In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sanskrit

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Introductory Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Lexicography
  • Verbal Roots and Other Lexical Items
  • Prosody and Meter
  • Special Qualities of the Language
  • Orality and Memory Culture
  • Epigraphy and Manuscript Culture
  • Print Culture
  • Modern Sanskrit
  • Prospects

Hinduism Sanskrit
Saraju Rath
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0148


The name Sanskrit for the language—especially known for its rich heritage of ancient Indian literary, scientific, philosophical, and religious texts—is derived from saṁskṛta, past passive participle from sam + kṛ that means “to prepare (well),” “to make perfect,” “to polish.” Sanskrit or saṁskṛam (viz.: bhāṣaṇam or vacaḥ) thus means “well-prepared,” “perfected,” “polished” (viz.: speech or language). Paradoxically, this language that is “well-prepared” or “polished” (evidently suggesting conscious “polishing” efforts on the part of the speaker) has also been regarded as the originally divine language, daivī vāg, that deteriorates into Prakrits when left to generations of incapable speakers. Sanskrit is one of the very few languages in the world having a name not derived from an ethnonym, either as exonym or as self-designation, or from a country name derived from an ethnonym. As a language name, the word saṁskṛta is not attested in earlier literature (Vedic, Buddhist, early grammarians). Classical references to saṁskṛta as a noun as well as referring to a language in contradistinction to Prakrit are found, for instance, in Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra (composed between 200 BCE and 200 CE) and in Bhāmaha’s Kāvyālaṅkāra (attributed to the 7th century). At present, the name Sanskrit is by extension also used for earlier stages of the language, especially Vedic and the language to which the ancient grammarian Pāṇini (c. 350 BCE?) refers as bhāṣā “speech.” Other categories of Sanskrit—not always mutually exclusive—have been recognized, such as Classical, Epic, Buddhist, Jaina, Hybrid, Tantric, and Epigraphical Sanskrit. In addition, scholars have reflected on ancient spoken forms of Sanskrit, and a modern (revivalist) form of spoken Sanskrit is marginally employed in India. Sanskrit is also occasionally spoken in traditional training colleges (pāṭhaśālās, gurukulas), both in ancient and in modern times. Whichever subdivisions are accepted and whatever perspective is adopted, as a language Sanskrit does not comfortably fit into generally accepted categories. In a bibliography on Hinduism, the importance of Sanskrit derives from the fact that a large majority of generally accepted sacred texts for Hinduism are in Sanskrit: either Vedic Sanskrit or classical Sanskrit, or other forms of Sanskrit. This does not exclude texts in other languages—Tamil, Marathi, Braj Bhasha, etc.—to be sacred within Hinduism. Nor does it exclude numerous texts in Sanskrit to be sacred in other ancient religions than Hinduism, such as Jainism and Buddhism. The Bible and other Christian texts have been translated into Sanskrit from the early 19th century onward. The author thanks J. E. M. Houben for suggestions for the bibliography and the discussions.

General Overviews

Although for over two centuries Sanskrit and its literatures have been the object of extensive and detailed studies by Western and modern specialists, basic questions regarding the “life” and evolution of Sanskrit and its conditions for survival and transformation have not yet been successfully addressed. Outsiders’ perspectives by non-Sanskrit scholars seem to contain paradoxical or mutually contradictory statements and are hence often confusing. This may be due to the peculiar character of Sanskrit as a scholarly language of Indian philosophy, science, and religion; to the extent of the various domains of its literature; and to the fact that specialized studies may differ considerably in focus: Indo-European, Vedic, and political history. Here, it is therefore useful to refer to a few of these outsiders’ perspectives and attempts to contextualize Sanskrit. In the compact but highly informative Atlas des Langues du Monde (Breton 2003), for instance, Sanskrit appears first on p. 12 in the family tree of Indo-European languages. Here, it comes under the heading “principal languages” in the subdivision “extinct languages,” together with languages such as Avestan, Sogdian, Gothic, Latin, and Hittite. Sanskrit appears again on pp. 40–41 in a section devoted to languages with a written corpus. Together with Chinese, it is noted as a language with a written corpus going back to the second millennium BCE. Other languages, such as Pali and Tamil, are noted as having a written corpus going back to the first millennium BCE; still others—Sogdian, Kannada, Khmer, Cham, Japanese—as having a written corpus going back to the first millennium CE. In an explanation appearing on page 41, it is nevertheless added that “Sanskrit culture, elaborated from the end of the second millennium BCE onwards, has been taught, over centuries, in a purely oral way.” Sanskrit makes a third appearance on pp. 54–55 in a section devoted to the “Indian world.” Here, a small circle on the map and the number 60,000 (probably erroneous for “50,000”) indicate the number of Sanskrit speakers in early-21st-century India, within a bigger circle representing 410 million speakers of Hindi. The various editions of the Census of India show extravagant variations over the decades regarding the number of Sanskrit speakers: the Census of India of 1921 (Marten 1923, p. 96) gives only 356 as the number of Sanskrit speakers, but in an overview in the Census of India of 2001 (Statement 7: “Growth of Scheduled Languages”), this number varies from 2212 in 1971 to 49,736 in 1991, and again back to 14,135 in 2001. The Linguasphere Register avoids the categorization of languages as discrete units in space and time. Sanskrit (“phylosector” Indo-European) is here localized in India but also, surprisingly, in South Africa. In the linguistic project of the Ethnologue (Lewis, et al. 2009), the language status attributed to Sanskrit appears as Level 4 in India (“educational,” i.e., “in vigorous use, with standardization and literature being sustained through a widespread system of institutionally supported education”), but as Level 9 (“dormant”: almost extinct) in Nepal.

  • Breton, Roland. Atlas des Langues du Monde: Une pluralité fragile. Paris: Editions Autrement, 2003.

    At around seventy-seven pages, Breton presents a dense mass of basic facts on languages of the world, including Sanskrit, in the form of skillfully drawn maps and diagrams, with extensive references to published research. In the case of Sanskrit, the various references to it—briefly discussed in this section—remain in several respects puzzling. With maps and graphics by Krystyna Mazoyer and a preface by Joshua Fishman.

  • Dalby, David. Linguasphere Register.

    Edition LS-2010. Records languages of the world within a sophisticated system of categories where “language” (as a notion suggesting a discrete unit in space and time) is avoided. Instead, the world is subdivided into five areal “geosectors” (Africa, Eurasia, etc.) and five genetic “phylosectors” (Afro-Asian, Indo-European, etc.).

  • Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig, eds. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. 16th ed. Dallas: SIL International, 2009.

    Lewis, et al. records minimal objective facts on around 7500 languages of the world, including Sanskrit. A new category of information in the 2013 edition is the estimated Language Status.

  • Marten, J. T. Census of India, 1921. Vol. 1. India. Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, 1923.

    See Part 2: Tables. Whatever this may mean for the status of Sanskrit in early-20th-century British India or for the method of collecting information: Table 10, Part 2 (p. 96), records only 356 speakers of Sanskrit: 232 men, 124 women.

  • Registrar General. Census of India.

    The number of people indicating Sanskrit as “mother tongue,” 49,736 in the 1991 Census, dropped drastically to 14,135 in 2001; see Abstract of Speakers’ Strength of Languages and Mother Tongues—2001.

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