That India has impressive language diversity is known to all Indians. One may not know that the Census of 2011 had come with a verified list of 1,369 “mother tongues” spoken by the people of India; but one certainly knows that there are “hundreds of living languages” in India. However, most Indians think that the largest number of languages spoken today is derived from Sanskrit, some from Tamil, and some others in the northeast from Sino-Tibetan or Tibeto-Burmese origins. It is known to anthropologists, linguists and some tribal activists that we also have languages of Austro-Asiatic derivation.
Indians know well that Arabic and Persian have given a great wealth of words to our languages. Needless to add that they also know and experience in their daily lives a large number of new expressions and words that the English language has brought to Indian languages. What is not known widely is that Pali and several Prakrits have contributed as significantly to our languages as have Sanskrit, Tamil, Arabic, Persian, and English.
Our amnesia about how greatly Pali has contributed to all that we speak and think is not of recent origin. It goes back at least fifteen centuries. For most part of that long period of anonymity of the Pali language, the Prakrits have been active, but without recalling that the Prakrits were firmly wedded to the Pali language in ancient times dating to nearly 5th century BCE. Therefore, the knowledge of the language that was used for documenting the most central canonical Jaina and Buddhist texts remained confined to a handful of initiated Jaina monks in India from about the 6th century CE to the 20th century, and they used it for writing manuscript commentaries on older texts.
Alas, Buddhism was banished from its country of birth; and the knowledge of Pali Buddhist texts remained alive in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Thailand. The many regional varieties of Prakrits continued their existence in transmuted form. Thus, from the 10th century onwards one variety of Prakrit developed as Gujarati, another as Bangla and Odiya, and a third as Marathi and Konkani, to mention a few.
There was a time in the earliest phase of India’s history when Pali and Sanskrit encountered each other, lent a rich variety of expressions to each other and gave rise to a rich variety of poetic and prose literature in both languages. The west of the Yamuna was the land of Sanskrit. The east of the Yamuna was the land of Pali during the pre-historic times. Pali was so rich in its ability to conceptualise abstractions that it could provide a competent foundation for the complex philosophical ideas of Gautama Buddha and Mahaveer Jain, and the philosophers who preceded them.
During the period of the emergence of India’s modern bhashas such as Sindhi, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Odiya, Bangla, Nepali, and Assamiya, people had moved away from Sanskrit. While a small number of scholars continued to produce texts in Sanskrit through that period, most of the thinkers, saints, and poets chose to turn to the Prakrit-based languages that had been emerging a thousand years before our time. A Marathi saint poet of the 14th century put this sentiment in perspective when he asked, “If Sanskrit is dev-bhasha, made by Gods, is Marathi made by thieves?” And his predecessor, Dnyanadeva, said that Marathi is sweeter than nectar. In other words, by the beginning of the second millennium, Indians had moved beyond both Sanskrit and Pali.
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However, towards the end of the 18th century, Sir William Jones put forward his thesis that possibly, in some pre-historic times, the languages of Europe such as Greek and Latin had a clear link with Asian languages such as Persian and Sanskrit. His hypothesis about the “proto-Indo-European language”, the prehistoric mother of all those major languages, brought Sanskrit back into focus. Scholars in Europe and in India alike started finding Sanskrit manuscripts, editing and translating them, and publishing them as the print technology had by then become available in India. In William Jones’ thoughts, Pali did not have much of a place.
Following William Jones’ hypothesis, other scholars like Francis Whyte Ellis (1816) and Robert Caldwell (1856) pointed out that just as there was an Indo-Aryan language family, there was also a Dravidian language family. No scholar paid comparable attention to Pali and the Prakrits; and they got described in tentative and uncertain terms as off-shoots of Sanskrit. It was only towards the end of the 19th century, when a young man from Goa set out in search of Pali and with great difficulty acquired scholarship in that language, that the country woke up to the fact that here was a great language which we had all but forgotten. The man: Acharya Dharmanand Kosambi (1876-1947).
- There was a time in the earliest phase of India’s history when Pali and Sanskrit encountered each other and gave rise to a rich variety of poetic and prose literature in both languages.
- The west of the Yamuna was the land of Sanskrit. The east of the Yamuna was the land of Pali during the pre-historic times.
- Pali was so rich in its ability to conceptualise abstractions that it could provide a competent foundation for the complex philosophical ideas of Gautama Buddha and Mahaveer Jain.
- Acharya Dharmanand Kosambi revived the knowledge of Pali in India almost single-handedly.
Dharmanand revived the knowledge of Pali in India almost single-handedly; he introduced Dr B.R. Ambedkar to Buddhism; he was the first Indian to know of Marxism. In his life, he rebelled against caste and Hinduism and decided to follow the Jainist way of dying by giving up food. Mahatma Gandhi tried to change his resolve, unsuccessfully; and Acharya Dharmanand gave up his life in 1947.
The time he died was when the Constituent Assembly was discussing the language question. A year-and-a-half later, the Constituent Assembly decided to form a separate schedule for languages. Sanskrit was included in it, though no Indian had used Sanskrit as a language in every day life for more than a thousand years. Pali, however, remained unmentioned in the Constituent Assembly debates. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism nine years after Kosambi’s death. The language in which each and every Buddhist scripture is written received no attention despite the revival of Buddhism in India. Sanskrit has been one of the greatest languages in human history. But so has been Pali. Sanskrit came to India from outside, while Pali was—like ancient Tamil—very much our own. Yet, in post-Independence India, Sanskrit received more than its due, while Pali did not receive the attention that it deserves.
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To get an idea of how much the languages other than Sanskrit—Pali, Prakrit, and Dravidian languages—have given to Indian languages, culture, and history, it may help to look at the current map of India. Barring the north-eastern region, all States in the south, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Orissa, West Bengal, and Bihar are nurtured by either Tamil or Pali.
In comparison, the areas that have languages coming straight from Sanskrit are fewer. Besides, since Sanskrit was primarily the language of the elite rulers and priestly classes, Pali and Prakrits served as the languages of the non-elites in ancient India. So far, no one in India has asked the question why Pali has not been included in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. It is time one raises the question as a tribute to the memory of Dharmanand Kosambi.
Ganesh Devy is Obaid Siddiqi Chair Professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru.