The meaning of ‘Prakrit’ is ‘Natural’. The word prakrit is used for the group of languages spoken in ancient India.
Jainism has a great relation with Prakrit Languages. In ancient India Sanskrit was spoken only by Vedic Brahmins, while common people’s language was Prakrit. Jains always promoted their religion through people’s languages. So most of ancient Jain literature was written in various Prakrit Languages.
Some of the Prakrit Languages:
a) Ardhmagadhi Prakrit: Ardhmagadhi was the language of people in Magadh (today Bihar). This language is spoken between 600 BCE to 100 CE. Vardhman Mahavir and his Ganadhars gave sermons in Ardhmagadhi. Mahavir teachings were transmitted to next generation through the oral tradition. Later Shrideverdhigani compiled the teachings in 454CE. The famous & popular Namokar-Mantra is in Ardhmagadhi language.
b) Shourseni Prakrit: Shourseni was being spoken at Shoorsen (Mathura) region of North India between 100BCE to 500CE. Digamber Jains wrote their philosophical literature in Shourseni language. The Shatkhandagam and Acharya Kundkund’s works are in Shourseni. In Sanskrit dramas of Bhas, Kalidas etc. Shourseni is used for dialogs of servants, jokers, Labours etc.
c) Apbhransh: The meaning of Apbhransh is ‘Vulgar’ or ‘Impure’. Apbhransh is not a single language but there are many Apbhransh languages that were born from various Prakrit Languages. Apbhransh languages were spoken between 500CE to 1000CE. There is lot off Jain literature written in Apbhransh languages in medieval period.
d) Maharashtri Prakrit: This language is said to be later used by Jains.
Many today modern languages have roots in these prakrits.
Western Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi ------->Shourseni Apbhransh
Eastern Hindi--- --------------------->Ardhmagadhi Apbhransh
Marathi, Konkani -------------------->Maharashtri Apbhransh
Bangla, Udia, Assamese, Bhojpuri----->Magdhi Apbhransh
Gujrathi, Rajasthani ------------------>Nagar Apbhransh
The classic Sanskrit language also has its roots in old Prakrit language spoken in North-India in Vedic & Pre-Vedic period.
Now we have good sources for the other Prakrit. But when we see Maharashtri Prakrit, we have lot of doubts regarding the same. Basically because of the condition of the evidences suggested.
1.It is all Prakrit, little variations.
All the above are Prakrit and apart from the religious leanings there is no evidence of different Prakrits.
2. No parallel history with other prakrits
No Maharashtri Prakrit texts exist to verify whether the Maharashtri Prakrit is different at the time we are talking about Ardhmagadhi or Shourseni Prakrit. After the Ardhmagadhi Prakrit and Shourseni Prakrit eras we find only one Prakrit that is Maharashtri Prakrit. We don’t have any evidence to show all merged into one Prakrit.
3.All languages are like rivers, change in various stages
Like all languages Prakrit has undergone a change. Maharashtri Prakrit is also one of the stages not necessarily one of the branches. We find a Jain literature using early Prakrits in later stages using Maharashtri Prakrits. So it is just evaluation not branch of Prakrit. Jains who want to preach in local languages just picked up the most local of them at that time, which has many Kannada words in them.
4.Maharastri Prakrit does not show any natural characteristic like other Prakrits to show it is different.
Hence Maharashtri Prakrit is a myth that is has propagated to stretch the antiquity of Marathi.