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Reflections on Languages in India


By Dr. Varadaraja Raman


Photo By: Pratham Gupta


During a train ride from Calcutta to Madras (Chennai) along the eastern coast of India, I passed through regions where I heard four different languages: Bengali, Odiya, Telugu, and Tamil. A similar thing happened when I took a train from Amsterdam to Madrid: Dutch, Flemish, French, and Spanish. However, in India each language has its own script/alphabet as different from each other as Cyrillic is from the Roman or Greek is from Hebrew.

Europeans understand this linguistic multiplicity better than Americans some of whom have asked me: “Do you speak Indian?” or “Do you speak Hindu?” But let us not laugh at others too quickly. Not many (even educated) Indians from the northern regions of India – some of whom are shocked by the ignorance of Westerners about India – can even list the principal languages spoken in South India, let alone name writers from these traditions. Not many Indians know where Kota and Konkani are spoken.


Like its lush tropical vegetation, India’s linguistic tradition is also rich and variegated. At least thirty different languages are spoken in India, with some two thousand distinct dialects. As the historian Romila Thapar put it, “The Indian linguistic area is one of the larger areas involving hundreds of languages from four major language families — Indo-Aryan (a branch of Indo-European), Dravidian, Munda (Austro-Asiatic) and Tibeto-Burman (Sino-Tibetan); of these the first two have been the major contributors to the development of Indian culture and society and rich data of historical wealth are available from these.”

The major Indian languages which have deep roots in Indic culture are put under two broad categories. To the first group belong the ones with clearly Sanskritic roots, such as Hindi, Bengali, Odiya, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, and Kashmiri. Their phonetics and alphabets have similarities. The second group of major Indian languages include Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada, each with its own alphabet. All the languages of India have impressive literary histories. Up until the nineteenth century much of this was religious poetry. During the past two centuries there has been an enormous output of literature of other genres as well.

Languages of what philologists call the Tibeto-Burman and the Munda groups are also spoken in India.
Some concerned Hindi lovers have been bemoaning the fact that Urdu and English are corrupting Hindi and making it obsolete. Their complaints may sound xenophobic to some, but they are not ill-founded. One should not forget that sometimes cultural enrichment can stifle and extinguish the original culture which is being enriched. Anglo-Saxon English disappeared as a result of Normal enrichments of the language. Some Amerindian languages have been victims of English intrusion.

The variety in the linguistic landscape of India may be compared to Europe where also there are two principal language groups – the Germanic and the Romance – geographically divided into northern and southern, as well as a number of others, like Celtic, Basque, Finnish, and the Slav languages outside of the two principal groups.


Language, race, and religion are the three most cementing forces in human culture. But they can also become quite divisive. As in other polyglot nations, linguistic chauvinism separates the people of India more emphatically than would be the case if there had been only a single language.
Thus, there have been language-based riots between Assamese and Bengalis, Marathis and Tamils. In 1952 Potti Sriramulu fasted to death for a separate state for people of his language group (Telugu), and posthumously achieved his goal. The perceived hegemony of Hindi which has the largest number of speakers (more than 400 million) once caused some resentment, provoking resistance to efforts to make Hindi the national language.

With all that, the languages of India are like flowers in a bouquet, each with its unique color, fragrance, and richness. To appreciate these qualities in any language, one needs to be acquainted with at least some of its sounds and songs. It has been my good fortune to run into people of different linguistic traditions. I have been touched by the beauty and wisdom in a few of them, but I don’t believe that one language is inherently more melodious than another. Whether it is the sweetness of Bengali, the richness of Tamil, the lilting melody of Telugu, the nasal nuances of Malayalam, the Sanskritic coloration of Marathi, or the majesty of Hindi, each language is like a different musical instrument. The melodies created depend not just on the instrument, but one who wields it, and to some degree on how often one has listened to what is being played.

When one hears in Punjabi tusee kado’n tak ávoge (when will you return?); or in Marathi usher karu náko! (don’t be late!); or in Bengali kothai theke áschen? (where are you coming from?); or in Guajarati hun patra váchto ho’eesh (I will read the letter); or in Malayalam orálukku English padikkán eluppamánu (it is easy for one to learn English); or in Hindi yah bahút acchá hai (this is very good); or in Telugu ikkada rá! (come here!); or in Kannada návu yávágalu sathyavannu hélabéku (one should always speak the truth); or in Tamil enakku onnumm puriyallai (I don’t understand anything); how one appreciates the sounds will depend on one’s familiarity with them, and not to anything intrinsic in the language itself.

On Sanskrit


In my boyhood days I used to sit with my older brother when father did his daily puja. This often involved the rhythmic repetition of an astottara shatha námávali which consisted of a hundred and eight laudation of the Divine. This was my first exposure to Sanskrit sounds. Then there were bhajan songs and shlokas which I recited, without knowing what they meant. [Technically, a shloka refers to a prosodic meter – like the iambic tetrameter – developed in the Vedas, and used in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. It is made up of four parts each of which has eight syllables. Thus, a shloka consists of sixteen syllables, generally in two lines.

