Sanskrit (/ˈsænskrɪt/; संस्कृतम् saṃskṛtam [səmskr̩t̪əm], originally संस्कृता वाक् saṃskṛtā vāk, “refined speech”) is a historical Indo-Aryan language, the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and a literary and scholarly language in Buddhism and Jainism. Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand. Sanskrit holds a prominent position in Indo-European studies.
The corpus of Sanskrit literature encompasses a rich tradition of poetry and drama as well as scientific, technical, philosophical and dharma texts. Sanskrit continues to be widely used as a ceremonial language in Hindu religious rituals and Buddhist practice in the forms of hymns and mantras. Spoken Sanskrit is still in use in some villages and a few traditional institutions in India, and there are many attempts at further popularisation.
The Sanskrit verbal adjective sáṃskṛta- may be translated as “put together, constructed, well or completely formed; refined, adorned, highly elaborated”. It is derived from the root saṃ-skar- “to put together, compose, arrange, prepare”, where saṃ- “together” (as English same) and (s)kar- “do, make”.
The term in the generic meaning of “made ready, prepared, completed, finished” is found in the Rigveda. Also in Vedic Sanskrit, as nominalised neuter saṃskṛtám, it means “preparation, prepared place” and thus “ritual enclosure, place for a sacrifice”.
As a term for “refined or elaborated speech” the adjective appears only in Epic and Classical Sanskrit, in the Manusmriti and in the Mahabharata. The language referred to as saṃskṛta “the cultured language” has by definition always been a “sacred” and “sophisticated” language, used for religious and learned discourse in ancient India, and contrasted with the languages spoken by the people, prākṛta- “natural, artless, normal, ordinary”.
Classical Sanskrit is the standard register as laid out in the grammar of Pāṇini, around the 4th century BCE. Its position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, with the language of the Rigveda being the oldest and most archaic stage preserved, its oldest core dating back to as early as 1500 BCE. This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European languages, the family which includes English and most European languages.
Main article: Vedic Sanskrit
Rigveda manuscript in Devanāgarī
Sanskrit, as defined by Pāṇini, had evolved out of the earlier “Vedic” form. The beginning of Vedic Sanskrit can be traced as early as 1500–1200 BCE (for Rig-vedic and Indo-Aryan superstrate in Mitanni). Scholars often distinguish Vedic Sanskrit and Classical or “Pāṇinian” Sanskrit as separate ‘dialects’. Though they are quite similar, they differ in a number of essential points of phonology, vocabulary, grammar and syntax. Vedic Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, a large collection of hymns, incantations (Samhitas), theological and religio-philosophical discussions in the Brahmanas and Upanishads. Modern linguists consider the metrical hymns of the Rigveda Samhita to be the earliest, composed by many authors over several centuries of oral tradition. The end of the Vedic period is marked by the composition of the Upanishads, which form the concluding part of the Vedic corpus in the traditional view; however the early Sutras are Vedic, too, both in language and content. Around the mid-1st millennium BCE, Vedic Sanskrit began the transition from a first language to a second language of religion and learning.
For nearly 2,000 years, a cultural order existed that exerted influence across South Asia, Inner Asia, Southeast Asia, and to a certain extent, East Asia. A significant form of post-Vedic Sanskrit is found in the Sanskrit of the Hindu Epics—the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The deviations from Pāṇini in the epics are generally considered to be on account of interference from Prakrits, or “innovations” and not because they are pre-Paninean. Traditional Sanskrit scholars call such deviations ārṣa (आर्ष), meaning ‘of the ṛṣis’, the traditional title for the ancient authors. In some contexts, there are also more “prakritisms” (borrowings from common speech) than in Classical Sanskrit proper. Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is a literary language heavily influenced by Middle Indic, based on early Buddhist prakrit texts which subsequently assimilated to the Classical Sanskrit standard in varying degrees.
According to Tiwari (1955), there were four principal dialects of classical Sanskrit: paścimottarī (Northwestern, also called Northern or Western),madhyadeśī (lit., middle country), pūrvi (Eastern) and dakṣiṇī (Southern, arose in the Classical period). The predecessors of the first three dialects are even attested in Vedic Brāhmaṇas, of which the first one was regarded as the purest (Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa, 7.6).
