Why is the Vedic Sanskrit and Puranic Sanskrit different?

by September 14, 2020

From Shyam P

Answer Podcast

Transcription :

Transcriber: Suresh Gupta

Question: Why is the Vedic Sanskrit and Puranic Sanskrit different?

Answer: The Sanskrit is different because the two bodies of knowledge are addressed to different people.

Vedas primarily consist of karma kanda or jnana kanda where the primary focus is always on the rituals and thus, the literal recitation of the words is more important. That is why, the grammatical form is preserved in a very specific way in the lineage of panditas who recite Vedic scriptures such as Rigveda where the precise pronunciation is very important. In the Puranas, the primary focus is not just on the literal recitation, it is also in the meaning.

Puranas are part of the body of literature called smriti and Vedas are part of shruti. Since the purpose is different, the use of Sanskrit changes. More importantly, we also need to look at the context. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura was asked, why the language of Puranas is more recent. He answered, “A person will change his dress according to the environment, climate and situation, similarly the same essential knowledge is presented according to time, place and circumstance. The focus of the Puranas is on understanding hence, the Sanskrit in them is relatively simpler. When the language is for recitational purpose (in terms of precise recitation) and not so much for comprehension then the ornamental form is considered more important.”

Although the Puranas are simpler and the Sanskrit of the Vedas is slightly different, if we look at Srimad Bhagavatam, its Sanskrit is much more Vedic than Puranic. The verse meter, the verses, the grammar and the structure are actually not of the typical Puranic genre, it is much more sophisticated. The reason is, it is spotless Purana (amala purana), where the conclusion of all the body of Vedic literature (the Vedas and the Puranas) is brought together. If somebody argues that earlier the language was very pure and later it became simpler, we can suggest that the Srimad Bhagavatam is the last of the Vedic literature and its language is so lofty.

The more important point is that if we look at the characters – Indra, Chandra, Surya, Agni, all of them are mentioned in the Vedas as well as the Puranas. We can infer a few things about them based on the generic connotation but more detailed description and stories about them come in the Puranas. If the Vedas and the Puranas are completely disconnected body of knowledge then why are the characters same, it is because, the Vedas are focussing more on karma kanda whereas the Puranas focus more on bhakti. Although some characters may be new, but the main essential characters are the same and overall the cultural context is also the same. Yajna, sacrifices, mantras etc. are mentioned in the Vedas as well as in the Puranas. But the essential point from the perspective of Vaishnav Acharyas is that there is continuity.

If we consider the analogy of Y axis, it contains – negative, zero and positive. Godless material life is like being in the negative axis. When we move forward towards Godly life then it is like moving upwards in the negative Y axis. This Godly material life is karma kanda. Moving upwards we come to point zero which are the Upanishadas. There one understands that he is different from his material form and gets hint of a spiritual form. Further, in the positive axis, there are the Puranas and especially the Bhagavat Purana which talks about spiritual forms, spiritual personalities, spiritual activities etc. and in that way there is continuity in the development of thought.

One important thing we need to understand about language is that, just because a person knows a language, it does not mean that the person understands everything written in that language. Assume there is a book about ancient medicines written in Chinese and there is a Chinese physician who has studied that book and has cured thousands of patients, based on that book. Later, this physician learns English and translates the book into English. On the other hand, there is another person, who is an English scholar linguist. This person learns Chinese and becomes a scholar in both English and Chinese and then translates the Chinese book on ancient medicine into English. Now, which book do you think will be more reliable? Naturally the one by Chinese physician, because he has the experience of curing the patients.

The point is, for study of ancient medicines, a separate kind of training is required. Similarly, mere knowledge of Sanskrit is not enough to understand the import, depth and continuity of Vedic literature. To understand these fully, one has to be like a spiritual doctor and such a person is referred to as Guru. Thus, all the scholars, as far as their linguistic skills or academic diligence are concerned, they can be respected but as far as their capacity to transform themselves or others through spiritual wisdom, it is actually near zero. For them these Vedic scriptures are not transformational books but just nonhistorical or mythological books. Hence, despite their scholarship, they do not see these books as a means for personal transformation. However, the acharyas are like the Chinese physician who have treated the material disease and transformed the lives of thousands of people. One example is the life of Srila Prabhupada who learned and presented this Vedic knowledge in English and transformed people all over the world.

Hence, we have to understand that if our objective in studying scripture is to become a better human being, a better devotee or more self-empowered person, then we should study from those, who are studying the book with the same perspective. That is why, it is accepted that there is a difference between the Vedas and the Puranas, but the reason is that the target audience is different, the subject matter is different, the thrust of the subject matter is different. However, we see that the characters and many of the themes are same. Traditional acharyas who have been teaching this body of knowledge, they see that there is continuity – from material form to formlessness and then to spiritual form. When we understand this continuity, we realise that these are continuous and harmonious bodies of evolving spiritual knowledge.

End of transcription.

About The Author
  • jan@veda
    August 14, 2013 at 9:55 am

    It’s truncated.

    Hari Hari
    ys Jan

  • Keshav
    August 20, 2013 at 9:04 am

    The foundation of India culture is based on the Sanskrit language. There is a misconception about the Sanskrit language that it is only a language for chanting mantras in temples or religious ceremonies.

    However, that is less than 5% of the Sanskrit literature. More than 95% of the Sanskrit literature has nothing to do with religion, and instead it deals with philosophy, law, science, literature, grammar, phonetics, interpretation etc.

    In fact Sanskrit was the language of free thinkers, who questioned everything, and expressed the widest spectrum of thoughts on various subjects. In particular, Sanskrit was the language of our scientists in ancient India.

    The word `Sanskrit’ means “prepared, pure, refined or prefect”. It was not for nothing that it was called the `devavani’ (language of the Gods).

