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Re: Sanskrit and Tamil

From: Sridhar Srinivasan (
Date: Thu Jan 01 1998 - 11:00:46 PST

Sri Dileepan raises rather relevant points for further pursuit with 
regard to sanskrit and tamil.  Samskrit (literally the language 
of the evolved or the refined) has been dated to precede tamil by 
both European and Indian linguists.  The Cambridge encyclopedia of 
language places sanskrit as the oldest language of indian 
sub-continent; in fact, many westarn scholars clearly placed sanskrit 
as the parent of european languages (such as greek, latin, persian 
and germanic) till the eighteenth century.   While further effort by 
german researchers (primarily german philologist franz bopp) led to 
the theory of a proto-indo-european language as the parent of all 
languages belonging to the indo-european family. (Some Indian 
philologists opine that this came about more out of a need to promote 
christian/european roots as the bases for culture and civilization).

While there is significant difference of opinion as to the period of 
origins of sanskrit (Tilak for one indicates vedic sanskrit belonging 
to the period 6000 BC as opposed to 3000 BC for Aryan/British 
enthusiasts such as Max Mueller - who wrote his currently 
'authoritative' translation of the rig veda - and never visited India 
even once), there is little argument amongst philologists that 
sanskrit predates every other Indian language, including Tamil.

The dravidian family of languages (of about 20) of which Tamil has 
the oldest written records (dated to 3rd century BC) are believed to 
have come from a proto-dravidian parent, in some cases, estimated to 
be as old as 4000 BC.  The term dravidian itself comes from the 
sanskrit word dravida (a general name for five southern tribes - 
drAviDa, karNaTa, gurjara, maharAshTra and thailang).

Anyone who has had an opportunity to study the sanskrit language and 
its vyAkaraNa can only marvel at the structural sophistication and 
the inherent beauty of the language.  Further, it also becomes 
evident that tamil borrows liberally from sanskrit (as do most other 
indian languages, and some european too).  While there are some 
instances of some tamil words used in sanskrit (Prof. George Hart at 
Berkeley - an ardent admirer of the Tamil language has a list but I 
am unable to recall any now with certainty - varNam, I think is one), 
it seems to be often a stretch to make that reverse link.

Coming to the issues that sri Dileepan raises:

>During one of the private discussions it was mentioned that Sanskrit
>is the mother of all languages (at least the Indian languages). 

Quite true by all accounts, and generally accepted (but for a few 
die-hards from DMK probably -:)

>Further, during the discussion that 
>ensued, it was mentioned that Tamil borrowed lot of words from 
>Sanskrit; that Sanskrit is older than Tamil; that Sanskrit's 
>grammatical structure is superior, etc.  Some "facts" offered as 
>corroborating evidence include, Sanskrit is the language of Vedas 
>and Vedas existed when only the Lord was present; Nithyasoories 
>praise the lord in Vaikuntam in Sanskrit; Tamil lacks letters such 
>as kha, gha, bha, etc; Sanskrit is older than Tamil and thus it is 
>obvious that Tamil borrowed from Sanskrit; etc.

Ours is the ubhaya vedanta sampradayam.  Both the 
sanskrit and tamil sides are equally important, in that they are two 
complimentary aspects of our philosophy, and our siddhantham hence 
represents a symbiosis, rather than a dichotomy.  The beauty of the 
divya prabandhams (and the incredibly moving poetry that is 
thiruvaaymozhi ) can hardly be matched by anything else (in sanskrit 
or tamil).  Hence, I think, it is irrelevant to argue in terms 
inferior and superior.

An important point that cannot be overlooked is that to learn and 
understand our siddhantham, praveenyam in both sanskrit and tamil is 
essential.  All our poorvacharyals (from emberumaanaar to maNavALa 
maamunigaL) had consummate mastery of both languages.  Which brings 
to fore the next critical issue: Tamil, by itself, is clearly 
inadequate to represent the finer nuances of sounds and expressions 
replete in sanskrit.  Similarly, there are situations 
with respect to tamil (such as zha) that may not have 
representation in sanskrit (though this is not a major 
source of problems).  Unfortunately, many Sri Vaishnavas from Tamil 
Nadu with apparently little exposure to sanskrit, do have a hard time 
in trying to represent sanskrit sounds and words.  There have been 
several instances of significant errors (visavis sanskrit words used 
by those trying to interpret it in Tamil) by our learned prapannas 
even on this forum with respect to properly representing  sanskrit 
words and slokas.  This, in any case, comes about from our 
willingness to circumvent the oral tradition and learning directly 
from an Acharya - which is clearly a fool proof method of learning 
sthotram, prabhandham and vyakhyAnams (It is evident in many 
instances that what is written in the Bhakti forum stems from self 
study through books).  An essential, and immutable requirement, for 
learning in our siddhantham, is through an Acharya, and any 
digressions from the stated path can clearly lead to incorrect 
interpretations and representations.  

While the enthusiasm of many of 
our youngsters and prapannas to write about various important works 
and philosophical aspects of our siddhantham  is commendable, it is 
even more critical to only do so, with ideas and concepts that we 
know to be accurate, and true to those engendered by our original 
masters, and with the awareness that any dilution stemming from the 
error of our ways may often be regressive.  I am not in any way 
suggesting that we should not strive to learn from books; rather, I 
am suggesting that it is important to learn sanskrit (especially if 
one comes from a background in Tamil) to avoid rather significant 
errors with respect to sounds and pronounciations.

Sri Bhuvarahachariyar Swamy is one person that I think can address 
this issue adequately, for he is gifted with consummate fluency in 
both Sanskrit and Tamil.  I wonder if it would be possible for Sri 
Kalale to ask him to share his thoughts on this important issue.

Azhvaar Emberumaanaar Jeeyar ThiruvadigaLe SharaNam