• 15 Jun, 2024

Sans Sanskrit What Is Prakrit?

Sans Sanskrit What Is Prakrit?

The ancient Indian understanding of Sanskrit is that it is devbhasha, it comes from a consciousness above the human mentality, where the sounds are not separate from meaning or image, and the grammar, morphology and vocabulary is intimately one with the consciousness...

Wendy Doniger in her The Hindus An Alternative History writes, “It must have been the case that the natural language, Prakrit, and the vernaculars came first, while Sanskrit, the refined, secondary revision, the artificial language, came later.” This is a conjecture and based on erroneous assumption and perhaps biases.

I would present why this is so. Sri Aurobindo in The Origins of Aryan Speech showed that the origin of language on a psychological, phonetic, and linguistic-hermeneutic basis came from primal or root sounds that were pronounceable to our early forefathers and had a psychological impact or sense. Each root sound or beej dhvani has a guna or quality that is not arbitrary or random but has a sensory, auditory, visual, and tactile significance. Eventually, this significance or sense becomes the origin of families of similar roots which begin to deviate albeit slightly from the original sense. These root sound and their families then began to grow and coalesce into words or syllables that began to gather meaning. And if we trace the roots of these words backward, we find them connect to those root sounds even now among the family of languages that derived from the Proto Indo-European languages (PIE). Sri Aurobindo called this Embryonic Linguistics.  He maintained that from a psychological and linguistic viewpoint, this paradigm is seen even now as infants grow without knowing the evolution of humanity and its language-structures.

For example, the sound Ma- is the root of words like mater, mata, amma, ma, matrix, amnion, mom, mother, etc. This is a word family. Ma- sound in Sanskrit phonetics signifies completion, fulfilment, ending. And it makes sense since for the growing infant one of the most easily articulated sounds is Ma- where only the lips are moved and no other complex use of vocal cords, tongue, palate, or teeth is needed. And it is perhaps easy for the infant to associate this sound Ma- with the loving nurturing blurred figure that is its only succor in this strangely alien and frightening world. Anyway, whether this is correct neonatal psychology or not, it is a fact that Ma- creates a family of words with the same meaning in different cognate languages and cultures. But what about words like muerto, morte, mrityu, maut, maran, that signify the end of life or death. They seem to spring from the same sense of completion or ending. And what about words like marine, matarishvan, which signify the Ocean. And mri- which in the Vedic Sanskrit signifies physical union or oneness.

Sri Aurobindo showed similarly how the sound da- evolved into various word families in his masterly essay noted above. And this exercise can be undertaken and sustained with various words families on a large scale through the entire PIE tree.

From what we know of languages Sanskrit is the earliest language available to us in its purest form, preserved to the finest nuance possible, in pronunciation or sense. No other language remains in its unadulterated form in such manner for 2000 years or more. If Sanskrit is indeed cognate with all other languages in the PIE family, including but not limited to Greek, Latin, Tamil, German, Celtic, Arabic, Persian, among others, and that is the earliest language we have, on what basis do we posit a language separate from the PIE family from which Sanskrit was evolved?

To be fair to Doniger, she begins the sentence with ‘It must be the case.’ Her theory is that the Rishis who composed the Veda in Vedic or Vedic Sanskrit must have used a language to interact with the local population and refined their words. Brereton and Jamison in their brilliant translation of the Veda, have shown that the Rishis were not averse to using local words in their extremely refined compositions. But anyone who has the slightest experience in writing poetry, or any other genre perhaps has an acute sense of what is called the mot juste, the right word, “the common word exact without vulgarity,” as TS Eliot said. And the poet is always looking for words from other languages to improve his or her expression. Brereton and Jamison have shown that the Vedic Kavis or Seer-Poets were highly refined and conscious artists, as exact and precise or even more than the modern poets, as disruptive and creative as any poet in the long history of world literature. Absorbing words from native expressions proves nothing about Prakrit coming prior to Sanskrit.

It does not seem to me that this debate may ever get settled if we insist on a western model of human evolution from primitive societies and the evolution of language from words. But if we agree to the understanding that words are not the glue, but it is the root sounds, then the problem gets clarified a bit. For Sanskrit adheres very closely to this relationship of root sounds and sense or meaning which gets diluted in other languages. It seems to me that if Sanskrit is the original language of root sounds and beeja dhvanis, then it is the closest record we have on such scale with such long and detailed continuity, and to posit an earlier language which does not bear the imprint of roots is an error in thought and scholarship. Besides we have no other record of native languages from the Vedic times to make such suppositions.

The western paradigm believes that mankind evolved from a barbaric primitive state to the present acme of civilization. In such a model, there can be no room for an earlier evolved language which may, in some ways, be more advanced than modern languages. But if the Vedic model of cyclical time is correct, that mankind has seen advanced civilizations in the past though perhaps not intellectually as developed as the present but more evolved in ecology, spirituality, healing, human sciences including linguistics, poetry, literature, and arts, then Sanskrit preceding Prakrit is a real possibility and maybe the more assured one.

