Sanskrit Knowledge Systems on the Eve of Colonialism

George Hart ghart at SOCRATES.BERKELEY.EDU
Thu Feb 7 22:54:12 UTC 2002

Sorry, but there's still no such thing as "Sanskrit Knowledge Systems."
Yes, Sanskrit did carry prestige -- but so what.  The problem with this
terminology is that it assumes that all important and significant works in
India during the period under consideration were written in Sanskrit.
Sorry, Tim et al., but this is just not true -- there are works in Telugu,
Kannada, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, various kinds of Hindi, and even Tamil, and
they vastly outnumber anything in Sanskrit.  I strongly object to the
tendency some have to make Sanskrit a hermeneutically closed entity.  The
fact is, Sanskrit is simply part of an extremely complex interplay between
many languages, traditions, cultures, and religions.  Sometimes Sanskrit
mediated this interplay, sometimes it did not.  But however one looks at the
matter, there are absolutely no such thing as Sanskrit Knowledge Systems.
To suppose so is to begin with a demonstrably erroneous and incorrect
perspective.  Sanskrit is a language, not a culture or system of thought,
and it does not exist outside a rich context of many languages and
traditions.  Latin is a language much like Sanskrit in its prestige and
influence, but I doubt if you could find any Latinist who would approve the
term "Latin Knowledge Systems."  George Hart

On 2/7/02 2:13 PM, "Timothy C. Cahill" <tccahill at LOYNO.EDU> wrote:

> I suppose one reason that those involved decided to use the plural
> ("systems") is because they feel that there is no single knowledge system
> operative for the period in question.  Moreover, they might also feel that
> Sanskrit works have often been seen as authoritative *particularly
> because* they were written in Sanskrit.  This elite status of the Sanskrit
> language in the period discerned (1550-1750) is pretty well established
> throughout the subcontinent. No regional langauge compares in this way;
> nor do languages such as Pali, Ardhamagadhi, or classical Tamil carry
> comparable prestige throughout the subcontinent over these 200 years. For
> this reason, many ideas and arguments conceived in vernaculars came to be
> articulated in Sanskrit.
> A quick glance at the web site reveals a broad representation of South
> Asians, including native Tamil speakers. Given the plurality of the
> "knowledge systems" [="sastras"?] involved, I suspect that there will be
> *plenty* of material to consider, most of it published. (This is evident
> from quickly browsing the bibliographies cited on the site.)  No doubt
> other projects could be pursued which attempt an even greater range of
> inclusiveness.  What the NEH project aims at is certainly ambitious, if
> not comprehensive.
> best wishes,
> Tim Cahill

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