A History of Sanskrit Literature/Chapter 1
Since the Renaissance there has been no event of such world-wide significance in the history of culture as the discovery of Sanskrit literature in the latter part of the eighteenth century. After Alexander's invasion, the Greeks became to some extent acquainted with the learning of the Indians; the Arabs, in the Middle Ages, introduced the knowledge of Indian science to the West; a few European missionaries, from the sixteenth century onwards, were not only aware of the existence of, but also acquired some familiarity with, the ancient language of India; and Abraham Roger even translated the Sanskrit poet Bhartṛihari into Dutch as early as 1651. Nevertheless, till about a hundred and twenty years ago there was no authentic information in Europe about the existence of Sanskrit literature, but only vague surmise, finding expression in stories about the wisdom of the Indians. The enthusiasm with which Voltaire in his Essai sur les Mœurs et l'Esprit des Nations greeted the lore of the Ezour Vedam, a work brought from India and introduced to his notice in the middle of the last century, was premature. For this work was later proved to be a forgery made in the seventeenth century by a Jesuit missionary. The scepticism justified by this fabrication, and indulged in when the discovery of the genuine Sanskrit literature was announced, survived far into the present century. Thus, Dugald Stewart, the philosopher, wrote an essay in which he endeavoured to prove that not only Sanskrit literature, but also the Sanskrit language, was a forgery made by the crafty Brahmans on the model of Greek after Alexander's conquest. Indeed, this view was elaborately defended by a professor at Dublin as late as the year 1838.
The first impulse to the study of Sanskrit was given by the practical administrative needs of our Indian possessions. Warren Hastings, at that time Governor-General, clearly seeing the advantage of ruling the Hindus as far as possible according to their own laws and customs, caused a number of Brahmans to prepare a digest based on the best ancient Indian legal authorities. An English version of this Sanskrit compilation, made through the medium of a Persian translation, was published in 1776. The introduction to this work, besides giving specimens of the Sanskrit script, for the first time supplied some trustworthy information about the ancient Indian language and literature. The earliest step, however, towards making Europe acquainted with actual Sanskrit writings was taken by Charles Wilkins, who, having, at the instigation of Warren Hastings, acquired a considerable knowledge of Sanskrit at Benares, published in 1785 a translation of the Bhagavad-gītā, or The Song of the Adorable One, and two years later, a version of the well-known collection of fables entitled Hitopadeça, or Friendly Advice.
Sir William Jones (1746-94) was, however, the pioneer of Sanskrit studies in the West. It was this brilliant and many-sided Orientalist who, during his too brief career of eleven years in India, first aroused a keen interest in the study of Indian antiquity by his unwearied literary activity and by the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784. Having rapidly acquired an accurate knowledge of Sanskrit, he published in 1789 a translation of Çakuntalā, the finest Sanskrit drama, which was greeted with enthusiasm by such judges as Herder and Goethe. This was followed by a translation of the Code of Manu, the most important of the Sanskrit law-books. To Sir William Jones also belongs the credit of having been the first man who ever printed an edition of a Sanskrit text. This was a short lyrical poem entitled Ṛitusaṃhāra, or Cycle of the Seasons, published in 1792.
We next come to the great name of Henry Thomas Colebrooke (1765-1837), a man of extraordinary industry, combined with rare clearness of intellect and sobriety of judgment. The first to handle the Sanskrit language and literature on scientific principles, he published many texts, translations, and essays dealing with almost every branch of Sanskrit learning, thus laying the solid foundations on which later scholars have built.
While Colebrooke was beginning his literary career in India during the opening years of the century, the romance of war led to the practical knowledge of Sanskrit being introduced on the Continent of Europe. Alexander Hamilton (1765-1824), an Englishman who had acquired a good knowledge of Sanskrit in India, happened to be passing through France on his way home in 1802. Hostilities breaking out afresh just then, a decree of Napoleon, directed against all Englishmen in the country, kept Hamilton a prisoner in Paris. During his long involuntary stay in that city he taught Sanskrit to some French scholars, and especially to the German romantic poet Friedrich Schlegel. One of the results of these studies was the publication by Schlegel of his work On the Language and Wisdom of the Indians (1808). This book produced nothing less than a revolution in the science of language by the introduction of the comparative and the historical method. It led to the foundation of the science of comparative philology by Franz Bopp in his treatise on the conjugational system of Sanskrit in comparison with that of Greek, Latin, Persian, and German (1816). Schlegel's work, moreover, aroused so much zeal for the study of Sanskrit in Germany, that the vast progress made since his day in this branch of learning has been mainly due to the labours of his countrymen.
