Origins of Sanskrit and the Wisdom of Ancient India


When was Sanskrit brought into full development? Who was the inventor of the Sanskrit language? How old is Sanskrit as a language and when was it first written down?


H.D. Goswami Profile Picture

Sanskrit, like other languages, developed through historical stages. In fact, by dating different stages of Sanskrit, scholars try to establish a chronology of Sanskrit culture and literature.

The earliest stage of Sanskrit is called ‘Vedic,’ and this refers especially to the language of the oldest surviving text, the Rg Veda, and in the other three Vedas: Yajus, Sama and Atharvan. Through various literary genres, such as the Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanisads, Sanskrit gradually became what we call classical Sanskrit. This refers especially to the itihasa-purana literature, i.e. the histories such as Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the eighteen major Puranas, such as the BhagavatamVishnu Purana, etc. Kavya texts (sophisticated, elaborate poetics), utilizes some original vocabulary and syntax, which distinguish it from older classical Sanskrit.

In India today, there is a small and perhaps growing community of panditas who speak and write in Sanskrit, although this Sanskrit tends to show some lexical and syntactic influence of modern Indian languages such as Hindi.

According to tradition, Sanskrit is the eternal Vedic language. Like the sun, it rises and sets on various historical horizons. The first definitely deciphered writing in India occurs in the third century BCE. Some claim that the undecipherable symbols of the Harrappan seals express a language, even Sanskrit, but this has not been proved.

Question: For what purpose was Sanskrit originally used? For sacral or spiritual purposes only? Only for scholars? Or was it used by the majority of the populous as well?

It appears that Sanskrit was a language of the learned, especially brahmanas, but also of learned kings, rajarshis or ‘royal saints.’ The Sanskrit word sanskrita means ‘refined’, indicating that Sanskrit was a refined form of expression for cultured persons. Of course its main role has been as a linguistic medium for the sacred Vedic literature.

Question: When did Sanskrit withdraw from popular language and become only a ceremonial and scholarly language? And why – what actually happened?

We do not have a clear historical record, but it seems that even in ancient times, people spoke various regional dialects and languages that were not as sophisticated as Sanskrit. We can compare the use of Latin in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, when at the same time the ‘common’ people spoke vulgate languages.

Question: Can we say – as many assert – that Sanskrit is very hard to learn? Who may use Sanskrit today and for what purpose?

Sanskrit is a sophisticated language for three reasons:
1. It retains eight declension cases for nouns.
2. It employs sandhi, or the modification of letters to produce euphonic word combinations and intra-word constructions.
3. Sanskrit has been used for a very long time by scholars, sages, and poets with an extremely sophisticated approach to the use of language.

One of my Sanskrit professors at Harvard had previously mastered ancient Greek and Latin, and he claimed that Sanskrit was more complex and difficult. This was also the view of Sir William Jones, the first scholar in the world to realize that Sanskrit was intimately cognate with most Western languages.

Question: What is the main connection between traditional Indian science (knowledge) and Sanskrit?

Scientists generally wrote in Sanskrit, and the extreme precision of the language must have encouraged precise conceptualization.

Question: What is the essence of the wisdom and science of ancient India? Is this science the same as Vedic science and wisdom? Can you list some differences between modern and traditional science in India?

In Bhagavad-gita, the most influential of all Sanskrit texts, Krishna claims that He is restoring a lost spiritual science (4.1-3) and the ultimate Vedic knowledge (15.15). That science basically teaches:
1. Living beings in this world are eternal souls bound within material bodies.
2. Every soul is eternally part of God.
3. Material energy is eternal, but specific material forms are temporary.
4. God is the absolute source of all existence, the supreme controller of all worlds, and the loving friend of all that lives.
5. We can regain our pure, spiritual consciousness and return to our blissful, eternal life by devoting ourselves to God, Krishna.
6. The systematic, disciplined practice of devotion to God and to all beings is bhakti-yoga.
7. As a spark functions as fire within fire, so we will function as eternal, blissful beings by connecting our existence to God’s existence. In Sanskrit, connection is ‘yoga.’ The actual connection is through pure, mutual love, bhakti. Therefore, bhakti-yoga is not only the means to achieve perfection; it is our eternal activity as pure souls.

Question: Can you describe to us some details of traditional Indian society- people, culture, and religion? What was its social structure?

