Sanskrit & Sanskruti Part III – How the Language contributed to Culture


Continuing my series on Sanskrit, is Part III.  Here, I will evaluate how the language impacted global culture, especially in Asia, and then focus on our own Civilizational culture, specifically, one of its greatest gems.

The term “Sanskrit” was not thought of as a specific language set apart from other languages, but rather as a particularly refined or perfected manner of speaking, later standardised by Panini into the language we know today. Knowledge of Sanskrit was educational attainment in ancient India. Sanskrit, as the learned language of Ancient India, symbiotically presided alongside the common Prakrits, frequently referred to as Middle Indic dialects. However, linguistic changes led to an eventual reduction of mutual intelligibility.

Many Sanskrit dramas also indicate that the language coexisted with Prakrits, spoken by multilingual speakers with a more extensive education. Sanskrit speakers were almost always multilingual. [1] Nevertheless, one of the oft-cited complaints against Sanskrit is that it is a dead, brahminical, parochial language

That Sanskrit is a dead, brahminical, parochial language as suggested by some is refuted thus. [2]

Sanskrit: Alive, Popular, and Global

A former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, currently chairman of the National Security Advisory Board and RIS, as well as a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, elaborates on how Sanskrit spread to other Asiatic nations and was used extensively in their chants, mostly translated or adopted in local dialects. He is a man, who traveled extensively, the world over.

File:Buddhist sects.png
Buddhism spread Sanskrit in East Asia

In China:

But the reason why my visit to the temple has remained a fresh memory is because of an interesting encounter I had with the monks at the temple. They were chanting from manuscripts written in Chinese characters…. While listening more closely, I soon realised that what the monks were chanting was some distorted form of Sanskrit ……..The monks then told me that the temple and the monastery attached to it still had large number of manuscripts in Sanskrit that the Indian monk had brought to China.

In Japan:

…in Japan and visited the ancient monastery town of Koyasan, outside the old capital of Kyoto. ……..This phonetic alphabet is known as Hiragana …. Kobo Daishi is also credited with bringing a very large number of Buddhist scriptures, but also Sanskrit texts on other more secular subjects, such as science and medicine, to Japan.

In Tibet:

“Another repository of India’s intellectual and religious wealth is in Tibetan manuscripts preserved over centuries in Tibetan monasteries across the Himalayas.”

He goes on to say:

Several of the works of Charaka and Susruta (in medicine and surgery), and Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta (in astronomy and mathematics) were translated into Arabic by well-known Central Asian scholars like Khwarazmi, Ibn Sina and al-Beruni. These were later transmitted to Europe, and became part and parcel of the European renaissance from the 12th century onwards. The Indian numeral system, the concept of zero and the decimal, the calculation of pi and the notion of negative numbers and integers were part of India’s intellectual legacy, which spread far beyond its borders including to Europe as well as China

He writes on recent controversy of introducing Sanskrit at academic level:

There has been some recent controversy over the revision of textbooks in schools that seem to blur the distinction between legend and verifiable facts. Such controversy should not detract from the fact that India has much to be proud of in terms of its contributions to the development of science and mathematics in particular. Susruta described plastic surgery techniques in detail and the principles he enunciated still form the basis of modern plastic surgery.” [3]

Between the above, the long standing connections between Sanskrit and European languages, not to mention the contributions to languages such as Telugu and Kannada, we have enough to state that Sanskrit is the Mother Of All Languages, adopted world over, but neglected by our own political system.

The contribution of Sanskrit in Traditional Knowledge Systems is no less than what the Westerners feel proud of with respect to Latin and Greek. This was illustrated with examples by Sri Rajiv Malhotra, renowned author, in his various articles, including ” Traditional Knowledge Systems“, which debunks the theory that the word “traditional” connotes primitive. Instead, he says, traditional is a continuation of the cultural value systems continued with modern knowledge, thus making it as a change in continuity. This is the best method adapted by civilizations over a period, the world over. He enunciates that India with its rich cultural heritage developed science and technology that even Westerners could not do. Origin of these works was from Sanskrit texts.  Of course, quite possibly the most famous is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a Sanskrit work of world renown and an important part of Indic Civilization and Dharmic culture. It’s history is traced here.

