Dialogue  January - March, 2008 , Volume 9  No. 3

Sanskrit in the Renaissance of
European Languages tc "Sanskrit in the Renaissance of
European Languages "

Lokesh Chandra*

The name of Asia and Europe were learnt by the Greeks from an Asian people. Assyrian monuments contrast between asu “(the land of) the rising sun” and ereb “(the land of) darkness or the setting sun”. Asu became Asia and ereb came to be Europe. These name were passed on by the Phoenicians to the Greeks. In Homer, Europa is a young Phoenician princes whose beauty fires the love of Zeus. She is the personification of the continent of Europe. The earliest mention of Europe is in the Homeric ‘Hymn to Apollo’. The distinction between Europe and Asia is found in Aeschylus in the 5th century B.C. The contrasts and contradictions of Asia and Europe have dominated the history of man. The intellectual domination of Asia by European civilization continues. The sun rises in the East, ideas arise in the West.

In 1801, Sir William Jones wrote in the first volume of the Asiatick Researches: “Though we cannot agree with the sage preceptor of that ambitious Prince (Alexander) that the Asiaticks are born to be slaves, yet the Athenian poet seems perfectly in the right when he represents Europe as a sovereign princes and Asia as her handmaid”. This was the main thrust in the six substantial volumes of “The History of British India” by the renowned Utilitarian philosopher and writer James Mill, which appeared in 1817. They made an astounding and continuing impression. Mill attacked the eternity of India. By his assessment, contemporary as well as ancient India, whether in science, religion, government, law, or political economy, was barbarous. Ever since the first publication of Mill’s famous work, the perception of India has been under his shadow. A decade or later after it was published,

Macaulay referred to the History in the House of Commons as “on the whole the greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since that of Gibbon”, and afterwards in his famous Minute on Indian Education paid it the compliment of using some of his material.

For India, rays of hope were to shine from the transformation of conscience that Europe had been undergoing since the Renaissance. The forces liberated in the Renaissance took a specific bias, namely that of Humanism, the particular form assumed by human self-esteem. It indicates the endeavour of man to reconstitute himself as a free being, away from theological thrall, and he derived peculiar assistance in this effort from Greek and Roman literature, leaning rather to the side of man than of divinity. For a generation nursed in theological scholasticism, it was the fountain of renascent youth, beauty and freedom, the shape in which the Helen of art and poetry appeared to the ravished eyes of mediaeval Faustus.

As monarchical rule was overthrown in the United States and France, the citizenry discovered an emotional identification with the forms and images of the ancient republics. To them Greece and Rome were not dead civilizations, but the living birthplaces of freedom and democracy. Their affinity with the ancient world not only gave them a sense of heroism and glory, but it also furnished convenient precedents for the new governments in America and France, and to a certain extent the British constitutional monarchy. The ancient Athenian commonwealth and Roman republic became the symbols of liberty and the new order. The senior legislative houses in the United States, France and later in the Latin American republics, were named senates after the old Roman prototype.

The passion for Hellenism brought Europe to the threshold of Eternal India. After all, the Greeks had admired India as the source of all philosophy. Dusebios (4th century B.C.) reports that an Indian had discussed philosophy with Socrates at Athens. The philosopher Pythagoras, who swayed Greek intellectual life from the 6th century B.C. onwards, transmitted Indian ideas. It was commonly held among the Greeks that India was the land of wisdom: for instance by the noted author Alexander Polyhistor (ca.70 B.C.), Apuleius (ca.150 A.D.) and Philostratos (early 3rd century). The popular satirist Lucian (2nd cent. A.D.), in his “Runaways”, lets the Goddess of Philosophy tell Jupiter that she first descended upon “the Indians, the mightiest nation upon earth”. To cite Sedlar: “India served as an object upon which educated Greeks projected their own demoralization, namely their loss of confidence in contemporary Greek culture and institutions. Thus India became an idealized country, abundantly fruitful, while Indian philosophers came to posses a wisdom superior to that of the Greeks”. The linguistic affinity between Sanskrit and their languages had, however, eluded the Greeks.

The European quest for the origin of languages is recorded as early as Herodotus. In his History he notes that since the days of Psammetichus of Egypt men searched for the origin of languages and the reason for their similarities and diversities. In the Mediaeval Ages, Hebrew was taken as the starting point for the evolution of Greek and Latin, compare for instance, Richardson’s “A Dissertation on Languages”, published in 1777. The Hebraic hypothesis led to blind alleys.

