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Three Essays and a Story



In the making of the modern Indian nation, a lot of myths and popular notions got created in the 18th and the 19th century. One of the common threads among these was that ancient India (read Hindu) was great and that India became backward and decadent during the medieval (read Muslim) period. This article attempts to explore two of these myths and popular notions about the Sanskrit language and its relationship to Indian languages. These are: 1. Sanskrit is the mother of all Indian languages and 2. Indian languages are divided into two large families known as Dravidian and Indo Aryan families. The article argues that Sanskrit is not mother to any Indian language. It also traces the history of the creation of this notion. Then it argues that the division of Indian languages into Dravidian and Indo Aryan families is false. It goes on to explain the true relationship of Sanskrit to Indian languages and argues that all Indian languages form one family.

I. Is Sanskrit the Mother of Indian Languages?

What is Sanskrit?

Sanskrit is the classical language of India. Today there is no speech community of Sanskrit, that is, nobody uses Sanskrit as the main language of normal daily use (except a couple of Brahmin villages in Shimoga district, Karnataka). But it is not a dead language either. It is taught in schools though practically no one learns it. However, many upper caste Indians would know a few phrases/couplets of Sanskrit. In the vocabulary of standard modern Indian languages, there are a large number of words derived from Sanskrit. It is the language of rituals for the upper castes. There are probably a few hundred people who know Sanskrit well, most of who are Brahmins. There are also a large number of Brahmin priests who know enough Sanskrit to perform rituals. The level of their knowledge varies a lot from priest to priest.

Sanskrit also has been the language of Shastra, of knowledge of the Indian tradition. Even in the 20th century the musicologist Bhatkhande wrote his book in Sanskrit. Over the last two thousand years, there have been books in Sanskrit on politics, philosophy, religion, theology, ethics, mathematics, astrology, medicine and a host of other fields of knowledge. Panini's grammar, Patanjali's Yogashastra, Chanakya's Arthashastra, Manuís Dharmashastra, Aryabhatta and Varahamihir in mathematics and astronomy are just some of the known books. Today many of them are translated into English and into some Indian languages and are used mainly by scholars. However, in the mainstream of Indian life, knowledge and industry, Sanskrit has practically no role. English and modern Indian languages rule.

Historically Sanskrit was the language of the people in North-West India, west of the river Ravi. The areas covered then are todayís Afghanistan, Baluchistan and western parts of Kashmir, and Punjab. The area probably extended up to Iran whose language and culture had close affinity to the Vedic Sanskrit. The important centre was in Pakhtunitsan (the land of Pathans) or the North West Frontier province of Pakistan and was known as Gandhar whose main town Takshashila (todayís Taxila in Pakistan) was famous as a seat of learning roughly between 5th century B.C. and 5th century A.D.

The Sanskrit that we know today got the present classical form between the 3rd century B.C. and the 3rd century A.D when it received patronage from the Hindu kings. During this period Kautilya's Arthashastra, Manusmriti or Dharmashastra and an elaborate and perfect grammar was created. The other important language of the era was Pali, with its centres in Patliputra (Patna) and Nalanda under the patronage of Buddhist kings. Sanskrit and Pali coexisted and competed to be known as the language of the state during the 1000 years between the 5th century B.C. and the 5th century A.D.

With the arrival of the Muslim rulers, both the languages gradually ceased to be the language of the state. Persian replaced these languages although no Persian ever ruled over India! Pali more or less vanished from India, although it remained in use in Sri Lanka. And as everyone knows, English replaced Persian and today in spite of many efforts by the supporters of modern Indian languages, English remains the language of power and knowledge.

Several questions arise. Why and how has Sanskrit survived? Latin does not have this kind of presence in Europe. Why was such a perfect grammar created? What is the relationship between Sanskrit and modern Indian Languages?