Traditional Vedic society was pre-industrial, and like most developed pre-industrial societies in the world, was organized into vocational and social divisions as follows.

Vocational divisions:
1. Teachers and priests, brahmanas.
2. Warrriors and rulers, ksatriyas.
3. Merchants and farmers, vaisyas.
4. Workers and craftsmen, sudras.

Social divisions:
1. Renounced sages, sannyasis.
2. Retired couples, vanaprasthas.
3. Couples raising families, grhasthas.
4. Celibate students, brahmacaris [male] and brahmacarinis [female].

According to Bhagavad-gita, Krishna personally created the vocational divisions.

Question: When did Vedic civilization collapse? And when will it prosper again? Some people say that this will happen soon and that we will soon experience a so called “golden age” again.

The civilization never fully collapsed and was never fully demolished. Many remnants of it are found scattered throughout Indian culture. The process of reviving that culture has already begun, led by Srila Prabhupada and his followers.

Question: Which values and activities of traditional Indian culture may we apply to our modern (western) civilization and way of living, thinking etc.?

The essential, universal principles:

  1. We are eternal souls, not dying bodies.
  2. We are meant to love and serve, not envy and take.
  3. We have a right to perform our duty, but we should offer the fruit to God. This turns our karma into karma-yoga.
  4. Human culture should aim at developing pure love for God and all living

Question: How can we in the modern western world use old Indian science and wisdom to find solutions for our economic, ecological, political, social, personal, familial, educational and other problems?

Vedic culture favors simple, natural life. Also we should support leaders who are wise, and not merely greedy and ambitious.

Question: Can you add something for our readers? If they are afraid of war, economic collapse and other things, what may they do, in accordance with traditional Indian culture, if the problems of the world increase?

If someone drives their car safely and follows the traffic laws, they will avoid accidents. Similarly, there are moral and spiritual laws of nature, called dharma. Ultimately, there is sanatana dharma, eternal principles. In human life, we have the ability and responsibility to learn and follow the laws that govern our universe. If we do so, we will have peace and prosperity and, ultimately, spiritual liberation.

Question: Why and when did you decide to study Sanskrit and old Indian studies?

I began my studies in 1969 in Berkeley, California. I had realized that material prosperity, friends, romance, sports, education, career etc. did not provide ultimate happiness nor wisdom. Therefore, I began investigating the world’s wisdom and decided that Bhagavad-gita and other related literatures gave the fullest explanation of essential principles of life.

There are many wisdom traditions and religions in the world, and they offer wisdom and guidance in life. We respect these traditions and admire their genuine spiritual achievements. At the same time, the Vedic culture offers an extraordinary body of knowledge and practice that brings us to the highest possible stage of consciousness. This is not a theory nor an experiment, but rather the result of thousands of years of experience. The entire yoga culture comes from this civilization. Buddhism also grew out of this culture.

Question: Which aspects of Vedic wisdom were especially interesting for you during your studies and why?

I especially appreciated the understanding that souls and God are both one and different. Absolute monism, the idea that we are God in every sense, is irrational for this reason: how could God fall into illusion and then have to climb out by yoga practice?  And if all is absolutely one, how could there be illusion?  Then there would be two things: truth and illusion. And how can illusion overpower God, even temporarily?

At the same time, simply saying that we are completely different from God impedes our intimacy with God. It also seems to deny what we know to be true. That even with all the beautiful variety of life, there is a sense in which all that exists is one, because all that exists shares existence within a single Absolute Truth. Therefore, we are qualitatively one with God, but, quantitatively, we are small and God is infinite.

I also appreciated a practical practice, whereby I could actually reach higher consciousness and remain there – not just for a moment, nor a minute, nor an hour, nor a day, but forever and forever increasing.

Question: Did you accept traditional Vedic principles and practice into your daily living program?

Yes, I began a strict practice of bhakti-yoga in 1969. This includes four ‘regulative principles,’ giving up:

  1. Meat, fish, eggs
  2. Sex outside of marriage
  3. Intoxication, including alcohol and drugs
  4. Gambling

Positively, I began a daily practice of bhakti-yoga under the guidance of Krishna’s great devotee, Srila Prabhupada. This involves chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, studying sacred texts, and helping other souls.