‘Prakrit’ – The Language of Buddha?

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The ‘Prakrits’ are a group of Middle – Indo Aryan languages used in India around the 3rd century BCE to  8th century CE. The term ‘Prakrits’ is used in the middle period of Middle – Indo Aryan languages. These are highly used in prestigious classical Sanskrit.

The word ‘Prakrit’ means ‘natural’ in simple English. This is further proven by the definition provided in the dictionary by Monier Monier-Williams. According to his dictionary, the term ‘Prakrit’ which derives from the word ‘Prakrta’ means ‘natural, original, and normal’. However, this statement contradicts with the definition given by the Prakrit grammarian Acharya Hemachandra.

‘Pali’ and ‘Prakrit’ were both used in the middle period of Middle – Indo Aryan languages as two separate languages. Though, ‘Pali’ was just one type. ‘Prakrit’ has another type called ‘Dramatic ‘Prakrit’ which is used in dramas and literature.

‘Pali’ is an extinct language by now although ‘Prakrit’ is still being used in several parts of India like it has been for a thousand years or so. 

In ancient India, ‘Prakrit’ was spread from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu and from Sindh to Bengal. According to sources, ‘Prakrit’ had been used outside of India in countries like Cambodia and Java as well. The language ‘Prakrit’ is always mistaken as a language used by common people in ancient India as it differs from Sanskrit in many ways. According to the findings of modern scholars like George Abraham Grierson and Richard Pischel, ‘Prakrit’ has not been used by the common people of ancient India. It was used by a higher social class in ancient India.

‘Prakrit’ has been among the few main languages of classical Indian culture. It is considered as one of the few languages suitable for literature compositions. According to Mirza Khan’s Tuhfat al-hind (1676), ‘Prakrit’ is one of the three kinds of languages native to India. In Ancient India, ‘Prakrit’ was mostly used to praise kings, ministers, and chiefs.

The languages that come under ‘Prakrit’ according to modern times include, Apabhraṃśa, Ardhamagadhi, Dramili, Elu, Gandhari, Kamarupi, Magadhi, Maharashtri, Paishachi, and Shauraseni.

‘Magadhi Prakrit’ or ‘Magadhan’ was a Middle – Indo Aryan language that replaced early Vedic Sanskrit which prevailed in ancient India. It was used till recently in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. This language is believed to be spoken by Gauthama Lord Buddha and Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism.

Prince Siddhartha was born during a time where ‘Sanskrit’ was the language of the elite society. Nevertheless, the mother tongue of Prince Siddhartha is not very clear. There is a possibility that he spoke more than one language. Being born to a royal family to become the successor after his father, it is obvious that he might have known certain other languages except for his mother tongue.

However, taking into consideration his place of birth and family background, modern scholars assume that, ‘Magadhi Prakrit’ was Prince Siddhartha’s mother tongue as it was a local dialect in the kingdom he was born in.

‘Magadhi Prakrit’ had been also used in the courts of Magadha mahajanapada and the Mayira Empire. In fact, according to sources some of the Edicts of King Ashoka had used ‘‘Magadhi Prakrit’ language.

However, when Gautama Lord Buddha’s teaching started to spread during King Ashoka’s reign, they were translated into the local dialects and languages. So, it is safe to say that Gautama Lord Buddha had used ‘Magadhi Prakrit’ mainly to preach Buddhism though later his teachings were translated into different local languages to suit the followers of his teaching.

‘Magadhi Prakrit’ is now an extinct language. It is no longer used to spread Gautama Lord Buddha’s preaching on Buddhism.                    

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