The sheer depth and fecundity of Sanskrit makes it a peerless language which deserves much exploration.
Sampadananda Mishra is a Sanskrit scholar from Odisha who is the director of Sri Aurobindo Foundation for Indian Culture in Pondicherry. He received his MPhil degree in Sanskrit working under V. Kutumba Sastry and his Ph.D. degree from Utkal University in Sanskrit as well as the evolution of human speech. Through the Vande Mataram Library Trust, an open-source and volunteer-driven project, he plans to generate verified, authentic English translations of almost all important scriptures available in Sanskrit. He regularly conducts wokshops, training programmes, and talks for students and teachers of Sanskrit, Mantra, Yoga and Bhagavad Gita while also running a 24-hour Sanskrit-language radio station called Divyavani Sanskrit Radio. He was awarded the Maharshi Badrayan Vyas Award for Sanskrit by the President of India in 2012.
The source of human language, as experienced and expressed by the ancient Indian Rishis, is the urge to express an inner experience. An ideal language must enable the individual to express his experience with minimum loss of meaning, with minimum expenditure of energy, and with minimum number of words. The quality of a language then depends on the efficiency and effectiveness with which the language enables the individual to express his experience; how perfectly it can communicate and arouse in the listener the exact experience of the speaker. It has to encompass the infinite variety and richness of life, its moods, its depths and its heights and reflect them like a perfect mirror, without any distortion. This is a difficult and challenging task. It demands the capacity to harmonise contradictory qualities. The language must be supple and flexible, capable of subtle shades and nuances, and yet efficient and efficacious, clear, precise and unambiguous. It must be compact and pithy and also rich and opulent; concise yet suggestive, strong and powerful yet sweet and charming, capable of growth and expansion to meet new challenges of the future, and at the same time an inspiring repository of all the great achievements of the past. An impossible demand, one would say. But Sanskrit has successfully met this challenge as perhaps no other language has. This is why it is known as ‘Sanskrit’ – that which is sculpted to perfection and has been well structured and refined to the utmost.
When we look at Sanskrit, we find that in the course of its long evolution it has acquired a fullness and completeness. In other words, this is a language which is complete in all the dimensions of its personality. Its power of expression is commendable. Its power to create new words is incredible. Its flexibility is remarkable. Its linguistic structure is unblemished. Its richness of vocabulary is unparalleled. Its literature marks excellence in all fields of knowledge. We can go on speaking about the remarkable features of Sanskrit and the list always remains endless. But let me explain this with an example of how Sanskrit fulfills all that makes it a language of integral perfection.
The Power of Expression
Sanskrit is immensely capable of expressing every kind of human experience, spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual. It has an unambiguous linguistic structure. Its grammar is perfect. It is unimaginably rich in its vocabulary. It provides various alternatives and possibilities from which the speaker can choose just the right word and the right structure. Here comes the significance of synonyms in Sanskrit. This is a language where synonyms are plenty. What is a synonym? Synonyms are equivalent words that can be interchanged in a context. In most languages, synonyms are different names for the same object. They are words that grow out of a convention and do not often have any inherent significance. One could have used the same word to denote a completely different object and, if the convention was sufficiently strong, the word would become a synonym for that object. But this is not so in Sanskrit. Firstly, the name is not just a convention but grows out of a root with the addition of specific suffixes. Therefore, its meaning too is not a convention but is very specific and determined. The synonyms of a word are not just alternate names, where one can replace one by another. Each synonym grows out of and reveals a special quality or attribute of that object. One has to choose from the many possibilities to the one that conveys best the exact property in mind.
