Making the Argument for Sanskrit

Dominik Wujastyk ucgadkw at UCL.AC.UK
Mon Jan 15 20:55:05 UTC 2007

Dear George,

I hope I haven't suggested that the "Oppenheimer Argument", if we may give 
it that nickname, is "the most potent argument for Sanskrit."  Certainly 
not.  I think I said, actually, that I thought Patrick's posting of 3 Jan, 
made the arguments most likely to be influential in today's climate.

I still think the Oppenheimer argument has something to recommend it as a 
short piece of rhetoric, aimed at people outside India.  One of the 
stereotypes that scholars outside India are up against is that of Sanskrit 
as a quintessentially abstruse and useless subject.  One only has to 
remember Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, where two complete old fuddy-duddies 
discover each other with delight,

  THE GENTLEMAN. I am myself a student of Indian dialects; and--

  THE NOTE TAKER [eagerly] Are you? Do you know Colonel Pickering, the
  author of Spoken Sanscrit?

  THE GENTLEMAN. I am Colonel Pickering. Who are you?

  THE NOTE TAKER. Henry Higgins, author of Higgins's Universal Alphabet.

  PICKERING [with enthusiasm] I came from India to meet you.

  HIGGINS. I was going to India to meet you. 

Although Shaw himself was very interested in language, and might have read 
a book on Spoken Sancrit with interest, he certainly used this encounter 
to portray his characters as slightly dotty ivory-tower academics.

So, making a list of very famous Dwems who have a bit of Sanskrit in their 
background may be a surprise, and a pertinent one, to many of those to 
whom we would make the argument for Sanskrit.

I am assuming that the audience for the argument we are trying to make is 
at universities and in funding bodies outside India, where saying 
"Sanskrit and Tamil were important to C. V. Raman/P. C. Ray/S. Bose/K. C. 
Sen" would be met with incomprehension.  It's all about who one is talking 
to, isn't it?


An argument based on the size of India's population (the "1.5 billion" 
argument) has never cut any mustard in the past.  Rather, it has invoked 
the whole Oxfam/poverty/starving children complex of ideas.

However, nowadays that is changing.  "1.5 billion" is beginning to be seen 
as "1.5 billion" consumers and producers.  I'm not an economist, but what 
I see for myself in India does not support this argument.  Never mind. 
Probably I'm wrong.  And certainly the "Giant Economy" argument, as a 
variant of the "1.5 billion" argument, is convincing to many policy 
formers today.

But it is only of use to us if it is strongly coupled with the argument 
that knowing India's classical past can help to understand the present.


On Mon, 15 Jan 2007, George Hart wrote:

> I find myself perplexed, to say the least, that apparently the most 
> potent argument for Sanskrit is that it has influenced a few (dead) 
> white men. Surely Kalidasa and Ilango did not care in the slightest what 
> white people would think of their work.  And certainly any dean 
> approached about the importance of Sanskrit would be puzzled at these 
> arguments.  South Asia contains about 1.5 billion people. Their cultures 
> and ways of thought have been deeply influenced by the classical 
> tradition contained in Sanskrit (and Tamil).  Are we then to argue that 
> the importance of Sanskrit is that it influenced Oppenheimer or Eliot in 
> some minor way?  Is this not slightly narcissistic?  George Hart

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