Why was Sanskrit regarded as a language of the elite in ancient India? Why is it given such an important status? Why is it called a scientific language? Why all ancient texts were written in Sanskrit? To answer this question, we need to understand the origins of Sanskrit.
The evolution of natural languages
Human spoken languages, as we know, evolve over time and keep changing. Their rules keep changing, there will be local variants, dialects and so on. In contrast, we have standardized languages like computer programming languages, that are designed in one shot. They have fixed set of rules, and if at all new rules are to be added or modified, then a new version of that language is released.
The same goes with Sanskrit. It was a language that was explicitly designed with fixed set of rules, and the purpose of creating this language was to use it as a means of education. To store knowledge using a language that was free of any confusion that naturally evolved languages have due to regional and temporal variations. Sanskrit was designed so that it can be used as a medium of education and can convey knowledge without any ambiguity.
Sentence and context ambiguity in naturally evolved languages
flying planes can be dangerous
Note the ambiguity in the above sentence. Is it the action of “flying” planes that is dangerous, or are the planes that fly that are dangerous? Ambiguities like these are one of the main reason why we had to develop programming languages. Computers can only process unambiguous instructions. So natural languages like English cannot be used to write computer programs. So programming languages with fixed set of pre-defined instructions were invented to write computer programs.
The same ambiguity exists in many sentences of all naturally evolved languages. And to add to the complexity, there were so many local language variants as well. So, the ancient Indians thought that it would be more appropriate to provide education in a single common language and that language has to be unambiguous, so that there is no confusion while imparting knowledge. This is similar to how English is the preferred medium of education today in a large part of the world.
Sanskrit – a language designed to represent information unambiguously
Hence, Sanskrit was designed with very well defined set of rules and was used as the medium of instruction. Sanskrit was the first language to have a grammar with well defined rules. It was not a language that evolved naturally, but was purposefully designed. That is the reason you won’t find any Sanskrit speaking communities localized to one single place in ancient India. All scholars in ancient India across the subcontinent knew Sanskrit, because that was the medium of education everywhere.
So, while people continued to speak their mother tongue or local languages for day to day business, in schools and universities of ancient India, Sanskrit was used as the language of communication.
Prakrits – The set of naturally evolved languages in ancient India
The languages that were used in daily life were the naturally evolved ones and were collectively called – Prakrit. Prakriti means nature, and Prakrit was the name for naturally evolved languages. So naturally there were different Prakrit variants in ancient India like Shauraseni, Pali, Magadhi, Maharashtri, Elu, Gandhari, Ardhamagadhi, Dramili, Paisaci, Jain, Apabhramsha, etc.
The very meaning of the word Sanskrit is “refined”. In other words, this was a language that was artificially designed and developed, much like the way modern programming languages are written, with very well defined set of rules and grammar. In fact, Sanskrit is the world’s first language that had its own grammar – predefined set of rules.
Sanskrit – a language without dictionary
Unlike other languages, grammar is so tightly coupled with Sanskrit that, if you know Sanskrit grammar completely, you will never need a Sanskrit dictionary to understand the base meaning of the words. In fact, in real Sanskrit there is no dictionary, the very language has been so well defined grammatically that the meaning of each word can be derived from its grammar!!
All words in Sanskrit are derived from a limited set of root words called dhatus, that have specific meaning, and the grammar sets rules for creating complex words by inflecting and combining dhatus. So, the meaning of any word, phrase or sentence can be understood just by knowing all dhatus and sanskrit grammar – no dictionary required.
Consider a name like jalaja in Sanskrit – its dhatu form gives the meaning that “born in water” – so anything born in water can be represented with this name in Sanskrit. And to know the meaning of the word, one only has to know the dhatus and their meanings, and Sanskrit grammar rules to form words out of dhatus.
Sanskrit and computer programming languages – context free grammar
In fact, the Backus–Naur form technique used to describe context free grammars while designing computer languages is nothing but the rules used by Sanskrit grammarian Panini to describe Sanskrit word structure notation.
That is the reason Sanskrit is said to be the only human spoken language that has the ability to be used as a computer programming language. Because of its crystal clear grammar rules, one can actually write a compiler that can parse and understand Sanskrit sentences!!
So given the fact that Sanskrit was used as a medium of education in ancient India, and like in any other society highly educated people were considered elite, as they ended up in elite jobs, and thus Sanskrit became to be known as the language of the elite. This is similar to how today English is considered an elite language in otherwise non-English speaking countries like India, as high quality education is available only in English medium schools.
In ancient India highly educated people were called Brahmins, unlike the caste system of today, and hence Sanskrit came to be known as the language of Brahmins. Learned scholars used to engage in numerous debates which were always conducted in Sanskrit, as that was the medium of their education as well.
Hence, in its original context, Sanskrit was the medium of education in ancient India, and a Brahmin was any learned person, a knowledgeable person.
And not just that, there is an amazing secret science behind Sanskrit, that no other human spoken language has. That science was the very reason why Sanskrit was designed.