On Sanskrit

Justice Markandey Katju-

Justice Markandey Katju

Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own.


I had written an article ‘Is India a nation ?’ which was published in indicanews.com, in which I mentioned that the culture of India, and which makes it a nation, is its Sanskrit-Urdu culture.

What is Sanskrit? To explain it I may commence with our Constituent Assembly debate which took place on 14.9.1949 in our Constituent Assembly on the question what should be the national language of India :

The Hon’ble Shri Ghanshyam Singh Gupta: “We want to hear your views on Sanskrit.

Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed:  “I am extremely thankful to the Hon’ble Member Mr. Gupta. If you have to adopt any language, why should you not have the world’s greatest language? It is a matter of great regret that we do not know with what reveration Sanskrit is held in the outside world. I shall only quote a few remarks made about Sanskrit to show how this language is held in the civilized world. Mr. W.C. Taylor says: ‘Sanskrit is a language of unrivaled richness and purity’.

Mr. President: “I would suggest you may leave that question alone because I propose to call representatives who have given notice of amendments of a fundamental character, and I will call upon a gentleman who has given notice about Sanskrit to speak about it”.

Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed: ” Yes, Sir, I shall not stand in between. I will only give a few quotations. Prof. Max Muller says that “Sanskrit is the greatest language in the world, the most wonderful and the most perfect’. Sir William Jones says :’ Whenever we direct our attention to the Sanskrit literature the notion of infinity presents itself. Surely the longest life would not suffice for a perusal of works that rise and swell protuberant like the Himalayas above the bulkiest composition of every land beyond the confines of India’. Then Sir W. Hunter says : ‘The grammar of Panini stands supreme among the grammars of the world. It stands forth as one of the most splendid achievements of human invention and industry’. Prof. Whitney says : ‘ Its unequalled transparency of structure give Sanskrit the undisputable right to the first place amongst the tongues of the Indo-European family’. M.Dukois says :’ Sanskrit is the origin of the modern languages of Europe’. Prof. Weber says:  ‘Panini’s grammar is universally admitted to be the shortest and fullest grammar in the world’. Prof. Wilson says: ‘No nation but the Hindu has yet been able to discover such a perfect system of phonetics’.  Prof. Thompson says :’ The arrangement of consonants in Sanskrit is a unique example of human genius’. Dr. Shahidullah, Professor of Dacca University, says: ‘ Sanskrit is the language of every man to whatever race he may belong’.

An Hon’ble Member: “What is your own view ?’.

Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed: ” My own view is that Sanskrit is one of the greatest languages, and….”

An Hon’ble Member : ” And should it be adopted as the National language or not? It is not spoken by anyone now.”

Mr. Naziruddin Ahmed: ” Yes, and for the simple reason that it is impartially difficult to all. Hindi is easy for the Hindi speaking areas, but it is difficult for other areas. I offer you a language which is grandest and the greatest, and it is impartially difficult, equally difficult for all to learn. There should be some impartiality in the selection. If we have to adopt a language it must be grand, great and the best. Then why should we discard the claim of Sanskrit ?”.

Pandit Lakshmi Kant Maitra : “If today India has got an opportunity to shape her own destiny I ask in all seriousness if she is going to feel ashamed to recognize the Sanskrit language–the revered grandmother of languages of the world, still alive with full vigor, full vitality? Are we going to deny her rightful place in Free India? That is a question I solemnly ask ? I know it will be said that it is a dead language. Yes. Dead to whom? Dead to you because you have become dead to all which is great and noble in your own culture and civilization. You have been chasing the shadow and have never tried to grasp the substance which is contained in your great literature. If Sanskrit is dead may I say that Sanskrit is ruling us from her grave? Nobody can get away from Sanskrit in India.”

Though Sanskrit was not accepted as the national language of India, it has been placed in the 8th Schedule to the Constitution and is also referred to in Article 351.

The word `Sanskrit’ means “prepared, pure, refined or prefect”. It was not for nothing that it was called the `devavani’ (language of the Gods). It has an outstanding place in our culture and indeed was recognized as a language of rare sublimity by the whole world. Sanskrit was the language of our philosophers, our scientists, our mathematicians, our surgeons and physicians ( Sushrut, Charak, etc ) our poets and playwrights, our grammarians, our jurists, etc. In grammar, Panini and Patanjali (authors of  Ashtadhyayi and the Mahabhashya) have no equals in the world; in astronomy and mathematics the works of Aryabhatta, Brahmagupta and Bhaskar opened up new frontiers for mankind, as did the works of Charak and Sushrut in medicine.

