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Written at the request of Motilal Banarsidass, the main

Indological publisher in India; intended to give an overview of the history of
Sanskrit, with special emphasis on the relevance of Sanskrit now (in the
electronic age).)
AM Ruppel

The Wonder That Is Sanskrit

Sanskrit is the language of some of the oldest attested literature on this planet. It is a language
defined in meticulous detail by its grammatical tradition, a tradition much more sophisticated than
anything that existed at the time, or for millennia to follow. It is the language of Hindu as well as
some Buddhist and also Jain scripture, of numerous texts used to help the faithful understand
scripture, of mythological tales, and also of much worldly literature. Its oral traditions have led to
incredible feats of the mind, demanding the methodical memorisation of (to many) unimaginable
amounts of text.

Sanskrit has not just been of pervading importance across the Indian subcontinent, having been
used in literary and scholarly writing across the centuries, but it has also been of great fascination
for scholars across Europe and, later, other parts of the western world. The earliest surviving
account of Sanskrit given by a European was published 350 years ago in the 1660s. Its author was
the Jesuit missionary Pater Heinrich Roth, who had come to India in 1650. This grammar, written in
Latin, presents a beautiful synthesis of the European and Indian grammatical traditions. It was
immediately noticed how many similarities there were between Sanskrit, the classical language of
India, and Latin and Greek, the classical languages of Europe. As William Jones, a judge and a
language scholar, famously put it in a 1786 speech to the Asiatic Society of Bengal (of which he had
been a co-founder):

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a 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 the forms of
grammar, than could 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 ().

Jones translated Klidsas Abhijnakuntalam into English and thus introduced it to the European
public. It was probably in this English translation (or a German translation based on it) that is was
read by Goethe, the German national poet, who praised the story as both the blossoms of spring
and the fruits of autumn1 and may even have modelled one of the prologues for his most famous
play, Faust, on the prologue of the Abhijnakuntalam. Philosophers from Germany and other
European nations engaged with the ideas that were coming over from India, and for some time,
Indienbegeisterung (Indomania) spread throughout intellectual circles. From the recognition of the
fundamental and systematic similarities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, the academic discipline
of Indo-European philology was born.

1 Willst du die Blthe des frhen, die Frchte des spteren Jahres, // Willst du, was reizt und entzckt, willst du was sttigt und

nhrt, // Willst du den Himmel, die Erde, mit Einem Namen begreifen; // Nenn ich, Sakontala, Dich, and so ist Alles gesagt.
Wouldst thou the young year's blossoms and the fruits of its decline // And all by which the soul is charmed, enraptured,
feasted, fed, // Wouldst thou the earth and heaven itself in one sole name combine? // I name thee, O Sakuntala! and all at
once is said. (Goethe in a letter to F. H. Jacobi dated July 1, 1791, cf. the Jubilumsausgabe von Goethes Werken, I.258; English
translation by E.B. Eastwick).

Sanskrit History
In western thought, the question of history the age and absolute and relative chronology of things
plays an important role. When did an author live? When did he (or more rarely: she)
write/compose the works passed down to us? What were the circumstances of his life, and how did
they influence his literary composition?

And so, when Western academics encountered the Sanskrit tradition, to which such dates were of
much lesser importance, they were at a loss. The oldest Indian literary tradition, that of the gveda,
had been entirely oral, passed down by memorisation from teacher to student for many centuries.
Its oldest datable manuscript is from the 15th century;2 while many of the authors of the gvedic
hymns are identified by name, there are no historical references within the gveda that would allow
us to correlate them with specific points or periods within Indian history. The oldest surviving
traces of Sanskrit in general are from inscriptions dating to the first century BC.3 And yet even
without the kind of evidence that western scholars are used to ancient historiography, datable
papyri, inscriptions going back to the 7th/6th century BC (Latin), the 15th century BC (Ancient Greek)
or even the 30th century BC (Sumerian) we can tell that the oldest Sanskrit texts must have
originated a long time before they (or anything related to them) first are actually attested.

