The Wonder That is Sanskrit

A fascinating speech by Bibek Debroy on the many aspects of literature, philosophy, science, art in Sanskrit delivered at the 2016 International Mother Tongue Day organized by UNESCO. Bibek Debroy recently published a complete translation of Mahabharat in 10 volumes. Amazing scholar!

Some excerpts that I enjoyed –

  1. Grandmother language!

Most Indian languages, in greater or lesser degree, trace their roots in Sanskrit. In that sense, more than a mother tongue, Sanskrit is a grandmother tongue.

2. Sanskrit was earlier known as Bhasha

However, don’t form the impression that the language has all along been called Sanskrit. For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, the language was simply called भाषा (bhasha), language.

3. Evidence of Sanskrit being used as a spoken language:

In 19th century by Vivekananda –

Third, there is a famous text of Vedanta, attributed to the sage Ashtavakra. As Narendranath Dutta, Swami Vivekananda used to visit Ramakrishna. At that time, Swami Vivekananda was still searching. However, Ramakrishna recognized his potential. To awaken seeds of Vedanta in Narendranath Dutta, Ramakrishna asked him to translate the Ashtavakra Gita for him, from Sanskrit to Bengali. In this respect, there was nothing unusual about Swami Vivekananda. In that day and age, many people spoke and read Sanskrit. With many languages and dialects, it was a language used for communicating among different parts of the country.

In 12th century

There was a famous Sanskrit poet named Sriharsha, circa 12th century CE. He wrote a great epic (Mahakavya) named Naishada Charita. This was about the famous King Nala. Nala married Damayanti, through what is called a svayamvara, a ceremony where a lady, typically a princess, chooses a husband from among assembled prospective suitors. From different parts of the country, many kings assembled for Damayanti’s svayamvara. Naishada Charita tells us अन्योन्यभाषानवबोधभीतेः संस्कृत्रिमार्भिव्यवहारवत्सु। दिग्भ्यः समेतेषु नृपेषु तेषु सौवर्गवर्गो न जनैरचिहिन॥ A free translation, not an exact translation, is something like this-“There were kings who had assembled from different parts of the country. They were scared that they would not understand each other’s mother tongues. Therefore, they conversed with each other in Sanskrit.”

4. Language of all, not just upper caste

But what of the proposition that Sanskrit was spoken by the upper class males, the brahmanas and the kshatriyas, the priests and the nobles, the elite? This is offered as a theorem, when it is no more than a hypothesis. We are talking about many thousands of years. A hypothesis true at one point of time may well be false at another point of time.

I remember a book titled “The King’s English”, written by the Fowler brothers in 1906. That determined correct English grammar and language. A lot of people spoke and speak cockney and slang. King’s English is refined and polished, so to speak, though few people spoke it, or speak it. Am I therefore right in proposing that English is dead? There were great Sanskrit grammarians like Panini (before the 5th century BCE) and Patanjali (also 2nd century BCE, though there may have been more than one Patanjali). Too much grammar tends to kill the living character of a language. One can cite from the works of Panini and Patanjali to establish that Sanskrit was a thriving spoken language, with regional variations, when these works were written.

5. Script came later, and was not exclusively Devanagari

Sanskrit is a language that flows freely, like water. It does not like stops. It is essentially a spoken language and was rendered into writing much later. Even when it was rendered into writing, many different scripts were used. The use of Devanagari as a script is of very recent vintage.

Let me reiterate what I said earlier. Writing is new in Sanskrit and writing in the Devanagari script came even later. Even when the language was Sanskrit, the script may have been something that few people know how to read today. The sharada script, widely used in Kashmir once, is an example. I have asked several learned people – how many people can read sharada today? The invariable answer is, one or two, but no one seems to know who these one or two individuals are. There was also something called Brihatkatha, a collection of stories written by Gunadhya in 6th century CE. This was in a language called paishachi and both Brihatkatha and the paishachi language have vanished.

6. Source and meaning of Satyamev Jayate

If I write a letter to you, this expression will be on my letter-head. This states सत्यमेव जयते, satyameva jayate, truth alone triumphs. This quote comes from the Mundaka Upanishad. Perhaps I should quote the shloka in its entirety. सत्यमेव जयते नानृतं सत्येन पन्था विततो देवयानः। येनाक्रमन्त्यृषयो ह्याप्तकामा यत्र तत् सत्यस्य परमं निधानम्॥ “Truth alone triumphs, not falsehood.” It is through truth that the path of the gods is laid out. It is by following this that the sages obtained their wishes and reached the supreme foundation of truth.”


7. How many upanishads are there?

How many Upanishads are there? This isn’t a question that can be easily answered. There are major Upanishads and there are minor ones. Depending on which ones you include, the major Upanishads number 11 to 13. There are 100-200 minor Upanishads.

