The Wonder that is Sanskrit|Apr 1, 2006 2:20 PM| by:

Sanskrit as the National Language of India

The Nobel Laureate physicist, Dr. C.V. Raman, believed that Sanskrit was the only language that could be the national language of India. He said, “Sanskrit flows through our blood. It is only Sanskrit that can establish the unity of the country.” It is true that a national language is a very important element in the growth and self-actualisation of a people and a nation. It helps to develop and also to give expression to their heart, mind and soul. Says Sri Aurobindo, “It is of the utmost value to a nation, a human group-soul, to preserve its language and to make of it a strong and living cultural instrument. A nation, race or people which loses its language, cannot live its whole life or its real life.”

We have to ask ourselves what are the requirements of a national language and which language of India meets best these requirements. Firstly, a national language should be national in the true sense, that is, it should have taken birth in the country and be capable of expressing its special ethos and genius. It cannot be a foreign language, even though the foreign language may be widely spoken. Therefore, straight away we cannot consider English as the national language of India, though it is spoken all over the country and may even have a special role to play in the future. The national language of India has to be a language of and from India.

The national language has to express the many facets of the genius, culture and heritage of the country in diverse fields. And without doubt, one can say that no other Indian language has such a rich treasure of noblest thoughts, highest achievements in religion and philosophy, in art and literature, in science and technology, in dance and music, architecture and sculpture, than Sanskrit. It is for the sake of this knowledge and wisdom that, through the centuries, travellers and seekers from all over have come to India. Even in the present times scholars from the West and the East are studying and translating Indian texts, a majority of which are in Sanskrit. But unfortunately, most Indians now come into contact with our ancient wisdom not by studying them in the original but through English translations. So much so that “English lexicons, and English histories of Sanskrit language and literature, English estimates of our writers and expositions of our texts, secular and religious – these are our standard authorities and references.” This has also inevitably led to many distortions and misinterpretations and if we want to find the roots of our culture, its greatness and its living force, we have to go once again to Sanskrit. It will not be an exaggeration to say that if India has to rise, Sanskrit will have to rise once again.

A third requirement of a national language is that it must not be too closely identified with any particular region of the country. Every Indian language we may think of, whether it is Gujarati, Bengali, Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, Punjabi or Assamese, is closely identified with one state or region. Hindi alone is perhaps not identified with a particular province but still it is regional in the sense that it belongs to the north of India. Sanskrit alone is non-regional. No province or state or people can claim it as its own. It has not sprung up in one area. It belongs to the whole of India and has been used in the whole of India for centuries.

Recent archeological and historical researches have shown that it was the link language from ancient times for the entire Indian sub-continent. Jean Filliozat, the well known French Indologist observes, “While Middle-India dialects and other languages were local, Sanskrit was universal throughout India. It was fully known by a few people only, but everywhere; and it was superficially known by more numerous people mixing it with local language.”

Sanskrit alone, even if it was the mother tongue of a limited number of groups or families, and in spite of its sophisticated shape, was regularly taught everywhere in traditional schools. In fact, Sanskrit has always been the binding force except for a short period when it was replaced by Pali and the Prakrits. However, it soon regained its importance during the middle ages. It became a sort of common link language among the speakers of different mother tongues. Thus, in his Nashadhiyacharita, Sriharsha describes the kingly suitors of Damayanti, from all parts of India, as speaking to each other in Sanskrit to avoid unintelligibility. Rajashekhara, in his Kavyamimamsa, written in the 10th Century A.D., says that the Magadha king Sisunaga and the Ujjain ruler Sahasanka insisted that the royal women should speak only in Sanskrit. Another poet, Bilhana, in the 11th Century, mentions in his Vikramankadevacharita that in Kashmir, in every house Sanskrit was spoken like the mother tongue. Shankara, born in the Southern state of Kerala, travelled and debated with scholars all over the country and established mathas in the four corners of this land. This became possible only through Sanskrit, the link language, which was understood in all parts of the country.

    Sanskrit and other Indian Languages

If Sanskrit was so widespread over the whole of India and was the common language of communication, it no doubt had a very special relation with and a great influence on all Indian languages. “The ideas, the literary forms and even the themes of the literature of our great regional languages are predominantly derived from Sanskrit. For proper use of a large percentage of words, even in Dravidian languages, an understanding of Sanskrit is necessary; the great classics of India, not only the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but the masterpieces from which everyone in India draws his inspiration from the simple Pañcatantra to Shakuntala, are in Sanskrit, and it is on their translations and their vulgarisations that our minds are fed and nourished from childhood.” (K.M. Panikkar)

The relation of Sanskrit with North Indian languages is obvious. Sanskrit is universally accepted as the mother of all North Indian languages – Hindi, Bengali, Assamese, Oriya, Rajasthani, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Maithali, Sindhi etc. They are all derived from and rooted in Sanskrit in their vocabulary, syntax and grammatical structure. These languages belong to the Indo-Aryan group and contain four types of words:

1. Tatsama – words which are the same as in Sanskrit
2. Tadbhava – words which are derived from Sanskrit
3. Deshya – words peculiar to the language and the region
4. Vaideshika – words borrowed from foreign languages

A proper study of all North Indian languages would show that more than 70 percent of the words in these languages are Tatsama and Tadbhava, that is, they have been taken directly from Sanskrit or are derived from Sanskrit. This is why there are a very large number of words like hasta, pada, karuna, dana, mahan, found in all North Indian languages. We find that when a person speaks in one North Indian language it is often possible for another North Indian to understand even though he may not know that language. This is because, along with the vocabulary, there is a very great similarity in the sentence structure.

