Ancient India Language


Staff member
Sanskrit is a remote cousin of all the language of Europe except the Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish and Basque. Around 2000 B.C. an ancestral group of dialects arose among the tribesmen of South Russia. With Panini (probably 4th century B.C.) the Sanskrit language reached its classical form. It developed a great deal except in its vocabulary. The grammer of Panini, Asthadhyayi, pre-supposes the work of many earlier grammarians. Latter grammars are mostly commentaries on Panini, the chief being Mahabashya by Patanjali (second century B.C.) and the Banaras-commentary of Jayaditya and Vamana (seventh century A.D.).It was from the time of Panini onwards that the language began to be called Samskarta, perfected or refined, as opposed to Prakras (natural), the popular dialects which had grown over time. In all probability, Panini based his work on the languages as it was spoken in the North-West. Beginning as the lingua franca of the priestly class, it gradually became that of the governing class also. The first important dynasty to use Sanskrit was that of the Sakas of Ujjain and the inscriptions of Rudraman at Girnar. Otherwise, the Maurya and the other important dynasty till the Guptas used Prakrit for their official pronouncements.

The Language of the Rig Veda was already archaic when the hymns were composed and the ordinary Aryan spoke a simpler tongue, more closely akin to classical Sanskrit. By the time of the Buddha the masses were speaking languages which were much simpler than Sanskrit. These were the Prakrit and Pali. The ordinary speech of Ancient India has been preserved for us largely through the unorthodox religions. Most inscriptions of pre-Gupta time are in Prakrit. The women and humbler characters of the Sanskrit drama are made to speak in formalized Prakrit of various dialects. A few of secular literary works were composed in Prakrit.Classical Sanskrit increasing became the language of Brahmins and the learned few. Its use was restricted to certain occasions such as issuing of proclamations and during the performance of Vedic ceremonies. In the towns and villages a popular form of Sanskrit, known as Prakrit, came into the existence. There was great number of local variations. The chief western variety was called Shuraseni and the eastern variety, Magadhi. Pali was another popular language based on Sanksrit. It, too, was used in the same religions as Prakrit. The Buddha, to reach more people, taught in Magadhi.Speaking of literature, the four Vedas and the Brahmins and Upanishads have some literary qualities. Some hymns of the Rig Veda and some parts of the early Upanishads have some merit. Otherwise, they are mostly dry and monotonous. In the 1028 hymns of the Rig Veda there is a great variety of styled and merit. The hymns contain many repetitions and the majority of them have the sameness of outlook. A number of hymns show deployment feeling for nature, as for example, the hymns to Ushas. Very little of literary quality is there in the later Vedic literature the Atherva Veda mostly a monotonous collection contains a few poems of great merit. The prose Brahmanas, though written in simple and straight forward language have little literary merit.

Thus the earliest Indian literature is to be found in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Mahabharata consisting of 90,000 stanzas is probably the longest single poem in the world's literature. Ignoring the interpolations, the style of the Mahabharata is direct and vivid though consisting of repeated clinches and stock epithets, typical of epic literature every where. The chief characters are delineated in a very simple outline but with an individuality which makes them real persons. The other epic Ramayana also contains interpolations but they are much briefer and are mostly didactic. The main body of the poem gives the impression of being the work of one author whose style was based on that of the other epic to show some kinship to that of classical Sanskrit poetry. The style of the Ramayana is less rugged than that of the Mahabharata. It is a work of greater art and it contains many dramatic passages and beautiful descriptive writing. The earliest surviving Sanskrit poetry is that of the Buddhist writer Ashvaghosa who probably lived in the Ist century A.D. He composed the Buddha-Charitra in a comparatively simple classical style. The Girnar inscription of Rudradaman, dated 150 A.D. is the earliest surviving example of Sanskrit prose.The earliest surviving prose stories are a few narrative episodes in the Brahmanas followed by the Pali Jatakas. It was in the Gupta period that ornate Sanskrit prose was developed. The chief writers in this style were Dandin, Subandhu and Bana. Chronologically Pali is the first Sanskrit language and Prakrit appeared later. Even the meaning of the word 'Pali' underwent changes. In the final stages the word "Pali" meant language of the texts of Theravada Buddhism. The Tripitaka meaning three baskets are books which consist of the canons of the Theravada sect. The first part of it deals with the monastic discipline. The second part lays down principles of Buddhism. And the last part deals with various subjects like ethics psychology theories of knowledge and metaphysical problems.Besides the canonical literature, there was also non-canonical literature in Pali. In Pali literature the earliest works relate to the Jataka stories. The early poetry consisted of a few verses from the songs of the older monks and Nuns, a collection of poems ascribed wrongly to the great disciples of the Buddha in the early days of the order. The style of these is simpler then Sanskrit literature and suggests influence of popular song. The book Milinda Panda is the most important one. Its subject matter is the dialogue between Milinda and monk Nagasena over some problems of the Buddhist faith. This particular kind of canonical literature in Pali was practiced in Ceylon also. The classical works Depavamsa and Mahavamsa, the two great chronicles of Ceylon and also some grammatical metrical and lexicographical texts were written in Pali.

Now for the word "Prakrit". It stands for all the middle Indo-Aryan speeches which belong to an era between Sanskrit on the one hand and Aryan languages it has sectarian value since it was exclusively used as the speech of the Hinayana Buddhism. From the earliest times to the first century A.D. inscriptions were composed exclusively in Prakrit. Ashoka left behind 30 inscriptions in Prakrit. Even in literature Prakrit came to be used particularly in plays. And Prakrit itself consists of different dialects. There were several other Prakrits of lesser importance. By the time of the Guptas Prakrit was standardized and had lost their local character. The vernaculars had already developed beyond them. What Panini did for Sanskrit others did for Prakrit and they began to resemble more the languages actually were based on the conventions of dramatic theory and they never represented popular life. Now did they reflect in any way the linguistic conditions of society. Some plays are composed exclusively in Prakrit and they are technically called Jatakas. The Karpuramanjari (about 900 A.D.) Rajasekhara depicting love between man and woman is the most important work of this type.

