Around 6th century BC, people of India were speaking and writing languages that were much simpler than classical Sanskrit. These vernacular forms, of which there were several, are called the Prakrits.
The word Prakrit stands for a group of languages and does not refer to any individual language. Marathi (with all varieties), Bengali, Orisa, Assamese, Bihari, Hindi (with all varieties), Gujrati, Rajastani, Marwadi, Punjabi, Sindhi, Kashmiri are all the varieties of new or modern Indo-Aryan languages. All these regional languages are originated from there respective varieties of Prakrits (technically called Apabhramsha) and not directly from Sanskrit.
For many centuries there was a misconception that ‘Prakriti’ means ‘Sanskrit’ and those who could not pronounce it properly, resorted to impure Sanskrit i.e. Prakrit. It was a Jain author Namisadhu who first proclaimed the explanation of the word ‘Prakrit’ very logically. He said, “‘Prakriti’ is ‘nature’. Prakrits are natural and spontaneous expressions of mass devoid of strict rules of grammar etc.
Prakrit depicted a different picture of society and culture from the literature of Sanskrit. It is a comprehensive picture of social and cultural aspects of the people, not merely of the ‘naagara’ or elite class. The heroes and heroines belong to the ordinary class of the society e.g. goldsmiths, coppersmiths, potters, weavers, confectioners, fisherman, merchants, monks, nuns, courtesans, middle-class and low-class housewives, merchants, thieves, beggars and so on.
Approximately 80% of Prakrit literature is written by Jain authors. Jain Acharyas wrote in all varieties of Prakrit as well as in Sanskrit. Their ancient Prakrit texts include tenets, doctrines, stories, analogies and a variety of subjects like philosophy, history, geography, astrology, moral conduct, logic, science of omens and many other subjects.
Prakrit was largely employed in ancient epigraphies. They were meant for the common people of the society. So they were written in regional languages and not in Sanskrit. Ashokan inscriptions, Hathi-gumpha inscriptions and Nasik inscriptions are found in Prakrit language written in Brahmi or Kharoshti scripts.
All the famous classical Sanskrit dramas of Kalidas, Bhasa, Bhavabhuti etc. contain almost 50% dialogues in Prakrit. The comedian, lay-man, ascetic, sage, child, woman and low-caste persons are prescribed to use Prakrit languages in dramas. The readers and teachers have always ignored these Prakrits and the relay on the Sanskrit adoptions (chaya) of Prakrit portions. The Prakritists realize the flavor of the idiomatic expressions of the Prakrit dialogues.
A drama written totally in Prakrit is called Sattaka. Rajshekhara’s Karpurmanjaree based on singing and dance in the oldest form of ‘Loknatya’.
Prakrit languages consist many Sanskrit words and words derived or simplified from Sanskrit words. But the specialty of Prakrits is the profuse use of Deshi words. These are the purely colloquial forms and in no way can be derived from Sanskrit.
A Dictionary of Deshi words is written by the Jain sage Hemachandra in the 12th century. Some of the words are likewise: Potta – belly, daddara – staircase, bappa – father, dimkuna – bug, jhada – tree, khidakki – window, chukka – to fall, choppada – to anoint etc.
Some Classics in Prakrit Literature:
Ample narratives concerned to Chanakya or Kautilya and Chandragupta Maurya throw light on the past of Indian History.
‘Paumachariya’ written in old Prakrit is the first Jain version of Ramayana which is distinct from Valmiki Ramayana.
Samaradityakatha is a large classic novel written in a very lucid style to advocate the theory of Karma and rebirth.
The Gathasaptashati occupies a foremost place in Prakrit anthologies. It is a ‘muktaka’ type of poetry manifesting the poetic abilities of the common people of Maharashtra.