We had a little discussion on Sanskrit the other day, and I was asked to send in my notes to the group. Since I want to increase my blog readership, I decided to post my stuff! I will try my best not to say things most people already know.
The word Sanskrit refers to that, which has been ‘put together’. (It happens to have the same meaning as the Greek syncretismos although the origin for the Greek word is attributed to the term for the Cretan Federation. Someone better challenge that etymology quick! To my laywoman’s way of thinking, the root word obviously comes from a proto Indo-European language.) We infer that Sanskrit is a language that has been crafted according to scientific principles, synthesized if you please, as opposed to Prakrit, which refers to language that evolves naturally (from Prakriti or nature). Sanskrit has always been a language of learning and refinement in India. The Prakrits were therefore not derivatives of Sanskrit (most probably the other way round), but simply the less hidebound easy-speak version of the same language. Prakrit and Sanskrit were mutually intelligible when our Indo-European ancestors first came to the sub-continent, but Prakrit being natural and not controlled by convention, evolved (but naturally!) giving rise to various dialects which ultimately transmogrified (Calvin, right?) into the various North Indian regional languages. The evolution was apparently slowest in the Gandharan region and fastest in Magadha. I suppose that means Kashmiri is closest to the old Prakrit, and therefore Sanskrit, while maybe Bhojpuri is the farthest. (Just hazarding baba. I know no Kashmiri or Bhojpuri). Sanskrit is regarded as the mother language of the North Indian languages, from Kashmiri to Bengali, much like Latin and the Romance languages – French, Italian, and Spanish.
Sanskrit is an Indo-European language. This means that it shares a common parent language with other languages of the Indo-European/Indo-Germanic family. Of course all of us have always been struck by the incredible similarities between the different languages of the family. Pater in Latin is Father in English is Pitareh in Sanskrit. Mater, Mother, Maatereh. Brother, Braathereh. Path-पथ, Go-गो, este- अस्ित, we found this game very exciting as children, until my dad pointed out that Fart and पाद probably have the same roots too. He felt we were getting carried away. Point noted but not taken. Excuse our Hindi. And English.
Sanskrit writing system–Originally, Sanskrit was intended to be transmitted orally. Megasthenes the Greek ambassador to Pataliputra mentions that the Indians have no writing system! So Chanakya literally composed the Arthashastra off the top of his head, and kept it inside his disciples' heads? Incredible. And we think the Chinese strange, sticking to their pictorial script for communication! In the peripatetic pre-paper and pre-printing era, it was easier to remember stuff than carry notes around I guess. I must say it is taking me much longer to write all this down. Definitely more than the 15 minutes I took to say it.
One uncharitable motivation for this oral tradition could have been that it ensured knowledge remained the preserve of a select few. There was no danger of it reaching the ‘masses’. (The horror of the masses remains the Indian intellectual’s greatest drawback. Just saying.) So, to decipher the language was not enough in those times, unless you got a teacher who imparted the know-how, orally. Apropos the Guru-Sishya Parampara. Remember how Karna and Ekalavya struggled without a teacher? Not like today, when mere paas Wikipedia hai!
|Asokan edict in Brahmi|
In fact scripts were first used for the Prakrits, by royal dynasties that obviously had to connect to their subjects. It was only later, that the body of Sanskrit literature, starting with the Vedas were redacted (meaning compiled, or reduced to writing), possibly in competitive response to a resurgent Prakrit writing tradition taking off, especially with the advent of Buddhism and Jainism that were not so bought into the casteist traditions of ancient India. The script adopted was usually the local Prakrit script of the scribe, from Kharoshti in the North West to Brahmi in the main subcontinent. (The point is not that no script existed, but that our intellectual forefathers sneered at the technology, preferring to rely on their memory. Statement thing, like not being on Facebook.) The Brahmi script had descendants – in the north, the Gupta, Sharada and Devnagari scripts came about in the 5th, 7th and 11th centuries of the Common Era; Grantham and Vattezhuththu came up between the 6th and 8th centuries in the South and spread to South East Asia through trade contacts, giving rise to the Burmese Mon script as well as the Khmer and Javanese scripts. Modern Thai comes from Khmer that comes from Vattezhuththu. Brahmi was the man. Or woman, likelier. (The Hiragana, phonetic system of Japanese writing is attributed to women; their men thought it was cooler to struggle with Kanji, which is the same as the Chinese logographic script.)
