The Dawn: 15th February, 2013

Language: Sanskrit and Prakrits!

Mushtaq Soofi 

Interestingly, the original home of the Sanskrit is said to be the Northern Punjab and Swat valley in Pakistan which officially renounces its legacy. Panini, (600/500 BC) a Punjabi from Taxila (Takshshila), a few kilometers north of Islamabad, wrote his famous book Ashtadhyaya, the first book of grammar in the recorded history. The irony is that ‘Panini’ means descendent of Pani, a Dravidian tribe of Harappa.

In his book Panini codified the grammatical rules that defined the classical Sanskrit. His canon fixed the rules of its usage with almost absolute rigidity. His extraordinary academic work had twofold effect on the subsequent development of the language; it provided the Sanskrit with powerful wherewithal capable of making complex and complicated expressions possible but also rendered it prisoner of its own inflexible rules that ultimately buried it in books. Panini’s effort reflected a historical compulsion. Jose Medina in his book ‘Language’ while explaining the linguistic theory of Pierre Bourdieu writes, “… the constitution of a language is a historical process in which socio-economic forces compete to empower the modes of expression of certain classes and social groups and to disempower those of others…we must take into account the power struggles that go into the formation of a language and the power relations that are always present in its use “.

Panini’s work symbolised the climax of a long drawn struggle between the vanquished and the victors. The Sanskrit provided a mode of expression for the dominant social groups reflecting their political power. It became a kind of elite language for the religious and political leaders with a view to create two different worlds for the rulers and the ruled. Sanskrit was widely used for liturgical purposes to the exclusion of common people. Literary and philosophical products also formed an important part of the Sanskrit tradition.

The higher echelons of power and learning which had become upper caste preserve faced their first real challenge from an unlikely quarter. A Kashtriya prince Gautama Siddhartha known as the Lord Buddha in 5th century BC rejected not only the doctrinal base of caste system but also challenged its superstructure in the domain of culture. He refused to accept the supremacy of Sanskrit and its heritage. His was the total rejection of the old hierarchical order. He proudly used ‘Magadhi’ a Prakrit of his area which was everyday language of the people. He did thousands of years ago what Martin Luther did to a lesser degree in 16th century through his act of translating the Bible into the German vernacular. Buddha’s holistic worldview and humanist stance aimed at demolishing the religiously sanctioned inequality made his worldview universally acceptable. Following his tradition the Buddhist scholars used another Prakrit, Pali as primary vehicle of expression and created a vast corpus reflecting the diversity of the subcontinent. Alexander’s invasion in the 4th century BC and subsequent Greek presence had a deep impact on the social life in Punjab, Northern areas and Afghanistan which is evident from the rich hybrid Gandhara culture. It, however, did not change the linguistic scene in any meaningful manner.

In the later period when Buddhism itself turned into a sort of new dogma, Sanskrit surfaced again and was used for religious expressions indicating the nexus that always existed between the Sanskrit and power structure. Cutting the long story short it can safely be said that Sanskrit functioned as a language of power in the domains of religion, politics and culture over thousands of years in the caste driven and ritual obsessed India. But one should not lose sight of the fact that Prakrits continued to be spoken and nourished by peoples across the subcontinent. Emperor Ashoka’s inscriptions are in Magadhi and if at all we see some presence of Sanskrit there, it is just for literary embellishment. The inscriptions employ prose, not verse, as was the tradition with Sanskrit. Dravidian languages which were the precursors of contemporary languages like Brahavi, Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam also flourished despite all the odds as they had a rich broad base among the people.

With the decline of Buddhism in India through a gradual process Sanskrit regained its position. Sanskrit first emerged as sacred language used for liturgical and religious purposes. The elite started employing the Sanskrit for general political expression in the second century AD. The revival of Brahmanic order and restoration of Sanskrit as a language of power were organically linked. Resurgence of Brahmanism signified the revitalised and imposing presence of upper castes in religious, political and economic spheres, expressed through the sanitised medium of Sanskrit. Though language is an abstract construct, it cannot be truly understood in an abstract context devoid of historical perspective. Language reflects the dynamics of power relations in an ever changing concrete socio-cultural process.

The Indian subcontinent had never been short of foreign presence on its soil in its long history. It faced a fresh series of incursions by Shaka, Kushana and Huna from the north. All this had little doctrinal and linguistic impact on society.

In the late 10th century we see a phenomenon that again changed the course of history in India; Muslim invasions from the north. Though the Arabs had conquered Sindh and a part of Punjab much earlier, the invaders from the north unleashed new historical forces which shook the entire subcontinent, demolishing the high status of the Sanskrit forever. The incomers were called ‘Turushka’ (Turks) by the Indians. And they were, unlike Arabs, their Aryan cousins. What Turks had in common with Arabs was the faith — Islam. One of the consequences of Turks’ invasion was a log lasting transformation of the linguistic landscape of the subcontinent.

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