In philosophy Gautam (founder of the Nyaya system), Ashvaghosha (author of Buddha Charita), Kapila (founder of the Sankhya system), Shankaracharya, Brihaspati, etc., present the widest range of philosophical systems the world has ever seen, from deeply religious to strongly atheistic. Jaimini’s  Mimansa Sutras laid the foundation of a whole system of rational interpretation of texts which was used not only in religion but also in law, philosophy, grammar, etc. In literature, the contribution of Sanskrit is of the foremost order. The works of Kalidas (ShakuntalaMeghdootMalavikagnimitra, etc.), Bhavabhuti (Malti MadhavUttar Ramcharit, etc.) and the epics of Valmiki, Vyas, etc. are known all over the world. These and countless other Sanskrit works kept the light of learning ablaze in our country upto modern times.

In particular, Sanskrit was the language of our scientists in ancient India, as explained here.

Science requires precision. The original Sanskrit as contained in the Rigveda ( the oldest Sanskrit work ) and other Vedic texts lacked precision and was unsystematic, and therefore unsuited to scientific thinking. This defect was rectified by Panini, who was perhaps the greatest grammarian the world has ever seen

Language changes with the passage of time and the Sanskrit language kept changing from around 2000 B.C. when the Rig Veda was composed to about 500 B.C. i.e. for about 1500 years. In the 5th or 6th Century B.C. the great scholar Panini, wrote his great book `Ashtadhyayi’ (book of eight chapters). In this book Panini fixed the rules of Sanskrit, and thereafter no further changes in Sanskrit were permitted except slight changes made by two other great grammarians, namely, Katyayana who wrote his book called ‘Vartika’, and Patanjali who wrote his commentary on the Ashtadhyayi called the ‘Maha Bhashya’. Except for the slight changes by these two subsequent grammarians, Sanskrit as it exists today is really Panini’s Sanskrit or Classical Sanskrit.

What Panini did was that he studied carefully the existing Sanskrit language in his time and then refined, purified and systematized it so as to make it a language of great logic, precision and elegance. Thus Panini made Sanskrit a highly developed and powerful vehicle of expression in which scientific ideas could be expressed with great precision and clarity. This language was made uniform all over India, so that scholars from North, South East and West could understand each other.

I am not going into the details about the Ashtadhyayi but I will give one small illustration in this connection.

In the English language the alphabets from A to Z are not arranged in any logical or rational manner. There is no reason why F is followed by G or why P is followed by Q, etc. The alphabets in English are all arranged haphazardly and at random. On the other hand, Panini in his first fourteen Sutras arranged alphabets in the Sanskrit language in a very scientific and logical manner, after close observation of the sounds in human speech.

Thus, for example, the vowels, a, aa, i, ee, u, oo, ae, ai, o, ou are arranged according to the shape of the mouth when these sounds are emitted. The consonants in Sanskrit have been arranged in a sequence on a scientific pattern. The (ka) varga (i.e. ka, kha, ga, gha, nga) are emitted from the throat, the (cha) varga from the palate, the ( ta ) varga from the roof of the mouth, the (ta ) varga from the teeth, and the (pa ) varga from the lips. Also, the second and fourth consonant in each varga are aspirated consonants, i.e. the previous consonant combined with ‘ha’, e.g. ka+ha=kha, ga+ha=gha, etc.

I venture to say that no language in the world has its alphabets arranged in such a rational and systematic manner. And when we see how deeply our ancestors went in the seemingly simple matter of arranging the alphabets we can realize how deeply they went in more advanced matters.

Panini’s Sanskrit is called Classical Sanskrit, as I have already stated above, and it is in contrast with the earlier Vedic Sanskrit that is the language (or languages) in which the Vedas were written.

Indian philosophy, which was all written in Sanskrit, presents the widest range of philosophical thought known in the world, much wider than Western philosophy.

There are several systems of Indian philosophy, and I need not dilate on all these systems. It is only necessary to mention about the Nyaya and Vaisheshik systems, which represent the scientific outlook since it is scientific thinking which is required today to solve our massive problems.

Nyaya philosophy states that nothing is acceptable unless it is in accordance with reason and experience, and this is precisely the scientific approach (see in this connection D.P. Chattopadhyaya’s What is Living and What is Dead in Indian Philosophy which is a seminal work on Indian Philosophy). Vaisheshik is the atomic (parmanu) theory, which was the physics of ancient India. Originally Nyaya and Vaisheshik were regarded as one system, but since physics is the most fundamental of all sciences, the Vaisheshik system was later separated from Nyaya and made as a separate system of philosophy.

It may be mentioned that the Nyaya philosophy developed logic to an extent even beyond what Aristotle and other Greek thinkers did (see D.P. Chattopadhyaya’s books in this connection), and logical thinking is necessary for science.

