The Saka Lands Linking India and Europe

It is well known that Indic languages were used in the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang) and one may with reason assume that the speakers were of Indic stock. This region of Central Asia, which was called Uttara Kuru in Sanskrit literature, also had close religious and cultural connections with northwestern regions such as Kashmir.

The situation to the west of the Tarim Basin appears to be similar. History tells us of the presence there of
who ranged all the way from Central Asia to Danube in Europe, together with of course other ethnic groups. I use the term “Indian” here to emphasize that their language was most likely Indo-Aryan because if it were different then the large communities of Jats in India (as large as 30 percent in some states) would have been able to maintain their linguistic apartness.

Historically, the overarching term for the residents of Central Asia is “Śaka” or just “Saka”, who likely were multilingual ethnic groups joined by the common Śaka language. By all accounts, the Śaka served as the intermediaries who took Vedic ideas from India to Europe. I speak of the direction because these ideas relate to specific deities that are India-centric and to the unique Vedic system in which a transcendent reality splits into mind and matter in ordinary experience. These ideas have a comprehensive unity in India, and they are found in somewhat scattered form in different European societies as, for example, in the names of the Vedic deities who are not to be found collectively in any single European region. The countries that have been considered specifically for these linkages with India include the Slavic lands, Lithuania, the Celts, and one may add the Germanic people to this list as their chief god Woden or Odin is identical to the Indian Budha, or Mercury

Language labels

The Śaka languages of Central Asia are generally classified as East Iranian. The region that is taken as the origin of these languages is Afghanistan and northwest of Kashmir, which belongs to the larger political region of India. For someone like me from Kashmir, growing up listening to several of these languages, many generalizations by linguists appear simplistic or plain wrong.

Let me just give one example of the very last type. J.P. Mallory, in his book In Search of the Indo-Europeans, states this linguistic problem regarding the early environment of the speakers of the language (page 114): “The word for sea is perhaps the most problematic. That a word (*mori) is most certain. However, it seems originally to have meant swamp, marsh land, or lake, rather than a larger body of water. In addition, it is found only in European languages and not in Indo-Iranian other than Ossetic – an Iranian language contiguous to Europe although originating further to the east.”

Mallory’s claim that non-European languages do not have a corresponding word for body of water is incorrect. In Sanskrit mīra means sea or ocean (see dictionaries by Apte or Monier Williams). As a Kashmiri, I know for certain that the word mar (spelt variously also as maer, or maar) means marsh, backwater, or swamp. Indeed, this word is at the basis of the name of Kashmir which, according to legend, comes from Kashyap+mar, or the lake of Rishi Kaśyapa, or perhaps “Lake with tortoises” if the literal meaning of the word “kaśyapa” is considered; that the valley was a lake before it was drained is geologically correct.

How did Mallory make such an elementary error? He assumed that the dictionary of Kashmiri assembled by George Grierson was complete and if a word was not to be found there, it didn’t exist. Similar errors are sure to have been made regarding the vocabulary sets of other languages.

Then there is this big logical problem: According to Mallory and other linguists, Avestan is literally identical with Sanskrit (as in the Sanskritized lines below for Yasna 10.6, page 35 of Mallory’s book):

tëm amavañtëm yazatëm 

tam ámavantam yajatám 

súrëm dámóhu sëvištëm 

šúram dhármasu šávistam

miθrëm yazái zaoθrábyó 

mitrám yajái hótrábhyah 

If that is true, Avestan should be Indo-Aryan. Or, Indo-Iranian should be taken to be the same as Sanskrit, with a division in time into various Prakrits that include Indian and Iranian languages. From this perspective, the Śaka languages of Central Asia are Prakrit languages. But even if we don’t go this far, we know that Gāndhārī of the Tarim Basin is a Prakrit.

Sogdian Saka

The current demographic ratio of Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages is about 9:1. It is not unreasonable to assume that a similar ratio characterized the ancient period. Let us consider the Sogdians, centered in Samarkand and Bukhara, who were some of most successful merchants in the ancient world, taking their ideas of religion and art from one corner of Asia to another. Their Śaka was a dominant language from Danube to China until 1000 CE. The examples below show that it has much similarity with Sanskrit:

Čīnəstən δūr əsti चीनस्थान दूर अस्ति  “China is far away”

məna fərmān  मना प्रमाण  “my command”

pərō βəγīštī frītāt परो भगिष्ति प्रियतात  “for love of the gods”  भग= god

’’fryn- ’’fryt āfrīn- āfrīt: आप्री praise,’’frywncyk āfrīwǝnčīk: blessing

’’γ’z- ’’γšt āγāz- (māγāz-, āγāz-) अग्रस्त āγǝšt: to begin आग्रस्त आगाज़

’rt’w ǝrtāw: righteous आर्त from ऋत्

’šm’r- (ǝ)šmārt: to think स्मर

’wrm ōrǝm: *calm आराम, राम

River names and deities

Scholars are aware that the names of major rivers in Eastern Europe have Sanskritic or Iranian basis related to Sanskrit dānu (meaning fluid or water). The Russian river Don, the Dnieper (from dānu+apara, the lower Danu) and Dniester (danu+astāra, the lowest Danu, as it is south of the other two). This derivation fits in with the geographical position of the rivers coming down from the Śaka gateway in the north.


There is plenty of evidence of Indic deities in the Śaka regions. These include Śiva-Maheśvara, Skanda, Gaṇeśa, Nārāyaṇa, Umā and others as, for example, in the Mogao Grottoes. The Zoroastrian Sogdians even went to the extent of fusing Maheśvara with their own divinity.

The resources for the study of Śaka languages are easily available on the Internet. I am hoping that more scholars in India will investigate this wonderful subject of the coming together of different cultures and languages in Central Asia.

Subhash Kak is an Author and Scientist

The article was first published here. eSamskriti has obtained permission from the author to republish this article. 

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