Sanskrit, Sacred Language of India

Sanskrit script carved into a temple wall. Getty Images

Sanskrit is an ancient Indo-European language, the root of many modern Indian languages, and it remains one of India's 22 official languages to this day.  Sanskrit also functions as the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and Jainism, and it plays an important role in the Buddhist scripture as well.  Where did Sanskrit come from?  Why is it controversial in India?

The word Sanskrit means "sanctified" or "refined."  The earliest known work in Sanskrit is the Rigveda, a collection of Brahmanical texts, which dates to c.

1500 to 1200 BCE.  (Brahmanism was the early precursor to Hinduism.)  The Sanskrit language developed out of proto-Indo-European, which is the root of most languages in Europe, Persia (Iran), and India.  Its closest cousins are Old Persian, and Avestan, which is the liturgical language of Zoroastrianism.

Pre-Classical Sanskrit, including the language of the Rigveda, is called Vedic Sanskrit.  A later form, called Classical Sanskrit, is distinguished by the grammar standards laid out by a scholar called Panini, writing in the 4th century BCE.  Panini defined a bewildering 3,996 rules for syntax, semantics, and morphology in Sanskrit.

Classical Sanskrit spawned the majority of the hundreds of modern languages spoken across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka today.  Some of its daughter languages include Hindi, Marathi, Urdu, Nepali, Balochi, Gujarati, Sinhalese, and Bengali.

The array of spoken languages that arose from Sanskrit is matched by the vast number of different scripts in which Sanskrit can be written.

  Most commonly, people use the Devanagari alphabet.  However, almost every other Indic alphabet has been used to write in Sanskrit at one time or another.  The Siddham, Sharda, and Grantha alphabets are used exclusively for Sanskrit, and the language is also written in scripts from other countries, such as Thai, Khmer, and Tibetan.

As of the most recent census, only 14,000 people out of 1,252,000,000 in India speak Sanskrit as their primary language.  It is used widely in religious ceremonies; thousands of Hindu hymns and mantras are recited in Sanskrit.  In addition, many of the oldest Buddhist scriptures are written in Sanskrit, and Buddhist chants also commonly feature the liturgical language that was familiar to Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian price who became the Buddha.  However, many of the Brahmins and Buddhist monks who chant in Sanskrit today do not understand the actual meaning of the words they speak.  Most linguists thus consider Sanskrit a "dead language." 

A movement in modern India is seeking to revive Sanskrit as a spoken language for everyday use.  This movement is tied to Indian nationalism, but is opposed by speakers of non-Indo-European languages including the Dravidic-language speakers of southern India, such as the Tamils.  Given the antiquity of the language, its relative rarity in daily use today, and its lack of universality, the fact that it remains one of India's official languages is somewhat odd.  It's as if the European Union made Latin an official language of all of its member-states.