For example, the word fire has as many as thirty-four equivalents in Sanskrit. The dictionary called Amarakosha prepared by Amarasimha is a dictionary of equivalent words in Sanskrit. Here we find all the thirty-four words for fire. They are:
अग्निः agniḥ वैश्वानरः vaiśvānaraḥ वह्निः vahniḥ वीतहोत्रः vītahotraḥ धनञ्जयः dhanañjayaḥ कृपीटयोनिः kṛpīṭayoniḥ ज्वलनः jvalanaḥ जातवेदस् jātavedas तनूनपात् tanūnapāt बर्हिः barhiḥ शुष्मा śuṣmā कृष्णवर्त्मा kṛṣṇavartmā शोचिष्केशः śociṣkeśaḥ उषर्बुधः uṣarbudhaḥ आश्रयाशः āśrayāśaḥ बृहद्भानुः bṛhadbhānuḥ कृशानुः kṛśānuḥ पावकः pāvakaḥ अनलः analaḥ रोहिताश्वः rohitāśvaḥ वायुसखः vāyusakhaḥ शिखावान् śikhāvān आशुशुक्षणिः āśuśukṣaṇiḥ हिरण्यरेतस् hiraṇyaretas हुतभुक् hutabhuk दहनः dahanaḥ हव्यवाहनः havyavāhanaḥ सप्तार्चिः saptārciḥ दमुनाः damunāḥ शुक्रः śukraḥ चित्रभानुः citrabhānuḥ विभावसुः vibhāvasuḥ शुचिः śuciḥ अप्पित्तम् appittam
Each word here has a specific and different connotation and leads to a particular experience with fire, represents a particular quality of fire. For example viû vahni comes from the root vah ‘to carry’, and means that which carries (the offerings to the gods); while Jvln jvalana comes from the root jval ‘to burn’, and means that which is burning; similarly pavk pävaka comes from the root puu ‘to purify’, and means that which purifies; and zu:ma çuñmä comes from the root shush ‘to dry’, and means that which dries up. The word Anl anala means ‘not enough’ na alam, it conveys that nothing is enough for the fire. It is the 'all devourer', ever dissatisfied one. The entire creation can go into the mouth of the fire, still it is not enough. So, it is for the writer or the speaker to decide the most appropriate word for ‘fire’ in a given context. This adds to the expressiveness of Sanskrit.
Due to its vast creative possibilities, it is also capable of expressing precisely and minutely, abstract thoughts as well as the most profound and sublime ideas. The supreme experiences and unusual conceptions which are a part of the yogic experience are “difficult to represent accurately in any other language than the ancient Sanskrit tongue in which alone they have been to some extent systematised.” [Sri Aurobindo: ‘The Synthesis of Yoga’, SABCL Vol.20, pp. 11-12]
Look at the texts of various Upanishads. Do you know what the Upanishads are? The word Upanishad literally means ‘to sit near’ (the Guru). While writing about the Upanishads in his book, The Foundations of Indian Culture, Sri Aurobindo says:
“The Upanishads are at once profound religious scriptures (for they are a record of the deepest spiritual experiences), documents of revelatory and intuitive philosophy of an inexhaustible light, power and largeness and, whether written in verse or cadenced prose, spiritual poems of an absolute, an unfailing inspiration inevitable in phrase, wonderful in rhythm and expression. It is the expression of a mind in which philosophy and religion does not end with a cult nor is limited to a religio-ethical aspiration, but rises to an infinite discovery of God, of Self, of our highest and whole reality of spirit and being… Here the intuitive mind and intimate psychological experience of the Vedic seers pass into a supreme culmination in which the Spirit reveals the very word of its self-expression and makes the mind discover the vibration of rhythms which repeat themselves within, in the spiritual hearing & seem to build up the soul and set it satisfied and complete on the heights of self-knowledge...” (Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Vol. 14, p.269)
One can find in the language of the Upanishads the utmost brevity of expression. Take, for example, the invocatory verse of the Isha Upanishad, one of the ten principal Upanishads. It says:
पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पूर्णमुदच्यते।
पूर्णस्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते।।
pūrṇamadaḥ pūrṇamidaṃ pūrṇātpūrṇamudacyate।
pūrṇasya pūrṇamādāya pūrṇamevāvaśiṣyate।।
All this is full. All that is full.
From fullness, fullness comes.
When fullness is taken from fullness,
Fullness still remains.
This brief utterance is immensely rich in its thought contents. I am not going to explain the verse in detail, that is not my purpose, what I am trying is to give you a feel of the intensity of the power of expression that is there in the verse. In the Upanishads, we find a clear expression of the thoughts with minimum use of words. Upanishads are short but one can spend whole life time trying to understand even one out of the hundreds of Upanishads.
Further, the concept of sutra is simply amazing. A sutra is like an apothegmatic expression which is short, pithy and a versatile sentence presenting a concept in the most efficient, compact and thorough manner. This is very peculiar to Sanskrit. The Yogasutras of Patanjali, the Brahmasutra of Badarayana, Kamasutra of Vatsyayana are few popular scriptures written in sutra form. It is said in some ancient scripture that a sutra must have the minimum number of syllables – alpaksharam. Not even one syllable should be extra or superfluous. There should be no scope for doubts or ambiguity – asandigdham. It should have something worth-while and of value to express – saaravat. It should have wide applicability in diverse situations and should not be confined to a few particular instances – vishvatomukham. It should be free from errors, inadequacies and fillers – astobham. It should stand on its own strength. It should present a truth that is irrefutable – anavadyam.
