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Sanskrit language

Sanskrit (Skt. Saṁskṛtam; संस्कृतम् in Devanāgarī script) is among the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family and is not only the premier classical language, but also an official language of India. It enjoys much the same position in Indian culture as Latin and Greek do in Europe. Its vast religious and literary tradition is most famously seen in its Hindu/Vedic traditions.

The first Sanskrit text known to us is the Rig-veda (or Ṛgveda ऋग्वेद), part of the early canon of Hinduism, the Vedas. There are far more Sanskrit texts preserved than there are Latin and Greek ones combined. Most Sanskrit texts available today were composed in ancient and medieval India.


The word saṃskṛtam means "put together or constructed well, completely formed, perfected", also "purified, consecrated, sanctified". The language referred to as saṃskṛtā vāk "the refined language" has by definition always been a 'high' language, used for religious and scientific discourse and contrasted with the languages spoken by the people. The oldest surviving Sanskrit grammar is Pạ̄nini's Ạṣtādhyāyī ("8 Chapter Grammar") datng to ca. the 5th century BC. It is essentially a prescriptive grammar, i. e. an authority that defines (rather than describes) correct Sanskrit, although it contains descriptive parts, mostly to account for Vedic forms that had already passed out of use in Panini's time.

Virtually every Sanskrit student in India learns the traditional story that Sanskrit was created and then refined over many generations (traditionally more than a thousand years) until it was considered complete and perfect. When the term arose in India, "Sanskrit" was not conceived of as referring to a specific language set apart from other languages (the people of the time regarded languages more as dialects), but rather referred to a particularly refined manner of speaking, bearing somewhat the same relation to common language that "Standard" English bears to commonly spoken dialects in many regions of the United States. The knowledge of Sanskrit was a marker of social class and educational attainment, and was closely governed by the analyses of grammarians. This form of the language evolved out of the earlier "Vedic" form, and scholars often distinguish Vedic from Classical as separate languages. However, they are extremely similar in most regards, differing only in a few points of phonology, vocabulary, and grammar.

Vedic is the language of the Vedas, the earliest sacred texts of India and the base of the Hindu religion. The earliest of the Vedas, the Rigveda, was composed in 2nd millennium BC. The Vedic form survived until the middle of the first millennium BC. It is around this time that Sanskrit made the transition from a first language to a second language of religion and learning, marking the beginning of the Classical period. A form of Sanskrit called Epic Sanskrit is seen in the Mahabharata and other Hindu epics. This includes more "prakritisms" (borrowings from common speech) than Classical Sanskrit proper. There is also a language dubbed "Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit" by scholars, which is actually a prakrit ornamented with Sanskritized elements, perhaps for purposes of ostentation.

There is a strong genetic relationship between the various forms of Sanskrit and the Middle Indo-Aryan "Prakrits", or vernacular languages, (in which, among other things, most early Jain and Buddhist texts are written) and the modern Indo-Aryan languages. The Prakrits are probably descended from Vedic, and there is mutual interchange between later forms of Sanskrit and various Prakrits. There has also been reciprocal influence between Sanskrit and the Dravidian languages.

The Vedic form of Sanskrit is a close descendant of Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed root of all later Indo-European languages. Vedic Sanskrit is the oldest attested language of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European family. It is very closely related to Avestan, the language of Zoroastrianism. The genetic relationship of Sanskrit to modern European languages and classical Greek and Latin can be seen in cognates like Eng. mother/Skt. मतृ matṛ or Eng. father/Skt. पितृ pitṛ. Other interesting links are to be found between Sanskritic roots and Persian (the language of modern-day Iran), present in such a striking example as the generic term for 'land' which in Sanskrit is sthaan and in Persian staan.

European scholarship in Sanskrit, initiated by Heinrich Roth and Johann Ernest Hanxleden, led to the proposal of the Indo-European language family by Sir William Jones, and thus played an important role in the development of Western linguistics. Indeed, linguistics (along with phonology, etc.) first arose among Indian grammarians who were attempting to catalog and codify Sanskrit's rules. Modern linguistics owes a great deal to these grammarians, and to this day, key terms for compound analysis are taken from Sanksrit.

Phonology and writing system

Classical Sanskrit has 48 phonemes (Vedic Sanskrit has 49).

The sounds are described here in their traditional order: vowels, stops and nasals (starting in the back of the mouth and moving forward), and finally the liquids and sibilants.

(Note: The long vowels are held about twice as long as their short counterparts. Also, there exists a third, extra-long length for most vowels, which is used in various cases, but particularly when recording a shout, or a greeting.)

