Editor’s Note: Today, there is a widespread belief that Samskrut is a has-been language of very little consequence for modern India. A few readers responded to our article of last week in that fashion. So we thought it might help to inform readers about a similar period in Indian history when use of Samskrut essentially disappeared until it reemerged around 4-5 centuries later and went on to become the cosmopolitan language of South & South East Asia for nearly 1,000 years. Serious discussion of this topic is beyond the scope of this Blog. Below is a summary of this extraordinary supranational development Almost all the historic material in this article comes from the staggering scholarly work The Language of the Gods in the World of Men by Professor Sheldon Pollack. This is a must-read book for every serious student of Indian history.
The origins of Samskrut go back to the beginning of known history as the oldest living Indo-European language in the world. Originally, Samskrut was a sacred langauge used mainly for Vedic studies, Vedic practices and other knowledge systems such as Grammar, Phonetics & metrics.
Around the beginning of the common era, Samskrut was transformed into a language for new and unprecedented capabilities for literary and poetic expression. This development marked the start of an amazing career of quasi-universal Samskrut and a a creation of a culture-power formation. This Samskrut and its culture-power formation sped from Afghanistan in the North West to Cambodia. Vietnam, Indonesia and Java. This cosmopolitan world language retained its dominance for 10-15 centuries depending on the country.
Few people know this. We did not know of this astonishing history of Samskrut as a world language until we began studying this development some time ago.
The Post-Buddha Period & the Disappearance of Samskrut
The emergence of Buddha was an event of enormous significance to India and the world. It is now reasonably well established that Buddhists systematically discouraged use of Samskrut and for centuries refused to transmit Buddhist doctrine by redacting it to Samskrut, Until then, Samskrut had been the authoritative medium for religious and philosophical discourse. This was similar to the earlier rejection of Samskrut by Jains who used a Northeastern Indian language called Ardha-Magadhi for their scriptures. The Buddhists used the vernacular Prakrut for their texts. The Buddhists to the south invented a new and parallel sacred language called Pali.
Emperor Ashok of the Maurya Dynasty was probably the greatest emperor of that period. He converted to Buddhism and spread Buddhism across all regions of the known world. This is why Emperor Ashok is considered to be the second in Buddhist hierarchy next only to Buddha himself. The importance of Ashok to India can be recognized by the simple fact that his symbol, the Chakra of Ashok, adorns the center of the modern Indian flag.
Perhaps due to the deep and abiding influence of Ashok with the dictates of the Buddhist hierarchy, use of Samskrut disappeared from the royal courts of India, including those of dynasties like the Sat-Vahan Dynasty who considered themselves to be of Vedic heritage rather than Buddhist heritage.
This disappearance of Samskrut lasted about 4-5 centuries until a new form of Samskrut was inaugurated in Junagadh on the Kathiawad peninsula in today’s Gujarat.
(Buddhist Proselytism during Ashok’s reign ) (Chakra of Ashok)
The inscription of Rudra-Raman in Junagadh around 150 CE
King Rudra-Raman, a ruler of Saka (silent “a”) lineage, composed a massive inscription (11 by 5 feet) on a huge granite boulder in Junagadh in approx. 150CE. Unlike the prevalent custom of that period, the inscription was not in Prakrut but in Samskrut. In this inscription, Rudra-Raman actually mentioned the events of prior four-five centuries including activities of “Maurya King Chandra-Gupt” and of “Asoka Maurya”. The Gupt King Skanda-Gupt added his own Samskrut inscription to this rock around 457 CE, some three hundred years later.
This inscription by Rudra-Raman was in Samskrut unlike anything the world had seen before. The research done since its discovery in 1838 has settled the certainty that Rudra-Raman’s inscription blazed a new trail in cultural history by creating a self-consciously expressive Samskrut. This Samskrut, with all the authority of power and cultural value, was used in a public space in bold for all to see.
The new Samskrut created two new literary forms, Kavya (poetry) and Prashasti (praise). This was a new version of the old language, the Samskrut called The Langauge of the Gods.
