Sanskrit: Its Importance to Language

A language which spawned the birth of many Indo-European languages, its realization could only have come through divine means.

No doubt one of the greatest contributions from Vedic culture is the script and language of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the language of ancient India and of Vedic philosophy and its civilization. It is a perfect language, which also invokes the spiritual vibration of which it speaks. It is a refined language, but also most self-protective in the way it manages to maintain the original meaning that it presents, as long as a person properly understands Sanskrit grammar and syntax. In other words, when translated according to the rules of the Sanskrit language, you cannot take the interpretation far outside its firsthand intention without giving up all of the rules of Sanskrit. A. L. Basham, former professor of Asian Civilization in the Australian national University, Canberra, writes in his book The Wonder That Was India (page 390): “One of ancient India’s greatest achievements is her remarkable alphabet, commencing with the vowels and followed by the consonants, all classified very scientifically according to their mode of production, in sharp contrast to the haphazard and inadequate Roman alphabet, which has developed organically for three millennia. It was only on the discovery of Sanskrit by the West that a science of phonetics arose in Europe.” Basham goes on to say (page 509): “It will be seen that this alphabet is methodical and scientific, its elements classified first into vowels and consonants, and then, within each section, according to the manner in which the sound is formed. The gutturals are formed by the construction of the throat at the back of the tongue, the palatals by pressing the tongue flat against the palate, the retro-flexes by turning up the tip of the tongue to touch the hard palate, the dentals by touching the upper teeth with the tongue, and the labials by pursuing the lips.”

Furthermore, Sanskrit or remnants of it can be found in so many other languages around the world, that a person can begin to say that it may have been the original language that the world first new. In almost all languages, like Greek, French, English, Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Indian, Mayan, Slavic, Russian, and the Sanskrit beneficiaries like Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, or Malayalam, Sanskrit words are found everywhere. Either Sanskrit-speaking people carried them all over the world, or Sanskrit was the main language, traces of which linger in all languages around the planet. This is one of the reasons, however, why some people have felt that Sanskrit was one of several ancient languages that descended from another common ancestor. One of those people was the English poet, Jurist and scholar, Sir William Jones, who, in 1783, was appointed a justice of the High Court of Bengal. He began to study Sanskrit and wrote and published his high impression of Sanskrit. In 1786, while delivering his third lecture, Sir William Jones made the following statement which aroused the curiosity of many scholars and finally led to the emergence of comparative linguistics. Noticing the similarities between Sanskrit and the Classical Languages of Europe such as Greek and Latin, he delivered: “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could not possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celt, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family…” 4 Sir William Jones in Asiatic Researches, (Vol. I, p. 423) also asserted the means by which the similarities in many languages, especially of the Indo-European group, is supplied by Sanskrit: “Deonagri [devanagari] is the original source whence the alphabets of Western Asia were derived.” Mr. Pococke also relates: “The Greek language is a derivative from the Sanskrit.” 1 The learned Dr. Pritchard also says: “The affinity between the Greek language and the old Parsi and Sanskrit is certain and essential. The use of cognate idioms proves the nations who used them to have descended from one stock. That the religion of the Greeks emanated from an Eastern source no one will deny. We must therefore suppose the religion as well as the language of Greece to have been derived in great part immediately from the East.”2

In this way, the idea started that there was a previous language that was the seed of the others, namely Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. They named this imaginary ancestor as Proto-Indo-European, or Proto-Indo-Germanic language. However, they have failed to find this imaginary language for the last 150 years. Plus, they will never find it because there was no such language. Nonetheless, not everyone agreed with this idea that Sanskrit was merely a part of a Proto-Indo-European language. For example, even the British scholar Thomas Maurice, editor of the seven volumes of Indian Antiquities, mentions in Volume IV that Halhead, the first European Sanskrit scholar, “seems to hint that it (Sanskrit) was the original language of the earth. All Western scholars who readily apply their mind to the problem will find themselves concurring with Halhead that Sanskrit is the oldest language and that it was spoken all over the world. Other world languages are shattered and twisted bits of Sanskrit.” The roots of many languages are found in Sanskrit, which some called the mother of all languages, distinguished from the rest by its longevity, stability of form over the many millennia, and showed the status of a sacred language. The fact is that the farther back in time we trace the European languages, the more they begin to resemble Sanskrit. The farther we go back in time, the more we see that European and Vedic culture coalesce. Sri Aurobindo observed that Sanskrit is “one of the most magnificent, the most perfect and wonderfully sufficient literary instruments developed by human mind… at once majestic and sweet and flexible, strong and clearly formed and full and vibrant and subtle…”3

With the advanced nature of the Sanskrit language and alphabet, some feel that, like the traditional source of the Vedas, Sanskrit was given by Divinity to humanity. It could not have been developed by the slow process of a human agency. After all, in the time period in which Sanskrit appeared, mankind was considered by some to be barbarians. But how could such a people, if that is what they were, develop such a refined language like Sanskrit? For such a language to appear, it would have to come from an equally refined and advanced civilization. Otherwise, why, after thousands of years of our advanced scientific civilization, have we not seen a better or more sophisticated language?

– Stephen Knapp

REFERENCES:

1. Pococke, India in Greece, p. 18.
2. Pritchard, Dr. Pritchard’s Physical History of Man, Vol. I, p. 502.
3. Pride of India: A Glimpse into India’s Scientific Heritage, Samskriti Bharati, New Delhi, 2006, p. 130.
4. Jones, Collected Works, Volume III, 34-5, quoted by Vepa, Kosla, The South Asia File: A Colonial Paradigm of Indian History Altering the Mindset of the Indic People, Indic Studies Foundation, Pleasanton, California, 2008, p.54.

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