By Khaled Ahmed
November 12, 2015
Take the example of the word for ‘ask’. In Persian, the verb is
‘porsidan’; in Hindi, it is ‘prashan’, which comes from the Sanskrit root
‘prch’. This is where our Urdu word ‘poochch’ comes from. (Illustration:
Audrey Truschke, Mellon postdoctoral fellow
at the department of religious studies at Stanford University, talking recently
to an Indian daily, said, “Sanskrit flourished in the royal Mughal court
primarily under three emperors: Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan. However, we
should not make the error of attributing Aurangzeb’s lack of interest in
Sanskrit to his alleged bigotry.”
Aurangzeb’s name is being removed from
public places in India these days, but Truschke thinks he is “a severely
misunderstood historical figure who has suffered perhaps more than any of the
other Mughal rulers from present-day biases”. The decline of Sanskrit towards
the final part of Mughal rule happened because it was then yielding primacy to
In Pakistan, Aurangzeb is lionised by the
ideology of the state, which understandably denigrates an eclectic Akbar. But
among the people, there is a cleavage on Aurangzeb, whether you like it or not.
The secularists and, in the more abusive appellation, the “liberals” don’t like
Aurangzeb, who has become the yardstick of where a Pakistani intellectual
I have a number of favourites in Indian
history. My ideal was the polymath, philologist Maulvi Muhammad Husain Azad
(1830-1910), whose work, Sukhandan-e-Fars, remains my favourite book. He
loved Sanskrit for a reason.
Sukhandan-e-Fars traces the common roots of Sanskrit and Persian, which was the
language of the elite and the establishment in India before the British came
and encouraged the more popularly spoken Hindustani. Azad was born in Delhi but
became a wanderer after being suspected of siding with the wrong party during
the 1857 uprising against the East India Company. Not many have studied the
book closely because, for some strange reason, South Asians are not interested
in how words travelled between civilisations.
Azad thought Persian and Sanskrit were
sister languages and gives lists of words that prove this. He knew a little
about the rise of European philology but his book misses all the other
Indo-European languages linked to Sanskrit. Of course, Urdu and Hindi would be
nothing without the “constructed” excellence of Sanskrit.
My contact with Azad took place in
Government College, Lahore, where I studied for six years. He had taught
Persian and Arabic there and ran a society of scholars promoting “useful” (Mufidah)
knowledge among people still tethered to “religious knowledge” of the seminary.
He wrote in a wonderfully forthright Urdu style and penned the first Urdu
alphabet primer for children. He knew his Sanskrit and could lecture on it for
hours. His curiosity about Iran and Central
Asia was great. This compelled him to join an inquiry commission sent out
there, which made him a British spy in the eyes of his compatriots who could
not understand his obsession with languages.
The lists are in Urdu and Devanagari scripts.
He recognised that both didn’t have the “f” sound till Arabic, which doesn’t
have the “p” sound, replaced it with “f”. Today, the Arabs pronounce Pakistan as
“Bakistan” out of politeness — otherwise it would have been “Fakistan”, just as
Pars had to become “Fars”. Persian brought the “f” sound to India, as if to
prepare all of us for English.
Now, a look at Azad’s lists. Take the
example of the word for “ask”. In Persian, the verb is porsidan; in Hindi, it
is prashan, which comes from the Sanskrit root prch. This is where our Urdu
word poochch comes from. In Russian, the word becomes “pros” in vopros. Pashto
has tapos. The root prch or prk is present in the Latin word precare as it
appears in “precarious” (that which requires prayer). The English word “pray”
comes from this root and is thus related to the Urdu-Hindi word poochch.
The English word “sorrow” comes from the
Germanic sorge after its “g” went silent. In Persian, it becomes sog; in
Sanskrit, shok gives us our Hindi name Ashok (without sorrow). In Azad’s lists,
almost all parts of the body are the same in Persian and Sanskrit. If it is
bazu in Persian, it is bahu in Sanskrit, and can be been in the French word
Everyone knows about the universality of
“cow”, Gau in Persian and Sanskrit. But the word “horse” is rather hidden in
Persian. In Sanskrit, it is Ashva; in Persian, it is asp, which is quite close.
In Urdu, “rider” is Sawar, which is a Persian word but, according to
Azad, if you look up Dari Persian (Afghanistan), the word occurs as aswar. The
word has two parts, “asw” (horse) and “aroh”, meaning “mounting” in Sanskrit,
which also uses it to express the sense of rising and growing. People who came
from the mountains (roh) and settled in India were called Rohila. The desert in
south Punjab in Pakistan is called Rohi, where plants grow at great speed after
even light rain.
Of course, Pakistan’s great music band is
called Arohi, the ascending note of a classical raga. Arun means “red” because
of the colour on the eastern horizon of the rising sun (aroh), where Arunachal
(eastern) is located.
In Pakistan, we take names like Gujranwala
as our own. We subconsciously link the Wala in it to Arabic Wali, which means
owner. But Wala is linked to the Sanskrit word for “enclosure” or “wall”, since
in history; cities were defined by their condition of being walled. When we
pronounce ala instead of Wala, we think it is Arabic, but that, too, comes from
Sanskrit. Ala, meaning home, as in the Hindi Shivala and Himalaya. Him becomes
Zim (frozen) in Persian (Zimistan) and Russian.
Many Gujarati Hindu friends of mine are
named Shah (king), which comes from the Sanskrit Kshatriya (warrior).
The Persian shah comes from a similar sounding root. The Greeks made it Xerxes.
This gave us the “check” in “checkmate”, which means the king is dead.
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’.