Sanskrit: Not for Hindus Only

Sanskrit, a classical language that is the Indian equivalent of ancient Greek or Latin, is a language which belongs to the Indo-Aryan group and is the root of many, but not all Indian languages. There are close to 300 to 400 languages spoken in India, but all of them are connected the mother language known as Sanskrit. However, Sanskrit is now spoken by less than 1% of the Indian population and is mostly used by Hindu priests during religious ceremonies. In fact, Sanskrit is one of the official languages in only one Indian state, Uttarakhand in the north, which is home to many historical Hindu temple towns.

There is a common misconception that Sanskrit is a “religious language”.  In this way, Sanskrit is to Hinduism what meditation is to Buddhism. Meditation is simply a breathing technique; it is performed by Buddhists but it is not for Buddhists only nor is it a simply Buddhist practice. While it is true that many Hindu texts (and Buddhist texts for that matter) were written in Sanskrit, 95% of Sanskrit texts are not religious in nature.

Earlier this year, the Indian government sent out a leaflet ordering schools to observe what is known as “Sanskrit Week”.  The leaflet clearly stated that “Sanskrit and Indian culture are intertwined as most of the indigenous knowledge of India is available in this language”.  There is a push to keep Sanskrit alive, much to the dismay of those who feel it is a religious language and may not be Hindu.

There also appears to be a resurgence of interest in Sanskrit in the United States. Every time yogis roll out their respective yoga mats and greet each other with “Namaste” (“The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you”), they are in fact speaking Sanskrit.  Due to the work of the Samskrita Bharathi, a non-profit organization, Sanskrit is making its way into the mainstream in US cities. Samskrita Bharathi is offering camps for children, classes for adults and children and has even established a SAFL (Sanskrit as a Foreign Language) course for high school students.

Due to this, recently, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of starting to learn Sanskrit.  As anyone deeply involved with yoga (or Buddhism or Hinduism) will tell you, learning Sanskrit certainly helps you to understand how to pronounce all the respective terminology. Much like English, the Sanskrit alphabet is taught in a singsong type of way through use of a chant, or mantra.  Sanskrit is a very vibratory language so speaking it is actually quite calming and peaceful.

This chant can be viewed by watching the video in the link below:

Sanskrit Alphabet Mantra

 

Linguistic Diversity in the Caucasus Region

With the recent conclusion of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Caucasus region of the world has been in the forefront of the media. International events like the Olympics always spark my curiosity about local cultures, customs and languages so I set out to learn about the languages of the region. For the purposes of this post, I will concentrate on the Northern Caucasus region.

Geopolitically, the Northern Caucasus are part of the Russian Federation. They are an area with a complicated ethnolinguistic history. The region is made up of seven internal republics namely: Adyghea, Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia-Alania, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan.

I was aware there were multiple languages spoken in the region but didn’t realize the extent of the linguistic diversity in the Caucasus. There are approximately 40 indigenous tongues spoken throughout the region that encompasses the narrow mountainous area of land between the Black and Caspian Seas.  This is some of the highest density of linguistic diversity in the world; only Papua New Guinea or parts of the Amazon Jungle are near to, or beyond this density.

There are three language families indigenous to the Caucasus, two of which are mainly language groups in the Northern region. First, there is the Kartvelian language family which includes Georgian, Svan, Mingrelian and Laz with about 9.2 million speakers. Second, there is the Northwest Caucasian language family, that includes the Kabardian language with about 2.5 million speakers in total. Finally, there is the Northeast Caucasian language family that includes the Chechen, Avar, Ingush and Lezgian languages and has roughly 3.5 million speakers in total.

 

 

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