overemphasis on magic

Madhav Deshpande mmdesh at umich.edu
Sat May 25 11:43:57 UTC 1996

	I would be loath to set up a kind of dichotomy between the 
presumed Jan Houben mode and the Michael Witzel mode of Indological 
scholarship.  I don't believe such a dichotomy exists in reality, let us 
say, in Michael's work.  I personally view these two scholarly interests, 
textual and theoretical, as complementing each other, rather than as 
being exclusive of each other.  If practised exclusive of each other, 
both the approaches would be less acceptable.  A textual reconstruction 
without answering the question "what does it all mean" would be a dry as 
dust exercise, while the high-flying theoretical studies based on 
uncritically edited texts and interpretations would be without a 
foundation.  In my own personal experience over the past twenty-five 
years, however, I have noticed an increasing tendency in the direction of 
high-flying theoretical studies, and a decreasing interest in critically 
editing texts.  I have myself taken almost twenty years to complete a 
critical edition of Shaunakiiyaa Caturaadhyaayikaa (Whitney's 
Atharva-Praati"saakhya).  First it took years to gather all the known 
manuscripts.  Then it took years to reconstruct the texts, and it took 
further years to interpret them.  While it is easy to share the joys of 
high-flying theoretical studies with your colleagues and students, I have 
found it rather difficult to share the joys of textual reconstructions 
and collation of manuscripts.  Therefore, in my own case, there was a 
continuous tendency to put the work of the critical edition on the back 
burner and let the more theoretical studies go ahead.  But having finally 
completed the critical edition of this text, I can say without hesitation 
that without such basic work on texts, any theoretical conclusions based 
on earlier rather poorly edited versions are rather suspect.  
	Jan Houben's concern about diminishing job markets in Indology is 
indeed shared by all of us.  However, in my opinion, it has less to do 
with the mode of scholarship in Indology than with the relative numbers 
of students we serve and the willingness of institutions and governments 
to put their resources to serve the needs of such small numbers.  At 
Michigan, my courses in Hinduism are over-flowing with students, while 
the Sanskrit courses are starving for students.  The deans obviously 
would prefer that I teach the courses with high numbers than teach 
courses with small numbers.  No problems for teaching Hindi, which 
attracts over a hundred students each year from the large immigrant 
community.  But the same cannot be said of Tamil or Marathi.  At least in 
the US, the future of the jobs lies more with the numbers of students we 
serve, rather than with the type of scholarship we produce.  This has 
been made absolutely clear to us at Michigan.  The university recently 
officially instituted a policy called "Value Centered Management".  In 
simple terms, this means that each department must earn its own 
salaries.  If teaching Chinese literature does not attract students, then 
teach them how to make Chinese chicken.

	Madhav Deshpande

On Sat, 25 May 1996, George Thompson wrote:

> Jan Houben's recent remarks offer an interesting challenge to all
> Indologists, particularly in light of the previous remarks of Michael
> Witzel [Re: PTS style Tipitaka CD-ROM] concerning 'the general contempt for
> "textual studies"' -- in particular among his American audience.  Witzel on
> the one hand calls for the editing of more texts; Houben on the other urges
> us to get current with our theory [anthropological theory in particular].
> Witzel urges us to return to the Ivory tower [assuming that the editing of
> texts is an Ivory tower sort of preoccupation], while Houben suggests that
> we have become irrelevant by staying there.  Clearly, we are being called
> in two different directions here.
> This is an issue which "the American audience", in particular, should
> perhaps confront.  As for the overemphasis on magic in Max Deeg's book on
> altindische Etymologie: this is another issue, which also should be
> confronted.  While Houben has convinced me that Deeg's theoretical
> foundations are not up-to-date, he has not persuaded me that the discussion
> of magic is now pass�.  In fact Tambiah's book is no less than a
> continuation of a preoccupation with magic that goes back nearly thirty
> years [to his 1968 article on "The Magical Power of Words"].  It would seem
> to me rather self-evident that Tambiah has continued to study the problem
> of magic precisely because it has seemed to him to be, still, a rather
> important one.  If anything, Tambiah's book would seem to be a call to
> *further* exploration of the problem of magic.  Look at the evolution of
> Tambiah's thought: in his earlier, now classic, articles he resorts to
> speech act theory [cf. esp. "A Performative Approach to Ritual"].  In the
> present book cited by Houben, he has added Wittgenstein [cf. his remarks on
> the Golden Bough] and Kenneth Burke [cf. his characterization of magic as
> "primitive rhetoric"], among others.
> In light of Mikael Actor's recent suggestions, perhaps I may be allowed to
> quote myself.  I have recently written a review article [to appear soon in
> IIJ] of Elizarenkova's new book [mentioned already on this thread].  In it
> I said the following:
> 'Elizarenkova also offers a provocative discussion of the overall "magical
> grammar" of the Rgveda [pp. 291ff., et passim],which as far as I can see
> opens up new vistas for the study of Rgvedic rhetoric: for essentially what
> a "magical grammar" amounts to is a "poetic grammar," i.e., a grammar of
> poetic devices.  This discussion represents a remarkable measure of
> progress in the development of an adequate picture of the Vedic world-view,
> in which magic undoubtedly plays a crucial role: for it asserts [or at
> least suggests] that magic is fundamentally a matter of rhetoric, and vice
> versa, that rhetoric in Vedic is also fundamentally a matter of magic. In
> my view, this is a crucial issue for Vedic studies which deserves much more
> serious thought than it has, until now, received.'
> I still believe that discussion of a magical grammar is crucial for Vedic
> studies, and that is why I have raised the question re Deeg's "overemphasis
> on magic."
> Sincerely,
> George Thompson

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