Prakrit

The International Prakrit Conference was organized in November, 2017 at Shravanabelagola (Karnataka). Here, an Indologist raised the question – why hasn’t Prakrit got classical status? Some important facts:

About Prakrit

The name Prakrit language is derived from prakrta, meaning ‘ordinary’, ‘natural’, ‘vulgar’. Its classified as Indo-European →Indo-Iranian →Middle Indo- Aryan.

Prakrit is a group of several related, but independent, popular languages of early and medieval India recorded in the first inscriptions of the country and used for the scriptures of Jainism as well as in classical dramas. There were four main Prakrits viz. Maharastri, Sauraseni, Magadhi and Ardhamagadhi. Kindly note that:

  • Pali is sometimes considered as an early Prakrit but most often is treated separately.
  • Similarly, Apabhramsa is a late form of Middle Indo-Aryan which generally is excluded from Prakrits.

Prakrits were spoken in northern and central India and their respective distribution is as follows:

  • Maharastri: In Western India, corresponding approximately to the state of Maharashtra.
  • Sauraseni: in Madhyadesa, the country around Mathura in Uttar Pradesh.
  • Magadhi: in Magadha, northern Bihar.
  • Ardhamaghadi: between Sauraseni and Magadhi, around the old city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

Oldest Documents of Prakrit was the moral edicts of king Asoka engraved, in c. 270-260 BC, in rocks and pillars of polished stone. Distributed all across ancient India, they are the first inscriptions of the country. Prakrits were written mainly in the Brahmi script, but Karoshti was favored in north-western India.

Key Literary Works in Prakrit

Only a handful of literary works in Prakrit have survived and they are all composed in Maharastri. Some important Prakrit works for your exam are as follows:

Setu-bandha

It was composed in 700-800BC by anonymous. Its an epic poem, inspired in the Ramayana, relating the construction of a bridge between the southern tip of India and Sri Lanka by Rama and an army of monkeys.

Gauda-vaho

It was composed in 700-800 CE by Vakapatiraja. It depicts Yashovarman, king of Kanauj as conquering large swathes of northern India.

Gatha-sattasai

It was composed in 700-900 CE by anonymous. It is an anthology of 700 one-stanza poems, suggestive and lyric, erotic and pastoral.

Karpura-manjari

It was composed in 900-1000 CE by Rajasekhara. It’s a drama composed, by exception, entirely in Prakrit (dialogues in Sauraseni, poetic sections in Maharastri). Its argument is nevertheless quite conventional.

Decline of Prakrit

Prakrit started losing importance after the 12th century, the time when regional languages in the northern part of the country emerged. As it was spoken by the common people was also one among the reasons the scholars of that time ignored it. At one point the language was also projected as ‘vulgar’.

Recent Attention

In recent years, the language has been receiving attention, with a few universities in India and abroad offering courses in Prakrit studies. Many young scholars in Japan and Russia are into Prakrit studies and Jainology.

Shravanabelgola as centre of Prakrit Studies

In recent times, Shravanabelgola has emerged as a centre of studies in Prakrit. In 1993, the National Institute of Prakrit Studies and Research was started here offering diploma in Prakrit Studies. It has collected over 5000 works in Prakrit in original (palm leaves). The Karnataka government had also announced a Prakrit University here.

The Case of Prakrit as Classical Language

There are several arguments towards this such as (1) Prakrit in all its variant forms was the language of the common people and it had been an integral part of social life and polity for centuries. (2) Many great works of Jain and Buddhist philosophy are in Prakrit and thus has significantly contributed to the Indian literary heritage.

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