Thus the Nyaya philosophy gave great support and encouragement to science in ancient India. It must be mentioned that the Nyaya philosophy is one of the Shat Darshanas i.e. one of the six orthodox systems in Indian philosophy, and not an unorthodox system like the Charvaks. Hence our great scientists could not be persecuted by the orthodox people since they could say that they were relying on an orthodox philosophy, namely, the Nyaya. This was unlike in Europe where some of the greatest scientists like Galileo were persecuted by the Church for preaching ideas inconsistent with the Bible.

In ancient India, there were everywhere debates or Shashtrarthas ( all in Sanskrit ) which permitted free discussion of ideas, criticism of one’s opponent, and free dissent in the presence of a large gathering. Such freedom of thought and expression led to great development of science since science also requires freedom, freedom to think, freedom to express one’s ideas, and freedom to dissent. The great scientist Charak has mentioned in his book Charak samhita that debating is necessary for the development of science, particularly debating with one’s mental equals.

In the earliest Nyaya text, which is the Nyaya Sutras of Gautam, several categories of the debate are mentioned e.g. vad, jalp, vitanda, etc These were further developed by the subsequent writers of Nyaya.

The decimal system was perhaps the most revolutionary and greatest scientific achievement in the ancient world in mathematics. The numbers in the decimal system were called Arabic numerals by the Europeans, but surprisingly the Arab scholars called them Hindu numerals. Were they really Arabic or Hindu? In this connection, it may be mentioned that the languages Urdu, Persian and Arabic are written from right to left but if you ask any speaker of these languages to write any number e.g. 257 he will write the number from left to right. This shows that these numbers were taken from a language that was written from left to right and not from right to left. It is accepted now that these numbers came from India and they were copied by the Arabs from us.

I would like to illustrate the revolutionary significance of the decimal system. As we all know, ancient Rome was a great civilization, the civilization of Caesar and Augustus, but if one would have asked an ancient Roman to write the number one million he would have almost gone crazy because to write one million he would have to write the letter M which stands for the millennium (or one thousand) one thousand times. In the Roman numerals, there is no single number greater than M, which stands for one thousand. To write 2000 we have to write MM, to write 3000 we have to write MMM, and to write one million one has to write M one thousand times.

On the other hand, under our system to express one million we have just to write the number one followed by six zeros.

In the Roman numerals, there is no zero. Zero was an invention of ancient India and progress was not possible without this invention.

I am not going into details about the great contributions of our great mathematicians like Aryabhatta, Brahamgupta, Bhaskar, Varahamihira, etc. and you can read about them by using Google. However, I may just give two simple illustrations in this connection.

The number 1,00,000 is called a lakh in the Indian numeral system. 100 lacs is called one crore, 100 crores is called one arab, 100 arabs is called one kharab, 100 kharabs is called one neel, 100 neels is called one padma, 100 padmas is called one shankh, 100 shankh is called one mahashankh, etc. Thus one mahashankh will be the number 1 followed by 19 zeros (for further details you may see V.S. Apte’s Sanskrit English Dictionary on the internet by using Google). On the other hand the ancient Romans could not express any number larger than one thousand except by repeating M and the other numerals again and again.

Take another illustration. According to the Vishnu Purana, the Kaliyuga in which we are living consists of 4, 32, 000 years. The preceding Yuga is known as the Dwapar Yuga and is twice as long as the Kaliyuga. Preceding the Dwapar Yuga, is the Treta Yuga which is thrice the duration of the Kaliyuga. The Yuga preceding Treta Yuga is the Satyuga which was said to be four times longer than the Kaliyuga. One Kaliyuga, one Dwapar Yuga, one Treta Yuga and one Satyuga are collectively known as one Chaturyugi (or 43 lacs 20 thousand years). Fifty-Six Chaturyugis are known as one Manovantar. Fourteen Manovantars is known as one Kalpa. Twelve Kalpas make one day of Brahma. Brahma is believed to have lived for billions or trillions of years.

When our people do the sankalp, which is to be done every day by orthodox people, they have to mention the exact day, month and year of the Kaliyuga as well as the Chaturyugi, Manovantar and kalpa in which we are living. It is said that we are living today in the 28th Chaturyugi in our present Manovantar, that is to say half the Manovantar of our Kalpa is over, but the remaining Manovantar is yet to be completed. We are living presently in the Vaivasvata Manuvantar.

One may or may not believe the above system, but one can only marvel at the flight of imagination of our ancestors who could conceive of billions or trillions of years in history.

Aryabhatta in his famous book called the Aryabhatiya wrote about algebra, arithmetic, trigonometry, quadratic equations and the sine table. He calculated the value of Pi at 3.1416, which is close to the actual value which is about 3.14159. Aryabhatta’s works were later adopted by the Greeks and then the Arabs.

I am not going further into the contribution of our scholars in various fields ( who wrote and spoke in Sanskrit ). Suffice it to say that Sanskrit, ( supplemented by Urdu ), is the soul of India, and those who deny this are ignorant of our country’s great culture.