The case for learning Sanskrit

aiunShould we learn Sanskrit?

When you ask people about their opinion on learning Sanskrit, you are likely to get one of the following responses.

1. Sanskrit is a “dead” language. Why then should we labour to learn or promote it?

2. Sanskrit was and still is the language used by the Indian upper classes (like the Brahmins) to deny knowledge and power to the common man of India. It is a language used to exclude a major part of the populace from the mainstream. So Sanskrit must not be taught or promoted.

3. It is good to learn a new language. So why not Sanskrit? It will at least give us an insight into India’s early productions.

4. Who cares?

In this article, I make a case for learning Sanskrit by responding to some of the reactions above.

1. Sanskrit is a “dead” language. Why then should we labour to learn or promote it?

First of all, it is not a “dead” language. It may not be being used for day to day communication now, but the works produced in the language are still very much used, especially in religious interchanges and for literary enjoyment.

Sanskrit has a continuous, unbroken tradition from ancient times to now. We will see in the next section that works composed in Sanskrit are at least 4000 years old. So learning Sanskrit allows us to understand why many of our traditions are what they are.

People talk of a distinction between “Vedic Sanskrit” and “Classical Sanskrit” and then claim that there is no continuous traditions between the two . I think that the distinction is artificial. The difference between Vedic Sanskrit and Classical Sanskrit is not as great as between Old English and Modern English. There is nothing in Vedic Sanskrit that is unintelligible to a person who has learned Classical Sanskrit. The key changes from Vedic to Classical are the loss of the pitch accent (this is a big loss; the accent had very significant grammatical and semantic functions); the loss of the subjunctive mood (again a big loss; the kind of nuances of meaning that the subjunctive could express was lost); the loss of various kinds of infinitives; the loss of certain sounds and the change in articulation of certain sounds; and some changes to declensional and conjugational endings and formations.

Of course, there is a difference in the style of writing.

Let us take an example of a Vedic sentence and see the corresponding classical rendering

  • आ घा॒ ता ग॑छा॒न् उत्त॑रा यु॒गानि॒ यत्र॑ जा॒मयः॑ कृ॒णव॒न्न् अजा॑मि ।
  • ā́ ghā tā́ gachān úttarā yugā́ni yátra jāmáyaḥ kr̥ṇávann ájāmi । (RV 10.10.10.1)
  • [Surely, there will come later generations, where kinsfolk will do things that do not befit them]

In classical Sanskrit this may be rendered as (my rendering)

  • tāni uttarāṇi yugāni āgacchanti yatra jāmayaḥ ajāmi kurvanti ।
  • तानि उत्तराणि युगानि आगच्छन्ति यत्र जामयः अजामि कुर्वन्ति ।

Let us look at what the differences are:

  • The loss of the accent.
  • In Vedic, the preposition (upasarga) and the corresponding verb can be separated whereas in Classical Sanskrit they are always together.
  • The loss of the subjunctive mode. I have replaced the subjunctive with the present (I could have used the future or the optative).
    • By the above two, ā́ …  gachān becomes āgacchanti
  • In Vedic, the verb kr̥  कृ was of Class 5 (svādi) but Classical Sanskrit it seems to have moved to Class 8 (tanādi). Also, I have replaced the subjunctive by the present.
    • So kr̥ṇávan becomes kurvanti.
  • In Vedic, the nominative plural neuter ending for “a” nouns could be ā or āni,  आ or आनि. In Classical it is always āni आनि.
    • So tā́ becomes tāni and úttarā becomes uttarāṇi
  • The stress particle gha घ or ghā घा is not now commonly used.

As you can see the differences are not such that it becomes mutually unintelligible. You can see the continuity clearly from the example.

Scholars and poets were composing well-known material in Sanskrit well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries CE [For example, Melpattur Narayana Bhattathiripad’s Narayaneeyam; works published by scholars of the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy etc.] However, with the coming of the Europeans, the Indian impetus seems to have been lost. But the Vedas and other religious texts are chanted regularly in many Indian households even now.

The text of the Vedas was preserved with a such a high degree of fidelity through very intricate techniques. So much so, we can be sure that the text of the Vedas now available was as it was at least 4000 years ago.

Of course, Sanskrit is not used commonly as a spoken language these days. There are some communities where Sanskrit is actively spoken as a mother tongue. For example, Mathur in Karnataka uses Sanskrit for day-to-day communication. There are some efforts on now to promote Sanskrit as a spoken language. How successful these efforts will be remains to be seen.

So the tradition is continuous and so it is not a “dead” language.

2. Sanskrit was, and still is, the language used by the Indian upper classes (like the Brahmins) to deny knowledge and power to the common man of India. It is a language used to exclude a major part of the populace from the mainstream. So Sanskrit must not be taught or promoted.

I am not denying that Sanskrit was the language used by the Indian upper classes (like the Brahmins) to deny knowledge and power to the common man of India. In India, the caste system imposed a stratified knowledge and power structure. And Sanskrit may have been the language used by the elite as a tool to exclude the common man from many areas of knowledge.

