Foreigners, Brahmins, Poets, or What? The Sociolinguistics of the Sanskrit “Renaissance”

Hans Heinrich Hock


A puzzle in the sociolinguistic history of Sanskrit is that texts with authenticated dates first appear in the 2nd century CE, after five centuries of exclusively Prakrit inscriptions. Various hypotheses have tried to account for this fact. Senart (1886) proposed that Sanskrit gained wider currency through Buddhists and Jains. Franke (1902) claimed that Sanskrit died out in India and was artificially reintroduced. Lévi (1902) argued for usurpation of Sanskrit by the Kshatrapas, foreign rulers who employed brahmins in administrative positions. Pisani (1955) instead viewed the “Sanskrit Renaissance” as the brahmins’ attempt to combat these foreign invaders. Ostler (2005) attributed the victory of Sanskrit to its ‘cultivated, self-conscious charm’; his acknowledgment of prior Sanskrit use by brahmins and kshatriyas suggests that he did not consider the victory a sudden event. The hypothesis that the early-CE public appearance of Sanskrit was a sudden event is revived by Pollock (1996, 2006). He argues that Sanskrit was originally confined to ‘sacerdotal’ contexts; that it never was a natural spoken language, as shown by its inability to communicate childhood experiences; and that ‘the epigraphic record (thin though admittedly it is) suggests…

that [tribal chiefs] help[ed] create’ a new political civilization, the “Sanskrit Cosmopolis,” ‘by employing Sanskrit in a hitherto unprecedented way’. Crucial in his argument is the claim that kāvya literature was a foundational characteristic of this new civilization and that kāvya has no significant antecedents.

I show that Pollock’s arguments are problematic. He ignores evidence for a continuous non-sacerdotal use of Sanskrit, as in the epics and fables. The employment of nursery words like tāta ‘daddy’/tata ‘sonny’ (alsoused as general terms of endearment), or ambā/ambikā ‘mommy; mother’ attest to Sanskrit’s ability to communicate childhood experiences. Kāvya, the foundation of Pollock’s “Sanskrit Cosmopolis”, has antecedents in earlier Sanskrit (and Pali). Most important, Pollock fails to show how his powerful political-poetic kāvya tradition could have arisen ex nihilo. To produce their poetry, the poets would have had to draw on a living, spoken language with all its different uses, and that language must have been current in a larger linguistic community beyond the poets, whether that community was restricted to brahmins (as commonly assumed) or also included kshatriyas (as suggested by Ostler). I conclude by considering implications for the “Sanskritization” of Southeast Asia and the possible parallel of modern “Indian English” literature.