Why I'm Studying Sanskrit
by Justin E. H. Smith
My month-long ultra-intensive spoken Sanskrit course at the University of Heidelberg has come to an end. I was the oldest student, and probably the weakest (in my defense, I’d had only one semester of formal study prior to beginning the course). This was an extremely humbling experience, but also, in the obvious and clichéd ways, edifying, character-building, etc. The most humbling (or, to be frank, humiliating) moment came on the final day. I had naively signed up to take part in the Saraswati Prize Contest, which is sponsored by the Indian government, pitting non-Indian students of Sanskrit against one another as they each deliver a 10-15 minute speech in that language. I really did not know what I was getting into, but by the time it began to dawn on me that I was in over my head, it was all too late to pull out. So, this past Friday, in front of 50 or so people, many of whom speak Sanskrit as fluently as I speak English, I offered up the following –how should I put it?– rudiments of sentences on the assigned topic, “Why Study Sanskrit?” (translation follows):
िकमर्थं संस्कृतमधीमहे ?
सम्भवतः अहं अधुना सम्भाशणं सम्स्कृतेन कर्तुं उद्युक्तो नस्मि । इदानीमप्यहं एतया भाशया अत्मानं सम्यक् प्रकाशयितुं न शक्नोमि । एकं सुन्दरं सुभाषितं उपदिशति : “मनस्येकं वचस्येकं कर्मण्येकं महात्मनाम् ।मनस्यन्यद्वचस्यन्यत्कर्मण्यन्यद्दुरात्मनाम्” ।। किन्तुवहं दुरात्मनो नास्मि । यो हि पठितुं अर्थयते तस्य अज्ञानं अपचारो नस्ति । अतो यद्यपि मम मनो व्यक्ततरं मम पदेभ्यो अस्ति तथापि एतनि पदनि पौंश्चलीयनि न सन्ति । यद अहं सम्स्कृतं पठितुं प्रविश्यमि स्म तदा पुर्वं एव अहं अष्टात्रिंशद्वर्ष आसम् । तदनिम् मया पूर्वं एव कनिचित् पुस्तकनि इतिहस्य दर्शनस्य यूरोपखण्डे विशये लेखितनि । मह्यम् दर्शनम् जेर्मनि-देशस्य, प्रतमाम् आन्वीक्शिकी महोदयस्य गोत्फ्रिद् विल्हेल्म् लैब्नित्स् रोचते स्म । तदनिम् न किमपि सम्प्रदायस्य दर्शनस्य भारते न जनमि स्म । तत्कालम् मया अपि पदनि “वैशेषिक,” “न्याय,” “मीमाम्सा” इति तावन्न श्रुतवन्ति । इदनिमपि एतनि दर्शनि न सम्यक् जानामि । परन्तु एतावत् अपि अधुना गुरुतां च अर्थवत्तां च सम्प्रदायाणाम् दरशनस्य भारते अवगच्छमि । कुत एते गुरुता च अर्थवत्ता च ? । आरिष्टतलो लिखितोवन् : यथा पार्सिके तथा युवनदेशे अग्निः तुल्यम् अभिशोचति इति । एवमेव वक्तुं शक्यते : यथा युवनदेशे तथा भारते प्रश्नाः तत्त्वायाः च सत्यस्य च भवस्य च विशये तुल्यम् उत्प्लवन्ते । दर्शनम् युरोप-महदेशे न जयते स्म । युरोप-महदेशः दर्शनस्य स्वमी नस्ति । यद्यपि दर्शनम् एव संपत्ति मानुष्यतायाः अस्ति तथपि सर्वं रष्ट्रम् स्वकीयं विधिम् च स्वकीयां पद्धतिम् च तर्कायाः उपजानीते । परिणामतः यत्र यत्र द्वि दर्शनिकौ अन्यद्भ्याम् रष्ट्राभ्याम् मेलनम् कुरुतः तत्र तत्र अरिषण्यम् नस्ति यत् तौ परस्परम् दर्शनस्य विशये सम्ब्रवितुं शक्श्यतः । ताभ्याम् अपि सम्भक्ता भाषा वक्तव्या । अतः यदि पश्चिमः दर्शनिकः सम्स्कृतम् नावगच्छति, सः स्वकीयम् प्रतियोगिनम् भारतात् न अनुद्रष्टुं शक्श्यति । यः भाषाम् न वदति सः अर्थान् सैद्धान्तिकानाम शब्दाणाम् तस्याः भाषायाः अवगन्तुं न शक्नोति । यथा उदाहरणम् अनुचिन्तयमः शब्दम् “रुप” । एतम् शब्दम् अनुवक्तुं न शक्नामः । अपामित्यम् हि एतस्य शब्दस्य पश्चिमेषु भाषासु नस्ति । 26. यथार्थ अनुवदकाः एतम् शब्दम् कुत्र “matter” इति कुत्र “form” इति अनुवक्तुं । परन्तु पश्चिमदर्शने “matter” च “form” च द्वौ अपष्ठुरौ अर्थौ स्तः । पूर्वतनः हि उपस्तरम् उपरस्य अस्ति । तदर्थम् यदि अनुवदकः अर्थम् अनुपालयितुं इच्छति तर्हि शब्दः “रुप” न अनुवक्तव्यः । अनुचिन्तयमः अन्यकम् उदाहरणम् । अनुचिन्तयमः प्रविभागम् शास्त्रणाम् । ज्योतिःशास्त्रस्य प्रतिवस्तुः पश्चिमायाम् किम् अस्ति ? । ज्योतिषम् प्रयुक्तगणितम् च सर्वशाकुनम् च व्यतिशजति । इत्थम् एतम् शब्दम् “astrology” इति अनुवक्तुं शक्नुमः । किनु यत् पश्चिमायाम् एतस्य शब्दस्य असमना अर्थगतिः अस्ति तत् अस्मभिः न विस्मरन्तव्यम् । अनुचिन्तयमः अन्ततः न्यायविद्याम् । एषा विद्या षोदश पदार्थान् व्यतिशजति तथा प्रमाणम् च संशयम् च वादम् च जल्पम् च । पश्चिमाः दर्शनिकाः तु सर्वान् एतान् शब्दान् शस्त्रे “logic” न विचन्ति । यत् एतानि दर्शनानि — मिमंसा वेदन्त न्याय इव — केवलम् सम्स्कृतेन युक्तम् अवगन्तव्यिनि तत् एतैः निदर्शणैः स्पष्टम् भवति । यदि एतानि दर्शनानि पश्चिमैः दर्शनिकैः न अगतनि तर्हि ते दर्शनम् एवम्, यत्रकुत्रपि एतत् दर्शनम् उत्प्लवते, अवगन्तुं न शक्श्यन्ति । दर्शनम् हि भारते प्रतिध्वनिः च प्रतिच्छाया च दर्शनस्य यवनदेशस्य, आरबदर्शनम् इव, नस्ति । चरित्रम् च वृद्धिः च दर्शनस्य भारते नितरम् अव्यतिकीर्णाः सन्ति स्म । केवलम् भारते पश्चिमाः दर्शनिकाः पूर्णा च स्वयंशासिता च विपारीतता स्वकीयायाः परम्परायाः अनुद्रक्श्यन्ति । तद् अपि बहवः सहकारिनः कनद-देशे च अमेरिक-देशे च विशवसं कुर्वन्ति यत् दर्शनम् भारते नस्ति, यत् तर्कः सत्यस्य च भवस्य च विशये भारते केवलम् अन्धश्रद्धास्ति । नूनम् खलु तत् केवलम् शुद्धा पक्षपतिता अस्ति । तेषाम् अज्ञानं निर्मूलयितुंर्थे पश्चिमा मद्यसथैः दर्शनिकैः प्रयोजनं अस्ति । याः सुज्ञाः उभयोः सम्प्रदयोः सन्ति, तैः पश्चिमा प्रयोजनं अस्ति । अहं तदृशः दर्शनिकः भवितुं इच्छमि ।