As a spoken language
The 1991 and 2001, census of India recorded 49,736 and 14,135 persons, respectively, with Sanskrit as their native language. Since the 1990s, movements to spread spoken Sanskrit have been increasing. Organisations like the Samskrita Bharati are conducting Speak Sanskrit workshops to popularise the language.
Indian newspapers have published reports about several isolated villages, where, as a result of recent revival attempts, large parts of the population, including children, are learning Sanskrit and are even using it to some extent in everyday communication:
In official use
In the Republic of India Sanskrit is included in the 14 original languages of the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution. The state of Uttarakhand in India has ruled Sanskrit as its second official language. In October 2012 noted social activist Hemant Goswami filed a writ petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court for declaring Sanskrit as a ‘Minority’ language, so that it could enjoy special protection as available to minorities under the Constitution of India.
Contemporary literature and patronage
The Sahitya Akademi has had, since 1967, an award for the best creative work written that year in Sanskrit. In 2009, Satyavrat Shastri became the first Sanskrit author to win the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary award.
In mass media
Over 90 weeklies, fortnightlies and quarterlies are published in Sanskrit. Sudharma, a daily newspaper in Sanskrit has been published out of Mysore in India since the year 1970, while Sanskrit Vartman Patram and Vishwasya Vrittantam were started in Gujarat over the last five years. Since 1974, there has been a short daily news broadcast on state-run All India Radio. These broadcasts are also made available on the internet on AIR’s website. Sanskrit news is broadcast on TV and on the internet as part of the DD National channel at 6:55 AM IST.
As a liturgical language
As the liturgical language of Hindus, it is used during worship in Hindu temples throughout the world. Also, in Newar Buddhism, it is used in all the monasteries as liturgical language. It is also popular amongst the many practitioners of yoga in the West, who find the language useful in understanding the Yoga Sutra.
Devimahatmya manuscript on palm-leaf, in an early
In the Republic of India, in Nepal and Indonesia, Sanskrit phrases are widely used as mottoes for various national, educational and social organisations (much as Latin is used by some institutions in the West). For example:
Many of India’s and Nepal’s scientific and administrative terms are named in Sanskrit. The Indian guided missile program that was commenced in 1983 by DRDO has named the five missiles (ballistic and others) that it has developed as Prithvi, Agni, Akash, Nag and Trishul. India’s first modern fighter aircraft is named HAL Tejas.
Origin and development
Sanskrit is a member of the Indo-Iranian sub-family of the Indo-European family of languages. Its closest ancient relatives are the Iranian languages Old Persian and Avestan.
In order to explain the common features shared by Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages, many scholars have proposed migration hypotheses asserting that the original speakers of what became Sanskrit arrived in what is now India and Pakistan from the north-west some time during the early second millennium BCE. Evidence for such a theory includes the close relationship of the Indo-Iranian tongues with the Baltic and Slavic languages, vocabulary exchange with the non-Indo-European Uralic languages, and the nature of the attested Indo-European words for flora and fauna.
The earliest attested Sanskrit texts are Brahmanical texts of the Rigveda, which date to the mid-to-late second millennium BCE. No written records from such an early period survive, if ever existed. However, scholars are confident that the oral transmission of the texts is reliable: they were ceremonial literature whose correct pronunciation was considered crucial to its religious efficacy.
From the Rigveda until the time of Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BCE) the development of the early Vedic language may be observed in other Vedic texts: the Samaveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda, Brahmanas, and Upanishads. During this time, the prestige of the language, its use for sacred purposes, and the importance attached to its correct enunciation all served as powerful conservative forces resisting the normal processes of linguistic change. However, there is a clear, five-level linguistic development of Vedic from the Rigveda to the language of the Upanishads and the earliest Sutras (such as Baudhayana).
Standardisation by Panini
The oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar is Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī (“Eight-Chapter Grammar”). It is essentially a prescriptive grammar, i.e., an authority that defines correct Sanskrit, although it contains descriptive parts, mostly to account for some Vedic forms that had become rare in Pāṇini’s time.
Classical Sanskrit became fixed with the grammar of Panini (roughly 500 BCE), and remains in use as a learned language until the present day.
