What defines Sanskrit culture?
Sanskrit or saṃskṛta as it is known in the written language means, “adorned, cultivated, purified”. The revered Deva-Vani language (‘Deva’ Gods – ‘Vani’ language) thought to have been composed by Lord Brahma, was passed on to the Rishis (sages) living in celestial abodes, who then communicated the same to their earthly disciples, from where it spread on earth. The written form of the language can be traced back to the 2nd millennium BCE, when the Rig Veda, a collection of sacred hymns, is thought to have been written after being passed down orally for centuries and preserved verbally in the Guru-Disciple relationship. The flamboyance of the text reflects the purity of this version (Vedic period, 1500–500 BCE) of Sanskrit.
The magnanimity of the honorific language is evident with 250 words available to describe rainfall, 67 words to describe water, and 65 words to describe the earth, among other descriptions. It is also interesting to note that despite numerous different the sub-castes of Hinduism, and differences in their dialect, race, creed and rank, Sanskrit is collectively considered and accepted as the only sacred language giving rise to the only available sacred literature by all, even though India has a repository of 5000 spoken languages.
So how do we define Sanksrit Culture to a beginner?
An Old Indo-Aryan language in which the most ancient documents are the Vedas, composed in what is called Vedic Sanskrit. Although Vedic documents represent the dialects then found in the northern midlands of the Indian subcontinent and areas immediately east thereof, the very earliest texts—including the Rigveda (“The Veda Composed in Verses”), which scholars generally ascribe to approximately 1500 BCE—stem from the northwestern part of the subcontinent, the area of the ancient seven rivers (sapta sindhavaḥ). It is a language sacred not only to Hindus, but also to Jains and Mahayana Buddhists!
Sanskrit is usually written in the Devanāgarī script, a descendant of the Brāhmī script, although other scripts have been used and continue to be used. The Devanāgarī script is also used for writing Hindi, Marathi, and Nepali. It is a syllable-based writing system in which each syllable consists of a consonant plus an inherent vowel /ə/. Vowels are written differently, depending on whether they are independent or follow a consonant. Devanāgarī is written from left to right. Sentences are separated by vertical lines.
Language has been the traditional means of communication in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. Sanskrit literature holds the privilege of being used in ancient poetry, drama, and sciences, as well as religious and philosophical texts. The language is believed to have been generated by observing the natural progression of sounds created in the human mouth, thus considering sound as an important element of language formation. This is one of the prime reasons why Sanskrit has been rich in poetry and its expressive quality of bringing out the best meaning through perfect sounds that are soothing to the human ear. Vedic Sanskrit also contains abstract nouns and philosophical terms which are not to be found in any other language. The consonants and vowels are flexible enough to be grouped together to express nuanced ideas. In all, the language is like an endless ocean without a base due to its reach, complexity, and hundreds of words to express a single meaning or object.
Sanskrit has had a significant influence on other Indian languages, including Hindi, which is now one of India’s official languages, and Indo-Aryan languages such as Kannada and Malayalam. The influence of Buddhist texts in Sanskrit, as well as their translation and spread, has had an impact on Sino-Tibetan languages. Telugu is considered to be a highly lexically Sanskrit language, from which it has borrowed many words. It has had an impact on Chinese language because China has adopted a number of specific words from Sanskrit. Furthermore, Thailand and Sri Lanka have been heavily influenced by Sanskrit and have many words that sound similar. The Javanese language, like the modern Indonesian language and the traditional Malay language spoken in Malaysia, has been influenced by Sanskrit. The Philippines has a minor Sanskrit influence, but it is less than that of Spanish, for example.
Above all, English, the modern international language, has been influenced by Sanskrit and has adopted many loanwords from the ancient language (for example, ‘primitive’ from ‘prachin’, meaning historical, ‘ambrosia’ from ‘amaruta’ meaning food of the Gods, ‘attack’ from ‘akramana’ meaning taking aggressive action, ‘path’ from ‘patha’ meaning road or way,’man’ from ‘manu’ etc)
There have been recent attempts to revive Sanskrit as a spoken language so that the rich Sanskrit literature could become accessible to everyone. India’s Central Board of Secondary Education has made Sanskrit a third language in the schools under its jurisdiction. In such schools, the study of Sanskrit is compulsory for grades 5 to 8. An option between Sanskrit and Hindi exists for grades 9 and 10. Many organizations are conducting ‘Speak Sanskrit’ workshops to popularize the language. Sanskrit is the language of the two great Hindu epics, Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata, read by people all over the world.
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