Sanskrit : The Mother of all Languages.. A Dead Language?

From the beginning, I had been fascinated by words and languages, and growing up in the Capital of India meant exposure to five different languages! Incredible, isn’t it?

There was Hindi, which is the Official Language of India; followed by English which is the secondary official language and medium of instruction in most private schools; Punjabi which is my ‘mother-tongue’ and is spoken and heard as much on the streets of Delhi as it might be in any remote village in the interiors of the state of Punjab; Then we had Urdu which is similar to Hindi (not in script, albeit) and is considered the language of poetry, romantic ghazals and nazms (it also happens to be the national language of neighboring Pakistan); And finally, in middle school, I was introduced to this fifth language Sanskrit – the divine language of ancient India. Actually we had a choice between French, German and Sanskrit. I opted for Sanskrit because I had heard it would be easy to learn if we already knew Hindi. (even the written script being the same).

On the very first day of the Sanskrit class, our teacher Mr Sharma, announced nonchalantly, “Kids, Even though Sanskrit is now a ‘Dead Language’ but it is still the ‘Mother of All Languages’ of the world!”

I immediately sat up with my ears perked. I mean how often do you hear two heavy phrases in the same sentence and I was sure no sixth grader had ever endured this before. I had to raise my hand. “Sir, What does ‘dead language’ mean and how-come Sanskrit is the ‘Mother of all Languages’?”

Mr Sharma explained how all European Languages like English, German, Latin, French, Italian and all Indian Languages like Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, etc were derived from Sanskrit and that there are numerous words in most languages of the world that have their corresponding root words in Sanskrit. He gave a couple of examples:
like the English word Brother is derived from Sanskrit Bhratra, and the Latin ‘Ignite’ finds it origin in the Sanskrit word for fire ‘Agni’. He then went onto explain that dead language was a language that is no longer spoken by the people.

Now prior to this class, I had never heard anybody converse in Sanskrit. But I still believed it was cruel to label it as a dead-language. After-all they were still teaching the Language in Schools. How could it be dead?

That day, I went home and spent the entire evening rotating the dial on my father’s AM radio (we did not have FM stations back then) in search of a station broadcasting a program in Sanskrit. I was about to give up when ‘Akaashvani’ began airing the News in Sanskrit!

Yes! I could now prove to Mr Sharma that Sanskrit was still heard and spoken by people and was not dead. At the end of the News, I was astonished yet again, when the news-reader announced his name before bidding good-bye. It was Mr Shashi Pal Sharma, our Sanskrit Teacher!

The next day we did not have Sanskrit period. However, I caught up with Mr Sharma in the Staff room during recess, and told him that I had listened to the Sanskrit News that he had read on Radio. He smiled, as I asked how could Sanskrit be a dead language when apparently there were listeners of the Sanskrit-News that he reads on the Radio?

He continued smiling as he explained calmly that listeners did not necessarily translate to speakers of the language and Sanskrit was literally on the brink of extinction and the Sanskrit News and other initiatives like these have been started to help resuscitate the language. When people listen, then only they will start speaking. Just like nobody can be a born writer. First one has to read a lot and then once can consider becoming a writer.

I was impressed by Mr Sharma’s words and his contribution to the language. Sanskrit became my favorite subject at school and I always topped in my class in Sanskrit. I also wanted to make an effort and do my part for the language. I began listening to the Sanskrit News regularly on the radio. Then starting with the Gayatri Mantra, I started to learn and understand the meanings of the vedic shlokas (hymns in Sanskrit). I also volunteered at the local temple near my house where I would teach Basic Sanskrit to adults once a week. And early in the mornings, I would go there to recite sanskrit shlokas for the morning prayers before boarding my school bus. I started filling a journal with a list of words in English that had their origins in Sanskrit or Hindi.

This was then and it has been close to four decades now. I have grown up and moved on. But worldwide efforts to revive Sanskrit are stronger now than ever. Many organizations like the American Sanskrit Institute are doing their part. I have no idea where I lost my journal or the desire amidst the travails of life. But through this blog entry I wish to revisit my relationship with my favorite language and attempt to recreate the list that took me 5-6 years to build. I will keep on filling in the list below as I recall more words. My readers are welcome to comment and add words to the list that I am starting. (its not sorted alphabetically right now, but once I have it somewhat-populated, I will fix that)

-AJ

English Word Sanskrit/Hindi/Urdu Origin
Brother Bhratra
Mother Matr
Father Pitr
Serpent Serp
Door Dwar
Guru Guru
Juggernaut Jagannath
Avatar avatara
Aryan Arya
Jungle jangal
Loot Lunta
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2 responses to “Sanskrit : The Mother of all Languages.. A Dead Language?”

  1. jalal michael sabbagh.http://gravatar.com/jmsabbagh86@gmail.com says :

    Superb post .Its wonderful to know more than one languages.l speak 5 languages.Arabic, English ,German .Turkish and Armenian.Thank you for liking my post ( a letter to my son) Have a blessed day.jalal

  2. AJ Blogger says :

    Jalal.. Thanks for the kind comment. I was going thru your blog and really enjoyed experiencing the Alaskan cruise, albeit vicariously! Congratulations to you and your better half on your anniversary and wishing many more to come.
    -AJ

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