Boxhorn was the first to postulate a theory of common origin of Indo-European languages. He did not publish any work. His ideas became known through his friend George Horn in the latter half of the 17th century. He postulated some sort of a common language which he called Scythian, as the mother of Greek, Latin, German and Persian from which ‘like dialects would start’. No lesser a person than Leibniz added his authority to this theory of the ‘Scythian’ origin of the peoples and the languages of Europe. In the first volume of the Memoirs of the Berlin Academy, Leibniz attacked the old Hebraic hypothesis. He put forward a theory which was very similar to that of Boxhorn and he clearly distinguished the Indo-European from the Semitic and the Finno-Ugrian groups. Now linguistics had rightly bid goodbye to its Mediaeval moorings. Studies reached the threshold of a new era. The ancient Greeks were overwhelmed by Persian might. The new term for the family was ‘Scythian’. It was natural that Scythian or Persian dominate the scene. It is evident from a letter of William Jones to Prince Czartoryski dated 19 Feb 1779: “Procopius, I think, mentions the great intercourse both in war and peace between the Persians and the nations in the north of Europe and Asia whom the ancients knew by the general name of Scythians. Many learned investigators of antiquity are fully persuaded that a very old and almost primaeval language was in use among these northern nations from which not only the Celtic dialects but even the Greek and Latin are derived”.

In 1786, on the horizons shone a new light, the light of Sanskrit. Sir William Jones started to learn Sanskrit in September 1785 and after a study of mere four months he was led to a realisation which sparked off the discovery of comparative and historical philosophy: “The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which perhaps, no longer exists”.

Jones added Sanskrit to the ‘Scythian’ family of languages. The scientific age of historical linguistics had dawned. Europe was on the verge of discovering the origins of her own culture and its original meanings, that had eluded the Greek Euhemerus in the third century B.C., or the Roman statesman, scholar and orator Cicero in the first century B.C.

The observations of William Jones were in tune with the mood of the times. The European mind had been moving away from the Age of Reason, to a movement that is known in general as Romanticism. The idea that the Europeans migrated from a distant and unknown land soon fired the imagination of the Romantic mind. Friedrich Schlegel, a high priest of the Romantic movement, coined the word ‘Comparative Grammar’. The English translation of the Shâkuntala of Kâlidâsa was done into German in 1791 by Georg Forster, and it awakened the highest enthusiasm of literary men like Herder and Goethe. The European literators were surprised that India too had excellent dramas. Dramas were no more the monopoly of the Greeks. To the Classical Graeco-Roman world was added the more ancient and pristine Classical world of India. The Romantic movement idealised the Classical world of Greece and Rome. The emotional espousal of Greek independence that was prevalent all over Europe and the U.S. was actively expressed in letters and the arts. Both classical countries - Greece and Italy - were under the yoke of foreign tyrants, and intellectuals and poets passionately championed their cause. Byron’s Isles of Greece, Shelley’s Hellas and Prometheus Unbound, Holderlin’s Hyperion, Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales, and Vittorio Alfieri’s Tragedies, all upheld these liberation movements.

For the Romantic School, headed by the Schlegel brothers, Indian literature had a special attraction. Friedrich Schlegel, the father figure of the Romantic movement, expected from India nothing less than “the unfolding of the history of the primeval world which up till now is shrouded in darkness”.

The thorough investigator Franz Bopp (1791-  ) published in 1816 the results of his researches on the conjugation system of the Sanskrit language in comparison with those of Greek, Latin, Persian and German. The Indo-European family of languages was thus established. In fact, Bopp used the term” indo-europaisch”. Europe had found a new identity with Sanskrit. European man had found his consciousness lapsed in space and time. Sanskrit was the discovery of the primal soul of Europe, the discovery of her deeps. To cite Pablo Neruda: “deracination of human beings leads to frustration in one way or another obstructing the light of the soul”. Sanskrit was the majestic and mysterious syllables from the dawn of time, the deep-rooted vitality, inexhaustible history, and limitless growth. Winternitz says: “if we wish to learn to understand the beginnings of our own culture, if we wish to understand the oldest Indo-European culture, we must go to India, where the oldest literature of an Indo-European people is preserved”.

As Sanskrit broke upon the scene, European languages found a new raison detre for their efflorescence. European languages were trying to assert themselves for at least five centuries. For instance, Martin Luther (14883-1546) translated the Bible into German. His remarkable handling of the German language influenced and shaped the development of modern German. English prose owes in abundant measure to King James’ Authorized Version of 1611.