    It has an outstanding place in our culture and indeed was recognized as a language of rare sublimity by the whole world. Sanskrit was the language of our philosophers, our scientists, our mathematicians, our poets and playwrights, our grammarians, our jurists, etc. In grammar, Panini and Patanjali (authors of Ashtadhyayi and the Mahabhashya) have no equals in the world.

    In fact Sanskrit is not just one language, there are several Sanskrits. What we call Sanskrit today is really Panini’s Sanskrit, also known as Classical Sanskrit or Laukik Sanskrit, and this is what is taught in our schools and universities today, and it is in this language that all our scientists wrote their great works.

    However, there were earlier Sanskrits too which were somewhat different from Classical Sanskrit.

    The earliest Sanskrit work is the Rig Veda, which was probably composed around 2000 B.C. However, it was subsequently continued from generation to generation by oral tradition, and had to be memorized orally in the Gurukul by the young boys by repeating the verses chanted by their Guru.

    The Rig Veda is the most sacred of Hindu literature, and it consists of 1028 hymns (richas) to various nature gods e.g. Indra, agni, surya, soma, varuna etc.

    Language changes with passage of time. For instance, it is difficult to understand Shakespeare’s plays today without a good commentary because Shakespeare wrote in the 16th Century A.D. and since then the English language has changed. Many of the words and expressions which were in vogue in Shakespeare’s time are no longer in vogue today.

    Sanskrit language kept changing from around 2000 B.C. when the Rig Veda was composed to about 500 B.C. i.e. for about 1500 years.

    In the 5th Century B.C. the great scholar Panini, who was perhaps the greatest grammarian the world has ever seen, wrote his great book `Ashtadhyayi’ (book of eight chapters). In this book Panini fixed the rules of Sanskrit, and thereafter no further changes in Sanskrit were permitted except slight changes made by two other great grammarians, namely, Katyayana who wrote his book called ‘Vartika’, and Patanjali who wrote his commentary on the Ashtadhyayi called the ‘Maha Bhashya’. Except for the slight changes by these two subsequent grammarians, Sanskrit as it exists today is really Panini’s Sanskrit or Classical Sanskrit.

    The word Veda (also called `Shruti’) consists of four parts :-

    I. Samhita or Mantra, which consists of the four books Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samveda and Atharvaveda. The word ‘Samhita’ means a collection, and Rigveda is a collection of hymns . The principal Veda is the Rigveda, and it is written in poetic verses called ‘richas’. The Samveda is really Rigveda set to music, while about 2/3rd of the Richas (poems) of Yajurveda are taken from the Rigveda. Some people regard the Atharvaveda as a later addition to the Samhitas, which were earlier known as ‘trayi vidya’ consisting of the Rigveda, Yajurveda and Samveda.

    II. The Brahmanas, which are books written in prose in which the method of performing the various yagyas is given. Each Brahmana is attached to some Samhita. Thus attached to the Rigveda is the Aitareya Brahmana and the Kaushiteki Brahmana, attached to the Samveda is the Tandya Brahmana and some other Brahmanas, attached to the white (shukla) Yajurveda is the Shatapatha Brahmana and some other Brahmanas, attached to the black (Krishna) Yajurveda is the Taitareya Brahmana and some other Brahmana, attached to the Atharvaveda is the Gopath Brahmana.These Brahmana are written in prose, unlike the Samhitas which are mainly in poetry, and they prescribe the rules for performing the various yagyas.

    III. The Aranyaks, which are forest books. These contain the germs of philosophical thought, though in undeveloped form.

    IV. The Upanishads which incorporated developed philosophical ideas.

    The Brahmanas were written subsequent to the Samhitas, and their language is somewhat different from that of the Samhitas, obviously because the Sanskrit language had changed by the time they were written. Similarly, the Aranyaks were written subsequent to the Brahmanas, and, the Sanskrit of the Aranyaks is slightly different from that of the Brahmanas. The last part of the Veda is the Upanishads, and the language of the Upanishads is different from that of earlier Vedic works for the reason that the Sanskrit language kept changing over the centuries.

    After Panini wrote his Ashtadhyayi the entire non-Vedic Sanskrit literature was written in accordance with Panini’s grammar, and even that part of the non-Vedic Sanskrit literature which existed before Panini was altered and made in accordance with Panini’s grammar (except some words called apashabdas).

    The Vedic literature is only about 1% of the entire Sanskrit literature. About 99% of Sanskrit literature is non vedic Sanskrit literature. For instance, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, the works of Kalidas, etc. are no doubt highly respected but they are not part of the Vedic literature and hence they are now almost all existing in accordance with Panini’s grammar.

    To illustrate, some parts of the Mahabharata were written before Panini because Panini has referred to the Mahabharat in his Ashtadhyayi. Even such parts of the Mahabharata were altered and made in accordance with Panini’s grammar. Thus today all of the Sanskrit non-Vedic literature is in accordance with Panini’s grammar, except a few words and expressions, called Apashabdas or apabhramshas (as Patanjali has described them) which for some reason could not be fitted into Panini’s system, and hence have been left as they were.

    However, it was not permissible to change the language of the Rigveda and make it in accordance with Panini’s grammar. Panini or no Panini, one could not touch the Rigveda, because it was held to be so sacred that it was not permitted to change its language. In fact after having been initially composed may be around 2000 B.C. the Rigveda was thereafter never written and it continued from generation to generation by oral tradition from Guru to Shishya.

    Thus the Vedic literature is not in accordance with the Panini’s grammar. However, the non-Vedic Sanskrit literature (which is 99% of the entire Sanskrit literature) is almost all in accordance with Panini’s grammar, including all the great scientific works.

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