We shall deal with this at appropriate time. Now, I will discuss one other such text, one of the cultural jewels of India. A work of literature that would define the arts in the Indosphere: The Natya Shastra.

Natya Shastra & Sanskrit

The Natya Shastra is the most ancient text on stagecraft in the world. Composed by Bharata Muni between 200 BC and 200 CE, scholars who believe that it may have been written by various authors at different times, and may in fact be substantially older.

Some consider the Natya Shastra to be based upon the much older Natya Sutras. Unfortunately the Natya Sutras do not appear to have survived the ravages of time, so their existence in the present time is unconfirmed.

The Natya Shastra is tremendous in its scope. It covers stage-design, music, dance, makeup, and indeed, nearly every aspect of stagecraft. It is critical to the musician as it is the only treatise which provides such detail about the music and instruments of the period. [4]

Both Poetics and Dramatics are covered by it as well. Poetics has been one of the significant contributors to the knowledge base in India besides religion. Indian poetics, how ever, did not receive its deserved acclaim.

There is indeed a need to counter and correct the de-intellectualized mind by arguing for and developing applicational model from Indian Sanskrit literary theories to a wide variety
of English texts. Despite favourable gesture of the U.G.C. to promote Sanskrit literary theories within the existing thinking of Indian academy, problems still persist in the mind of the Educated within the existing thinking of Indian academy, problems still persist in the mind of ‘the Educated Indian’ who out rightly rejects the Indian literary theories [due to insecurity and ignorance]. The scholars of English, in the East and in the West as well, teach the translated western classics Homer (Iliad), Virgil (Aeneid) etc.” [5]

Sanskrit theories are product of the sadhana of ancient Indian Acharyas from Acharya Bharata to Panditraj Jagannath. They deal with each part of the literary text systematically. If modern Indic models are developed from Sanskrit theories and are applied in the right perspective, they can facilitate the development of a genuine Indian literary criticism.

So said, Bharata can be said to be one of the first exponents of the Natya Sutras, derived from Sanskrit texts and Vedas, Upanishads, especially Sama Veda.He is said to have inherited the Sutras from Narada, Tambura and Nandi etc., the original mythological exponents of the Natya Shastra. He gives all other arts subordinate position to the dramatic art because there is no such lore, experience, spiritual
discipline, science, art, craft and object as is not employed on some occasion or the other in dramatic presentation. Bharata encounters all issues related to dramaturgy in his treatise, Natya Shastra.

Natya Shastra is, rightly, named the Fifth Veda for it teaches the dramatics that form the basis for all abinayas. These are classified as the Nava Rasas. Nava Rasas are the natural feelings of a normal human being when encountered with a situation where he displays one of the nine emotions. The other reason is it instructs the aesthete or viewer with the purpose of life attaining the four goals, Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.

Bharata Muni enunciated the eight Rasas in the Natyasastra, an ancient work of dramatic theory, written during the period between 200 BC and 200 AD. Such is the spectrum and sophistication, that each rasa, according to Natyasastra, has a presiding deity and a specific colour. There are 4 pairs of rasas. For instance, Hāsya arises out of Sringara. The Aura of a frightened person is black, and the aura of an angry person is red. Bharata Muni established the following.