In the early days of Sanskrit studies Europeans became acquainted only with that later phase of the ancient language of India which is familiar to the Pandits, and is commonly called Classical Sanskrit. So it came about that the literature composed in this dialect engaged the attention of scholars almost exclusively down to the middle of the century. Colebrooke had, it is true, supplied as early as 1805 valuable information about the literature of the older period in his essay On the Vedas. Nearly a quarter of a century later, F. Rosen, a German scholar, had conceived the plan of making this more ancient literature known to Europe from the rich collection of manuscripts at the East India House; and his edition of the first eighth of the Rigveda was actually brought out in 1838, shortly after his premature death. But it was not till Rudolf Roth (1821-95), the founder of Vedic philology, published his epoch-making little book On the Literature and History of the Veda in 1846, that the studies of Sankritists received a lasting impulse in the direction of the earlier and more important literature of the Vedas. These studies have since been prosecuted with such zeal, that nearly all the most valuable works of the Vedic, as well as the later period, have within the last fifty years been made accessible in thoroughly trustworthy editions.
In judging of the magnitude of the work thus accomplished, it should be borne in mind that the workers have been far fewer in this than in other analogous fields, while the literature of the Vedas at least equals in extent what survives of the writings of ancient Greece. Thus in the course of a century the whole range of Sanskrit literature, which in quantity exceeds that of Greece and Rome put together, has been explored. The great bulk of it has been edited, and most of its valuable productions have been translated, by competent hands. There has long been at the service of scholars a Sanskrit dictionary, larger and more scientific than any either of the classical languages yet possesses. The detailed investigations in every department of Sanskrit literature are now so numerous, that a comprehensive work embodying the results of all these researches has become a necessity. An encyclopaedia covering the whole domain of Indo-Aryan antiquity has accordingly been planned on a more extensive scale than that of any similar undertaking, and is now being published at Strasburg in parts, contributed to by about thirty specialists of various nationalities. By the tragic death, in April 1898, of its eminent editor, Professor Bühler of Vienna, Sanskrit scholarship has sustained an irreparable loss. The work begun by him is being completed by another very distinguished Indianist, Professor Kielhorn of Göttingen.
Although so much of Sanskrit literature has already been published, an examination of the catalogues of Sanskrit manuscripts, of which an enormous number are preserved in European and Indian libraries, proves that there are still many minor works awaiting, and likely to repay, the labours of an editor.
The study of Sanskrit literature deserves far more attention than it has yet received in this country. For in that ancient heritage the languages, the religious and intellectual life and thought, in short, the whole civilisation of the Hindus, who form the vast majority of the inhabitants of our Indian Empire, have their roots. Among all the ancient literatures, that of India is, moreover, undoubtedly in intrinsic value and æsthetic merit second only to that of Greece. To the latter it is, as a source for the study of human evolution, even superior. Its earliest period, being much older than any product of Greek literature, presents a more primitive form of belief, and therefore gives a clearer picture of the development of religious ideas than any other literary monument of the world. Hence it came about that, just as the discovery of the Sanskrit language led to the foundation of the science of Comparative Philology, an acquaintance with the literature of the Vedas resulted in the foundation of the science of Comparative Mythology by Adalbert Kuhn and Max Müller.
Though it has touched excellence in most of its branches, Sanskrit literature has mainly achieved greatness in religion and philosophy. The Indians are the only division of the Indo-European family which has created a great national religion—Brahmanism—and a great world-religion—Buddhism; while all the rest, far from displaying originality in this sphere, have long since adopted a foreign faith. The intellectual life of the Indians has, in fact, all along been more dominated by religious thought than that of any other race. The Indians, moreover, developed independently several systems of philosophy which bear evidence of high speculative powers. The great interest, however, which these two subjects must have for us lies, not so much in the results they attained, as in the fact that every step in the evolution of religion and philosophy can be traced in Sanskrit literature.
The importance of ancient Indian literature as a whole largely consists in its originality. Naturally isolated by its gigantic mountain barrier in the north, the Indian peninsula has ever since the Aryan invasion formed a world apart, over which a unique form of Aryan civilisation rapidly spread, and has ever since prevailed. When the Greeks, towards the end of the fourth century B.C., invaded the North-West, the Indians had already fully worked out a national culture of their own, unaffected by foreign influences. And, in spite of successive waves of invasion and conquest by Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Muhammadans, the national development of the life and literature of the Indo-Aryan race remained practically unchecked and unmodified from without down to the era of British occupation. No other branch of the Indo-European stock has experienced an isolated evolution like this. No other country except China can trace back its language and literature, its religious beliefs and rites, its domestic and social customs, through an uninterrupted development of more than three thousand years.
