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The dizzying number of languages spoken in India is matched only by the number of gods and goddesses who are worshipped. There are thought to be around 400 main languages and dialects of which 22, in addition to English, are officially spoken in Parliament. These have been classified into four main languages families: Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic (Munda), and Sino-Tibetan. More than 70% of India's population speak languages that are part of the Indo-Aryan family, such as Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, and Marathi, predominantly in north and central India. A fifth of the people speak Dravidian languages, primarily Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, and Telugu, which dominate southern India.
Human languages evolved along with rites and rituals, and India is thought to have preserved examples of very early pre-language sounds that have been handed down in magical chants called mantras. Sanskrit, the language of classical Indian literature and scripture, is an early ancestor of the Indo-Aryan languages, which are a branch of the larger Indo-European language family. Sanskrit's link to the Indo-European family of languages was initially theorized by a British scholar, William Jones, who founded the Asiatic Society in the 18th century. Of the Dravidian languages, which many scholars believe to be indigenous to India, Tamil is the most widely spoken with a rich canon of classical literature akin to Sanskrit going back to around 300 BCE.
A mantra is a sacred utterance, sound, or incantation thought to hold mystical or spiritual power, which is spoken aloud or in meditation. Usually composed in Sanskrit, mantras can vary in length from a single syllable to a word or verse. The verses of the divinely revealed Vedas are considered mantras and for thousands of years, Brahmin priests have studied and memorized these mantras and been the only ones who could utter them. Prior to and even after the development of written language, mantras have been passed down in oral form, among males of the priestly caste, without deviation in wording, intonation, or pronunciation. The reason for such precision relates to the mantras performance in conjunction with Vedic sacrifices, where the slightest variation in utterance could lead to its failure.
Some of the most ancient mantras have no interpretable meaning, and analysis of recordings of the mantras performed for an ancient Vedic ritual to Agni, the god of fire, by a Brahmin sect in the Indian state of Kerala, has led to speculation that they may even pre-date human speech because the patterns of sounds that are uttered have no human correlation nor any analogy in human sciences.
An official language of India belonging to the Dravidian family, Tamil is not related to the Indo-Aryan family of languages. Tamil, spoken by more than 60 million people, is the official language of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and an official language of Sri Lanka. Malaysia, Singapore, and certain African nations that have sizeable Tamil-speaking populations. One of Ashoka the Great's edicts identifies his southern neighbors as the Cholas and Pandyas, both Tamil-speaking peoples.
Tamil literature is over 2,000 years old, and Tamil poetry and grammar reveal much about southern India around the time of Christ. Tamil poetry recited by both men and women at marathon arts festivals, called sangam, describes a caste society and extensive foreign trade with the Roman Empire that extended into southern India from Egypt, which had come under Roman rule in 30 BCE. Dialects within Tamil are numerous, and the language is characterized by a sharp division between a literary or classical style and a colloquial variant.
An ancient Indo-European language, Sanskrit is widely believed to have been introduced to the Indian subcontinent by outsiders who called themselves "Aryans" (or noble ones) and who progressively migrated to the Indian subcontinent from the northwest starting around 2000 BCE. Sanskrit's first written record can be found in the Rig-Veda (c. 1500 BCE). It is divided into two general categories, the more ancient Vedic Sanskrit (approximately 1500–200 BCE) and Classical Sanskrit (approximately 500 BCE–1000 CE).
The writing of the great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (c. 400 BCE) is thought to have taken place between 400 BCE and 100 BCE. Between 200 CE and 1000 CE Sanskrit developed into an international scholarly and liturgical language across south Asia, rather like Latin in the medieval West.
In the 18th century, Sir William Jones, a judge and language scholar, theorized that Sanskrit was linked to Greek and Latin through a common original language. His work, along with that of others interested in Asian history and culture, advanced philology and European knowledge and awareness of India.
Many of the languages spoken in India today are descended from Sanskrit, including Sindhi, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, Hindi, and Urdu. Used primarily for religious and ceremonial purposes in modern India, Sanskrit is one of the country's 23 official languages (which includes English).
Sir William Jones
In 1784, Sir William Jones, a British judge in Calcutta (now called Kolkata), founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal. A scholar of multiple languages, including Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit, Jones noticed a link between Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. While others in history had noted that words describing the same thing were often similar in these languages, Jones was the first to suggest that all three might have come from a common ancestor. Jones also concluded that Sanskrit was not indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, but had been brought there, which led to the idea of a common ancestral Indo-Aryan or Indo-European language.
Jones and others who studied Indian culture—compiling records, translating texts, and collecting artifacts—were called Orientalists, a term referring to European scholars interested in Asian history and culture. Their efforts increased awareness of Asian language and literature in Europe and encouraged developments in Asian history, culture, philology and linguistics. Some modern scholars such as Edward Said in his influential book Orientalism, have been severely critical of the work of Jones and his contemporaries, and their successors, arguing that essentially they were purveying and upholding colonial systems of knowledge whose aim was to dominate non-European cultures. But Said's thesis itself has many critics and among cultural historians in today's India, scholars like Jones, Warren Hastings and James Prinsep are distinguished from the likes of James Mill and Thomas Macaulay who belittled Indian civilization and were racially prejudiced.
As the god of fire, Agni is central to Vedic mythology, representing renewed life and purification through the sun, hearth fire, and funeral fire. A messenger god who mediates between humans and deities through the sacrificial fire, Agni is the first word in the first hymn of the Rig Veda, and approximately 200 of its 1,028 hymns celebrate him. Only Indra, his twin brother, is mentioned more often in the Rig Veda. The god of fire, created from the rubbing together of two sticks, is said to have consumed his parents when he was born.
Agni is usually depicted as red in color with multiple faces, seven tongues, flame-like hair, and three legs that suggest the sacrificial, nuptial, and funeral fires. The sacred fire is central in Hindu wedding ceremonies, in which the bride and groom circle the fire four (or seven times) and then take seven steps around it, acts that sanctify the union. The nambudiri sect of Brahmins, in Kerala, still perform a complex 12-day ritual to Agni that includes oral recitations of Vedic mantras, blood sacrifices, the drinking of soma (a sacred liquid pressed from a mountain plant), and in an act of purification, the burning of two altars constructed for the ceremony.
Indra, chief of the gods and god of war and storms in Vedic mythology, is the most celebrated deity in the Rig Veda. Indra is usually depicted driving a chariot while wielding his powerful weapon, a thunderbolt (vajra). Married to Indrani, the queen of the gods, Indra and his wife live in Svarga (the Good Kingdom, or Heaven) at the top of Mount Meru.
Soma, a sacred liquid pressed from a mountain plant, is Indra's signature drink and makes him invincible in battle. In the Rig Veda, Indra battles Vritra, an asura (demon), embodied in the form of a dragon. In the story, Vritra hoards water from India's seven rivers, causing drought across the land. Indra defeats the dragon and releases water into the world, becoming the god of fertility for accomplishing this feat. Surviving only in isolated local cults in Rajasthan and elsewhere, Indra is no longer an important deity in India today.
- What does the connection between Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages imply? Why was this a significant historical development in the 18th century?
- India's history is full of migrations and invasions from outside the subcontinent. How did the Aryan migration into India impact the region’s culture?
- How has the traditional process of transferring the mantras to the next generation helped maintain the caste system?