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Prakrit (Prakrta) Middle Indo-Aryan language which developed from sanskrit but is distinguished from it as being the spoken language of the common people. Over time Sanskrit was modified and simplified and assumed various regional forms. These regional forms were known as Prakrit.

There is some debate about the meaning of the Sankrit term prakrta. Some suggest that it is derived from prakrti (nature). In other words, it is the natural language by contrast to Sanskrit, which is the cultured or refined language. Others suggest that prakrti means 'basis' and that the term suggests that the language is derived from the basis, that is, Sanskrit. Others say prakrti means the common people and therefore the language used by them was called prakrta. In Sanskrit plays, for example, the dialogue of characters belonging to the lower classes was in Prakrit.

Being the language of the learned, Sanskrit was preferred for literary works. Nevertheless, while Prakrit was generally the language of the common people and mainly oral, there were quite a number of important books written in this language: for instance, Gunadhya's Baddakaha or Brhatkatha (probably 1st or 2nd century AD), Hal's Gahasattasai or Gathasaptashati (probably 2nd or 3rd century AD), and Bakpatiraj's Gaudbaho or Gaudabadh (8th century). The period of the growth and prevalence of Prakrit is generally accepted as being from the 6th - 5th centuries BC to the 11th century AD.

Prakrit assumed five main forms: Maharastri, Shauraseni, Magadhi, Ardhamagadhi and Paishachi. Maharastri is the most important. Originally known as Daksinatya, it became known as Maharastri as it was the language of Maharastra. The use of this language is seen in Hal's Gahasattasai, Bakpatiraj's Gaudabaho and in the dialogue and songs of low-class characters in Sanskrit plays. Some main traits of Maharastri Prakrit are the loss of consonants and the substitution of the letter h for the s of Sanskrit. Shauraseni is next in importance. Sauraseni was current in Mathura, being named after Shursen, the king of Mathura. Its main characteristics are the substitution of d and th for Sanskrit t, and dh for Sanskrit h. Ordinary women and illiterate men speak in this language in Sanskrit plays. Magadhi Prakrit was the language of the eastern half of the Gangetic valley. The use of this language is noticeable in the dialogue of lowly characters in Sanskrit plays. Its oldest form is seen in Ashvaghosh's plays, kalidasa's Abhijvanashakuntalam and Shudrak's Mrchchhakatikam. Some special features of this language are the use of a single sh, the substitution of l for r, y for j, d/d for t and the loss of middle consonants. Bangla and other modern eastern Indian languages developed from Magadhi Prakrit.

The use of Ardhamagadhi was popular among Jains, and was used to write their scriptures. This is why it is also known as Jainaprakrta. Important features of this language are the use of ae/o in place of a, the use of only a single s and the loss of middle consonants. Paisachi was considered by a school of thought to be the language of the demons and its main centre was the north-western region of India. Gunadhya's Brhatkatha was composed in this language. Some of its features are the substitution of n for n, k for g, kh for gh and ch for j. Some other features of Prakrit are the substitution of ng for m at the end of a word, conjunctive consonants being compounded except at the beginning of a word, and the loss of dual forms.

There were three stages in the evolution of Prakrit: ancient or oral Prakrit, literary Prakrit and Apabhrangsha-Abahattha. The first stage existed from the 5th-6th century BC to the 1st century AD. During this period Prakrit was used mainly orally, except for some rock and copperplate inscriptions. Ashoka's inscriptions, for example, were written in Prakrit. This is why it is also known as the script for inscriptions. The second stage lasted from the 1st to the 6th century AD. During this period, different forms of Prakrit were used to write books as well as the dialogues of low characters in Sanskrit plays. The third stage flourished from the 6th to the 11th century AD. This was followed by the appearance of various modern languages. But Prakrit continued to be used alongside the newer languages until the 15th century.

The use of Prakrit for writing important texts may be noted by the 5th century when secular books as well works related to the Jain religion were written. The main scripture of the Jains, Agamshastra or Siddhanta (Ayarabgasutta, Suyakadabgasutta etc), containing the words of the Jain sage, Mahavira, was written before the end of the 5th century. Commentaries on Agamsastra such as Nijjutti, Chunni, Paumchariam (Jain Ramayana) and Harivangshapurana (Jain Mahabharata), as well as various biographies of Jain acharyas (preceptors) and tirthabkars (monks) were also written around this time.

