Sanskrit and German share many similarities

  • German language helps students explore new education and career opportunities
  • Learning Sanskrit may be representative of tradition, but it is hardly applied outside school
  • Many scholars in Germany learnt both Sanskrit and German

P Ravi

HRD Minister Smriti Irani’s diktat to KV students to stop learning German as third language immediately and shift to Sanskrit instead was met with mixed reactions. In today’s global world learning a foreign language gives a definite edge to the students aspiring to go for higher education or career opportunities in other countries. The number of Indian students going to Germany for higher studies has risen by 114 per cent in the last six years.

smruthi iraniWhile our minister is trying to put a stop on learning a new language, foreign languages are being promoted the world over. The western world is increasingly leaning towards Chinese and Europeans learn Spanish, French in addition to their native language. Above all, in today’s competitive world, one must have a choice to explore newer languages and opportunities. And providing the opportunity in the form of an option to learn Germany did help thousands of KV students who went on to pursue higher education and employment opportunities in Germany.

Learning Sanskrit is a good idea. But, as many former KV students opine; to what end? They neither continue to read Sanskrit today nor is it practically applied in any form. However, what needs to be done is to initiate programmes that rekindle interest and promote the language in a form that has wider appeal and that encourages students to take up the subject for scholarly pursuit or literary interest. Instead, forcing the language at school level only to be left unused as you grow older, and eventually forgotten, hardly does any good for the language.

On the other hand Indo-German relations, culturally and linguistically, for over many decades, have been vibrant.  In fact, there have been several Sanskrit scholars in Germany going back to 18th century. Great Germans like Max Muller have been instrumental in promoting Indian culture and literature.

In one of the recent speeches of German Ambassador to India, Michael Steiner, he shares a few interesting aspects of similarities between both German and Sanskrit and the long relation of mutual admiration that may have relevance in the present context:

German-Ambassador-Michael-SteinerOne cannot but be marvelled – as were Max Müller and so many other German and European scholars of the 18th and 19th century – by the evident similarities between Sanskrit and the German spoken today.

Although the distance between the two languages is of thousands of years and kilometres, one can easily detect and discover the linguistic and etymological affiliations. Let me just give a few examples that, though well-known to linguistic experts, may nevertheless be of interest to this audience.

One has to understand that the Aryan knowledge of horses, horsemanship and the spoked wheel was certainly technological “state of the art” around four millennia ago. This technological leadership translated into astounding language similarities:

  1. The Sanskrit for chariot, ‘ratha’, re-emerges in the German ‘Rad’, ‘Fahrrad’;
  2. ‘aksha’, axle in Sanskrit, led to German ‘Achse’, which is also used in the figurative

sense of a close union and alliance;

  1. ‘nabhyam’ = nave or navel in Sanskrit, ‘naba’ or ‘Nabe’ in old German, can be found in modern German as ‘Nabe’, meaning the cylindrical central part of the wheel’, or ‘Nabel’ meaning the ‘central point´ of the body, navel, or, again in a figurative sense, the origin or centre of importance (you are not the “Nabel der Welt”, navel of the world.
  1. Unlike many other languages, both Sanskrit and German use all three genders: feminine, masculine and neutral.

And lastly, an even more fascinating example of mental closeness at a conceptual level:

  1. ‘gribh’ or ‘garbh’ in Sanskrit was ‘grifan’ in old German, and is now ‘Griff’ or‘greifen’. ‘greifen’.

Further paying tribute to the German orientalists and Indologists of the 18th and 19th century, he said:

Their work in those days brought India back to Germany. It certainly created a warm and favourable impression of India in the minds of many Germans, quite a fascination in the hearts of some.

Max Müller, of course, the namesake for our Goethe Institutes in India today. But before him, the two Jesuit padres – Heinrich Roth and Johann Hanxleden. They travelled independently to India in the 18th century and brought back to Europe first impressions about India’s language and literature.

The translation of Kalidasa’s Shakuntala into German in 1791 created quite a sensation among young and wild intellectuals like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Gottfried Herder who were among the first to read and write about it euphorically. Shakuntala obtained the status of “rock star” in Germany in those days.

Later, in 1879, Otto von Böhtlingk published a “Sanskrit dictionary in short version” – “short version” meant to this accurate German to limit himself to a mere seven volumes.

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