Coexistence with vernacular languages
The term “Sanskrit” was not thought of as a specific language set apart from other languages, but rather as a particularly refined or perfected manner of speaking. Knowledge of Sanskrit was a marker of social class and educational attainment in ancient India and the language was taught mainly to members of the higher castes, through close analysis of Sanskrit grammarians such as Pāṇini and patanjali, who exhorted that one should speak proper Sanskrit at all times, and at least during ritual. Sanskrit, as the learned language of Ancient India, thus existed alongside the Prakrits (vernaculars), also called Middle Indic dialects, and eventually into the contemporary modern Indo-Aryan languages.
Over the centuries, the Prakrits underwent language change to a degree that vernaculars and Sanskrit ceased to be intercomprehensible and had to be learned as a separate language, rather than a distinguished or noble register of the popular language. This transition was completed by the Early Middle Ages (Middle Indic), but a significant number of the elite remained fluent in Sanskrit, a situation directly comparable to the role of Latin in Medieval Europe.
Prakrits dominated in Magadh, the eastern part of India during the time of Buddha and Mahavira, one of which was likely the ancestor of Pali. Apparently in Gandhara the language remained particularly close to Sanskrit for a long time. Mahmud the Gazanavi used Sanskrit on his coins, and Sanskrit was in use as an official language during early Muslim rule in Kashmir.
Patronage and use by the upper classes
Many of the Sanskrit dramas suggest that it coexisted along with prakrits, spoken by multilingual speakers with more extensive education. Sanskrit speakers were also almost always multilingual.
Some kings patronised Sanskrit poets. Rashtrakuta King Amoghavarsha is said to have composed a Sanskrit text. Parmara King Bhoja (1010–1053) himself composed and supervised the composition of Sanskrit texts. That suggests that Sanskrit was widely spoken and understood in that period by the elite.
In the medieval era, Sanskrit continued to be spoken and written, particularly by learned Brahmins for scholarly communication. This was a thin layer of Indian society, but covered a wide geography. Centres like Varanasi, paithan, Pune, and Kanchipuram had a strong presence of teaching and debating institutions, and high classical Sanskrit was maintained until British times.
Use of Sanskrit lingered on in Kashmir even during the Muslim period as is observed by use of Sanskrit on Muslim tombstones and in official documents.
There are a number of sociolinguistic studies of spoken Sanskrit which strongly suggest that oral use of Sanskrit is limited, with its development having ceased sometime in the past. Pollock (2001), says “most observers would agree that, in some crucial way, Sanskrit is dead”. Pollock has further argued that, while Sanskrit continued to be used in literary cultures in India, Sanskrit was not used to express changing forms of subjectivity and sociality embodied and conceptualised in the modern age. Instead, it was reduced to “reinscription and restatements” of ideas already explored, and any creativity in Sanskrit was restricted to hymns and verses. He describes it in comparison with the “dead” language of Latin:
Hanneder (2002) and Hatcher (2007) contest Pollock’s characterisation, pointing out that modern works continue to be produced in Sanskrit:
Hanneder (2009) argues that modern works in Sanskrit are either ignored or their “modernity” contested.
When the British imposed a Western-style education system in India in the nineteenth century, knowledge of Sanskrit and ancient literature continued to flourish as the study of Sanskrit changed from a more traditional style into a form of analytical and comparative scholarship mirroring that of Europe.
Public education and popularisation
Adult and continuing education
Attempts at reviving the Sanskrit language have been undertaken in the Republic of India since its foundation in 1947 (it was included in the 14 original languages of the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution).
Organisations like the Samskrta Bharati are conducting Speak Sanskrit workshops to popularise the language. The “All-India Sanskrit Festival” (since 2002) holds composition contests. The 1991 Indian census reported 49,736 fluent speakers of Sanskrit. All India Radio transmits news bulletins in Sanskrit twice a day across the nation. Besides, Sanskrit learning programmes also feature on the list of most of the AIR broadcasting centres. The Mattur village in central Karnataka claims to have native speakers of Sanskrit among its population. Inhabitants of all castes learn Sanskrit starting in childhood and converse in the language. Even the local Muslims speak and converse in Sanskrit. Historically, the village was given by king Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara Empire to Vedic scholars and their families. People in his kingdom spoke Kannada and Telugu. Another effort concentrates on the preservation of oral transmission of the Vedas. Shri Vedabharathi is one such organisation based out of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh that has been digitising the Vedas through voice recording the recitations of Vedic Pandits.
