History of Sanskrit

Introduction on Development of Indian Languages by Kulapati Freedom Fighter Founder of the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan respected Shri K M Munshi  

“Indian culture has an organic unity, and this has been largely brought out by language movements, shaped and molded by the S language.

Vedic Language

The early hymns of the Vedas were chanted with meticulous regard for the proper pronunciation of the words in sounds and forms as well as in accent, and the hymns had acquired a remarkable sanctity for themselves. The priests who studied and chanted the hymns were the Brahmanas and were dedicated to preserving the hymns through oral tradition.

The tenth and last book (mandala) of the Rig Veda and a considerable part of the Atharva Veda show a later phase of Vedic S, and the later exegetical and philosophical works, the Brahmanas and the earlier Upanishads, have preserved considerable relics of the old Vedic language.

This vast literature of Vedic exegesis and Vedic speculation in philosophy, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads relating to each Veda, was connected by tradition with one or the other of four Vedas. These works were composed through centuries, and indicate the continuous and gradual evolution of the Vedic Sanskrit into its later phase, Classical S.

Classical Sanskrit (CS)

CS received its first serious study and formulation with Panini in the 5th century BC. Before him, the S language was in a fluid state. His great S grammar in some 4,000 aphorisms in eight chapters, called the Astadhyaya, ushered in quite a linguistic revolution by stabilizing the norms of the language, leaving enough scope for incorporation of later forms and modifications within the framework of the principles laid down by him.

A great many works in CS like the Mahabharat, Ramayana, Puranas and other works like the Dharma-sastras acquired almost the same sanctity as the Vedic texts. Thus S with its expanding literature became a dynamic force to dominate, absorb, and direct most of the cultural and linguistic movements in the following centuries.

Panini’s great influence standardized S language firmly. The later forms of speech like the Prakrits (Pali and the rest) were taken up by the heterodox sects, the Buddhists and the Jains and their teachers, who created great literature in these forms. But from the beginning the prestige and importance of S almost overwhelmed them.

The Efflorescence of Sanskrit

During the Gupta Age, from the 4th to the 7th century a.d S attained a creative efflorescence. During this period the Mahabharata emerged as the 5th Veda. The older Puranas, such as the Vayu, Matsya, and perhaps the Visnu and the Markhandeya, were composed or revised during the Gupta Age. The study of the Dharma-sastras and science, astronomy, medicine received a great impetus while architecture, sculpture, painting reached the highest levels of artistic expression.

Secular literature – poems, dramas etc reached its climax in the kavyas (epics) and natakas (dramas). S became the great unifying force, the source and inspiration of culture in its manifold aspects. S along with some its younger forms of speech like Prakrit spread outside India in the wake of Indian commerce and expansion, all over Asia actually. Thus S found new homes in Central Asia, Tibet, Indo-China and Indonesia. It was also studied in China, Korea and Japan and round about 500-800 a.d. It was the great cultural language binding India with the greater part of Asia. A man knowing S could travel from Central Asia to Java and Bali without having any difficulty in language.

Inspite of the Prakrits coming into use among the Buddhists and Jains S continued not only as a medium of Brahmanical (even Buddhist and Jaina) religious ritual, but it was established as the language of the elite at the royal courts and the medium of all higher studies in the various branches of philosophy and science.

However, S was never static. It absorbed and assimilated many words, terms of expression from regional dialects too.

The Prakrits, Apabhramsas and the Bhasas

Pali and the Prakrits represent the Middle period i.e. from after 600 b.c. to 1000 a.d. These dialects came into existence as the result of certain phonetic changes and grammatical modifications, which had naturally come in with the passage of time.

Vararuci’s Prakrta-prakasa 5th century a.d. and Hemchandra’s Prakrit grammar (12th century) are two of the most famous Prakrit grammars. In the course of time Prakrits were transformed into what are known as Apabhramsa dialects, which began to use in literature after 500 a.d. As a medium for folk as well as bardic poetry they were used in Bengal in the east to Saurashtra in the west. Its regional verities are seen in the rasas in western India and in works such as those of poets like Vidyapati in the east – 15th century.

We can trace the origin and development of Indo-Aryan languages like Bengali, Gujarati i.e. the Bhasas to Aprabhramsa. The evolution followed a pattern of its own. The dialects – desabhasas or local speeches or forms of patois – standardized and enriched under the influence of S, developed their literature. While the spoken forms of these languages had their own development, but at every stage S remained the perennial source of inspiration, ready to come to the rescue of the desabhasas, whenever they moved too far away from the old Indo-Aryan.

