Ashokan inscriptions are the earliest records of Indian writing. Two kinds of scripts were known in ancient India: Kharosthi, employed in Gandhara (Eastern Afghanistan and Northern Panjab) from the 4th century BCE to 200 CE, was borrowed from the Aramaic type of Semitic writing in use during the 5th century BCE; and Brahmi, the true national writing of India, from which all later Indian alphabets are descended, based on the oldest Northern Semitic or Phoenician type, represented on Assyrian weights and on the Moabite stone, which dates from about 890 BCE. It was introduced about 800 BCE into India by traders coming by way of Mesopotamia.
Owing to the perishability of the material on which they are written, Sanskrit manuscripts older than the 14th century CE are rare. The two ancient materials used in India were strips of birch bark and palm leaves. The employment of the former, beginning in the Northwest of India, where extensive birch forests clothe the slopes of the Himalayas, gradually spread to Central, Eastern and Western India. The oldest known Sanskrit manuscript written on birch bark, until 1994, dates from the fifth century CE and a Pali manuscript in Kharosthi is older, but the use of the material doubtless goes back to far earlier days. Thus we have the statement of Quintus Curtius that the Indians employed it for writing at the time of Alexander. In 1994 the British Library acquired a unique collection of fifty-seven fragments of Buddhist manuscripts on birch bark scrolls, written in the Kharosthi script and the Gandhari (Prakrit) language. The manuscripts date from, most likely, the first century A.D., and as such are the oldest surviving Buddhist texts, which promise to provide unprecedented insights into the early history of Buddhism in north India and in central and east Asia.
The first example of a palm leaf Sanskrit MS, belongs to the 6th century CE. It is preserved in Japan, but there is a facsimile of it in the Bodleian Library. According to Xuanzang, the use of the palm leaf was common all over India in the seventh century; but that it was known many centuries earlier is proved by the fact that an inscribed copperplate, dating from the first century CE, at the latest, imitates a palm leaf in shape.
Buddha preached his gospel in the language of the people, as opposed to that of the learned (Sanskrit), in order that all might understand him, though no one knows what that language was. Thus all the oldest Buddhist literature dating from the fourth or fifth century BCE was composed in the vernacular, originally, according to traditional Buddhologists, the dialect of Magadha, the supposed birthplace of Buddhism.
The particular form of the popular language which became the sacred idiom of Southern Buddhism is known by the name Pali. Its original home is still uncertain, but its existence as early as the third century BCE is proved beyond doubt by the numerous rock and pillar inscriptions of Ashoka. This dialect was in the third century BCE introduced into Ceylon, and became the basis of Singhalese, the modern language of the island.
The excerpt below is adapted From : Empires of the Word, A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler.
The word Sanskrit means “composed” or “synthesized”. It is a term for the language as formulated in the grammar books, contrasting it with its colloquial dialects, known as the Prakrits, the “naturals.” It also distinguishes it from an older form, sometimes called Vedic, known from its use in the Veda, “the knowledge”: these are hymns to the gods which appear to go back to the earliest days of the language as spoken in India, in the last centuries of the second millennium BC, but which are still recited unchanged in Hindu ritual today. Most of the modern languages of northern and central India are descendants of Sanskrit, developed versions of the Prakrits, much as the Romance languages developed from forms of vulgar Latin.
Later on, Sanskrit becomes very wide ranging in its content, including among its most widely known works romantic comedy, theoretical linguistics, economics, sexology (notably the Kama Sutra), lyrical verse, history and moral fables, along with a continuing production of epic poetry and religious and philosophical tracts.
A dialect of Indo-Iranian, it is first heard of in the Northwest Frontier area of Swat and the northern Panjab (now in Pakistan), spoken by peoples who have evidently come from farther north or west, and who like to call themselves arya (later a common word for “gentleman”, and always the Buddhists’ favorite word for sheer nobility of spirit). Somehow their descendents, and even more their language, spread down over the vast Indo-Gangetic plain, as well as up into the southern reaches of the Himalaya (“snow-abode”) mountains, so that by the beginning of the fifth century BCE the language was spoken in an area extending as far east as Bihar, and as far south, perhaps, as the Narmada. Sanskrit literature from the period, principally the epic poems Mahabharata (“Great Bharata”) and Ramayana (“The Coming of Rama”), is full of military exploits and conquests.
The result was the present-day situation, a northern Indian heartland, stretching from sea to sea, of languages more or less closely related to Sanskrit. This center is always known in India as Aryavarta (“abode of the Aryas”). It also gained one offshoot in Sri Lanka to the far south, creating the Simhala community there: according to tradition, this group had come from Gujarati, on the northwestern coast, in the fifth century BCE.
The Buddha had lived in the fifth century BCE, in the lower valley of the Ganges, speaking a Prakrit known as Magadhi. In the next two hundred years the faith he founded spread all over India and Sri Lanka, as well as into Burma, its scriptures largely written in a closely related Prakrit, Pali, but more and more over time, in classical Sanskrit. Besides the spread to Southeast Asia, the most influential path that Buddhism took was to Kashmir, and back to the homeland of Sanskrit itself in Panjab and Swat. [Doesn’t it make more sense that Buddhism started in Swat itself, which is the main thesis of this blog?]