To arrive at any kind of date for the elements of the Vedic tradition, it actually helps to step outside
that tradition. Not many events in early Indian history can be precisely dated, the dates of the life of
Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha, can be attributed to the late 6th or 5th century BC with relative
certainty. Some of the teachings of the Upaniads, texts late within the Vedic tradition, are found
mirrored in Buddhism, and it seems we can infer from this that at least the earliest Upaniads
predate the Buddha.4 The Upaniads presuppose the existence of the Brhmaas, a set of Vedic
commentaries, which presuppose the existence of the Veda texts themselves, the so-called
Vedasahits. The younger three sahits presuppose the existence of the gvedasahit, and by
looking at the language of the gveda, one can furthermore see that some parts are older than others
(in a nutshell, books 2-7 are the oldest, 1 and 10 the youngest). We thus have a relative chronology
of gvedasahit before the other Vedasahits, before the Brhmaas, before the Upaniads, before
the Buddha, who lived in around the 5th century BC. Anything beyond this relative chronology is
guesswork but if we assume e.g. that at least a century would have gone by to get from one step to
the next, we have to place the origins of the gvedas oldest books to at least 3,000 years ago.

This is as far as the Western approach can take us. One traditional Hindu approach, according to
which Sanskrit is not just the oldest of all languages but also that through which the world as a
whole came to be (going back to, among others, passages in the Taittirya Brhmaa,5 the Chandogya
Upaniad and the Manusmti, an ancient Hindu law-code) is based on different considerations than
the Western view. Thus the two cannot compete, but should be seen as complementing one another:
each one has its sphere in which it is important and to be taken seriously.

2 Cf. S. Gopalakrishnan and M. G. Dhadphale, Rigveda: Candidature File for Nomination as UNESCOs Memory of the World
Register, available at
3 Cf. e.g. Richard Salomon, Indian Epigraphy: A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan

Languages, OUP 1998: 86.

4 See e.g. Patrick Olivelle, The Early Upanishads, OUP 2014: 12-14.

5 Especially II 2.4.2.

But, having traced our steps backed to the gvedic beginning, let us look at that beginning more
closely. Saying that nearly all of the history of the Sanskrit language can be explained by the nature
of its roots is only a mild exaggeration.

The earliest texts are the hymns of the gveda. There are a little over 1,000 of them, and they address
the many gods of the Vedic pantheon: Indra, Agni (fire, and personified/deified fire), Soma (a
substance crucial to Vedic ritual but so far not identified; and again deified soma), Aditi and the
dityas (Varua, Mitra and Aryaman), the Sun, Dawn and the Wind (Srya, Us and Vyu,
respectively), and many others.6

Some hymns are exceptionally beautiful: at the beginning of hymn 113 of book 1 (RV1.113:1-4), for
example, Uas, the goddess of dawn, is invoked as follows:7

The fairest light of lights has come here. The bright sign,
wide-reaching, has been born. Just as she [=Dawn] is
impelled forth for the propulsion of Savitar, so Night has

left the womb for Dawn. // Having a gleaming calf, herself
gleaming white, she has come here. The black one [=Night]
has left behind her seats for her. Having the same (kin-)
bonds, immortal, following one upon the other, the two,
Night and Day, keep exchanging their color. // The road is
the same for the two sistersunending. They proceed on
it, one after the other commanded by the gods. They do
not oppose each other, nor do they stand still, though well
groundedNight and Dawn, of like mind but different
form. // Light-filled leader of liberalities, the bright one has
appeared. She has opened out the doors for us. Having
stirred the world, she has looked out for riches for us

Dawn has awakened all the creatures.

Others are deeply thought-provoking: hymn 129 of book 10 questions not only whether the gods
made the universe or were created by something else, but also whether we can actually know
anything at all about how the world came to be. Its 6th and 7th verses go as follows:

But, after all, who knows, and who can say

Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows - or maybe even he does not know.8

6 For a complete list of all the deities and groups of deities addressed by gvedic hymns, see e.g. S. Jamison & J. Brereton,
The Rigveda: The earliest religious poetry of India, OUP 2014: I.35-53.
7 Unless otherwise indicated, the translations of the Vedic passages come from the most recent English translation of the

gveda, Jamison & Brereton 2014 (see n. 5 above).

8 Translation by A. L. Basham, The Wonder That Was India, 1954: 247-8. Jamison and Brereton (2014) translate Who really

knows? Who shall here proclaim it?from where it was born, from where this creation? The gods are on this side of the
creation of this (world). So then who does know from where it came to be? // This creationfrom where it came to be, if it
was produced or if nothe who is the overseer of this (world) in the furthest heaven, he surely knows. Or if he does not

Many hymns are difficult to understand for us. In part at least this is because they were
intentionally vague and allusive, or meant to have a double meaning. In the case of gveda II.13.1-4,
for example, we can be fairly certain that the soma sacrifice is described. Yet any details remain

