Sanskrit (संस्कृता वाक् saṃskṛtā vāk, for short संस्कृतम् saṃskṛtam), is
an historical Indo-Aryan language, one of the liturgical languages of
Hinduism and Buddhism, and one of the 22 official languages of India. It
is a classical language of India.
Classical Sanskrit is the standard register[clarification needed] as
laid out in the grammar of Pāṇini, around the 4th century BCE. Its
position in the cultures of South and Southeast Asia is akin to that of
Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most
modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India and
The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, with the
language of the Rigveda being the oldest and most archaic stage
preserved, its oldest core dating back to as early as 1500 BCE. This
qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any
Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the
Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and
most European languages.
The corpus of Sanskrit literature encompasses a rich tradition of poetry
and drama as well as scientific, technical, philosophical and Hindu
religious texts. Sanskrit continues to be widely used as a ceremonial
language in Hindu religious rituals in the forms of hymns and mantras.
Spoken Sanskrit is still in use in a few traditional institutions in
India, and there are many attempts at revival.
The Sanskrit verbal adjective saṃskṛta- may be translated as "put
together, well or completely formed, refined, highly elaborated". It is
derived from the root saṃ(s)kar- "to put together, compose, arrange,
prepare", where saṃ- "together" (as English same) and (s)kar- "do,
make". The language referred to as saṃskṛtā vāk "the cultured language"
has by definition always been a "sacred" and "sophisticated" language,
used for religious and learned discourse in ancient India, and
contrasted with the languages spoken by the people, prākṛta- "natural,
artless, normal, ordinary". It is also called dēva-bhāṣā meaning the
"divine language" or the "language of devas or demigods".
Devimahatmya manuscript on palm-leaf, in an early Bhujimol script, Bihar
or Nepal, 11th century.
Sanskrit is a member of the Indo-Iranian sub-family of the Indo-European
family of languages. Its closest ancient relatives are the Iranian
languages Old Persian and Avestan. Within the wider Indo-European
language family, Sanskrit shares characteristic sound changes with the
Satem languages (particularly the Slavic and Baltic languages), and also
In order to explain the common features shared by Sanskrit and other
Indo-European languages, many scholars have proposed migration
hypotheses asserting that the original speakers of what became Sanskrit
arrived in what is now India and Pakistan from the north-west some time
during the early second millennium BCE. Evidence for such a theory
includes the close relationship of the Indo-Iranian tongues with the
Baltic and Slavic languages, vocabulary exchange with the
non-Indo-European Finno-Ugric languages, and the nature of the attested
Indo-European words for flora and fauna.
The earliest attested Sanskrit texts are Hindu texts of the Rigveda,
which may be located in the Greater Punjab region and adjacent
Afghanistan, and dated to the mid-to-late second millennium BCE. No
written records from such an early period survive. However, scholars are
confident that the oral transmission of the texts is reliable: they were
ceremonial literature whose correct pronunciation was considered crucial
to its religious efficacy.
From the Rigveda until the time of Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BCE) the
development of the Sanskrit language may be observed in other Hindu
texts: the Samaveda, Yajurveda, Atharvaveda, Brahmanas, and Upanishads.
During this time, the prestige of the language, its use for sacred
purposes, and the importance attached to its correct enunciation all
served as powerful conservative forces resisting the normal processes of
The oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar is Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī
("Eight-Chapter Grammar"). It is essentially a prescriptive grammar,
i.e., an authority that defines (rather than describes) correct
Sanskrit, although it contains descriptive parts, mostly to account for
some Vedic forms the use of which had become rare in Pāṇini's time.
The term "Sanskrit" was not thought of as a specific language set apart
from other languages, but rather as a particularly refined or perfected
manner of speaking. Knowledge of Sanskrit was a marker of social class
and educational attainment in ancient India and the language was taught
mainly to members of the higher castes, through close analysis of
Sanskrit grammarians such as Pāṇini. Sanskrit, as the learned language
of Ancient India, thus existed alongside the Prakrits (vernaculars),
which evolved into the Middle Indic dialects, and eventually into the
contemporary modern Indo-Aryan languages.
Sanskrit, as defined by Pāṇini, had evolved out of the earlier "Vedic"
form. The beginning of Vedic Sanskrit can be traced as early as around
1500 BCE (the accepted date of the Rig-Veda). Scholars
often distinguish Vedic Sanskrit and Classical or "Pāṇinian" Sanskrit as
separate 'dialects'. Though they are quite similar, they differ in a
number of essential points of phonology, vocabulary, grammar and syntax.
Vedic Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, a large collection of
hymns, incantations (Samhitas), theological discussions, and religio-philosophical
discussions (Brahmanas, Upanishads) which are the earliest religious
texts of the Hindu religion. Modern linguists consider the metrical
hymns of the Rigveda Samhita to be the earliest, composed by many
authors over centuries of oral tradition. The end of the Vedic period is
marked by the composition of the Upanishads, which form the concluding
part of the Vedic corpus in the traditional compilations. Around the mid
1st millennium BCE, Sanskrit began the transition from a first language
to a second language of religion and learning, marking the beginning of
the Classical period.
For nearly 2,000 years, a cultural order existed that exerted influence
across South Asia, Inner Asia, Southeast Asia, and to a certain extent,
East Asia. A significant form of post-Vedic Sanskrit is found in the
Sanskrit of the Hindu Epics—the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The deviations
from Pāṇini in the epics are generally considered to be on account of
interference from Prakrits, or "innovations" and not because they are
pre-Paninean. Traditional Sanskrit scholars call such deviations aarsha
(आर्ष), or "of the rishis", the traditional title for the ancient
authors. In some contexts, there are also more "prakritisms" (borrowings
from common speech) than in Classical Sanskrit proper. Buddhist Hybrid
Sanskrit is a Middle Indic literary language based on early Buddhist
prakrit texts which subsequently assimilated to the Classical Sanskrit
standard in varying degree.
According to Tiwari (1955), there were four principal dialects of
classical Sanskrit: paścimottarī (Northwestern, also called Northern or
Western), madhyadeśī (lit., middle country), pūrvi (Eastern) and dakṣiṇī
(Southern, arose in the Classical period). The predecessors of the first
three dialects are even attested in Vedic Brāhmaṇas, of which the first
one was regarded as the purest (Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇa, 7.6).