World Sanskrit Day – A Rejuvenation in the Study of an Ancient Language

World Sanskrit Day was celebrated on Monday 31st August at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute, leaving much to be pondered upon. An impressive number of students distinguished themselves at secondary and tertiary levels from the different State Schools of the MGI/RTI. Slokas and verses from the Upanishads and dialogues in Sanskrit were recited with much ease.

At this prize giving ceremony, the High Commissioner of India, Shri Anup Kumar Mudgal addressed the students about the cutting edge and scientific viability of Sanskrit in the modern world. People have been denied access for centuries to it and kept in ignorance, but today with ICT and compatibility of Sanskrit with technology, this awe of Sanskrit can be discarded. For that matter, even Bill Gates has deemed Sanskrit and its script Devanagari as most suited to the digital language. Recently the 16th World Sanskrit Conference was organised in Bangkok where 600 experts Sanskrit scholars from 60 countries had participated Mrs Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs of India, and Chief Guest at the Conference said that a post of Joint Secretary for Sanskrit has been created at her Ministry to give more momentum to the development of Sanskrit.

Democratisation of Sanskrit

The Rig Veda, the oldest known text in Sanskrit originally confined to an exclusive intelligentsia was democratised by the revolutionary reformer Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj. His movement “Back to the Vedas” gave new vigour and impetus to the study of Sanskrit among the masses. This made Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts accessible to those who were denied the knowledge kept within the confines of the aphorisms and codified pages.

The reformist monks and philosophers of India such as Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Chinmayananda also spread the Sanskrit texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, to the West and among the Indian population too. The ISKON movement of Prabhupada did immense work in making the Gita and other texts accessible to millions of Westerners. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali too have been made popular through the practice of Yoga in the West. The International Yoga Day celebrated annually by the UN as from this year will further give access to Sanskrit.

European Sanskrit Scholars

The Sanskrit grammar of Panini the Astadhyayi or Eight Chapter Grammar written in the 5th Century BC and his remarkable functional analysis of word forms became known in Europe through the first work of Sanskrit grammar in the West by Sir Charles Wilkins in 1808. This led to the discovery that Sanskrit grammar is similar to that of other Indo-European languages such as Latin and Greek. Indeed one can take examples of word similarities such as mata – Sanskrit and the Latin mater, English mother, French mère. Sanskrit – Pita, English father and Latin pater, French père. Brata in Sanskrit and brother in English, and so many others. Sanskrit has significantly influenced most modern languages of India and adjoining countries of Inner Asia and South East Asia. In fact, because Sanskrit texts could not be deciphered by Western scientists, credit for discovering gravity was not given to Aryabhatta, a great mathematician from Bihar who mentioned it in his “Siddhant Shiromani” much before Newton.

However, European scholars like Sir William Jones and Max Müller developed amongst Westerners a thirst for Indology and Sanskrit literature. Thus over 200 universities in the world especially in Germany, France, USA, UK, Australia have a department of Sanskrit or a broader focus area of Linguistic or South Asian Studies.

Sanskrit – A lingua franca

Sanskrit developed in fact from an oral society, and this oral tradition was maintained through the development of the Vedas. Verses were recited and passed on from generation to generation. Before its codification, Sanskrit was much in use in Greater India as a lingua franca.

The IAST or International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration has been the academic standard since 1888. “With the wide availability of Unicode-aware web browsers IAST has become popular online”. It is also possible to type using an alphanumeric keyboard and transliterate to Devanagari. With the rapid development of computer technology and innovations, Sanskrit is accessible to anyone and in the privacy of his home where he can learn at his own pace.

Hindi and Bhojpuri and many other Indian languages such as Telugu, Marathi have over 60% of their vocabulary derived from Sanskrit. Sanskrit has also influenced Sino-Tibetan languages. Sanskrit and Buddhist texts in fact were preserved in China and Tibetan collections. The Southeast Asian languages of Thai and Lao contain several loanwords from Sanskrit. Malay and modern Indonesia also derive their vocabulary from Sanskrit besides Arabic. The name bhasa or spoken language is found in many South East Asian languages. In Malaysia, the name Pustakalaya is retained for bookshop. The terms viman and Garuda are used for aeroplane in many South East Asian countries.

Sanskrit and Scientific Terms

Sanskrit lends itself to scientific and administrative terminologies and new word formations. Thus Hindi is able to coin and form new words adjustable to modern life, technology and usage through the use of Sanskrit words with suffix and prefix. Even the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation has named five missiles that it developed after Sanskrit terms: Prithvi, Agni, Akash, Nag and Trishul. Many modern scientific terms in Hindi are derived from Sanskrit as a base.

In Mauritius, the Government has created by an Act of Parliament along with other languages a Sanskrit Speaking Union. In fact children are familiar with Sanskrit since their tender age through slokas such as

“Twameva Mata

Cha Pita Twamewa

Twamewa Bandhu

Cha Sakha Twamewa”

or the most popular of Vedic mantras – the Gayatri Mantra “Om Bhur Bhuwa Swaha” or the Shanti Path which are regularly chanted at home and at functions and ceremonies. Sanskrit slokas are learnt at school. Through kathas and temple or kirtans all diasporic Hindus know a good amount of Sanskrit vocabulary. It is a ceremonial language used in weddings, festivals, funerals, all the time. Many non-governmental organisations such as the Hindu Maha Sabha, Hindi Pracharini Sabha, the Arya Sabha, Arya Ravived Pracharini Sabha and Gahlot Rajput Maha Sabha conduct examinations in Sanskrit since several decades.

Sanskrit in day-to-day life

Indeed, we all pronounce Sanskrit words throughout our lives without realising it by taking the names of Pravin or Aneerodh, Sarojini or Leela Devi, Uma, Shiva, Rama, Malini, Teeluckdharry, Arvind or Navin. Many local organisations such as Sabha, Satsang, Mandali, Jagriti, Nari Mokshada Samaj, Baithka, Kailason (Kailassam), Maha Sabha, Panchayat are Sanskrit terms and these have entered the local vocabulary or parlance.

Today Sanskrit has gone beyond its original classical ceremonial, philosophical and dharmic utility and is a scientific, technical and computer language. As such it is gaining ground day by day.


  • Published in print edition on 11 September 2015

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