I digress. Point is that Sanskrit did not pay much heed to the script used, although correct pronunciation was of paramount importance. In the nineteenth century Occidental Indologists found this lack of a uniform writing system an impediment to their research and promoted the use of the Nagari system. Hamare paas guru nahin par empire hai, they said.
Body of Sanskrit literature:
The non-reliance on a script has infused some unique features into Sanskrit literature. The earlier works are mostly metrical compositions with mnemonics interwoven to facilitate memorization. Sanskrit does not depend on syntax to convey meaning, and every word has a vast number of synonyms to facilitate composition into a metrical scheme (the number of synonyms frustrated foreign students like the 11th century scholar Al Beruni who wrote his ‘India’ for the Islamic world.)
Sanskrit literature may be seen as belonging to different eras starting with the Pre-Classical era or Vedic era. Reliance was solely on oral transmission and the writing was essentially religious, philosophic or scientific. Around the 5th or 6th century BCE, Panini standardized the grammar for Sanskrit. With the Gupta Empire ensuring peace and stability and prosperity, many works were written. The period between 300 BCE and 800 CE is called the Classical Sanskrit era. Then there is the Later period. Important works in more or less chronological order are as follows-
|Rig Veda in Nagari - ca 19th cent. CE|
Rig Veda – “Praise” - A collection of hymns in praise of the gods, mythological accounts for the origin of the world, prayers for prosperity etc., composed between 1700 BC and 1100 BC, redacted in 1000 BC and written down ca 400 CE.
Yajurveda: Composed between 1000BC and 600 BC it is the liturgical knowledge for conducting sacrifices, the mantras etc. Will have a lot of mathematics, like the formulae for constructing an altar etc.
Samveda- Melody is emphasized; these are hymns.
Atharva Veda- Dealt among other things, in magic, healing, warfare, philosophy etc. Seems secular to me.
The Vedas usually come in a set – the Samhita, that is the main collection of the metrical material itself, and the Brahmana, which is the commentary on the material, often in prose. Aranyakas and the early Upanishads are also seen as part of the Brahmanas, although of course, there are always works that straddle periods and classifications. The Upanishads or Vedanta are a set of philosophical treatises, which form the theoretical basis for Hinduism. They were composed over a wide swathe of time, from the Pre-Buddhist Period.
Sutra literature: Knowledge codified in metrical material, composed between 500 and100 BCE, concision being of importance. Includes the Vedangas consisting of manuals on astrology, metrics, domestic life etc. etc. Panini’s Ashtadhyayi is an example of the Vyakarana Sutra. Panini standardized Sanskrit grammar through his brilliant Ashtadhyayi that works through examples.
The Epics: – The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were composed and redacted between 600 BCE and 100 BCE. These are described as Itihasa, “It happened thus”, i.e. history.
Classical Sanskrit Literature: 300 BCE to 800 CE.
The main works of this era are –
Epic Poetry (Mahakavya): Western scholars refer to this as Court Poetry, since the hero is usually either godly or Kshatriya. Since everything was composed metrically, poetry, especially epic poetry was distinguished by certain identifying features, that I will not go into, as Ranjani has already done this. One important aspect was the technical virtuosity of the Mahakavis. They were not shy of showing off either. The great epic poems of this time are – Kalidasa’s ‘Kumarasambhava’ and ‘Raghuvamsa’, Bharavi’s ‘Kiratarjunaya’, Maagha’s ‘Shishupaala Vadha’, ‘Naishada-charita’, and ‘Bhattikavya’.
Lyric poetry (Khandakavya): ‘Meghadootam’ and ‘Ritusamharam’ by Kalidasa are superb examples. Bhartrihari’s ‘Shringarashataka’ is a contemplation on erotic sentiment.
Ethical poetry, as the name suggests, is exclusively devoted to poetic aphorisms, (anyway found abundantly in Sanskrit literature) e.g. Bhartrihari’s ‘Nitishataka’ and ‘Vairagyashataka’. Yes it’s the same poet. He turned monk and then layman and back and fluctuated thus seven times between his house and the monastery. The substance of his work would have also been inconstant.
|Raja Ravi Varma's Shakuntala|