Sanskrit Language Definition, Origin, and History

The Sanskrit language, one of the oldest languages in the world, is the ancestor of many modern languages in Northern India. Learn about the fascinating origin and history of this language, and find out about the cultural significance and importance of the Sanskrit language throughout India and Asia.

Sample Sanskrit language text Sample Sanskrit language text

Origin and History of the Sanskrit Language

The word “Sanskrit” means "put together well." It is important to note that this language has been in existence for thousands of years. It has evolved, reached its peak, and has even had a decline.

How Old Is the Sanskrit Language?

Vedic Sanskrit is the oldest form of this language, and it is believed that it has been around since 1500 BCE. At the time, it was strictly an oral language. This is when the Rig-Veda, one of the ancient Indian sacred texts, was established. This particular branch of the Sanskrit language consists of hymns, incantations, and discussions of a theological basis, which are known as Brahmanas and the Upanishads.

Classical Sanskrit and the Hindu Epics

The Vedic language began to evolve into classical Sanskrit around 500 BCE, when it gradually changed from an oral language to an oral and written one.

During this time, writers composed important Hindu epics in this language. Classical Sanskrit was also the language of significant developments in law, philosophy, medicine, science, astronomy, and poetic thought.

Fewer Sanskrit Speakers

Eventually, the use of the Sanskrit language, particularly in its oral form, decreased greatly. Many believe that the language suffered the same fate as Latin, dying out mainly because there were other languages that were becoming more popular. Likewise, Sanskrit also saw a decline because it was no longer being used by many of the strong political institutions. However, according to census data, about 14,000 people still claim Sanskrit as their main language today.

Modern Usage of Sanskrit Language

Although the Sanskrit language is not as popular as it once was, it is still utilized in a variety of ways. You may even encounter it in your daily life.

Mottos and Terms

A number of popular mottos in India, Nepal, and Indonesia use the Sanskrit language. These mottos are mainly in reference to educational or social institutions. This is similar to the way institutions and schools in the West use Latin for legal terms and mottos. Likewise, many science and important government terms are written in Sanskrit as well.

Some examples of mottos written in Sanskrit today include:

  • Republic of India: Satyameva Jayate (Truth alone triumphs)
  • Supreme Court of India: Yato Dharmas Tato Jayaḥ (Whence dharma, thence victory)
  • Indian Air Force: Nabhaḥ-Spṛśaṃ Dīptam (Touching the sky with glory)
  • University of Delhi: Nistā dhrutih satyam (Truth is borne by faith)
  • Indonesian Military Academy: Adhitakarya Mahatvavirya Nagarabhakti (Hard-Working Knights Serving Bravery as Nation’s Hero)
  • Nepal: Janani Janmabhūmisca Svargādapi garīyasi (Mother and motherland are greater than heaven)

Sanskrit Words Used in English

Sanskrit words have made their way into the English language as well. Some are loosely based on the Sanskrit word, such as “success,” which comes from the Sanskrit word “saphalatA.” Other words are exactly the same or very similar to their Sanskrit counterparts, especially as they relate to religion and yoga or other words of Hindi origin.

  • Buddha - An Indian philosopher and teacher who lived in the fourth and fifth century BCE, also the founder of the Buddhist religion
  • Dharma - The law underlying right and wrong, as well as the nature of universal truth
  • Guru - A wise spiritual leader
  • Karma - In Hindu and Buddhist teachings, the total sum of a person’s actions and the influences of these actions
  • Mandala - A symbol or geometric design that represents the universe in Hindu and Buddhist teachings
  • Mantra - In Hinduism and Buddhism, a repeated sound or phrase to help in concentration
  • Nirvana - In Hindu and Buddhist teachings, the liberation from the cycle of reincarnation
  • Prasada - A yoga term for grace and the divine
  • Swastika - A symbol, used by Nazi Germany, that was originally considered auspicious or lucky
  • Yoga - A spiritual practice of Hinduism that includes breathing exercises, meditation, and body positioning
  • Yogi - A practitioner of yoga and meditation

Sanskrit Linguistics and Development of Words

Linguistically, Sanskrit is an interesting language as well. It has the following features:

  • The phonics of Sanskrit consists of 48 sounds.
  • The sounds are grouped into vowels, diphthongs, anusvara, visarga, plosives, nasals, fricatives, and liquids.
  • The vowels in Sanskrit are characterized by the use of the Devanagari symbol, which is a horizontal line that connects them to other letters.
  • Sankrit has 10 groups of verbs that are separated into two large groups, which are the athematic and thematic.
  • Tenses of the verbs are shown through present, perfect, aorist, and future.
  • Nouns include masculine, feminine, and neutral subjects, and there are also singular, plural, and dual number cases.

Compounds are also used frequently within the Sanskrit language. There are four categories of compounds which include the:

  • Coordinative (dvandva)
  • Determinative (tatpurusa)
  • Possessive (bahuvrihi)
  • Descriptive (karmadharaya)

An Important Influence

Although few people speak it today, the importance of the Sanskrit language is still part of everyday life. From the great texts and epic poems written in this ancient language to the influences of Sanskrit in modern languages, the heart of Sanskrit is still alive and well.