Sanskrit Through the Ages: A Forgotten Lecture by K.M. Munshi

A 1951 lecture delivered by K.M. Munshi on the importance and primacy of Sanskrit as our national language and a great vehicle for the cultural rejuvenation of Bharatavarsha.
Sanskrit Through the Ages: A Forgotten Lecture by K.M. Munshi

A Note from the Editor

The disastrous one-vote defeat frontally enabled by Babu Rajendra Prasad against making Sanskrit the national language of the very Punyabhoomi it was born in is a catastrophe from which this post-Independence-accursed country will perhaps never recover. Making Sanskrit our national language should have never been brought to debate: it is akin to debating for example, whether the Hindu Mahasagara is an integral part of India.

As we have remarked on numerous occasions in The Dharma Dispatch, there exist certain cultural non-negotiables which are not open for debate.

The luminaires of our Modern Indian Renaissance were unanimous over the fact that Sanskrit is and should remain a cultural non-negotiable. But because a handful of ill-informed political leaders acted from their overconfidence arising from being safely ensconced inside the puffed pillows of their illusory “mass appeal,” they indirectly paved the way for a Romila Thapar who wrote an entire book on ancient Indian history without knowing a single syllable of Sanskrit.

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That said, it is still not too late to undo this all-round cultural damage thanks to the substantial literature on the primacy and inevitability of Sanskrit as the lifeboat that preserves and has the potential to rejuvenate Sanatana culture. With generational effort, the lifeboat can indeed be transformed into a sprawling cultural ship.

One such piece of inspirational literature is Kulapati K.M. Munshi’s forgotten lecture titled Sanskrit through the Ages, delivered at Prayagraj in 1951. In a feat of astonishing brevity that does not sacrifice comprehensiveness, Munshi traces the entire history of Sanskrit right from the Vedic era up to his own time. In fact, its brevity is encyclopaedic.

Starting with this instalment, we provide extracts from this extraordinary speech.

Munshi uses some terminology that was current in his era but which have since acquired different meanings or have been rejected entirely. Thus, when he says Aryan, it must be understood in its original and true sense as standing for “noble,” “cultured,” “refined,” etc., and not as a race. Likewise, the term race must be understood to mean the “Indian people,” and dissociated from colonial notions of skin colour, etc.

Happy reading!

- I -

Of all the forces which bind the man and make him a social and cultural being, the most powerful is the ‘Word,’ In that sense, the worship of the Word, Sabda-Brahma, is one of the most all-pervading forces of life. For instance, geographically India owes everything to the Himalayas; in the sphere of social relationships, the mind and the spirit, India owes everything to Sanskrit.

In India…over time, classical Sanskrit acquired extraordinary sanctity. This happened long before the Dasarajna, the Battle of Ten Kings, the great historical event recorded in the Rgveda. Although the Ten Kings fought each other, they were bound together by the spoken word. When the words came out in rhythmic chants in hymns they were mantras, divinities themselves. Those who would compose the mantras were demi-gods, worship-worthy. It was this belief that the perfect word was a divinity, that the man who commanded it was half divine that made Sanskrit in its infancy a living binding force of minds and people. This idea has been at the root of all that followed in India’s varied life. It was the mantras which kept the race together.

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The Brahmanas again are described as the only genuine prose works which Sanskrit as a popular language can produce. Upanishads also were the vehicle of living thought in the dialect of the teachers and the pupil.

Sanskrit was recognised as the great unifying force, for the central idea of the Aryan culture Was Rta—the over-arching law of life; and Sanskrit was Rta in action unifying, uplifting and bringing one nearer to the gods.

-II-

From the Bharata War to the rise of the Magadha, Sanskrit was not merely a living language of power in daily use among the people living in the valleys of the Sindhu and the Ganga and their tributaries. It was more. It was the language of literature, philosophy, and law, which the gods spoke and through which gods will hearken. It was best spoken in the Madhya-Desa where the sacred Brahmanas lived and taught; it was studied, spoken and taught in the hermitages, and elsewhere.