Samskrita Bharati is an organisation working for Sanskrit revival. It is a tax exempt non-profit organisation with its headquarters in New Delhi, India. The International Centre, “Aksharam,” a complex located in Bangalore, India, is its international centre. It houses a research wing, a library, audio-visual lab, and staff quarters. It also has several state-units spread across the country both in the US and India. The US chapter is a registered nonprofit tax-exempt organisation with its headquarters in San Jose, California.
The CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) of India has made Sanskrit a third language (though it is an option for the school to adopt it or not, the other choice being the state’s own official language) in the schools it governs. In such schools, learning Sanskrit is an option for grades 5 to 8 (Classes V to VIII). This is true of most schools affiliated to the ICSE board too, especially in those states where the official language is Hindi. Sanskrit is also taught in traditional gurukulas throughout India.
In the west
St. James Junior School in London, England offers Sanskrit as part of the curriculum. In USA, since Sep 2009, high school students have been able receive credits (as Independent Study or towards Foreign Language requirements) by studying Sanskrit, as part of the “SAFL: Samskritam as a Foreign Language” program coordinated by Samskrita Bharati.
A list of Sanskrit universities is given below in chronological order:
Within other universities
Besides this, many universities throughout the world train and employ Sanskrit scholars – either within a separate Sanskrit department, or within a broader focus area – for example, in South Asian studies/linguistics departments in universities across the West. For example, Delhi university has about 400 Sanskrit students, out of which about half are reading it in post-graduation programmes.
European scholarship in Sanskrit, begun by Heinrich Roth(1620–1668) and Johann Ernst Hanxleden (1681–1731), is regarded as responsible for the discovery of the Indo-European language family by Sir William Jones. This scholarship played an important role in the development of Western philology, or historical linguistics.
A poem of the ancient Indian poet Vallana (between 900 and 1100 CE) on the side wall of the building at the Haagweg 14 in Leiden, Netherlands.
Sir William Jones, speaking to The Asiatic Society in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on 2 February 1786, said:
According to Thomas R. Trautmann, after the 18th-century wave of “Indomania”, i.e. enthusiasm for Indian culture and for Sanskrit, as exemplified in the positions of Orientalist scholars such as Sir William Jones, a certain hostility to Sanskrit and to Indian culture in general began to assert itself in Britain in the early 19th century. The hostility was manifest by a neglect of Sanskrit in British academia, as compared to other European countries, and was part of a general push in favor of the idea that India should be culturally, religiously and linguistically assimilated to Britain as far as possible. Traufmann considers that this British hostility to Sanskrit had two separate and logically opposite sources: one was “British Indophobia”, which he calls essentially a developmentalist, progressivist, liberal, and non-racial-essentialist critique of Hindu civilisation as an aid for the improvement of India along European lines. The other was race science, which was a theorisation of the English “common-sense view” that Indians constituted a “separate, inferior and unimprovable race”.
Classical Sanskrit distinguishes about 36 phonemes. There is, however, some allophony and the writing systems used for Sanskrit generally indicate this, thus distinguishing 48 sounds.
The sounds are traditionally listed in the order vowels (Ach), diphthongs (Hal), anusvara and visarga, plosives (Sparśa) and nasals (starting in the back of the mouth and moving forward), and finally the liquids and fricatives, written in IAST as follows:
An alternate traditional ordering is that of the Shiva Sutra of Pāṇini.
The vowels of Classical Sanskrit written in Devanagari, as a syllable-initial letter and as a diacritic mark on the consonant प् (/p/), pronunciation transcribed in IPA, IAST, and approximate equivalent in English:
The long vowels are pronounced twice as long as their short counterparts. Also, there exists a third, extra-long length for most vowels, called pluti, which is used in various cases, but particularly in the vocative. The pluti is not accepted by all grammarians.
The vowels /e/ and /o/ continue as allophonic variants of Proto-Indo-Iranian /ai/, /au/ and are categorised as diphthongs by Sanskrit grammarians even though they are realised phonetically as simple long vowels.
IAST and Devanagari notations are given, with approximate IPA values in square brackets.
