Sanskrit and society: Beyond politics of language - III

There is a need to question rigid notions about the country’s earliest languages and rethink Sanskrit as a rarefied literary culture of little reach or relevance.

Published: 27th July 2022 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th July 2022 12:00 AM   |  A+A-

Illustration: Soumyadip Sinha

Contrary to misconceptions in certain circles today associating a narrow obscurantism with Sanskrit, this series is a reminder of the vast and variegated repertoire and reach of this prodigious language. This repertoire has included not only virtually all knowledge systems known to humankind but a multiplicity of voices and visions. 

Yet the tendency in modern scholarship has been to label Sanskrit literary culture elitist and insular, having little to do with the wider world. In the previous piece, we interrogated this assumption vis a vis Sanskrit drama (natya, a sub-genre of kavya), discovering its considerable public interface. Today we extend that enquiry to the question of language use in early India and myths surrounding it. 

While intriguingly little is known for sure about speech practice in antiquity, there have nonetheless developed several well-established views about the ideology of languages like Sanskrit. It is believed to have been not a spoken tongue but an esoteric language of learning, “particularly of the brahmin caste and of its religion”, as Thomas Burrow put it, while Prakrit is deemed a popular tongue, “the language of the masses”. Relatedly, there exists the influential theory among scholars that in the plays and indeed in early Indian society, Sanskrit was spoken only by high status men while lowly characters and women spoke Prakrit. In other words, a linguistic hierarchy is assumed to exist in the way Sanskrit and Prakrit are mutually deployed in literature, and this is believed to correspond to socio-economic hierarchy.

This is such a neat and persuasive interpretation that the fact that there are telling exceptions drops quite from view. The vidushaka, for example, the jester and hero’s companion, is consciously a brahmana but always speaks in Prakrit. Merchants and courtiers are also required to do so. On the other hand, parivrajikas (ascetics) are women but use Sanskrit even though queens usually do not and courtesans may. Children, even when male and high-caste, speak only Prakrit. 

In fact the section on languages in the 2nd century Natyashastra (NS), the earliest Indian work of dramaturgy, attests other characters and situations that do not conform to the simplistic socio-economic theory. It clarifies the actual grounds for allocating tongues in drama, from characterisation, ethnicity and vocation of protagonists, to regional phonetic peculiarities of audiences, as well as blanket considerations like “special times and situations”.Clearly, kavya’s understanding of language use was a self-conscious one, and so too its choice to be bilingual in the first place, but the logic was not as stock as baldly reflecting social status. 

This is reinforced by the fact that Prakrit, or rather the eight Prakrits as they have come down to us, are very much literary, not colloquial, dialects—as cultivated and standardised as Sanskrit. The 8th century Kavyadarsha, an influential treatise on kavya composition, refers to both as shishta (grammatically disciplined/systematised) and regards both as tongues fit for poetic composition, so that no literary privilege is really inherent in one or the other. 

Some famous kavyas in Prakrit are Hala’s 2nd century Gathasattasai, Pravarasena’s 5th century Setubandha and the 8th century Gaudavaho by Vakapatiraja. Scholars also now suspect that the Prakrits used in the earliest inscriptions, the 3rd century BCE Ashokan edicts, were read aloud by state officials to the populace at large rather than being directly legible by the latter. 

The Kavyadarsha does describe Sanskrit as daivi vak (divine speech) but this seems to have been on account of it being perfected speech “worked out by the sages”. This perfection and precision indeed explain why it is today deemed the ideal choice for computer programming and artificial intelligence by NASA! 

At the same time, the term that ancient grammarians used for Sanskrit, namely, bhasha (‘that which is spoken’), suggests that its knowledge may have been more commonplace than we imagine, though its correct or eloquent application would have been confined to the learned, as with all languages. We are reminded here of the NS’ admonition that a Sanskrit play “should contain no obscure and difficult word and be intelligible to country people.”

Moreover, the fact that they were employed in the same play shows that Sanskrit and Prakrit belonged to a common speech community. A mutual intelligibility for the two on the part of the heterogenous audiences—which, as we saw last time, gathered at street crossings and temple courtyards no less than in royal assemblies to watch these performances—must be assumed. 

In fact some scholars argue that Sanskrit and Prakrit may have been not different languages as much as different registers of speech in a diglossic situation. The NS does speak of them as the “two ways (dvividham) of recitation in the common language which relates to the four castes” (jatibhashashrayam caturvarnya samashrayam). 

Though this is hardly a comprehensive survey of the matter, it suffices to question rigid notions about India’s earliest languages. Seen together, there is clearly a need to not only review the supposed subalternity of Prakrits but rethink Sanskrit as a rarefied language and literary culture of little reach or relevance to society.

(The writer is author of Imagining the Urban: Sanskrit and the City in Early India, Associate Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University)


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