Sanskrit: A Dead Language in the Living World

Sanskrit: a dead language in the living world

By Nidhi Arora

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“It is a dead language, kind of like Latin,” shared software professional John DiFelice from Elkins Park, US. I had asked him what he knew about Sanskrit. He went on to say that he heard the Indian scriptures were written in Sanskrit and people in India recite mantras in Sanskrit as part of daily rituals and meditations, but that it is no longer a widely spoken language.

When asked the same question, Chemistry teacher Piya Arora from New Delhi, India, tells me that she barely remembers the language as she learned it almost 20 years ago. She couldn’t keep up with it after she graduated 8th grade because it was no longer a part of the school curriculum.  Piya adds, “Neither teachers nor my family laid emphasis on reading, writing or speaking Sanskrit. In fact, everyone pressured me to learn and top in other subjects, especially English. And now I find it difficult to relearn the language.”

Cutis Key, VP of Innovation and Strategy at a publishing company in Philadelphia feels enthusiastically about the language. He practices yoga/meditation and wants to learn Sanskrit mainly to have access to primary Buddhist and Hindu texts in their original language. “Historically I know that it is an Indo-Aryan language that dates back over 3500 years. Linguistically, I don’t have much knowledge of its structure,” he shares.

Reflecting on responses from others, I had a rendezvous with memories of learning Sanskrit in school. I didn’t continue learning it after middle school because it was not a mandatory subject. Had I understood the relevance of the language in the living world back then, I would have continued learning it. Even though my knack for English pushed other subjects to a backseat, I did fairly well in languages, including Sanskrit. I vividly recall my mother saying how Sanskrit is like Mathematics. My mother, who learned this language through high school, graduating in 1972, tells me there is hardly a room for error in Sanskrit; it is precise and extremely methodical. Referring to her older sister, she joyfully expressed how my aunt scored 100 out of 100 in Sanskrit each year in school as well as college. “A professor once gave 102 out of 100 in Sanskrit to your aunt because he couldn’t find a single mistake in her test. Her remarkable performance was applauded at the university level,” she adds.   

Let’s look into what Sanskrit is

It is the mother of all Indo-Aryan languages, which has helped in development and enrichment of almost all languages across the world. Originally known as समकृत Samkrit, it is regarded as देव भाषा i.e. language of the Gods. The term is derived from the conjoining of the prefix Sam that means equal or balanced and Krit that means act or deed. India’s ancient scriptures and extensive studies suggest that Sanskrit was acknowledged and documented to be the most structured and scientific language in the entire world. “A language, which was the lingua-franca, has now been reduced to a vanishing minority with just about 25,000 speakers left across a country of 1.4 billion. I am disheartened because of what has happened to one of our richest national heritages. The situation is emergent and Sanskrit now urgently needs special protection,” laments Hemant Goswami, a social activist from Chandigarh, India. Hemant moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2015, appealing the Indian government to accord protection of Minority to Sanskrit language.

“It took nearly 200 years of systematic attack on Sanskrit to reduce it to such a pitiable and marginalised position. It all started with the advent of the Britishers in India and their desire to control the entire country. The transgressors identified that India is so evenly structured that it was almost impossible to enslave the country.”

Sanskrit in Germany – global fascination with a long association

As strange as it sounds, the name Lufthansa is a combination of two Sanskrit words Lupt that means disappear and Hansa that means goose. A complete word Lufthansa means: A flying goose disappeared from your eyes. Fourteen of the top universities in Germany teach Sanskrit. Besides Germany, students from over 35 countries have participated in Sanskrit courses and varsities reject many applications each year because of high demand.

Indology and Sanskrit have fascinated German scholars and researchers. The study of Sanskrit and Indian culture was initiated in various German universities at the beginning of the 19th century, first in Jena in 1817 and then in Bonn in 1818. One academic generation later, some of those who studied in Bonn under August Wilhelm Schlegel (1767–1845) and Christian Lassen (1800–76) were appointed to the newly opened chairs of Indian studies. In Marburg, the first course in Sanskrit was offered by the philosopher Franz Vorlaender, who had studied in Bonn and Berlin, in the winter term of 1843-44. The Schlegel brothers played a pioneering role in pushing Indology in Germany. The list of German scholars is long but the name Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900), a German Indologist, deserves special mention. The Goethe Institute, which promotes German language abroad, calls its branches in India Max Müller Bhavans.

