Sanskrit Language and Indian Religion

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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.

Durga, one of the Great Goddesses of the Indo-Europeans 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 long time.

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 roan.

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:
the Vedas: Rig Veda (hymns), Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda
Upanishads, a philosophical text of great simplicity and insight
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.

Secondary Sources
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, Berkeley, 1988.

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.

Vedic Gods
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. [fuggle26]

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.

General References
For more information on learning Sanskrit, here is a link to

• 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.

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