Significance

of

Sanskrit


The earliest epigraphic evidence on languages employed in India comes from the inscriptions of Asoka inscribed in third century B.C. Asoka took care that his messages were intelligible to all and he used a particular kind of Prakrit. Even more remarkable is the fact, which has been recently discovered, that for those people who at the time lived in Afghanistan, his message was given in Greek as well as Aramaic. One of the Greek inscriptions is a translation of the Kalinga Edict, and the Greek of the inscriptions is not inferior in style to the classical Greek of Greek literature. In such circumstances neglect of Sanskrit by Asoka, if the language was in use, would be contrary to all his practice.1 So, the absence of Sanskrit in his inscriptions indicates that it did not exist at that time, as otherwise he would have certainly used it.

In India, before the Christian era, there were many foreign invasions which introduced many foreign languages. These mixing with the early Indian languages led to what is often called a Prakrit which was diverse in nature.  The first evidence of classical Sanskrit is attested by an inscription dating around A.D.150 in the Brahmi script.2,3 It records the repair of a dam originally built by Chandragupta Maurya, and also contains a panegyric in verse which can be regarded as the first literary composition in classical Sanskrit. It is at Girnar in Kathiawar and was inscribed by Rudradamana, the Saka Satrap of Ujjayini, on the same rock on which the Fourteen Rock Edicts of Asoka were also found. It is significant that Rudradamana employed classical Sanskrit in a region where about four hundred years before him Asoka had used only Prakrit.

A key evidence often presented in the dating of Sanskrit is Patanjali’s Vyakarana - Mahabhasya (Great Commentary). The Mahabhasya is both a defense of the grammarian Panini against his chief critic and detractor Katyayana and a refutation of some of Panini’s aphorisms. Patanjali is dated anywhere from 2nd c BC to 5th c AD4.

On Patanjali’s date, the composition of the Mahabhasya and its early tradition, Joshi and Roodbergen write5 ,

 

It is nearly unanimously agreed that Patanjali has lived around 140 BC. But as stated by Winternitz, we are not in a position to confirm that this is the correct date. The question largely depends on the other question, namely, whether Patanjali was the author of the examples he quotes. According to Tarn, there is nothing conclusive in Patanajli’s assumed date, precisely because his grammatical examples are, or in any particular case may be, not necessarily his own composition but traditional examples. Nor are the dates assigned to Panini and Katyayana in the fourth and third century BC more than a working hypothesis, that is, ornate guesswork.

The period 1st c BC to 1st c AD is extremely significant in the history of India. The Sakas (Scythians) were one of the three main groups who supplanted the Greeks in the North West. The others were the Pahlavas (Parthians) and Kushans (Yeuh-Chih). The North West was divided into several petty Greek Kingdoms which easily fell victim to the great wave of Scythians which took place in the middle of the first century B.C. The Indo-Scythian Empire of the Sakas was conquered by the advancing Indo-Parthians, upon the coins of whom appear names6 such as Gondophares, Orthagnes, etc. The date of Gondophares2 is firmly established by the Takht-i Bahi inscription of the year 103, which is also dated to the twenty-sixth year of Gondophares’ reign. The first date must be reckoned according to the “era of Azes” (57 B.C.) and therefore corresponds to 46 A.D., while the accession year of Gondophares is consequently 20 A.D.

 Tradition7,8 records that Thomas set out for India immediately after the Crucifixion, i.e. 30 A.D., thus the appearance of Gondophares in the Acts of Thomas is therefore chronologically acceptable.6 Thus during Gondophares’ rule the apostle Thomas brought the first knowledge of Christianity to India.6,7,8,9 

The Sakas in the North West of India broke relations with the Iranians and were under the dominion of the Pahlavas. There were two dynasties of Saka Satrapas with considerable independence on behalf of the Pahlava suzerains, but as regards to language and culture, the Sakas mostly adopted those of the Pahlavas. The Pahlavas were soon driven out by the Kushans and in Kanishka’s reign gained control of the western half of northern India. However, the Sakas maintained control of their territory. Sukumari writes10,

 

Following Alexander’s campaigns, an extensive area of northern India came under the rule of Greek governors. The second century BC saw the establishment of the Satavahana kingdom on the Godavari of Andhara, which flourished for a couple of centuries until in 30 BC it even challenged Magadha. Magadha itself was experiencing a slow decline, owing to foreign invasions. The first of these invaders, the Sakas and the Bactrian Greeks, penetrated into Kapisa, upper Kabul and Gandhara and from there passed on to the Yamuna and the lower Indus Valley, and at times raided neighbouring areas. Later, the Saka power was threatened by the Pahlavas, that is, the Parthians. Greek rule in India virtually came to an end in 30 BC, and the Sakas remained in power in the whole of northern India. Around 100 BC the nomadic Kushan tribes from Sinkiang overran Bactria, and arrived in India early in the first century AD. The first Kushan king Kujula Kadphises defeated the Parthians and conquered Kabul. His successor Wima attacked Gandhara (c AD 50), defeated and overthrew the Sakas and occupied the Indus Valley and some eastern areas upto Surasena. Around AD 78 Wima’s successor Kanishka I ascended the throne and overran northern India. This date, AD 78, is acknowledged as marking the beginning of the Saka era.

