Making the Argument for Sanskrit : a Real Problem and Directions for a Solution

Jan E.M. Houben j_e_m_houben at YAHOO.COM
Thu Jan 4 08:36:07 UTC 2007

You are bringing up an important point where the
Indology List (and the proposed FAQ section) can
perform a central role. 
In the many reactions one important aspect
remained unmentioned. If, as a group representing
classical Indology, we want to go courageously
forward "making the argument for sanskrit" we
should also look courageously at the (more
distant and more recent) past, without trying to
escape or evade it in a cowardish and hypocrit
Let me illustrate the problem by quoting
selectively from Jean Filliozat's article "Tamil
and Sanskrit in South India" (which appeared in
Tamil Culture IV, 1955; repr. in
Laghu-prabandhah, Leiden: Brill 1974): 
"The first knowledge of Indian literatures in
Europe came chiefly from South India and from
Dravidian sources, particularly from Malayalam
and Tamil speaking peoples. European missionaries
were chiefly working in Tamilnad ... It was at
the end of the eighteenth century that the
situation changed. At that time, *for political
reasons, the main centre of activity of the
Europeans in India passed from South India to
Calcutta.* [Jean Filliozat's emphasis] Here,
Sanskrit was dominant ... 
The other main reason for a relative neglect was
not thus accidental. It was *the consequence of a
gradual rise of racial theories.* [Jean
Filliozat's emphasis] Preparing these, first
arose ideas of a primitive purity of humanity and
a very ancient and poetical language like
Sanskrit was thought to be a worthy
representative of such primitive purity. ... " 

In other words, whether we are happy with it or
not, the heritage of South Asian and Sanskrit
studies within the context of the cultural and
political history of Europe is of quite mixed

See in this context also : Sheldon Pollock's
"Deep Orientalism? Notes on Sanskrit and Power
Beyond the Raj" in: Breckenridge & van der Veer
1993: 77–133; 
a German translation of this article by Martin
Pfeiffer appeared on pages 335-371 of the volume:

S. Conrad & S. Randeria (ed.) Jenseits des
Eurozentrismus. Postkoloniale Perspektiven in den
Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften. 
Frankfurt: Campus-Verlag 2002. 

Now there comes an important remark by Jean
Filliozat from the mentioned article:
"In spite of the discredit into which have fallen
the racial ideas, their effect on the formation
of conceptions has not yet vanished in all
circles of Indologists." 

In other words, as I see it, certain phenomena
which have been explained by racial theories
before WWII are still appearing as phenomena but
the old racial ideas are cut off because of their
political undesirability leaving us with
unexplained phenomena still requiring either
redefinition or an explanation. 

This is clear in the work of several European
indologists of end 19th-beginning 20th century,
including this great scholar with somewhat clumsy
political insight, Erich Frauwallner. 

My grappling with this problem can be found in
two articles: 
"Why did rationality thrive, but hardly survive
in Kapila's "System"? On the pramaa.nas,
rationality and irrationality in Saa.mkhya (Part
I)." Asiatische Studien / Études Asiatiques 53.3
(1999): 491-512. 
"'Verschriftlichung' and the relation between the
pramaa.nas in the history of Saa.mkhya." Études
de Lettres 2001.3: La rationalité en Asie /
Rationality in Asia: 165-194. 
Another angle to the same problem is what I call
"the genetic explanation for the wonder that was
India". After having been "out" for some
post-WWII decades genetic explanations are
experiencing a come back in technologically more
advanced ways but not necessarily in conceptually
more advanced ways. 

A more fruitful direction than the "genetic" one
is a "memetic" explanation, as I argued in: 
"Memetics of Vedic Ritual, Morphology of the
Agnistoma." In: The Vedas: Texts, Language and
Ritual, (ed. by Griffiths and Houben): 385-415.
Groningen : Egbert Forsten, 2004.

*prabandha-gaurava-bhayaan neha pratanyate, tata

In other words, perhaps not in stepping forward
to university authorities etc. but as a necessary
inhouse exercise, not only political aspects of
Indology's past are to be addressed, but also the
scholarly, scientific and comparative problematic
phenomena themselves, whether real or not, that
were once conveniently explained by convenient
myths -- myths which are still quite alive and as
such well-known to the larger public including
university authorities etc... 

Jan Houben

Prof. Dr. Jan E.M. Houben,
Directeur d'Etudes,
Sources et Histoire de la Tradition Sanskrite
Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes,
A la Sorbonne,
45-47, rue des Ecoles,
75005 Paris -- France. 
J_E_M_Houben at

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