His mother is the season. From her, as soon as he was

born, he [= soma] entered among the waters, in whom he
grows strong. Then he became a voluptuous woman,

swelling with milk. The planets first beestingsthat one
is worthy of many hymns. // Toward a single goal they [=
the waters] come, bringing milk throughout. They bring
forth sustenance for him [= Indra?] who is all mothers
milk (for us). The downward sloping (watercourses)
share the same road to flow along. You. who did these
things first, are worthy of hymns. // One [= the Hotar]
accompanies what he gives with his speech. Another [=
the Adhvaryu] hastens at his work, changing the forms

(of the soma). He [= soma] withstands all the blows of
another [= the pressing stone]. You, the one who did
these things first, are worthy of hymns. // They [= the
priests] sit, apportioning prosperity to their children [=
their fires], apportioning, like wealth, the back (of the

fire?) as it arches forth to him [= the soma?] who comes.

Just for comparison: in 1896, Ralph T. H. Griffith translated: The Season was the parent, and when born
therefrom it entered rapidly the floods wherein it grows. Thence was it full of sap, streaming with milky juice:
the milk of the plants stalk is chief and meet for lauds. // They come trooping together bearing milk to him, and
bring him sustenance who gives support to all. The way is common for the downward streams to flow. Thou
who didst these things first art worthy of our lauds. // One priest announces what the institutor gives: one,
altering the forms, zealously plies his task, the third corrects the imperfections left by each. Thou who didst these
things first art worthy of our lauds. // Dealing out food unto their people there they sit, like wealth to him who
comes, more than the back can bear. Greedily with his teeth he eats the masters food. Thou who didst these
things first art worthy of our lauds.

The incantation of these hymns was at the centre of Vedic religion. To preserve the knowledge of
when, how, by whom and supported by which ritual actions they were meant to be performed, a
number of other texts were composed. There are three further Vedas (Yajur- and Sma-, and later the
Atharvaveda) that in different ways are subsidiary to the gveda; and each Veda itself comes with
supplementary texts the rayakas, the Brhmaas and the Upaniads. While the rayakas and
Brhmaas focus more on practical aspects of the Vedic ritual, the Upaniads develop philosophical
questions that have their roots in the gveda. For example, in Chapter 4 of the Bhadranyaka-
Upaniad, which we think may be the oldest Upaniad, the concepts of tman, the self or soul, and
brahman, the world-soul, are explained to King Janaka by the sage Yjavalkya. (While these
concepts exist only in rudimentary form in the gveda, they become central in later practice,
especially in the philosophical system known as advaita vednta.)

Yjavalkya, he said, what is the light of man? Yjavalkya replied: The sun, O King; for, having the sun
alone for his light, man sits, moves about, does his work, and returns. Janaka Vaideha said: So indeed it is, O
Yjavalkya. // Janaka Vaideha said: When the sun has set, O Yjavalkya, what is then the light of man?
Yjavalkya replied: The moon indeed is his light; for, having the moon alone for his light, man sits, moves
about, does his work, and returns. Janaka Vaideha said: So indeed it is, O Yjavalkya. // Janaka Vaideha said:
When the sun has set, O Yjavalkya, and the moon has set, what is the light of man? Yjavalkya replied: Fire
indeed is his light; for, having fire alone for his light, man sits, moves about, does his work, and returns.
// Janaka Vaideha said: When the sun has set, O Yjavalkya, and the moon has set, and the fire is gone out,
what is then the light of man? Yjavalkya replied: Sound indeed is his light; for, having sound alone for his
light, man sits, moves about, does his work, and returns. Therefore, O King, when one cannot see even ones own
hand, yet when a sound is raised, one goes towards it. Janaka Vaideha said: So indeed it is, O Yjavalkya.
// Janaka Vaideha said: When the sun has set, O Yjavalkya, and the moon has set, and the fire is gone out, and
the sound hushed, what is then the light of man? Yjavalkya said: The Self indeed is his light; for, having the
Self alone as his light, man sits, moves about, does his work, and returns. // Janaka Vaideha said: Who is that
Self? Yjavalkya replied: He who is within the heart, surrounded by the Prnas (senses), the person of light,
consisting of knowledge. He, remaining the same, wanders along the two worlds, as if thinking, as if moving.
During sleep (in dream) he transcends this world and all the forms of death (all that falls under the sway of
death, all that is perishable). (Bhadranyaka-Upaniad IV.3.2-7, translation by Max Mller, 1879.)

The importance of correctly and accurately performing the ritual hymns and sacrifices furthermore
led to Vedga, the limbs of the Veda: six scholarly disciplines intended to make sure that every
aspect of the Vedic texts and rites remained preserved and understood. Four of these limbs focus
on language itself: (phonetics), (metrics), (grammar), (etymology); the
remaining two focus on factors external to the texts and their language: (astronomy/
astrology) and (ritual).