The table below shows the traditional listing of the Sanskrit consonants with the (nearest) equivalents in English (as pronounced in General American and Received Pronunciation or the Indian English pronunciation if specified), French and Spanish. Each consonant shown below is deemed to be followed by the neutral vowel schwa (/ə/), and is named in the table as such.
Vedic Sanskrit had pitch accent: Some syllables had a high tone, and the following syllable a falling tone, though through ellipsis a falling tone may occur elsewhere.
Phonology and sandhi
The Sanskrit vowels are as discussed in the section above. The long syllabic l (ḹ) is not attested, and is only discussed by grammarians for systematic reasons. Its short counterpart ḷ occurs in a single root only, kḷp “to order, array”. Long syllabic r (ṝ) is also quite marginal, occurring in the genitive plural of r-stems (e.g. mātṛ “mother” and pitṛ “father” have gen.pl. mātṝṇām and pitṝṇām). i, u, ṛ, ḷ are vocalic allophones of consonantal y, v, r, l. There are thus only 5 invariably vocalic phonemes,
Visarga ḥ ः is an allophone of r and s, and anusvara ṃ, Devanagari ं of any nasal, both in pausa (i.e., the nasalised vowel). The exact pronunciation of the three sibilants may vary, but they are distinct phonemes. An aspirated voiced sibilant /zʱ/ was inherited by Indo-Aryan from Proto-Indo-Iranian but lost shortly before the time of the Rigveda (aspirated fricatives are exceedingly rare in any language). The retroflex consonants are somewhat marginal phonemes, often being conditioned by their phonetic environment; they do not continue a PIE series and are often ascribed by some linguists to the substratal influence of Dravidian or other substrate languages. The nasal [ɲ] is a conditioned allophone of /n/ (/n/ and /ɳ/ are distinct phonemes—aṇu ‘minute’, ‘atomic’ [nom. sg. neutr. of an adjective] is distinctive from anu ‘after’, ‘along’; phonologically independent /ŋ/ occurs only marginally, e.g. in prāṅ ‘directed forwards/towards’ [nom. sg. masc. of an adjective]). There are thus 31 consonantal or semi-vocalic phonemes, consisting of four/five kinds of stops realised both with or without aspiration and both voiced and voiceless, three nasals, four semi-vowels or liquids, and four fricatives, written in IAST transliteration as follows:
or a total of 36 unique Sanskrit phonemes altogether.
The phonological rules which are applied when combining morphemes to a word, and when combining words to a sentence, are collectively called sandhi “composition”. Texts are written phonetically, with sandhi applied (except for the so-called padapāṭha).
Sanskrit was spoken in an oral society, and the oral tradition was maintained through the development of early classical Sanskrit literature. Writing was not introduced to India until after Sanskrit had evolved into the Prakrits; when it was written, the choice of writing system was influenced by the regional scripts of the scribes. Therefore, Sanskrit has no native script of its own. As such, virtually all of the major writing systems of South Asia have been used for the production of Sanskrit manuscripts. Since the late 19th century, Devanagari has become the de facto standard writing system for Sanskrit publication, quite possibly because of the European practice of printing Sanskritic texts in this script. Devanāgari is written from left to right, lacks distinct letter cases, and is recognisable by a distinctive horizontal line running along the tops of the letters that links them together.
Kashmiri Shaivaite manuscript in the Sharada script (c. 17th century)
The earliest known inscriptions in Sanskrit date to the 1st century BCE. They are in the Brahmi script, which was originally used for Prakrit, not Sanskrit. It has been described as a “paradox” that the first evidence of written Sanskrit occurs centuries later than that of the Prakrit languages which are its linguistic descendants. When Sanskrit was written down, it was first used for texts of an administrative, literary or scientific nature. The sacred texts were preserved orally, and were set down in writing, “reluctantly” (according to one commentator), and at a comparatively late date.