Sanskrit and Dravidian languages

As I typed the word Dravidian let me state that I do not believe in the Aryan Invasion theory, following Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo’s words. To read about it go to the history section and read ‘Debunking the Aryan Invasion Theory’ by David Frawley.

When the South received the impact of S, it developed a devotional literature of supreme quality first in Tamil, and then in Telegu and Kannada. Although there was an earlier tradition of literature in Tamil – the Sangam literature – but this literature from the very beginning received strong Sanskritic influence and learning through sages, writers and grammarians like Agastya and Tolkappiyan. A song by Kari-kizhar addressed to an early Pandyan king attests to the influence of early Vedic ages. The song runs ‘May your head bend low before the upraised hands of the Vedic sages when they bless you’. The Jain and Buddhists too brought North Indian influence to the South.

The Sangam literature was overlaid by that of the Saiva and Vaishnava saints, the Nayanmars and the Alvars. Thus, Tamil literature became saturated with the spirit of the Puranas and Sanskrit, as happened in all other languages, the various versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata became works in the south as they had in the north.

The S literature of the South through Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva and other philosophers, saints contributed to S literature of India as much as Kalidasa, Rajasekhara and Bhavabhuti. By 1000 a.d. the modern day Indo-Aryan languages came into being.

To read about how S got intertwined with Telegu and Malayalam please read the essays on these languages.

Bhakti Movement and Regional Languages

A new attitude in religion, that of bhakti, an abandon of faith in God – came in, and very largely dominated Indian religious life and literature. This was faith in some aspect of Divinity – either Siva or the Great Mother in Sakti – Parvati or Vishnu in the incarnation of Rama or Krishna or in some other gods like Ganesh, Surya. Later Bhakti also permeated Buddhism and Jainism.

Through Bhakti the great religious leaders played a notable part in the development of regional languages. Among them was Jnanesvara, Namadeva, Basava, Narsi Mehta, Guru Nanak, Mirabai. Great stimulus was given by the bhakti movement to Brajabhasa, a Western Hindi dialect, and also to Awadhi or Kosala, an eastern Hindi speech. The followers of Chaitanya, through their writings influenced the development of Bengali.

Sacred cities like Kashi, Mathura, Amritsar, Mathura, Vrindavan became centers of bhakti literature. Tulsidasa’s Rama-carita-manasa, an early Awadhi version of the Ramayana, became a classic in its own right, and for the greater part of Northern India, provided the gospel of righteous living in a language of perfect beauty. Suradasa and Mirabai wrote their lyrics on Krishna in Braja-bhasa and Rajasthani.

The Modern Renaissance

The three universities established by the British in India in 1857 adopted English as the medium of instruction, but at the same time prescribed Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian as classical languages besides Greek and Latin, one of which students preparing for the Entrance Examination had to take as a compulsory subject.

The study of English began seriously first in Bengal and then spread to other parts of India. The college-educated elite came under the spell of Shakespeare etc and then began under the joint influence of S and English, the modern literary renaissance of India.

Enriched by S and leavened by the expressive vigor of English, the modern Indian languages acquired wider horizons and higher ranges of expression. Indian literary forms were inspired by the West; the two were interwoven to produce a rich expressiveness, a new technique. While Bengali was the first to fall in line with English and European literature it retained its native character and preserved fully the great heritage of S and of the spirit of the Indian civilization.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Bengali had a large Persian vocabulary due to its Muslim rulers who had Persian as their official language. However, from the first decades of the 19th century, it retrieved its genius and its Sanskritic character. In Bengali writings Raja Rammohan Roy used a highly Sanskritized style.

In the hands of Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Bengali prose took its final shape. After him the tendency was continued by the three great literary figures Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Rabindranath Tagore with a host of other writers. (Please read the essay on Bengali to know more).

Modern Hindi also, during the last one hundred years, had acquired great expressiveness by drawing upon the vocabulary and other resources of S. The first great writer in modern Hindi was Bharatendu Harishchandra of Kashi 1850-1883, it was he who gave the tone to modern literary Hindi. In various forms, the two most important of which are Braja and Awadhi, it has one of the richest medieval literatures of India.

The history of other great Indian languages like Gujarati, Marathi, and Telegu etc follow the pattern of Bengali.”  End of K M Munshi’s words.

Receive Site Updates