Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Beauty of Sanskrit

Sanskrit is a beautiful language. It is mellifluous, endlessly plastic, elegant in its complexity, and has created possibly the finest collection of narrative poetry in the world. An explanation of the language from two and a half thousand years ago is a work of such analytical and aesthetic wonder that both the erstwhile mathematician and the amateur linguist in me can still hardly believe it is real.

Sir William Jones, a man of great culture and intelligence, famously observed, over two hundred years ago, that Sanskrit is ‘more copious than the Latin, more perfect than the Greek, [and] more exquisitely refined than either.’

Even the script has a specific kind of beauty. Devanagari is a Bhramanic script, approximately alphabetic (of a type known as an abugida, where vowels are indicated by secondary marks rather than the more complete letters than express consonants) and rigorously phonetic, to the point that letters are written differently when the phonetic environment causes the sound that is actually spoken to change. And it isn’t done to make things easier, but to increase the perceived perfection of the form.

The Clay Sanskrit Library is a series of annotated, bilingual Sanskrit-English texts in pocket hardback on the model of the Loeb Greek Library.  A terrific idea and, like the Loeb, very good to have on your shelves and very useful to the learner (which I still am and probably always will be). However…

They decided to publish the English texts in Roman transliteration rather than in Devanagari. They explain their reasons for this: the script originally used to write down the earlier texts is unknown, but it certainly wasn’t Devanagari which was only created centuries later; the Roman is easier to print, and easier to read for those who don’t want to learn a new script; but… Devanagari has beauty. Even if you don’t understand it is has plastic beauty, and when you read it and respond to the way it conveys sound and meaning, there is a beauty in the elegant, coherent way in which it performs its function.

1 स ताां ऩुष्करयण ां गत्वा ऩद्मॊत्ऩरझषाकुराभ याभः सौमभत्रिसहहतॊ ववरराऩाकुरेन्द्रिमः
2 तस्म दृष््वैव ताां हषााद इन्द्रिमाणण चकन्द्पऩये स काभवशभ आऩरनः सौमभत्रिभ इदभ अब्रव त 3 सौमभिे ऩश्म ऩपऩामाः काननां शुबदशानभ मि याजन्द्रत शैराबा दरुभाः समशखया इव
4 भाां तु शॊकामबसांतप्तभ आधमः ऩ डमन्द्रत वै बयतस्म च दुःखेन वैदेह्मा हयणेन च

Compare it to the Roman form, which communicates effectively but is irredeemably ugly.

 1 sa tāṃ puṣkariṇīṃ gatvā padmotpalajhaṣākulām rāmaḥ saumitrisahito vilalāpākulendriyaḥ
2 tasya dṛṣṭvaiva tāṃ harṣād indriyāṇi cakampire sa kāmavaśam āpannaḥ saumitrim idam abravīt
3 saumitre paśya pampāyāḥ kānanaṃ śubhadarśanam yatra rājanti śailābhā drumāḥ saśikharā iva
4 māṃ tu śokābhisaṃtaptam ādhayaḥ pīḍayanti vai bharatasya ca duḥkhena vaidehyā haraṇena ca

Many people learn the Greek script without learning the language, for the pleasure of feeling the sound son their tongue as they read them. I recommend a similar exercise for Sanskrit.


Vincent said...

I do know what you mean about learning the Greek script for the pleasure of the sounds; and also the pleasure of writing the letters. When I was 11 my teacher gave me personal tuition in ancient Greek, but ill-health forced him to leave before I reached very far. So got as far as the sensuous aspects of the language, with only minimal grammar and vocabulary.

But I don't want to learn any other language now. I'm still learning English!

CIngram said...

I was taught Greek by the professor at the University here (I'd dabbled by myself but only got so far). He had taught Mrs Hickory years ago and was 'delighted to help someone who actually wanted to learn and wasn't completely thick'. It was a very enjoyable experience. Sadly he died a couple of years later.