History and Significance of Sanskrit

Most people who explore the world of yoga or Ayurveda, no matter how deeply or lightly, have come across and heard at least a few Sanskrit terms. Yoga teachers may use Sanskrit names for asanas, many chant AUM, and reference philosophical topics from ancient Sanskrit texts. The word “yoga” actually has root in the Sanskrit word “yuj,” which means ‘to yoke,’ or ‘to join.’ Sanskrit has a long, rich history and was integral in the communication of yogic teachings and philosophies throughout the millennia.

Today, Sanskrit is a classic, yet official, language of India. Due to its ancient origins and strong influence on different parts of the world, it is considered the mother of all languages. It has been traced back 3,500 years and many ancient philosophy texts from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism were originally written in Sanskrit. According to Hindu legend, Brahma (the creator) introduced Sanskrit to the sages of celestial bodies. This language is also called Dev Vani, which means language of the gods.

Classical Sanskrit is an old Indo-Aryan language. Indo-Aryan is a branch of the Indo-European group of languages. It is related to Greek and Latin, as well as many other extinct, yet significant languages of Europe and Asia. It is still widely used as a ceremonial and ritual language in Hinduism and some Buddhist practices in hymns and chants.

The pre-history of Indo-Aryan languages is unclear and there are various theories as to the deep roots of this sacred language. There is a strong theory that suggests the original speakers of what became Sanskrit arrived in the Indian subcontinent from the northwest. There is a close relationship between Indo-Iranian languages and Baltic and Slavic languages.The pre-classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit. The earliest Vedic text is the RigVeda, a Hindu scripture from the second millennium BCE. The Rigveda is a collection of books from multiple authors spanning different generations from all across ancient India. According to Michael Witzel, Vedic Sanskrit was a spoken language of semi-nomadic Aryans. Vedic evolved over time into the more structured and homogenous Classical Sanskrit by the mid 1st century BCE. Sanskrit grammar is very exact and sophisticated, unrivaled by other early languages. Meter and rhythm are an integral part of the tongue, making it perfect for all of the sacred texts and different arts in which it is used. Due to Sanskrit’s precision in communication, it became the dominant literary and inscriptional language.

Sanskrit literature encompasses a rich collection of philosophy, religion, poetry, music, drama, and other scientific and technical texts.

Sanskrit means “well prepared, pure and perfect, polished, sacred.”

“The Sanscrit 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 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. There is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick [sic], though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the Old Persian might be added to the same family.”

— William Jones, 1786, quoted by Thomas Burrow in The Sanskrit Language

The Sanskrit language cosmopolis thrived between 300 and 1300 CE. As local languages and dialects evolved and diversified, Sanskrit served as the common language. Sanskrit use declined around the 13th century as India was invaded by the Sultanates and later the Mughal Empire, leading to the fall of Hindu empires.

Despite changing times and politics, Sanskrit survived the passing

eras as a special, timeless language that lives on today in many manuscripts, chants, and ceremonies. Though most significant collections of texts are from India, many have also been found in Myanmar, Indonesia, Cambodia, China, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia. Some have also been found in Nepal, Tibet, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Korea, and Japan. Sanskrit has influenced the modern languages of India and all modern Indo-Aryan languages, some with exact words borrowed directly from the ancient language.

Today, universities offer Sanskrit studies, and ancient Sanskrit texts have been translated to many languages to make the teachings available for all. Well known Sanskrit texts include, among many, The Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, and the Upanishads. More information is available here.

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