Every single one of these disciplines is fascinating in its own right. Yet perhaps the greatest
influence on regular Sanskrit practice was exerted by one of the elements of , namely sandhi
( ). Literally, sandhi means putting together. As a grammatical term, it is used to refer to the
changes in pronunciation that occur when words are put together in a sentence (external sandhi),
or smaller elements combined to form a new word (internal sandhi). This is a phenomenon that
occurs across languages, but is nowhere as systematically marked in writing as in Sanskrit. English,
for example, has it, but usually does not reflect it in its orthography: thus, when the words hand
and bag or cup and board are put together to give handbag or cupboard, their pronunciation
changes (to something like hambag and cubboard), and yet the spelling of the individual words
remains the same. Ancient Greek, on the other hand, does mark such word-internal sandhi, and so
do words that English has inherited from it: syn- means together or together with, and it appears
as syn- e.g. in synthetic (lit. put together), but as sym- e.g. in sympathy (lit. suffering or feeling with
(someone)). Sanskrit marks not just all internal, but also all external sandhi. There are specific rules
for how pronunciation of each possible sound at the end of a word changes when it encounters any
of the possible sounds at the beginning of a word. Following these rules, the statement

What is here, that (may also be) elsewhere. What is not here, that (also is) not anywhere else.
(Mahbhrata 1.56.34) becomes

Once sandhi has been applied, this sentence has become more difficult to understand: words
appear in different forms (yad and yan; tad and tat), many are written together as one long string of
characters. So why does Sanskrit nevertheless do this? For the Vedic texts, there are two reasons.
One, they were not passed down in writing, but orally; thus the version with sandhi was simply
how the text would have been pronounced. To make sure that its meaning did not become obscured
by the sandhi changes, each gvedic hymn was also passed on without the sandhi. Once the Vedas
were written down many centuries later, this looked as follows:

(On the left, we have the Sahitpha, the version in which all rules of sandhi are applied; on the
right is the Padapha, the version in which all words are listed individually and without any sandhi
rules applied.)9

The second reason why sandhi was applied and represented so faithfully was the belief that the
original pronunciation of the hymns must not change: only if pronounced correctly that is: as they
had been pronounced when they were first composed by sages who had received them through
inspiration from the gods could the hymns actually reach the deities that they invoked. Thus,
preserving the exact pronunciation was more important than keeping words separate and easily

Many later Sanskrit texts were not sacred, and so theoretically, they could have been passed on
without the sandhi applied to the writing; yet at that point, the tradition of using written sandhi was
already so established that it simply continued.

Language changes. Pronunciation changes, words change their meanings, new words enter the
language, new expressions and constructions develop. Above we saw just how much was done to
ascertain that the original pronunciation of the Vedic hymns was not forgotten. Yet to ensure that
the language of these hymns itself was not forgotten, even more extraordinary measures were
taken: Whenever you cannot pick up a language from your parents or from those around you, you
need to turn to a grammar, a complete and systematic set of the forms and rules that you need to
know in order to understand (and speak) a language. The language of the Vedic hymns was not

9 Image taken from A. A. Macdonell, A Vedic Reader for Students (1917).

used in regular daily communication. Something different from, but still similar to it was employed
by the educated elite, and a grammatical tradition arose that, while not preserving the language of
the gveda, did preserve the language of its own time. When that tradition set in we do not know;
but it had reached its zenith by around 2,300 years ago at the latest long before there was any
theory of language anywhere near as sophisticated anywhere else in the world. This zenith comes in
the form of the grammar composed by Pini. He acknowledges that there were others before him,
yet their grammars do not survive. It seems that Pinis work was soon held in such high esteem
that the works of those who came before him were not passed on any longer; instead, language
scholars after him focussed on commenting on and interpreting his work.

What Pini composed has several parts: three are lists of sounds, of verbal roots (dhtus) and
other language elements. The fourth part is what made him so famous. Now commonly known as
the Adhyy (literally: having eight chapters), it is an extremely concise set of rules that sums up
how the elements of Sanskrit (as compiled in Pinis other three texts) are to be used to make up
the Sanskrit language: how actual verb and noun forms are created on the basis of the abstract
dhtus and other minimal forms, and what meanings and usages these forms can have. To achieve
his conciseness, which is necessary for a grammar that is meant to be known by heart in its entirety,
Pini defines a number of rules and processes that he gives brief names to names he can easily
refer to whenever relevant. For example, his term for all vowels is , all consonants is , while
all voiced consonants is (these terms are derived on the basis of his list of Sanskrit sounds, also
known as the iva stras or ). If he wants to describe a rule that applies to all consonants, he
uses the locative in (case of) hal. If he wants to say that something replaces any consonant, he
uses the genitive to mean (instead) of hal.