If we look at the first rik of the Veda, from Mandala 1, Sookta 1, we come across the ancient Vedic sounds that are based on these beeja dhvanis in enunciation, meaning, sound and psychological impact, not to mention the symbolism, prosody, and layers of hidden meaning.

अ॒ग्निमी॑ळे पु॒रोहि॑तं य॒ज्ञस्य॑ दे॒वमृ॒त्विज॑म् ।
होता॑रं रत्न॒धात॑मम् ॥

The word Agni is derived from the root sound aj- or related phoneme ang- which even today is carried in other languages like Latin (ago), Greek (agape), English (igneous, ignite), Hindi (agya). The sound a- gives us a sense of beginning according to Sanskrit linguistics and that of absolute existence. G- gives it the sense of force or action. Ag- gives a sense of eminence, being at the front, forward, and from this comes the meaning of Agni as the revelation, the Fire and Light, the energy that is seen in the Universe, and the will power that is the secret impulsion of things. This Agni is not just a flame but is present in the Sun (solar Agni) and Indra (the higher mind or the luminous mind) and in the waters and the woods and even in the densest matter. And this Agni is secretly the Sun and Indra itself and is also all the other devas or forces of nature. Incidentally, Indra or the luminous mind comes from the root indh- which means to ignite (indhan in Hindi means to burn, indriya in Sanskrit means the senses).

Thus, even as we study the first word of the Rig Veda, we see a hidden connection with other languages and a hidden connection with other words, symbols, significances. This is not the result of a mentalized construction but a natural and organic growth out of the nature of human mind, and its expressions. To propose another language antecedent to this connector seems to be a conjecture fraught with too many unanswerable issues.

When we come to the word Purohit, which literally means one who is at the front, not just the priest. Puratah in Sanskrit means the front and is cognate to the Latin porto, portico, and the English portal, the door. Thus, Purohit gives Agni the same eminence that the word Agni means in its own etymological development.

Yajna is another word with multiple significances including offering, oblation, worship, dharma, Vishnu, yoga, etc. It is not sacrifice as erroneously translated by HH Wilson more than 150 years ago which has confused the issue. But yajna is related to the same root in essence as Agni with the same root aj- and the ya- sound in it implies control, mastery, relation, as we see in other Sanskrit words like yantra, yama, niyantrana, sanyama, etc. Again, we see the same interrelationships as if the language came out of a quantum world of sounds and multi-layered meanings.

The next word of importance is deva which comes from the root div-, to shine, to be brilliant. We still use the words Divine or diva in this sense in English today. Again, the sense of deva is not a god outside but someone who blazes and here again we see an inner connection with the sense of root of Agni, to burn at the front and among all things.

Ritvik comes from Ritam which is a very important word in the entire Veda. Ritam is Truth in manifestation from ri-to vibrate or play. Ritam is used in the trinity of Satyam-Ritam-Brihat which translates to Truth-Right-Vast. Ritam also means straight and implies the cosmic law according to which the Universe manifests or has evolved. We see this sense even today in English as in rites, righteous, ritual, or in Latin rectus. Or in Sanskrit ritu which means the seasons. Ritam is hidden in the word amritam which means immortality in the Veda.

This is just the first line and one can write a library on these hidden connections of root-meanings and sense and give us a sense of another way perhaps of how our languages might have evolved than an artificial arbitrary theory that suggests that Sanskrit was a refinement of prior unrefined languages to such a perfection that perhaps even our modern-day super computers might find difficult to accomplish. It seems to me that Sanskrit is a natural result of a pristine and wholesome consciousness that felt and sensed intuitively rather than mentally or in a divisive way.

The ancient Indian understanding of Sanskrit is that it is devbhasha. That it comes from a consciousness above the human mentality, where the sounds are not separate from meaning or image, and the grammar, morphology and vocabulary is intimately one with the consciousness. Thus, this refined state of articulation is not manmade but is innate to the higher organization, concentration, expressiveness and organicity of the higher realms of human mind. And that Sanskrit, which has the greatest possibility of all languages, to express the mantra or the inevitable Word, did not come through accretions or through the process of temporal purification but is divine and profound, if we understand that this divinity is not divorced from the human but is only the greatest manifestation of man. If this yogic understanding of Sanskrit is understood and accepted, then the debate between Sanskrit and Prakrit is inapplicable and moot.

For without accepting the divine or suprahuman origin of Sanskrit, it would be extremely difficult to understand the origin of the Veda, which is supposed to be eternally present in the Parama Vyoma, the Supreme Space, and the Mantra, which is the utmost perfection of human language.

Pariksith Singh MD

Author, poet, philosopher and medical practitioner based in Florida, USA. Pariksith Singh has been deeply engaged, spiritually and intellectually, with Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga for almost all his adult life, and is the author of 'Sri Aurobindo and the Literary Renaissance of India', 'Sri Aurobindo and Philosophy', and 'The Veda Made Simple'.

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