In fact all the North Indian languages have basically the same alphabet, similar classifications and the same grammar. So much so that when Hemachandra wrote the first non-Sanskrit grammar his concluding remark was “…Whatever you cannot find in this apabhramsha grammar, is the same as it is in the Sanskrit grammar.”

The situation is slightly different with the South Indian languages – Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil. These languages belong to what is known as the Dravidian group and there is a feeling among some that they do not have a close relationship with Sanskrit. This again is a misconception. If we take the example of Telugu, out of forty thousand words in a modern Telugu dictionary, nearly twenty-five thousand, that is 65 percent of the words, would be derived from Sanskrit. A large number of important literary works in Sanskrit have been adapted or translated into Telugu and often the Sanskrit vocabulary has been retained and Telugu endings added.

The same applies to Kannada and Malayalam in slightly different degrees. An interesting point to note is that many of the early grammars for Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu were written in Sanskrit, with commentary and explanatory notes in Sanskrit and modelled on the Paninian system. And in Kerala an entire poetical style came into existence, with its own literature, freely employing a large number of Sanskrit words with Malayalam endings, and a strong influence of Sanskrit metres and figures of speech. This special literary dialect came to be called Manipravalam, meaning a necklace strung with ‘pearls and corals’. But what about Tamil? Even here we find a close relationship when we look at the alphabet, the syntax and even the vocabulary, though it may be to a lesser degree. In fact the cultural and historical bond between the Dravidian languages and Sanskrit has been very strong. The four great Acharyas who wrote major Bhashyas or commentaries on the Bhagavadgita – Shankara, Ramanuja, Vallabha and Madhva – were all from the South. These commentaries are all in Sanskrit and are studied as authoritative interpretations of the Gita by seekers and scholars from all over India. Sanskrit has been the language of prayer and worship in the temples all over the South from times immemorial.

The great Sayana, who wrote the well-known commentary on the Vedas, lived in the Vijayanagara Empire. The other two Vedic commentators, Venkatamadhava and Bharatasvamin, were under the Cholas and the Hoysalas. Mallinathasuri, who commented on the works of Kalidasa, was a Telugu speaker. Kumarila Bhatta and Appaya Dikshita were great scholars from the South and enriched Sanskrit language by their works.

Although early Tamil literature, for example the Sangam texts, shows certain special characteristics that are perhaps unique to Tamil, it is fully within the ambit of Sanskrit. As Sivajnana-munivar has said in his commentary on the Tolkappiyam, the oldest extant grammar of Tamil: “The nature of Tamil will not be clear to those who have not learnt Sanskrit”. Tamil of the oldest Sangam texts shows a very good number of Sanskrit words, and the number goes on increasing with the centuries.

There was a time when the Mayapith Empire was established by the Tamil king, Emperor Vijay, in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaya. In the 12th Century A.D. these Tamil kings made Sanskrit the state language of these countries. The Andhra people established the Moan Empire in Burma, which extended from Pegu to Mandalaya. The state language of this Empire was Sanskrit and it remained so up to the 12th Century A.D. Take the case of Malaysia, where people of both Tamil and Andhra ethnicity dwell. Malaya’s last Hindu king was Parameswara [wehave kings even now, but parameswara was the last one to come from India]. He adopted the Arabic script but the state language continued to be Sanskrit till about 150 years ago.

It is significant to read what the great Tamil poet SubramaniaBharati wrote under the title ‘O Mir Mani Kovai’ for SwadeshaMitran, which was later reproduced in the June 1942 issue of Kalaimagal: “Elders such as Gandhiji are of the opinion that Hindi may be offered as the common language for India. But Aurobindo Ghose, who may be rightly called the greatest of the Indian patriots, and many others speak of Sanskrit as the common language of India. They say that it is not a new status to be conferred upon Sanskrit; it has enjoyed it from ancient times. For instance, before the advent of the British rule in this country, in which language would a king from Tamil Nadu have written to a king in Gujarat if he wanted to communicate with him? If it were in Tamil the Gujarati king would not have understood it, and it would not have been possible for the Tamil king to write in Gujarati. Hence their communication had to be in Sanskrit, a language in which the pandits, the Rajagurus and the chief ministers of both the States were equally well-versed. Is that not evident?”

