History of Sanskrit

The Age of Imperial Unity - 600bc to 320 ad   

This period produced Panini, the renowned grammarian, who stabilized Sanskrit and indirectly influenced the growth of languages of India, Katyayanna - Patanjali, the grammarian who stylized Sanskrit. The drama and kavya in S literature, traceable to the Rigveda and the Mahabharata provided this cohesive force.

In the continuous development of Sanskrit the period that came after the Brahmanas - early Upanishads was marked by the development of classical Sanskrit. The Brahmanas have no doubt done away with some of the Vedic terminations, the variety of infinitives yet their richness is the use of different verbal forms taught by Panini gives them a pre-classical character. The language of the epics show a popular tinge in it for it contains more solecisms than are to be met in any other form of literature. The language of the epics esp of the Mahabharata does not show any clear uniformity and we cannot speak of the epic dialect except in a general way. The language however conforms to the standard Sanskrit of that period.

But the language that Panini aims to describe was strictly the spoken language, at any rate akin to it, among the hieratic classes. No one doubts that the bhasha of Panini was the spoken language of his days. The differences that are noticed in the language of the Vedas and the bhasha of Panini are clearly due to the process that normally governs the development of any language. After the period of Panini and his followers, Sanskrit became more and more of a literary language and its sphere as a spoken language decreased with the result that at the beginning of the Christian era, Classical Sanskrit ceased to develop as a language and assumed a stylized form. This was also done, to an extent due to the celebrity almost religious status granted to these three great grammarians.

As we come to Katyayana we find that the different verbal forms though taught in grammar were actually not used. Thus the way was being prepared for the later nominal or attributive style in place of the earlier verbal style. The Maahabhasya of Patanjali gives us the earliest extant specimen of a somewhat developed style. So far as the development in the language itself is concerned Patanjali does not show any great advance over the stage arrived at in the days of Katyanana. It is significant to note that Patanjali ascribes the usage of Sanskrit to the Sishtas of his times, who are described as Brahmanas staying in Aryavarta. They could speak correct S, even without studying Panini’s grammar, in fact it was the use of these Sishtas that decided the correctness or otherwise of a particular form. Other people spoke S but made certain mistakes due to the influence of Prakrits.

Later classical writers strictly conformed to the norm set up by Panini, revised by his two followers referred to above. But the real change that affected the later writers was not in language but in style. In vocabulary Classical S lost many Vedic words and roots, and this loss has hardly been compensated for by a few borrowings from Prakirts and the language of later invaders.

Today when were are made to believe that Buddhism is a different religion devoid of Sanathan Dharam, Sanskrit I would like to share with you what I saw at the Dalai Lama Temple in Mcleodganj, Himachal Pradesh, the house of the Tibetans in exile. Behind Dalai Lama’s spiritual throne in the main temple there are two huge cupboards some twenty feet high that are full of holy Tibetan scriptures. A board on the cupboards read “This cupboard has a collection of texts called Kagyur, translations of the actual teachings of Buddha. These 100 volumes translated from Sanskrit are the authentic teachings of Buddha himself and contain the whole collection of sutras and tantras. Another cupboard has a collection of texts called Tangyur, translation of the commentaries of Buddha by late Indian Masters. The 225 volumes translated mostly from Sanskrit, contains work on Buddhist philosophy, grammar, logic, poetry, art, astronomy, medicine etc”. You can see pictures of these cupboards by going to the photographs section, click on Himachal Pradesh, Mecleodganj.

Prakrit – The grammarians leave no doubt in our mind as regards the use of S as a spoken language in their days. But at the same time there appeared many corrupt forms and uses because of which it became essential to turn to the Sishtas, cultured people of society for knowledge of correct Sanskrit. This plus the fact that the founders of Buddhism and Jainism propagated their faiths not in S but in Prakrit made S loose its position as the medium of expression among all classes of society and was restricted only to the highly educated.

