Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Language and Grammar in the Vedic Age

Birch bark manuscript from Kashmir of 

Panini’s Rupavatara

Panini (about 800 BCE) was the last of the Vedic grammarians. Several grammarians came centuries before him. In his works, Panini has admitted his debt to Yaska (the author of Nirukta, dated to the 9th century BCE), Paraskara, Sakatayana, and Vyasa. Old Sanskrit was probably fully systematized at the time of the composition of the early verses of the Rig Veda (before 1500 BCE).

The Rig Veda contains verses which indicate that the Vedic sages were aware of the art of writing, and the rules of grammar and vocabulary. Here’s a translation of the Rig Veda’s verses 1 to 4, from Hymn 71 of Mandala 10 (T.H. Griffith’s translation): 

1. WHEN-men, Brhaspati, giving names to objects, sent out Vak's first and earliest utterances,
     All that was excellent and spotless, treasured within them, was disclosed through their affection.
2. Where, like men cleansing corn-flour in a cribble, the wise in spirit have created language,
     Friends see and recognize the marks of friendship: their speech retains the blessed sign imprinted.
3. With sacrifice the trace of Vak they followed, and found her harbouring within the Rsis.
     They brought her, dealt her forth in many places: seven singers make her tones resound in concert.
4. One man hath ne'er seen Vak, and yet he seeth: one man hath hearing but hath never heard her.
     But to another hath she shown her beauty as a fond well-dressed woman to her husband.

In the above verses, the sages are insisting on distinct and correct articulation of letters and words. They believed that if the words in a hymn were not articulated correctly, the Gods would be displeased. Language and speech were of such importance that they were regarded as a Goddess. In Mandala 10, Hymn 125 of the Rig Veda, the Goddess Speech describes herself and the role that she played among the Gods and humans. Here’s a translation of verses 5 and 6:

5. I, verily, myself announce and utter the word that Gods and men alike shall welcome.
     I make the man I love exceeding mighty, make him a sage, a Rsi, and a Brahman.
6. I bend the bow for Rudra that his arrow may strike and slay the hater of devotion.
     I rouse and order battle for the people, and I have penetrated Earth and Heaven.

Another point worth noting is that the Vedas and the Upanishads contain references to very large numbers. Without possessing the knowledge of writing, the Vedic sages could not have made such complex calculations. 

Study of language and grammar was an essential component of the six limbs of Vedanga—Shiksha, Chandas, Vyakarana, Nirukta, Kalpa, and Jyotisha. The Upanishads describe the six limbs as an essential part of the Brahmanas section of the Vedic texts. It is justified to assume that these subjects were in existence throughout the Vedic period (before 1000 BCE), and were an essential part of the Vedic education system. 

Shiksha was devoted to the training of articulation; Chandas to the study of poetic meters; Vyakarana to grammar and linguistic analysis; Nirukta to etymology or the explanation of words; kalpa to the training in rites and rituals (geometry or sulva sastra was part of it); Jyotisha to the study of the movement of planets, stars, and other heavenly bodies.

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