Simple vowels

Unlike in English, ṛ, ṝ, and ḷ really are treated as vowels. Some grammarians mention ḹ, a longer version of ḷ, but this does not actually occur in Sanskrit and seems to have been created by analogy with the other vowels.

Diphthongs (combinations of simple vowels)

Vowels can be nasalized.


Sanskrit has a voiceless stop, voiceless aspirate, voiced stop, voiced aspirate, and nasal stop at each of the following places of articulation:

Velar (soft palate) : (k क, kh ख, g ग, gh घ, ṅ (ng) ङ)
Palatal (hard palate) : (c (ch) च, ch (chh) छ, j ज, jh झ, ˝ (ny) ञ)
Retroflex (roughly the place of articulation of English alveolars like t, but with the tongue curled back) : (ṭ (T) ट, ṭh (Th) ठ, ḍ (D) ड, ḍh (Dh) ढ, ṇ (N) ण)
Dental (tongue against teeth, as in Spanish) : (t त, th थ, d द, dh ध, n न)
Labial (with the lips) : (p प, ph फ, b ब, bh भ, m म)

It also has four semivowels: y य, r र, l ल, v व. Sanskrit also has palatal, retroflex, and alveolar sibilants, ś (sh, ç) श, ṣ (S) ष, and s स. Rounding out the consonants are the voiced h ह and voiceless ḥ ः or visarga (which tends to repeat the preceding vowel after itself), and the anusvāra (ṃ ं), which often appears as nasalization of the preceding vowel or as a nasal homorganic to the following consonant.

Vedic Sanskrit had a pitch or tonal accent, but it was lost by the Classical period. Vedic Sanskrit also had labial and velar fricatives and a retroflex L.


Sanskrit has an elaborate set of phonological rules called sandhi and samaas which are expressed in its writing (except in so-called pada texts). Sandhi reflects the sort of blurring that occurs in combining sounds, particularly at word-boundaries; this occurs in spoken language generally, but is explicitly codified in Sanskrit. A simple example of English sandhi is "an apple" versus "a clock".

Sandhi can make Sanskrit difficult for the inexperienced reader. It also creates ambiguities that clever writers have exploited to perform such feats as writing poems which can be interpreted in multiple, conflicting ways depending on how the reader chooses to break apart the sandhi.


Sanskrit historically has had no single script associated with it. For instance, the ancient Brahmi characters were used by Ashoka for his pillar inscriptions. Later, Grantha was used, as were other scripts such as Kannada in the South, and Bengali and other North Indian scripts in other regions. However, over many years, and especially recently, the Devanagari (meaning "as used in the city of the Gods") script has become the most widely used and associated with Sanskrit. Occasionally, in regions of India where Devnagari is not the script of the vernacular (as it is with Hindi or Marathi) one will find texts still written in the local script, such as Grantha in the South or Bengali in the East.

Writing was introduced relatively late to India, and it did not immediately become important since oral learning was the primary means of transmitting knowledge. Rhys Davids suggests that writing may have been introduced from the Middle East by traders, but Sanskrit, which had been used exclusively in sacred contexts, remained a purely oral language until well into India's classical age. It is interesting to note the importance that Sanskrit orthography and Vedic philosophy of sound play in Hindu symbolism, as the varnamala, or sound-garland/alphabet, of 51 letters is also seen to be represented by the 51 skulls of Kali. In the Upanishads, the transcendent-immanent nature of Brahman is represented by the half-matra, or sphota of sound that is inherent to a beat of sound in the Sanskrit system, as one cannot conceptualize it but realizes it is the inherent base of all else.


There are many transliteration schemes for writing Sanskrit using Latin script. Most commonly used are IAST (International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration), which is the academic standard and includes diacritical marks. Other transcription schemes have evolved due to difficulties representing Sanskrit characters in computer systems. These include Harvard-Kyoto that was used earlier, and ITRANS, a lossless transliteration scheme that is used widely on the Internet (especially Usenet).

For scholarly work, Devanagari has generally been preferred for the transcription and reproduction of whole texts and lengthy excerpts; however, references to individual words and names in texts composed in European languages are usually represented using Roman transliteration.

Morphology and syntax

Word order

Word order is free with tendency toward SOV.

Classification of verbs

Sanskrit has ten classes of verbs divided into in two broad groups: athematic and thematic. The thematic verbs are so called because an a, called the theme vowel, is inserted between the stem and the ending. This serves to make the thematic verbs generally better-behaved. Exponents used in verb conjugation include prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and reduplication. Vowel gradation is also very common; every root has (not necessarily all distinct) zero, guṇa, and vṛddhi grades. If V is the vowel of the zero grade, the guṇa-grade vowel is traditionally thought of as a + V, and the vṛddhi-grade vowel as ā + V.

