Sanskrit is the beautiful
language in which the hymns of the Rig Veda are composed and in which
they have been sung for thousands of years. Western authors usually date the
composition of the oldest of the Vedas to between 1000 and 2000 BCE; Hindu
scholars often consider them older, sometimes for religious reasons. For the
purpose of reconstructing a Proto-Indo-European religion, particular attention is
paid to the Rig Veda, the oldest of the Vedic texts. However the modern form of
the Hindu religion also conserves the ancient deities, myths and rituals that
are common to all the Indo-European-speaking people.
Sanskrit is an extremely well known language both in the east where it is the
sacred language of Hindus and in the west where it is one of the most important
languages that was studied by early linguists as one of the Indo-European Languages. It was the recognition that there was a consistent pattern
in the relationship of sounds between Greek, Latin, Sanskrit and for that matter
the Germanic languages that led to an understanding of the theory of historical
phonology and which turned linguistics into a science.
Unfortunately it is not easy to find good information about Sanskrit in
available sources. There
is a Sanskrit grammar class on video. The video is of a talk
related to Sanskrit grammar by Sadhvi Vrnda Chaitanya, and you can hear this
beautiful language spoken here.
Language and Geography
The Hindu religion is largely
limited to Indians whether living in India or in other areas. However, not all
Hindus (in the religious sense) speak an Indo-European language. Many Indians in
southern India speak languages in the Dravidian language family; some speak
still other languages. The form of Hinduism is fairly consistent throughout the
country, though naturally there are variations in the details over such a wide
area, as would be expected for a religion which has been in existence for such a
The history of Hinduism in India is not known
from written records, and Indians generally have not been particularly
interested in the sort of historical analysis which appeals to westerners. The
earliest civilization in India is the Indus Valley Civilization (4000 - 2200
BCE) which had writing but the signs have not yet been interpreted. Many people
expect that this will prove to be a form of Sanskrit but it is not possible to
know for certain until the signs are interpreted. Another theory common among
western scholars for many years is that there was an invasion of
Indo-European-speaking people into India from what is now Afghanistan, loosely
assigned to 2000 BCE. However this theory has no evidence to support it and the
archaeological digs in India do not show a “cline” or abrupt change in culture
which would signify an invasion or other cultural intrusion near that time.
There are a few brief references to some words in the Indic languages which
are known from early sources in the context of other languages in Mesopotamia.
Mitanni is a language recorded very early (1700-1500 BCE)
but known from only a few words in the context of the Hurrian language. Hurrian
is not an Indo-European language, and the Mitanni vocabulary is connected to
horses and horse racing. This is thought to be the special vocabulary of a group
of horse handlers who had a respected though restricted position in Hurrian
society. The Mitanni vocabulary also includes the names of some recognizably
Indic Gods, Mitra, Varuna, Indra and the Nasatya.
Kassite is another language recorded very early in the
context of various Mesopotamian languages. The extremely small vocabulary
consists mostly of the names of Kassite Gods which are incorporated in the names of the Kassite kings. These
theophoric king names are very typical of Indo-European names. There is also a
special vocabulary for the coat colors of horses, namely bay, chestnut, and
Hindu Language and Religion
Many modern languages spoken
in India and surrounding countries are grouped with Sanskrit as one of the
branches of the Indo-European language family. Some people have argued that the
Hindu religion is modern and includes elements from other cultures, which of
course is true. But its essential form parallels exactly that of the Roman and
Greek Pagan religions as they are known from classical texts and from
archaeological finds. Clearly the Hindu religion conserves a very old, though
unwritten tradition which it shares with the other Indo-European languages.
Of particular interest to students of the
Indo-European religious tradition is Mahayana Buddhism, because it retains the
Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu religion. The texts of Mahayana Buddhism are
found in Indian languages such as Sanskrit and especially Pali, and in some
other Indo-European languages such as Sogdian and Tocharian. Buddhist texts were
translated or composed in Asian languages as well, such as Chinese, Korean and
Japanese and in these countries some Hindu Gods are worshiped or at least
acknowledged in a Buddhist context.
Following Persian intrusions from the time of Cyrus the Great (c. 550 BCE),
and later brief intrusions by Alexander the Great (326 BCE), the main cultural
center of northwestern India was in the Indus river valley and consisted of an
amalgamation of Greek, Parthian and other cultures. There are a few early
references to India in early Greek sources. Strabo’s Geography written
between 9 BCE and 19 CE, gives a brief description of the Indian caste system,
which at the time had at least seven castes. However this may reflect a
development which is associated with the Sassanian dynasty and with social
standards that developed in Persia in the centuries preceding and which can also
be detected in contemporary descriptions of Zoroastrianism. By 200 CE, Indian
religion and cultural standards are clearly reflected in the coinage of the
time, which is identifiable and datable and has the names of the Gods written on
some of the coins. From this time the history of northern India is documented
and despite various hostile invasions, Indian culture continues to reflect the
Hindu religion, among others.
