How Prakrit lost out to Sanskrit and was reduced to an unspoken language

In Uttaradhyayanasutra, one of the most sacred books of Shvetambar Jains, the main text is written in Prakrit script with a Sanskrit commentary in ‘nagarai’ characters.

“A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language,” said renowned linguist Noam Chomsky. The development of a language indeed depends on the cultural and social progress of a society or a group.

We may have therefore risked omitting a whole culture and its traditions by not according Prakrit its due. Even after flourishing for more than 1,000 years as an independent language, and possessing a considerable body of literature, Prakrit is largely discussed in relation to Sanskrit and seldom commands an identity of its own.

UNESCO’s ‘The World Atlas of Languages’ says there are 8,324 languages (spoken and signed) around the world, documented by governments, public institutions and academic communities, with approximately 7,000 still in use. While languages like English and Mandarin are widely spoken, some languages died due to lack of speakers. Prakrit is one of those languages.

Prakrits, a group of Indo-Aryan languages, were spoken in South Asia between 300 BCE and 1000 CE. Scholars feel that knowledge of Prakrit is important to understand the history of Indian languages as well as to learn Indian philosophies. Many Jain and Buddhist literatures were written in Prakrit. While people of the Vedic period used Sanskrit, the Buddhists preferred using Pali. However, Jains ascetics like Mahavira, the 24th and last Tirthankara of Jainism, used Prakrit to communicate with people. Scholars believe that Prakrit enjoyed a great reputation during the time of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka (304- 232 BCE).

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