The Greatness of Sanskrit


A Lecture on the Sanskrit Day

at Kuppuswamy Sastri Research Institute, Chennai

on Sep.5, 2000


As early as the sixth century B.C. Panini wrote his famous  grammar on the Sanskrit language. Eeven today it is the standard authority on Sanskrit Grammar.  It has been described by even the westerners as one of the greatest productions of the human mind.  The Vyakharana bhashya of Patanjali of the Sutras of Panini is called a mahabhashya. No other bhashya is called a mahabhashya It is even termed by comparative philologists as the ideal scientific work. Grammarians have identified Sanskrit to be the mother of most European languages and traced their development back to this fascinating language. It is still a live language even though it strictly keeps within the framework of the grammar prescribed 2600 years ago.  Unlike English, Sanskrit has a highly inflected grammatical structure, which contributes to a great conciseness of the language What one can express in Sanskrit in one word, an English speaker often would need four to six or even more words to express the same idea. Try translating the words: SastrAcAryopadeSa-Sama-damAdi-samskRtaM,  gItAmrta-mahodadhih or even as simple a word as pitR-vAkya-paripAlanam into English or any other language. It is the root of all Indo-European languages. In the English language itself we can trace several words back to Sanskrit. Mosquito from maSaka, sugar from Sarkara, camphor from karpUra, cash from kArsha, cassiterite (the technical name for tin) from kAnsya and many more.   It has no syllable which is indistinct or unclear. It has no word which cannot be traced to its root. Whatever the word it can be broken into its syllables to elucidate its meaning. It is a perfectly refined language and that is why it is called samskRtam.


It is an amazingly rich language, full of luxuriant growth of all kinds. It is the efflorescence of language. The capability of Sanskrit for precision can be seen by the numerous  bhashyas  and glosses on the various darsanas. Examples from even outside of religion and vedanta are many. Just to suggest two, here is one on rAga, given by Matanga's brihaddeSI, a musical treatise of the 4th century A.D.


Yosau dhvani-viSeshastu svara-varNa-vibhUshitah /

ranjako jana-cittAnAM sa ca rAga udAhRtaH  //


A rAga is that which is decorated by the tonal excellence of svaras and varNas which decoration gives pleasure to the mind of the listener.  Here is one on ‘guru’.


gukAraSca guNAtIto rukAro rUpa-varjitaH /

guNAtItaM arUpaMca yat-tatvam sa gurus-smRtaH //

The syllable gu stands for guNAtIta, that is, one who transcends the guNas. The syllable ru stands for rUpa-varjitaH, that is, one who is devoid of form. So that principle which is guNAtIta and rUpa-varjita is called guru.


The derivation of words from their root syllables is a very fascinating and instructive exercise.  Sanskrit literature, particularly the religious ones, is replete with such derivations for almost every word that it uses.  It is in this style that sahasra-nAmas of the divine for each of its forms arise. Nowhere else in the world literature do we have anything to match the long streamlined poems , like the Vishnu sahsranAma or lalitA-sahasra-nAma densely packed with meaning and seemingly endless recitals of the Lord's names glories and splendours with no sacrifice of poetic grace or elegance. The rhythmic sound effects and the elevatinbg moods that these stotras generate must be heard and experienced to be believed. Each name of God in these is a capsule of Divinity and a scriptural epitome.


It is such a rich language that we always have several words which can express the same thing or even the same abstract idea. There are several ways in which this richness reflects. Let me tell you just one instance, by means of an anecdote, which will also relax you a little from the dense content of this topic.


The concept of Ganga on the head of Lord Shiva has given rise to many poetic fancies, in Sanskrit as well as in the vernacular, but the one which I am going to quote beats them all.  The authorship of this verse is not known but usually it is ascribed to Kalidasa, probably because of the ingenuity built into it. It seems King Bhoja was having a competition as usual, where he gives a puzzle-like challenge to the poets of his assembly to be solved within a specified period of time, mostly with the requirement that there is a composition of a verse or poem in the process.  One day he declares: I will give you the fourth line of a four-line verse; the challenge for you is to complete the verse most appropriately by filling in the remaining lines of the verse. And the fourth line that he gave was the following:




The funny (riddle) part of this proposition is that there are six words in this line of verse, but they all mean the same, namely, ‘ocean’!. The poets of the assembly including Kalidasa dispersed for the day carrying the uneasy burden of this nonsensical-like challenge  which required to fill three lines of a verse which in its fourth line did nothing but to repeat the  word ‘ocean’ six times.  Naturally all except Kalidasa failed to bring back any worthwhile composition the next day when the assembly reconvened. But Kalidasa brought a delightful verse which not only filled the King’s requirement of poetry but also had an enjoyable imagery involving Lord Shiva and Ganga on his head. The verse composed by Kalidasa ran thus:


ambaa kupyati taata gahane gangeyam utsRjyataaM

vidvan shhaNmukha kaa gatir-mama-shiras-yaavac-ciraat-aadhRtaat /

kopaaveshhaad-asheshha-vadanaiH pratyuttaraM dattavaan

ambodhir-jaladhiH-payodhir-udadhir-vaaraanidhir-vaaridhiH //


Subrahmanya, the little son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, goes and complains to his father. ‘Father, please get rid of this Ganga on your head, Mother is very much upset about it’.  The Father replies, ‘Oh Six-headed One, where shall I ask her to go? She has been living on my head for long. ‘ The six-headed son is angry beyond bounds. He replies in that angry mood. In fact each of his six heads in succession shoots off the same reply (but in six different Sanskrit words!): Ocean, ocean, ocean, ocean, ocean, ocean !’


In addition to the literary value of this beautiful verse. There is a certain rlevance here to the concept of One Godhead in Hinduism, inspite of the many names and forms of God.  If the Sanskrit language had only one word for ‘ocean’ the tantalising riddle of King Bhoja and the enchanting solution of the poet Kalidasa would both have been non-existent. It is only when there is multiplicity, diversity, variety there is life, there is challenge, there is enjoyment.  The challenge may be demanding but Hinduism has not only learnt to live with it but also enjoys it as is evident from the endless festivals and colourful celebrations with a convenient mixture of devotion and extravagance, connected with the temples all over India.


Well, let us come back to our main topic of Greatness of Sanskrit. In the ka-Ta-pa-yA-sankhyA which goes back to Vararuci, (Cf. AyurarogyasaukhyaM is the last word of the nArAyaNIyaM,  in ordinary Sanskrit means: Longevity, Health and Happiness, but in the codeed scheme it gives a number. From this they calculate it was completed on the 17,12,210 th day of kaliyuga).  the same numeral is represented by more than one consonant so that in the use of the sankhyA the freedom to use any one of the different  consonants  for the same numeral enables the user to introduce a touch of poetry in his symbolism.  So even in subjects like Mathematics which are far removed from poetry the subject matter is fully  dealt with using good poetry.


The influence of the two great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, from the originals themselves is great. Valmiki and Vyasa are the two great authors in the whole history of mankind who have influenced the largest number of people for the longest period of time. Not only that. In translations and adaptations and in innumerable ways of spreading tradition and legends they have become a part of the texture of people's life in India and wherever Indians have  migrated.  The criticism from the non-believers that the epics are only poetical imaginations  has been appropriately replied long ago by the famous German poet Goethe himself. He says, 'Anything that was spurious and false could only be absurd and unfruitful and never beautiful and inspiring'.  The inspirational impact that these two epics have had on people for as long as two thousand years and probably more, only shows that, in Goethe's style of saying, 'If the two authors Valmiki and Vyasa were great enough to invent things as grandiose as Ramayana and Mahabharata, we at least should be great enough to believe them' Whether it is true or fiction this much is clear: These two epics have been  the basic touchstone for thought and action for a whole nation of people  for more than three  millenia now and still continues to be so.


 Take Sanskrit Drama. Even in the 3rd century Natya Sastra had been written. It could only have been written if the dramatic art was fully developed and public representations of the art were common even before that time. This itself shows not only the ancientness but the greatness of the Sanskrit drama. Life in India must certainly have been more peaceful and more stable then to produce such eloquent testimonies. The powerful dramatic situations and moving scenes and a background of life which seems like a picture in a dream real and yet unreal, the aesthetic harmony and the logical unity all woven together by a poet's fancy in magnificent language - all of this is fantastic. Regarding the play Mrcchakatika, which was enacted in New York in English translation in 1924, the dramatic critic, J.W. Krutch says: Such a play could be produced only by a civilization which has reached stability; when a civilization has thought its way through all the problems it faces.  … Nowhere in our European past do we find   a work more completely civilized.


Indian art and Sanskrit poetry have been  appreciated  in superlative words by every one over the centuries who have understood the ideals  behind them. There was a parallel  intention in all these  to make the central ideas of religion and philosophy intelligible to the masses. That this is so can be inferred from the fact that the Indian peasantry, though illiterate in the Western sense are among the most cultured of their class anywhere in the world. To express the essential harmony of man with nature and the universe - this is the undercurrent of much of art and poetry.  Remember culture and language are inseparable. Reviving Sankrit is to rejuvenate Indian culture. It is well known that India once led the world through Sanskrit. It is time to create history again. It is time we do that in this millenium.