A few examples will serve to illustrate this remarkable continuity in Indian civilisation. Sanskrit is still spoken as the tongue of the learned by thousands of Brahmans, as it was centuries before our era. Nor has it ceased to be used for literary purposes, for many books and journals written in the ancient language are still produced. The copying of Sanskrit manuscripts is still continued in hundreds of libraries in India, uninterrupted even by the introduction of printing during the present century. The Vedas are still learnt by heart as they were long before the invasion of Alexander, and could even now be restored from the lips of religious teachers if every manuscript or printed copy of them were destroyed. A Vedic stanza of immemorial antiquity, addressed to the sun-god Savitṛi, is still recited in the daily worship of the Hindus. The god Vishṇu, adored more than 3000 years ago, has countless votaries in India at the present day. Fire is still produced for sacrificial purposes by means of two sticks, as it was in ages even more remote. The wedding ceremony of the modern Hindu, to single out but one social custom, is essentially the same as it was long before the Christian era.
The history of ancient Indian literature naturally falls into two main periods. The first is the Vedic, which beginning perhaps as early as 1500 B.C., extends in its latest phase to about 200 B.C. In the former half of the Vedic age the character of its literature was creative and poetical, while the centre of culture lay in the territory of the Indus and its tributaries, the modern Panjāb; in the latter half, literature was theologically speculative in matter and prosaic in form, while the centre of intellectual life had shifted to the valley of the Ganges. Thus in the course of the Vedic age Aryan civilisation had overspread the whole of Hindustan Proper, the vast tract extending from the mouths of the Indus to those of the Ganges, bounded on the north by the Himālaya, and on the south by the Vindhya range. The second period, concurrent with the final offshoots of Vedic literature and closing with the Muhammadan conquest after 1000 A.D., is the Sanskrit period strictly speaking. In a certain sense, owing to the continued literary use of Sanskrit, mainly for the composition of commentaries, this period may be regarded as coming down to the present day. During this second epoch Brahmanic culture was introduced into and overspread the southern portion of the continent called the Dekhan or "the South." In the course of these two periods taken together, Indian literature attained noteworthy results in nearly every department. The Vedic age, which, unlike the earlier epoch of Greece, produced only religious works, reached a high standard of merit in lyric poetry, and later made some advance towards the formation of a prose style.
The Sanskrit period, embracing in general secular subjects, achieved distinction in many branches of literature, in national as well as court epic, in lyric and especially didactic poetry, in the drama, in fairy tales, fables, and romances. Everywhere we find much true poetry, the beauty of which is, however, marred by obscurity of style and the ever-increasing taint of artificiality. But this period produced few works which, regarded as a whole, are dominated by a sense of harmony and proportion. Such considerations have had little influence on the æsthetic notions of India. The tendency has been rather towards exaggeration, manifesting itself in all directions. The almost incredible development of detail in ritual observance; the extraordinary excesses of asceticism; the grotesque representations of mythology in art; the frequent employment of vast numbers in description; the immense bulk of the epics; the unparalleled conciseness of one of the forms of prose; the huge compounds habitually employed in the later style, are among the more striking manifestations of this defect of the Indian mind.
In various branches of scientific literature, in phonetics, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and law, the Indians also achieved notable results. In some of these subjects their attainments are, indeed, far in advance of what was accomplished by the Greeks.
History is the one weak spot in Indian literature. It is, in fact, non-existent. The total lack of the historical sense is so characteristic, that the whole course of Sanskrit literature is darkened by the shadow of this defect, suffering as it does from an entire absence of exact chronology. So true is this, that the very date of Kālidāsa, the greatest of Indian poets, was long a matter of controversy within the limits of a thousand years, and is even now doubtful to the extent of a century or two. Thus the dates of Sanskrit authors are in the vast majority of cases only known approximately, having been inferred from the indirect evidence of interdependence, quotation or allusion, development of language or style. As to the events of their lives, we usually know nothing at all, and only in a few cases one or two general facts. Two causes seem to have combined to bring about this remarkable result. In the first place, early India wrote no history because it never made any. The ancient Indians never went through a struggle for life, like the Greeks in the Persian and the Romans in the Punic wars, such as would have welded their tribes into a nation and developed political greatness. Secondly, the Brahmans, whose task it would naturally have been to record great deeds, had early embraced the doctrine that all action and existence are a positive evil, and could therefore have felt but little inclination to chronicle historical events.
