Sans Eyes, Sans Teeth, Sans Crit.?

Mon Nov 6 15:40:11 UTC 1995

Sans Eyes, Sans Teeth, Sans Critic?

To seek the views of professional Sanskritists, on why Sanskrit is
important and why it is not more widely studied, is likely to produce
responses that still leave open the question why the rest of the world
seldom beats a path to their door.

As an amateur entranced by Indian history for the past few years, and one
feeling respect and  *gratitude*  for the earnest labours of translators
from Sanskrit, Tamil, Pali, Persian etc who have made possible my studies
in English and French, I can offer a few 'outsider' reasons why Sanskrit is
not more widely studied at least in western countries.

Perhaps the most obvious reason is that Sanskrit seems to have been
carefully preserved as a guild mystery for long centuries - until a few
nosey foreigners bribed or forced their way into it. By contrast, the study
of Latin, Greek, Arabic and Chinese, while hardly being promoted on every
street corner, were a good deal less hedged in than Sanskrit.

Furthermore, India took to the printing press very late - and again, only
under foreign stimulus, which was resisted for the first 200 years or so.
In non-specialised western university libraries there are usually no
Sanskrit materials at all; but if there are any, they tend to be old,
dusty, poorly printed, poorly bound, and deeply unappetising. (Maybe the
situation is not so bad in North America, where culture and money are not
perceived as necessarily antithetical).

So the field doesn't start from scratch - it has several historical

New fields of knowledge open up every day, competing for students who have
largely been trained towards breadth and flexibility, rather than depth and
fine focus. The new fields that hook them in take some trouble to present
themselves as sexy, empowering, futuristic and open-sided. There's usually
a fair amount of hokum in this, but it sells. The alternative, the rather
grim-faced, 'Old wisdom is here', 'Never mind the quality, feel the
antiquity', 'This is for the truly dedicated' sort of approach will
certainly hook some fish, but hardly has mass appeal.

Maybe Indian scholars were wise in trying to preserve their mysteries as
long as possible - and the tradition is continued, in the hearty contempt
or faint praise of True Sanskritists for translations by their colleagues
into various languages. Perhaps nothing will cheapen the ancient texts more
than to have amateurs  (like myself, and of course the great majority of
educated Indians who also haven't learnt Sanskrit)  thumbing through modern
translations and imagining (in all our ignorance) that we have learnt
something...!  But these horses have already got out of the stable.
Translations are available of a vast array of documents, and one can get
some impression of ancient and medieval South Asian history from them in
modern languages.

To study Sanskrit to the point where one could seriously _argue_ with an
existing translation (having first spent several years acquiring contacts
and influence in order to get permission to collate the necessary variety
of manuscripts in dusty libraries scattered up and down the subcontinent,
then further years meditating in the foothills of the Himalayas in order to
develop a correct mental attitude) seems likely to take half a lifetime,
with little apparent relevance to anything else. There appears to be little
payoff from the input, compared with other fields where one might put in
several years of hard work. The modern skills and tools concern information
retrieval - not fiddling about with raw data that would obviously lend
itself to being sorted out by tireless and painstaking computers.

Eventually, computer-assisted translation will catch up, (e.g. in about 30
years' time at the present rate of progress), producing accurately in three
weeks what would have taken some noble, toiling, pre-electronic individual
30 years. But Indology gives the impression of a field that is desperately
slow to get its electronic act together. I understand that a year ago, some
lengthy, fatuous bickering in the Indology list was  (temporarily)
obliterated by the gratuitous release of one of the epic transliterated
texts, courtesy of a Japanese team. That's encouraging. The very existence
of this Indology list is evidence that the field is not already in terminal
decline. But the field's image continues to be hand-written and jurassic.

I got into (translated) Indology for some intrinsically interesting
historical and conceptual stuff, and it has been worthwhile running around
a fair amount to get hold of it (there are no Indological or South Asian
studies here at Birmingham) -  but the fact is that one has to wade through
masses of turgid, repetitive drivel to get to the nuggets, in translation.

Is any True Sanskritist willing to swear on a holy text that all the
repetitive drivel is actually fascinating if only one reads the original?
I've studied Greek, Latin and a little Hebrew and Russian literature in
originals, and there is indeed  *some*  colour and feeling to be gained by
having studying literature in those languages, compared with reading
translations. But frankly, there's not a  *lot*  more colour in it; and the
sense and feel of literature is much reduced if one spends a lot of time
comparing lexicons.  For anyone pressed for time  (i.e. the entire
population of the modern world) and for whom the Sanskrit texts do not
constitute the holy books of their religion,  there are perhaps more useful
things to study.

(But - I repeat - with *gratitude* to those who do go for it).



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