कुतः संस्कृतस्य प्रभुत्वम्? Whence Sanskrit’s supremacy?

Intro

सङ्क्षेपेण वक्तव्यं चेद् एवं मन्यमानैर् ब्राह्मणप्रधानैर् दक्षैर् भाषाशिक्षकैस् तद्रक्षणं प्रचारश्च –

  • “वेदोऽखिलो धर्ममूलम्।” इत्यादिः।
  • वेदादीनां रक्षा, पोषणञ्च संस्कृतेनेति- “भाषां वाऽपि जनं वाऽपि धर्मो रक्षिति रक्षितः।”
  • संस्कारेणार्ष-मार्ग-ग्रहणं श्रेयस इति। तत्र पद्यम् अत्र, अधश् च-
चलनाद् वलनान् नृत्यं गानं
क्वणनाद् वचनात् काव्यं यस्मात्।
संस्कार त्वं लीलायुक्तस्
स्थेया व्याप्तस् सर्वस्वे मे॥

“Sanskrit as a supreme language” by Ashok Aklujkar [Arch] is a very pertinent read. Some excerpts follow, with some added formatting. My notes are marked in bold like this: (KV: … ). The most important section is the one titled: “Emergence of dominance”.

Phases of Sanskrit

Of the long time span I keep in view, the following would be the major divisions, if
one were to follow the vicissitudes of Sanskrit as they have generally
been seen in the scholarship on the subject:

(a) the period of Early Vedic represented by most of the Rg-veda, some
parts of the Atharva-veda and many of the scattered res preserved in
other Vedic texts, to which the appellation Vedic Sanskrit most fit-
tingly applies and in which explicit recognition of any known language
other than the language of the texts is yet to be detected; 11

(b) the period of much of the Atharva-veda, the Yajur-veda sariihitas, the early Brahmanas (including the Aranyakas and Early Upanisads) in which we have the immediate predecessor of most of Sanskrit proper and in which a recognition of the existence of other languages is found, but again, as in the Rg-veda, without any specific names (see note 11);

(c) the period of the Middle Upanisads, early sutra and Vedanga texts in
which Sanskrit proper has almost fully emerged and the separation of
contemporary Sanskrit from Vedic Sanskrit is either clearly presup-
posed or openly acknowledged;

(d) probably largely overlapping with the preceding, the period of
early Epic or Puranic Sanskrit (much of which is accessible to us only
in a form mingled with the later Epic or Puranic Sanskrit) and of
Sramanic movements and the early phases of Jainism and Buddhism, in
which languages related to but different from early Sanskrit exist and
are used for literary and religio-philosophical purposes;

(e) the period of Sanskrit proper co-existing with Epic or Puranic San-
skrit, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit and possibly other vernacular varieties,
in which Sanskrit has largely ceased to be a language of all-purpose
communication, in which the competing canonical languages, Pali and
Ardha-magadhI, are probably undergoing the same fate, in which all
three languages, but especially Sanskrit, have many centres of study
even in South India, and in which Sanskrit and Pali begin to establish
their presence in East and Southeast Asia; and

(f) the period of classical Sanskrit, in which the language almost always
conforms to the model provided by Paninian grammar, in which even
the Buddhists and the Jainas switch to the use of Sanskrit (without giv-
ing up the use of other dialects and languages) for serious religio-philo-
sophical purposes, and in which Sanskrit is used for the pan-Indian
content of practically all the sastras.

Important observations

We should, I believe, admit the following elements as obtaining in the periods concerned:

Element 1: Efforts were made to ensure that Sanskrit remained nearer
to the language of the Veda. 16 The sustained proximity helped it reap
the benefits of the prestige that went with the Veda. A tradition of
seeking association with the Veda for respectability had come into ex-
istence at a much earlier date than historians of ancient Indian culture
have so far observed. Even the Buddhists and the Jainas, contrary to the
perception prevalent at present, have extended the ‘tipping of the hat’
type of acknowledgement to the Veda in the ancient periods of their
history.