No matter whether Pini intended to describe the language as he saw it or wanted to prescribe
how people should use it: following generations took his grammar as prescriptive, that is, they saw
it as implying you must use only the forms and rules found here, and not anything else. This is
visible from the fact that, in the over 2,000 years since Pini formulated his grammar, almost
everyone speaking or composing something in Sanskrit has followed his rules.10 The Adhyy
effectively has frozen Sanskrit in time. This has happened to other languages as well to this day,
you will find people writing Latin or Ancient Greek employing just the rules and words that they
find in authors like the Roman Cicero, or the classic Greek prose writers. (The Gaisford Prize at
Oxford, for example, is just one occasion for which texts are written every year in fluent, literary
classical Greek.) Yet Sanskrit is unique in that its mainstream literary tradition employs this codified
language, with the effect that there are enormous amounts of wonderful literature, composed over
the course of many centuries, that one can read perfectly if one just learns classical Sanskrit, the
language described by Pini more than 2,000 years ago.

Sanskrit Literature
So, what literature is there in Sanskrit? Explaining and expounding on the Vedasamhits, there is an
enormous body of secondary texts composed (and later written) over the course of many centuries.

10I say almost because the Rmyaa and the Mahbhrata, that originate from pre-Pinian times but did most likely not
reach the form in which we know them until centuries later, do continue using forms not sanctioned by Pini.) On Epic
syntax, see e.g. T. Oberlies, A Grammar of Epic Sanskrit, De Gruyter 2003, or K. Meenakshi, Epic Syntax, Meharchand
Lachhmandas 1983.

There are poems of all kinds from very short ones, just two lines long, to those called epic in the
West, many thousands of verses long. There are plays; there are prose texts, both fictional and non-
fictional. Let us look at just a few small excerpts from the vast field that is Classical Sanskrit

Among the oldest post-Vedic traditions we have the epics, the Rmyaa and the Mahbhrata.
Perhaps the most famous part of the Mahbhrata is the Bhagavad Gt, a conversation between the
hero Arjuna and his charioteer, who actually is Ka in disguise, at the outset of the Mahbhratas
central battle at Kuruketra. As a katriya, a member of the warrior caste, Ka is required to fight
this battle; but he cannot fathom how killing so many people, especially his friends, revered
teachers and relatives who happen to be on the opposing side, could possibly be a good thing.
Ka outlines to him in great detail the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and reminds Arjuna
that he would only be killing the mortal physical bodies of his opponents, bodies that do not matter:
it is only the immortal soul that matters, and that he cannot touch. Arjuna remains hesitant who
wouldnt. He continues asking questions of Ka, who patiently answers them all. In the end
Arjuna is convinced, and the battle of Kuruketra begins.

Among the reasons why the Bhagavad Gt is so popular is not just its doctrine of the immortality of
the soul or the fact that Arjunas questions approach the central issue from all possible angles,
meaning that everyone will find at least one answer from Ka that speaks to them personally; it is
also that so much of it is expressed in a simple, clear and elegant way. To give just two examples:

Just as a man casts off his worn-out clothes and puts on

other new ones, so the embodied soul casts off its worn-out

bodies and takes other new ones. (2.22)

When a man dwells upon sense objects, he becomes

attached to them. From attachment arises desire, and from
desire, anger. From anger comes confusion; confusion
disturbs the memory; when memory fails, so does
understanding; and without understanding, one perishes.
(2. 62-63)

The next text is an excerpt from the Buddhacarita, The acts of the Buddha. This description of the
life and deeds of Gautama Siddhrtha, later known as the Buddha, is the first of its kind written in
Classical Sanskrit and is around 1900 years old. Its author is Avaghoa, a poet and philosopher,
born into a brahmin family, who had converted to Buddhism. It is the earliest full description of the
Buddhas life, and was so greatly appreciated for both its style and contents that it was read
throughout India and beyond, and was translated into Tibetan and Chinese. (The second half of the
original poem was lost, and now survives only in those translations.) In the passage below, the sage
Asita has just seen the young Gautama and, recognising what this boy will mean to the world,
begins to weep. Alarmed, King uddhodana, Gautamas father, asks him why he is crying is there
something wrong with the boy? Asita allays the Kings fears and tells him that he is weeping
because his own life is ending just as the boys life is about to begin, and he will thus not see all the
wonderful things the boy will achieve. In elegant and poetic terms, he then proceeds to tell the King
what effect his son will have on the world:

