Chapter-1: Sanskrit as a language

Written on August 04, 1982

11 min. read

Digitization of ‘Sanskrit and Science’ book by Scientist Raja Ramanna garu.

Sanskrit and Science book by Dr. Raja Ramanna
Sanskrit and Science book by Dr. Raja Ramanna.

It is generally believed that Sanskrit is a language like any other except that it is more complicated, and dead for all purposes. At best, people are willing to admit that it has a great literature and a cultural value. At the other end, there are people who consider it as a mysterious combination of words to create a religious atmosphere through prayers, chantings, incantations, etc. But, Sanskrit is much more than that, and pos­sesses within itself many of the attributes of a great and useful language. It is both a science and an art combined in one.

Sanskrit Grammar and Pāṇini

Sanskrit has a scientific base which no other language in the world has including Greek and Latin with whom it has close affinity both in vocabulary and grammar (e.g., the word ‘axle’ in English is ‘akṣa’ in Sanskrit, ‘άξων’ in Greek and ‘axis’ in Latin). This is largely due to its grammatical organisation, particularly the Pāṇinian tradition as formulated by Pāṇini in his book, the Aṣṭādhyāyī1. Written about 2500 years ago and divided into eight books (अष्ट अध्याय ) of four chapters ( पाद ) each, Pāṇini’s book is one of the greatest exhibits of human intellect. It is the first attempt in the history of the human mind to make a sort of “chemical analysis” of a language on scientific lines ( शद्वानुशासनम् ). His grammar is not only considered a masterpiece of close reasoning and artistic arrangement, but remains till today unsurpassed in its economy of words to describe linguistic features.

There exists a close parallel between the grammar of Pāṇini and the geometry of Euclid. Just as Euclid, in his Elements, starts with a few definitions, axioms and postulates and then goes on building theorems one after the other—more or less tautological since without one the other cannot exist—in a very logical way, in an exactly similar manner, Pāṇini has built up the Sanskrit language. He starts with a few roots [ Footnote: In Sanskrit language, there are more than 1700 distinct roots or Dhātus. According to some, it might be possible to reduce these roots to a smaller and simpler catalogue of primitive roots whose number does not exceed 120.] which embody certain general concepts, and defines words which can be a vowel, a consonant, a noun, a pronoun, a person, an augment, a verb, etc., and groups them into various classes. Then he prescribes rules to construct words from roots and affixes (suffixes plus prefixes), compound words from words, and compounds from compounds till an almost interminable chain of derivatives [Footnote: Sanskrit is the only language which, in principle, allow no hiatus in a sentence. This has been made possible by the rules of sandhi (euphonic combination).]—similar to analytic continuation of a function in mathematics—is evolved. Thus from the root गम् are derived the words : Gala, Gati, Gatvara, Gantavya, Gamana, Gamayitṛi, Gamanika. etc. Panini has squeezed and distilled his thoughts and has put them in the form of a little under 4000 short sūtrasor aphoristic rules which falI into six types: संज्ञा(definition) , परिभाषा(key to interpretation), विधि(statement of a general rule) , अधिकार(governing rule) and अतिदेश(extended application of analogy).

In Sanskrit grammar, the various affixes play key roles in assigning meaning to a word structure depending upon composition; choice of an affix being itself dictated by the nature of information to be transferred. The construction is accordingly defined. For example, the affix यत् coming after the word नौ (a boat) in Instru­mental case in construction means “to be crossed”. Thus the word नाव्यम् ( नावा तार्यम् )means ‘what can be crossed by a boat’, i.e., ‘water’, ‘a river’. However, the very same affix when placed after a word in the locative construction, has the sense of ‘excellent in regard thereto’ as in: सामान्यः ( सामसु साधुः ) which means ‘conversant with the Sāma-Veda’. Here, साधु does not mean उपकारक (a benefactor or a good person) but प्रवीण, or योग्य (expert or fit). Yet another example is that of the radical element प्र which in composition with a verb is an upasarga or preposition as in प्रणायकः meaning ‘a leader’; same प्र in composition with a noun is a Nipāta as in प्रनायकः which means ‘destitute of a leader.’ In this manner, information—a physical quantity connected with entropy and thermodynamics2—is transferred with a minimum of economy in words. Simultaneously, euphony (phonetics) is also maintained.

Sanskrit Phonetics

It is interesting to know that phonetics as a science is entirely Sanskritic and has been studied with such great depth and accuracy that it would amaze a modern scientist. An analysis has been made of what is a vowel what is a consonant, what are nasals, what are homogeneous letters, etc., on the basis of where the tongue goes, what is it that vibrates, what are the organs of speech that participate (and to what extent) in producing a letter sound, etc. For example, a vowel is one that rubs along and produces sound depending on the shape of the mouth. The dental and the cerebral depend upon the depth to which the tongue is turned. Homo­geneous ( सवर्ण ) letters are those whose आस्य or place of pronunciation ( कण्ठ “throat”, तालु “palate”, मुद्धी “head”, दन्ताः “teeth”, ओष्टौ “lips”, नासिका “nose”), and प्रयत्न or effort arc equal. Thus and शा, though have the same आस्य, i.e., तालु are not savarṇa because their प्रयत्न is different; the प्रयत्न of is sprishṭa (complete contact of organs, i.e., tongue with throat, palate, dome of the palate, teeth and lip) and that of is vivṛita or complete opening. Similarly, and though have the same प्रयत्न, i.e., sprishṭa, are not savarṇa because their प्रयत्न is different, one being guttural and the other palatal. Nasals ( अनुनासिकः ) are defined as those letters which are partially uttered by the nose and partially by the mouth ( मुखानसिकावचनो ). This makes  and  nasals but not the consonants etc., since the latter are pronounced wholly and solely through the mouth. Anusvāra is not nasal as it is pronounced wholly through the nose (pure nasal). In Sanskrit, words—single or compound—have different meanings depending on the position of the accent.

