[Re: Comparative linguistics]

Robert Zydenbos zydenbos at GMX.LI
Mon Mar 20 15:33:36 UTC 2000

Am Sat, 18 Mar 2000 schrieb Rahul Oka:

> Philology, a throwback to Victoriana? Maybe.


> Dr. Zyde[n]bos, your words do come across exactly as a burrah sahib, one who
> knows Sanskrit, but will never ever understand "Sanskriti." That's because you
> have to live it, not "learn it in academia."

I hope the scientists on this list will not take it amiss that last time you
were asking about an "Indian ethos" and this time speak about "living a
sa.msk.rti". (We've had some complaints here recently about "mushy stuff". I
do not know whether you could offer us a falsifiable criterion [I think you
will remember that you were writing about falsification the other day] for
determining whether a person "lives a sa.msk.rti".)

But your remarks do offer an avenue for clearing up a misunderstanding, viz.
about what it is that Indologists do. The academic, scholarly study of Indian
culture / history / religion / philosophy / etc. is not the same as being an
Indian, or being a part of Indian history, or being a mystic or practitioner
in an Indian religious tradition, or being a creative Indian philosopher, etc.

I do not want to spend too much time / too many words on what is actually a
very basic matter, but instead I will offer you a few parallels to consider.
A theologian need not be a mystic (in fact, being a mystic, or being a very
fervent devotee, may be an impediment). A historian who studies, let us say,
Napoleon, need not be Napoleon himself; Napoleon would in fact be not the
proper person to write an objective history about himself, about the results
of his actions, etc. It is not necessary, and in fact undesirable, for an
orthopaedic surgeon to have broken bones himself in order to be an expert in
his field. And a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist should not be stark
raving mad himself.

> When I spoke about usage of science, it was for a reason. Convergent
> verification. If our dating techniques do not confirm your methods, no matter
> how "scientific" one claims philology is, I am sorry, it will be unacceptable.

Firstly, as Prof. Witzel has also written very recently, Indologists (I am
now using the word "Indologist" in the more usual, philological sense) do not
put on blinkers to shut out whatever is not linguistics from their studies.

Secondly, in your opposition of "our dating techniques" (about whom are you
speaking?) vs. "your methods" (and who may that be?), you are taking it for
granted that "our [etc.]" are better than "your [etc.]". Who says so? What is
the criterion? Indologists have always assumed that first of all we should
let Indian** people speak directly to us through their own words (hence the
importance of philology), since nothing else is more explicit. Problems arise
when their statements are not explicit enough, or when comparably explicit
statements are in conflict with each other. In such cases, other sciences
may, secondarily, be of use.

** South Asian, etc.; when we are dealing with developments over a few
thousand years, we are not very rigid in insisting on exactly what the limits
of "India" are. They are rather commonsensically determined by the context
under consideration.

We see such conflicts arise already very early in history. Recently a few
people on this list were writing about Yaaska (5th century BCE?). This same
Yaaska already tells us that there were serious differences of opinion among
scholars about the meanings of certain passages in Vedic texts. He quotes
conflicting commentaries by 17 predecessors. One interprets a word
"naasatyau" as meaning "true, not false"; another as "leaders of truth",
while Yaaska himself suggests "nose-born". (Cf. the beginning of chapter 4 in
A.A. Macdonell, _A History of Sanskrit Literature_, London, 1900. Reprinted
Delhi, 1990.) What does this tell us? That we should make a critical
examination of the relevant texts, and not take just any old one of them as
the correct explanation of the phenomenon which we are studying - just as
Yaaska reviewed what went before him; and just as he critically reviewed his
predecessors, there is no reason for us to blindly follow him either. It also
tells us that we should not make unwarranted, tall assumptions about the
unbroken traditional oral transmission of Vedic texts: as far as meaning is
concerned, something had evidently gone wrong already by Yaaska's time. Now
another 2500 years have passed.

Can a practitioner of some other science offer a solution in such cases?
Perhaps, but *only on a firm philological basis*, since that is the starting
point. (This has been argued here again only last Friday by Dr. Fosse: "If you
don't know the language well, you can read any sort of nonsense into it.
Amateur Vedic studies abound in "creativity" caused by a lack of philological
and linguistic knowledge." The same has happened with, e.g., what Plato has
written about Atlantis.)

Therefore, whatever contributions other scientists may have to offer, it is
the philologists who must decide whether those contributions make sense and
are acceptible. (Compare: let us suppose that I, as an amateur computer
programmer, think up something new to be built into the Internet. It may be
brilliant, who knows. But there are experts who should judge the fate of my
invention!) Western Indologists on the whole are not a stingy, cramped,
bigoted lot (real Western bigots would not be interested in India in the
first place). I find it particularly ironical that Prof. Witzel draws a lot
of flack on this list from agitators for 'paradigm shifts' and what not
(the accusations about the 'Aryan panzers' being just about the limit of
warpedness, comparable to what I was accused of here last September); for
instance, I remember a very recent issue of his journal of Vedic studies with
a lengthy article on astronomy by an Indian-born *physicist* who now works in
the USA.

> The idea of "dakkhin" and the South as a post 1757 construct are something
> that will not be understood through philology. This will be only through
> history and archaeology.

This shows that you are unaware that history is *primarily based on*
philology. And I think that Prof. Gupt referred to something preceding
1757. And I completely fail to understand how archaeology fits in here. (We
cannot expect an old brick, a potshard or a plowshear to jump up and say
"hello! I am from the north, and I know that the owner of the pot of which I
am a shard never thought himself different from the owners of pots in the

> I think that you actually need to conduct some
> ethnography and dare I say it, move out of the dept. chair on OLD TEXTS and
> BIG TEXTS and study economic and ecological history to know why peolle moved,
> why peol,e warred and why peopled hated those who were different.

Texts by those people, in which they voice their thoughts, remain the first
and foremost data to work on. What do you mean by "old texts" and "big
texts"? What are you talking about? Perhaps you should move out of the chair
in front of your computer screen, away from your math, and step into a major
department of Indian studies to find out what is going on there, and how,
before you arrogate to yourself the right to publish vague condemnations.
Still better: enrol in a course of academic studies in a leading university
in this field and be a full-time student for a minimum of six years. You will
surely know more about Indology after that.

At least for the time being, this burrah sahib (who, strangely enough, after
learning Sanskrit learnt over half a dozen other Indian languages, of which he
now speaks Kannada at home half of the time) is not interested in having you
for his guruji.

> The idea of
> North being different from the South is essentially Western European.

No, not at all. Cf. what Sudalaimuthu Palaniappan and R.M. Krishnan have
mentioned just last Saturday, if for some reason you don't want to refer to
the older online archives (or, still better, to a proper academic research
library). This is simple philology. The people of olden times have spoken
clearly enough through their writings; and who are we to contradict them? Is
there any reason to?

Hoping that all this has clarified something,


More information about the INDOLOGY mailing list