Hence in the first century CE Buddhism, with its attendant scriptures, spread northward, perhaps here again trekking back up the historic route that Sanskrit speakers had used to enter India over a millennium before. But past Bactria, instead of turning left into the central Asian steppes, it turned right and, picking up the Silk Road, headed into China.
Other, closer, areas took much longer to receive the doctrine, borne as ever by its vehicles Pali and Sanskrit. Nepal had been part of the early Indian spread of Buddhism under Ashoka, in the third century BCE; but the first Indian monk invited into Tibet, Santaraksita, came in the second half of the eighth century CE, a full 1200 years after the Buddha had lived just two hundred miles to the south (admittedly, over the Himalayas) in Magadha: and the religion was firmly established in Tibet only in the eleventh century.
Panini, the original fifth-century BCE doyen of Sanskrit grammar, probably lived in the academic community of Taksasila, known to the Greeks as Taxila, near modern Rawalpindi in the extreme northwest of the subcontinent, now part of Pakistan. [This further supports my contention that Buddhism arose in this general area; at least we have evidence that the area provided a proper milieu for the religion to take hold, as opposed to North India which was at this time less urbanized.]
In every sense of the word, then, Sanskrit is a luxuriant language. Sir William Jones, Chief Justice of India and founder of the Royal Asiatic Society, memorably described it in 1786: “The Sanskrit language, whatever may be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.”
Ashoka’s inscriptions, the earliest in a decipherably Aryan language to survive, are not in Sanskrit but Magadhi Prakrit: and this absence of Sanskrit from inscriptions, or rather its presence only for literary decoration while the guts of the message are given in Prakrit, continues for several centuries. [Perhaps the earliest Buddhist scriptures, now lost, were in Sanskrit; Ashoka's inscriptions were not the earliest and were written in the vernacular Prakrit.] It is not until two hundred years later that the first inscriptions in Sanskrit are found, farther west, in Ayodhya and Mathura (south of Delhi). There is a clear division of function between Sanskrit and Prakrit visible in these inscriptions, which contain both: Sanskrit is used for the verse, Prakrit for the prose dedications. Ultimately, Sanskrit did come to predominate, and indeed to be the exclusive language of inscriptions. But this tradition did not get fully established for another 250 years, starting in CE 150 with the rock inscriptions of a fairly minor king, Rudradaman, at Junagadh (“Greek fort”) on the western coast, in Gujarat.
Interestingly, Magadhi had probably also been the dialect of Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, though about a millennium earlier. (His contemporary, Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, lived in the area too.) Magadha was also the area of the earliest Buddhist councils, which established the outlines of this faith for later generations. And Buddhism’s most famous, and influential, early convert was King Ashoka himself, another resident of Magadha, in its chief city, Pataliputra (modern Patna in the state of Bihar on the Ganges).
This geographical coincidence might have been expected to lead Buddhism to favor Magadhi. The Buddha had advised his monks to teach in their own language. His view here seems to have involved not only a respect for the vernacular, but also a positive belief that his caste, the warrior Kshatriya, was actually superior to the priestly Brahmana with its Sanskrit associations.
But the monks did not in turn privilege the common speech of the Buddha himself and his region. Rather, they declared themselves in favor of any form of vernacular language. There are stories that this caused some unease among Brahman monks, who feared that the resulting slack grammar and pronunciation would corrupt the saying of the Buddha. However, in time a particular Prakrit did come to predominate: it was called Pali (“canonical”) and was a mixed Prakrit. Despite the claims of the Buddhist tradition (which also claimed that this language had been spoken by the Buddha), Pali was not predominantly Magadhi, but included many distinctively Western elements, reminiscent of Sauraseni: it must have arisen as a kind of Buddhist Aryan creole, by a process of compromise among monks speaking various Prakrits. [Buddhists can't have it both ways: if Buddha spoke Pali, and Pali had many distinctly Western elements, then he probably lived farther west than Magadhi.]
The Greeks knew little about India until Alexander’s campaigns brought them to its borders in 327 BCE. Thereafter there were diplomatic exchanges between some of the great Indian rulers of the north and the Greek dynasts who controlled the east of what had been the Persian empire, the Seleucids. From 302 to 288 Megasthenes served as Seleucid ambassador to King Chandragupta Maurya to Pataliputra (Patna), which he introduced to the Greek world as Palibothra. He left a discursive study of Indian ways, the Indika, which, taken together with some reports of Onesicritus and Nearchus, naval officers who had written memoirs of their service with Alexander, stood as the core of Greek knowledge of India until the end of the ancient world.
Megasthenes does cope more explicitly with the more intellectual aspects of religions practiced in the Maurya empire of his time, distinguishing Brahmans (brakhmanai or bragmanai) and Sramans (sarmanai) as different kinds of philosophers. Sramana is indeed a Sanskrit word sometimes used specifically for Buddhist monks, but there is no explicit mention of Buddhism, which would have been some two hundred years old at the time (having been founded in exactly the same region where Megasthenes was resident). [It seems odd that if Megasthenes had lived at the center of Buddhism that he should not have mentioned Buddha specifically.]