Panini, who is regarded as the father of Sanskrit grammar, has presented the grammar of Sanskrit in the form sutras in his book Ashtadhyayi. There are approximately four thousand sutras in eight chapters in which Panini has presented the whole Sanskrit language. This is considered to be the greatest monument of the world that the human genius has brought forth. I am quoting here a few sutras from Ashtadhyayi for showing the utmost brevity that Panini has achieved in composing his text on grammar.
1. ध्रुवमपायेƧपादानम् dhruvamapāyeƧpādānam 1.4.24
When there is a movement away, the fixed part from which the movement takes palce is known as apadana (ablative).
2. कर्मणा यमभिप्रैति स सम्प्रदानम् karmaṇā yamabhipraiti sa sampradānam 1.4.32
That which the agent wishes to reach through the object is known as sampradana (dative).
3. साधकतमं करणम् sādhakatamaṃ karaṇam 1.4.42
That which is most instrumental in bringing an action to accomplishment is known as karana (instrumental).
4. आधारोƧधिकरणम् ādhāroƧdhikaraṇam 1.4. 44
That which serves as locus is known as adhikarana (locative).
5. कर्तुरीप्सिततमं कर्म karturīpsitatamaṃ karma 1.4.49
That which the agent wishes the most is known as karma (accusative).
6. स्वतन्त्रः कर्ता svatantraḥ kartā 1.4.54
That which is independent of everything is known as karta (Nominative).
These are sutras related to the karaka section of Ashtadhyayi which deals with the syntax of Sanskrit. You cannot really believe how much information that the sutras have within themselves.
Now I will give you a few examples of different types of compositions in Sanskrit where you will experience something truly amazing. Here you can see the utmost flexibility of Sanskrit language and the high connotative power of the words in Sanskrit.
Have you ever heard this famous sentence in English which says, “Able was I ere I saw Elba”? Do you know who said this? It was great Napoleon who said this when he was imprisoned in the island of Elba. What is so special about this sentence? Just read it once more. And try to read it once more from right to left. What do you find? It reads the same. This is called Palindrome. There are, in English, words like peep, noon, did, dad, madam etc. which when read from both left to right or right to left give you the same sounds and same meanings. I will show you here one example from a Sanskrit text in which you will not only see Palindromes but you'll also be amazed to see the genius of the poet and the utmost flexibility of the Sanskrit language. Here is the verse:
तं भूसुतामुक्तिमुदारहासं वंदे यतो भव्यभवं दयाश्रीः।
श्रीयादवं भव्यभतोयदेवं संहारदामुक्तिमुतासुभूतम्।।
taṃ bhūsutāmuktimudārahāsaṃ vaṃde yato bhavyabhavaṃ dayāśrīḥ।
śrīyādavaṃ bhavyabhatoyadevaṃ saṃhāradāmuktimutāsubhūtam।।
Here you can see that the second half of the verse is formed by reversing the first half. Then the entire verse from left to right and right to left is the same. Another important thing about this verse is that the first half is a description of Lord Rama, and the second half, which is the reverse of the first half, describes Lord Krishna. Is it not amazing? Is it not outstanding? How can a poet do this? Also, you can observe that by reversing the first line or by reading it from right to left, the arrangement of syllables by short and long remains intact, there is no loss in the rhythmic pattern. It follows perfectly the rules of metrics, rules of grammar, and rules of poetry. Everything is perfectly maintained. What will you call this? Is it Arts or Science or Mathematics or poetry or a formula or a Mantra? I can see everything here integrated into a single whole. This is what I call the perfection of Sanskrit. Only a perfect language can express things in this manner. This particular verse is taken from a text called Ramakrishna-viloma-kavya written by Suryakavi. There are fifty such verses where the first half is about Lord Rama and the same line in a reverse manner forms the second half describing Lord Krishna.
Likewise, it is possible in Sanskrit to compose poetry using only a few consonants, or by dropping a group of letters. Or sometimes you can see verses in which there is only one vowel with the other consonants. It is also possible in Sanskrit to compose a verse in which all the consonants of Sanskrit appear in the same order as they are in the alphabet. There is a whole gamut of poetry which has such wonderful and unimaginable compositions. What I would like to convey is that the language is immensely capable of facilitating such expressions. Unless and until a language attains certain perfection, you cannot have such power of expression.