Form and Growth of Sanskrit

Because, Sanskrit grammar it so thorough and precise, the form of the language is well defined, orderly and perfect. In fact, Sanskrit literature follows such beautiful and accurate mathematical patterns that one marvels at them. Evan the Greeks cannot claim such regularity.

Sanskrit has also the power of organised growth since it is developed in a most mathematical and logi­cal way—like geometry is developed—from roots and certain combinations prescribed by rules so that roots can be added to and shortened to produce new word structures. However, this procedure of generating Sans­krit language from roots according to well laid linguistic laws may give the language an artificial appearance. But, this is not what one means by saying that Sanskrit is an artificial language. By this, it is meant that Sanskrit has ceased to be the mother-tongue of even the Sanskrit speakers and is to be learnt, like Latin, from a teacher.

Sanskrit —an All-Encompassing Language

By this we mean that it has the power to express thoughts of all types : from mythology to literature, from science to philosophy. It has also the sophistica­tion to express the same thought in many ways; what in mathematics is known as ‘onto’ or ‘many-to-one’ mapping. For every statement, there is more than one meaning to that statement, and that gives a certain iri­descence to the language. This gives rise to prose, poetry, music, dance, etc. It also leads to a process by which imagination is brought in as in mythology. If we concede that mythology is a language. nay. “a higher language that ordinary words cannot express.” then Sanskrit language must have a high degree of sophisti­cation since Sanskrit mythology is vast, rich in imagina­tive symbolism and even profound at times. The same holds good for philosophy where great subtlety is required in the transfer of information which may span from the most mundane to the most elevated.

Permanence of Sanskrit Language

As a language. Sanskrit has a degree of permanence which no other language has. In olden days, when teaching was oral, there was a need to keep information in tact and pass them on from generation to generation accurately. This led, on the one hand, to a strong em­phasis towards versification, poetry and phonetics. On the other side, formulae were devised of inventing and converting words in such a way that chances of distortion were kept to a minimum. After Panini’s grammar, Sanskrit language was so much standardised that further linguistic development was not possible. By a general consensus the world over, it is well recognised that Sanskrit literature, as it exists today, is the least dis­torted of all the languages. The Ṛig-Veda and other literary compositions have come to us as accurately as they were at the beginning.

Encyclopaedic Nature of Sanskrit Language

A great language must reflect the aspirations and thoughts of the people who use it, and should be ency­clopaedic in describing the types of possible characters that can exist in the world. In Sanskrit, we have the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata where one finds every possible combination of character. There is hardly a character which does not represent some aspect of life, even modern life. The statement in the epic Mahābhārata that यदिहास्ति तदन्यत्र यत्रोहास्ति न तत्क्वचित् is no exagge­ration nor the saying व्यासोच्छिष्टं जगत्सर्वम् 3 . The clothes might have been different but the thoughts are identical.

Sanskrit As a Useful Language

We have just seen what makes a language great as opposed to what makes a language useful. Firstly, a language has to be simple if it is to be useful and Sanskrit is a simple language. It was only in the years of its decline that Sanskrit became pedantic, ornate in style and got involved in highly complex forms. It is to the credit of the Sanskrit language that once upon a tune, it was not only spoken by a large cross-section of the Indian populace but was also the common language for the whole of the Indian sub-continent despite the multiplicity of languages and dialects. Even today, in India, Sanskrit is a universal language of learning, and is used, in a highly restricted scale, as a medium of literary composition. Further, Sanskrit language had always been full of luxuriant growth of all kinds. From Vedic Sanskrit grew the Classical Sanskrit and from those two have come Pāli and the various dialects of Prākṛit with their local variations. Out of these have evolved, in course of time, the various modern local languages of India. It should be pointed out that while the transition from Vedic to Classical Sanskrit saw minor changes in grammar and vocabulary, similar changes occurred in Pāli and Prākṛit to such a degree that there was a radical change in the character of the language.

Indian Culture

The overall effect of all these is that Sanskrit is just not merely a language: ‘It is the poetic testament of the genius of a race and a culture and the living embodiment of the thoughts and fancies that have moulded them4. It represents a culture, nay, a total integrated [Footnote: Here, the word ‘integration’ does not have its usual connotation, but refers to an iteration which is more mystical, more encompassing and more transcendental.] culture which is known as Indian culture. Indian culture us everything that has come to us from Srinagar to Kanyākumarī. There is a common culture in this country which is visible when one studies Sanskrit because the marks of Sanskrit arc found everywhere. This culture is so powerful and viable that it has remained alive and unbroken over a period of nearly five thousand years. It is a singular idiosyncrasy of Sanskrit language that the very word समस्कृति means culture.

Scientist Raja Ramanna garu
Written by Scientist Raja Ramanna garu.