Continuing the secular aspect of Prakrit language a number of stanzas were written both on love and maxims. The most remarkable amongst such texts is the Gatha Saptasati of Hala one of the Satavahana rulers. This book consists of 700 stanzas about love depicting the varied phases of South Indian rural life. The king probably ruled in the Ist century A.D. The poems are notable for their consciousness and for their great economy of words and masterly use of suggestions. Some poems contain simple and natural descriptions and references to the lives of peasants and the lower class. More important is the fact that narrative literature and epic poems are fairly extensive in Prakrit. The most noteworthy among them are the Brihatkatha of Gunadhya composed in Paisachi dialect and Setubandha of Pravarasena.Apart from secular literature Prakrit was used for religious literature also like the Jaina canonical works. It was during the 5th century A.D. that most of the Jaina canons were written down. In prakrit literature the Jaina writings have very little literary the poetry of the Jainas is better than prose. Its poetry is written in lively vernacular style.Furthermore it is to be stated here that scholars treated Apabhramas as a kind of Prakrit. It boasts of extensive literature particularly narrative stories. The first writer to make use of it was Asvaghosa. The others who followed the example were Bhasa (3rd century A.D.) and later Visakhadatta and Kalidasa.In the Apabhramsa the meter doha was adopted as powerful form of expression of religious and philosophical thoughts. Both Jaina monks and contemporary writers of Tantrik Buddhism utilized this meter. Incidentally stray poems dealing with morals maxims ethics religious discourses and legends were commonly written in Apabhramsa. Among the Jains the voluminous texts on the life and activities of Jaina heroes were written in Apabhramsa. It may be noted here in the end that Apabhramsa, Sanskrit and Prakrit had a great influence both on Gujarati and Hindi as late as the 16th century.

Prakrit is of linguistic importance since it is illustrative of the linguistic evolution from Prakrit to Apabhramsa and finally to a new regional language. Apabhramsa meaning falling down was a corrupt form of Prakrit dialect. It is believed to have originated in the north-west and traveled from that region along with the migrant people who scattered and settled in central and western India after the Huna invasions. The Prakrit as used by Jains was greatly influenced by Apabhramsa. It is here that the link between the older and the new languages of Maharashtri and Gujarati is evident.

Tamil was the oldest spoken literary language of south India that is South of Nilgiris. Evidence as it is shows that there was a body of literature in Tamil which has had unbroken development over 20 centuries the first period of that literature is associated with the Sangam Era. Tamil tradition refers of three literary Academic (Sangams) which met at Madurai. The first was attended by gods and legendary sages but its entire works have perished. Of the second only one survives-Tolkappiyam is the earliest surviving Tamil grammar. Much of the literary writings of this period have perished. Legendry and traditional accounts mention the loss of many texts on the occasion of a deluge. Today's extant body of sangam literature is but a fraction of a vast literature. The book Agattiyam presumed to be written by St. Agattiyar is present in small shreds of sutras here and there as quoted by medieval commentators. The second well-known work was Tolkappiyam. It was written by Tolkappiyar who was supposed to be a disciple of Agattiyar along with eleven other scholars. It is a work on Tamil grammar literature tradition and sociology. Tolkapiyam lays down grammatical rules governing the literary compositions. This book is the fountain of all literary conventions in Tamil literature. All later changes and innovations occurred only under the sanction of permissive clauses incorporated in due places in that work. The poets of the third Sangam wrote Ettutogai (eight anthologies). These anthologies contain well over 2,000 poems ascribed to more than 200 authors. The other major collection of the Sangam works is the Pattuppattu of ten dyle. They are long poems.

After the period of the eight anthologies Tamil literature reveals the influence of Sanskrit. It also reveals Jaina influence. The classical work revealing these features is Tiru Kurral sometimes called the Bible of Tamil land. It consists of series of metrical proverbs and many aspects of life and religion. And by the 6th century A.D. Aryan influence had penetrated the whole of Tamil land. Her kings and chiefs worshipped and supported the gods of Hinduism Jainism and Buddhism. Tamil poets book to writing long poems which they called by the Silappadikaram (the Jewelled anklet). A little later appeared Manimekali attributed to the poet Sattanar of Madurai. This book reveals Buddhist influence. The books Silappadikaram and Manimekalai belong to the early centuries of the Christian ere. They were attributed to Ilango adigal and Sattanar. The former book has been referred to by king Gajabahu of Ceylon who ruled in the second half of the second century A.D.Manimekalai abounds in fine poetry and its dramatic element is handled with mastery. Also this book gives us glimpses of the development of fine art in the Sangam age.

Probably Sattanar the author of Manimekalai was a Buddhist. A good deal of social and historical information is found in this work just as in Silappadikaram. Added to this book has a peculiar grace which makes it unique in the books of Tamil literature. It is also held by scholars that in the age prior to the imperial Pallavas many Tamil works were written like Kural. The chief quality of the Sangam works is their adherence to standards and literary conventions. Kural by Thirulluvar has been translated into many languages both Indian and foreign. The end of the Sangam era may be said to herald the birth of a new Tamil literature. This new age witnessed devotional poetry on Shiva and Vishnu. The age of the Sangam literature was religious but stranger to the Bhakti cult. The writings of the Alvars and Nayan are in the later period were quite distinct. Both of them began some where in the 5th or the 6th century A.D.