Such being the case, definite dates do not begin to appear in Indian literary history till about 500 A.D. The chronology of the Vedic period is altogether conjectural, being based entirely on internal evidence. Three main literary strata can be clearly distinguished in it by differences in language and style, as well as in religious and social views. For the development of each of these strata a reasonable length of time must be allowed; but all we can here hope to do is to approximate to the truth by centuries. The lower limit of the second Vedic stratum cannot, however, be fixed later that 500 B.C., because its latest doctrines are presupposed by Buddhism, and the date of the death of Buddha has been with a high degree of probability calculated, from the recorded dates of the various Buddhist councils, to be 480 B.C. With regard to the commencement of the Vedic age, there seems to have been a decided tendency among Sanskrit scholars to place it too high. 2000 B.C. is commonly represented as its starting-point. Supposing this to be correct, the truly vast period of 1500 years is required to account for a development of language and thought hardly greater than that between the Homeric and the Attic age of Greece. Professor Max Müller's earlier estimate of 1200 B.C., formed forty years ago, appears to be much nearer the mark. A lapse of three centuries, say from 1300—1000 B.C., would amply account for the difference between what is oldest and newest in Vedic hymn poetry. Considering that the affinity of the oldest form of the Avestan language with the dialect of the Vedas is already so great that, by the mere application of phonetic laws, whole Avestan stanzas may be translated word for word into Vedic, so as to produce verses correct not only in form but in poetic spirit; considering further, that if we knew the Avestan language at as early a stage as we know the Vedic, the former would necessarily be almost identical with the latter, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Indian branch must have separated from the Iranian only a very short time before the beginnings of Vedic literature, and can therefore have hardly entered the North-West of India even as early as 1500 B.C. All previous estimates of the antiquity of the Vedic period have been outdone by the recent theory of Professor Jacobi of Bonn, who supposes that period goes back to at least 4000 B.C. This theory is based on astronomical calculations connected with a change in the beginning of the seasons, which Professor Jacobi thinks has taken place since the time of the Rigveda. The whole estimate is, however, invalidated by the assumption of a doubtful, and even improbable, meaning in a Vedic word, which forms the very starting-point of the theory. Meanwhile we must rest content with the certainty that Vedic literature in any case is of considerably higher antiquity than that of Greece.
For the post-Vedic period we have, in addition to the results of internal evidence, a few landmarks of general chronological importance in the visits of foreigners. The earliest date of this kind is that of the invasion of India by Alexander in 326 B.C. This was followed by the sojourn in India of various Greeks, of whom the most notable was Megasthenes. He resided for some years about 300 B.C. at the court of Pāṭaliputra (the modern Patna), and has left a valuable though fragmentary account of the contemporary state of Indian society. Many centuries later India was visited by three Chinese Buddhist pilgrims, Fa Hian (399 A.D.), Hiouen Thsang (630—645), and I Tsing (671—695). The records of their travels, which have been preserved, and are all now translated into English, shed much light on the social conditions, the religious thought, and the Buddhist antiquities of India in their day. Some general and specific facts about Indian literature also can be gathered from them. Hiouen Thsang especially supplies some important statements about contemporary Sanskrit poets. It is not till his time that we can say of any Sanskrit writer that he was alive in any particular year, excepting only the three Indian astronomers, whose exact dates in the fifth and sixth centuries have been recorded by themslves. It was only the information supplied by the two earlier Chinese writers that made possible the greatest archæological discovery of the present century in India, that of the site of Buddha's birthplace, Kapila-vastu, identified in December 1896. At the close of our period we have the very valuable account of the country at the time of the Muhammadan conquest by the Arabic author Albērūnī, who wrote his India in 1030 A.D.
It is evident from what has been said, that before 500 A.D. literary chronology, even in the Sanskrit period, is almost entirely relative, priority or posteriority being determined by such criteria as development of style or thought, the mention of earlier authors by name, stray political references as to the Greeks or to some well-known dynasty, and allusions to astronomical facts which cannot have been known before a certain epoch. Recent research, owing to increased specialisation, has made considerable progress towards greater chronological definiteness. More light will doubtless in course of time come from the political history of early India, which is being reconstructed, with great industry and ability, by various distinguished scholars from the evidence of coins, copper-plate grants, and rock or pillar inscriptions. These have been or are being published in the Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, the Epigraphia Indica, and various journals devoted to the study of Indian antiquities. The rise in the study of epigraphy during the last twenty years has, indeed, already yielded some direct information of importance about the literary and religious history of India, by fixing the date of some of the later poets as well as by throwing light on religious systems and whole classes of literature. Thus some metrical inscriptions of considerable length have been deciphered, which prove the existence of court poetry in Sanskrit and vernacular dialects from the first century of our era onwards. No direct evidence of this fact had previously been known.
The older inscriptions are also important in connection with Sanskrit literature as illustrating both the early history of Indian writing and the state of the language at the time. The oldest of them are the rock and pillar inscriptions, dating from the middle of the third century B.C., of the great Buddhist king Açoka, who ruled over Northern India from 259 to 222 B.C., and during whose reign was held the third Buddhist council, at which the canon of the Buddhist scriptures was probably fixed. The importance of these inscriptions can hardly be over-rated for the value of the information to be derived from them about the political, religious, and linguistic conditions of the age. Found scattered all over India, from Girnar (Giri-nagara) in Kathiawar to Dhauli in Orissa, from Kapur-di-Giri, north of the Kabul river, to Khalsi, they have been reproduced, deciphered, and translated. One of them, engraved on a pillar erected by Açoka to commemorate the actual birthplace of Buddha, was discovered only at the close of 1896.