Otto von Boethling (1815-1904) edited and translated Panini’s grammar and Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam, including the enormous Sanskrit-German dictionary, generally known as the St Petersburg Lexicon, which he published in collaboration with the Tuebingen Professor of Sanskrit, Rudolph Roth (1821-95), in seven parts between 1852 and 1875. This is when Sanskrit entered the German intellectual scene, because in the 17th and 18th century, German romantics were looking for alternatives to a perceived concept of ‘modern human being’ and they felt ancient India was the place to go.

Schlegel studied Sanskrit in Paris for many years where he wrote a treatise, claiming that Sanskrit was the Ur-Sprache i.e. the original language. The movement led to a rise of interest in Sanskrit texts, which further led to the establishment of the first Chair for Indology at the University of Bonn in 1819.

Professor Dr. Axel Michaels, Head of Classical Indology at the University of Heidelberg, says: “Even the core thoughts of Buddhism were in the Sanskrit language. To better understand the genesis of oriental philosophy, history, languages, sciences and culture, it’s essential to read the original Sanskrit texts as these are some of the earliest thoughts and discoveries in it.”

Role of Sanskrit in Psychiatry – the Sanskrit effect

Neuroscience shows how rigorous memorising can help the brain and that chanting/reading Sanskrit texts help patients suffering from depression, amnesia, ADHD etc. James Hartzell, a neuroscientist who studied 21 professionally qualified Sanskrit pandits, coined the term The Sanskrit Effect. He discovered that memorising Vedic mantras increases the size of brain regions associated with cognitive function, including short and long-term memory. This finding corroborates the beliefs of the Indian tradition which holds that memorising and reciting mantras enhances memory and thinking.

Dr. Hartzell, a Sanskrit devotee and postdoctoral researcher at Spain’s Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain and Language, spent many years studying and translating Sanskrit and became fascinated by its impact on the brain.Using structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) at India’s National Brain Research Centre, they scanned the brains of 21 Sanskrit pandits and 21 control subjects in 2018. He reports that the right hippocampus of the scholars, a region that plays a vital role in short and long-term memory, and is specialised for patterns, such as sound, spatial and visual,, had more grey matter than the brains of the control subjects. The right temporal cortex, associated with speech prosody and voice identity, was also substantially thicker.

As renowned Kriyayoga teacher Dr. Ashoke Kumar Chatterjee’s once said – “The Sanskrit language has 49 alphabets of which ‘अ’ is the first, a vowel and negative. These 49 alphabets are symbolic of the 49 air points within the body. The vital Prana-air (wind energy) splitting in 49 parts functions within the body, thus, keeps all beings alive. The word Sanskrit implies that which purifies or reforms a human life or else that which leads from evil to good.”

Francesca Lunari, a medical student who has been studying Sanskrit at Heidelberg University in Germany, says: “I am interested in psychoanalysis and must know how human thoughts originated through texts, cultures and societies. I will learn Bangla aka Bengali also to decipher the seminal works of Girindra Sekhar Bose, a pioneer of oriental psychiatry who has hardly been studied – even in India. Learning Sanskrit is the first step,” she said.

My friend who is a technology marketing professional in Atlanta, US, Bhuvana, sums it up by saying that it is extremely important for each Indian at least to learn this language. She is currently taking a Sanskrit language course along with his 10-year-old son and insists everyone else do the same.

“It is our duty to learn Sanskrit; it is precious and it means to be cherished and shared with people across the world,” Bhuvana asserts.

Other interesting facts about Sanskrit

  1. It is believed to have been generated by Lord Brahma.
  2. English has only one word for ‘Love’, Sanskrit has 96.
  3. Sudharma is the only Sanskrit newspaper in the world.
  4. Mattur in Karnataka is the only village in India where everyone speaks Sanskrit.
  5. It is the most computer friendly language.
  6. NASA: Sanskrit is the only unambiguous language.
  7. In a report given by NASA scientist Rick Briggs, the US is creating the 6th and 7th generation Super Computers based on the Sanskrit language. The Project deadlines are 2025 and 2034 for 6th and 7th generation computers, respectively.
  8. The United Nations confirmed that Sanskrit influenced 97% of the world’s languages.

I am a research and journal junkie. I specialize in wellness and Indian studies. 

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