Prakrit (also transliterated as Pracrit) (Sanskrit: prākṛta प्राकृत, Shauraseni:pāuda पाउद, Maharashtri:pāua पाउअ) is the name for a group of Middle Indo-Aryan languages, derived from dialects of Old Indo-Aryan languages.
The Ardhamagadhi language (“half Magadhi”), an archaic form of the Magadhi language which was used extensively to write Jain scriptures, is often considered to be the definitive form of Prakrit, while others are considered variants thereof. Prakrit grammarians would give the full grammar of Ardhamagadhi first, and then define the other grammars with relation to it. For this reason, courses teaching “Prakrit” are often regarded as teaching Ardhamagadhi. The Pali language (the liturgical Prakrit language of Theravada Buddhism) tends to be treated as a special exception from the variants of the Ardhamagadhi language, as Classical Sanskrit grammars do not consider it as a Prakrit per se, presumably for sectarian rather than linguistic reasons. Other Prakrits are reported in old historical sources, but are no longer spoken (such as Paisaci).
Some modern scholars follow this classification by including all Middle Indo-Aryan languages under the rubric of “Prakrits”, while others emphasise the independent development of these languages, often separated from the history of Sanskrit by wide divisions of caste, religion, and geography. While Prakrits were originally seen as “lower” forms of language, the influence they had on Sanskrit, allowing it to be more easily used by the common people, as well as “Sanskritization” of Prakrits gave Prakrits progressively higher cultural cachet.
The word Prakrit itself has a flexible definition, being defined sometimes as “original, natural, artless, normal, ordinary, usual”, or “vernacular”, in contrast to the literary and religious orthodoxy of Sanskrit. Alternatively, Prakrit can be taken to mean “derived from an original,” which means evolved in natural way. Prakrit is foremost a native term, designating “vernaculars” as opposed to Sanskrit.
The Prakrits became literary languages, generally patronized by ancient Indian kings identified with the Kshatriya Varna of Hinduism, but were regarded as illegitimate by the orthodoxy. The earliest extant usage of Prakrit is the corpus of inscriptions of Emperor Asoka (r. 268–232 BCE). Besides this, Prakrit appears in literature in the form of Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhists, Prakrit canon of the Jains, Prakrit grammars and in lyrics, plays and epics of the times. The various Prakrit languages are associated with different patron dynasties, with different religions and different literary traditions, as well as different regions of the Indian subcontinent. Each Prakrit represents a distinct tradition of literature within the history of India and Nepal.
According to the dictionary of Monier Monier-Williams (1819–1899), the most frequent meanings of the Sanskrit term prakṛta, from which the word “prakrit” is derived, are “original, natural, normal” and the term is derived from prakṛti, “making or placing before or at first, the original or natural form or condition of anything, original or primary substance”. In linguistic terms, this is used in contrast with saṃskṛta, “refined”. Traditionally, many have believed that the Prakrits are older than Sanskrit, and that it was from the Prakrits that Sanskrit was refined. However, from a comparative Indo-European point of view, Sanskrit (especially Vedic Sanskrit) is closer to reconstructed Proto-Indo-European than are the Prakrits, so that Sanskrit belongs to a linguistically earlier stage of history.
The Suryaprajnaptisutra, an astronomical work dating to the 3rd or 4th century BC, written in Jain Prakrit language (in Devanagari book script), c. 1500 AD.
Some scholars restrict the use of the term “Prakrit” to the languages used by Hindu and Jain writers only; others include the Buddhist languages, such as Pali and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, and the inscriptional Prakrits. Other Prakrits include the Gāndhārī, and Paisāci, which is known through grammarians’ statements. The modern languages of Northern India developed from the Prakrits, after the intermediary stage of the Apabhramsa language.
Dramatic Prakrits were those that were devised specifically for use in dramas and other literature. Whenever dialogue was written in a Prakrit, the reader would also be provided with a Sanskrit translation. None of these Prakrits came into being as vernaculars, but some ended up being used as such when Sanskrit fell out of favor.
Pillar capital with addorsed lions and Prakrit inscriptions in the Kharoshthi script, British Museum
The phrase “Dramatic Prakrits” often refers to three most prominent of them: Sauraseni, Magadhi, and Maharashtri. However, there were a slew of other less commonly used Prakrits that also fall into this category. These include Pracya, Bahliki, Daksinatya, Sakari, Candali, Sabari, Abhiri, Dramili, and Odri. There was an astoundingly strict structure to the use of these different Prakrits in dramas. Characters each spoke a different Prakrit based on their role and background; for example, Dramili was the language of “forest-dwellers”, Sauraseni was spoken by “the heroine and her female friends”, and Avanti was spoken by “cheats and rogues”.
Maharashtri, the root of modern Marathi, is a particularly interesting case. Maharashtri was often used for poetry and as such, diverged from proper Sanskrit grammar mainly to fit the language to the meter of different styles of poetry. The new grammar stuck, which led to the unique flexibility of vowels lengths, amongst other anomalies, in Marathi.
Published - August 2013
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