"My name is 'incomplete third word is the name'" (written) in Sanskrit
Brahmi evolved into a multiplicity of scripts of the Brahmic family, many of which were used to write Sanskrit. Roughly contemporary with the Brahmi, the Kharosthi script was used in the northwest of the subcontinent. Later (around the 4th to 8th centuries CE) the Gupta script, derived from Brahmi, became prevalent. From ca. the 8th century, the Sharada script evolved out of the Gupta script. The latter was displaced in its turn by Devanagari from ca. the 11/12th century, with intermediary stages such as the Siddham script. In Eastern India, the Bengali script and, later, the Oriya script, were used. In the south where Dravidian languages predominate, scripts used for Sanskrit include Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Grantha.
Sanskrit in modern Indian and other Brahmi scripts. May Siva bless those who take delight in the language of the gods. (Kalidasa)
Since the late 18th century, Sanskrit has been transliterated using the Latin alphabet. The system most commonly used today is the IAST (International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration), which has been the academic standard since 1888/1912. ASCII-based transliteration schemes have evolved due to difficulties representing Sanskrit characters in computer systems. These include Harvard-Kyoto and ITRANS, a transliteration scheme that is used widely on the Internet, especially in Usenet and in email, for considerations of speed of entry as well as rendering issues. With the wide availability of Unicode-aware web browsers, IAST has become common online.
It is also possible to type using an alphanumeric keyboard and transliterate to Devanagari using software like Mac OS X’s international support.
European scholars in the 19th century generally preferred Devanagari for the transcription and reproduction of whole texts and lengthy excerpts. However, references to individual words and names in texts composed in European languages were usually represented with Roman transliteration. From the 20th century onwards, due to production costs, textual editions edited by Western scholars have mostly been in Romanised transliteration.
Sanskrit grammatical tradition (vyākaraṇa, one of the six Vedanga disciplines) began in late Vedic India and culminated in the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini, which consists of 3990 sutras (ca. 5th century BCE). About a century after Pāṇini (around 400 BCE) Kātyāyana composed Vārtikas on Pāṇinian sũtras. Patañjali, who lived three centuries after Pāṇini, wrote the Mahābhāṣya, the “Great Commentary” on the Aṣṭādhyāyī and Vārtikas. Because of these three ancient Sanskrit grammarians this grammar is called Trimuni Vyākarana. To understand the meaning of sutras Jayaditya and Vāmana wrote the commentary named Kāsikā 600 CE. Pāṇinian grammar is based on 14 Shiva sutras (aphorisms). Here whole Mātrika (alphabet) is abbreviated. This abbreviation is called Pratyāhara.
Sanskrit has ten classes of verbs divided into in two broad groups: athematic and thematic. The thematic verbs are so called because an a, called the theme vowel, is inserted between the stem and the ending. This serves to make the thematic verbs generally more regular. Exponents used in verb conjugation include prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and reduplication. Every root has (not necessarily all distinct) zero, guṇa, and vṛddhi grades. If V is the vowel of the zero grade, the guṇa-grade vowel is traditionally thought of as a + V, and the vṛddhi-grade vowel as ā + V.
The verb tenses (a very inexact application of the word, since more distinctions than simply tense are expressed) are organised into four ‘systems’ (as well as gerunds and infinitives, and such creatures as intensives/frequentatives, desideratives, causatives, and benedictives derived from more basic forms) based on the different stem forms (derived from verbal roots) used in conjugation. There are four tense systems:
Sanskrit is a highly inflected language with three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) and three numbers (singular, plural, dual). It has eight cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, and locative.
The number of actual declensions is debatable. Pāṇini identifies six karakas corresponding to the nominative, accusative, dative, instrumental, locative, and ablative cases. Pāṇini defines them as follows (Ashtadhyayi, I.4.24–54):
Personal pronouns and determiners
Sanskrit pronouns are declined for case, number, and gender. The pronominal declension applies to a few adjectives as well. Many pronouns have alternative enclitic forms.
The first and second person pronouns are declined for the most part alike, having by analogy assimilated themselves with one another. Where two forms are given, the second is enclitic and an alternative form. Ablatives in singular and plural may be extended by the syllable -tas; thus mat or mattas, asmat or asmattas. Sanskrit does not have true third person pronouns, but its demonstratives fulfill this function instead by standing independently without a modified substantive.
There are four different demonstratives in Sanskrit: tat, etat, idam, and adas. etat indicates greater proximity than tat. While idam is similar to etat, adas refers to objects that are more remote than tat. eta, is declined almost identically to ta. Its paradigm is obtained by prefixing e- to all the forms of ta. As a result of sandhi, the masculine and feminine singular forms transform into eṣas and eṣã.
