means ‘well-made, refined’.) So, Sanskrit must have been evolving as a language for quite some time before that.
The R̥ g Veda and later compositions (together called the Vedas) of the ancient ancestors of the Indians have come down to us as pitch (tone) accented chants without any mistakes creeping in over the 6,000 years of their existence. It is clearly the oldest unbroken oral tradition in existence in the world. In fact, UNESCO (on November 7, 2003) has recognised the tradition of Vedic chanting as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The technique our ancestors used to ensure this high level of fidelity while transmitting them orally from generation to generation, over the centuries, was to devise many different, special methods of rendering each line and each verse of the Vedas. In addition to the normal, continuous recitation of the verses of the Vedas, applying the rules of phonetic and euphonic combination of the words (the so called Saṃhita), there was a tradition of recitation with a pause applied after each word (the so-called Pada Pāṭha), and other traditions where the words were permuted, combined and repeated in various ways. There were eleven such ways (the Krama Pāṭha and the Ghana Pāṭha being two examples) of rendering the verses and Vedic scholars memorised every one of these! This ensured that any error that crept into a recitation was automatically corrected with reference to the other types of recitations.
Now why did the ancients devise such an elaborate system of oral transmission to ensure fidelity over generations? Why didn’t they just write down the Vedas? Many of the current authorities think that the main reason was that the ancients considered the technique of preserving the fidelity of the Vedas using the Pāṭha techniques to be so “pure” that rendering and communicating them in any other manner would make them lose their character.
But I think that the main reason why our ancestors did not choose to write down the Vedas, but chose to invent some elaborate recitation schemes to preserve the oral chants, was that when the Vedas were composed, the art of writing had not evolved. If writing had evolved, surely the Vedic seers, who had the energy to create such complicated systems to maintain the fidelity of their creations, would not have balked at another new (and surer) approach for preservation? There were no elaborate techniques then to consider “pure”. So, they could have written them down without violating any “pure” traditions. Remember that the Vedas were considered sacred and handed down to our ancestors by divine authority. So, any method of preserving their purity would have been eagerly welcomed in the early stages of the Vedas.
The fact that writing had not evolved when the Vedas were composed again attests to their great antiquity. Definite proof of writing being available dates back to 5,500 years ago from the Euphrates-Tigris regions. (Of course, other civilisations, including that of our ancestors, may have also independently invented writing.) This writing form is supposed to have spread from Euphrates-Tigris regions to the other regions like the Indus-Saraswati regions. This spreading would have happened over many generations. The Indus-Saraswati civilisation (The Indus-Valley civilisation) clearly had some form of writing. So, we can safely guess that writing must have reached this region around 5,000 to 5,200 years ago. (Of course, I am discounting the so-called Aryan invasion theory which postulates that the ancient Aryans came from some faraway place, conquered and displaced the indigenous population to establish their sway over the Indus-Saraswati region. I am assuming that our ancestors were already in the valley by then, either having been born there or having migrated there from nearby places.)
Now, the ancient seers of India were constrained to devise complicated systems for preserving the fidelity of the Vedas precisely because writing was not available to them. So, the R̥ g Veda (and portions of the other Vedas) were composed and in use before writing was widely available. This again pushes the compilation of the R̥ g Veda to around 6,000 years ago.
Western Sanskritists have arbitrarily set the date of the composition of the R̥ g Veda at around 1,500 BCE (or 3,500 years ago). This date was, I think, set by people such as Max Mueller, trying to reconcile the Vedic dates with the time periods deduced from the Bible for the creation of the world (based on Semitic and Sumerian mythologies for the creation of the world). There was also a need to reconcile the dates of the development of Indian thinking and literature with the development of thinking and literature in the Semitic (and Sumerian) world. Max Mueller divides the Vedic literature into four periods–Chandas (the golden age of poetry of the ancient R̥ ṣis), Mantra (the age of rituals or the age of priests rather than poets), Brāhmaṇa (the age of pedantry and exegesis) and Sūtra (the practical age; the age of grammar, etymology, phonetics and astronomy). He assumes that these four periods were sequential, arbitrarily assigns 200 years to each period, decides on a date of around 400 BCE for the Sūtras and so gets the date of around 1,200 BCE for the composition of the early Vedic literature. Interestingly other Western scholars have assigned 500 years for each period and arrived at 2,400 BCE using the same base! (If we assign 900 years, which is as believable as 200 or 500 to each period, we will reach our 4,000 BCE! One argument in favour of these large gaps is the fact that we can clearly see the writers of the Brāhmaṇas struggling with the import and the meanings of the Vedas and indulging in wild speculations. This means that when the Brāhmaṇas were composed, the meanings of the Vedas had already become obscure owing to the long gap between their creations. (A couple of hundred years is too short for this level of haziness to have happened.)