These efforts of Biblical translations did not take the European languages very far. With the study of Sanskrit, dictionaries of European languages were taken up on historical principles. These lexicographical monuments revealed their deep roots, their evolution over centuries, and their rich semantic spectra. The European languages gained a new self-confidence. Moreover, Greek and Latin were no longer the original or prime languages. Sanskrit was more ancient than both of them, more transparent, more logical, and could explain the formation of these Classical languages themselves. Now modern European languages could stand by the side of Greek and Latin, which like them, stood in the same relation to primordial Sanskrit.

The National Revival (about 1775-1850) of Czechoslovakia was a great social movement characterized above all by a national consciousness on the part of the people, and a drive for economic and cultural independence. Thanks to one of the reforms of Joseph II the German language became the only official language of the country. At the same time he abolished feudalism in 1781. As a result former serfs could now move to the towns and their children could study. The Czech language started to gain momentum. Dobrovsky (1753-1829) wrote a definitive grammar of Czech. The existence of linguistic connection between Czech and the ancient and perfect Sanskrit was a great encouragement to the oppressed nation in its efforts to improve its language. Many others shared Dobrovsky’s interest in India. The advocates of Czech pointed out that their language was closer to Sanskrit than German, hence was more ancient and deserved a place of honour. They cited the example: stara matra dati medu = Sanskrit sthavirâ mâtâ dadâti madhu LFkfojk ekrk nnkfr e/kq ‘the old mother offers honey’ (to the guest).

The Bulgarians struggled hard in the 9th century against the Three-Language Doctrine brought forward by the German clergy. According to that dogma church services could be held only in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Brothers Cyril and Methodius created the Cyrillic alphabet to replace them by Old Bulgarian, so that in every Bulgarian church the people would hear their own tongue. Cyril defended the right of the Slavs to have their own script. Doesn’t God send an equal amount of rain to all? And doesn’t the sun shine for everybody … How is it that you are not ashamed of recognising only three languages, and of decreeing that all other nations and tribes should be deaf and blind? A people are naked without books. Once again in the 19th century, during the struggle of National Revival languages became important. Leaders were proud that their language Bulgarian was closer to Sanskrit and hence older than any current non-Slavic European languages. Old Bulgarian has synu for Sanskrit sûnu “son”, and dini for Sanskrit dina “day”. This fired the Bulgarians with a new enthusiasm for their language.

The Germanisation of Lithuania started from the 12th century as a result of the proclamation of a crusade against them by the Pope. The Lithuanians lost on the battlefield, lost their ancient faith and as a result their languages declined. Czarist regime in the 19th century forbade the use of Lithuanian. Grandmas in remote villages narrated folk-tales to eager grand-children in their Lithuanian language which was despised by the Slavised nobility and punished by the Czarist regime. The traditional folk-hymns called daina (from Sanskrit dhyâna) were abandoned by the courts, but they lived on in the villages, faithfully preserved by the poorest people of the country, guarded by the mother of the family, during the darkest period of Lithuanian history: the occupation by Tsarist Russia between 1795 and 1918. the grandmothers and mothers would tell their children and grandchildren: Dievas dave dantis, dous ir duonos ‘God has given teeth. He will give food’. The sentence meant: when God has given life, he will grant us freedom. Language and freedom were inseparable.

To this day Sanskrit is associated with Lithuanian as a symbol of national identity. We can go to a classroom at the Vilnious University of the Lithuanian Republic The professor writes sentences on the black-board in Lithuanian and Sanskrit:

Lithuanian                    Sanskrit                        Meaning

kas to esi                      kas tvam asi                Who are you?

kas tavo sunus            kas tava sûnuh           Who is your son?

Kas to esi is an eternal question before man in his quest for knowledge. The answer is as brief in Lithuanian as it is in Sanskrit: Tas tu esi = Tat tvam asi.

Sanskrit opened up new universes of how man has expressed ideas. Sanskrit had preserved a rich system of inflexions, both declension of nouns and conjugation of verbs. It had transparent roots, which showed the dynamics of vocabulary creativity. Sanskrit revealed the unique linguistic phenomenon of Indo-European languages wherein prefixes enriched human horizons of communication, for example, inspect, suspect, respect, conspectus – all from spect –, specere ‘to see, look at’. Language is formed. Man has created words, through them ideas, thoughts, categories, and they in turn have brought into existence solid objects, the machines, and so on. Language is a living organism.it gives man an ever-renewing life. Language led to science. Language was the epic of creativity.

