Vanity thought #1327. Evolution of Sanskrit

Generally, this is one of the least comfortable subjects for me, and not simply because I know next to nothing about it but because Sanskrit is supposed to be perfect and complete, as the word itself implies, so how can we speak about the evolution here?

Truthfully, we shouldn’t, but it’s unavoidable if we ever pay attention to what modern scholars say about it.

In the beginning of our lives as devotees everything is simple. Sanskrit is the language of the spiritual world and it’s written in a script of the demigods – Devanagari. As we try to learn more about it, however, the picture becomes significantly more complicated.

Now we have to contend with existence of at least two forms of Sanskrit – Vedic and Classical, and Devanagari first appeared only a few centuries ago and it probably has nothing to do with demigods. What a disappointment.

A couple of days ago I mentioned that inscriptions called “Aśoka’s edicts” were written in Brahmi script, one of the precursors of Devanagari. Generally, it’s accepted that these are the earliest examples of Brahmi but they aren’t very old at all, 300 BC at the earliest. Brahmi later “evolved” into a number of regional scripts and some 1500 years later Devanagari emerged.

That’s a clear example of evolution here. What I assumed was the language of Gods has very humble earthly origins, and the first usage was done by Buddhists, too.

This takes a certain aura of sacredness away from the language. It means that Devanagari representation of Kṛṣṇa’s name or the mahāmantra is no different from writing it down in English or any other language. On one level we already know it’s non-different but we were also told about importance of Sanskrit but, apparently, it doesn’t matter when it comes to written representation.

We can only say that Lord Caitanya and our ācāryas used Devanagari but then Śrīla Prabhupāda wrote in English and his books have proven spiritual potency even when mahāmantra and Kṛṣṇa’s names are spelled using all kinds of world alphabets.

The spoken Sanskrit doesn’t suffer in the same way but it has its own evolution, too, and I’m not sure it evolves in the right direction. Let me explain.

Ṛg Veda is widely believed to be the oldest Vedic text and it’s written in what is now called Vedic Sanskrit. Well, it isn’t written per se but you know what I mean. Other Vedas and accompanying scriptures up to Upaniṣads are composed in Vedic Sanskrit, too. Then we had Pāṇini who introduced the school of grammar most widely used until today. That was an evolution of sorts.

Pāṇini’s wasn’t the first grammar either, he had mentioned nine grammarians preceding him and another famous grammarian of that age, Yaska, mentioned several more. Some of them clearly had very different ideas how Sanskrit grammar was supposed to work, ie they belonged to different schools.

It’s easy to talk about schools of grammar this way but think about it what it means – do we have any equivalent to this in English or any other contemporary language? I don’t think so. We have rules, we have dictionaries and spellings, and it’s all more or less uniform all across the world. How can we have different schools of grammar when talking about English? It’s inconceivable. Yet it’s possible in Sanskrit. How?

First thing we need to remember here is that Sanskrit is not an ordinary language. It doesn’t have rules, norms, and vocabulary which we can pick up by observing Sanskrit speakers. We can’t work it out, so to speak, like children work out the language of their surrounding culture, and it’s not simply because Sanskrit is a “dead” language like Latin that no one speaks anymore, it’s because Sanskrit is not meant to describe material phenomena.

It’s not the language that comes from describing the world so that we can see something new and choose a word to represent this object or action and gradually everyone else might adopt this new word and its meaning. Sanskrit words already have meanings, we just don’t know what they really are. We only know the objects and actions that are usually described by Sanskrit words. Sanskrit words had meanings even before there appeared objects to describe and so in each and every case we can only deal with approximations. We can only guess and never really know.

That’s why we can have several schools of grammar at the same time – they are just different ways to make sense of how Sanskrit really works and what it really means. We should also accept the fact that the exact meaning and exact rules will never be known at all.

The reason is quite simple – Sanskrit comes to us from the spiritual world and so unless liberated we will never be able to fully understand it as it is used there.

In every day use by millions and millions of people Sanskrit had to become more practical and people had to agree on words to describe their experiences and this need gave the rise to several Prakrits – adaptations of Sanskrit by general public. Aśoka’s edicts are written in Prakrit, btw, they are not in Sanskrit, neither Vedic nor classical.

Classical Sanskrit is the one that follows rules described by Pāṇini. His grammar laid out rules of forming words and sentences currently accepted by everybody and as a result not only we can have uniform understanding of the scriptures but we can also produce Sanskrit sentences ourselves and be confident that we will be understood by everyone else.

This is where I say that I’m not sure that Sanskrit evolution goes in the right direction. Before accepting universal grammar Sanskrit was the language of the Absolute but now it is used by everybody to express their everyday thoughts and experiences, and there’s nothing sacred about them. Universal grammar made Sanskrit not only universal but also mundane and who needs that?

Of course it also enabled our ācāryas to write books for devotees to follow but the rest of the modern Sanskrit literature is just garbage that brings no pleasure to Kṛṣṇa whatsoever. What kind of evolution is that and do we really need it? I’m not sure.

If I learned Sanskrit, for example, I would still have nothing to say but I would surely try and write something in it, thus contributing to the ocean of useless thoughts and sentiments.

Looking at Sanskrit from this angle it could be said that Pāṇini didn’t simply lay out a comprehensive grammar but he stopped further corruption of Sanskrit into Prakrit. An important achievement but less impressive when compared to the divine nature of the original language. That nature is gone now, it was untouchable but by internalizing Sanskrit we’ve contaminated it with our mundane vision of the world. We made purely spiritual language appear as part of the illusion.

Bearing this in mind, the best and really the only way to learn Sanskrit should be from books like Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī’s Hari-Namāmṛta-Vyākaraṇa, a book on Sanskrit grammar that links all the technical terms to their original spiritual meanings which are always in connection to Kṛṣṇa. I don’t know how practical that book is, though, I only like the idea.

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