Element 2: … This prestige-bestowing development seems to have taken place in
the following stages:

  • (a) the rise of the concept of a Speech or Language
    Principle (viz., the very basic undifferentiated language which lies at
    the root of all individual languages including those of nonhuman
    beings) as a mark of living beings — as something invested in them by
    God or gods, as divine;
  • (b) identification of the essence or original
    form of the Veda corpus with the Language Principle and of the Veda
    corpus itself with the closest possible realisation of the Language Prin-
    ciple;
  • (c) thinking of the linguistic expression that the Veda corpus is as
    divine by a sort of ‘next of kin’ logic;
  • (d) seeing Sanskrit as continua- tion of the Vedic linguistic expression;
  • (e) transfer of the epithet ‘divine’ to Sanskrit.

Element 3: The disinclination to separate Sanskrit from the Lan-
guage Principle and, what we would call, Vedic Sanskrit is matched, at
the other end, by the disinclination, on the part of authors of early San-
skrit linguistic works, to indicate that, when they discuss what seem to
be Prakrit 22 words to us, they have in mind languages related to Sanskrit
but different from it. Their assumption appears to be that of a linguistic
continuum, extending from what we call Sanskrit to what we call
Prakrit. 23 Nowhere does one get the sense that they felt any urgency to
isolate Sanskrit as a language (see note 18). The capacity for absorbing
deviation thus accorded to Sanskrit must have helped it in not being in
open competition with other ‘languages’. 24 The high linguistic ground
it took must have meant that it had a long time to march ahead without
other languages coming in its way.

Element 4: The key expressions employed in stating or implying
the higher standing of what we call Sanskrit are sam + kr and its deriva-
tives. Not only is Samskrta claimed to have undergone samskara, the
other languages are given a relatively low ranking in its favour because
they lack samskara (Deshpande 1979a: 22).
(KV: What is samskAra? See below:)

  • Now, at least from the days of Yaska, the Nirukta author, one com-
    ponent of the meaning of saiiiskara is clear: ‘subjecting to, or being
    amenable to, or undergoing grammatical operation, having gram-
    matical perspicuity’.
  • One additional constituent must be proper pronunciation, etc. That
    there was value attached to good qualities of speech in ancient India is
    abundantly clear from, among other pieces of evidence, certain adjec-
    tives employed in Vedic literature and the way the Buddha’s speech is
    described. 29 If a certain kind of extra-mundane efficacy was associated
    with accurate and good pronunciation, then the presence of this type of
    samskara would be even more valued.
  • Beyond this, a connotation must have existed to the effect that to be
    careful in speech — to attempt to use a language with samskara — is to
    observe a certain discipline of the mind and body and that a person’s
    subscribing to such a discipline is an indication of his good spiritual
    standing. The passage yas tu prayunkte kusalo vis’ese sabdan yathavad
    vyavahara-kale so ’ nantam apnoti jayam paratra, cited by Patanjali and
    referred to in the preceding paragraph, would not make sense if such a
    connotation is not assumed. The most explicit evidence is furnished,
    however, by the passages like Kalidasa’s samskaravatyeva gira manlsi
    taya [= Parvatya] sa putas ca vibhusitas ca (Kumara-sambhava 1 .28)
    and Bhartr-hari’s tasmad yah sabda-samskarah sa siddhih paramat-
    manah / . . . vya vasthi ta-sadh u – bhavena hi rupena samskriyamane
    sabda-tattve ’pabhramsopaghatapagamad avir-bhute dharma-visese
    niyato ’bhyudayah (Trikandl 1.144, Vrtti (YP I): pp. 201-02) and
    sadhvi vag bhuyasi yesu purusesu vyavasthita / adhikam vartate tesu
    punyam ruparii praja-pateh //(Vrtti 1.124-28 = karika 1.126).
  • One last association of samskara, which has not been pointed out so
    far in the research literature known to me, is with a highly pervasive
    principle of Vedic or Brahmanical thinking: To use a thing with
    knowledge of its genesis is superior to simply using it. Use must be, as
    far as possible, backed up by information about its ‘how’s and
    ‘why’s — the ya evam veda sa veda principle articulated in a number of
    Brahmana and Upanisad texts. A sastra-purvaka prayoga is preferable
    to a mere prayoga. The employment of a nonstandard linguistic form
    may not generate demerit, but it does not generate merit either. The ca-
    pacity to achieve that exists only in a samskrta or standard form, since
    its user, given the social realities of his time, will, in most cases, be an
    educated person and as such will know how the form came to be what it
    is or why it must have certain features.

