A Brief History of Sanskrit

Anyone who has begun to explore spirituality or seek out the origin of particular words eventually runs into and ancient language called ‘Sanskrit’. The words ‘yoga’ and ‘chakras‘ trace their origin back to Sanskrit. Sanskrit is an ancient Indian language of special interest to many linguistic, historical, and religious circles.

Although many consider Sanskritic a ‘spiritual language’, in truth, Sanskritic literature consists of religious, philosophical, dramatic, scientific, and poetic texts. Sanskrit is the oldest known member of the Indo-Aryan languages, and it was used to compose the oldest know Indo-Aryan text, the Ṛgveda. The word “Sanskrit” roughly means “well made” or “completely formed,” conveying the idea that it is a perfect and complete language. Sanskrit - Spiritual Studies

Today, Sanskrit is most commonly written in the syllabic Devanāgarī alphabet. This alphabet, because of its widespread use for Indian languages, is among the most used writing systems in the world. Traditionally, however, Sanskrit has been written in many different local scripts. The uniform use of Devanāgarī did not become common until the colonial period.

Sanskrit texts were preserved orally long before writing was known or used. The Ṛgveda, for example, is thought to have been composed sometime around 1500 BCE, but was not written down until the 11th century AD. Despite this long period of strictly oral recitation, most scholars agree that the oral tradition was extremely accurate. The use of rhythmic chanting and accompanying hand gestures not only served as great memory tools, but made it difficult to skip entire words or sentences without noticing. Interesting, Native Peoples from Native Americans to Australian Aborigines for centuries have also used similar techniques to convey stories and history.

The Vedic Sanskrit used in the Ṛgveda was influenced over time as it moved into new regions and encountered different languages. Clear differences can be seen in this early Vedic Sanskrit from the Vedic prose of later texts such as the Brāhmaṇas and the Upaniṣads. Around 500 BCE Sanskrit once again transformed into what is referred to as Classical Sanskrit. At this point Sanskrit, much like Latin in the Middle Ages, transitioned from a first language into a second language used mainly for learning and religious rituals.

This does not mean that Sanskrit fell into disuse. On the contrary, it spent the first millennium AD as the primary language of everyone from poets to politicians, used to write everything from medical literature to erotica. Eventually, Hybrid Sanskrit dialects branching off from Classical Sanskrit were used to write the two great epics of India, the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaṇa, as well as Buddhist and Jain religious texts.

Today, Classical Sanskrit is used in traditional institutions in India and studied around the world. Many international students travel to India to spend years learning the language. With the rise of Western interest in Eastern religions, Sanskrit has been brought to the attention of New Age communities. Many in the West are often introduced to it through Yoga classes. The Indian constitution recognizes Sanskrit as an official language, and it continues to be an integral part of Hindu religious ritual and worship.

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