Indology: magic, methods and management

Thu May 30 14:57:19 UTC 1996

In an earlier message (24 May) I wrote: 
. . . But with such an Ivory-tower attitude Indologists 
should not be surprised to see that chairs for Indology are not renewed and 
that funding for their discipline quickly disappears. 
  Indology, which used to be a fountainhead of creative ideas for the 
linguistic and at that period newly emerging social sciences in the 19th 
century has now become an area of muddy backwaters of outdated ideas and 
concepts in the religious and human sciences. 

George Thompson reacted in a memo on the same day: 
Jan Houben's recent remarks offer an interesting challenge to all
Indologists, particularly in light of the previous remarks of Michael
Witzel ( . . . delete) concerning 'the general contempt for
"textual studies"' 
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].

See further today's memo's by Witzel and Thompon. 

While the remark quoted above was indeed intended as a mild challenge to fellow 
Indologists, the intention was not to suggest that textual studies should be 
given up in favor of "getting current with our theory". The backbone of 
Indology has always been and will always be the conscientious dealing with 
"our" data. However, at points where we do bring in theory (and a term like 
"magic" is obviously highly theory-laden), we might as well try to be up-to-
date. As far as I understood Witzel's position in the discussion last summer, 
his criticism of Rigveda-translations aiming at a broader public does not 
concern the attempt to popularize in itself, but rather the careless dealing 
with basic textual data.  
  Although it is certainly licit to separate a phase of editing and 
philological work from a phase of theorizing the results, these two activities 
are of course in fact always closely intertwined. In a profound way, theory 
also precedes our "data". When I am allowed, in the light of Actor's recent 
suggestion, to quote from my recently published The Sambandha-samuddesa 
(chapter on relation) and Bhartrhari's Philosophy of Language (Groningen: 
Egbert Forsten, 1995, p. 12): "While thus a proper understanding presupposes 
critical editions, it should be emphasized that, especially in the case of a 
highly complex and interpretable text like the Vakyapadiya, editing also 
presupposes understanding and interpretation." And to quote Karl Popper 
(Objective Knowledge: an Evolutionary Approach, London 1972 p. 104-5): "Since 
all knowledge is theory-impregnated, it is all built on sand; but it can be 
improved by critically digging deeper; and by not taking any alleged 'data' for 
  How true the last phrase is for Indology became clear to me when I started to 
check the wordings of a "critical edition" of my texts with a number of 
manuscripts. An even stronger example is Dr. Isaacson's recent discovery of 
some hitherto unknown suutras of the Vaisesikas on the basis of manuscripts 
available in generally well accessible libraries in India (Isaacson, Materials 
for the Study of Vaisesika system, Dissertation Leiden, 1995). 
  But such occasional discoveries, however spectacular they may be for those 
dealing with Sanskrit philosophical texts, are not sufficient to give Indology 
a strong place in the market place of modern academia. Here, again, it will not 
suffice to be aware of the rich "data" mines of which Indology can boast, but 
familiarity with modern theoretical developments in human and social sciences 
seems indispensible to "sell" our gold and precious metals; although it is to 
be admitted that it is often difficult to distinguish valuable contributions 
from "language games in jargon" (jargon = longhand for simple phenomena, 
instead of the scientifically useful technical terms which are shorthand for 
complex phenomena). It is especially difficult to make such distinction "in 
time", i.e. before one has wasted a lot of precious research time. Topic 
oriented multi-disciplinary seminars like the one resulting in the publication 
The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia: Language, Material Culture and Ethnicity 
(de Gruyter, Berlin-New York: with a price-tag of 248DM an expensive, at least 
partly European publication with useful contributions by, among others, Witzel 
(!), Erdosy, Southworth, Deshpande and others) may be helpful in some cases. 
  While Indologists may fear the increasingly "business-like" management of 
Universities in view of the low numbers of students (cf. Deshpande's memo of 25 
May), such a "business-like" approach may also take a positive turn (Lars 
Martin Fosse's memo 25 May) if it can be made clear that precious subjects 
deserve special treatment: oak bark is weighed per pound but cinnamon by 
decagrams. (The line of Dutch poetry is: "Wordt eikenschors bij't pond gewogen, 
men weegt kaneel bij't lood" (by A.C.W. Staring): this was quoted in the title 
of a recent report of a governmental Committee of "Geesteswetenschappen" in the 
Netherlands, by H.J.L. Vonhoff, who was so-far known for his strong political 
orientation towards business, but who turns out to be remarkably sensitive to 
the specific problems in this sector of modern Academia). 

Jan E.M. Houben,
Research Fellow International Institute for Asian Studies,
P.O. Box 9515,
NL-2300 RA   Leiden, The Netherlands.

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