By Darshanie Ratnawalli –
Once upon a time, when the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo was not as respectable as they are now, they commissioned Mr. A. Theva Rajan, currently a member of the Transnational Constituent Assembly of Tamil Elam, to conduct a study on the status of Tamil in Sri Lanka, past and present, as part of an ICES project to promote the official language provisions of the 13th and 16th amendments to the constitution[i]. The Head of ICES during this period was Radhika Coomaraswamy. The study was completed in 1992 and was first published in 1995 (Text) with a foreword by a mysterious personage called the ‘Editor, ICES Colombo’.
An ‘Editor’ is an oddity for ICES, Colombo. All Editors are identified by the relevant ICES journal, every one of which is and has always been published by ICES, Kandy. I have a hunch that ‘Editor, ICES Colombo’ was conjured out of air to stamp a special ICES seal of approval on Mr. Theva Rajan’s paper (making it the second stamp of approval. The first being the distinction of being commissioned).
Mr. Theva Rajan now represents the lunatic fringe of Sri Lankan studies in history. That his comfort zone was firmly in the lunatic fringe, even then, when the ICES was trying to sanitize him via institutional approval, becomes clear by the second page of the first chapter of his paper. Consider this bon mot;
“The earliest Brahmi inscriptions of Sri Lanka are generally said to be in the Prakrit language. Rather than denoting any particular language Prakrit simply means “old language”. To further complicate the matter, among experts terms differ. Where Wilhelm Geiger will prefer to use the term the “Sinhala Prakrit” Senerat Paranavitane will say “old Sinhalese”.”
If the lunatic fringe was an exclusive club, statements like these would be its platinum membership cards, a single utterance conferring premium lifetime membership on its author. Prakrit is an old fashioned term. Far from denoting any old language as Theva Rajan claims, Prakrit exclusively and specifically denotes a Middle Indo Aryan (MIA) language, which is the middle or the second stage of development of Indo Aryan languages. The initial stage, Old Indo Aryan (OIA), is represented by Vedic and Paninian Sanskrit. The present descendants of OIA are the New Indo Aryan (NIA) languages represented by the modern forms of European Gypsy (Roma), Hindi, Kashmiri, Sindhi, Panjabi, Pahari, Nepali, Assamese, Bengali, Oriya, Bihari, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Gujarati, Marathi, Sinhala and Divehi[ii]. Every Indo Aryan language, which lives today as a NIA language has had a MIA or Prakritic phase and an OIA phase.
Most lunatic fringe members fail to understand this and don’t know what to make of ‘Prakrit’ (as they call it, the majority of membership being of a certain vintage). Take Hindi for example. The MIA phase of Hindi is not attested (extant samples of written or oral texts in the MIA phase of Hindi aren’t available). That’s why we don’t speak of a Hindi-Prakrit. Although there are many attested Indian mainland inscriptional Prakrits (a medley of MIA vernacular dialects used in mainland Inscriptions from 3rd century BC) and standardized literary Prakrits (such as Maharastri, Sauraseni, Maghadhi and Pali), their relationship to the Indo-Aryan languages now spoken is obscure. One simply cannot take the form of Prakrit found in the Asokan inscriptions of the area corresponding to a present Hindi speaking area and say that particular Asokan Prakrit represents the MIA phase of Hindi. When we speak of Hindi, we always mean a New Indo Aryan language simply because a MIA Hindi is not attested.
In sharp contrast Sinhalese has an attested MIA phase going back to 2/3rd century BC as well as a NIA phase starting from 8th to 9th centuries AD[iii]. This makes it unique among all Indo Aryan languages as far as material for its study is concerned.
“Many of these phonological rules are based on data gathered from literary Prakrits, whose connexion with the languages now spoken, or the dialects found in inscriptions, is often obscure…These shortcomings are inevitable when one studies a language like Ṡina or Lahndā, of which only the modern form is known, or, to a lesser extent, in the case of Hindi or Bengali, for which the documentary evidence does not go very far. There is, however, no reason why the same methods should be applied to Sinhalese, specimens of which are available to the student for every century beginning from the third before the present era right up to modern times.”-(Paranavitana, Sigiri Graffiti, Vol. 1, p. xlvi).
This is why it is perfectly legitimate for the language of the early Brahmi Inscriptions of Lanka, the extant samples of the MIA phase of the Sinhala language, to be called by many names; Sinhalese, Old Sinhalese, Sinhalese Prakrit and Prakrit. It may create confusion among lunatic fringe gentlemen such as Theva Rajan, and incompetent historians like R.A.L.H Gunawardana[iv], but this confusion should have spurred them on to dig more and unearth illuminating explanations such as the following;
“It’s generally accepted that the language of the Brahmi inscriptions of Ceylon is an Aryan form of speech and is the precursor of Modern Sinhalese…To distinguish it from Sinhalese proper, we propose to name it Sinhalese Prakrit, using the term, Prakrit in its widest sense. If objections are raised against the term Prakrit, then it may also be argued that the script is not Brahmi but Old Sinhalese. In this dissertation, Prakrit and Brahmi are used to distinguish the broad division into two strata in point of time of the same language and script, which has continued for 22 centuries from the earliest recorded times. The end of the 7th c. A.D. is the point at which the division is made.”- (Saddhamangala Karunaratne,1960/1984:39)
“There are also some signs of what we might call “Prakritisms” in the Rgveda, i.e. early indications of the divergences from the OIA dialects which were to develop into Middle Indo-Aryan…It seems likely that by about 500 B.C., or about a century after this if we accept the later dates (Norman 1991:300-312) for the beginnings of Buddhism and Jainism, the vernacular dialects, which are some times called Prakrits (from Skt. prakrta derived from prakrti “origin” i.e. “connected with, derived from an origin”, viz. Sanskrit) were appreciably different from the Sanskrit of the brahmanical class.”- (“Dialect variation in Old and Middle Indo-Aryan”, K.R. Norman in “The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia: Language, Material Culture and Ethnicity” – See text)
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[i] Foreword of Mr. Theva Rajan’s paper; “Tamil as Official Language, Retrospect and Prospect”, First Edition 1995, Second Edition 1998, ISBN- 955-580-006-5
[ii] This list is not comprehensive
[iii] See 3.4.7, Chapter 3 (Text) of Richard Salomon’s “Indian Epigraphy, A Guide to the Study of Inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the Other Indo-Aryan Languages”.