Although philologists have traced in detail successive stages of this linguistic revolution, will refer it briefly. The old Indo-Aryan stage of Aryan speech, as typified by Vedic and early S, altered perceptibly and got transformed into Middle Indo-Aryan and Prakrit. The rate of this change was not uniformed throughout India. The language was more conservative in the Northwest and more advanced in the east. Long before Buddha in the period of the Brahmanas there are indications of atleast three distinct dialectical types in North India just when the middle Indo-Aryan took its rise – Udichya (north western), Madhyadesya (middle) and Prachya (eastern). The classical S which came to be established as a literary language after Panini was based primarily on Udichya (his own dialect) and Madhyadesiya dialects. The gap between these S and these dialects increased more so in the east, house to Buddha and Mahavir where the anti-Vedic / Brahman feelings were high. Thanks to these two preachers the Prakrits (vernaculars) grew and became powerful rivals to S.

The dramas of Asvaghosha (100 ad) show the next important stage of development when we can distinguish the older forms of the three well known Prakrit dialects of later date i.e. Ardha Magadhi, Magadhi, Sauraseni and Maharashtri. It is probable that Buddha and Mahavir preached in Ardha Magadhi though the earliest Jain scriptures show a strong influence of Maharashtri Prakrit. As regards the Buddhist cannon the best-preserved one is in Pali. But the dialect from which Pali was originated in under dispute among scholars. Some say it is from Magadhi while others say it is from Madhyadesa.

The Buddha asked his disciples that his teachings should be studied by the people in their own dialect and there is definite evidence that the Buddhist Cannon was redacted wholly or in part in some four different forms of speech i.e. Eastern Prakrit, N-W Prakrit, Buddhist (Gilgit and Nepal) and Pali.

There is no doubt that the growing popularity of vernacular scripts gave a temporary setback to S. The fact that not more than a dozen prescriptions were written in S during this period indicate that Prakrit continued to be the dominant language in popular use up to the beginning of the 4th century ad. In the literary field however, starting the 2nd century ad even Buddhist and Jain writers showed their preference for S to the neglect of prakrits. It must be admitted that non-canonical literature of the Buddhists and jains continued to be written in Pali and Jaina-Maharashtra till a very late date.

The Prakrit language was employed by the S dramatists for their female and secondary characters.

Language and Literature – The period succeeding that of the Upanishads and Sutras gave followed by an outburst of literary activity in both north and south India. The process of evolution of S gave rise to various forms of Prakrit that had a distinctive literature of its own. Besides Buddhist and Jainic literature the most important works during this period were the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Dharma-sastras or Smritis.

The earliest forms of Sanskrit drama may be discerned in the dialogue hymns of the Rigveda. Some of the Vedic rituals like mahavrata ceremony that involved dance and dialogue, may have directly contributed to the development of drama. S drama in all probability came into being shortly after, if not before, the middle of the second century BC and that it was evoked by the combination of epic recitations with the dramatic moment of Krishna. The S dramas were meant to be enacted, usually in honor of a deity, festival, and royal celebrations. For this the quadrangle of a temple or the courtyard of a king’s palace was used.

The seeds for the growth of S kavya were sown in the Rigvedic period. We owe to the Arya Sura the S version of Jataka tales in the form of Jatakamala. These were translated into Chinese in 434 a.d.

Though the beginnings of grammatical studies in India can be traced back to the period of the Brahmanas, the first important treaty on the subject is Yasaka’s Nirukta. The earliest work dealing with the grammar of the contemporary spoken language is Panini’s Ashtadhaya. The author refers to his seniors like Saunaka, which indicates the existence of a long tradition of grammatical studies before the days of Panini. Panini was a native of a village Salatura in North West Frontier Province and is believed to have lived about the 5th century BC.

Next was Katyayana referred to above who flourished about the 3rd century BC? The object of his work was to explain and support the Sutras of Panini and also to amend and supplement them wherever necessary. Next was Patanjali in the 2nd century BC whose Mahabhashya is a more extensive work explaining and sometimes correcting Panini’s sutras. It is perhaps the earliest specimen of a commentary, a mode of writing that came to be extensively employed in later days.

The art of writing was fully developed during this period. The oldest alphabet known as Brahmi was employed in the majority of records of Asoka and from it have been derived the various scripts used all over India.

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