But, this is not the language’s fault!

English was the language used by the Americans to justify slavery and by the British to justify colonialism. Are we therefore eschewing English? German was used by Hitler to promote his bigoted ideas. So, shall we not study or use German? Indians and others still learn English and German.

Also it is not very logical to use the societal structure that existed and was recorded through Sanskrit before a few hundred years ago as an excuse for not learning Sanskrit now.

One key point to note is that the introduction of Sanskrit in many areas in the past did not destroy local languages. Even the Brahmins who arrived in South India adopted local languages for their communication while using Sanskrit for liturgical purposes. This was very unlike the European advance into the Americas, Africa etc. In this case, the local languages were more or less eliminated.

The people who are against the promotion of Sanskrit may say that the traditions (talked of in the previous point – point 1) recorded are only those of the upper classes. This may be true. But unfortunately in the olden days only the upper classes’ traditions were recorded, whether or not Sanskrit was the language. In other countries too, the main inputs we now have about traditions are all of upper class traditions. Look at Egypt or Mesopotamia.

The other more important thing is. If Sanskrit was used as a tool for exclusion then, now there are no restrictions on learning Sanskrit or anything else. The language should be now actively promoted so that nobody needs to feel a sense of exclusion.

This is precisely what is happening with English. English was, as still is, a language used by the Indian upper classes. And English certainly excludes many Indians from day-to-day discourse. All attempts to remove this exclusion by removing English from our curriculum and promoting regional languages or Hindi have been a failure. In fact, people from sections of society that have been traditionally excluded are vociferously asking for English education so that they are not excluded.

If the solution to the problem of exclusion due to English education is active inclusion by promoting the study of English, why not the same recipe for Sanskrit? [Of course, I am not gainsaying the fact that learning Sanskrit does not give the learner the global edge in international dealings and education that English does. I am only using English as a comparison to illustrate my point.]

So I think the whole argument against the learning of Sanskrit based on past discrimination is not very convincing. I agree that there should not be an attempt to impose Sanskrit on the unwilling. But, then, it is not right to impose any language on anyone.

3. It is good to learn a new language. So why not Sanskrit? It will at least give us an insight into India’s early productions.

Let us look at some reasons why Sanskrit is a good candidate for the learning of a new language.

3.1. Sanskrit is an ideal candidate for a new language to be learned

Sanskrit is the oldest language in the world whose literary outputs are still available. The oldest Veda, the Rg Veda, is at least 4000 years old, based even on the most conservative estimates of the western and other scholars. Bal Gangadhar Tilak has convincingly dated it to a period not later than 4000 BCE, when the vernal equinox was in Orion. He quotes many Vedic texts and legends to support this conclusion. [See B.G. Tilak, The Orion Or Researches into the Antiquity of the Vedas].

If these collection of verses – The Rg Veda -,  a lot of which have quite high literary value, date to at least 6000 years ago, surely the language they are written in should have been a widely spoken and complete language at least 7000 years ago. Even if we take the conservative estimates of the western scholars, Sanskrit as a language should have been  highly developed at least 5000 years ago.

Most of the languages spoken in northern India trace their ancestry to Sanskrit. And the languages of South India have borrowed heavily from Sanskrit, so much so, a majority of the words used in, say, Malayalam are of Sanskrit origin. So the debt that Indian languages owe to Sanskrit is immense. The coming of the Sanskritic culture to South India and to areas of South East Asia was a defining moment for these areas.

Also, there are very clear similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and other languages of Europe. The Indo-European language group is a closely connected group of languages that include the languages of North India, of the Iran area and of Europe and Sanskrit is the oldest extant member of this group.

3.2. Learning a language is a good brain exercise.

Learning any language helps us, especially people tending towards middle age, to keep our brains in shape. Therefore learning Sanskrit (as a language) helps ward off brain aging, onset of dementia etc.

Recent research has shown that language learning helps the brain grow. One such research was done at the Lund University in Sweden. See details here.  “Even if we cannot compare three months of intensive language study with a lifetime of being bilingual, there is a lot to suggest that learning languages is a good way to keep the brain in shape,” says Johan Mårtensson a researcher in psychology at the university.

3.3. Suddenly, whole new areas of knowledge and literature open up.

Sanskrit has a tradition of being the vehicle for reporting on a great many areas of research and literature. Some of the outputs of these researches and literature are: the Vedas, the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, the Upanishads, epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, puranas like the Bhagavata, the Vishnu Purana and many others, Buddhist writings and literature, literary outputs like poetry, drama and prose writings, works on medicine, eroticism, aesthetics, logic, astronomy and astrology, Tantra, ritual, music, sculpture, painting, philosophy, theology, devotion, dictionaries, thesauruses, etymology, mathematics, architecture, law and many other areas.

There was an astonishing amount of work done in Sanskrit till about three hundred years ago.