Some people state that it will not be practical to keep Sanskrit as the common language for the whole country, since it is difficult to learn Sanskrit and acquire proficiency in it. This is perhaps true if we were to follow the old way of learning. But we do not need to do that any more. Now Shri Bhandarkar, a pandit from Bombay, has written primers through which one can learn Sanskrit in seven or eight months without the help of a teacher. Of these, the first book has already been translated into Tamil. This method can be even further simplified. In fact, anyone who reads the Pañcatantra three times with an understanding of its meaning and learns it by heart, should acquire the ability to speak Sanskrit fluently. It may take more time to be familiar with the strenuous style of Bana and Bhatti; but for common use, works like the Pañcatantra which are written in a simple style are sufficient.”

If such are the views and feelings of a poet and a patriot like Subramania Bharati, then why has there been recently such a strong opposition to Sanskrit in the South? We must first realise that this is a relatively recent phenomenon and for centuries Sanskrit and Tamil have not only lived together but enriched one another. The opposition has never come from persons who were educated in the true sense of the word, who had the necessary catholicity and depth of vision. In fact the eminent Tamil scholar, Dr. V. Raghavan who has written several books on Sanskrit, claims that it is possible to speak in Tamil sentences made entirely of Sanskrit words and to be understood.

The reasons for the recent divide are to be found in human folly and ignorance. One of the historical aberrations that has fuelled this controversy is the widely accepted idea of the Aryan invasion into India by which the original Dravidian inhabitants were driven down into the South, leading to a constant conflict and opposition. Fortunately, now more and more historians are realising that this theory has no factual basis and was wrongly propounded by some Western historians, and the Aryan and Dravidian, North and South are two aspects of the same Indian culture.

A Capacity to Grow

It is obvious that there is no language apart from Sanskrit which has such a close relationship with all the other languages of India. But there is another characteristic of Sanskrit that is of great importance. A national language must have at its command a storehouse of a very large vocabulary to meet the demands of a vast range of subjects and disciplines, from science to spirituality, art to animals, from philosophy to information technology. Sanskrit fulfils these requirements admirably. “Look at the wonderful pageant of Sanskrit literature, in arts, crafts, science and politics, in concrete spheres and in realms of abstractions and speculations. Its Shilpa, Ganita, Rasayana, Ayurveda, Jyotisha, Arthashastra and Dharmashastra literature forms a mine of technical terms which can assist efficiently in the rendering into an Indian medium all kinds of knowledge now known and learnt from English.”

But this vocabulary can be static, while the demands of the changing times and the explosion of information and knowledge in every field require that the language should have within itself sufficient growing power or vitality, to put forth fresh forms to tackle the new and vastly expanded needs. As has been pointed out by several reputed scholars, the wonderful grammatical structure of Sanskrit is such that the language has an eternal fecundity and an incredible capacity to widen itself without losing its genius and individuality.

Therefore, apart from its own vitality, growth and adaptability, Sanskrit can serve and has been serving as a feeder language for other Indian languages. “The reason for this lies in the linguistic structure of Sanskrit language which possesses high potentiality in affixation and word-compounding and richness in abstract concepts and discursive terms, besides being a rich store-house of knowledge.”

In the words of the noted Indologist Monier Williams, “India, though it has, as we have seen, more than 500 spoken dialects, has only one sacred language and only one sacred literature, accepted and revered by all… however diverse in race, dialect, rank and creed. That language is Sanskrit and that literature is Sanskrit literature… the only quarry whence the requisite materials may be obtained for improving the vernaculars or for expressing important religious and scientific ideas.”

    A Source of Unity and Pride

A vast and diverse country like India needs a national language that can unify and harmonise. We have seen that Sanskrit was this great unifying force for centuries. Even when India was not a single political unit, Sanskrit made the Indian people one in spirit, heart and culture.

Now when India has attained political unity, but is being torn apart by various divisive forces, the role of Sanskrit becomes even more important. Any other language will add to the divisive tendencies. It is only Sanskrit which can help India and Indians to rise above narrow regional and linguistic factionalism and to grow in oneness and unity.

A national language must not only unite but give its people a sense of pride in their past, a sense of belonging to the present, a sense of hope and confidence for the future. It must bring to them a feeling of fulfilment in their achievements and have the power to mould their character and to inspire them to greater endeavours, attainments and heights.

Sanskrit is a language which through its contents, sonority and mellifluousness, has the power to lift us up above ourselves – it is, as thousands of people would say from their own experience, a potent aid to the formation of character and sense of exaltation, in addition to ensuring a sense of pan-Indian cultural as well as political unity.

Through Sanskrit every Indian can feel a oneness and belonging with every other Indian and with every part of India. We can feel proud of a great and magnificent heritage, which can compare with the best in the world in every field, and to which every region of India has contributed. We can look to the future with the confidence that this mighty nation will rise again and attain a glory far greater than ever attained in the past, and in which every Indian has a role to play.

  (Compiled from the book “The Wonder that is Sanskrit”, authored by Sampad and Vijay)