From this sea of grief, strewn with the foam of

sickness, with waves of old age and the fearsome

tides of death, he will rescue with the mighty boat of
knowledge this stricken world carried away by the
current. // The living world thats tormented by
thirst will drink from the lofty stream of dharma
flowing from him; a stream that is made cool by
mental trance, a stream whose current is wisdom,
whose banks are steadfast discipline, whose
cakravka ducks are vows. // To those who are
tormented by suffering, ensnared by the objects of
the senses, roaming through sasras wild tracks,
this one will proclaim the way to release, as to
travelers whove lost their way. // Upon men in this
world who are being scorched by the fire of passion,
whose fuel is the objects of the senses, hell pour
relief with the rain of dharma, like a rain cloud
pouring down rain, at the end of the summer heat. //
With the irresistible blow of the true dharma, he will
burst open the door whose bolt is thirst and whose
panels are delusion and torpor, so that creatures
may escape. // Gaining full awakening, this king of
dharma will release the world from bondage, a
world bound with the snares of its own delusion, a
world overcome by greed, a world that has no
refuge. (1.70-76, translation Olivelle 2009.)

Our next excerpt comes from the Kumrasabhava, a mahkvya/court epic by perhaps the most
famous Sanskrit playwright, Klidsa. His language, rich with metaphor, allusion and wordplay,
has been admired for its beauty and intricacy for centuries, yet very little is known about the author
himself. (His dates are uncertain, but it is most likely that he lived around 1,500 years ago.) The
passage below is not typical for his style (which is far better enjoyed in the original), but was chosen
for its simple elegance. It describes Brahman, the creator of the world.

You divide up night and day by

your measuring of time; your
sleeping and waking are the
destruction and creation of living
. creatures. // You who have no origin
are the origin of the world; you who
never end are the ender of the world,

you who have no beginning are the
beginning of the world, you who
have no lord are the lord of the
world. // You know the self by the
self, you create the self by the self,

and you are absorbed in the self alone
by your perfect self. (2.8-10,
translation Smith 2005.)

To round off this collection of brief excerpts from longer works with a few self-contained pieces,
here are three poems from the Ntiataka, literally 100 (poems) on Nti. Nti means conduct, and
can be used to refer both to how you act towards people close to you i.e. manners and towards

your community as a whole i.e. politics. The Ntiataka forms one third of the atakatraya (Triplet
of One-Hundred-[Verse] Sets), a collection of 3 x 100 short poems on worldly conduct, passion and
dispassion/renunciation, respectively, attributed to Bharthari. (Next to nothing is known of the
author; yet the collection is commonly assumed to be around 1,500 years old.) Many of these poems
are timeless and beautifully encapsulate thoughts, challenges or precepts that affect people

When I knew a little, like an elephant blinded by rut I

became. I know everything, so my mind became
stained. // When slightly more from being near the wise
I learnt I am a fool, so my arrogance like a fever
retreated. (8)

Learning is decidedly mans superior mark. It is wealth
hidden and disguised. Learning brings material
pleasures. Learning brings happiness and renown.
Learning is the teacher of teachers. // Learning is a
friend on a foreign trip. Learning is the supreme deity.
Learning is honoured by kings, not wealth. A man who
has no learning is a beast. (16)

Let lineage go to hell. Let good qualities go even lower.

Let morality fall off the mountainside. Let good
breeding be consumed in the fire. Let a thunderbolt
instantly fall on valor against the enemy. Let us only
have money. Without that alone, all these qualities
together are worth a blade of grass. (31) (Translation
Bailey & Gombrich 2009.)

Sanskrit Now
With such a wealthy heritage of great literature of which the above excerpts represent only a
minute part it is easy to understand why Sanskrit would have been held in such high esteem even
outside circles which used the language in their regular religious practises. In those latter circles, of
course, Sanskrit was at the basis of all teaching and scripture.

In more recent years, Sanskrit has taken on a new shape: originating from India, there are
worldwide efforts to transform it into a language that is fit for modern, every-day spoken use.
Sanskrit is not the first language to undergo such a renaissance: modern Hebrew was systematically
created on the basis of Biblical Hebrew, and languages such as Icelandic, that are reluctant to admit
foreign influences, turn to their old literary forms as the source of words re-introduced to denote
e.g. new technical concepts, such as the telephone.