The momentous invention of zero and the place value system was not just the erratic invention of some crazy individual. It evolved over a long time and it was a product of the social milieu and the demands of the times. Even as far back as the vedic times, the powers of ten upto 17th power was in vogue. The very fact that they thought in terms of powers of 10 itself shows that the idea of representing everything with ten symbols for the ten digits must have been in the air. 


The richness of Sanskrit in technical literature is certainly obvious by the storehouse of knowledge, in the Sanskrit language, of Ayurveda, Music, Dance, chemical engineering (as shown in the manufacture of crystal cane sugar, making of camphor), building and architecture, and algorithmic calculations (as exemplified by calculations almost like modern algorithms in computer science, very easily done by the works on astronomy and astrology, and certainly Mathematics). Just as an illustration of the profuseness of technical mathematical literature, let me cite Aryabhatiya of the 5th century A.D. for which, in the next seven centuries seven commentaries sprang up, each one great in its own way. The first was by Bhaskara I, 7th century, the next by Somesvara (available in the Bombay University Library), the next by Prabhakara of the 8th century, the next by Suryadeva Yajva, the next by Paramesvara, published and printed in Holland, and the next by Nilakanta Somayaji publ;ished by Trivandrum Sanskrit Series.


The legacy that Sanskrit has left us is not just India's legacy alone. It is a legacy left for all humans. Not to conquer one another, but to conquer oneself, not to destroy but to build, not to hate but to love, not to isolate oneself but to integrate every one into a global society and to achieve the maximum welfare of the maximum number. lokAs samastAs-sukhino bhavantu.


Even the very verbs that are used emphasize the stable state rather than the moving vibrational dynamic restless stage. For example, the root bhU  denotes being rather than becoming. Being is existence. Becoming is changing, to a state from which we have to come back to the stable stage once again.  To express the idea of change with the root bhU one has to say something like anyathA bhavati.  In Sanskrit an adjective is used that  is static in feeling to express an idea which might take a verb in English or other languages. For example to bring the idea of a sense of flux English would use a specific verb, saying: All things flow. The corresponding idea would be expressed in Sanskrit as sarvam anityam meaning: all existences are impermanent. Thus everything is comprehended through their static aspects. This reflects the whole philosophy behind the culture. What separates, what changes is not emphasized.  What is stable what is unchanging through time, that is focussed.


Today there is tremendous international interest in the science of yoga, meditation, eastern philosophy, stress management, holistic medicine -- all of which has roots in Sanskrit literature. Recently in July 81 adults and children gathered for 9 days in California and had training in Speak Sanskrit but not about Sanskrit. The perfect orderliness of the language caught the attention of all. All through the centuries  from 1000 A.D. to 1900 A.D. the  spirit of humanness was only dormant but did not become extinct inspite of historical and political disturbances. In similar circumstances, Greek, Egyptian, Roman and Mesopotamian  civilizations simply vanished. But the traditions of India and the Sanskritic culture have been preserved without breakdown to the present dasy.  Major part of this  tradition is in Sanskrit: Drama, epics, stories, lyricpoetry, religious and philosophical literature, thousands of rare manuscripts on subjects not yet studied. Further the majority of Inscriptional material in our archeological archives , whether it is dedicatory, ritual or literary or donative, is in Sanskrit or Prakrit. These inscriptional material are of particular importance for the study of the Indian world constituting the most detailed and accurate historical and chronological data for nearly all aspects of traditional Indian cultuure in ancient and medieval times.


The Atharva Veda has a beautiful couplet on the true spirit of humanness. Expressed three millenia ago it is still valid and is as fresh as if it was said on the birth of this new millenium, that  started only a few months ago:


We are the birds of the same nest;

We may wear different skins;

We may speak different languages;

We may believe in different religions;

We may belong to different cultures;

Yet we share the same home - OUR EARTH.


Born on the same planet

Covered by the same skies

Gazing at the same stars

Breathing the same air

We must learn to happily progress together

Or miserably perish together,

For man can live individually,

But can survive only collectively.


It is this spirit of humanness that has been the undercurrent. It is this spirit which has found expression in the philosophies, in non-violence, religious tolerance, renunciation and also in temporal achievements in all areas of science and technology - Achievements which did not remain limited to India alone but were transmitted to many corners of our globe. These achievements are not juat a matter of pride for India alone. They represent the triumph of the human mind and hence are a matter of pride for the human species irrespective of nationality.


Copyright © V. Krishnamurthy  1 Jan. 2007    Homepage