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What is Sanskrit?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Sanskrit is one of the oldest known Indic languages, with examples of Vedic Sanskrit dating back to approximately 1500 BCE and possibly even earlier eras which are difficult to determine because the language was spoken and sung long before it was written. Indic languages, also known as Indo-Aryan languages, are a large and diverse branch of the Indo-European language family, and Sanskrit is one of the most famous and culturally important of these languages.

The word “Sanskrit” is translated in several different ways, as “complete,” “perfect,” or “pulled together.” The origins of this language appear to lie in vulgar dialects which were organized and codified, first into Vedic Sanskrit and later into a more modern form around 500 BCE. For Hindus, Sanskrit is tremendously important because the Vedas and other Hindu religious texts are in this language, and some Buddhist religious texts are in Sanskrit as well.

This language is the classical language of Ancient India. It was used by all refined and cultured members of society, and continues to be used today in religious liturgy and certain types of high discourse, much like Classical Arabic in the Middle East. Several Indian languages including Bengali and Hindi are descended from Sanskrit, and while the language is not widely spoken in India today, there have been some movements to revive spoken forms, and the influences of this language can be seen on many levels of Indian culture and across Southeast Asia.

Several different writing systems are used for Sanskrit, with one of the most common being Devanagari, partly because it was popularized in the West. In addition to Devanagari, a number of Southeast Asian scripts and the Roman alphabet are utilized for writing in this language. The use of many different scripts reflects the different writing systems used in the region, with residents of various areas using the scripts they are most familiar and comfortable with.

Archaeologists who work in Southeast Asia and India may study this language so that they can gain a deeper understanding of the cultures they study. The language is also studied by historians, religious officiants, and students of religion. Like other classical languages such as Greek and Latin, knowledge of Sanskrit can be critical for people who want to read historic texts in the original language, and for people who want to study language, culture, and religion. A number of colleges and universities all over the world offer training in this language to interested students.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon328506 — On Apr 04, 2013

If computer programming is done in Sanskrit then the computer works most efficiently. I have read Ramayana in Sanskrit and Hindi. It's the best story I've ever read in my life. It's far better then any of the movie stories I've ever watched.

By anon286202 — On Aug 20, 2012

Sanskrit and Hindi are two different languages. Hindi and a few other languages in India and Indian subcontinent are derived from Sanskrit. Knowing Hindi doesn't mean that you will understand Sanskrit. Maybe you will understand little of Sanskrit, but not all of it.

By discographer — On Apr 15, 2012

The article only mentions that Sanskrit is the oldest Indic language but I read a magazine article on this topic and the author of the article claimed that Sanskrit is the oldest language of the world and that all other languages are based on it. Do you think this is true?

This wasn't the only claim this author made. He also suggested that Sanskrit is the most perfect language because it has the most abundance of words and is structured really well. He also believes that Greek and Latin have emerged from Sanskrit.

I don't think any of this is proven, so I can't express an opinion either way. But if we don't have any evidence of a language that dates farther back from Sanskrit documents, I think it is possible that it's the oldest language.

By burcinc — On Apr 14, 2012

@fify-- I know a bit of Hindi too which I picked up from films and my Indian friends. As far as I know, Sanskrit is like the pure form of Hindi and Hindi is a much more simplified version of Sanskrit. But Hindi speakers do understand Sanskrit to a large extent because of the similarity.

I know that many words in Hindi are slightly altered versions of Sanskrit words and have the same meaning. Like "ek" the word for "one" in Hindi is from the Sanskrit word for one: "Ekam." Not to forget that Sanskrit and Hindi use the same alphabet which is Devanagari. In all the Hindu temples I've visited, I've never heard priests and devotees pray in a language other than Sanskrit.

But Hindi does have a lot of words from other languages. Because of the Islamic influence of Mughal emperors for example, there is a lot of Persian words. I think you can learn Sanskrit very easily after learning Hindi. It might take some practice with a Sanskrit dictionary, but it won't take as long as it did to learn Hindi for the first time.

By fify — On Apr 13, 2012
Since Hindi is derived from Sanskrit, are they very similar? Could someone who speaks Hindi understand Sanskrit more or less?

I'm really interested in learning Hindi. I've actually learned quite a bit so far, but still have not mastered the reading and writing part.

I'm also interested in the Vedas, the religious texts of Hinduism. I find the stories of the Vedas very insightful and meaningful. I have been reading the Sanskrit Veda translations in English, but I would like to be able to read at least parts of it in the original Sanskrit. If Hindi and Sanskrit are similar, I think I may have a shot.

By anon41421 — On Aug 14, 2009

sanskrit can be learned by each and every one in every field such as maths, physics, chemistry, etc.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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