The World Conquest of Cosmopolitan Samskrut
With its new form, the Language of the Gods entered the World of Men as Professor Sheldon Pollack writes in his book. According to him, the new political culture or cultural politics spread across Southern Asia with remarkable speed. Look how vast this cosmopolis was – from Kashmir and Purus-Pura (today’s Peshawar) in the north west to Champa (central Vietnam) in the North East, to Prambanam in central Java and even beyond to islands of today’s Indonesia, from Nepal across peninsular India to Sri Lanka. Professor Pollack writes:
- “All across this vast geography, there arose a shared, Samskrut way of speaking about and conceiving of the nature of political power. At the same time, Prakrut essentially disappeared from royal or public ceremonial usage from India. No Prakrut whatever is to be found in royal inscriptions after the early fourth century when Samskrut entered history with extraordinary, sudden eclat. All across India, a linguistically homogeneous and conceptually standardized form of Samskrut political poetry came into usage and this transformed itself into Power.”
In a strange globalization or Samskrutization process, “this power spread to all corners of the eastern world. Suddenly, from the 4th century on, Samskrut inscriptions began to appear with increasing frequency in places now known as Myanmar, Thailand Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia & Indonesia“.
In Cambodia, Samskrut political poetry continued until the late 13th century and the crowning achievement of the Khymer Samskrut period is the Angkor Wat temple complex. In Java, it continued until mid-15th century. Look at the map below of Champa or Chiam Thanh or today’s Vietnam in 1832 , (yes 1832, a period when India itself was annexed by the British East India Company). In the map, you see a local capital named as Indra-pura (Da Nang), and other cities named as Vijaya, Amravati, Pandurang, all celebrated Indian names.
The How & Why of the Globalization of Samskrut
It is astonishing to scholars how quickly the new Samskrut cultural-political form spread across Asia. No one has a good explanation of why and how this globalization occurred.
- There was no conquest. No “Samskrut” political entity had conquered the entire Indian subcontinent let alone all of Southern Asia. So this was no Romanisation process that followed invasion by Roman legions or a Westernization that followed conquests by England, France or Spain.
- The Chola Dynasty of South India had extensive forays in to South East Asia but for the most part the kingdoms of Thailand, Cambodia & Vietnam were local.
- Samskrut was never a language of commerce. So this globalization was not driven by the vibrant trade that was prevalent in those days. There is strong evidence that India and the Roman Empire traded extensively with each other but this trade did not lead to any cultural influence on either India or Rome.
- Unlike Islam, there was no religious revolution that created acceptance of a new langauge form.
Yet, the ascendancy of the Samskrut cultural-political power continued for well over 1,000 years. During this period, Samskrut names were adapted by Kings across Asia and Samskrut was used almost exclusively in recording exploits of Kings. In fact, Samskrut became not just a shared language but a means of “aesthetization of power“, as Professor Pollack puts it. In this period, Samskrut names were used extensively for Kings, their cities and monuments. For example, a king of central Vietnam or Champa named a new reservoir as the New Kurushektra (shades of New York?) and the names of Vietnam’s cities were Indra-Pura, Vijaya and Amravati.
Why? This is still the realm of conjecture and study.
Relevancy for today’s India
This brings us to today’s India, a land which has forsaken Samskrut to a large extent. The langauge is hardly taught in schools & colleges. Fewer and fewer students bother to learn even the rudiments of it. What is the relevance of Samskrut in the modern world? This is deemed to be a rhetorical question. The ancient Guru-Shishya tradition that preserved Samskrut is slowly dying because of newer opportunities for progress. We can attest to this personally because ours is the first generation in our family history that is not proficient in Samskrut.
We used to be depressed about this state of affairs. But reading the history of Samskrut from the days of Buddha to 150CE has encouraged us. If Samskrut could come back after nearly 500 years of rejection in those days, surely it can do so again and perhaps with global impact.
Today the study of Samskrut is gaining adherents in America, Europe, Australia, Israel and Eastern Europe. One great venture of this kind is the Clay Sanskrit Library and its grand effort to translate 100 Samskrut texts into English.
It took a Saka ruler (foreign immigrant into India) to launch Samskrut on its 1,000 year trajectory of transnational dominance. Perhaps, the next successful global drive of Samskrut might come from America!
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