What comes to mind when you first hear the word Sanskrit? Something ancient? Something to do with the past? If the answer to the question stumps you, you are not alone! Many people have never heard of the word Sanskrit, let alone know what it means. However, there are a few facts about Sanskrit that might surprise you! For instance, did you know that some of the words that we use in our daily conversations actually have their roots in Sanskrit? Take the word “guru” for example, it means teacher or intellectual guide in both Sanskrit and English. The word Mandarin also has the same meaning in Sanskrit and English. For an example closer to home, did you know that the language of the words used on the Singapore stone is rumored to have been “in an ancient script, possibly Sanskrit”.
What is Sanskrit? Sanskrit was initially called ‘Deva-Vani’ meaning ‘god’s language’. Believed to have been from the god Brahma, the language was passed to the Rishis (sages), who then passed it to their earthly disciples to spread on earth. Sanskrit had influences over time on religious texts and literature, as exhibited by the Aryan migration during the Vedic period to the Bhagavad Gita which is the core of Hindu practices and ultimately on cross-cultural connections such as in Chinese poetry.
THE VEDIC PERIOD
The Indo-Aryan migration began around 1500 BC, with the Proto-Indo-Aryans who occupied the northwest Indian subcontinent. These Indo-Aryans were responsible for the introduction of Indo-European languages. They brought with them their Hindu culture and self-composed sacred texts, including the Vedas which birthed the language Sanskrit.
Sanskrit was divided into two main periods: the Vedic and Classical Sanskrit periods. The Vedic period lasted from 1000 to 500 BCE, until Sanskrit became more popularly used in casual oral conversation. Vedic Sanskrit is found in Vedas sacred texts such as Rig Veda and the Upanishads. This form of Sanskrit is rich in vocabulary, phonology, grammar and syntax. It consists of 52 letters in total, which are believed to be unchanged since its origins, hence making it a suitable language for word formation and pronunciation.
What about Classical Sanskrit? The Classical Sanskrit period began around 400 BCE, slightly after the end of the Vedic period. Panini, an ancient Indian grammarian who is also considered the founding father of Sanskrit language and its literature, introduced his work ‘Ashtadhyayi’, in which he presented a more refined version of Sanskrit and standardised the language. The ‘Ashtadhyayi’ is considered as the only source of Sanskrit grammar and vocabulary, and contains 3959 systematised rules. The language is so rich that it has multiple words dedicated to a single meaning, such as having more than 250 words to describe rainfall, 67 words to describe water, and 65 words to describe earth. Doesn’t it sound overwhelming? Sanskrit holds its reputation as the only sacred language which brought sacred literature accessible to all, even though India has a huge archive of 5000 spoken languages.
One major role played by Sanskrit, was in the Bhagavad Gita which forms the basis of Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita is an ancient Scripture which was composed in Sanskrit around 300 BCE. It consists of 18 chapters with 700 Sanskrit Verses and is part of the epic Mahabharata. It showcases the communication and relationship between Lord Krishna and Arjuna. Lord Krishna spreads spiritual knowledge unto Arjuna. Arjuna, a confused amateur is prepared for the great war of Mahabharata after being exposed to the spiritual truths of Yoga, Vedanta, Bhakty and Karma.
The Bhagavad Gita opens with conflicting situations (Vishada Yoga) and narrates the journey through which this confusion and conflict is resolved by following the counselling provided by lord Krishna. Krishna, a reincarnation of the God, Vishnu, guides Arjuna towards achieving the perfection of life and eventually attaining moksha. He explains that there only exists an immortal soul and the body is just a vehicle for that soul to travel in. People continue living either in their bodies or are reborn in some other body. Hence, it would not be a sin to defeat his relatives which is Arjuna’s main dilemma. (If only there was someone that could guide us in times of crisis too! 🙈)
The Gita portrays that karma does not refer to the present day interpretation of ‘what goes around comes around’. Instead, it refers to ‘detached karma’ where good deeds have to be performed without any expectation of results and brings about self-realization. It can be achieved through simple acts such as ‘tapa’, ‘daan’ (charity) and ‘yagna’ (ritualistic offerings) which are shown to bring about prosperity and ‘gyana’ (knowledge). Krishna pointed out that it was possible for a person to “pass from death to immortality” and achieve a “supreme state” if the concept of “I,” “me,” and “mine”” was broken. This has some form of connection to Buddhism’s concept of ‘Anatman’, the absence of the permanent stable self.