Thomas Macaulay in 1835 said, “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England”. [This became the line of discourse for many generations of Europeans and some Indians!] What fools Macaulay’s audience were to believe this! For one, he was plain wrong (see the breadth and depth of Sanskrit from the areas mentioned in the previous paragraph). For another, his comparison periods were inappropriate. European studies and literature developed after the renaissance (well into the sixteenth century). If Macaulay had compared English outputs before the renaissance to Sanskrit outputs, where would he have been? As I mentioned before, the arrival of the Europeans somehow killed off the Sanskrit impetus in India.

3.4. Learning Sanskrit is fun

A couple of examples will help in understanding how constructs and concepts in Sanskrit can make learning Sanskrit fun.

Example 1.

  • ekonā viṃśatirnāryaḥ krīḍāṃ kartuṃ vane gatāḥ  एकोना विंशतिर्नार्यः  क्रीडां कर्तुं वने गताः
  • viṃśatirgr̥hamāyātāḥ śeṣo vyāghreṇa bhakṣitaḥ  विंशतिर्गृहमायाताः शेषो व्याघ्रेण भक्षितः

On first look the verse seems to be saying something absurd.

  • eka (one) ūnāḥ (less than) viṃśatiḥ (twenty) (ie. nineteen) nāryaḥ (women) krīdāṃ (play) kartuṃ (to do) vane (to the forest) gatāḥ (is gone)
  • viṃśatiḥ (twenty) gr̥ham (home) āyātāḥ (came) śeṣaḥ (the rest) vyāghreṇa (by tiger) bhakṣitaḥ (eaten)

“Nineteen women went to the forest to play. Twenty returned home. One was eaten by a tiger”

But, rendering it another way, ekonā एकोना can be split as ekaḥ nā एकः ना (ekaḥ एकः meaning one and nā ना meaning man – nā ना is the nominative singular of masculine nr̥  नृ meaning man). Seen this way, the verse makes sense.

“One man and twenty women went to the forest to play. Twenty returned home. One was eaten by a tiger”

Example 2.

  • samādiśatpitā putraṃ likha lekhaṃ mamājñayā  समादिशत्पिता पुत्रं लिख लेखं ममाज्ञया
  • natena likhito lekhaḥ piturājñā na khaṇḍitā  नतेन लिखितो लेखः पितुराज्ञा न खण्डिता

Again, on first look this seems absurd.

  • samādiśat (directed) pitā (father) putraṃ (son) likha (write) lekhaṃ (letter)  mama (my) ājñayā (by order)
  • na (not) tena (by him) likhitaḥ (was wriiten) lekhaḥ (letter) pituḥ (father’s) ājñā (order) na (not) khaṇḍitā (disobeyed)

“A father directed his son ‘Write a letter as per my order.’ The letter was not written by him, the father’s order was not disobeyed.”

But the phrase “natena नतेन” can be read as “natena नतेन” itself (without separating na and tena) [instrumental singular of nata  नत – past passive participle of class 1 root √nam]  meaning “by bowing”, that is, with great respect to the father. Looked at this way, the verse makes sense.

“A father directed his son ‘Write a letter as per my order.’ The letter was  written by him bowing [that is he bowed and wrote the letter], the father’s order was not disobeyed.”

Example 3

This is a take off on the fact that the word manas  मनस् is of the neuter gender.

  • napuṃsakamiti jñātvā tām prati preṣitaṃ manaḥ  नपुंसकमिति ज्ञात्वा ताम् प्रति प्रेषितं मनः
  • tattu tatraiva ramate hatāḥ pāṇininā vayam  तत्तु तत्रैव रमते हताः पाणिनिना वयम्

napuṃsakam (neuter gender, i.e. eunuch) iti (as) jñātvā (knowing) tām (her) prati (towards) preṣitaṃ (sent) manaḥ (mind)

tat (that) tu (indeed) tatra (there) eva (only) ramate (delights) hatāḥ (killed) pāṇininā (by Panini) vayam (we)

“Thinking it was neuter (a eunuch) I sent my mind to her. It is staying there and enjoying (and not coming back to me) [That is, I cannot stop thinking about her!]. Oh I have been destroyed by Panini!” [Note Panini is the great Indian grammarian]

4. Who cares?

Perhaps the people in this “who cares” group will be pushed by the arguments above to maybe think about learning Sanskrit.

5. Conclusion

In this article, we made a case for learning Sanskrit.

We said that Sanskrit is not a “dead” language. We said that while it is true that Sanskrit was used as a medium of exclusion in the previous centuries, it was clearly not the fault of the language and also that the best way to overcome this exclusion is to have everyone learn the language.

We said that Sanskrit is an ideal language to learn as a new one on the basis that it is the oldest language with literary productions still available. We said that all Indian and some foreign languages have some connections to Sanskrit, either directly or through borrowings. We saw that learning a new language is a good brain exercise and Sanskrit opens up new areas of knowledge.

And of course, learning Sanskrit is fun!

All these factors make us believe that there is a case for learning Sanskrit.

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