These Açoka inscriptions are the earliest records of Indian writing. The question of the origin and age of writing in India, long involved in doubt and controversy, has been greatly cleared up by the recent palæographical researches of Professor Bühler. That great scholar has shown, that of the two kinds of script known in ancient India, the one called Kharoshṭhī, employed in the country of Gandhāra (Eastern Afghanistan and Northern Panjāb) from the fourth century B.C. to 200 A.D., was borrowed from the Aramaic type of Semitic writing in use during the fifth century B.C. It was always written from right to left, like its original. The other ancient Indian script, called Brāhmī is, as Bühler shows, the true national writing of India, because all later Indian alphabets are descended from it, however dissimilar many of them may appear at the present day. It was regularly written from left to right; but that this was not its original direction is indicated by a coin of the fourth century B.C., the inscription on which runs from right to left. Dr. Bühler has shown that this writing is based on the oldest Northern Semitic or Phœnician type, represented on Assyrian weights and on the Moabite stone, which dates from about 890 B.C. He argues, with much probability, that it was introduced about 800 B.C. into India by traders coming by way of Mesopotamia.
References to writing in ancient Indian literature are, it is true, very rare and late; in no case, perhaps, earlier than the fourth century B.C., or not very long before the date of the Açoka inscriptions. Little weight, however, can be attached to the argumentum ex silentio in this instance. For though writing has now been extensively in use for an immense period, the native learning of the modern Indian is still based on oral tradition. The sacred scriptures as well as the sciences can only be acquired from the lips of a teacher, not from a manuscript; and as only memorial knowledge is accounted of value, writing and MSS. are rarely mentioned. Even modern poets do not wish to be read, but cherish the hope that their works may be recited. This immemorial practice, indeed, shows that the beginnings of Indian poetry and science go back to a time when writing was unknown, and a system of oral tradition, such as is referred to in the Rigveda, was developed before writing was introduced. The latter could, therefore, have been in use long before it began to be mentioned. The palæographical evidence of the Açoka inscriptions, in any case, clearly shows that writing was no recent invention in the third century B.C., for most of the letters have several, often very divergent forms, sometimes as many as nine or ten. A considerable length of time was, moreover, needed to elaborate from the twenty-two borrowed Semitic symbols the full Brāhmī alphabet of forty-six letters. This complete alphabet, which was evidently worked out by learned Brahmans on phonetic principles, must have existed by 500 B.C., according to the strong arguments adduced by Professor Bühler. This is the alphabet which is recognised in Pāṇini's great Sanskrit grammar of about the fourth century B.C., and has remained unmodified ever since. It not only represents all the sounds of the Sanskrit language, but is arranged on a thoroughly scientific method, the simple vowels (short and long) coming first, then the diphthongs, and lastly the consonants in uniform groups according to the organs of speech with which they are pronounced. Thus the dental consonants appear together as t, th, d, dh, n and the labials as p, ph, b, bh, m. We Europeans, on the other hand, 2500 years later, and in a scientific age, still employ an alphabet which is not only inadequate to represent all the sounds of our languages, but even preserves the random order in which vowels and consonants are jumbled up as they were in the Greek adaptation of the primitive Semitic arrangement of 3000 years ago.
In the inscriptions of the third century B.C. two types, the Northern and the Southern, may be distinguished in the Brāhmī writing. From the former is descended the group of Northern scripts which gradually prevailed in all the Aryan dialects of India. The most important of them is the Nāgarī (also called Devanāgarī), in which Sanskrit MSS. are usually written, and Sanskrit as well as Marāthī and Hindī books are regularly printed. It is recognisable by the characteristic horizontal line at the top of the letters. The oldest inscription engraved entirely in Nāgarī belongs to the eighth, and the oldest MS. written in it to the eleventh century. From the Southern variety of the Brāhmī writing are descended five types of script, all in use south of the Vindhya range. Among them are the characters employed in the Canarese and the Telugu country.
Owing to the perishability of the material on which they are written, Sanskrit MSS. older than the fourteenth century A.D. are rare. The two ancient materials used in India were strips of birch bark and palm leaves. The employment of the former, beginning in the North-West of India, where extensive birch forests clothe the slopes of the Himālaya, gradually spread to Central, Eastern, and Western India. The oldest known Sanskrit MS. written on birch bark dates from the fifth century A.D., and a Pāli MS. in Kharoshṭhī, which became known in 1897, is still older, but the use of this material doubtless goes back to far earlier days. Thus we have the statement of Quintus Curtius that the Indians employed it for writing on at the time of Alexander. The testimony of classical Sanskrit authors, as well as of Albērūnī, shows that leaves of birch bark (bhūrja-pattra) were also regularly used for letter-writing in early mediæval India.