Also, the absence of any reference to the catastrophic flood that gave rise to the flood myths of other civilisations attests to the antiquity of the Vedas. The Vedas have to belong to the pre-flood era. But, sure enough, the flood myths are mentioned in the Brāhmaṇas.
Attempts to use astronomical references in the Vedas to date them were dismissed by most Western Sanskritists because they felt that the early Aryans were too primitive to have had any astronomical accuracy! Tilak says, “This means that we must refuse to draw legitimate inferences from plain facts when such inferences conflict with our preconceived notions about the primitive Aryan civilisation.” Tilak also asks, “I cannot also understand why scholars should hesitate to assign the Vedic works the same period of antiquity which they allow the Chinese and the Egyptians.” I think the answer is clear. India was a colony of the Europeans!
Now, one argument against the early (6,000 years ago) dates for the composition of the Vedas is the close connection between the language of the Vedas and the language of the oldest parts of the Avesta, which is claimed by these Sanskritists to be only around 3,000 years old. How could the Vedas that were composed 6,000 years ago and the Avesta composed 3,000 years ago have very similar language? It had to mean that the language of Persia had to remain unchanged for 3,000 years.
I have an objection to this argument. Sanskrit has a track record of staying surprisingly stable till the Prakrit (prākṛta ‘natural’ as opposed to saṃskr̥ta ‘refined’) revolutions of the late first millennium BCE. Even then, what was Sanskrit remained fairly stable becoming what is called Classical Sanskrit. As we saw before, our ancestors took extreme care to preserve their Vedic compositions. I think this sort of exercise also preserved the language, especially the language of the elite. There may have been earlier Prakrit-like deviations into local languages but the basic Sanskrit in which the Vedas were composed remained the same. That is, even if the vernaculars in Persia had deviated, the liturgical language remained unchanged and this is what our Persian cousins used to compose what were their Veda equivalents. Of course, Tilak, in an easier explanation, proposes that the Avesta is also much older than is supposed by the historians!
Coming back to India; when writing later became generally available, the seers of those generations may have vigorously opposed the rendering of the Vedas in the written form for the same reasons that some authorities have proposed to explain why the Vedas were not written down. This opposition is natural in any generation. Look at how staunchly people opposed computer-based automation when computerisation was starting. Entrenched people opposed mechanised industry during the industrial revolution. Any “new-fangled” idea is always met with opposition. At the heart of this opposition is the worry about the spread of knowledge to the world in general; worry that knowledge that was once available only to a particular set of people exclusively would now be available to the hoi-polloi. Of course, the ostensible reason given for the opposition was that the Vedas would lose their “sanctity” if they were committed to writing.
(And, at this stage the question of preserving the fidelity of the Vedas by writing did not arise because the fidelity was already ensured by other elaborate systems, as we saw before. In the early days, during the composition of the Vedas, our ancestors did not have a sure way of ensuring the fidelity and they were experimenting with many different ways. In that situation, they would not have hesitated to use the written form, if it had been available, as an additional method. Also, in the small societies where the Vedas were composed, the kind of exclusivism that later crept in may not have existed. I am trying to explain why writing would have been welcome earlier but not later.)
In the next “fact”, I will try to conjecture that the Vedic Aryans and the people of the Indus-Saraswati were one and the same. This can add indirect credence to the fact that the Vedas were composed before the building of Indus-Saraswati civilisation’s edifices and cities (that is, before writing reached the Indus-Saraswati). This will also establish that there is a continuous tradition of Sanskrit from 6,000 years ago, through the Indus-Saraswati people. Of course, even if they were not the same people, nothing prevents us from assuming that the Aryans, carrying the Vedas with them, lived side-by-side, now as enemies, now as friends, with the Indus-Saraswati people. Therefore, continuity cannot be in question.
So, “6,000 years ago” is a good, round figure for the antiquity of the Vedas. If so, then the Sanskrit language is at least 6,000 years old. It should in fact be older because the full structure of the language had developed and was in use 6,000 years ago.
And one thing is clear. Our Vedic ancestors certainly lived in the Indus-Saraswati area during the composition of the Vedas for they, especially in the R̥ g Veda, talk extensively about the geography and environmental features of that area.