Online Sanskrit Class
Pre-read for Session 1
Welcome to the online Sanskrit learning group. Here we start some sharing based on a camp I was fortunate to attend at Chinmaya International Foundation where I met one of the greatest teachers, Prof. V. N. Jha, former director of Advance Sanskrit Studies, Pune University. His teachings cannot be replicated. However, just as a person who has tasted jalebi for the first time in his life cannot keep quiet but try to express the sweetness of jalebi to everyone else, I too feel the urge to share what we received in the camp. Let us pray to the Almighty to help us complete this two-month Sanskrit discussion and learning without any interruption.
Om saha na vavatu, saha nau bhunaktu, saha veeryam karavavahi
Tejasvina vadhitamastu, ma vidvisha vahai i
Om shanti! shanti!! shantih!!
How old is Sanskrit language? Why do people glorify it so much? Why is it called a ‘Divine’ language? Isn’t the beauty of Sanskrit a bit hyped? These are some of the questions that can come in the mind of a common man. To get the answers, one has to take a dip into it. Let us do that by taking a look at the history of the subject.
Every language undergoes changes by the passage of time and as per the geographical location. For instance, Hindi spoken in Delhi, UP and Maharashtra are very different. The way alphabets are pronounced are also different. Again, how the language was 50 years ago is not how it is today. Many new words get added and some words get deleted. Thus, a language is like a flowing river which keeps changing.
The Sanskrit that we hear and learn today is called Classical Sanskrit (Laukika Samskritam). It is different from Vedic Sanskrit (Vaidika Samskritam) which is used in Vedic literature. It has been ascertained that the dating of the Vedas cannot be estimated. All that can be said is that they are thousands of years old. That makes Sanskrit a very old language.
My high-school tuition teacher once reminded us that it is the language that comes first, the grammar comes later. Sanskrit too is no exception to this. There have been many grammarians before Panini. But among all of them, Panini occupies the Highest position.
Panini was a grammarian whose time period is estimated to be around 500 BCE. During his times, Sanskrit was a spoken language of the common man. As a result, there were differences in phonetics and writings in Sanskrit too. The task that was in front of Panini was that there’s an earlier version of Sanskrit and there are many present versions of Sanskrit. The words have taken new forms by the passage of time. He wanted to construct a grammatical structure which would suit both the past and the present. But why ponder over the past, one might ask. The answer is that Panini knew very well the great knowledge explained in the Vedas and it was written in Vaidika Samskritam. So, if we look only at the present and ignore the past, how are we to benefit from the timeless wisdom? (Think what we are doing now!)
Some say that knowledge got revealed in Panini. But for the logical mind of a person from the scientific age, this would not appeal much. So this is what Panini must have done. He must have had to collect a lot of data about the language used in different parts, observed the change in the words as territories and times changed, and then prepare grammar rules for the language. Thus, he prepared a lot of grammar rules which when followed gives you the result. These rules are very much algebraic in nature. One has to follow a lot of rules to construct appropriate words and sentences in Sanskrit. He also observed that there were exceptions to these rules. Some words did not fit into the rules as other words of that kind. Why? Because that is how language evolves. Any language evolves naturally without fitting into mathematics. So, there would naturally be exceptions. For instance, one can address anyone as ‘you’ but not the King or the Judge or similar people whom we address as ‘Your Highness’ or ‘Your Majesty’. Why? Because that is how it has been followed. Grammar rules change in such situations. In any language there are such exceptions to grammar rules, and so is in Sanskrit.
Panini lists down all these rules and exceptions in the form of some 4000+ Sutras (aphorisms) in his treatise ‘Ashtadhyayi’. This is a herculean task which one cannot appreciate unless he studies grammar of any language. But that’s not all. The wonder he did was by giving a chronological order to these Sutras. He did not arrange them chapter-wise. He arranged them in a logical order such that once if a person reads Sutra no. 44 and then sees an exception to that rule in Sutra no. 56, then he understands that he has to follow the latter Sutra and not the former one. Today, we use such logical algorithms in computer programming. Imagine a man, playing with rules, logic, algorithm, data mining and language…some 2500 years ago…what kind of intellect he must have had! Had it not been for Panini, probably the future generations would have lost the link to Vaidika Samskritam. As Bloomfield rightly said in his book ‘Language’ – Panini is a monument of human intelligence.