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
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
ambaa kupyati taata gahane gangeyam utsRjyataaM
vidvan shhaNmukha kaa gatir-mama-shiras-yaavac-ciraat-aadhRtaat /
kopaaveshhaad-asheshha-vadanaiH pratyuttaraM dattavaan
Subrahmanya, the little son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, goes and
complains to his father. ‘Father, please get rid of this
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
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
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
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
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
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