Secular Prakrit literature reflected the lives of ordinary people. This literature can be divided into five categories: dialogue and lyrics in Sanskrit plays, epics, moral poems, historical poems and narrative poems based on legends. The first literary use of Prakrit was in Sanskrit plays. The playwrights used Prakrit for the songs and dialogue of lowly characters. Different forms of Prakrit were used for different characters. Thus, most women speak Xauraseni, as do children and clowns. Women sing in Maharastri. Various types of servants, fishermen and low caste people speak in Magadhi. The use of language according to the status of a character enhanced the authenticity of the story. The Sanskrit plays of Kalidas as well as Bengali writers followed this practice. Many love lyrics in Bharat's Natyashastra, Kalidas'Vikramorvashiyam, and Sudrak's Mrchchhakatikam were composed in Prakrit as were many lyrics, later compiled into Gahasattasai and Bajjalavagga (c 11th century).

Rhyming narrative poems, known as doha or dohakos, were also composed in Apabhramsa. Subsequently, this rhyming style was followed in Bangla and other modern languages. The dohakos, which provided instructions for the performance of devotional rites, greatly influenced the birth of Bangla.

Prominent among Prakrit epics were Prabar Sen's Ravanbaho or Ravanbadh (5th-6th centuries), Bakpatiraj's Gaudbaho or Gaudabadh (8th century), Puspadanta's (10th century) Jasaharchariu and Naykumarchariu or Nagkumarcharita, Gunchandra Gani's Mahavirchariya or Mahavircharita (11th century), Kouhal's Lilavaikaha or Lilavatikatha, and Hemchandra's Kumarpalchariya or Kumarpalcharita (12th century). Ravanbadh describes the killing of Ravana and Gaudbaho the killing of the king of Gauda. Yashodharchariu narrates the story of King Yasodhar while Naykumarchariu narrates the story of the Jain acharya Nagkumar. Mahavirchariya is a biography of Mahavira and Kumarpalchariya a biography of Raja Kumarpal of Anhilbad. Lilavaikaha narrates the love story of the Sri Lankan Princess Lilavati.

Jindatta Suri's Chachchari, Upadeshrasayanras and Kalsvarupkulkam contain hymns in praise of the guru Jinballabh Suri and a number of didactic poems. High on the list of historical poems in Prakrit are the epics Gaudabaho, Lilavaikaha and Kumarpalchariya which contain several historical facts. Jinprabha Suri's Tirthakalpa may also be included in the genre of historical poems as it contains the names of many kings.

Kathanak are Prakrit poems based on folktales. The first of such books is Bhabadev Suri's Kalkacharya Kathanak composed in a mixture of prose and verse. Some other books in this genre are Shrishchandra's Kathakos (12th century), Somchandra's Kathamahabodhi (15th century) and Gunadya's Baddakaha. Baddakaha greatly influenced not only Prakrit but also Sanskrit narrative literature: Somdev's Kathasaritsagar, Ksemendra's Brhatkathamavjari and Buddhasvami's Brhatkatha.

A number of prose works were also written in Prakrit, such as narratives, plays, grammar books, dictionaries, books on prosody, astrology and philosophy. Some important books in this genre are Basudevhindi by Sanghadas and Dharmasen Gani and Haribhadra Suri's Samaraichchakaha (Samaradityakatha). Plays in Prakrit did not develop as well as the other genres. However, some Prakrit plays worth mentioning are Rajshekhar's Karpurmavjari (10th century), Rudradas' Chandralekha (17th century) and Bishveshvar's Srbgarmavjari (18th century).

The history of Prakrit grammar is very old. However, the writings of some grammarians such as Shakalya, Kohal, Bamanacharya and Samantabhadra are no longer extant. But subsequent works like Bararuchi's Prakrtprakash, Hemchandra's Shabdanushasan, Trivikram's Prakrta Byakaran and Markendeya's Prakrtsarbasva deserve special mention. Hemchandra occupies a special place in writing Prakrit grammar. There are not many dictionaries in Prakrit. The only two dictionaries worth mentioning are Dhanapal's Paiyalachchhi-Nammala (10th century) and Hemchandra's Deshi-Nammala (12th century). The second book is a collection of local and regional words of unknown origin.

Prakrit prosody was well developed. It is not surprising, therefore, that there were a number of books in Prakrit on prosody, the most important being Pingal's Prakrtpaibgal, which contains discussions of both Prakrit and Apabhramsa metres. The influence of Prakrit metres on the growth and development of Bangla poetry was more pronounced than that of Sanskrit.

Most philosophical works in Prakrit are on Jain philosophy. Three famous philosophical works of the 1st-2nd centuries are Prabachansar, Niyamsar and Pavchastikayasar. The well-known Jain philosopher Siddhanta Chakravarty wrote five books.

There were quite a number of Prakrit books on astrology, the most noteworthy being Jainacharya Durgadev's Rista Samuchchay. Durgadev also wrote two other books on astrology: Arghakanda and Mantramahodadhi. [Shashwati Halder]