Why Study Sanskrit?
It may be that I am not yet ready to give a speech in Sanskrit. Regrettably, I am still unable to express myself well in this language. A certain beautiful subhāṣita teaches: “wicked people think one thing, say another, and do something else.” But I am not wicked, for whoever seeks to learn is at no fault in his ignorance. Thus, although my mind is clearer than my words, nonetheless these words are not meretricious. When I began to study Sanskrit, I was already 38 years old. At that time, I had already written a few books on the history of European philosophy. I was particularly interested in German philosophy, and above all the philosophy of G. W. Leibniz. At that time I didn’t know anything about the tradition of philosophy in India. Back then, I had not yet heard words like ‘Vaiśeṣika’, ‘Nyāya’, and ‘Mīmāṃsā’ Still today, I do not know these schools well, but at least now I understand the venerableness and importance of these traditions. In what way are they venerable and important? Aristotle wrote that fire burns in Persia just as it does in Greece. It could likewise be said that as in Greece, so in India, questions concerning reality, truth, and being arise in the same way. Philosophy was not born in Europe, and Europe is not the proprietor of philosophy. Yet although philosophy is in fact the property of all humanity, still, every culture invents its own method and its own system of reasoning. Consequently, whenever two philosophers from two different cultures meet, mutual recognition is not certain. They must also speak a common language. Thus, if a Western philosopher does not know Sanskrit will not be able to recognize his own counterpart in India. Whoever does not speak a language will not be able to understand the (full) meaning of philosophical terms in that language. For instance, let us consider the term rupa. This term is untranslatable, for it has no equivalent in Western languages. As a matter of fact, sometimes translators render this term as ‘matter’, and sometimes as ‘form’. But in Western philosophy ‘matter’ and ‘form’ are two opposite concepts, for the former is the substratum (or underlier) of the latter. Thus, if the translator wishes to conserve the meaning, he must not translate the term rupa. Let us consider another example. Let us consider the classification (or division) of the disciplines. What is the equivalent in the West to the science of jyotisha? This discipline includes both applied mathematics and augury. We can translate this term as ‘astrology’, but we must not forget that this word has a different meaning in the West. Let us consider, finally, the science of Nyaya. This discipline involves sixteen categories, such as ‘the means of knowing’, ‘doubt’, ‘discussion’, and ‘wrangling’. Western philosophers do not recognize all of these categories in their science of logic. Is, then, Nyaya ‘logic’? The only way to adequately answer this question is to approach it from within the language in which it was articulated. By these examples it is clear that these doctrines –such as Mimamsa, Vedanta, Nyaya– can only be clearly understood in Sanskrit. If these doctrines are not understood by Western philosophers, moreover, they will not be able to understand philosophy itself, wherever it appears. For philosophy in India is not an echo or a shadow of the philosophy of Greece, as is Arabic philosophy. The history and development of philosophy in India was entirely independent. Only in India will a Western philosopher find a complete and autonomous counterpart of his own tradition. And yet, I have colleagues in Canada and America who still believe that there is no philosophy in India, that speculation about truth and being in India is merely superstition. Of course this is a pure prejudice. In order to eradicate their ignorance, the West needs philosophers who are mediators. The West needs philosophers who are competent in both traditions. I would like to be such a philosopher.