Let me tell you about another type of composition in Sanskrit which is known as sandhanakavya. In this type of poetry one can find, sometimes, one verse describing two or five or seven different topics. The poet who makes a composition of this type has several topics in his mind and the words he uses have the ability to express all the different topics in a single verse. For example in the Raghava-pandviya poem composed by a poet named Dhananjaya we find the story of Ramayana and the Mahabharata in each of its verse. Saptasandhanakavya of Meghavijaya describes the story of seven great men. Each of its verses tells seven different stories simultaneously. I present here a very interesting story which illustrates one such verse. I hope you know the story of Nala and Damayanti. This is a story in the Mahabharata, one of the two great epics of India. Sriharsha, a master poet in Sanskrit took this episode of the Mahabharata as the topic of his epic poetry called Naishadhiya-chcaritam. In the thirteenth canto of this poem Sriharsha gives the description of svayamvara (choosing of bride-groom) ceremony of Damayanti. Damayanti has decided to choose Nala as her consort, whom she loves. But in order to test the fidelity of her love she has been put to a test. In the ceremony there are Indra, Agni, Varuna, Yama and Nala, but the four gods have assumed the form of Nala. Now, from the five, Damayanti has to choose her beloved Nala. Goddess Saraswati is there to introduce each of them to Damayanti. Being the goddess of speech she cannot tell a lie, and if she speaks the truth then there is no point in having the trick. What is to be done in this situation? Now poet Sriharsha composes just one verse. And this single verse is capable of conveying five different meanings. Goddess Saraswati introduces each of them by reciting the same verse. And each time she knows what she means. To explain the verse in detail will take a few pages. So instead of explaining it I am just quoting the verse below.
देवः पतिर्विदुषि नैषधराजगत्या
निर्णीयते न किमु न व्रियते भवत्या।
नायं नलः खलु तवातिमहानलाभो
यद्येनमुज्झसि वरः कतरः पुनस्ते।।
devaḥ patirviduṣi naiṣadharājagatyā
nirṇīyate na kimu na vriyate bhavatyā।
nāyaṃ nalaḥ khalu tavātimahānalābho
yadyenamujjhasi varaḥ kataraḥ punaste।।
(Naishadhiyacharitam of Sriharsha, 13.34)
What do we gather from this? Is this that the mind of the poet that was capable of presenting this and that alone is important? Is this that the language had the power to enable the poet to do in that manner? Who created that mind and that language? I am not going to answer these questions. But what I feel that we need to concentrate on these questions and I am sure that the answers will come to each one in its own way.
The Power of Creating New Words
As I have mentioned before, a perfect language must also have the capacity to grow, to meet the demands of completely new experiences. The speaker of the language should be able to create new words to suit his needs and at the same time, the listener should be able to understand him. From this point of view, Sanskrit is extremely elaborate and sophisticated. Sanskrit has the ability to create new words and any amount of words to meet the coming Age. It has got a beautiful system of formation of words by combining a root-sound with a suffix and prefix. Let me give you one example of creating a new word.
Imagine, you have not seen a camera before. You do not know what it is. It is placed before you, and you are told that this is a camera. You are seeing the object for the first time, and hearing the word camera for the first time. Can the word camera help you know about it? Remember the word camera has not yet been included in any dictionary. What I am trying to say you is that in languages other than Sanskrit the words are created arbitrarily, the meanings are imposed on the words. But in Sanskrit one can create words without any arbitrariness. Here the words are self-explanatory. You can get at least some idea about an object just by concentrating on the word by which the object is named. Now as for an example let us create a word for camera in Sanskrit. When we need to create a new word for an object what we need to take care of is the nature of the object, its function, its different features etc. Now, what does a camera do? The main feature of the camera is to take pictures, to seize forms. In Sanskrit the root-sound ‘grah’ is used to denote ‘to seize’ or ‘to capture’. The one who (or that which) seizes or captures can be expressed by the word ‘graahin’ or ‘graahaka’ derived from the root ‘grah’. The word ‘ruupa’ in Sanskrit is used in the sense of form or image or picture. Now we can combine both the words ruupa and graahin or graahaka to and make it ruupagraahin or ruupagraahaka to mean something which seizes or captures forms or images. And this word can be used for camera. For any Indian, at least, the word ruupagraahin or ruupagraahaka is more direct and simple and self-explanatory than camera. Similarly one can create the word shabdagraahin or shabdagraahaka for a sound receiver. Is it not interesting? Sanskrit in this manner has a powerful system of creating new words.
Take for example another root-sound, let us say ‘kri’ which means ‘to do’. From this one monosyllabic root-sound one can derive hundreds and thousands of words, and the root-experience ‘to do or make or to put into action’ helps to understand the meanings of all the thousands of words created from this root-sound. Say for example one can get the word ‘kartri’ meaning ‘a doer’ by adding the suffix ‘tri’, ‘karana’ meaning ‘doing’ or ‘an instrument which does’ by adding the suffix ‘ana’, ‘kaarya’ meaning ‘a thing to be done’ by adding the suffix ‘ya’, ‘kartavya’ meaning ‘that which must or should be done’ by adding the suffix ‘tavya’, and so on and so forth.