-III-

Mahabharata was growing into a vast literature of life: epic heroism; legends of kings and Rsis, sacred rivers and holy places; wise lessons in practical wisdom and philosophic and moral speculations resulting from man’s efforts to attain the Divine. The whole subconscious of the culture was made articulate and gathered. The Akhyanas were composed by poets and narrators for popular audiences of the time; some of the legends were taken from current folk stories. For many centuries after they were composed, they were recited in courts and halls and gatherings of men to inspire or to point a moral.

The Dharmasutra literature and the Manusmrti, the oldest law text, were for the use of the people who spoke the language. During this long period, Sanskrit evolved vigorously not only as the spoken and literary language of a vast educated public and the vehicle of higher intellectual, aesthetic and scientific expression but also as the visual embodiment as well as the instrument of Aryan culture.

-IV-

During the age of Imperial Magadha from 700 B. C. to 150 B. C. no doubt the people in different parts of the North spoke the Prakrts; in the South they spoke their own dialects. Even canonical texts like those of Buddhism and Jainism and folk stories which provided entertainment were composed in the Prakrts. But they were just popular dialects; Sanskrit was the language of polished expression; and their mutual reaction enriched Sanskrit and gave form and range to the Prakrts. But Sanskrit was accepted as the language of divine power. Wherever it was learnt men rose in the scale of culture, and Aryavarta was born.

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Between 150 B. C. and 320 A. D., India saw the rise of an alien kingdom in the North-West and Western India and a powerful political and religious movement born in the Central and Southern India, which overthrew foreign rule and re-established Dharma. Sanskrit was the inspiration, the symbol and the vehicle of this national resurgence. The Satavahanas and the Nagas, the spearhead of this resistance movement, possibly made it the language of official intercourse; for inscriptions begin to be composed in Sanskrit from about the second century. The same movement gave vigour and influence to Saivism and Vaisnavism—the teachers of which at the highest level, accepted Sanskrit as the language of the gods.

By this time Rta had become the Dharma—law of life—and Sanskrit was Dharma in action. All higher intellectual and moral life was developed and expressed through Sanskrit.

Buddha and Mahavira Could preach in Prakrt in the sixth century B.C. In the early centuries of the Christian era, Mahayana Buddhists resorted to Sanskrit for their religious and philosophical works, and in the sixth century Siddhasena Divakara had to invest Jain teachings with the dignity of Sanskrit.

-V-

During the golden prime of the Guptas, Sanskrit became the mighty force which permeated the collective subconscious, and integrated it in the light of the fundamental values of the culture it stood for not only in the North but even among the enlightened settlements of the South.

In scope, form and quality, literary expression reached its high watermark during this period. It saw the works of Kalidasa, the final edition of Mahabharata; the Ramayana was accepted as the poem of perfect form and beauty. Under the rule of the Gupta emperors who were munificent patrons of literature and religion, Sanskrit grew in vigour as the embodiment, vehicle and instrument of a powerful all-pervading culture which went by the name of Sanatana Dharma.

The homes of Sanskrit learning multiplied. Royal dynasties vied with each other in patronizing Sanskrit poets and scholars. The dignity and graces of life came to be associated with it. Even the imagination and idioms of the illiterate and the vulgar in distant parts were filled with its richness.

In North India, it was the language of culture and learning, of polished life and respectability. Education was overwhelmingly in Sanskrit. In the South, it was the language of cultural inspiration and provided literary form and substance to early Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam. Sanskrit was very largely spoken in the country. Abhijnana Sakuntala’s effortless beauty and Santiparva’s wisdom were composed by men who sang and spoke in a living medium of power for the benefit of a large public who were moved or inspired directly by it.

Sanskrit during this period was the goddess of learning—Sarasvati, Bharati. Wherever it was worshipped, a new creative power was born; peoples of different origin and dialects were welded together by a common consciousness of the selfsame images, ideas and values. The Dharmachakra rolled on but the wheel was principally cast in Sanskrit; whoever taught or studied Sanskrit added to its speed.

To be continued

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