The first example of a palm leaf Sanskrit MS. belongs to the sixth century A.D. It is preserved in Japan, but there is a facsimile of it in the Bodleian Library. According to the Chinese pilgrim Hiouen Thsang, the use of the palm leaf was common all over India in the seventh century; but that it was known many centuries earlier is proved by the fact that an inscribed copper-plate, dating from the first century A.D. at the latest, imitates a palm leaf in shape.
Paper was introduced by the Muhammadan conquest, and has been very extensively used since that time for the writing of MSS. The oldest known example of a paper Sanskrit MS. written in India is one from Gujarat, belonging to the early part of the thirteenth century. In Northern India, where ink was employed for writing, palm leaves went out of use after the introduction of paper. But in the South, where a stilus has always been employed for scratching in the character, palm leaves are still common for writing both MSS. and letters. The birch bark and palm leaf MSS. are held together by a cord drawn through a single hole in the middle, or through two placed some distance apart. This explains how the Sanskrit word for "knot," grantha, came to acquire the sense of "book."
Leather or parchment has never been utilised in India for MSS., owing to the ritual impurity of animal materials. For inscriptions copper-plates were early and frequently employed. They regularly imitate the shape of either palm leaves or strips of birch bark.
The actual use of ink (the oldest Indian name of which is mashi) is proved for the second century B.C. by an inscription from a Buddhist relic mound, and is rendered very probable for the fourth century B.C. by the statements of Nearchos and Quintus Curtius.
All the old palm leaf, birch bark, and paper Sanskrit MSS. have been written with ink and a reed pen, usually called kalama (a term borrowed from the Greek kalamos). In Southern India, on the other hand, it has always been the practice to scratch the writing on palm leaves with a stilus, the characters being subsequently blackened by soot or charcoal being rubbed into them.
Sanskrit MSS. of every kind are usually kept between thin strips of wood with cords wound round them, and wrapped up in coloured, sometimes embroidered, cloths. They have been, and still are, preserved in the libraries of temples, monasteries, colleges, the courts of princes, as well as private houses. A famous library was owned by King Bhoja of Dhār in the eleventh century. That considerable private libraries existed in fairly early times is shown by the fact that the Sanskrit author Bāṇa (about 620 A.D.) had in his employment a reader of manuscripts. Even at the present day there are many excellent libraries of Sanskrit MSS. in the possession of Brahmans all over India.
The ancient Indian language, like the literature composed in it, falls into the two main divisions of Vedic and Sanskrit. The former differs from the latter on the whole about as much as Homeric from classical Greek, or the Latin of the Salic hymns from that of Varro. Within the Vedic language, in which the sacred literature of India is written, several stages can be distinguished. In its transitions from one to the other it gradually grows more modern till it is ultimately merged in Sanskrit. Even in its earliest phase Vedic cannot be regarded as a popular tongue, but is rather an artificially archaic dialect, handed down from one generation to the other within the class of priestly singers. Of this the language itself supplies several indications. One of them is the employment side by side of forms belonging to different linguistic periods, a practice in which, however, the Vedic does not go so far as the Homeric dialect. The spoken language of the Vedic priests probably differed from this dialect of the hymns only in the absence of poetical constructions and archaisms. There was, in fact, even in the earlier Vedic age, a caste language, such as is to be found more or less wherever a literature has grown up; but in India it has been more strongly marked than in any other country. If, however, Vedic was no longer a natural tongue, but was already the scholastic dialect of a class, how much truer is this of the language of the later literature! Sanskrit differs from Vedic, but not in conformity with the natural development which appears in living languages. The phonetic condition of Sanskrit remains almost exactly the same as that of the earliest Vedic. In the matter of grammatical forms, too, the language shows itself to be almost stationary; for hardly any new formations or inflexions have made their appearance. Yet even from a grammatical point of view the later language has become very different from the earlier. This change was therefore brought about, not by new creations, but by successive losses. The most notable of these were the disappearance of the subjunctive mood and the reduction of a dozen infinitives to a single one. In declension the change consisted chiefly in the dropping of a number of synonymous by-forms. It is probable that the spoken Vedic, more modern and less complex than that of the hymns, to some extent affected the later literary language in the direction of simplification. But the changes in the language were mainly due to the regulating efforts of the grammarians, which were more powerful in India than anywhere else, owing to the early and exceptional development of grammatical studies in that country. Their influence alone can explain the elaborate nature of the phonetic combinations (called Sandhi) between the finals and initials of words in the Sanskrit sentence.
