Is Bengali really derived from Sanskrit?


By Harshmeet Singh

There aren’t many better examples of India’s diverse culture than its linguistic diversity. The country is home to 780 languages with over 120 of them holding the ‘official’ status. But the other side of the story is that India currently heads the list of UNESCO’s world’s languages in danger. The constitution, in its eighth schedule, lists 22 languages as the official regional languages in the country. This series of articles is an attempt to focus on these 22 languages, their pasts and present, and cherish our linguistic diversity. After discussing Assamese, Bodo, Kashmiri and Konkani in the previous write-up, today, we shift our focus towards Bengali.

It is human nature to identify fellow beings and their habits based on the language they speak. Hence, we assume that those living in Bengal spoke Bengali from the very beginning. While it is a well-accepted fact that Bengali is heavily inspired and derived from the Sanskrit language, a closer look at the Sanskrit texts from the first half of the first millennium BCE suggest that the first residents of Bengal didn’t use languages related to Sanskrit.

In the beginning of 4th century BCE, the commercial relations between Bengal and Magadh began to thrive, which increased Sanskrit’s influence with Bengal. It was during the 4th century only that the Gupta kings began to control the northern parts of Bengal and settle Brahmanas in this region. Post this, the cultural and linguistic ties between Bengal and the mid-Ganga valley region only became stronger.

In 7th century BCE, when the famed Chinese traveler Xuan Zang visited Bengal, he noticed that Sanskrit related languages were in use all over the region. By 15th century, all the dialects in the Bengali group were united under one common language.

Albeit it won’t be wrong to say that Bengali is derived from Sanskrit, the fact that it had to go through multiple stages of evolution can’t be overlooked. Modern Bengali is loaded with words from non-Sanskrit words which have been taken from Persian, tribal and different European languages.

The initial Bengali literature was of two kinds, viz. inspired from Sanskrit and independent of Sanskrit. The former includes works such as translation of different Sanskrit epics into the local languages. These include Mangalakavyas and Bhakti literature. The latter includes the likes of Nath literature, folk tales and fairy tales. (Naths were ascetic people who indulged in different yogic practices)

While the texts of the first category can be dated easily due to the presence to a number of manuscripts, the literature of the latter category was largely passed on orally and hence can’t be dated with precision. The non-Sanskrit literature is especially renowned in the eastern part of Bengal where the Brahmanas didn’t have much influence.

 Here is a piece of trivia for you-

Being a riverine plain, fish and rice are two of the most easily available food items in Bengal. This justifies the popularity of maachh bhaat in Bengal. Fishing as an occupation is extremely common in the state.

Though Brahmanas aren’t allowed to consume non-vegetarian food, Brihaddharma Purana, a Sanskrit text from Bengal belonging to the 13th century, permitted the local Brahmanas to eat certain species fish, owing to its popularity in the everyday diet.