Sanskrit led to two new principles in the methodology of research: (i) comparative study (ii) historic development. The newly evolved comparative-historical method was applied to the study of languages and it resulted in the publication of the biggest Sanskrit-German Dictionary in seven large volumes by Böhtlingk and Roth in 1852. It created a new intellectual climate in which evolution of language was fully established as a part of human march onwards. This milieu influenced the natural sciences. Seven years after the appearance of the Dictionary, came out Darwin’s monumental work “Origin of Species” in 1859, who soundly established the theory of organic evolution, that was to determine the development of natural science.

Dictionaries of European languages on historical principles were undertaken on the model of the Sanskrit German Wörterbuch. In 1854 was published the first volume of Grimm’s German Dictionary, whose completion took a century. Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm were the most distinguished brother-scholars of the German Romantic period, renowned as the collectors and editors of “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” (1812-15). They worked assiduously at the great dictionary of the German language, a task so large that it was impossible for the brothers to finish it themselves. Its last volume appeared in 1960.

“Ever since the Normans conquered England in 1066, the every-day tongue of the British Isles had suffered a long eclipse. Even in its native land, English was a second-class citizen, owning neither the status of Latin and Greek nor the aristocratic patina of French. Those who studied the origins of the languages of Chaucer and Shakespeare were essentially amateurs, as there was little prestige to be gained by such work”. In 1857 James Murray commenced “A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles” to show the extensive heritage of the English language. Its first section was printed in January 1884 by the Oxford University. It gave the historical development of every English word. It opened up a new wonder. Its editor, its moving spirit James Murray, was knighted. It embodies and interprets to this day the culture of the English language from its earliest documentation to the present times. English now had a rich heritage and was as respectable as any of the Classical languages or elegant French or intellectual German. Continuous progress and sustained development arising out of historical-comparative studies afforded a new esteem to European languages. The Oxford Dictionary took the etymologies of English words far back to Sanskrit, e.g. the word thousand has the base teu: Sanskrit tavas ‘strong, energetic’ (from the root tu) and hundred. It can be seen in Old Norse thûs-hund, Old Frankish thus-chunde, as the ‘great hundred’. Thousand was power, strength. Time, Latin tempus was Sanskrit tapas (with an nasal m inserted) which means ‘heat’. Day is the hot part of the cycle of 24 hours. The vast time scales in Sanskrit exploded the Biblical myth of 6000 years of creation. In Sanskrit the Srishti Samvat or Era of Creation runs to two billion years. This made possible geological time, paleontological time, and astronomical time with billions of years of creation.

Till the discovery of Sanskrit, Classical European mythology was a fragment of metaphors and dreams, pages torn from the book of Cleo, the Muse of History. With the rise of Comparative Philology and Comparative Mythology, it became possible to sift and interpret the several strands that wove the magnificent fabric of classical myths, the artistic and ethical parameters that gave rise to creative symbolisation in a galaxy of mythologies. The omnipresent Pan-hellenic god Zeus was Vedic Dyaus ‘sky’, Latin Ju-piter=Sanskrit Dyaus-pitar. What at first was only an appellative of the sky became the supreme ruler of gods and men, whose will was law. Europe had to wait for 2,300 years to know the origins of Zeus, when Sanskrit was discovered in the 18th century, though Zeus was the mythical deep of European time. The word ‘Europe’ itself was born out of myth of the young princes Europa who was carried away by Zeus disguised. Today Europe awaits elopement by Sanskrit Dyaus. Modern civilisation again needs the aroma of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is the eternal and the evolving in a fruitful unity. In it, the endless past and the fleeting present live together for a thrust in the future sans end.


Obeisance to the Life, that controls this all,

The Being who overlords all, in whom all is established.

Obeisance to Thee, O Life, obeisance to Thee,

crashing and thundering, flashing and pouring rain, 

Quickening the earth with life, gladdening the beasts,

Repeating the constant cycle of days, nights,

fortnights, months, two-monthly seasons and year,

Making the universe throb.

Life is immense. Life is the sun, the moon

and the creator, the dispenser of bliss to the truthful man

Hail to the, O Life, who envelopes the past,

the present and the future,

Who advances forwards, backwards, below

and high, ever-revolving, eight-wheeled,

single-rimmed, thousand-spoked.

With Thine half Thou created the universe,

and the other half overflows, where and

how far who knows? 

—Atharva- Veda 11. 4. 1, 2, 4, 5, 12, 11, 15, 8, 22.
(Translated by Acharya Raghuvira)  


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati