Misconception About Sanskrit In India

There seems to be lot of misconception in social media over Sanskrit language. Some say that it is a language which has been written only in a certain script since time immemorial. Some say that it was a language which was used only in certain regions. All these are misleading information.

This is the fact: Sanskrit does not have a native script.

It was a language formulated purely on the basis of sounds, thousands of years ago. For several centuries, Sanskrit was passed on orally across generations. All our scriptures, epics were in oral format, that’s why they were composed as poems so that it could be easier to memorize, with rhyming words, chandassu shastra (prosody, vedic meter) etc. When civilizations first started to document their scriptures & epics, the Sanskrit works were documented in Brahmi script. That is the script which you can find on Ashoka’s pillars as well in the form of inscriptions, which are almost 2000 years old. Later, Sanskrit was written in Gupta script, and across different parts of India, it was written in different scripts.

In Karnataka region, it was very common to use Kannada script itself to write Sanskrit, to compose Sanskrit poems, to compose Sanskrit literature, etc. During the glorious Vijayanagar rule, Sanskrit was given prominence, and it was documented in Kannada as well as Telugu script. Actually, the emphasis was more on memorizing it and passing it from one person to another orally, but while inscribing them, they had used Kannada & Telugu scripts to document Sanskrit poems, epics etc. Even today, in South Indian states, Brahmins use their respective mother tongue scripts to read/memorize mantras & shlokas. I have personally seen priests at Guru Raghavendra Swamy Mutts using booklets containing Sanskrit mantras, in Kannada script itself. Visit any temple in Karnataka, and you can find small stalls selling Sanskrit mantras & shlokas, which are all printed in Kannada script. Even in deep pockets of rural Karnataka, Kannadigas memorize these mantras & chant them during worship. That’s how they have preserved Sanskrit in their regions, by documenting them in their respective scripts & memorizing from their scripts and continuing the heritage.

So, now comes the question, how did Devanagari come? When seen in the larger timeframe of Sanskrit history, the Devanagari script is a relatively recent phenomenon. While there have been evidences that Sanskrit works were being documented in several scripts including Kannada, even 1500 years ago, there were new scripts also developed around the same time in the Northern regions of India. After the Gupta script (which actually descended from Brahmi script), a new script called “Nagari” was being developed at around 10th century AD.

  • Nagari script had many variants and had different names & forms across India.
  • Kaithi script which was used for Awadhi.
  • Modi script, which was used for Marathi.
  • Gujarati script, which was used for Gujarati language, and so on.

These were like different variants of Nagari script. (If you look closely, you can find lot of similarities between Nagari script & Gujarati script, lot of similarities between Kaithi script & Nagari script, and so on). However, in the regions in around Central UP, the Nagari script was used, promoted & hence gained more prominence in that region over the next few centuries. By the end of 19th century, during the language political movement (with the infamous Hindi-Urdu political movement), Nagari was renamed as Devanagari. And the rest is history. While all these movements were going on in Northern states, the Southern states were unperturbed, and were continuing to use Sanskrit in their own scripts. Reformers like Basavanna who wrote in simple Kannada (for example, his Vachanaas), were actually experts in Sanskrit as well, and musical maestros like Purandara Dasa were composing Sanskrit poems either orally or by writing them in Kannada script.
And also, as I was saying earlier, the priests were learning Hindu mantras & Sanskrit shlokas in their own scripts itself. Because Sanskrit is a phonetic language without a native script. Sanskrit does not belong to any particular script nor to any particular region.