When I was thirteen I had my upanayanam (investiture of the sacred thread), and this initiated me into mantras which I learned and repeated by rote.

When I was taking my first course in Latin I learned the word ignis for fire (root of the English word to ignite). I was struck by the similarity in the sounds agni and ignis. I decided to learn Sanskrit systematically. I bought a used copy of A. A. Macdonnell’s Sanskrit Grammar for less than a rupee, and began to study the language on my own. This was not too difficult, since I was familiar with the script through Hindi. I discovered that, as with Latin, one has to memorize declensions and conjugations in Sanskrit. Aside from the six cases of Latin, Sanskrit has instrumental and locative cases as well; like classical Greek, it has three numbers: singular, dual and plural. I was struck by the similarity between Sanskrit and Latin in asti and est (he is), between smah and sumus (we are), santi and sunt (they are). Some years later I discovered that William Jones had been struck by such similarities already in the eighteenth century.

The oft-repeated prayer:

tvameva mátá ca pitá tvameva
tvameva bandbhus ca sakhá tvameva
tvameva vidyám dravinam tvameva
tvameva sarvam mama deva deva:
You are my mother and my father,
You are my kin, and you are friend.
You are knowledge, you are a treasure,
You are the All, my Divine, O Divine
became more interesting now.

I began to translate every Sanskrit prayer I came across into English. The result was that what once sounded serene and magical now became merely descriptive and interesting.

It occurred to me that reverence for religious invocations arises, not so much from their meanings as from intonation and hoary cultural context. Some of our prayers, if translated into English, would sound strange, if not meaningless. A treatise on quantum physics may sound less strange in Swahili than Om padmanábháya namah does in English. Likewise, for some things there is an appropriate language. It is difficult to evoke religious feelings for ancient utterances in modern languages because our thought processes have been profoundly modified.


Whenever I participate in an Akhand Pát (the continuous reading of Sant Tulsidas’s Ramacharitramanas) session or in the recitation of Hanuman Chalisa (the Forty Four-syllabic meters consecrated to Hanuman), I choose to simply partake of the spiritual experience that comes from the reading, and not bring their meanings to mind. Mantras are for utterance, not for analysis.

Sanskrit is an ancient language, but still is very vibrant. Like Latin and Greek, it has an impressive body of literature which is studied and commented upon by scholars and students all over the world. Speaking of Latin and Greek, one may recall the oft-quoted hearty appraisal of Sanskrit by William Jones, the founder of the Royal Asiatic Society. Jones famously declared:

“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”
This was long before the mischievous motivations for dreaming up the Aryan Invasion Theory came to the fore. Today, people with little knowledge of languages beyond their own theorize on the Internet the roots of languages.

Like Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic, Sanskrit is closely linked to the scriptures of a major religion. For this reason, it is regarded by the devout as the language of the Gods: through it, Divinity is said to have communicated with mortals. As I see it, all languages are sacred, and none more divine than another.

Sanskrit is, more importantly, the backbone of Indic culture. Hymns in sacred Sanskrit are recited with precision on festive occasions and it is used in solemn sacraments everywhere in the Hindu world. Even to untrained ears, it is a supremely uplifting experience to listen to Sanskrit verses chanted by skilled pundits who have mastered the phonetics, prosody, and rhythm of the language. The grandeur of Sanskrit shlokas deeply touches the accustomed Hindu heart. There is a magic in ancient tongues in which the Divine has been invoked generation after generation, that minds molded solely by modernity have difficulty experiencing.


Contrary to what some have carelessly said, Sanskrit is by no means a dead language. If anything, it is culturally very much alive. It is recognized as one of more than two scores of official languages of India. What is true is that Sanskrit is not mother-tongue to any child. But it is also true that it is mother tongue to a whole culture. Sanskrit compositions more than 3500 years old have not just survived, they continue to have profound cultural impact. A great many philosophical works, religious poetry, plays and maxims, as well as technical writings in mathematics and medicine exist in classical Sanskrit. The poets and philosophers who have written in the language, including the authors of the epics, have had enormous spiritual and aesthetic impact on Indic civilization and beyond.

To this day, experts lecture and debate in Sanskrit with ease and intellectual elevation, like Latin at the Vatican. Once I attended a Vedanta Conference held at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where, in one session, all the papers read and the ensuing discussions were in Sanskrit. Even radio broadcasts are now made in Sanskrit. As an ancient language that has flourished for millennia, Sanskrit has undergone modifications over time. Vedic Sanskrit is not the same as that of a later poet like Kalidasa, nor is Kalidasa’s Sanskrit the same as that of some modern writers.

Sanskrit is one of the few languages whose name is not affiliated to a people or a place. The name Sanskrit literally means that which is made, polished, or cultured. The culture of a people is known in Sanskrit (and derived languages) as a people’s sanskriti. Echoes of Sanskrit can certainly be heard in many modern languages, both Indian and Non-Indian. Sanskrit roots may be detected in a number of English words. For instance, the words punch, door, royal, pedestal, and center are all cognate to Sanskrit words.

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