The new spoken Sanskrit is principally doing the same thing. Literary languages offer those who
use them many different ways of saying one and the same thing. As those who know Classical
Sanskrit will certainly be aware of, the ancient language has ten different ways of forming just the
present tense ten regular ways, that is, with a number of irregularities added on top of that. It has
a huge number of synonyms different words used for one and the same thing. When writing a
poem about e.g. elephants, it is very useful to have a number of words for them at hand
having a hand/trunk, tusked or more literally toothy, or twice-drinking (through
its trunk and then its mouth), sweating internally, or , male and female elephants

that are part of ones household and so on. Yet for simple spoken language, we need just one
word to talk about the elephant (namely, ); and the same holds for everything else. And so, the
creation of a spoken language on the basis of a language that exists only in literary form involves
three steps: simplifying the grammar; simplifying the vocabulary; creating any new words needed
for new concepts. Sanskrit, with its unparalleled use of compounds, is particularly splendid at
creating such new words terms like the now regularly used far-seeing, i.e. TV, or the rarer
moving far voice, i.e. mobile phone, are just two simple examples.

There is of course nothing preventing anyone from extending their use of Sanskrit beyond the
simpler spoken form and employing a greater variety of words, word forms, semantic nuances or
syntactical constructions. But once a workable spoken form of the language has been created, a
wonderful possibility arises: a language that on the one hand is supraregional in origin (Sanskrit
used to be employed across northern and southern India not just in religious, but also in official and
scholarly contexts) and that on the other hand was not imported by a colonial power, as English
was, could perhaps be used as a language for regular communication across India. Admittedly, it
would be easier to learn for people from northern India (whose languages are related to Sanskrit)
than those from southern India but everyone will have to learn something new, and the many
false friends, such as words that have changed their meaning from Sanskrit to modern usage, will
not be an issue for native speakers of Dravidian languages, such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam or

How popular such a use of Sanskrit would be also depends on whether any one group will try to
claim it for itself. Sanskrit is the oldest literary language in India. Some religious and cultural
traditions still use it, others used it in some of their basic writings, and others instead used the
every-day, non-polished languages understood by everyone at the time. Some groups and people
are thus more at home with it than others are today, but that should not make us think that Sanskrit
inherently belongs more to some than to others.

In acknowledgment that it is an elegant language to communicate in across countries, Spoken

Sanskrit courses have taken root all over the world. The University of Heidelberg in Germany hosts
a month-long course every summer that draws participants from several continents; courses of a
very similar format exist in Australia, and there is a host of offerings in North America. , an
organisation with its main seats in in New Delhi and San Jose, California, is offering a series of four
correspondence courses which take about two years to go through. Having completed these, the
student is able to not just converse in Sanskrit and write simple Sanskrit texts, but also to read and
understand the many jewels of Sanskrit literature.

For several decades, St James Schools in the UK have been teaching Sanskrit according to a
curriculum that gives pupils without any prior knowledge of or familiarity with the language the
chance to study it over the course of many years, thus enabling them to read texts like the Bhagavad
Gt, tales from the Hitopadea, or also the Buddhacarita. These and other texts form part of the
syllabus for the official qualifications (GCSE, AS Level, A Level) that St James have developed. Past
and present Sanskrit teachers have written, used and improved on what is now a complete set of
graded textbooks for children aged 5-18. These exams are offered worldwide by Cambridge
International Examinations (CIE) and more information on them can be found at

Why would a group of UK schools focus on teaching Sanskrit? In times when a lot of knowledge
has an ever shorter half-life, it is increasingly important to teach students to be information-literate,
life-long learners. Studying ancient literary languages with fairly complex grammars, such as
Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, works towards this goal in several ways. Studying a modern language,
we can get the instant gratification of speaking simple, proper sentences. We use the language in a
minimal way, but to the extent we are using it, we are doing the same thing as a native speaker.
With an ancient language, passed down exclusively in polished literary form rather than in
sentences suitable for either a beginner or for every-day conversation, the pay-off, so to speak,
comes much later, in the form of access to that languages literature and all the beauty, elegance,
wisdom and knowledge that holds. And so, pupils studying Sanskrit learn patience and persistence,
and if they continue with the subject to GCSE and get to read original Sanskrit texts, they learn in
how many ways such patience and persistence pay off.

Recent technical developments have taught us to equate easy with good. Whenever we buy a new
appliance a phone, a wireless speaker, a car, a camera, a washing machine we want to be able to
use it right away without spending hours on the instruction manual. The impatience this brings
with it is absolutely detrimental to achieving anything bigger in life, to mastering any more
complex knowledge system, to furthering extant knowledge in even the smallest of ways. Studying
something complex in school and seeing its rewards after several months or even years is an
experience that makes anyone more patient and thus more likely to succeed.

