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Prakrit: The forgotten ancestor

Despite being the progenitor of multiple spoken languages, Prakrit does not enjoy as exalted a position as Sanskrit

A 1925 impression of Prakrit inscriptions on an Ashokan pillar at Lumbini in Nepal. Photo: Alamy
A 1925 impression of Prakrit inscriptions on an Ashokan pillar at Lumbini in Nepal. Photo: Alamy

It isn’t generally disputed that most modern Indo-Aryan languages—namely, those spoken in northern, western and eastern India—trace their origins back to Sanskrit. Sanskrit is indeed the parent of virtually all these languages. But what is frequently omitted is that the road from Sanskrit to these languages meandered through two other destinations: the little-known Prakrit and the even lesser-known Apabhramsa (pronounced Apabhransh).

Even after flourishing for more than 1,000 years (from fourth or fifth century BC to eighth century AD) as an independent language of sorts, being the court language of at least one important ancient Indian dynasty and possessing a considerable body of literature, Prakrit is largely discussed in relation to Sanskrit and rarely commands an identity of its own. Occasionally, it finds mention as that amorphous tongue that occupied the centuries that lie between Sanskrit and the modern Indo-Aryan languages of the subcontinent. But while Indo-Aryan tongues are mostly eager to trace their history to Sanskrit, the Prakrit connection rarely receives any attention.

In part, this is on account of Sanskrit’s exalted position in India’s language order. Historically, Sanskrit has been cast as the “refined" or “polished" tongue (that’s what the word “Sanskrit" means) that was the repository of high culture and the language of the scriptures. Since it was the domain of the scholarly and the high-born, it was inevitable that the language of the masses could not be Sanskrit. And so, the language morphed into what came to be regarded as a crudity—Prakrit, meaning the “natural" tongue—the lingo of the street. It’s not easy to trace the evolution of this language of the street without an inquiry into the origins of Sanskrit itself.

That Sanskrit evolved from what has been termed by scholars as Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the original ancestor tongue, is undeniable. What’s unclear is where the original home of PIE was. There is some evidence to suggest that PIE speakers were located in the Central Asian region and moved into India at some point (perhaps, over several points in time) in the days of the Indus Valley civilization (3,000-1,500 BC). But to which language family did the denizens of Indus belong? One school of thought holds that the Indus Valley civilization was part of the PIE universe and so, Sanskrit is home-grown. Evidence for this claim is scanty. Another school claims that the Indus Valley civilization was Dravidian, perhaps even Austro-Asiatic. This, too, is not definite. Since the Indus script has not been decoded yet, this has ensured that there is no final word on this matter.

Roughly between 100 BC and 100 AD, Prakrit evolved in interesting ways. From a crude tongue, it appears to have transformed into a literary language -

Linguists have also identified “non-Aryan" (the word “Aryan" being used in a linguistic sense here) elements in Vedic Sanskrit. This has been done by comparing Vedic Sanskrit with Avestan or Old Iranian, both of which trace their origins to PIE. If Vedic Sanskrit contained words from other tongues then extant in India, the reasoning goes that these tongues must have been spoken fairly widely at a time when Sanskrit was also being used. Therefore, is it owing to the influence of these tongues (possibly of Dravidian or Austro-Asiatic origin or perhaps both) that Prakrit came into being? Or is Prakrit merely debased Sanskrit? This is unclear.

What is clear though is that Prakrit is a term for a collection of tongues widely used in different parts of Aryavarta from fourth or fifth century BC to eighth century AD, when these tongues evolved into Apabhramsa, before finally settling down as early forms of the various modern Indo-Aryan languages spoken today. Linguists therefore do not speak of “Prakrit" as a monolith, preferring the term “Prakrits" instead.

Several Prakrits have been identified. Pali, the language the Buddha (circa 563-486 BC) preached in and Ardhamagadhi, which was Mahavira’s (circa sixth century BC) tongue, are both Prakrits. Using these tongues for religious discourse and eschewing Sanskrit was, for both the seers a deliberate choice, in line with their larger philosophy of reaching out to the masses. Indeed, much of the Buddhist and Jain religious corpus are in these tongues. Ashoka (ruled 268-231 BC) had his edicts inscribed in Prakrit, again deliberately, to ensure that people understood his message. These Prakrits are among the oldest that are known. Around the time of Ashoka, or perhaps a little later, it appears that Pali was taken to Sri Lanka by Buddhist bhikkus and later evolved into modern-day Sinhalese.

Roughly between 100 BC and 100 AD, Prakrit evolved in interesting ways. From a crude tongue, it appears to have transformed into a literary language. Shauraseni, Maharashtri and Magadhi came to be regarded as Dramatic Prakrits owing to their extensive use in plays written in this period. The Gathasaptasati, a compilation of Prakrit love poetry written by several writers and possibly compiled by King Hala of the Satavahana dynasty (ruled first century AD), was written in Maharashtri, which was also the court language of the Satavahanas, who ruled over large parts of the Deccan. Kalidasa (fourth or fifth century AD), too, has used Prakrits in his Sanskrit plays.

Gandhari Prakrit, spoken in the north-west, in the region that today constitutes Pakistan, was among the more unusual Prakrits. It employed the Kharoshthi script, usually written from right to left, as opposed to the other Prakrits, which used the Brahmi script that ran from left to right. Gandhari inscriptions have been found in Central Asia and China, indicating that it was used over a wide expanse of geography.

Paishachi (from pisach, ghosts or ghouls, literally, the language of the dead) is perhaps the most interesting Prakrit of this period. For one, its existence is unattested. No text in this tongue has survived. What remain are references to this tongue by Prakrit grammarians. Secondly, there is the matter of its name. It is likely that “language of the dead" actually meant a language that was extinct or not in use when the grammarians were writing about it. But interpreted literally, the term has lent itself to many fanciful explanations.

Post the eighth century, in their final stage, the many Prakrits broke up into various Apabhramsa dialects, from which the modern languages were derived in and around 800-1,200 AD. Maharashtri and the Apabhramsa tongues it spawned eventually evolved into Marathi and Konkani. Similarly, the Apabhramsa dialects that emerged from Shauraseni gave birth to Gujarati, Rajasthani, Punjabi and, later, to what the poet Amir Khusrau called “Hindavi", to which modern Hindi and Urdu trace their origins. Magadhi gave birth to the Indo-Aryan tongues of eastern India: Bengali, Assamese, Odia, Maithili and so on.

Given the overarching influence of the many Prakrits on modern Indian linguistic distribution, its absence in the wider language discourse is perplexing—and a pointer to how the politics of language plays out.

The writer is an editor with a publishing firm based in Bengaluru.

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