How To Be Funny In Sanskrit

How To Be Funny In Sanskrit

Starting a new series which will take the reader through the massive corpus of poetry from Indian history

Busy ballyhooing about Yoga and Ayurveda, India has forgotten all about one of its other inheritances — the one that lives on its lips. Surprising? Not at all. Sound, after all, is an insubstantial thing: evanescent wisps of air which quickly melt into nothingness. Yet, what our forebears fashioned with that insubstantial substance is remarkable. Prosody of euphonic perfection, vocabulary of sweeping range, rhetoric to put the Greeks to shame, epigrams to make Latin invidious, unmatched word-generation mechanics, grammar chiseled to near perfection and the real proof of the pudding: a literary corpus of unchallenged size, sweep and quality.

In fact, the amount that has been written in Sanskrit can top Greek and Latin combined, several times over. This output is testimony to India being the intellectual fountainhead of Asia for over 1500 years. The corpus mostly vegetates behind locked doors, crumbling to dust, unseen and untranslated. Sadder still, is the reputation Sanskrit has acquired— a tongue of old fogeys. Reality is actually inverted— Sanskrit abounds with wits and wisecracks; like this poet, to give you a taste, who takes a delighted dig at piety in this cute verse:

निद्राप्रियो य: खलु कुम्भकर्णो हतस् समीके स रघूत्तमेन |

वैधव्यम् आपद्यत तस्य कान्ता श्रोतुं समायाति कथां पुराणम् ||

Kumbhakarna loved Sleep.

When he was killed by Rāma,

Sleep was widowed.

Now, she spends her time

visiting discourses and sermons.

But Sanskrit is only one facet of the language tradition of India. There are her daughters and foster daughters too: the vernaculars, who are fulgent with best qualities of the mother. The fiercely independent Tamil is a giant in her own right. Together, they form a wonderful language ecosystem— a diversity of languages from different families, each independent, yet together in orbit around a mother-language from whom they have derived (and continue to derive) vocabulary, grammar and inspiration.

This ecosystem, capable of nurturing many great things, is a gift only India has; partly fortuitous and partly the fruit of India’s timeless veneration of sound and language. But more importantly, the ecosystem is also the vehicle for the cultural heritage and integrity of India. And like all ecosystems, it is fragile. That makes this a pressing question for today: how can India safeguard this ecosystem? The answer is  found when we realise this:  the only meaningful offering to the deity of languages, is the offering of usage. (Ironic though it is, as ādi śaṅkara points out). After all, what we don’t use, we lose.

प्रदीप-ज्वालाभिर् दिवसकर-नीराजनविधिस्

सुधासुतेश् चन्द्रोपल-जल-लवैर् अर्घ्य-रचना ।

स्वकीयैर् अम्भोभिस् सलिल-निधि-सौहित्यकरणं

त्वदीयाभिर् वाग्भिस् तव जननि वाचां स्तुतिर् इयम्॥

(saundarya-laharī of ādi śaṅkara)

Like a little lamp

Lit in veneration of the Sun;

Like the water of the moon-stone,

Offered as arghya to the Moon;

Like an oblation to the sea

with its own water,

This verse too,

O Goddess of speech!

is strung from words that are your own.

This weekly jaunt, starting today, will be my own word-offering— A guided tour through some of the choicest verses from bhāratīya-kāvya-paramparā. While on the road, we shall also divagate a bit into the territories of etymology and historical linguistics, and perhaps make brief halts to pay homage at the altars of two sister tongues, ancient Greek and Latin. Hope to catch you on the bus next week!

Suhas Mahesh is an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Science. Blissfully wedded to Physics during day, he ekes out time to woo language at night. His other interests include Carnatic music, hobbyist electronics and history.
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