The stone pillar inscription11,12 of Samudra Gupta (AD 330 to 380) written in Sanskrit and a late Brahmi script called the Gupta script is an undated inscription incised on an Asokan pillar at Allahabad. Composed by Harisena, a commander-in-chief of the king it describes elaborately the moral, intellectual and military achievements of this king. This inscription possibly dates 350 AD.

Candra Gupta II (AD 380 to 415) subjugated the Saka territories, and Sanskrit which developed in the Pahlava-Saka Empire gained eminence in the Gupta Empire as evidenced by the Allahabad inscription of Samudra Gupta mentioned earlier. During his reign, art, architecture and sculpture flourished and the cultural development of ancient India reached its climax. However, this change is certainly due to the Pahlava-Saka language, literature, art and culture now part of the Gupta Empire.

Another interesting fact is that the Allahabad inscription of Samudra Gupta mentions King Vishnugopa of Kanchi (Pallavas 4th to 9th c AD) who was defeated by Samudra Gupta and then liberated about the middle of the 4th c AD. The southern Pallavas are often linked with the North Western Pahlavas, however, this is not conclusive. Through these invasions, the Gupta language and culture spread south.

The spread of Sanskrit South is first evidenced by the Talagunda stone pillar inscription of Kadamba Kakusthavarman13 in the Shimoga District, Karnataka dated between 455 and 470 AD. It is written in late southern Brahmi inscribed in the reign of Santivarman (450 to 470 AD). It is a postthumous record of Kakusthavarman.

Sanskrit then spreads in the South evidenced by the inscriptions in Early Grantha, dating from the 5th to 6th c. AD on copper plates and stone monuments from the kingdom of the Pallavas near Chennai (Madras). The Grantha alphabet, which belongs to the writing system of southern India, was developed in the 5th c. AD to mainly write Sanskrit. From the fifth century A.D. classical Sanskrit is seen to be the dominant language in the inscriptions which indicates that Sanskrit was replacing the dialects.

Further more research on the development of writing scripts in India certainly puts a rather late date on these Sanskrit writings. Until the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization in 1920, ancient India seemingly had two main scripts in which languages were written, Brahmi and Kharosti. One theory is that the Brahmi script developed under Semitic influence around 7th c. BC, and was originally written from right to left, however, in India it is found from the 5th c BC written left to right. A coin14 of the 4th c BC found in Madhya Pradesh, is inscribed with Brahmi characters running from right to left.

The Kharosti script came into being during the 5th c. BC in northwest India which was under Persian rule. Although the origin of the Brahmi script is uncertain, the Kharosti script is commonly accepted as a direct descendant from the Aramaic alphabet. The direction of writing in the Kharosti script is as in Aramaic, from right to left.

In the later centuries of its existence, Brahmi gave rise to eight varieties of scripts. Three of them - the early and late Mauryas and the Sunga - became the prototypes of the scripts in northern India in the 1st c. BC and AD. Out of these developed the Gupta writing which was employed from the 4th to the 6th c. AD. The Siddhamatrka script developed during the 6th c. AD from the western branch of the eastern Gupta character. The Siddhamatrka became the ancestor of the Nagari script which is used for Sanskrit today. The Nagari developed in the 7th to 9th c. AD, and has remained essentially unaltered since15.

However, certain other factors need to be considered to get the complete picture of script development in India. In 1920 archaeologists announced the discovery of extensive urban ruins in the Indus Valley which pre-dated the earliest literary sources and which caused scholars working on ancient texts to re-examine their views on the different phases of Indian culture. The Rig Veda which speaks in such derogatory terms of the enemies subdued by the Aryan tribes, gives the impression that they were all savage barbarians. The Brahmins ancestors for centuries have degraded the original inhabitants of India with the intention of self elevation, preservation and oppression. These ancient dwellers in India were Dravidian, and in fact, their culture had developed a highly sophisticated way of life which compares with that of contemporary urban civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The extensive excavations carried out at the two principal city sites, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, both situated in the Indus basin, indicates that this Dravidian culture was well established by about 2500 B.C., and subsequent discoveries have revealed that it covered most of the Lower Indus Valley. What we know of this ancient civilization is derived almost exclusively from archaeological data since every attempt to decipher the script used by these people has failed so far. Recent analyses of the order of the signs on the inscriptions have led several scholars to the view that the language is not of the Indo-European family, nor is it close to the Sumerians, Hurrians, or Elamite, nor can it be related to the structure of the Munda languages of modern India. If it is related to any modern language family it appears to be Dravidian akin to Old Tamil, presently spoken throughout the southern part of the Indian Peninsula.