So that was that. There was some polite applause, and then the next contestant began his speech (this was my Serbian friend Marko, a true Wunderkind who seems to have gained his high proficiency in spoken Sanskrit primarily by watching Sanskrit newsclips on YouTube; I hope he wins the prize).
Now it should go without saying that what I said is not quite what I would have liked to have said. Rather, what I said was a sort of compromise between what I wanted to say and what I was able to say. The core thought, which I believe I was able to convey, was that India provides the best, and perhaps the only, full-fledged instance of an independent philosophical tradition that covers all of the fundamental questions addressed in the European philosophical tradition. Arabic-language philosophy cannot provide a comparison case, since in fact it is a continuation and development of the same tradition with which Europeans identify; and Chinese philosophy cannot provide as useful a comparison case, since for the most part it is concerned with ethics, statecraft, political philosophy, and rather less with the metaphysics and epistemology that have, arguably, underpinned the Western philosophical tradition (I am waiting for this point to be refuted). For this reason, any serious attempt at understanding the nature of philosophical inquiry through cross-cultural comparison will be one that considers the similarities and differences between the Indian and Western approaches to philosophical questions.
I take it as a contingent fact about world history that India and Europe developed philosophical traditions, and I take it as a contingent fact, also, that Sanskrit has been the medium for so much important philosophical reflection. To this extent, beyond the fact that my Sanskrit is terrible, there is another reason why I will probably not be winning any prizes from the promoters of Sanskrit in India any time soon: I am not saying what they want to hear about the value of this cornerstone of their cultural heritage.
Within India, Sanskrit is promoted largely by conservative and nationalist factions, and their take on the antiquity and expressiveness of the language is rather different from anything that a linguist or a scholar could assent to about any natural language. In short, they don’t really think Sanskrit is a natural language at all. It is, rather, the Devabhasha, the divine language, which exists entirely outside of history. Now in classical Indian philosophy the idea of a transendental language that is channeled through human beings but that is not produced by them yields very interesting reflections about the nature of both language and meaning. But as an understanding of language today, this theory can have no place among thoughtful, reasonable people. Remarkably, many Western students of Sanskrit are perfectly happy to buy into the nationalists’ myths about Sanskrit, thus bringing about a strange collusion between idealistic Western aspirations to enlightenment and universal harmony, on the one hand, and a rather conventional sort of ethnic chauvinism on the other. I have heard Western students of Sanskrit rapturously declaring that this language is ‘the mother of all languages’, that it bears a singular relationship to truth, that it is not of human origin, etc. (For a small sample of this sort of nonsense coming from Westerners, watch this.) Unfortunately, the Indian promoters of Sanskrit do not go out of their way to quell this enthusiasm. Professional Western scholars of India, in the meantime, who surely know better, strive for a delicate balance: they do not wish to offend the people who care most about the thing they themselves study, and so, I gather, are indulgent of unscholarly views about the antiquity and origins of the language.
Sanskrit is important, and the corpus of scientific, philosophical, sacral, and poetic texts produced in this language is surely one of the richest, probably the richest, contributions to global textual culture ever. Millions of these texts remain unstudied. Western philosophy, to the extent that it refuses to take an interest in these texts, will remain, as I’ve said before (paraphrasing Nietzsche), nothing more than a catalogue of its own prejudices. As far as I’m concerned the case for studying Sanskrit makes itself, and there is no need at all to invoke higher spiritual incentives in order to justify one’s interest.
If only I had been able to put it this way in my speech.
Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website