The commentary tends to be focused at a fairly superficial level, for example the presence of gumnosophistai, or naked sages, and the fact that male and female students were on a par as disciples to the Sramans. [Doesn't sound like Buddhism.] Megasthenes apparently never understood that the Brahmans are in fact one of the “tribes”, i.e. castes, that he had distinguished: nor that “forest-dwellers” are not a species of Sraman, but rather those who have reached a certain period of life, whether Brahman or Sraman. [Megasthenes lived 14 years in Pataliputra; it would seem improbable that during those years he couldn’t have worked all this out.]
Megasthenes’ work, which came to form Europe’s knowledge of India up until the Renaissance, was in some ways lacking in understanding, and never offered any appreciation of philosophy, language or literature. In one case, a sage joked that since the conversation took place through three interpreters, they were as likely to get a clear idea of the philosophy being expounded as to purify water by running it through mud.
But this did not mean that the Greeks who lived closer in were similarly lacking. One Greek king of the Panjab, Menander (second century BCE), in fact became immortalized for his penetrating interest in Buddhism in the form of the Pali classic Milinda-panha, or “Questions of King Milinda”: “Many were the arts and sciences he knew—holy tradition and secular law; the Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya and Vaisesika systems of philosophy; arithmetic, music; medicine; the four Vedas, the Puranas and the Itihasas; astronomy, magic, causation and spells; the art of war; poetry; and property-conveyancing—in a word, the full nineteen.”
And another Indo-Greek of the same period, announcing himself as Heliodorus, Greek ambassador (yonaduta) from King Antialkidas, left an inscription in perfect Prakrit on a column still standing at Besnagar in Madhya Pradesh. It ends with the spiritual precept:
Three steps to immortality, when correctly followed, lead to heaven: control, generosity, attention.
Strictly speaking, Manu’s contemporary conception of Madhyadesa (“midland”) [see map] would have excluded Magadha and the region of the lower Ganges as too far to the east. But in practice we can infer from Xuanzang that in his day the speech of “Middle India” included the language of Pataliputra, ancient capital of several Indian empires, and of Nalanda, even then the pre-eminent university in the land.
Sanskrit and its related Indo-Aryan languages are different from all their relatives to the north and west, in Iran, Russia and Europe, in possessing an extra series of consonants, known to Sanskrit grammarians as the murdhanya (“in the head”) sounds, or to Westerners as the retroflex stops, after the position of the tongue, with the tongue curled backward against the roof of the mouth. These sounds are all characteristic of the Dravidian languages now spoken in the south of the Aryan languages in India, as well as other neighbors, such as the Munda languages dotted around the northeast of India. Whereas no other Indo-European language has them (making them unlikely as a feature of whatever language they all originate from), they are so systematic in Dravidian that they are probably as old as the family. It would appear, then, that they have established themselves in Sanskrit and Aryan as a “substrate”, a residual feature of the languages that the earliest adopters of Sanskrit were speaking, and could not lose when they learned the new language.
In fact, it remains obscure what, if any, linguistic effect Ashoka’s conquest had on Kalinga. It is just too long ago, and too much has happened since. Orissa is now a mainly Aryan-speaking area: the earliest inscriptions in its language date from the tenth century CE. The language is Oriya, closely related to the Bengali spoken farther north: but little is known of its earlier history, and it has been suggested that Orissa was still non-Aryan even in the seventh century CE. Xuanzang recognized at least three distinct countries in this region: Udra (the origin of the name Orissa), which he said had “words and language different from Central India”, Konyodha, “with the same written characters as those of mid-India, but language and mode of pronunciation quite different”, and Kalinga, where “the language is light and tripping, and their pronunciation is distinct and correct. Both in particulars, that is, as to words and sounds, they are very different from mid-India.”
Sanskrit influence permeated farther south, with the cultural spread of Hinduism, eventually saturating with borrowed words three of the major non-Aryan languages. Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Tamil, in the extreme southeast, was less affected linguistically, although its society was ultimately no less Hindu. And besides this gradual export of words, there had also been, in the middle of the first millennium BCE, a major transplant of a whole community, with its Aryan language, to the extreme south. This accounts for the presence of Sinhala in Sri Lanka. The history of the movement of people that brought this language is not documented, but it may be reflected through the legend in the epic Ramayana, which climaxes in a military expedition to this island. About two hundred years later, in the late third century BCE, the links between Sri Lanka and the Aryan north were reinforced when Ashoka sent his son Mahinda to the island as a Buddhist missionary, so founding the Theravada school of Buddhism which has endured to this day. [Of course, this is the stuff of legend. According to a footnote in A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms by James Legge (1886), the Chinese traveler Fa-Hein, who traveled through India and Sri Lanka in search of the Buddhist books of discipline between CE 399-414, when in Sri Lanka, never mentions Mahinda or his sister Sanghamitta. Surely the Sri Lanka Buddhists would have impressed upon him that they were supposedly converted to Buddhism by King Ashoka's son and daughter, no less. This indicates that the legend of conversion by King Asoka is another myth spun at a later date.]