Element 5: For most of the specified time-span, a religious life
which was a significantly different mixture of organized and unor-
ganized religion from the one we nowadays normally imagine for that
time-span prevailed. The well-demarcated religious thinking and
living which the text-based Indological discussion of the three major
religions of ancient India — of Brahmanism, Jainism and Bud-
dhism — usually presupposes was true only of relatively few individu-
als. While the three religions were not entirely unorganized, were not
unconscious of the need to preserve their identities, and must have
made efforts to propagate themselves, the average Indian lived a life
that did not belong exclusively to (what we would call) one religious
line of thinking. He took what can be described as a grocery cart ap-
proach. Even while following one teaching principally, he did not, in
all likelihood, shun the holy men of other religions 34 or avoid com-
pletely the practices supposed to belong to another (in our terminology,
religious) stratum — practices such as propitiating a local Yaksa or
making a donation to a local monument belonging to a heterodox
religion if his prayer was answered.

Emergence of dominance

My argument suggests that, during the periods (c) – (f) mentioned
in section 2.2, it is not the political or economic backing which Sanskrit
received that is as important for its spread and high standing as the
culture, particularly the religious culture, in which Sanskrit found it-
self (and which it nurtured in return). …
The rulers and the state resources largely seem to have acted only as fa-
cilitators of a cultural process.
(Footnote: The spread of Pali and Ardha-magadhi also seems to have come about essentially in the same way as the one delineated in this paragraph.)

The phenomenon of the pre-eminence of Sanskrit, to clarify my
view further, became possible positively, because, at the time of its
emergence,

  • (a) the notion of the Veda as a text on which to base philo-
    sophical, social and political thinking, even if that thinking in fact hap-
    pened to be new, had won wide acceptance,
  • (b) the institution of at-
    taching some kind of special power and sanctity to the Veda sound had
    already come into effect, (KV: Recall vedic prayoga-s)
  • (c) the followers of the Vedic way of life had
    already instituted certain educational mechanisms to maintain the pu-
    rity of their language, and
  • (d) the society had become accustomed to
    attaching value to knowledgeable, correct and clear speech as a mark of
    ennobling discipline and self-restraint.

The phenomenon became possible, negatively, that is, was not op-
posed effectively,

  • (a) because a religious life not tending to be exclu-
    sivistic generally predominated,
  • (b) because at least some socially in-
    fluential thinkers saw some benefit in not explicating everything, that
    is, in retaining certain myths and de-emphasizing historical divisions, 37
    and
  • (c) because Sramanik religions like Jainism and Buddhism had
    relatively narrower philosophies — philosophies capable of drawing
    invariable commitment from only those who could be attracted to renunciation.

The processes and developments which probably helped Sanskrit
in maintaining its pre-eminence once it came into being seem to be:

  • (a) training 39 of a vast and astoundingly gifted body of suta narrators 40 who
    constituted a very effective mechanism for reaching practically all
    levels of society,
  • (b) creation of an educational network that seems un-
    paralleled in the ancient world, 41
  • (c) development, mostly as a result of (b), of literature on practically all aspects of (ancient and medieval) life, and
  • (d) constant cultivation of a class that mesmerized the ordinary
    man through its intellectual and linguistic achievements.

The foregoing thoughts should not be viewed as excluding causes
such as Brahmin-Ksatriya collaboration, utility as a language of re-
ligious life, usefulness as a link language, 44 advantages a frozen lan-
guage has, 45 refusal to degrade the language by allowing its use for low-
level vyavahara (KV: Strongly disagree), repeated efforts to Sanskritize, etc .
46 Some of them are
subsumed by the elements I have noted. Others are applicable only to
the times in which Sanskrit had already assumed a leading role.

 

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