Śṛngāram (शृङ्गारं) Love, Attractiveness. Presiding deity: Vishnu. Colour:green.
Hāsyam (हास्यं) Laughter, Mirth, Comedy. Presiding deity: Ganesha. Colour: white.
Raudram (रौद्रं) Fury. Presiding deity: Rudra. Colour: red.
Kāruṇyam (कारुण्यं) Compassion, Tragedy. Presiding deity: Yama. Colour:dove coloured.
Bībhatsam (बीभत्सं) Disgust, Aversion. Presiding deity: Shiva. Colour: blue
Bhayānakam (भयानकं) Horror, Terror. Presiding deity: Kala. Colour: black
Vīram (वीरं) Heroic mood. Presiding deity: Indra. Colour:wheatish brown
Adbhutam (अद्भुतं) Wonder, Amazement. Presiding deity: Brahma. Colour: yellow

As the tradition of alankara-shastra, rhetoric or poetics, developed, a ninth rasa was endorsed, amid debate, by certain scholars; this rasa was only widely accepted after an extended philosophical and aesthetic theorization by Abhinavagupta. Subsequently, the nine rasas were accepted by the majority of the Alankarikas, rhetoricians, and the expression Navarasa (the nine rasas), would come into vogue:

Shantam Peace or tranquility. deity: Vishnu. Colour: white

In addition to the nine Rasas, two more appeared later (esp. in literature): Additional rasas:

Vātsalya (वात्सल्य) Parental Love
Bhakti (भक्ति) Spiritual Devotion

The Natyasastra identifies eight rasas with eight corresponding Bhava (mood):

Rati (Love)
Hasya (Mirth)
Soka (Sorrow)
Krodha (Anger)
Utsaha (Energy)
Bhaya (Terror)
Jugupsa (Disgust)
Vismaya (Astonishment)

But, these rasas or aesthetics as evolved in the modern, colonized Indian context unfortunately defer both in the form and philosophy from the Western context. The word “aesthetics” originally referred to the material or the senses. This indicates the beauty of material objects. In the proper and original Indian context, however, they represent the immaterial, the Divine, the unseen fine arts or emotions of humans expressed on stage by artists.

For the aesthete, who is not versed with the Vedas and Puranas, Natya Shastra opens up immense opportunity to enjoy the beauty of of the Immaterial or the Unknown. It also affords dramatists and artists to show their skills, as originally, inscribed in the ancient texts in Sanskrit.  [6]

When and why Natya Shastra and Histrionics were first espoused?

During the Treta Yuga, when Rajas (the second of the three Satva, Rajo, Tamo Gunas) was dominating human emotions, the Devatas prayed the Creator to invent an artificial form of entertainment to divert the attention of the people who, led by Rajo Guna, were led away from their path of duty. So this art was created to teach the people the nine aesthetics which they should show situationally and thus control their only emotion led by Rajas.

Natya Shastra, the art of drama and dance, consists of 6,000 sutras written in Sanskrit. Though the exact date is disputable, Kapila Vatsayan, argues in favor of Bharata as the original exponent of these Sutras. According to here, it underwent change with times but the originality was secured.

Music forms the soul of Natya or Histrionics and we shall extensively deal with it in the next chapter.

The purpose of this extensive coverage of the classical arts and Sanskrit is to prove that even though, scholars oppose the language as Brahminical, it is ingrained in our day to day life and the classically artistic. Even traditional folk arts derive the Nava Rasas or aesthetics from these ancient texts though they are not said to be so. It is high time we realize our tradition, not to colour it with caste or creed or religion but learn it as as our culture…a unified Indian Culture, secure in its unity, resplendent in its diversity.



To Be Continued

Next Part: I will discuss the importance of sanskrit to folk art and music, among other aspects important to regional languages.


  1. Deshpande, Madhav (2011), “Efforts to Vernacularize Sanskrit: Degree of Success and Failure”, in Joshua Fishman, Ofelia Garcia, Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity: The Success-Failure Continuum in Language and Ethnic Identity Efforts 2, Oxford University Press, p. 218
  6. Ghosh, Manomohan (2002). Natyasastra. ISBN 81-7080-076-5.

About Chandra Mohanrao

An ex-banker, saw highs and lows in life, Presently spending time with children and grandchildren extensively traveling across India and Globe. Writing is a passion. Never did it for money, nor do I wish to do it. One critique and one word of appreciation is all what I want.

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