The enclitic pronoun ena is found only in a few oblique cases and numbers. Interrogative pronouns all begin with k-, and decline just as tat does, with the initial t- being replaced by k-. The only exception to this are the singular neuter nominative and accusative forms, which are both kim and not the expected *kat. For example, the singular feminine genitive interrogative pronoun, “of whom?”, is kasyãḥ. Indefinite pronouns are formed by adding the participles api, cid, or cana after the appropriate interrogative pronouns. All relative pronouns begin with y-, and decline just as tat does. The correlative pronouns are identical to the tat series.
In addition to the pronouns described above, some adjectives follow the pronominal declension. Unless otherwise noted, their declension is identical to tat.
One other notable feature of the nominal system is the very common use of nominal compounds, which may be huge (10+ words) as in some modern languages such as German and Finnish. Nominal compounds occur with various structures, however morphologically speaking they are essentially the same. Each noun (or adjective) is in its (weak) stem form, with only the final element receiving case inflection. The four principle categories of nominal compounds are:
Because of Sanskrit’s complex declension system the word order is free. In usage, there is a strong tendency toward subject–object–verb (SOV), which was the original system in place in Vedic prose. However, there are exceptions when word pairs cannot be transposed.
The numbers from one to ten:
The numbers one through four are declined. Éka is declined like a pronominal adjective, though the dual form does not occur. Dvá appears only in the dual. Trí and catúr are declined irregularly:
Some Peculiar Characteristics of Sanskrit
In the introduction to his celebrated translation of Vidyakara’s ‘Subhasitaratnakosa’, the eminent sanskritist Daniel H.H. Ingalls describes some peculiar charactereistics of the sanskrit language. He refers to the enormous vocabulary of sanskrit, and also of the presence of a larger choice of synonyms in sanskrit than any other language he knew of. Further,he writes, just as there exist a vast number of synonyms for almost any word in sanskrit, there also exist synonymous constructions. Ingalls writes that in elementary sanskrit examinations he would ask his students to write in sanskrit the sentence ‘You must fetch the horse’ in ten different ways. Actually, Ingalls explains, it is possible to write the sentence in sanskrit in around fifteen different ways ‘by using active or passive constructions, imperative or optative, an auxillary verb, or any of the three gerundive forms, each of which, by the way, gives a different metrical pattern’. Ingalls emphasizes that while these constructions differ formally, emotionally they are identical and completely interchangeable. He comments that in any natural language this would be impossible. Ingalls uses this and other arguments to show that Sanskrit is not a natural language, but an ‘artificial’ language. By ‘artificial’, he explains he means it was learned after some other Indian language had been learned by simple conditioning. Ingalls writes: ‘Every Indian, one may suppose, grew up learning in a natural way the language of his mother and his playmates. Only after this and if he belonged to the priesthood or the nobility or to such a professional caste as that of the clerks, the physicians, or the astrologers would he learn sanskrit…As a general rule, sanskrit was not the language of the family. It furnished no subconscious symbols for the impressions which we receive in childhood nor for the emotions which form our character in early adolescence.’
Influence on other languages
Sanskrit’s greatest influence, presumably, is that which it exerted on languages of India that grew from its vocabulary and grammatical base; for instance, Hindi is a “Sanskritised register” of the Khariboli dialect. However, all modern Indo-Aryan languages, as well as Munda and Dravidian languages, have borrowed many words either directly from Sanskrit (tatsama words), or indirectly via middle Indo-Aryan languages (tadbhava words). Words originating in Sanskrit are estimated to constitute roughly fifty percent of the vocabulary of modern Indo-Aryan languages, and the literary forms of (Dravidian) Malayalam and Kannada. Literary texts in Telugu are lexically Sanskrit or Sanskritised to an enormous extent, perhaps seventy percent or more.