The above are just a few stray examples of the way the words are created in Sanskrit but they have far-reaching implications. The first implication is that from a single root, by adding various suffixes, we can create a large number of nouns with various shades of meanings. Further, instead of adding only suffixes to a single root, if we successively add a number of prefixes and suffixes to the verb-roots or nouns, we can have an even greater number of nouns and verbs, with just the precise nuances and meanings we wish to convey. We have therefore not only a very large vocabulary but also the possibility of creating new words in a very natural manner for all possible situations, actions and objects. And, what is more important, it is possible for any one with a basic knowledge of Sanskrit to follow and understand these new words.
Most languages use the process of adding prefixes and suffixes to create new words. But often it is not a conscious process, not sufficiently natural and sometimes even a bit arbitrary. Nor is it a normal part of the use of the language. On the other hand, in Sanskrit, it is a very conscious and powerful tool in the hands of the speaker or the writer. The way words unfold from their seed forms is remarkable. When the root creates a word, the sound undergoes certain transformative principles to keep it resonating to its optimum. Hence, cit ‘to be aware’ becomes the resonant cetaami, ‘I am aware’, and cetanam, ‘awareness’. The root-sound budh, ‘to know or understand’, becomes bodhaami, ‘I know or understand’, and bodhanam ‘knowing or understanding or being awake’. These relationships operate with mathematical precision throughout the language, and it becomes extraordinarily powerful and structured, and easy to learn.
Greatness of Sanskrit Literature
According to Sri Aurobindo –
“The greatness of a literature lies first in the greatness and worth of its substance, the value of its thought and the beauty of its forms, but also in the degree to which, satisfying the highest conditions of the art of speech, it avails to bring out and raise the soul and life or the living and the ideal mind of a people, an age, a culture, through the genius of some of its greatest or most sensitive representative spirits.” (Sri Aurobindo: ‘The Foundations of Indian Culture’, Sri Aurobindo Birth Centenary Library, Vol.14, p. 255)
Here Sri Aurobindo focuses mainly on the subject matter of a literary work, the thought embedded in it, the beauty of expression, the art of speech, the cultural heritage and the social settings. In this light he speaks of the greatness of Sanskrit literature as follows:
“The ancient and classical creations of the Sanskrit tongue both in quality and in body and abundance of excellence, in their potent originality and force and beauty, in their substance and art and structure, in grandeur and justice and charm of speech and in the height and width of the reach of their spirit stand very evidently in the front rank among the world’s great literatures. The language itself, as has been universally recognised by those competent to form a judgment, is one of the most magnificent, the most perfect and wonderfully sufficient literary instruments developed by the human mind, at once majestic and sweet and flexible, strong and clearly-formed and full and vibrant and subtle, and its quality and character would be of itself a sufficient evidence of the character and quality of the race whose mind it expressed and culture of which it was the reflecting medium.”
These two striking sentences of Sri Aurobindo highlight all the characteristic features of the Sanskrit literature.
The literary glories of Sanskrit are multifaceted and many-splendoured. Valmiki, Vyasa and Vishvanatha; Kalidasa, Kapila and Kalhana; Jayadeva, Jaimini and Jagannatha; Bhavabhuti, Bhasa and Bharata; Asvaghosa, Abhinavagupta and Anandavardhana; Vatsyayana, Visakhadatta and Vidyadhara; the list is endless. The corpus of Sanskrit literature covers the whole gamut of human experience; it is by no means confined to grammar or philosophy. Every human emotion and aspiration, every beat of the human heart, every flight of the human mind, the joys and sorrows of humanity are to be found in Sanskrit literature, and this makes it continuously meaningful in all ages to come.
No doubt, Sanskrit is rich in vocabulary, in expression, in literature, and it has a perfect structure. The language, as much like music, brings the mind into a beautiful flow. Here we see that while reading or talking, the syllables slur into one another in the natural flow of the language. This allows for an unbroken flow of sound so fluid that it enters seamlessly into memory. This is the reason for which thousands of years ago when there was no written material, vast amounts of information were committed to memory; great works of literature, the Vedas, the Upanishads, or even entire epics. To a large extent, it was the design of the Sanskrit language that made this possible. This is another important feature of a perfect language.
Sanskrit, as a perfect language does one more thing, it combines its perfection with inspired truth to create a living experience of spiritual awakening, a sense of being eternal. No language, I believe, has yet achieved this the way Sanskrit has.