It is, however, the vocabulary of the language that has undergone the greatest modifications, as is indeed the case in all literary dialects; for it is beyond the power of grammarians to control change in this direction. Thus we find that the vocabulary has been greatly extended by derivation and composition according to recognised types. At the same time there are numerous words which, though old, seem to be new only because they happen by accident not to occur in the Vedic literature. Many really new words have, however, come in through continual borrowings from a lower stratum of language, while already existing words have undergone great changes of meaning.
This later phase of the ancient language of India was stereotyped by the great grammarian Pāṇini towards the end of the fourth century B.C. It came to be called Sanskrit, the "refined" or "elaborate" (saṃ-skṛi-ta, literally "put together"), a term not found in the older grammarians, but occurring in the earliest epic, the Rāmāyaṇa. The name is meant to be opposed to that of the popular dialects called Prākṛita, and is so opposed, for instance, in the Kāvyādarça, or Mirror of Poetry, a work of the sixth century A.D. The older grammarians themselves, from Yāska (fifth century B.C.) onwards, speak of this classical dialect as Bhāshā, "the speech," in distinction from Vedic. The remarks they make about it point to a spoken language. Thus one of them, Patanjali, refers to it as used "in the world," and designates the words of his Sanskrit as "current in the world." Pāṇini himself gives many rules which have no significance except in connection with living speech; as when he describes the accent or the lengthening of vowels in calling from a distance, in salutation, or in question and answer. Again, Sanskrit cannot have been a mere literary and school language, because there are early traces of its having had dialectic variations. Thus Yāska and Pāṇini mention the peculiarities of the "Easterns" and "Northerners," Kātyāyana refers to local divergences, and Patanjali specifies words occurring in single districts only. There is, indeed, no doubt that in the second century B.C. Sanskrit was actually spoken in the whole country called by Sanskrit writers Āryāvarta, or "Land of the Aryans," which lies between the Himālaya and the Vindhya range. But who spoke it there? Brahmans certainly did; for Patanjali speaks of them as the "instructed" (çishṭa), the employers of correct speech. Its use, however, extended beyond the Brahmans; for we read in Patanjali about a head-groom disputing with a grammarian as to the etymology of the Sanskrit word for "charioteer" (sūta). This agrees with the distribution of the dialects in the Indian drama, a distribution doubtless based on a tradition much older than the plays themselves. Here the king and those of superior rank speak Sanskrit, while the various forms of the popular dialect are assigned to women and to men of the people. The dramas also show that whoever did not speak Sanskrit at any rate understood it, for Sanskrit is there employed in conversation with speakers of Prākrit. The theatrical public, and that before which, as we know from frequent references in the literature, the epics were recited, must also have understood Sanskrit. Thus, though classical Sanskrit was from the beginning a literary and, in a sense, an artificial dialect, it would be erroneous to deny to it altogether the character of a colloquial language. It is indeed, as has already been mentioned, even now actually spoken in India by learned Brahmans, as well as written by them, for every-day purposes. The position of Sanskrit, in short, has all along been, and still is, much like that of Hebrew among the Jews or of Latin in the Middle Ages.
Whoever was familiar with Sanskrit at the same time spoke one popular language or more. The question as to what these popular languages were brings us to the relation of Sanskrit to the vernaculars of India. The linguistic importance of the ancient literary speech for the India of to-day will become apparent when it is pointed out that all the modern dialects—excepting those of a few isolated aboriginal hill tribes—spoken over the whole vast territory between the mouths of the Indus and those of the Ganges, between the Himālaya and the Vindhya range, besides the Bombay Presidency as far south as the Portuguese settlement of Goa, are descended from the oldest form of Sanskrit. Starting from their ancient source in the north-west, they have overflowed in more and more diverging streams the whole peninsula except the extreme south-east. The beginnings of these popular dialects go back to a period of great antiquity. Even at the time when the Vedic hymns were composed, there must have existed a popular language which already differed widely in its phonetic aspect from the literary dialect. For the Vedic hymns contain several words of a phonetic type which can only be explained by borrowings on the part of their composers from popular speech.