Primary Sources for Indian religion
India retains its
beautiful religious texts in great abundance. Among them are:
Vedas: Rig Veda (hymns), Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva
Upanishads, a philosophical text of great simplicity
Puranas, a series of detailed instructions for
various religious activities
Devi Mahatmayma, a detailed
description of the proper rites for the Goddess Devi.
Mahabharata, an epic, it tells the story of a great battle
along with the various events (legendary, mythological, and as some may think,
real) that led up to it.
Ramayana, an epic of southern
India, this tells of the theft of the Goddess Sita and the battle of
supernatural beings to get her back.
These are just a few of the sacred
texts of India, there are many more.
The Rig Veda is on the Internet at Sacred Texts, in both
Sanskrit and a rather funky English translation by Ralph T. H. Griffith, 1896.
This site has many other Texts in Sanskrit also. A few of the hymns of the Rig Veda were
translated into English in the Sacred Books of the East series edited
by Max Muller. Many libraries have a set of these books which also include many
Buddhist and Zoroastrian texts.
I am not aware of many good books on
Hindu religion. A few have a scholarly approach but seem mostly to pursue some
agenda which seems foreign to Indian religion. One author that I like is David
R. Kinsley, who wrote Hindu Goddesses, University of California Press,
The religion as known from Sanskrit and later
Hindu sources has a common ancestry with the Proto-Indo-European religion. The ancient religions in
all of these languages share a common set of Gods, a set of myths, and a common
set of rituals which are general throughout the Indo-European speaking regions.
Most of the Vedic Gods have counterparts among
the other Indo-European pantheons. A few of the Vedic deities are a little
unexpected because of the effect of the Pandemonium, the event in which the
Zoroastrians demonized the Gods of the Rig Vedic priests (especially the Devas),
and the Rig Vedic priests demonized the Gods of the Zoroastrians, mainly the
Ashuras. A notable difference is the God Agni who appears as the God of the
hearth fire in the Rig Veda, whereas in many other Indo-European languages, the
God of the hearth fire is worshiped under a form of the name *Aeusos. In modern Hindu religion there is a tendency to substitute Ganesha for
Agni, at least for some aspects of religion, to give a small illustration of
both the changes and the similarities between the older and newer traditions.
There are a number of sources of information about
the myths of the Sanskrit speakers and they strongly confirm the basic unity of
Indo-European religion. The oldest source is the Rig Vedas which have many
references to common myths, though the references are cryptic. The stories
themselves are told more broadly in later texts such as the Mahabharata and in
story collections. Eventually a learned literature developed in India which
gives explanations of the names of the Gods and Goddesses, some fanciful, but
many confirming the common ancestry of the myths. An example of a myth that is
common to all the Indo-European languages is the Creation Myth that tells how the first being *Yama was killed by the first
person *Manu and from his body the world was made. This has been much discussed
because it is one of the more obvious of the common myths, but there are others.
As with the Greeks and with our modern use of ancient myths as a frame on
which to build operas (often with a political message), a formal art form of
drama developed in India, and Indian plays are also based on ancient myths.
As mentioned before there is an extensive
literature and an ongoing tradition of rituals, both formal and informal which
persist in India. To give only one example to illustrate, the Agnicayana is a
very elaborate fire ritual described in detail in the Vedas, which tells how to
build a special set of hearths, according to instructions that take several
months to follow. This ritual was performed in 1972 and videotaped and that
videotape is still available. Aside from this very formal ritual, the festivals,
songs of praise and traditional dances and the correct ways to worship Gods can
be seen on DVD’s, since India is a deeply religious country with a very
widespread use of digital technology. It is easy enough to google the name of
any Goddess + puja to find some of the standard ways of worshiping any Goddess.
For more information on learning
Sanskrit, here is a link to Speaksanskrit.org.
• Gamkrelidze, Thomas V., and Ivanov, Vjaceslav V., Indo-European and the
Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and
a Proto-Culture (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol.
Set), with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title
Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin &
NY, 1995 (abbrev. G&I).
• Mallory, J. P. and Adams, Douglas Q.,
Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European
World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
• Mallory, J. P. and
Adams, Douglas Q., Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture,
FitzroyDearborn, London, 1997.
• Puhvel, Jaan, Analecta
Indoeuropaea, (a collection of articles), publ. by Innsbrucker Beitrage zur
Sprachwissenschaft, Innsbruck, 1981.
• Müller, (Friedrich) Max,
Comparative Mythology, Arno Press, NY, 1909, 1977.
This article was published at pierce.yolasite.com/sanskrit but Yola was hacked in Nov. 2011 and they could never salvage their data, so it has been migrated here and updated.
© 2007, last updated 2/9/2012, at piereligion.org/sanskrit.html