Since 2003, India has a National Mission for Manuscripts (Namami). This has a gargantuan task of listing, digitizing, publishing and translating manuscripts — a manuscript is defined as a text more than 75 years old. This manuscript wealth isn’t necessarily in public hands. Hence, surveys are used to estimate what’s in private collections. As of now, Namami has a listing/ digitization of three million and the estimated stock of manuscripts in India is 35 million. There are at least 60,000 manuscripts in Europe and another 1,50,000 elsewhere in South Asia. Ninety-five per cent of these manuscripts have never been listed, collated and translated.

To compound the problem, knowledge was transmitted verbally, not in written form, through a guru-shishya or preceptor-disciple mode. We have no idea of how much knowledge has been lost in the process. Take the Rig Veda as an example. Originally, this was believed to have 21 shakhas, schools or recensions. The Yajur Veda had 101 shakhas. The Sama Veda had 1000 shakhas. The Atharva Veda had 9 shakhas. Together, the four Vedas had 1131 shakas. Now, there are only 13 left. What has been irretrievably lost is beyond redemption. Let us at least save what remains.

8. Word play!

Shishupala Vadha has 20 sargas. Indeed, it is a mahakavya and many connoisseurs of Sanskrit poetry have raved about Magha. The ingenuity reaches a crescendo in the 19th sarga. Sanskrit poetry had a concept of चित्रकाव्य. चित्र has many meanings – picture, wonderful, excellent. So these are wonderful decorative compositions. For example, how about composing a shloka with the first pada (quatrain) entirely in ज, the second pada entirely in त, the third pada entirely in भ and the fourth pada entirely in र? Magha came up with जजौजोजाजिजिज्जाजी तं ततोऽतितताततुत्। भाभोऽभीभाभिभूभाभू- रारारिररिरीररः॥ Believe it or not, this means “Then the warrior, winner of war, with his heroic valour, the subduer of the extremely arrogant beings, he who has the brilliance of stars, he who has the brilliance of the vanquisher of fearless elephants, the enemy seated on a chariot, began to fight.”

Here is another example, composed only with भ and र. भूरिभिर्भारिभिर्भीराभूभारैरभिरेभिरे। भेरीरेभिभिरभ्राभैरभीरुभिरिभैरिभाः॥ This means, “The fearless elephant, who was like a burden to the earth because of its weight, whose sound was like a kettle-drum, and who was like a dark cloud, attacked the enemy elephant.” As a third example, composed only with द, दाददो दुद्ददुद्दादी दाददो दूददीददोः। दुद्दादं दददे दुद्दे दादाददददोऽददः॥ The meaning is, “Sri Krishna, the giver of every boon, the scourge of the evil-minded, the purifier, the one whose arms can annihilate the wicked who cause suffering to others, shot his pain-causing arrow at the enemy.” Magha also specialized in palindromes. Here is one. वारणागगभीरा सा साराभीगगणारवा। कारितारिवधा सेना नासेधा वारितारिका॥ The translation is, “It is very difficult to face this army which is endowed with elephants as big as mountains. This is a very great army and the shouting of frightened people is heard. It has slain its enemies.”

Notice that each line is a palindrome, read right to left. Magha was partly trying to rival Bharavi. Bharavi wrote a mahakavya titled Kiratarjuniya and that was replete with palindromes too. This work was about the duel between Arjuna and Shiva, the latter in the garb of a hunter. Ignoring the Bharavi palindromes, here is another remarkable example from Bharavi. विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणा विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणाः। विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणा विकाशमीयुर्जगतीशमार्गणाः॥ The words only seem to repeat themselves.

However, the meaning is quite different. “The arrows (mārgaṇāḥ), of the king (jagatīśa) Arjuna spread out (vikāśam īyuḥ). The arrows (mārgaṇāḥ), of the lord of the earth (jagatīśa), Lord Śiva, spread out (vikāśam īyuḥ). The Gaṇas (gaṇāḥ) who are the slayers of demons (jagatīśamār) rejoiced (vikāśam īyuḥ). The seekers (mārgaṇāḥ) of Lord Śiva (jagatīśa), i.e. the deities and sages, reached (īyuḥ) the sky (vikāśam) (to watch the battle).”

9. Long-term vision of Goverment of India for Sanskrit

Sanskrit is a great wonder and it is a great heritage. India’s Human Resource Development Ministry set up a Committee to recommend a long-term vision and road-map for the development of Sanskrit. The Report was submitted recently and is available here. It will be a great pity if Sanskrit ever becomes a “dead” language.

It is a 32-page report titled VISION And ROAD MAP For the Development of Sanskrit  
Ten year perspective Plan. Bibek Debroy is one of the authors of this report. Great start. Hope it is implemented and the vision is realized.


Author: thisisnotrightwing

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