We further know that in the sixth century B.C., Buddha preached his gospel in the language of the people, as opposed to that of the learned, in order that all might understand him. Thus all the oldest Buddhist literature dating from the fourth or fifth century B.C. was composed in the vernacular, originally doubtless in the dialect of Magadha (the modern Behar), the birthplace of Buddhism. Like Italian, as compared with Latin, this early popular speech is characterised by the avoidance of conjunct consonants and by fondness for final vowels. Thus the Sanskrit sūtra, "thread," and dharma, "duty," become sutta and dhamma respectively, while vidyut, "lightning," is transformed into vijju. The particular form of the popular language which became the sacred idiom of Southern Buddhism is known by the name of Pāli. Its original home is still uncertain, but its existence as early as the third century B.C. is proved beyond the range of doubt by the numerous rock and pillar inscriptions of Açoka. This dialect was in the third century B.C. introduced into Ceylon, and became the basis of Singhalese, the modern language of the island. It was through the influence of Buddhism that, from Açoka's time onwards, the official decrees and documents preserved in inscriptions were for centuries composed exclusively in Middle Indian (Prākrit) dialects. Sanskrit was not familiar to the chanceries during these centuries, though the introduction of Sanskrit verses in Prākrit inscriptions shows that Sanskrit was alive during this period, and proves its continuity for literary purposes. The older tradition of both the Buddhist and the Jain religion, in fact, ignored Sanskrit entirely, using only the popular dialects for all purposes.
But in course of time both the Buddhists and the Jains endeavoured to acquire a knowledge of Sanskrit. This led to the formation of an idiom which, being in the main Prākrit, was made to resemble the old language by receiving Sanskrit endings and undergoing other adaptations. It is therefore decidedly wrong to consider this artificial dialect an intermediate stage between Sanskrit and Pāli. This peculiar type of language is most pronounced in the poetical pieces called gāthā or "song," which occur in the canonical works of the Northern Buddhists, especially in the Lalita-vistara, a life of Buddha. Hence it was formerly called the Gāthā dialect. The term is, however, inaccurate, as Buddhist prose works have also been written in this mixed language.
The testimony of the inscriptions is instructive in showing the gradual encroachment of Sanskrit on the popular dialects used by the two non-Brahmanical religions. Thus in the Jain inscriptions of Mathurā (now Muttra), an almost pure Prākrit prevails down to the first century A.D. After that Sanskritisms become more and more frequent, till at last simple Sanskrit is written. Similarly in Buddhist inscriptions pure Prākrit is relieved by the mixed dialect, the latter by Sanskrit. Thus in the inscriptions of Nāsik, in Western India, the mixed dialect extends into the third, while Sanskrit first begins in the second century A.D. From the sixth century onwards Sanskrit prevails exclusively (except among the Jains) in inscriptions, though Prākritisms often occur in them. Even in the literature of Buddhism the mixed dialect was gradually supplanted by Sanskrit. Hence most of the Northern Buddhist texts have come down to us in Sanskrit, which, however, diverges widely in vocabulary from that of the sacred texts of the Brahmans, as well as from that of the classical literature, since they are full of Prākrit words. It is expressly attested by the Chinese pilgrim, Hiouen Thsang, that in the seventh century the Buddhists used Sanskrit even in oral theological discussions. The Jains finally did the same, though without entirely giving up Prākrit. Thus by the time of the Muhammadan conquest Sanskrit was almost the only written language of India. But while Sanskrit was recovering its ancient supremacy, the Prākrits had exercised a lasting influence upon it in two respects. They had supplied its vocabulary with a number of new words, and had transformed into a stress accent the old musical accent which still prevailed after the days of Pāṇini.
In the oldest period of Prākrit, that of the Pāli Açoka inscriptions and the early Buddhistic and Jain literature, two main dialects, the Western and the Eastern, may be distinguished. Between the beginning of our era and about 1000 A.D., mediæval Prākrit, which is still synthetic in character, is divided into four chief dialects. In the west we find Apabhraṃça ("decadent") in the valley of the Indus, and Çaurasenī in the Doab, with Mathurā as its centre. Subdivisions of the latter were Gaurjarī (Gujaratī), Avantī (Western Rājputānī), and Mahārāshṭrī (Eastern Rājputānī). The Eastern Prākrit now appears as Māgadhī, the dialect of Magadha, now Behar, and Ardha-Māgadhī (Half-Māgadhī), with Benares as its centre. These mediæval Prākrits are important in connection with Sanskrit literature, as they are the vernaculars employed by the uneducated classes in the Sanskrit drama.
They are the sources of all the Aryan languages of modern India. From the Apabhraṃça are derived Sindhī, Western Panjābī, and Kashmīrī; from Çaurasenī come Eastern Panjabī and Hindī (the old Avantī) , as well as Gujaratī; while from the two forms of Māgadhī are descended Marāthī on the one hand, and the various dialects of Bengal on the other. These modern vernaculars, which began to develop from about 1000 A.D., are no longer inflexional languages, but are analytical like English, forming an interesting parallel in their development from ancient Sanskrit to the Romance dialects in their derivation from Latin. They have developed literatures of their own, which are based entirely on that of Sanskrit. The non-Aryan languages of the Ḍekhan, the Dravidian group, including Telugu, Canarese, Malāyalam, and Tamil, have not indeed been ousted by Aryan tongues, but they are full of words borrowed from Sanskrit, while their literature is dominated by Sanskrit models.