Sanskrit language is truly a fountainhead, if one surveys its three thousand years of its existence. The story of
the origin of Sanskrit began right from the Vedic age, sailing through the post-Vedic years and centuries later
till today. The Aryans collected the mass of hymns, rituals and poems about their gods in the four Vedas (10th
century BC) which document the various dialects that they brought to India (but that wasn’t the Sanskrit we know
of today). From the Punjab, where the Aryans settled first after they came from Central Asia, their speech spread
along the east as far as present Bihar by about 600 BC. Obviously this Vedic or Old Indo-Aryan language met with
the language of the Dravidians (who were then not restricted to just the southern regions) and Austrics, and some
give and take happened. The result was Prakrit or Middle Indo-Aryan dialect which soon engulfed the whole country
in the north, east and centre. The Aryan invasion was moving towards completion.
Meanwhile, the ‘pure’ Aryans in Punjab were very unhappy about their sacred language getting ‘defiled’. So between
8th and 4th century BC, they came up with Classical Sanskrit, based on the old Vedic speech. But for all practical
purposes, the origin of the language is taken to be the old Vedic Sanskrit.
But Prakrit dialects were already on their steady journey of spreading and mixing. Buddhists picked up one of
these dialects around the 6th century BC and developed it into Pali. The process of simplification of the dialects
continued throughout the Middle Indo-Aryan stage, culminating in the Apabhramsa stage in 600AD. Further
modification of the regional Apabhramsas during 600-1000AD gave rise to the New Indo-Aryan languages of the
But even while other languages were taking shape, Sanskrit continued to be the vehicle of creative and all other
scholarly work. The sheer volume of work in Sanskrit is formidable. With the Vedas was laid the foundation stone
of Vedic literature and all Sanskrit literature thereafter. From religion and philosophy to grammar, phonetics,
etymology, lexicography, astronomy, astrology, sociology, sex, politics, arts and aesthetics, Sanskrit ruled.
Sanskrit is also the language of India’s two most talked about epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The
Puranas are perhaps the most interesting collection of works in Sanskrit. The Puranas contain all the fodder for
stories about the Hindu gods and goddesses.
Literary activities burst forth with the playwright Bharata’s (200BC) Natya Shastra, the Bible of dramatic
criticism. The earliest plays were those of Bhasa, but were soon overshadowed by Kalidasa’s Shakuntala, a model
for ages. History tells us that Kalidasa was the greatest of fools in his early years. He is known to have hacked
at the very branch he was sitting on! Anyway, Shakuntala was a heroic play, while Shudraka’s Mrichchhakatika, was
a play of the social class. Bhavabhuti (circa 700AD) was another well-known figure, his best being Malatimadhava
and Uttaramacharita, the latter based on the story of the Ramayana.
Some of the greatest Sanskrit poems are Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa and Kumarasambhava, Kiratarjuniya of Bharavi
(550AD), Sishupalavadha of Magha (7th century AD) and Naishadhiyacharita of Sriharsha (12th century AD). All of
them draw from the Mahabharata, the source for many writers even today. Shorter poems of great depth were composed
on a single theme like love, morality, detachment and sometimes of grave matters. The earliest and best
collections of such verses called Muktakas are those of Bhartrihari and Amaruka.
Much of the early prose work in Sanskrit has not survived. Of the remaining, some of the best are Vasavadatta of
Subandhu, Kadambari and Harshacharita of Bana (7th century AD) and Dasakumaracharita of Dandin (7th century AD).
The Panchatantra and Hitopadesha are collections of wit and wisdom in the Indian style, teaching polity and proper
conduct through animal fables and aphorisms.
With a glorious life of over 3000 years, Sanskrit continues to be a living language even today, bobbing up during
Hindu ceremonies when mantras (ritual verses) are chanted. And though restricted, it’s still a medium of literary
expression, but ‘great works’ have long stopped being written.