Death of Sanskrit

Madhav M. Deshpande mmdesh at UMICH.EDU
Fri Aug 10 12:24:43 UTC 2001

            My views on "the death of Sanskrit" are not determined by
whether I write to Indology on Yahoo or at Liverpool.  I think we are
confusing the term "language death" used by linguists with what happened to
Sanskrit in the 17th century.  If "loss of use as the first language" is
the criterion for language death, I would have no problem using this term
with reference to Sanskrit.  However, in that case, Sanskrit "as a first
language" died its death perhaps even before Panini, and certainly by
Patanjali's time.  I have myself argued for such a state of affairs and I
have no problem with that.  After that what we have is the rebirth and
survival of Sanskrit as a learned elite language of high culture.  As I
understand Sheldon's arguments, they don't deal with the first death of
Sanskrit as a first language, but with the second death, if I can call
that.  What is the death of a learned second language?  Sheldon is dealing
with the increasingly restrictive environment in which this learned second
language found itself.  There I do like his analysis, and agree with his
depiction.  However, in this role of being a learned, and now perhaps a
tertiary (rather than a second) language, Sanskrit continues to be used in
India in completely altered circumstances.  There is a tendency among
scholars to discount this late phase, in part because there are no good
English language sources on the Sanskrit literature produced in the last
hundred years or so, and because the Sanskrit reading materials in our
class-rooms exclusively deal with the classical phase.  However, there is
an immense Sanskrit production during the last two hundred years which is
basically unknown to modern western scholarship.  The five hundred pages of
S.B. Varnekar's History of Modern Sanskrit Literature (in Marathi), Ashok
Aklujkar's work on Appa Shastri Rashivadekar's contributions to emerging
Sanskrit monthly magazines (written in Sanskrit), annual Sanskrit debate
competitions at various Indian institutions in which Ashok and Vidyut
Aklujkar, I and so many others took part, annual Sanskrit drama
competitions held in places like Pune, Bombay, and Ujjain, all of this kind
of Sanskrit production cannot be simply discounted by marking the final
death of Sanskrit with Jagannaatha.  Post-Jagannaatha circumstances under
which Sanskrit continued to be used are indeed different.  They are
ever-more restrictive with the loss of status to Sanskrit as the language
of higher learning, and yet the works produced in Sanskrit, just since
independence in 1947, number to many hundred.  I would hope that the
investigation into the life and death of Sanskrit would seriously take into
account its current state of affairs.   Last time I was in Pune in 1999, I
attended the publication ceremony for Professor G.B. Palsule's epic length
Sanskrit work on Savarkar's life.  The entire function took place in
Sanskrit.  We need to account for this continued use of Sanskrit.  There
are some interesting linguistic studies of this modern Sanskrit.  In the
west, only Hans Hock had done some interesting work with modern spoken
Sanskrit.  One can find some fine linguistic analysis by Aralakatti in his
book on modern spoken Sanskrit.  If Sanskrit died a second death at the
time of Jagannaatha, it still has an on-going life after its second death,
distinctly different from its previous lives, and yet a life that needs a
serious academic investigation.  Around 1920s, a Marathi author N.C. Kelkar
published a series of essays titled "Revival of Sanskrit Studies" (in
Marathi:  Sa.msk.rta vidyece punar-ujjiivana) describing how Sanskrit
studies were enjoying a sort of revival under the newly emerging British
system of education in India during the last decades of the 19th century.
One of these days, I would like to translate these essays into English.
Varnekar's History of Modern Sanskrit Literature needs to be translated
into English as well.  Perhaps, Ashok can take up this project.

            The history of lives of Sanskrit may be like the Nine Lives of
Cats.  Reports of its final death may be premature.  Best,

Madhav Deshpande

--On Thursday, August 09, 2001, 10:00 PM +0000 George Thompson
<GthomGt at CS.COM> wrote:

> I would like to publicly thank Sheldon Pollock for his generous offer to
> distribute his article to all interested parties.  Having just read the
> article, I would like to add my voice to the chorus of stutis that it has
> already received.  It is a valuable discussion of what appears to have
> been, in some sense, the final days of oiving Sanskritic culture in India.
> As a Vedicist, I surely have an antiquarian's view of the pre-moderrn,
> pre-colonial culture examined by Pollock.  From my distant vantage point,
> Sanskrit authors like jagannAtha, siddhicandra, and kavIndra seem almost
> like our contemporaries, even though I accept Pollock's general point
> that in spite of their closeness to us in time, we still don't know very
> much about them.  If we compare these authors to, say, vizvAmitra or
> vasiSTha, however, I think it is clear that we are dealing with very
> different universes. Little known to us though they may be, jagannAtha,
> et al., are, in my opinion, recognizably our peers.  This is not true of
> our Vedic authors, whose cultural universe in my view shares
> frustratingly little with ours. But that is not the point that I wish to
> make in this note.
> Rather, I'd like to defend the use of the term "death" to refer to the
> condition of Sanskrit at this time.  Madhav Deshpande has expressed his
> misgivings re this term, but he was responding, if I recall, on an e-mail
> list that is rampant with Yahoo-Indologists.  In that context, applying
> the term "death" to Sanskrit is surely inflammatory, and therefore best
> to be avoided.  Like Madhav, I surely wouldn't use the term in the
> company of such folks.  Pollock himself, in the present article, has also
> expressed misgivings about the connotations and appropriateness of the
> metaphor "language death."
> But in the company of this list's members I certainly would accept this
> as a legitimate concept.  If one were to take a brief look at contemporary
> journals of linguistics, it would quickly become clear that language
> death is a topic of significant, vital concern [see also the related
> topics: language extinction, language preservation, endangered languages,
> etc].  The term 'language death' has a more or less clear definition for
> linguists.  It refers to a specific condition: that point at which a
> given language no longer operates as anyone's first language, that point
> at which there are no longer native speakers of the language.  At that
> point the language is said to be dead, even if there may be a Kroeber who
> has survived his Ishi, and can make some sense of what has 'survived' of
> this language in transcriptions and in grammars.  In fact, languages are
> dying at an alarming rate, and many linguists are clearly concerned about
> this.
> The peculiarity of Sanskrit, as of other classical languages, is that even
> after it has reached that point beyond which it cannot claim any native
> speakers [pace those "Speak Sanskrit" communities which have perhaps
> recklessly experimented with their children's first language
> acquisition], it continues to have a sort of after-life, in the case of
> Sanskrit a quite strong after-life. In my view, this is what Pollock has
> examined in his present article.
> For the sake of brevity, I would suggest that the question of whether or
> not Sanskrit is dead is, or should be considered, an empirical question.
> Is there a point at which Sanskrit stopped being the native language for
> a given speaker or community of speakers?
> To put this question differently: what are the features of all natural
> languages, and do classical languages like Sanskrit or Latin exhibit all
> of these features?  If in fact it has lost one or more of these features,
> when exactly did it do so?
> There is a certain unpredictability, fluiditiy, drift, creativity and
> innovation, outright borrowing, external influences from other languages,
> etc., in all natural languages [like Vedic] that one fails to see in the
> epigonic after-life of classical languages [like Classical Sanskrit].
> The question of the death of Sanskrit can be answered rationally by
> determining whether and to what extent it possesses the features that are
> characteristic of all natural languages.
> If I am not mistaken, the evidence offered by Pollock suggests that
> Sanskrit at this late stage in its history lacks some of these features.
> But perhaps I am mistaken.
> I would be grateful if list members could clarify this issue for me.
> Best wishes,
> George Thompson

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