Sanskrit is recognised as a storehouse of scripture and as the language of prayers in Hinduism. Like Latin’s influence on European languages and Classical Chinese’s influence on East Asian languages, Sanskrit has influenced most Indian languages. While vernacular prayer is common, Sanskrit mantras are recited by millions of Hindus, and most temple functions are conducted entirely in Sanskrit, often Vedic in form. Of modern day south Asian languages, Hindi, Nepali, Bengali, Assamese, Konkani, and Marathi still retain a largely Sanskrit and Prakrit vocabulary base, while Hindi and Urdu tend to be more heavily weighted with Arabic and Persian influence. The Indian national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, is written in a literary form of Bengali (known as sadhu bhasha); it is Sanskritised to be recognisable but is still archaic to the modern ear. The national song of India, Vande Mataram, which was originally a poem composed by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and taken from his book called ‘Anandamath’, is in a similarly highly Sanskritised Bengali. Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada also combine a great deal of Sanskrit vocabulary. Sanskrit also has influence on Chinese through Buddhist Sutras. Chinese words like 剎那 chànà (Devanagari: क्षण kṣaṇa ‘instantaneous period of time’) were borrowed from Sanskrit.
Interaction with other languages
Sanskrit and related languages have also influenced their Sino-Tibetan-speaking neighbors to the north through the spread of Buddhist texts in translation. Buddhism was spread to China by Mahayanist missionaries sent by Emperor Ashoka mostly through translations of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit and Classical Sanskrit texts, and many terms were transliterated directly and added to the Chinese vocabulary. (Although Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is not Sanskrit, properly speaking, its grammar and vocabulary are substantially the same, both because of genetic relationship, and because of conscious implementation of Pāṇinian standardisations on the part of composers. Buddhist texts composed in Sanskrit proper were primarily found in philosophical schools like the Madhyamaka.) The situation in Tibet is similar; many Sanskrit texts survive only in Tibetan translation (in the Tanjur).
In Southeast Asia, languages such as Thai and Lao contain many loan words from Sanskrit, as do Khmer, Vietnamese to a lesser extent, through Sinified hybrid Sanskrit. For example, in Thai, the Rāvana—the emperor of Sri Lanka is called ‘Thosakanth’ which is a derivation of his Sanskrit name ‘Dashakanth’ (“of ten necks”).
Many Sanskrit loanwords are also found in Austronesian languages, such as Javanese particularly the old form from which nearly half the vocabulary is derived from the language. Other Austronesian languages, such as traditional Malay, modern Indonesian, also derive much of their vocabulary from Sanskrit, albeit to a lesser extent, with a large proportion of words being derived from Arabic. Similarly, Philippine languages such as Tagalog have many Sanskrit loanwords, although more are derived from Spanish.
A Sanskrit loanword encountered in many Southeast Asian languages is the word bhāṣā, or spoken language, which is used to mean language in general, for example bahasa in Malay, Indonesian and Tausug, basa in Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese, phasa in Thai and Lao, bhasa in Burmese, and phiesa in Khmer.
Popular culture in other languages
Recital of Sanskrit shlokas as background chorus in films, television advertisements and as slogans for corporate organisations has become a trend. The opera Satyagraha by Philip Glass uses texts from the Bhagavad Gita, sung in the original Sanskrit.
Recently, Sanskrit also made an appearance in Western pop music in two recordings by Madonna. One, “Shanti/Ashtangi”, from the 1998 album Ray of Light, is the traditional Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga chant referenced above set to music. The second, “Cyber-raga”, released in 2000 as a B-side to Madonna’s album Music, is a Sanskrit-language ode of devotion to a higher power and a wish for peace on earth. The climactic battle theme of The Matrix Revolutions features a choir singing a Sanskrit prayer from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in the closing titles of the movie. Composer John Williams featured choirs singing in Sanskrit for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The lyrics of The Child In Us by Enigma also contains Sanskrit, latin and English verses.
The Sky1 version of the title sequence in season one of Battlestar Galactica 2004 features the Gayatri Mantra, taken from the Rig Veda (3.62.10). The composition was written by miniseries composer Richard Gibbs.
Sanskrit has also seen a significant revival in Mainland China. Musicians such as Sa Dingding have written pop songs in Sanskrit.
There have been suggestions to use Sanskrit as a metalanguage for knowledge representation in e.g. machine translation, and other areas of natural language processing because of its relatively high regular structure. This is due to Classical Sanskrit being a regularised, prescriptivist form abstracted from the much more complex and richer Vedic Sanskrit.
Published - August 2013
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