Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, of the Upanishads, of the epics Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Bhagavad Gita, and of the works of Kalidasa, Bhasa, and Bhavabhuti, of the world's oldest grammar of Ashtadhyayi, also known as Paniniyam, and of the great texts of Ayurveda – and the language known as the Devabhasha, or the language of the Gods. Millions of people use Sanskrit in their daily life for various needs. A member of the Indo-European family of the world's languages, it is one of the official languages of India.
The term 'Sanskrit' means 'refined' or 'polished'. If so, which was the original that underwent refining or polishing to become Sanskrit? Is there any clue to its antiquity? Who were the original speakers of the tongue which later became Sanskrit?
The earliest clues: Scholars who tried to trace the antiquity of the language have showed that the Indo-Europeans migrated out of a homeland north and northeast of the Black Sea as mounted warriors in the Hypothetical Kurgan Invasion of about 4000 BC and reached Greece about 3500 BC. This discovery paved the way for the development of the study of comparative linguistics, which groups the languages of the world into families. The fact is that Sanskrit has a mysterious relationship with the languages of Europe, except Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Turkish and Basque. But what was the common source for the wide variety of related languages? There has been no clear answer to the question. It is all behind the mists of time, as an observer describes the situation. Professor A.L. Basham, eminent historian and author of the celebrated work 'The Wonder That Was India points out:
"…European tongues look back to a common ancestor in a group of dialects spoken by tribesmen in the steppelands of South Russia some 2000 years BC. The relationship of Sanskrit to the languages of the west is indicated by several obvious resemblances, such as pitr, 'father', matr, 'mother', and many others which are less obvious." After discussing the point with examples from various European languages like Latin and Greek, Basham goes on: "Vedic Sanskrit is in many ways closer than any other Indo-European language to the parent tongue, and it was the discovery of Sanskrit which enabled Bopp, Rask, and other scholars of the first half of the last century to establish a clear relationship between the language of the Indo-European group and to develop the science of comparative philology." Other scholars too subscribe to the idea of Vedic Sanskrit being the nucleus of the language group later called the Indo-European family of languages. They also opine that the origin of Sanskrit can be accredited to the vedic society. But there has been no surviving information about the speakers of that language, the proto-Indo-European who should have lived for several centuries before the vedic texts appeared in the form of memorized stanzas handed down from generation to generation. The term 'Indo-European' was coined by certain European scholars who found great similarities among hundreds of languages and dialects spread over Europe, and Asia – mainly Indian and European languages. They were some visitors of the 16th century to India from Europe. The first among them was Thomas Stephens, an English Jesuit missionary in Goa. It was he who noted similarities between some Indian languages and the European languages like Greek and Latin. And now let us return to Basham: "The earliest surviving form of Sanskrit, that of the Rig Veda, bears about the same relation to the classical tongue as does Homeric to classical Greek. At all its stages Sanskrit is a language of many inflexions, but the Vedas contain numerous forms which later went out of use. The verb is of a complexity, rivaling the Greek, with a bewildering array of vices and moods, later much simplified. The vedic noun, as in later Sanskrit, has eight cases, and both verb and noun have dual numbers." But the Vedic Sanskrit is believed to be of a date earlier than that of Iliad or Odyssey. The vedic period dates back to 2nd millennium BC, according to one school. The Western researchers and other scholars had no idea about 'the language of the gods', or of the great works composed in that language, or of the ordinary people of India who spoke the language. Those researchers began to take interest in Sanskrit just about two hundred years ago when the first translations came up. They thought that Sanskrit was a distant cousin of Greek. But this language was different from the European members of the Indo-European languages. Vedic Sanskrit had developed certain phonetic specialties, morphemic identities through the inflections, might be borrowed from the proto-Dravidian tongues. But the language was developing faster, especially after the composition of the Rig Veda. Scholars have pointed out that the old inflexions disappeared, grammar and usage got simplified, and new words from diverse sources introduced. Meaning shift affected many of the old words and the language was slowly transforming itself into a growing medium. But the people behind the Vedas needed to preserve the purity of the texts and it was how the sciences of phonetics and grammar developed in India, points out Basham. It was how Yaaska's Nirukta, the oldest Indian text on the science of language came into being in the 5th century BC. Within a century after that came up Ashtadhyayi (meaning 'the one with eight chapters'), the great work of grammar from Panini, hailed as the earliest known work on descriptive linguistics, and it consists of almost 4000 rules of the internal structure for Sanskrit words. Panini's work, also known as Paniniyam, was a comprehensive scientific theory of the language. Historians of the language points out that this work changed the course of Sanskrit by ending the Vedic period of Sanskrit and bringing in the age of classical Sanskrit. Many centuries passed by after the turning point that Paniniyam marked in the history of Sanskrit. The language developed into a wonderful medium for literary creations, and Hinduism found itself growing and developing through some of its greatest literary contributions. A merchant from Florence, Italy, named Filippo Sassetti, traveled to India in the 16th century AD, and it was he who made the first mention of a language of India known as 'Samskrutam' (Sanskrit) to the European scholars. In the next century, a Dutch scholar, Marcus Boxhorn, came across and noted down the similarity among some of the Indian and European languages and brought up a theory about the existence once of a common language for this group. But it was in the next century, in 1786 to be precise, that this hypothesis came up for discussion again, when Sir William Johns spoke of the similarities among Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Persian. It was in the early19th century that the term 'Indo-European' became the standard expression to denote all the languages of the family. The theory of the existence of a proto-Indo-European was almost accepted. The evolution of the languages, especially Sanskrit, gained greater significance. Sanskrit came to be designated as the leading member of what they called Indo-Iranian subdivision of the family and studies were undertaken seriously about the development, evolution, and influence of the language. Sanskrit literature underwent rigorous examination, study and translation, and the Western world of scholars was mesmerized by the works of Kalidasa and others. It was an ocean of aesthetic brilliance, scholastic profundity and literary excellence.
We have seen the significance of Panini and his master piece, the Ashtadhyayi. This is the grammar that standardized Sanskrit and its usage. According to experts, no grammarian has had as much influence over the grammar of any language as much as Panini has had. His is a descriptive grammar which also is a generative grammar.
Sir William Jones, one of the pioneers in modern linguistics, speaking to the Asiatic Society in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on February 2, 1786, said, as quoted in several texts on the antiquity of Sanskrit or its heritage and quality:
“The Sanskrit 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 in 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”.
By saying so, he should be making a mention to the proto-Indo-European or rather the proto-Indo Dravidian from which Sanskrit, the literal meaning of which is ‘the refined one’, or rather the one which was refined from an ‘unrefined’ local language.