Furthermore, any pupils studying such synthetic languages (i.e. languages with a wealth of endings
that explicitly show what form a words stands in) even for a year or two understand the workings
of language better, and thus will find it easier not just to improve their English but also to learn
another modern language. This, of course, is important in more or less any profession.

Granted, while in India Sanskrit is the ancient language and thus the natural choice to achieve this
kind of effect, in the West the study of Latin and Greek is far better established, for the simple
reason that those are our ancient languages, whose literatures and the civilisations they represent
are one of the cornerstones of our civilisation. But even here the case can be made for Sanskrit:
Sanskrit is a terrific challenge for high achievers. If taught at schools that also teach Latin and/or
Greek also Indo-European languages pupils see quickly how learning one helps with the other.
Reading ancient Indian as well as ancient European literature gives the students a much broader
perspective of how humans have, over centuries and millennia, dealt with the big questions of
death, of the nature of the world, of what justice is, of what is beautiful, or moral, of how we should
live our lives well and make them worth living. Times changes quickly; seeing that people have
asked the same questions and have had the same uncertainties and hopes and worries that we have
today not only shows us that we are all people and all in this together, but also prevents us from
reinventing a few wheels. Finally, the impact of Pinis work means that a student learning the
classical form of the language thus has millennia of intriguing texts to choose from, a situation quite
different from that of, say, a student of Classical Greek. Texts from 500 BC as well as from 1000 AD
and later all become accessible epics, plays, poetry, technical texts on all subjects from law to
mathematics to conduct (whether as a lover or the ruler of a large state). All these are worth
studying in their own right, but even more fascinating when a student can compare them with
contemporary texts from the ancient Mediterranean. In short: the study of Sanskrit is both useful
and beautiful.

In India, AIR has two daily broadcasts in Sanskrit, and since 1994, (its name itself such a
wonderful Sanskrit word) has had regular news bulletins in Sanskrit. There are a large number of
Sanskrit newspapers a list on dated to March 2013 contains almost 100.11 In
addition to the more traditional electronic media such as TV and radio, Sanskrit supporters flock to
the internet in large numbers. Having something at ones disposal that allows for wide dispersal
without requiring great funds from the individual is crucial in an enterprise that rarely anyone
engages in for money. Mostly, people devote their time to Sanskrit for the love of the knowledge
and the communication that is made possible through this language and the literature for which it
is the vehicle. And thus, we find various websites which offer complete Sanskrit courses, many
blogs that feature small bits of Sanskrit, new or quoted from ancient sources, on a regular basis; and
websites with electronic study resources abound with flashcards on Sanskrit words, forms and
concepts. Sites like, or are just a fraction of the blogs out there, and sites like or
sanskritnet.web do not just a plethora of information themselves, but also links to numerous other
fascinating online resources.

In his article on the Future of Sanskrit (The Hindu, 18 February 2007), K.H. Prabhu writes, It is
painful to learn that Sanskrit departments are closed in some reputed universities in Europe and
people in the west are losing interest in Indology ("Indology must change with the times," Open
Page, January 7). It is not only in the west but in its birthplace also Sanskrit is in danger of
extinction. He continues, Our classical language does not play the same role in India as Greek and
Latin do in European countries. Many western writers would agree with him in his initial
statement, but would probably disagree with the positive view he has of the classical European
languages. In Europe as in India, the old languages and their appreciation need to be fought for so
that they can survive, and as many people as possible can learn about and appreciate them. So
while each culture needs to fight its own fight, cultured people from all nations should work
together on preserving what they each contribute to world heritage. As we do this, we can learn
from each other. The west may have more of its ancient texts available and searchable online and
maybe this is something that India should work on. Yet India has a multitude of cultural traditions
that go back to the thoughts first expressed in Sanskrit texts, traditions that are very much alive and
certainly more alive than the engagement with ancient culture and ancient texts that one may find
in much of Europe. So here the west could learn something from India.

Sanskrit, a language that is the vessel for concepts such as moka and nirva, tman and brahman,
dharma and karma, that has given us several millennia of literature, philosophy and scholarship of all
kinds, is extremely worth preserving. There already are a number of initiatives active in this
enterprise focussing on the ability to read the Classical language, the ability to engage in Spoken
Sanskrit, or to do both. Engage in one of those, or start one of your own. You wont regret it:
Sanskrit is for everyone.