What this points to is the existence of a system of writing far more ancient than what was originally considered. For instance when the Indian scripts are grouped, the southern scripts form a class of their own. The Grantha alphabet, which belongs to the writing system of southern India, developed in the 5th c. AD and was mainly used to write Sanskrit. Inscriptions in Early Grantha, dating from the 5th to 6th c. AD are on copper plates and stone monuments from the kingdom of the Pallavas near Chennai (Madras).

A key area of error is linguistic research, and in India it is based on the erroneous Aryan theory projecting civilization in India as uncivilized until the entry of the so called Aryans. Today, groups like the RSS and VHP will vehemently deny this theory realizing the implication of the Indus Valley discovery in 1920. Scholars write16,

 

During the Middle Ages various suggestions had been put forward with regard to language development, but religious prejudices frequently stood in the way of a correct understanding of historical processes; thus one widespread view was that all languages somehow descended from Hebrew. Then is his justly famous Anniversary Discourse of 2 February 1786 (published in Asiatick Researches 1.415-431 (1788)) Sir William Jones brought basic features of Sanskrit to the attention of western scholars. He contended that Sanskrit, Greek and Latin stem from a ‘common source, which perhaps, no longer exists’ and surmised that Germanic and Celtic derive from the same source ‘though blended with a very different idiom’. ………

 

A good deal of what will be said in the following paragraphs is speculation. Linguistic reconstruction can hardly ever be ‘proved’; only very rarely do further discoveries confirm the reconstructions at which scholars arrived on theoretical grounds.

 

The last statement is so important to remember: Linguistic reconstruction can hardly ever be ‘proved’; only very rarely do further discoveries confirm the reconstructions at which scholars arrived on theoretical grounds. Thus one has to be extremely cautious of conclusions drawn from linguistic research which have presently flooded our universities, libraries and society.

The influx of foreign invaders through the North West over the centuries, forced the Dravidian culture South. Originally Grantha was used for writing Sanskrit only, and Sanskrit was later transliterated with Nagiri after the 7th c. AD. Scholars over the years have indicated that many Hindu writings have been tampered with, and certainly this could have happened during the transliteration process. The later varieties of the Grantha script were used to write a number of Dravidian Languages, and the modern Tamil script certainly seems to be derived from Grantha.

The scriptures of Hinduism are written in Sanskrit, and epigraphic evidence clearly shows that they could not have been written before the second century A.D. The Christian thought is seen in the Hindu scriptures and this influence traces back to Christian Gospel preached by the Apostle Thomas first to the Pahlavas.

The bibliographical evidences indicate that the Vedas are written in the Grantha and Nagari scripts, and according to tradition Veda Vyasa, a Dravidian, compiled and wrote the Vedas. The Grantha script belongs to the southern group of scripts and Veda Vyasa being a Dravidian would certainly have used it. Since the earliest evidence for Grantha is only in the 5th c. AD, the Vedas were written rather late.

References

1.   Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Hinduism, Oxford University Press, 1979, page 38.

2.   Ibid, page 39.

3.   R. Venkataraman, Indian Archaeology, Ennes Publications, 1985, page 223.

4.   The New Encyclopardia Britannica, Micropaedia Vol VII, 1982, page 793.

5.   S.D. Joshi and J.A.F. Roodbergen, Patanjali’s Vyakarana-Mahabhasya, Poona University Press, 1976, No. 11, page i.

6.   A.D.H. Bivar, The Cambridge History of  Iran, Vol 3 (1), Edited by Ehsan Yarshater,     Cambridge University Press, 1983, page 197.

7.   Wright, The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostle, page 146.

8.   A.T. Olmstead, The Chronology of Jesus’ life, Anglican Theological Review XXIV. 1 (Evanston, Ill. 1942), page 23.

9.   A.L. Basham, The Wonder that was India, page 61.

10. Sukumari Bhattacharji, History of Classical Sanskrit Literature, Orient Longman, 1993, page 17.

11. R Venkatraman, Indian Archaeology (A Survey), Ennes Publications, 1993, page 224.

12. D.B. Diskalkar, Selections from Sanskrit Inscriptions (2nd to 8th c AD), Classical Publishers, 1977, page 23-43.

13. R Venkatraman, Indian Archaeology (A Survey), Ennes Publications, 1993, page 224.

14. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia Vol II, page 226.

15. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Macropaedia Vol 9, page 450.

16. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Vol 1, The Beginnings to 1066, edited by Richard M. Hogg, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pages 26&27.

 


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