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Is Bengali really derived from Sanskrit?

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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.

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  • Chung Sing

    Ok then I guess Bengali is derived from Sanskrit ?

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Know Your India: How Well Do You Know Hindu Wisdom?

Our rich past must remain our greatest inspiration and inform our engagement with the world

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Hindu wisdom and the broader framework of Eastern philosophy talked in the same language as modern physics was beginning to do. Wikimedia Commons
Hindu wisdom and the broader framework of Eastern philosophy talked in the same language as modern physics was beginning to do. Wikimedia Commons

By Bikash Sarmah

No matter how our self-styled secularists vilify ancient Indian or Hindu wisdom, there is an element of eternity and universality about that treasure trove. It is a great work of reason and analysis. And there is no confusion in the discourse. Such is its universality that the intelligent Westerner woke up to it long ago and discovered the wealth therein. Such is its practicality that when Albert Einstein deconstructed the long-held Newtonian worldview in the early part of the 20th century, and when quantum mechanics from the other side revolutionized the whole course of physics and brought about a paradigm shift in our perception of matter and energy, the founding fathers of the evolving field had already taken resort in Hindu wisdom, and to their utter surprise found that Hindu wisdom and the broader framework of Eastern philosophy talked in the same language as modern physics was beginning to do. And it was not restricted to physics or mathematics alone. Even Western writers and philosophers began to appreciate Hindu wisdom, but not without struggling to comprehend the non-Newtonian Hindu worldview — used as they were to a discrete, Newtonian notion of fundamentalism, both in the material and non-material world.

As an acclaimed physicist and thinker Fritjof Capra says in his classic The Tao of Physics, ‘‘The picture of an interconnected cosmic web which emerges from modern atomic physics has been used extensively in the East to convey the mystical experience of nature. For the Hindus, Brahman is the unifying thread in the cosmic web, the ultimate ground of all being… In Buddhism, the image of the cosmic web plays an even greater role. The core of the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the main scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, is the description of the world as a perfect network of mutual relations where all things and events interact with each other in an infinitely complicated way.’’

In Buddhism, the image of the cosmic web plays an even greater role. The core of the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the main scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, is the description of the world as a perfect network of mutual relations where all things and events interact with each other in an infinitely complicated way.’’ Says Fritjof Capra. Wikimedia Commons
In Buddhism, the image of the cosmic web plays an even greater role. The core of the Avatamsaka Sutra, one of the main scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, is the description of the world as a perfect network of mutual relations where all things and events interact with each other in an infinitely complicated way.’’ Says Fritjof Capra. Wikimedia Commons

ALSO READ: Future of Hinduism in US: An Analysis

Such worldview brings a lot of discomfort to the typical Western mind brought up in a culture that emphasizes only rigid fundamentals and overlooks the varied possibilities beyond the confinement of fundamentals, unlike in the Hindu system that rejects such fundamentalism and espouses a notion of the world, both material and spiritual, that jells wonderfully with the implications of the theories of modern physics. But how well is this known? It is in this context that a compilation of Western thoughts on India and its ancient wisdom, titled ‘Great minds on India’ compiled by Salil Gewali and published by Academic Publications, Shillong, is pertinent. It captures the best of comments by Western intellectual giants on Hindu wisdom and its timelessness, reflecting also on the parallels between modern physics and Hindu wisdom. Let us hear some of them. Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics and celebrated for his epoch-making Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics that rejects the Newtonian assertion of predicting the position and momentum of matter simultaneously, glorifies Hindu wisdom thus:

‘‘After the conversations about Indian philosophy, some of the ideas of quantum physics that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense.’’ If Einstein says that ‘‘we owe a lot to Indians who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could be made’’, Julius R Oppenheimer, the father of nuclear bomb, goes further: ‘‘What we shall find in modern physics is an exemplification, an encouragement and a refinement of old Hindu wisdom.’’

‘‘Indian philosophers’ subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys.’’ Says TS Eliot. Wikimedia Commons
‘‘Indian philosophers’ subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys.’’ Says TS Eliot. Wikimedia Commons

Coming to TS Eliot, who needs no introduction. He says: ‘‘Indian philosophers’ subtleties make most of the great European philosophers look like schoolboys.’’ What Eliot means, in other words, is that when it comes to subtlety — that is, to the delicate refinement of ideas — most of the great European philosophers should rather be huddled in a classroom with an Indian philosopher teaching and guiding them. That is why Francois M Voltaire, one of the greatest French writers and philosophers, admits thus: ‘‘I am convinced that everything has come down to us from the banks of the Ganga — astronomy, astrology, spiritualism etc. It is very important to note that some 2,500 years ago at the least Pythagoras went from Samos to the Ganga to learn geometry… But he would certainly not have undertaken such a strange journey had the reputation of the Brahmins’ science not been long established in Europe.’’ And that is why Ralph Waldo Emerson, great American author, and essayist, confesses to having been ‘‘haunted’’ by the Vedas. ‘‘In them (the Vedas),’’ Emerson says, ‘‘I have found eternal compensation, unfathomable power, unbroken peace.’’ And hence the candor, again, of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the greatest German philosophers and writers: ‘‘In the whole world there is no study so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Upanishads. It has been the solace of my life, and it will be the solace of my death. They are the product of the highest wisdom.’’

ALSO READ: Hindu Americans are role models for Hindus in India: Dr. David Frawley

Perhaps the best eulogy for India, as it truly deserves, has come from Frederich von Schlegel, acclaimed German writer, critic, philosopher, and one of the founders of German Romanticism: ‘‘There is no language in the world, even Greek, which has the clarity and the philosophical precision of Sanskrit, and this great India is not only at the origin of everything, she is (also) superior in everything, intellectually, religiously or politically, and even the Greek heritage seems pale in comparison.’’

The booklet, ‘Eat minds on India’, is doubtless a unique venture, and the publishers deserve kudos for having accomplished such an onerous task as to compile comments on India and Hindu wisdom by a galaxy of Western intellectual giants and then to choose the best and the most relevant ones. The tragedy, however, remains: a pseudo-secular dispensation as we are blessed with at the Centre would hardly initiate any move to popularize ancient Indian wisdom, which is essentially Hindu, and call upon the youth of the country to rediscover their past and marvel at the sheer effulgence of Hindu wisdom — stemming not from any dogmatic, fundamentalist and conditioned worldview, but from a holistic way of life and its liberating experience. This is so because the word ‘‘Hindu’’ will invariably echo in any discourse on ancient Indian wisdom and the country’s perverse, self-styled secularists will discover a ‘communal’ agenda there — ‘against our pluralist ethos’. These poor souls do not realize — nor do they want to — that whatever pluralist ethos the country today takes pride in and will sustain for all times is due solely to the Hindu way of life, a preponderant way of life in India. Why, look at how the other by-product of Partition, including Bangladesh, has evolved.

Our rich past must remain our greatest inspiration and inform our engagement with the world. Even quantum mechanics and all of its later avatars recognize that fact of life. Let us all be proud of it all.

(The writer is the former consultant Editor of ‘The Sentinel’, a Guwahati-based
daily. He currently resides in Guwahati)