SACREDNESS OF LANGUAGE
While grammar helps us to convey our ideas more effectively, Sanskrit grammar is beyond that and acts as a “kind of religious penance” (pp 5538). Every part of the grammar has its significance and is not purely for linguistic usage. For instance, alphabets are “glowing sparks of “Brahman” illuminating existence itself” (pp 5538). Words are more than meaning as it also represents “consciousness” (pp 5538). Sentences in Sanskrit are not just a means to express ideas but an “outer expression of the spirit (“caitanya”)” (pp 5538). As seen, grammar has great significance in Sanskrit for it expresses not only one’s views but also their religious beliefs. Therefore, it is evident that grammar is tied deeply to one’s religious identity.
Let’s delve deeper into the topic, what do we mean when we say that words represent consciousness? According to Bhartrihari (a grammarian), words are more than just a way for people to communicate. Without language, people would not be able to “conceptualize and communicate the awareness of objects”. For instance, we only know that a cup is a cup because we gave it its name. Without the help of words, we would not be able to give an identity to an object and identify it.
We all know that a sentence only makes sense when read in its entirety. But did you know that this idea already existed somewhere between 450 to 510 CE? The Sanskrit term “samvit” represents Bhartrihari’s idea. A sentence should not be broken down to individual words in order to be deciphered as it would have little meaning. Bhartrihari’s understanding of this concept is quite amazing as the idea of “theoretical indivisibility” still remains relevant.
CONNECTION WITH OTHER CULTURES
It is interesting to know that between 450 and 550 CE (pp 381), Sanskrit texts were translated into Chinese. What was the motivation (pp 383) behind it? Buddhist kings and princes that existed during the Ch’i and Liang dynasty wanted to worship the Buddha. Chanting was seen to be a sacred activity and had the highest honors in Buddhist rituals. Using the sloka meter (which originated from Sanskrit) in chants is one of the best ways to worship the Buddha. However, the Chinese have to ensure that the translation and transmission of sloka meter was done well as unsuccessful attempts were deemed to be disrespectful. They then looked into ways to replicate the sloka meter in Chinese so that they can pay reverence to the Buddha in the right way.
The combination between Sanskrit and Buddhist practices influenced rhythmic patterns in Chinese poetry by 400 CE (pp 392). The rhythmic structure of Sanskrit involves the usage of syllables with opposing emphasis; they are referred to as “laghu (“light”) and guru (“heavy”)” (pp 380). Inspired by these, Shen Yueh (a Chinese poet) and his followers incorporated the idea into Chinese writing referring to them as “ch’ing (“light”) and chung (“heavy”)” sounds (pp 380). Previously, the Chinese had problems incorporating meter in their writing as Classical Chinese was “neither accentual nor quantitative” (pp 386). However with the knowledge of the Sanskrit meter, the Chinese were able to borrow ideas and tweak them accordingly to their needs. This shows that Sanskrit was helpful in helping the Chinese develop their sense of prosody and demonstrated Sanskrit’s influence beyond India.
Interestingly, Chinese poetry began to be chanted too. Previously, music complemented Chinese Poetry (pp 78). However, things changed with the introduction of Sanskrit poetry patterns to the Chinese. The influence of Sanskrit is thus not limited to written pieces but also to vocal practices.
Phew! That was a lot of information to take in! We hope that you have learnt some interesting facts about Sanskrit through this post, which took you from the beginning of the language to its interesting cross-cultural applications. Here’s a thought to leave you with: it was mentioned previously that the source of Sanskrit came from outside India (think- the Indo-Aryan Migration!). Therefore, we would like to leave you to appreciate the link between the words that we use today and its similarities with Sanskrit and other languages.
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