Sanskrit (sam, complete; krita, done, i.e., that which is done completely, the perfected, the refined) is the ancient liturgical or ritual language of India. In the Sanskrit language itself the lan-guage is called Samskritam.
   Sanskrit is the oldest extant Indo-European language. It is linguistically related to such Euro-pean languages as English, French, and German and such Asian languages as Persian. The earli-est evidence for Sanskrit is in the ancient Indian texts, the VEDAS, the earliest of which, the RIG VEDA, dates from approximately 1500 B.C.E. The Vedas were received as divine revelation by seers called RISHIS, who recorded them. The Sanskrit of the Vedas is noticeably different from its classical form, as defined authoritatively by the grammar-ian Panini around 450 B.C.E.
   After Panini, virtually no changes were accepted into the language. Today Sanskrit is still spoken by pandits (scholars) and those learned An ochre-robed wandering sannyasi in Benares (Varanasi) (Constance A. Jones) in Indian philosophy. There are several Sanskrit universities today in India, where all classes are conducted in that language. There are a few mil-lion Indians who can truly speak Sanskrit today in a population of over a billion or more; none of them speaks Sanskrit only.
   There are many theories regarding the Sanskrit language; the different philosophical schools and sects in India have developed their own view-points. Most of them believe that the Vedas them-selves are eternal and always existed; therefore, Sanskrit itself is similarly eternal, rather than an arbitrary language created by humans; it is the “language of the gods” (devavani).
   When JAINISM and Buddhism began to develop scriptures and liturgies that departed from the Vedic ritual tradition, they made use of the Prakrits, the regional vernacular languages that had begun to develop out of Sanskrit. In that era (c. 800 to 0 B.C.E.), Sanskrit was still the spoken language of the educated classes and the language of Vedic high culture. By the turn of the millennium, how-ever, even Buddhists and Jains began to write their works in Sanskrit, an indication that the cultural force of developing Hinduism had overwhelmed these heterodox traditions at least in that respect.
   Sanskrit, thus, is the cultural link language of India. It has been used as the language of high culture for nearly 3,000 years. The body of extant writing in the language is vast. The Vedas, which are basically collections of MANTRAS, are accompanied by the BRAHMANAS, the ARANYAKAS, and the classical UPANISHADS. Hundreds of later texts called “Upanishads” exist independently of the Vedas.
   The Sanskrit epics, the RAMAYANA and the MAHABHARATA, were written somewhat later. The Ramayana is itself about 40,000 verses in length and the Mahabharata over 100,000 verses. Included alongside the epics are the 18 Puranas that tell the tales of the divinities. There are also 18 minor Puranas and hundreds of Sthala-puranas or local works that tell the tales of local divinities.
   Other prolific genres emerged over the long history of Sanskrit. There are hundreds of plays, longer poems, and other classical literary forms. There are works on aesthetics, erotics, medicine, philosophy and theology, and logic; there are devotional hymns, dictionaries, works on astron-omy and astrology, works on mathematics, ritual, law, architecture, TANTRISM, history, music, sculp-ture, and painting. Additionally, there is much panegyric literature and many inscriptions. Every one of these Sanskrit genres has examples in the Jain tradition as well. All told, there are hundreds of thousands of texts and manuscripts, most of which have not been studied for centuries and are not edited, let alone translated.
   Sanskrit is written in the DEVANAGARI script, which is made up of 48 to 51 letters, depending on the precise system. The script appears to have been devised during the Gupta era (fourth to sixth centuries C.E.).
   Most Indian languages rely on Sanskrit-derived vocabulary. Even in a Dravidian language such as Telegu, more than 50 percent of the vocabulary is derived from Sanskrit.
   At about the time of the arrival of the Muslims in India in the 13th century, Sanskrit learning began to decline. The vital and central role that Sanskrit had played in Indian culture for 3,000 years began to fade, and the vernacular languages began to develop as literary alternatives. (In South India, Tamil has long had a developed literature, still extant, dating to before the Common Era.)
   Even then Sanskrit did not die out. Many texts continued to be written in the language through the 18th century; in fact, many works are still composed in Sanskrit. On Indian television and radio one can hear Sanskrit newscasts and bulle-tins. There also are a few Sanskrit newspapers.
   Further reading: K. C. Aryan, The Little Goddesses (Matrikas) (New Delhi: Rekha, 1980); T. Burrow, The Sanskrit Language (London: Faber, 1973); Jan Gonda, ed., A History of Sanskrit Literature, 10 vols. (Wies-baden: Otto Harrosowitz, 1975–82); John Grimes, A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy: Sanskrit Terms Defined in English (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989); Arthur Berriedale Keith, Classical Sanskrit Literature (Calcutta: Y. M. C. A. Publishing House, 1947); ———, A History of Sanskrit Literature (London: Oxford University Press, 1920); Diana Mor-rison, A Glossary of Sanskrit from the Spiritual Tradition of India (Petaluma, Calif.: Nilgiri Press, 1977); Sheldon Pollock, ed., Literary Cultures in History: Reconstruc-tions from South Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); M. N. Srinivas, The Cohesive Role of San-skritization and Other Essays (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989); Judith M. Tyberg, The Language of the Gods: Sanskrit Keys to India’s Wisdom (Los Angeles: East-West Cultural Centre, 1970).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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