Conjugation of verbs

The verbs tenses (a very inexact application of the word, since more distinctions than simply tense are expressed) are organized into four 'systems' (as well as gerunds and infinitives, and such creatures as intensives/frequentives, desideratives, causatives, and benedictives derived from more basic forms). Each verb also has a grammatical voice, whether active, passive or middle. There is also an impersonal voice, which can be described as the passive voice of intransitive verbs.

The four kinds of tenses are:

Nominal inflection

Sanskrit is a highly inflected language with three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter) and three numbers (singular, plural, dual). It has eight cases: nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, and locative. It has over ten noun declensions.


One other notable feature of the nominal system is the very common use of nominal compounds, which may be huge (10+ words) as in some modern languages such as German. Nominal compounds occur with various structures, some examples of which are:

1. Dvandva (co-ordinative)

These consist of two substantives, connected in sense with 'and', e.g. matara-pitara 'Mother and Father'. 2. Bahuvrihi (possessive)
Bahuvrihi, or much-rice, denotes a rich person—one who has much rice. Bahuvrihi compounds refer to a thing which is not specified in any of the parts of which the compound is formed (in other words, they are adjectives). A block-head, for example, is someone whose head is said to be as thick as a block. 3. Tatpurusha (determinative)
There are many tatpurushas (one for each of the nominal cases, and a few others besides); in a tatpurusha, one component is related to another. For example, a doghouse is a dative compound, a house for a dog. It would be called a "caturtitatpurusha" (caturti refers to the fourth case—that is, the dative). Incidentally, "tatpurusha" is a tatpurusha ("this man"—meaning someone's agent), while "caturtitatpurusha" is a karmadhariya, being both dative, and a tatpurusha. 4. Karmadharaya (descriptive)
The relation of the first member to the last is appositional, attributive or adverbial, e. g. uluka-yatu (owl+demon) is a demon in the shape of an owl. 5. Amredita (iterative)
Repetition of a word expresses repetitiveness, e. g. dive-dive 'day by day', 'daily'.


Modern-day India

Sanskrit's greatest influence, presumably, is that which it exerted on languages that grew from its vocabulary and grammatical base. Especially among elite circles in India, Sanskrit is prized as a storehouse of scripture and the language of prayers in Hinduism. While vernacular prayer is common, Sanskrit mantras are recited by millions of Hindus and most temple functions are conducted entirely in Sanskrit, often Vedic in form. Most higher forms of Indian vernacular languages like Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and Hindi, often called 'shuddha' (pure, higher) are much more heavily Sanskritized. Of modern day Indian languages, while Hindi tends to be, in spoken form, more heavily weighted with Arabic and Persian influence, Bengali and Marathi still retain a largely Sanskrit vocabulary base. The two national songs, Jana Gana Mana (anthem) and Vande Mataram are both higher forms of Bengali, so Sanskritized as to be archaic in modern usages. Malayalam, which is spoken in Kerala, combines a great deal of Sanskrit vocabulary with Tamil (Dravidian) grammatical structure. But as a medium of spiritual instruction for Hindus in India, Sanskrit is still prized and widespread.

Sanskrit words are found in many other present-day non-Indian languages. For instance, the Thai language contains many loan words from Sanskrit, and ranged as far as the Philippines, e.g., Tagalog 'gur˛' from 'guru', or 'teacher', with the Hindu seafarers who traded there.

Interactions with Sino-Tibetan languages

Sanskrit and related languages have also influenced their Sino-Tibetan-speaking neighbors to the north through the spread of Buddhist texts in translation. Buddhism was spread to China by Mahayanist missionaries mostly through translations of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit and classical Sanskrit texts, and many terms were transliterated directly and added to the Chinese vocabulary. (Although Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is not Sanskrit, properly speaking, its vocabulary is substantially the same, both because of genetic relationship, and because of conscious imitation on the part of composers. Buddhist texts composed in Sanskrit proper were primarily found in philosophical schools like the Madhyamaka.)

See also

Attempts at revival

Of late, there have been attempts to revive the speaking of this ancient tongue among people, so that vast literature available in Sanskrit can be made easily available to everyone. The CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) in India has made Sanskrit a third language in the schools it governs. In such schools, learning Sanskrit is compulsory for grades 5 to 8. An option between Sanskrit and Hindi exists for grades 9 and 10. Many organizations like the Samskrta Bharati are conducting Speak Sanskrit workshops to popularize the language. About four million people are claimed to have acquired the ability to speak Sanskrit. (See link.)

External links

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