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for literary purposes, these inscriptions of the third century B.C. represent to us the living dialects of the people, reduced by phonetic wear and tear to a mere ghost of their former self.
And that is not all. While the Sanskrit of the Veda as well as the Sanskrit of Pânini is rendered uniform by rule, the language, as recorded in these inscriptions, allows an unbounded variety, such as would not be tolerated in any purely literary language. We have here the language of India as it was actually spoken in the third century B. C., and its discovery was no small surprise to the believers in one uniform classical Sanskrit.
Nor is this all. While Brahmanism disdained to use any language but Sanskrit for religious subjects, Buddhism, which was at that time the rising and growing religion of India, availed itself of the spoken dialects in order to influence the great masses of the people; and so we find that one collection of the sacred writings of the Buddhists, commonly called the Northern, is composed in an irregular dialect, closely resembling the dialect of Asoka's inscriptions, while the second collection, commonly called the Southern, is written in another vulgar dialect, but essentially differing from the former by having evidently received a more careful grammatical polish. The former dialect is generally called the Gåthâ dialect, or Mixed Sanskrit, the latter is called Pâli, and may be called Magadhi, though it ought not to be confused with the later Prakrit dialect of the torically, at least so far that we may assign to the literature, composed in the Gâthâ dialect, a date anterior to the Christian era, because we have Chinese translations of some of the books of the Northern canon about that time. The text of the Southern canon, after having been handed down by word of mouth, was reduced to writing in 88 B.c.1 What chiefly distinguishes the Southern Pâli text from the Northern Gâthâ text is that the former has clearly undergone a strict grammatical revision, while the latter has not.
These two dialects we can fix his
Renaissance of Sanskrit Literature. After the end of the first century A.D., Sanskrit, that is to say, the Pâninean Sanskrit, comes more and more to the front, and we see it used for the ordinary purposes of life, and likewise for public inscriptions. What we generally understand by Sanskrit literature begins about 400 A.D., and to about the same period we may refer the grammatical cultivation of the Prâkrit dialects.
These Prâkrit dialects are probably the lineal descendants of the ungrammatical dialects, preserved to us in the inscriptions of Asoka, and again in some of the texts of the Northern Buddhist canon. But whereas at that time they were like wild-growing plants, they have now been trimmed and shorn and regulated by strict grammatical rules, after the pattern of Pânini's grammar. In that form they are used in the Sanskrit plays, much in the same manner
| Vinaya-pitaka, in Sacred Books of the East, vol. xiii, p. xxxv.
as the Italian dialects were used in the Comedia delle arte, where the Doctor always speaks Bolognese, Arlechino Bergamese, Pantaleone Venetian, while the pure Tuscan or Roman was reserved for the Amorosos and Inamoratas 1.
Vernaculars. But again, while the classical Sanskrit and the now equally classical Prakrit remained henceforth stationary, the old springs of language were not stopped, but poured on chiefly in two great channels, the Western and the Eastern, the former represented in our time by Sindhî, Gujarâtî, Panjâbî, and Western Hindî, the Eastern by Bihârî, Bengâlî, Uriyâ, and Asâmî. The Nepâlî in the North shows more affinity with the Western, the Marâthî in the South with the Eastern division.
Sacred Books. It is necessary to keep this outline of the growth and the ramification of language clearly before our mind, for the Sacred Books with which we shall deal have grown, as it were, on the branches of this tree of speech. We have the hymns of the Veda, the Brâhmanas, and Sûtras preserved to us in Vedic Sanskrit. We have the Law Book of Manu and the Purânas composed in literary Sanskrit, according to Pânini's pattern. We have the Southern canon of Buddhism in Pâli, the Angas of the Gainas in old Mahârâshtrî, and the Northern canon of the Buddhists in ungrammatical Prâkrit. We shall see that there is even a certain parallelism between the growth of language and the growth of religion, and that without a knowledge of the historical development of the language many points in the history of the religions of India would remain unintelligible.
1 Cf. M. M., On Bengali, in Report of the British Association for 1847, p. 322.
Iranic Class. The last class of the Aryan family which we have still to examine is the Iranic. Here we find much the same phenomena as in India. The most ancient specimen of the language is found in the sacred book of Persia, the Avesta. It is called Zend, which, though it is an entire misnomer, will probably remain the recognised name. It is supposed with considerable probability that this ancient dialect was that of Media rather than of Persia.
Cuneiform Persian Inscriptions. When, however, we get the first glimpse of the language of Persia in contemporary documents, I mean in the cuneiform inscriptions of Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, we find there a language closely allied to that of the sacred writings of Zoroaster, yet different from it. These inscriptions cover the time of the Achaemenian dynasty from about 500 to 336 B.C.
Then follows a break of more than five centuries ; but when we meet again with a new literature at the time of the Sassanian dynasty in the first half of the third century A.D., the language, then called Pehlevi, is a decayed Persian, written no longer in cuneiform letters, but in a Semitic alphabet and syllabary. The Pehlevi literature, chiefly concerned with the explanation of the Avesta and with religious questions, lasts
till about 900 A.D. With 1000 A.D. begins the modern Persian, as we have it in its purity in the great epic of Firdusi, the Shâhnâmeh, while in later times it becomes more and more mixed with Arabic words through the influence of the Mohammedan religion.
These are the principal languages of the Aryan family, and those which are of special interest to us in the study of religion. There are some other languages, such as Armenian and Ossetian in Asia, and Albanian in Europe, which are clearly of Aryan descent, but which have not yet been referred with perfect precision to any of the great classes of that family. Modern Albanian is supposed to represent the ancient Illyrian. Armenian may constitute a language by itself, more closely related, as shown by Hübschmann, to the North-Western than to the South-Eastern division.
Bask and Etruscan, Before we leave the Aryan fainily, we should still mention two languages, not Aryan in character, but surrounded on all sides by people of Aryan speech, and well-nigh absorbed by them, those of the Basks and the Etruscans.
The Basks, interesting as they are for linguistic purposes, yield us little information with regard to what their ancient religion may have been. The Etruscans, on the contrary, have left us ample materials in monuments and inscriptions, though it must be confessed that not until a really safe key to their language has been discovered, will there be any chance of our understanding the true character of their religion.